Listen to this quote, from Werner Erhard: “You don’t have to go looking for love when it’s where you come from.”
That’s what we’re talking about this morning: where you and I come from, in an ultimate sense: what that place and space is like… Is it love, or something else?
For too many people today, that ultimate place and space is a lot like the comic book superhero (or, better yet, anti-superhero) the Incredible Hulk. You may remember the story: withdrawn and reserved physicist Dr. Bruce Banner is accidentally exposed to the blast of a test detonation of a gamma bomb he invented. It gives him his signature power to transform into a giant green-skinned monster that rages like crazy, to the tune of all hell breaking loose. Thus the catchphrase from the campy 1970s television show, in which Dr. Banner would always say as a warning: “Please don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
For too many people today, this is what God is like. God the Incredible Hulk. We’re like kids sitting at the dinner table, and we’re blowing bubbles into our drink, and this goes against the rules which God our parent has set and has reminded us of time after time, but we do it anyhow because maybe we’re so into the goofiness of blowing bubbles that we’ve momentarily forgotten the rules. Or maybe we haven’t forgotten. We’re blowing bubbles into our drink like mad because we’re testing our parent to see if he or she’s trustworthy, if he or she’s dependable, stable, consistent. Whatever the reason, we’re blowing those bubbles, and God says, “Stop it!” and we don’t, and then God says, “You’re about to push me past my breaking point!” and we still don’t stop, and then God says, as a last warning, all quiet in a dangerous way: “Please don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Because when an Incredible Hulk God gets angry, all hell breaks loose. God goes berserk. God snaps, reacts in a way totally out of proportion to what’s happening. God puts us in an eternal time-out. Eternal damnation. Eternal hell. Which, I hope you see, is a fundamentally unjust consequence totally out of proportion to the cause: an infinite punishment meted out to a finite being committing an act which can only have finite effects. I don’t care what kind of act it is. From beings like you and me, the status and effects of what we do can never be more than finite. In the grand cosmic scheme of things: never more than blowing bubbles into a drink at the dinner table.
How many Americans do you think believe in Hell—and, by implication, an Incredible Hulk kind of God? 59%. That’s the statistic that comes from a 2008 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey. 59% of Americans. Probably not 59% of the people in this sanctuary…. but 100% percent of the people in this sanctuary know people in that 59%, and (perhaps more disturbingly) 100% of our children rub shoulders with children who believe in an Incredible Hulk God. Fear abounds. If we are a people of faith wanting to spread love in this world, then we have our work cut out for us.
Perfect love casts out fear. And this is not just for other people. You don’t have to believe in an Incredible Hulk kind of God to feel like the ultimate place you come from is unreliable, unsafe, something to fear… You don’t have to believe in any kind of God at all. All you need is a core sense of self pervaded by toxic shame, a toxic sense of unworthiness. Hal Runkel talks about this in the context of parenting in his awesome book, ScreamFree Parenting: “One of the great commandments in the Scriptures is to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Our culture would be in serious trouble if we put this into practice with our Western way of ‘loving’ ourselves. Think about it. What would it really look like to love your kids as little as you love yourself? Instead of packing a healthy lunch complete with the four food groups and a note tucked inside, you’d shove a half-eaten donut and a thermos of stale coffee into their bookbags. What would it look like if you talked to your kids like you talk to yourself after you make a mistake? Most of us would berate them over and over, calling them names and finding it incredulous that they made the same mistake yet again.” That’s what Hal Runkel says. Whether or not an Incredible Hulk God exists out there, what’s for certain is the existence of an Incredible Hulk self within…. it whispers to us: “Please don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” We go in fear of what it will do to us, if we screw up.
But perfect love casts out fear. That is what Universalism is. Casts out fear. Casts the Incredible Hulk God out of Heaven—exposes it as the worst fraud and fakery and falsehood. Casts the Incredible Hulk self out of our hearts—transforms the sense of shame and unworthiness into something better. Universalism. The belief that love wins.
