LETTER TO A RELATIVE

a sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth
Sunday, February 23, 1997

READINGS:

1. from Luke 10:25-28
There was an expert in the Torah who stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. "Teacher," he asked, "What must I do to have eternal life?"
Jesus answered, "What is answered in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?" The man replied, "'You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.' They also say, 'Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself."' Jesus said, "You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life."

2. from Carl Westman, quoted by the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle in The Gospel of Universalism: Hope, Courage and the Love of God, Skinner House, 1993:
"Creedless though we are, we need not be spineless. As Universalists, we have at least three common denominators that offer the power to harmonize our fractional splinterings: fellowship, freedom, and a high estimate of human dignity... How much this world needs to recognize human dignity! Universalists living in a world spattered by the mud of insulting, scornful names need to be alerted to our basic humanity."


THE SERMON:

From time to time, I've told you some things about my family. I'm the baby of five children, twenty years younger than my oldest sister. My father, after working for the Post Office for 35 years, became a Methodist minister when I was thirteen. By that time, my sister Dorene was 33, and had children almost as old as I was.
Dorene and I were never much like sister and brother; our relationship has been more like aunt and nephew. As the first child, she was raised in a more conservative day, when our parents were also more conservative than they were later. Her life was shaped by the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. And by temperament, I believe, Dorene is conservative. She would not be displeased by that description.
I was the last, and the most liberal in our family, both in my politics and in my theology. I was a teenager in the '60s, during a time of change, experimentation, and political unrest. Mom and Dad had become more open-minded as the years progressed. I was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. My generation thought we could change the world for the better.
And I asked questions about religion. I wanted to know why the Bible story of Samson was supposed to be true, when the Greek story about Hercules was only a myth. I wanted to know why we were told that Joshua really made the walls of Jerico come tumbling down by blowing on a horn, when we weren't really supposed to believe that Achilles' mother made him invincible -- all except his heel -- by dipping him in the River Styx.
Dorene remains a Methodist, but is part of the most conservative wing of that church. I became a Unitarian Universalist. She is conservative, I'm liberal. That's fine. We need both liberals and conservatives, just as an automobile needs both an accelerator and brakes. In spite of what liberals and conservatives might say about each other, both words are good words. The dictionary says that a conservative is "moderate, prudent, cautious; traditional in manner and not showy; someone who wants to conserve or preserve the existing order." And it says that a liberal is "generous, bountiful; broad-minded, independent in opinion; one who favors non-revolutionary progress and reform; one who favors the freedom of the individual; a person who has a tendency toward democratic or republican forms of government, as distinguished from monarchical or authoritarian forms."
So conservatives are good people, and liberals are good people. So Dorene and I should get along easily, right? Well, we've had our disagreements. She and I both feel very strongly about our religious beliefs, and the truth is, I can be a hothead. About twelve years ago we had a big blow-up, and we haven't talked about religion since then.
Afterwards, I wrote her a letter. I apologized, but I also stated some opinions that continued to upset her. She also wrote to me, and tried to convert me. She was afraid that my doubt might prevent my soul from being saved. It was a frustrating experience for both of us, I'm sure.
From time to time I have thought about her, and how we seem to be unable to communicate with each other about things that are of obvious importance to us. Sometimes I think that I'd like to re-write that letter. And maybe you, too, have a loved one who you can't seem to explain your faith to.
So, I may never send this letter, but if I was writing today, this is what I'd probably say:

