Sermon: “Divine Image, Human Purpose”

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 17, 2022 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Colossians 1:15-28 and Luke 10:38-42.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me to the pulpit and you for welcoming me. I’ll keep today’s comments brief. I will only look at today’s two passages, consider the practice of preaching, human approaches to both revelation and science and delve into the heart of the universe. This should only take a few minutes.

A conventional way of preparing a sermon is to look at the world around us and try to make some sense of it in the context of the preaching texts. This is a liberal approach, because it both assumes that believers need to apply their faith to daily life, and that faith should be responsive to the world around us. Historically, this means reading newspapers, but today it probably means obsessing over Twitter. Either way, unfortunately, for the last two, twenty, or two hundred years the news that gets our attention tends to be bad. Some crisis or disaster occurs and so the theological response is one of fortitude, or patience, or endurance or hope. I’ve preached the same myself. I’ve preached the same from this pulpit. So you would be forgiven if you expected to hear something about the January 6th hearings or the drought in the southwest, the war in Ukraine or any number of things, but that’s not ultimately what focused my attention this week. There was something else to talk about, and it made me very happy. Perhaps you too.

After many years and enormous cost overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope has given us images of wonder. And by us, I mean the whole world. As with other NASA-led projects, this telescope feels like a global accomplishment, and that’s noteworthy in its own right. But I keep going back to those pictures: the birthplace of stars within nebulae, the cliff-like formation deep in the Carina Nebula and of course that speckled image with the multitude of galaxies all found — and here’s a phrase that will enter the vocabulary of wonder — in the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. (Quotation from NASA) Something that seems so small yet holding multitudes. There is so much out there and so much yet to be found. The telescope will produce data which will take lifetimes to process and analyze.

But since most of us aren’t astrophysicists and astronomers, why the popular interest? I suspect many of us owe a debt to Carl Sagan and other popular scientists who gave us a language of wonder when we look up into the heavens, a position formerly held by theologians. (So if NASA would like to invest billions into theological exploration I wouldn’t say no.) And it is theological, because the questions the James Webb Space Telescope raises, even if it cannot answer, come as close to public theology as we have today. What is our place in the universe? And by extension, our purpose? Is all the life in the universe found on the crust of our small blue world? Are we alone, or are we awash in an ocean of life, not knowing what else exists because of the great expanse of space, the limitations of our understanding and the shortness of our lives? The stellar portraits are important and not simply beautiful because I express our wonder in the vastness and grandeur of the universe.

Of course this is not the first time human beings have looked up to the heavens and marveled. We look into the night sky, and cannot reach those lights: a metaphor for the Divine which carries over from generation to generation and beyond. Whether astronomy or astrology, now or thousands of years ago, with the naked eye or an observation platform literally a million miles from here, the stars and heavens are an ideal context for our questions, and an ideal dwelling place for the unknowable reaches of God.

Our reading from Colossians is full of such imagery. Angels, rather than galaxies, are the multitudes. It is the seat of God, and the place from which Christ arranges creation. It’s not clear if the apostle Paul wrote it. He may have dictated it to someone who changed his particular style or it may simply be attributed to him. It does come from an early period of Christian thought. Here Jesus the humble preacher in Judea is recast as the image of the living God, the agent through whom all things are made and the keeper of deep primordial truths. I think I understand why. It has to do with how God’s truth is presented to us. Universalists have long professed the presence of revelation within Scripture. We make reference to it in our declaration of faith, which is itself derived from earlier denominational professions. So at one level, yes, we can find truthful and personally meaningful texts within scripture, but there are other levels. For example, there’s a kind of development within scripture. As human beings change, our understanding of God changes, for example. It’s hard for us to imagine as God as anything but a universal spirit now, but that’s not how God is always depicted in scripture. The author of Colossians expresses Christ’s role as a bridge between humanity and divinity in cosmic language.

Revelation isn’t just about what’s written, but it informs our approach to knowledge, and gives us guidance about how we interpret our response. Revelation is not just what is given to us in scripture but what we find when we try to understand it. It shows us what the value. Revelation includes the a-ha moment that helps us be more truly and deeply human in the best sense. It’s the same sensation as when we are touched by great art, natural beauty and those awe-inspiring images from the James Webb, but with an added dimension of morality. What do we do with these great and wonderful feelings? Once our awe of the universe turns back to Earth, what do we make of the life we see around us? You and I might not be as exciting as extraterrestrial life, but we are here, and our life together makes demands on us.