I want to tell you a “love wins” story. It comes from this incredible man who is not a Unitarian Universalist but instead a Jesuit priest—which goes to show you that Universalism is greater than any one group or institution, and it is our privilege and pleasure to stand side by side with others in proclaiming it.
The Jesuit priest’s name is Father Greg Boyle, who worked for many years in a Los Angeles neighborhood that had the highest concentration of murderous gang activity in the nation. “The principle suffering of the poor,” he writes in his magnificent book Tattoos on the Heart, “is not that they can’t pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of pampers. The principle suffering of the poor is shame.” “There is a palpable sense of disgrace strapped like an oxygen tank onto the back of every homie I know. In a letter from prison, a gang member writes, ‘People see me less.’ This is hard to get through and penetrate. ‘You’re no good.’ ‘You live in the projects.’ ‘You’re wearing the same clothes today that you wore yesterday.’” Father Boyle then says, “I had a little project kid in my office, who, someone told me, had regularly been late for school and missing class. So I bring that to his attention. ‘I hear you’ve been late for school a lot.’ He cries immediately. ‘I don’t got that much clothes.’ He had so internalized the fact that he didn’t even have clean clothes (or enough of them) that it infected his very sense of self.” “Homies,” he says, “seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address.”
For more than 20 years, Father Boyle worked with people like this, wanting to bring about a change of address; and for him, the motivating factor was modeling, as he says, “not the ‘one false move’ God but the ‘no matter whatness’ of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to him. You strive to live the Black spiritual that says, ‘God looks beyond our fault and sees our need.’” Then he quotes theologian Beldon Lane, and just listen to this quote. There is no better summation of the Universalist view of God than this: “Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty and all embarrassment into laughter.” This is nowhere near the Incredible Hulk God that at least 59% of Americans believe in. Not at all.
Father Boyle is a living testament to what happens when you feel the incessant restlessness of God’s love to cast out all fear, and to heal. And now: Here’s that “love wins” story I promised (and I apologize in advance for some cussing in the pulpit—Father Boyle is a down-to-earth kind of guy—MY kind of guy):
One day [says Father Boyle] I receive a phone call in my office around three in the afternoon. It’s from a twenty-five-year-old homie named Cesar. I have known him for most of his life. I can remember first meeting him when he was a little kid in Pico Gardens during the earthquake of 1987 when the projects had become a tent city. People lived outside in carpas well past the time of any danger. Cesar was one of the many kids seeking reassurance from me.
“Are we gonna be okay? Is this the end of the world?”
I spent every evening of those two weeks walking the tents, and I always associate Cesar with that period.
He’s calling me today because he has just finished a four-year stint in prison. Turned out, earthquakes were the least of Cesar’s troubles. He had joined the local gang, since there wasn’t anyone around to “chase his ass” and rein him in. At this point in his life, Cesar had been locked up more often than not. Cesar and I chitchat on the phone, dispatching the niceties in short order—“It’s good to be out—I’d love to see ya”—then Cesar says, “Let me just cut to the cheese.”
This was not a spin I had heard on this expression before.
“You know, I just got outta the pinta and don’t really have a place to stay. Right now, I’m staying with a friend in his apartment—here in El Monte—away from the projects and the hood and the homies. I don’t got no clothes. My lady she left me, and she burned all my clothes, you know, in some anger toward me, I guess.”
I’m waiting for him to cut to the cheese.
“So I don’t got no clothes,” he says. “Can you help me?”
“Sure, son,” I say, “Look, it’s three now. I’ll pick you up after work, at six o’clock.”
I drive to the apartment at the appointed hour, and I’m surprised to see Cesar standing on the sidewalk waiting for me—I’m used to searching for homies when asked to retrieve them. I guess you might say that Cesar is a scary-looking guy. It’s not just the fact that he’s large and especially, fresh out of prison, newly “swole” from lifting weights. He exudes menace. So there he is, standing and waiting for me. When he sees it’s me, this huge ex-con does this bouncing up and down, yippy-skippy, happy-to-see-ya, hand-clapping gleeful jig.