A letter to a relative


Dear Dorene,
I am sorry that I upset you when we had that discussion several years ago, and I'm sorry that we haven't been able to talk about things that are important to you and important to me. You are my sister, and I love you even though there is a distance of miles and years between us.
Without arguing, it would be good if we understood each other. When you wrote to me before, you tried to convert me to your style of Christianity, and you told me that you pray for me. While I appreciate the fact that you care for me, I don't believe it is necessary for me to believe as you do.
Here's one of my favorite stories, which might help me explain why I don't think conversion is necessary for either one of us. Some folks in my churches have heard this one before:
In Vermont in the late 1700s there was a Universalist preacher named Hosea Ballou. Ballou believed that a loving God would never condemn anyone to eternal torture in Hell. One day a neighbor came to him and said, "Brother Ballou, my son is down at the saloon drinking. I think it's your fault, because you've been preaching universal salvation. When he comes home, I want you to put the fear of Hell in him."
Ballou replied, "Tell you what my friend, when your son comes home he'll be drunk and it will be dark. He won't be seeing very much; so we'll dig a big pit in the road, cover it with branches and leaves. When he falls into it, we'll throw firewood and kindling on him, and light him on fire. That should put the fear of Hell into him!" The neighbor said, "That's terrible! I would never do such a thing to my son!" And Ballou replied, "And you are an imperfect father. So why do you think that your perfect Father in Heaven would do that to any of His children?"
Another time, Ballou was asked, "What do you think should be done to a man who dies reeking of sin and crime?" And Ballou replied, "I think it would be a good idea to bury him, don't you?"
Yes, we could quote Scripture to each other if we chose. You could give me proof-texts about Hell and punishment, and I could give you proof-texts about God's love and universal salvation. But we wouldn't convince each other. The old Universalist preachers just believed in their hearts that sin was something that should be healed rather than punished, that it was better to change hearts than to torture bodies. I do not fear a loving God.
I know that some preachers say, "God doesn't condemn us to Hell, we condemn ourselves by refusing to accept Jesus." But I was always taught that God created the universe, and so God got to make the rules. Would a fair and loving God make a rule that says, "If you believe the wrong thing, you'll be tortured in Hell"'?
In Methodist Sunday School, I learned that those who don't accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior go to Hell. Then our Methodist Youth Fellowship visited a Jewish Synagogue, and I met the rabbi. When I got home, I asked Dad, "Would a rabbi, who spent his whole life doing good things and helping people, go to Hell because he believed the wrong thing about Jesus?" After a pause, Dad said, "I think God has a place in Heaven for good Jewish people." So, I thought, Dad doesn't believe what I was taught about salvation in Sunday School. And if there's a place in Heaven for good Jews, then I reasoned, why not good Hindus, good Buddhists and good atheists?

The church I belong to has no creed, for we value freedom and reason. So not everyone would express their faith in the same way I would. But here's what I believe:
At the heart of the universe -- and that's a metaphor, not a literal place in some galaxy -- there is an ultimate goodness, a loving intent, from which we have come, by which we live our fullest, and to which we will some day return. While other things may also be important (things like reason, freedom, mystery and beauty), it is this loving goodness that is ultimate. I use the word "God" to describe the love at the heart of the universe. Not all Unitarian Universalists feel the word "God" meets their needs. Some have felt abused or otherwise mistreated by conventional religion, and so the word "God" brings a lot of baggage with it. But when we talk about ultimate value, ultimate meaning, ultimate love, I can say "God," and they can use another word, and it doesn't bother me. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
I believe that the love at the heart of the universe is our source, our center, and our destiny. As religious people, we are called to witness to the goodness at the heart of reality, to know it and to live by it. I cannot prove in a science lab that there is such Love, but I trust in this reality, because my life works when I follow it, and my life is empty without it. And so I have faith, I trust in this loving-kindness at the heart of Creation.
And when we put our faith in that goodness, our lives are transformed. When you trust in goodness, you will live in goodness and you will find goodness in your life. Another way of saying the same thing: When you have faith in God's grace, you will experience that grace.
This gospel, this "good news," begins with the faith that the world was created for all of us, not just some of us. Nobody is outside the mystery of reconciliation. Everybody is invited to God's party. In the end, I believe just as the old-time Universalists did, that there will be love and reconciliation for everyone. There are better reasons to be a good person than fear of punishment in Hell.

About Jesus: I grew up with Jesus. I grew up with his words echoing through the corridors of my mind, and I still love to hear and tell the stories. I grew up with the image of Jesus healing the sick and welcoming the children. As I read more, I understood that Jesus welcomed all sorts of outcasts to God's table: women, poor people, lepers, beggars, prisoners, prostitutes, and even tax collectors! In the last week of his life, Jesus spent a night in the home of Simon the Leper, the First Century equivalent of a person with AIDS. The stories of Jesus and his compassion and his welcome are still important to my faith as a Unitarian Universalist. It is partly because Jesus associated with outcasts, and taught us to help those who need our help, that I am involved with social justice issues and organizations that promote equal and fair treatment (Matt. 25:31-40).
When the rich young man asked, "How do I gain eternal life?" Jesus first told him to follow the commandments. When he replied, "I've done that all my life," Jesus asked for a bit more. "Sell everything you have, and give it to the poor, and follow me." Rather than asking that the man "accept Christ as his Lord and Savior," Jesus asked the man for actions, for a way of life. (Matt. 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-25.)
Again, in Luke (10:25-28), Jesus was asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life," and he answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself." Some churches ask us to believe a certain thing about Jesus; but Jesus asked us to live our lives in a certain way. That, to me, is the basis of true religion, and this is the path I try to follow.

