Opening Words: Albert Einstein –
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate…it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”
1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Sermon: Give Them Not Hell But Hope and Courage
The sermon title is a much-used quote from the Reverend John Murray (1741 – 1815) often referred to as ‘the Father of Universalism in America.’
Murray started ministry as a Methodist in England. He was influenced in his thinking – or liberated to speak what he really thought – by James Relly; Relly was influenced by the well-known preacher, George Whitefield…who was influenced by others, and so it goes, reminding us that we each have an influence and we can inspire and encourage one another.
Relly preached a doctrine of universal salvation – his answer to the long-debated question: how could a good and loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God condemn so many of his children to the eternal fires of hell?
The debate about this question goes back to the beginnings of Christianity, or the Jewish sect that would become Christianity.
The Jewish idea of the Messiah who would eventually come to ‘save the world’ took hold after the death of Jesus, who, some said, was the long-awaited Messiah.
As Christianity emerged from Judaism there were two central much-discussed questions: first, what is the nature of Jesus – is he God, the son of God, or simply an evolved human who set a standard for all humans?
This is the question that resulted in the theological doctrine of the Trinity in 325 at the Council of Nicaea; we trace our Unitarian roots to the debate that took place there – our forebears insisting that Jesus was not ‘one and the same as God,’ but was ‘the son of God,’ thus the word Unitarian in contrast to Trinitarian. God is One.
Our Universalist forebears insisted that the sacrificial death of Jesus – the lamb of God, an idea with Jewish roots – atoned for the sins of all humanity, and thus all souls would eventually return to God. They debated what punishment might come after death for those who were special sinners, but they agreed that a loving God would not condemn some of his children to hell – all souls are saved, thus the word Universalism or universal salvation.
This is what Relly preached, influencing John Murray who got in trouble with John Wesley, founder of Methodism, for preaching universal salvation.
Murray had, at first, resisted the idea of universal salvation but was eventually persuaded, not by a minister but by a young woman who challenged him with Biblical references and sound logic, quoting 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
When Murray went against his Methodist teachings he was excommunicated, vilified and attacked.
He had a hard time of it, not only in terms of his clerical career but shortly after his wife gave birth to their child both died; Murray spent time in a debtor’s prison and when he got out he sailed for America, vowing never to preach again.
As the ship, Hand in Hand, approached the shores of America headed for New York in 1770 it ran aground on a sand bar off the coast of New Jersey. They waited for the high tide to free them from being stuck in the sand and Murray was sent ashore to purchase supplies in the community appropriately named Good Luck. There he met a farmer named Thomas Potter who had built a small chapel on his own land and said he would wait for the right preacher to preach against the idea of an everlasting hell.
The story says that John Murray said if the wind didn’t come with a high tide and release the ship he would agree to preach at Potter’s chapel, which he did, on September 30, 1770, which some like to name as the beginning of Universalism in America.
The story says that shortly after the service ended, Murray was notified that the tide had come in, the ship had been freed and they were preparing to sail to New York. This is sometimes referred to as “the only miracle in Universalist history.”
For the next four years Murray became an itinerant preacher, was often attacked for his unorthodox beliefs, he was vilified as a “false teacher” who held “corrupt tenets.”
One story says that while preaching in Boston one day a rock was thrown through a window, barely missing his head. He responded by picking up the rock and stating, “This is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.” Another time followers of conservative orthodox minister Rev. Bacon pelted him with eggs. He responded to that assault by proclaiming “These are moving arguments, but I must own at the same time, I have never been so fully treated to Bacon and eggs before in all my life.”
Murray served as an army chaplain during the Revolutionary War, appointed by General George Washington. Eventually he settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts where, in 1779, a group of 61 believers in universalism established a new congregation, the Independent Church of Christ in Gloucester, and called John Murray as their minister. This is referred to as the first Universalist church in America.
In 1793 Murray became minister of the Universalist Society in Boston where he remained for 15 years.
It’s interesting to note that his message had special appeal among so-called ‘ordinary people,’ but not so much among the well-to-do, highly educated. Universalist preachers tended to be emotional and evangelical, not well-educated and. The well-to-do were attracted to Unitarian preaching which was often ‘high and dry,’ which Emerson referred to as ‘the frozen few.’
Theologically, however, the Universalists and the Unitarians had much in common and talked about a merger for some time – it wasn’t theology that delayed that process, however.
Finally the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, with headquarters in Boston.
The chairman of the merger commission, the Reverend William Brooks Rice, was my first mentor in ministry – it was he who urged me to go to seminary and become a UU minister.
A footnote to that story is that on February 8, 1970, exactly 200 years after Murray’s first sermon on American soil, I preached my first sermon in Bill Rice’s pulpit in Wellesley, MA, with Bill sitting in the pew. That afternoon he drove to his soon-to-be retirement home in Francistown, NH and the following day he slipped on the ice and died at age 65.
When I completed seminary in June of 1972 I was called to be the minister of Murray Universalist Church in Attleboro, named, of course, for John Murray. The Attleboro church was nearly 100 years old, having organized in 1875, and I arrived shortly after merger and was the first Unitarian minister to serve that congregation.
Interestingly, some years before I arrived there had been a merger of Murray Universalist Church and the Unitarian Church in Attleboro, but the Universalists were the dominant partners.
When I arrived there was a huge cross in front of the church on a campanile, and another huge cross at the front of the sanctuary.
Several of the old-timers told me, in no uncertain terms, that they were ‘Universalists, not Unitarians.’ I played Colombo, the fumbling detective in the television series, and asked what they meant. They responded with things like, “I’m a Christian…I like the Lord’s Prayer said every Sunday, I like to have communion, I like the Bible, etc.”