He flies into my car and throws his arms around me. “When I saw you right now, G, I got aaaallllll happy!”
There was some essence to him that hadn’t changed from that child wanting to know that the world was safe from earthquakes.
We go to JCPenney, and I tell him he can buy two hundred dollars’ worth of clothes. In no time, his arms are filled with the essentials, and we both are standing in a considerable line to pay for it all. All the other customers are staring at Cesar. Not only is he menacing, but he seems to have lost his volume knob. People can’t help but turn and look, though they all take great pains to pretend they’re not listening.
“Hey,” he says, in what you might call a loud-ass voice, “See dat couple over there?”
I am not the only one turning and looking. The entire check-out line shifts. Cesar points to a young couple with a tiny son.
“Well, I walk up to that guy and I look at him and I say, ‘Hey, don’t I know you?’ And his ruca grabs the morrito and holds him and shakes her head and says, ‘NO, WE DON’T KNOW YOU!’ all panicked….. Then the vato looks at me like he’s gonna have a damn paro cardiaco, and he shakes his head, ‘NO, I DON’T KNOW YOU.’ Then I look at him more closer, and I say, ‘Oh, my bad, I thought you were somebody else.’ And they get aaaaallllll relaxed when I say that.” He takes a breath. “I mean, damn, G … do I look that scary?”
I shake my head no and say, “Yeah, pretty much, dog.”
The customers can’t help themselves, and we all laugh.
I drop Cesar off at his friend’s apartment. He becomes quiet and vulnerable, as frightened as a child displaced by shifting ground.
“I just don’t want to go back. La neta, I’m scared.”
“Look, son,” I say to him, “Who’s got a better heart than you? And God is at the center of that great, big ol’ heart. Hang on to that, dog—cuz you have what the world wants. So, what can go wrong?”
We say our good-byes, and as I watch him walk away alone, I find his gentleness and disarming sweet soul a kind of elixir, soothing my own doubts and calling me to fearlessness.
At three o’clock in the morning, the phone rings. It’s Cesar. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?”
I always think Why no, I was just waiting and hoping that you’d call.
Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.
“I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.”
Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I … been … your son?”
“Oh, hell, yeah,” I say.
“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”
Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbing. “Then … I will be … your son. And you … will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”
And that’s the story. The only Incredible Hulks here include Cesar’s looks—and the Incredible Hulk of the shame within him. But inside him is also an inherent worth and dignity struggling to be released and known—the sweetness we hear in his voice when he says to Father Boyle, upon seeing him, “I got aaaallllll happy!!” But this and more sweetness will only be blocked by and Incredible Hulk God…. No—Cesar’s soul must be met by a love that is incessantly restless for his wholeness. A love that loves no matter what. A love that looks beyond fault and sees need. Cesar lives in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and to change his address, he needs the kind of acceptance that Father Boyle can give him. So do we all. You don’t have to be a homie to need it. I didn’t grow up poor, on the streets of LA, in a gang. I grew up middle class, doctor’s son, nicest house in town, but with violence behind closed doors, mental illness, drug abuse. I know toxic shame. I yearn for a love that looks beyond fault and sees need. We all do. We all have our stories….
Where are you coming from this morning? Is it a place of love, or fear? Perfect love casts out fear, and Universalism says that such a love is a reality. People may honestly differ about whether God exists, and what that God is like; and as Unitarian Universalists, we honor this. We are not a fear-driven faith. From us you will never feel pressure to believe this or disbelieve that, because your eternal soul is at stake. Never. But one thing we absolutely can agree on—one thing we can know as absolutely certain—is that Father Boyles exist, and from the Father Boyles of the world, what is revealed is the reality of a love which overcomes all differences, which heals all wounds, which puts to flight all fears, which reconciles all who are separated, which is in us and among us, now and always. Universalism says, such a place exists, it’s where we ultimately come from, and our job on this earth—our calling in this time and in every time—is to help each other to more fully live from that place, to live from that perfect love … that turns all woundedness into health, that turns all embarrassment into laughter, that makes life beautiful.