These demands are the focus of our reading from Luke. I’m personally conflicted by today’s gospel passage, probably because I’m a Martha by nature. She does all the right things and works her hands to the bone, but Mary becomes the hero of the story. Martha was busy, but Mary heard the truth and responded to it, accordingly Mary knew the true value of discipleship. Or as St. James (2:18) put it, faith without works is dead. It’s not enough to be busy, you have to discern what is worth doing and treasuring.

And this brings us back to some bad news. (There was going to be some bad news, wasn’t there?) When I started in the ministry, I served a small church in Georgia and supplied the pulpits of other churches, including two in South Carolina. This involved a lot of driving. To mix it up a bit, I would visit roadside attractions, and the quirkiest of these was something called the Georgia Guidestones. It was a vaguely Stonehenge-like monument made of granite, set in a field outside of Elberton, Georgia. But no one knows who paid for its construction in 1980 but the reason it was there was obvious. That part of Georgia sits on an enormous exposure of monument-grade blue-gray granite. The industry, in short, is headstones, and so the material and construction skills were nearby. The Guidestones, far from being massive headstones, had advice inscribed upon them in a number of languages, for example Prize truth — beauty — love.

Like the funder, the purpose of the Guidestones was unclear but the internal evidence of the writings and their location provided a plausible answer. The site is near a river, the Savannah, but far enough from population centers to survive a nuclear war. Presumably future survivors might use the Guidestones has a foundation to rebuild and recover. Like Stonehenge, the Guidestones even had grooves cut into the stone so they could act as a solar observatory. From here too, future generations could look up into the heavens. 

At some point, persons with extreme opinions considered the Guidestones to be Satanic, possibly by misreading the population goals as a mass elimination of today’s population. One candidate for governor even made it a part of her platform to have them destroyed. And earlier this month, persons unknown blew up the Guidestones; the county demolished the rest as the remains were deemed a safety hazard. It just makes me sick to think that something that was probably meant to help humanity by being put in a remote area was destroyed because it didn’t belong to anyone to be properly tended. Better that the space telescope is a million miles away….

All of this serves as a warning. American democracy, our climate, a peaceful world order and stable food supplies seem particularly fragile now. But so is our grasp on the truth. I believe a liberal approach to theology is ultimately stronger for individuals because it is less fragile to contradictions and shocks. But it takes a lot of work, too. Seeing different points of view, gently holding contradictions in tension, using imagination joyfully, being patient but firm towards ignorance… all of these take a lot of work. And when we are feeling stressed, it may not feel like it is worth the trouble. When you’re hunkered down. It might seem like an unaffordable luxury. If the news rattles you everyday, it’s easy to be stuck in the moment and not take the longer view. Remember Mary and Martha. Stay cool, and remember what is important. Our days are not the accumulations of individual tasks, but a living out of God’s purpose which involves greater and higher things. Instead. Let us look into the heavens, the depth of eternity to explore their depths, ask those questions and find greatness and truth.

Sermon: “The Right Use of the Spirit”

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 12, 2022 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Romans 5: 1-5  and John 16: 12-15.

Each time I preach in this church, I thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me and you for welcoming me. This isn’t just a bit of ministerial etiquette. Several of you know that I used to be the minister of this church (many years ago) and I want you to know (and want you to know that I know) that I don’t take my presence here for granted. I respect the established lines of authority and responsibility, precisely because this was once a problem in ministerial college. My greeting, therefore, is also a bit of applied ecclesiology. It comes from a spiritual discipline. And thank you this morning.

I’m not the only one to frame a sermon with a recognizable formula. Pastor Gatton (and others) introduce sermons with a title, preparing our thoughts in a particular direction. And the Reverend Colleen Fay always begins with a prayer from scripture,

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

That passage from Psalm 19 prepares us listeners, but it is also a prayer and a plea that chastens the preacher to speak truthfully. And I’ve been thinking about the truth lately, and how we prepare ourselves to defend it.

The vocation of truth

Maybe it’s a minister’s bias, but I see the work of the sermon in parallel to the work of our individual Christian vocations. Both require reflection, and benefit from having forms. There’s no guidebook to being a faithful Christian (no, not even the Bible) or even a list of essential characteristics. Because the point of this faith is to have “our life and to have it more abundantly” – and not only for ourselves, before the sake of the whole world. We make use of our spiritual lives in a supportive environment like the church so we will be strong and flexible to respond the rest of the time. And that includes being truthful and trustworthy.

