The story is told about the Rev. D. B. Clayton, who spent 68 years preaching Universalism to the American South. This was years before Universalism would join Unitarianism and become the combined faith we know now.
Once, a torrential rain delayed and threatened to prevent his preaching at a little town called Freedonia Crossroads, South Carolina, forty-five miles from his home in Columbia. He went to sleep on a Saturday night with a flood beating down on his roof. At midnight, when the clouds broke and moonlight filled the countryside, he got up and began a fourteen-and-a-half hour struggle with horse and carriage over quagmire roads and swollen streams. Despite his best efforts, he arrived at 2:30pm. The service was planned for 11am. But three and a half hours after the time appointed for the service, the entire congregation was still there, waiting (anxiously, I might add, but they were there!).
When he finally arrived, this is what he said: “I’ve come a long way, and I’m gonna preach a long time.” He preached for an hour and a half.
Now what sustained Rev. Clayton through his fourteen-and-a-half-hour struggle to get to Freedonia Crossroads, and what moved the congregation to wait for him: THAT’S what I want to talk about this morning. Treasures of our Unitarian Universalist heritage, that inspired our spiritual ancestors to do what they did and can inspire us today. Stuff I just want to preach an hour-and-a-half or more on myself.
Just kidding. (Not really.)
I get fired up! I love this stuff!
One reason is because I know the alternative. I know how easy it is to get spiritually lost. Back in 1923, that great liberal religious preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick was talking about the increasing disinterest in religion he saw in his day (and in our day, we call it the “rise of the Nones”) and here’s what he said: that the problem is not really that people are going to hell but that “multitudes of people are living not bad but frittered lives—split, scattered, uncoordinated.” So many people in his day and ours: living in “one of the most needy and critical generations in history … when there are great enterprises to serve, great books to read, great thoughts to think; and yet their lives, like a child’s doll, are stuffed with sawdust. They represent in an extreme form of one of the commonest failures in character—the crowding out of things that really matter by things that do not matter much. They are absorbingly busy with trivialities. They have missed the primary duty and privilege of life, [which is] putting first things first.”
What motivated Rev. D. B. Clayton to go through his fourteen-and-a-half-hour struggle to get to Freedonia Crossroads, and what moved the congregation to wait for him, was a religion that helps people put first things first. A religion that helps people cut through the noise of life to listen for what’s truly important and life-giving. This is why our Unitarian Universalist faith matters, why we want to do all that needs to be done in sharing the treasures of our heritage with as many people as possible. The best way is one conversation at a time with folks we know who fall in the “Nones” category. One conversation at a time with our children, who are equally in search of truth and meaning and who have their own experiences and knowings that they want to talk about. And don’t forget the rest of us. Don’t forget. The world is full of artificiality, full of superficiality, full of messed up priorities, full of NOISE. But we know that we don’t have to get lost in all that. We can listen for the pure, sweet music of our faith.
And here it is: the pure sweet music, all through our long history: Love is where we all come from, and Love is where all we’re going. That’s the spiritual message. Keep it ever before you, and you are going to put first things first. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a veeeery loooong name—puts lots of syllables in your mouth, and maybe it feels like marbles. But let’s not allow that to be a distraction, to be noise. Let’s listen beyond that noise to the sweet song, which is the essential message that is very, very simple: Love.
But what does this very simple message mean?
The father of American Unitarianism, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, understood it to mean that people are full of God-like potentials, and it is a main purpose of life to realize those potentials. If Love is the parent, who is full of all good things, then so are the children full of all good things, and those children are us. Doesn’t matter what the circumstances of harsh living reduce us to. Doesn’t matter how over our heads we feel at any one moment. The God-like potentials are always there, just waiting to be tapped into. We are stronger than we know.