About the Bible: Yes, we have some disagreement here, but I do love and read the Bible. I find that one book of the Bible sometimes disagrees with another book, and that it sometimes supports things I can't support, like slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46). That doesn't mean that it isn't a good book, because it is. It tells many truths about human nature. It was just written by good but imperfect people like ourselves, and they lived in a time and a society that was different from ours. Some people say that religion should be about "believing in the Bible." I say it is about "living in the story." That is, the Bible tells about a journey of faith begun by people like Abraham and Moses, who were seeking the promised land; or like the prodigal son, who squandered his inheritance and then returned home to the forgiveness of his father. Like the people of the Bible, we, too, are on a journey. Our job is to continue the journey of faith that our spiritual forebears began.
The Bible is the story of ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. We cannot go back to biblical times and re-live those lives. We must live our own lives of faith in this century and this place. We can begin with the good old Bible stories, but we must live new lives, and continue the journey. That's what I mean when I say that it's not about "believing in the Bible," it's about "living in the story."

About other religions: Muhammad taught that the slave and master are equal in the eyes of God. He also said that we should feed the hungry and give aid to the poor and the sick. Six hundred years before Jesus was born, Confucius said, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to you." So I believe we can learn from truth, wherever it may be taught. The world is getting smaller, and we need to learn to respect the religions of our neighbors if we are going to live together on this planet.
Some churches send missionaries to foreign lands to convert the heathen. We believe that shows a lack of respect for other cultures and religions. When you say to someone, "I want to convert you to my religion," what you are really saying is, "Your religion isn't any good, and I can't respect you for what you are. You have to learn to think like I do before I can respect you." Because we respect the religions of other people, we don't send out missionaries. But there is a Unitarian Universalist Service Committee that works to improve the living conditions of people around the world. It was first established during World War II, when it helped refugees escape Nazi Europe.

Are we a cult? No. Cults blindly follow the teachings of one preacher or guru. We don't follow anyone blindly; in fact, it has been said that trying to lead Unitarian Universalists is like trying to herd cats! We have democratic self-governing congregations, and our national president is elected to a four year term, just like the president of the U.S. We are not secretive, and our books are open to scrutiny.
We are nearly as old as the Lutherans, and about two hundred years older than the Methodists. The original Pilgrim Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is a Unitarian Universalist church, and has never belonged to any denomination other than ours. Five presidents of the United States have been Unitarians, including three of the first six. Florence Nightengale was a Unitarian and Clara Barton was a Universalist. "Nearer My God to Thee," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," "Jingle Bells," and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" were written by Unitarians. "In the Sweet By-and-By" was written by a Universalist. How radical is that?

So what do Unitarian Universalists believe? We believe in loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving the world we live in; that includes helping one another, and caring for the environment.
We believe in the importance of the religious journey. We will never know All Truth with a "capital T," but we can keep seeking, learning and growing all of our lives.
We believe that religion should be reasonable, and we believe that there is no ultimate disagreement between religion and science, because they both have their basis in the same reality.
We believe in one race: the human race, every individual a person of value. We celebrate diversity; the human race would be boring if we were all alike. We are glad that people have been created with differences, and we are not afraid of other people just because they may be black, gay, left-handed or Republican.
We believe in laughter and love, peace and justice, worship and celebration.
We believe people should have the freedom to ask tough questions, without being threatened with Hell because they may have doubts. We believe there are many reasons to be a good person, but fear of Hell isn't one of them.
We believe in the importance of a free, creedless religious congregation in our lives and in community. The free church should be a fellowship of seekers who come together voluntarily, for the mutual benefits they derive from their shared quest.
We believe that our religion should be ethical, that is should encourage us to become better people. We believe in making this life count, regardless of what may or may not follow this life.
And we believe in the Golden Rule. Abraham Lincoln said he never joined any church, because he was looking for one that had the Golden Rule as its only creed. Perhaps we are the church he was looking for but never found.

So, Dorene, you and I aren't so different. We are both moral people, both loving people, both good but imperfect people. We express our faiths in different ways, but when it comes down to it, we both believe in loving God and loving our neighbor. As Jesus said, that is the culmination of all the Law and the Prophets. The rest is just commentary (Matt. 22:34-40).
We shouldn't let minor disagreements separate us. The other Ellsworth ministers and I cooperate on issues like support for the Loaves and Fishes food pantry, the Emmaus Center homeless shelter, and the Down East AIDS Network. We are not all in the same church, but we are of one spirit when it comes to helping our neighbors. We believe that is the true test of our faith. We belong to different churches because we are different individuals with different needs, but that shouldn't keep us apart.

You and I are family, and I'm glad we are family.


With love, your brother,

Mark.


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