The Trinity Sunday “problem”

In many churches, today is commemorated as Trinity Sunday, teaching the nature of the relationship of one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Universalists have not made belief in the orthodox doctrine of Trinity a requirement to belong; neither must it be disbelieved, and in fact I do believe it.

In some denominations, the Trinity Sunday sermon was an opportunity for preachers to explain this complex and nuanced theology for the edification of the people — and too often to get it incorrect and fall just the kind of formal heresy they were hoping to teach against. Such a sermon could also be a way for learned ministers to show off their education, using language and concepts that they do not commonly use themselves – in short, to show off. There are ways to teach the doctrine of the Trinity, but that is not it. Such preaching does not bring truth, does not demonstrate trust and it does not bring life.

The liberal approach to theology – we’re a liberal Christian church – is more subtle. We must take what we know, our context in the world, and what we have inherited as religious culture (and other cultures) and from these create a theological framework from which we live and make our everyday lives richer and more meaningful. Such observations need to be tested, and generous margins must be left for friendly disagreement. We are guided, inspired, encouraged and (yes) chastened by scripture and those interpretations of our tradition which collectively call theology. In stable times, this interplay of tradition and interpretation can set up guidelines to help us live well and better.

The “use” of truth

And in hard times, this approach and the convictions it finally develops can give us the strength and resolve to make difficult decisions.

As a nation, we have to face a lot of difficult truths to face, not the least of which is the January 6 investigation. I’m worried if the truth will not be see, and get buried under conspiracy and misdirection. As a world, I’m worried that climate change will make living unbearable and spark wars that consume millions. But will we hear the truth and take corrective steps, or let the comfort of inertia carry us beyond the point of no return? We need help, and look for concrete solutions. But spiritual life is not the same as political or economic life.

“Thoughts and prayers” are not adequate responses when making public policy, but they are essential preconditions for Christians setting out to respond to evil. Those thoughts — the meditations of our hearts — are a preparation for God to help us make sense of what we have experienced. In great occasions and important moments, discernment is not optional.

For if we do not know who we are, and what we stand for, we can too easily be co-opted into each and every cause of the day. This happens all over the political landscape because political and economic life seems strong and real, while spiritual life seems weak and ephemeral. Let’s try to understand it better.

The Spirit

In our lessons today we hear about a spirit which is to come to us. In Romans, Paul refers to “The Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus promised that “when the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth.” The coming of the Spirit is commemorated at Pentecost, last week, where its presence dissolved the differences of different nations, and let them understand one another as with a common language.

What is the spirit? How do we know if its presence? Why should we believe any of this? If it were that important, why isn’t it the the Great Sacred Hammer or the Brick Wall of Illumination or something more concrete? But since it’s a spirit, what do we do with it?

We cannot see it, we cannot measure it; neither can we capture or control it. It is free.

For just as there are false gods and false saviors, there are false spirits. The spirit must be discerned with patience and gentleness; it cannot be hurried or forced. It may be claimed, but it’s on us whether we believe the claim. For in a sense, the process of discerning the spirit is its power. So, when our conscience is betrayed, when decisions are forced, when persons are defamed, the immeasurable, unconquerable, invisible spirit is far more real than the madness that passes for reality.

Likewise, then the spirit is performed, like a play, and then we know it is not the spirit that is speaking. Or when it is brought out to hurt others, or to create division or to validate its preachers, we know to pause and examine, because a spirit maybe speaking but it is neither holy nor the bringer of truth. If our faith moves us in a God-ward direction, we should know who is guiding us, and whether or not its trustworthy.

Romans takes extra work

Themes explored in Romans

Our first reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. I am drawing heavily from The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness by the Rev. Katherine Grieb, a professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary over in Alexandria. Even though you could read this document in less than an hour, it’s theological importance can’t be overstated. It’s influence on Augustine shape the development of the church, and their influence on Luther galvanized the Protestant Reformation. Even today, it acts as a common text for churches seeking common ground. Paul in Romans makes an appeal to conscience; he also respectfully recognizes Phoebe, a colleague in the ministry, itself an important note as other texts from Paul have been used to justify limiting the ministry to men.