I said the Lord’s Prayer, occasionally, and served communion a few times a year, but after my fist year I persuaded the Board of Deacons to remove the cross on the outside of the church. I said that it gives the wrong message about us, that we are not limited to Christian teachings. During the following year I suggested that we attach other symbols of the great world religions in the sanctuary, to balance the cross that dominated the chancel.
While the conversation continued I took it upon myself to cut out symbols of several world religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism and I attached them to the four corners in the cross.
The bright blue poster board was not very attractive, creating a great deal of discussion and mostly civil debate and the following year the Deacons commissioned an artist to design and construct the same four symbols using the attractive wood that matched the cross.
That cross and those symbols remained for the duration of my twelve-year ministry, but were later removed to install a new pipe organ.
In addition to creating a bit of a stir with the symbols, my preaching in the early years was dominated by anti-Vietnam-war sermons, and issues around racism, gay rights and women’s rights, including the right to choice.
Some sensible and seasoned members of the church, who I had grown to love and appreciate, took me aside (as they say) and quoted John Murray’s signature suggestion to preachers to ‘give them not hell but hope and courage.’
I realized that I had been ‘giving them hell.’ (I used Harry Truman’s line, “I never gave them hell, I simply told the truth and they thought it was hell.”)
Just as I influenced them, they influenced me, and at the beginning of my third year at Murray Church I taped a 3 x 5 card onto the pulpit which only the preacher could see, with a single word: HOPE.
I came to appreciate the deeper truth in John Murray’s assertion – I realized that it’s one thing to eliminate the terrible old depraved doctrine of hell from one’s theology, while it’s another thing to provide hope and courage in its place.
I came to realize that the essence of 18th -century Univeralist theology is captured in the Biblical assertion, God is Love.”
Universalists carved it onto the front of the pulpit for the people to see.
Love binds us together, allowing us to form meaningful, lasting relationships – it’s the essence of religion and the common ingredient in all the religions of the world…the best in all the religions.
I came to understand that theological assertion, that God is Love, in a deep and challenging way. The Commandment says, “You shall love God with all your heart and mind and strength.”
What does it mean to ‘love God?’
To me it means, simply but profoundly, that to love God is to love life, first by loving one’s family, biological or chosen – to love parents, children, siblings, spouse, friends and the wider community; to acknowledge the ‘inherent worth and dignity of all persons,’ and to realize our organic relationship to all of Nature, to respect the planet.
I seldom use the word God, since there’s so many widely divergent and contradictory meanings applied to that word, some of which have been used to perpetrate the worst crimes ‘in the name of God,’ With Einstein, “I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence…”
To love life, including the Great Mystery in which we live and move and have our being, is to love God. But what does it mean ‘to love life?’ Too often we’ve reduced the idea of ‘loving life’ to a rather limited notion of ‘enjoying it,’ or finding ‘happiness.’
Happiness is fine, as far as it goes, but in truth it doesn’t really go very far, it doesn’t go very deep.
In the 5th century B.C.E. the Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote, “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” (Quoted from memory by Robert Kennedy when he learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed.)
Life involves suffering, and it arrives in a variety of forms, but its arrival is inevitable.
The essential goal of life is to realize a deep, honest sense of connection – connection to other persons who are having the same experience, life, as you…to experience a sense of connection to Nature, in which we live and are sustained in our being, and to be reconciled to one’s self – this fallible, fault-filled person each of us is.
We need ‘hope and courage’ to balance the hell – the suffering – we experience, and we need one another to keep hope and courage alive.
It’s not a complicated theological proposition, but it is enough to challenge us for a lifetime.
It requires contemplation and meditation, the experience of going down deep ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
It requires communication, especially the ability to listen and to gain a deeper understanding of other people.
It requires an affirmation, a declaration of appreciation for the gift of friendship, caring and love.
It requires that we stop to notice a field of purple flowers, as Alice Walker put it in The Color Purple…and to notice these daffodils that are pushing up as spring approaches after staying down all winter. (See Mary Oliver’s poem, Messenger)
It’s not complicated. It is liberating.
The book of Ecclesiastes, also called ‘the teacher,’ says, “For him that is joined to all the living there is hope.”
To feel ‘joined to all the living’ is to experience hope in the deepest sense – not the kind of hope of hitting the lottery, getting the job or finding the right partner – each of which has a legitimate place.
This sanctuary was designed to invite us to feel ‘joined to all the living,’ and to feel a sense of hope. Hope liberates us from despair.
Hope isn’t necessarily about something that might happen in the future, but a deeper awareness of what’s happening right now, here and now.
Perhaps it is our ability to look squarely into the eyes of suffering that gives us hope, and it takes courage to do that.
Murray’s words, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage,” go beyond wishing and daring, which are on the surface of our day-to-day living – they go right down to the heart of the matter.
We’ll close with words from Judith Sargent Murray, who was married to John Murray. (1751-1820) She was an early American advocate for women’s rights, an essayist, playwright and poet and an avid letter writer. She was one of the first American proponents of the idea of the equality of the sexes—in 1790 she wrote an essay “On the Equality of the Sexes,” published in the Massachusetts Magazine asserting that women, like men, had the capability of intellectual accomplishment and should be able to achieve economic independence.
“Were I to personify Justice, instead of presenting her blind, I would denominate her the goddess of fire. . . Of unbending integrity. Justice should feel, hear and see; but truth alone should be the polar star by which she should shape her movements, and equity only should constrain her determinations.”
Closing words from religious educator/Unitarian minister, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who was ordained into our ministry at age 83 and continued to ‘serve’ for nearly 20 more years:
“From out of the glory of the morning skies,
The Life Giver calls us to ‘Arise!’
Out of eternity – behold a single day!
A gift for us to spend some way.
What shall we do with it, I say?”