Heros aren’t born. They’re cornered. (Mickey Rooney)
Here’s how William Ellery Channing talked about it. It’s 1830. He’s preaching another one of those hour-and-a-half sermons that were so common back then, when people didn’t have the attention span of gnats like most do now. (Thanks, TV and Internet!) The sermon, which would become one of his most famous, is called “Spiritual Freedom,” and here’s a bit of what he says in it:
“I call that mind free, which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison to its own energy…. I call that mind free, which escapes the bondage of matter, which, instead of stopping at the material universe and making it a prison wall, passes beyond it to its Author…. I call that mind free, which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which calls no man master, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith, which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come, which receives new truth as an angel from heaven. I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect, which recognises in all human beings the image of God and the rights of his children, which delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering wherever they are seen, which conquers pride, anger, and sloth, and offers itself up a willing victim to the cause of mankind.”
Now that is one big chunk of complicated prose. I know it. But the main thing I want to you get is that every time William Ellery Channing says “I call that mind free,” he follows it up with a standard way we get distracted and stuck in trivialities, but then he says that we have the potential to do better than that. Love has put a power for living into our hearts, and we can trust it, no matter how imprisoning things feel. We are made for freedom, and we can be free.
Now right here is so much of our history as a freedom people, and how we have changed and evolved throughout the years. I spoke of this back in January, on Dr. King Sunday. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God; they believed in a direct free connection between the inherent worth and dignity of the individual and God without any go-between. 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that church traditions needed to be the go-between between humanity and God; they believed that the freedom way to the Source was the rational mind in its study of the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world and that we had an internal GPS that told us where and what truth was.
All of this reflects great confidence in the ultimate soundness and value of people. I mean, if our spiritual GPS systems were truly and fatally broken, so that when it tells us the way ahead is clear but, in fact, what’s really there is the side of a building, well, we wouldn’t have William Ellery Channings telling us to listen for the signs of the mind’s essential freedom. We wouldn’t have Ralph Waldo Emersons (who was another Unitarian minister and thinker) telling us to trust ourselves. We wouldn’t have it.
Love the Source has blessed us with good things.
Now, I have to say something. Every family has skeletons in the closet, and so does every religion. None hits the mark every time, in every way. Nothing in life does. Where historical Unitarianism is concerned, one of the less-than-treasures—one of the not-really treasures—is its elitism. Love put all these good things equally into everyone, but some are more equal than others. That’s how the good message got skewed.
One manifestation of the elitism was the Unitarian contempt towards Universalists. Did you know that that other great parent of our faith, Hosea Ballou, lived a short distance away from William Ellery Channing, they preached basically similar ideas, they both believed that Love was our source and Love was our final destination—but they never crossed paths? Channing would have nothing to do with Ballou, because Ballou was lower class, he was not Harvard educated, he was one of those hillbilly Universalists. Oh yeah. The old Unitarians were snobs.
There is a reason why, in the 20th century, one of the major growth initiatives in Unitarianism specifically targeted college towns for new church starts, because, after all, that’s where our people are. Basically: if you’re not white and you don’t have college or even graduate degrees: how can you possibly understand us? Folks who don’t read the New York Times or listen to NPR: how are they gonna get us?
That’s just a bunch of noise from our own history, and we need to listen beyond it to the pure music which is our historical affirmation in the inherent power of every person to be free. “I call that mind free, which sets no bounds to its love, which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect, which recognises in all human beings the image of God.” Yes, William Ellery Channing was a snob, but what he’s saying here positively undermines his snobbery. It can inspire us today to take the next step in our congregation, to take a close look at the bounds our community sets to love, and expand those boundaries. Be more welcoming. Be more inclusive. Not to want more Latinos and Asians and blacks in our pews but at the same time expect them to leave their cultures at home. Not to have more of the differently-abled, the blue-collared, the economic conservative in our pews, but hey, leave your culture at home. It’s time to kill the sacred cow of there’s only way to look like and sound like and be like a Unitarian Universalist!