Nevertheless, Roman can be a hard read, and not just because of its complex grammar and use of allusions. It contains one of the main “gotcha” texts against gay men, which tells me a lot about how people find what they want. And themes in Romans have been perversely twisted to justify the conversion efforts against Jews, if not worse.

Paul, as a Jew, needed to make sense of God’s promises to Israel on one hand, and the fact that this revelation he preached was not accepted by his own people, but was increasingly accepted by everyone else.

For context, the church in Rome had conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. And a lot of the trouble wasn’t theological but came from outside the community. The emperor Claudius decreed that all Jews were to be expelled from Rome. There was a controversial figure called Chrestus; perhaps a misunderstood reference to conflict between Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and those who didn’t. Claudius didn’t take sides in the controversy and expelled all of them. This meant that the Christian church in Rome was Gentile until Claudius died and his ban expired. When Jews returned to Rome, including Jewish Christians, unresolved and perhaps deepened theological disputes came back up.

Additionally, Paul couldn’t understand why Jews in his own day didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah. The letter shows his anguish, lays out arguments and counters others. It’s too much to get into now, but all his thoughts hinge on God’s righteousness, and how God has a future purpose and goal for Israel; today’s passage is a hinge in that discourse.

“A slave…” to what?

Paul begins Romans by calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ, which is upsetting, galling or insulting to modern ears. But what he and his listeners understood is that each of us is dependent upon something. Perhaps a person or persons, perhaps a form of economy or system of government, perhaps an idea, perhaps our own desires. We are not truly independent. Paul, interpreting his experience, acknowledged his dependence on Jesus Christ as a source of life, truth and hope, even if his personal outcome is (in fact, was) hardship, suffering and death.

Because “we are justified by faith we have peace with God.” How? To flip around Paul’s difficult syntax, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, … [we access] this grace in which we stand.” From this, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

This doesn’t mean we are justified by our intellectual assent to something about God, but instead we are justified by God’s righteousness, Instead think of it this way: that God is faithful in maintaining the promises God makes. This is what we mean by saying that God is righteous. God is right-doing. (Squaring the righteousness of God with the future of Israel is Paul’s key concerned in the letter to the Romans but this detailed discussion isn’t well suited to be slotted into a sermon, so I’ll leave that for now.)

Worthy of worship

Something you find in Universalist thinking over and over is that God must be worthy of worship. A God who would inflict conscious and eternal torment on any sentient being is not worthy of worship; it is slander against God; it is our imputing our anger and violence onto the Creator of the Universe. Such of God is untrustworthy, for in other words, is not righteous.

A trustworthy God would not abandon us, and does not. Consider that the presence of God’s spirit comes in moments of clear resolve, of self-giving love, in difficult decisions, in moments of harmony, in peace after conflict, in the remembrance of friends, in the satisfaction from restrain, in laughter after tears, in “hope that does not disappoint.” We test these feelings by reflection, with consultation with trusted persons, by waiting in silence, in comparison with trustworthy evidence, with patience, hearing the voice of conscience…

So the spirit is not something for us to use, but we to be led by it, to be comforted and revived, and be blessed.

The proper use of the spirit

Friends: God makes the proper use of the spirit: given it to us that we might discern the truth and do it. And this is one way a righteous God, a loving God lives in the world, and gives us hope.


And so may God bless us and keep us, providing what we need so we might be a blessing to one another.

10 resources for very small churches

Derek Parker, a friend and minister, responded to my request for what I might write for this blog. This is a list I drew up over lunch, in no particular order. What would you add?

  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

Sometimes it’s just a question of identifying resources that exist. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Sermon: “Understanding Divine Revelation”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 21, 2021 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15.

Thank you for having me back in the pulpit, and to Pastor Dave for inviting me. Last week, he found us metaphorically on mile twenty-two (or so) of this year-long marathon; the end might still be almost a year away. Solutions take time, and can outstrip a human patience. Despite the vaccine roll-out, the declining death rate, the better-functioning government and even the brighter skies, it could change suddenly. We might face a mutant variant of the virus or that wind storm on Tuesday. We’re not at the end, even if we want to be (I want it to be) and there’s no promise we won’t get something new and awful to replace it. The virus replaced, or rather partially displaced, other troubles for too many of us. They’re still there. This is the first Sunday of Lent. All that was my way of saying I’m not giving up anything for Lent.

Lent is the period of reflection and abstinence leading to Holy Week and Easter. But the last year has already been odd mixture of abstinence and indulgence, but without spiritual benefit or earthly pleasure. Like suffering the hangover without having the party. I’ve gained thirty pounds and lost hair. Ordinary pleasures, like talking to your neighbors or a cup of coffee out, are dangerous, or suspected of being so.

In other years, Lent comes as an opportunity to reflect on one’s spiritual state and to act to improve or develop it. The pandemic is different than other challenges because it has been a common struggle. Our personal griefs and hardships, even unmanageable opportunities; for not all stress is because something bad happens — all these happenings that force to look at ourselves and examine ourselves — or pay the price if we don’t — happen without regard to what’s happening to the mass of humanity. The pandemic is more like more like modern war, where you will be affected whether you like it or not.

All those party-goers and revelers that rightly earn our wrath — what are they thinking? — are also affected by the pandemic, but in a different light I’m willing to see that they also work under pressures that need release and deliberate misinformation that makes some of their choices makes sense. That’s why I’d like to look at what we have in common — an equal distance and access to God — rather than our personal self-improvement, and how we can find truth — as bruised a concept as any — in what we find in God.

So if we’re going keep Lent at all and adopt a spiritual discipline, let it be a really good one; let’s try making some sense of what God reveals to us. Dabbling in revelation sounds like the beginning of a Gothic horror film: “oh, what are those kids going to conjure up!?” I can imagine discussing my deep exploration into the mind of at lunch at work – if we ever get to do that again – and try not to sound like a loon or conspiracy theorist. I can imagine not being very successful.

Even if the category of revelation is at odds with our culture, at some point we’re going to have to deal with how God speaks to us. Aloofness about revelation, even to spare public embarrassment, isn’t sophistication; it’s being condemned to being haunted by God. It’s thinking that there’s something deeply true that underscores our lives without ever being able to know anything about it. And it’s precisely because God’s will has been so closely identified in the public mind with proclamations of right-wing politics and an abdication from thinking, that if we’re not clear about seeking God’s will and doing it, then our own lives become a lesson that (1) either God is not important and does not care for us, or (2) that a certain set of people have a monopoly on divine understanding and blessing. That will not stand, if we have faith or even self-respect; that cannot stand.

The problem is that you can’t just summon up an understanding of divine revelation. For one thing, experience shows that if you’re certain about God speaking to you, you’re almost certainly wrong. If there’s not a lump in your throat or pang in your belly when you feel God is speaking to you, you’re almost certainly not. A maxim to preachers I learned long ago: if you go to the pulpit to speak an oracle of God and don’t shudder a little with fear, beware. Like Moses, we go before the Almighty humbled, trembling, with our shoes cast off — but we must go. Let us turn to the lessons.

Today’s reading from Mark acts as a rationale for Lent; Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, and Lent is forty days long. The word Lent doesn’t refer either to wilderness or self-reflection, but refers to spring (think, “the days lengthen”); wilderness somehow seems more appropriate. This past week of strange, hostile weather and this past year of social isolation seems to me to have more in the same wilderness that Jesus met, and where he met Satan, the great adversary.

But why the wilderness? Why not try to meet Satan on the corner or even in the market where he’s so famously overturned the tables of the money changers?

I’ve been in the Judean desert, in fact, once. It was twenty-two years ago, when a friend and minister invited me along as her guest to see Israel for a few days. (She won the trip as a prize in a game show and I was eager to expand my horizons.) But I was flat broke and the only chance we had of seeing some of the famous out-of-the-way sites near Jerusalem was to take what was known as the sixty shekel tour. For about $19, you would meet an antiquated Mercedes bus near the historic Damascus Gate in the middle of the night, and go nonstop from site to site. You didn’t see anything for very long but you were promised the fortress at Masada, wading in the Dead Sea, a chance to see a nature reserve, a stop at Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found) and a visit to Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world.

The antiquated bus had other ideas. The road from Jerusalem down towards Masada was very steep. Just as the sun was rising I saw a sign warning in Hebrew, Arabic and English to shift into low gear. That’s when the transmission or the engine failed; I forget which. The bus stopped and we tourists piled out of the bus in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately the tour operator had a radio in the bus and called for a backup, but that left us sometime to contemplate our surroundings. I looked the grapes and Turkish delight I brought along, wondering how long they’d have to last. There were no other cars passing.