Now make no mistake. This call for greater diversity is different from what you may already be familiar with. I am not trying to invite those of us who are temporarily-abled and straight and middle-to-upper class and educated and white into yet more self-flagellation. I am not trying to make people feel even more ashamed. And I am absolutely NOT wanting to encourage white liberals who too often want to step out of their shoes and become anything else but white: whites wanting to be saved by the Other. I don’t want to encourage this. The folks living on Buford Highway—come save us! I call that shame. I call that the feeling that I am not enough, I have to be saved by something outside of me. But I’m done with shame. I’m done with all that.
Let’s stop the self-flagellation long enough to recognize our gifts and use them for positive change. Stop wasting energy. Start moving and grooving.
One of the main problems with the old Unitarian elitism in our DNA is how it leads a person to reject everything in themselves that’s not up to snuff. Only some parts get to be acceptable. The part that knows how to be accomplished. The part that knows how to be respectable, acceptable, successful, secure. NOT the part that dares to demand what the heart yearns for but the world says is “irresponsible.” NOT the part that feels healed through dancing but the big critical inner voice says STOP IT YOU LOOK LIKE AN IDIOT.
The call to diversity—the call to remove the bounds to love—starts with discovering the diversity that is already among us which is richer than we know. Of course, it’s old hat to say we Unitarian Universalists are diverse. Of course, when you have atheists and theists sitting in the same pew! But what if I were to tell you that in this space, right now, is far more diversity than we recognize? It’s there but it’s not on our radar; it doesn’t compute because it doesn’t conform to the usual categories. African Americans who don’t like to clap in worship. Blue collar workers who read quantum mechanics for fun. White folks with chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, fibromyalgia. We have only just begun. We have only just scratched the surface.
All this weekend was our long awaited Diversity Retreat, which your Board, your Staff, and the newly formed Diversity Team participated in. The Long Range Plan that this congregation created—YOU—says that we want to be more engaging, more inclusive. And so it’s happening. We’re figuring out how. At any rate, one of the things we learned during the retreat was the Platinum Rule. Now we all know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you have them do unto you. But what if our behavior towards each other was more along the lines of the Platinum Rule? “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” What it means is that we put aside the idea of being “color blind” and “culture blind” (which are not good things actually but only evidences of privilege). What it means is that, instead, we get intentional about creating room for the differences. We try on an attitude of holy curiosity. We rejoice when we experience something that might not feel so great to us, because we know that that means it probably feels great for somebody else. Let me tell you: if we do that—if Atlanta sees how we are creating room for the differences that are already among us—then soon enough, we are going to look a whole lot more like Atlanta. Which is what we want! We want this congregation to reflect the diversity we encounter outside these walls every day.
And the best news (I’ve been saving the best for last) is that we don’t have to invent whole cloth what this next step for us looks like. Because of the treasures of our heritage. Not just the Unitarian affirmation of the worth and dignity of every person which is our birthright and our joy to actualize, but also the Universalist affirmation that says, Yes, this is actually going to happen. Somehow, some way, no one’s going to be left out of Love. I don’t care if the world constantly divides the sheep from the goats. I don’t care if even the old Unitarian snobs divided the classy from the slobs. I don’t care what the quagmires look like, or if, like the Rev. D. B. Sweeney, we arrive three-and-a-half hours late. Everyone is going to realize the greatness within them. Everyone is going all the way to Love.
We are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know within.
And we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.
It will be hard, we know, and the road will be muddy and rough.
But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will.
One of the finest, most poignant statements about Universalism’s sense of All-Conquering Love comes from Atlanta’s prophet, Dr. King, who seriously considered becoming a Unitarian Universalist (I swear I am not making this up) but our churches were too white, they were too monoculture, they were too middle-to-upper class. Here is what he says, and he says it not just to the world, he says it not just to each of us as individuals as we fight the battles in our personal lives, but he says it also to us as a congregation, as we face the future:
“Let this affirmation,” he said, “be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry!
Let me hear a YES.