On one side of the road, a hill rose sharply covered in the same powdery tan rock we’ve seen all over the region, here little more than gravel. On the other side of the road the hill descended just as sharply, and in the distance we could see the Dead Sea, shimmering with the dawn. In the distance, we could make out the lights of factories or perhaps a refinery, in Jordan. The bus, the road sign and the refinery were the only evidences of modern technology, and having had that theological education it was easy to imagine that we could meet angels or devils. Surely the landscape was too desolate for anything living.

So I can imagine Jesus’ audience knowing and probably fearing the desert, the wilderness, and wondering what wild creatures could survive there. It’s exactly where you would face Satan, and temptation. The context is absolutely crucial. You feel small, vulnerable, out of place. You look for help, divine or automotive. But in such extreme environments you might also find God, in part because the exposure can be both figurative or literal. One is as revealing as the other. Might Jesus’ flight into the wilderness be figurative and spiritual, following the crashing, fluttering experience of the Spirit in his baptism? The narrative is filled with biblical allusions, but little detail. It might easily be an extended metaphor, but well understood.

Maybe that’s why our hour by the roadside is the part of the day that sticks with me the most even now. Being lost, in an unfamiliar setting, wondering what comes next, looking in the distance: these are as true spiritually as literally.

On the other hand, the passage from Genesis recounts the covenant God made with all living things, but also has to do with context. To recap, covenant between God and Noah and his heirs came before the flood. (W. G. Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 68.)

But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18, NRSV)

This covenant was with Noah and his family, excluding the rest of humanity.

As many of you know, an ancient story of an all-consuming, universal flood is not unique. It is seen in the epic of Gilgamesh and in other ancient Middle Eastern literature. The flood was a commonplace, but the outcome in Genesis makes it special.

God says

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:11)

The rainbow is a sign of this covenant, and a reminder to each generation of what God pledged. I’m sure we’ve covered this in other sermons, or if not, it’s one of those biblical stories that is still widely discussed in the larger culture. I want to focus on another part of the story.

So, why Noah? What made Noah right? Why would he and his family be the basis of a new human race? Why would God make a covenant with him? Was it because of his superlative goodness? Unlikely. As we hear in chapter 6:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

“Blameless in his generation” is what sticks out. Noah was righteous, but by what measure? Reviewing commentary (see Plaut), it’s possible that Noah wasn’t overwhelmingly exceptional, but simply was the best of a bad lot.

But more, what did Noah think of himself and his family being singled out, alone in the whole world? Was Noah lacking in compassion? It would be a mistake to treat this episode like history, or worse, to apply modern sensibilities or morals to it. But there’s no evidence of longing, of regret or of mercy to all who would die.

But if we treat Noah as a good, but not supernatural figure; and perhaps traumatized and not simply callous, we can appreciate something else about revelation. Throughout scripture, we see God communicate clearly with human beings, either directly or through intermediaries. The days of this kind of special revelation are now past — that’s the majority opinion — and what we receive is a general revelation through scripture. A constant Universalist witness is that scripture contains this revelation,

the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of divine revelation (UNMC)

the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God (1899)

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 (1803)

(You get the idea.) That revelation is contained in scripture, but in contrast to fundamentalism, isn’t the revelation itself. You have to look for it, find it and interpret it, and that’s not easy. The encouragement we get from this passage is that looking, finding and interpreting God’s intent is not limited to the exceptionally, extraordinarily good, but be taken on by those with a good intent and a willingness to understand.

Friends, both the passages from Genesis and Mark have themes of wildness and liminality. The churning waves, the desert being the Accuser’s domain. And there’s even a connection in the waters: between those that evoked God’s presence in destruction, and God’s presence in the blessing of baptism. (That itself is another sermon.) Both come with blessing, survival for Noah and his family, and for Jesus,

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 11)

May your searches prove a blessing, too.

In previous sermons, I’ve talked about having an imagination would approach you scripture, as a way of understanding what God is saying. Today, I would add a sense of empathy and curiosity. I encourage you to dig deep wells of patience, or at least thoroughness in your examinations, and a forbearance that values your everyday opinion over others.

This is path which leads to understanding what God may reveal to you.

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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


    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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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]


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.


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

This is Scott Wells. God bless.