We ministers love to sing the hymn ‘Rank by Rank,’ especially when we’re processing into a service of installation or ordination. We sang that hymn this morning because I wanted to emphasize the line that refers to those who have come before – especially our Universalist forebears who paved the way for our open approach to religion: ‘…what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.’
Last week I spent three days with ministerial colleagues at the Greenfield Group – a study group of 27 Unitarian Universalist ministers – I’ve been a member of the group for 34 years – we took another long look at the Universalist branch on our tree of faith.
In 1893 there was an important gathering of leaders from most of the world’s religions—World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago as part of the Chicago World’s Fair. That happened to be the 100th anniversary of Universalism, as a denomination, in America. Universalism in America emerged out of the war for independence; as it turned out, it was not only political ‘independence’ that was won, but freedom from religion, which can be imposed by governments as well as social pressure.
At that gathering someone said to the Universalists: “You Universalists have squatted on the biggest word in the English language. Now the world is beginning to want that big word, and you Universalists must either improve the property or move off the premises!” (attributed to J.M.Pullman)
Universalism began as a corrective to the terrible idea that a good, all-loving, all-powerful God included the creation of hell fires and brimstone as punishment to his children after death for their misbehaviors during their lifetime. It was, of course, a popularly held theological notion – one that turned thoughtful, loving people away from religion altogether.
Clergy and others began to speak out against this idea, little by little, and gradually a kind of universalism (with a small ‘u’) began to spread. Rev. John Murray, considered the ‘father of Universalism’ in America, famously said, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.”
While the Universalists spoke out against the idea of hell, as a punishment after death, they also emphasized the need to ‘improve the property,’ the need for each of us to give something back, here and now. A ‘here and now’ religion says, “Your religion is the way you live your life.” That certainly is the essential teaching of Jesus, as well as most of the other great reformers.
That’s why you heard announcements this morning about the work of Mid-Fairfield AIDS Project, the commitment to help bring care, information, and assistance to those living with, and affected by, HIV/AIDS.
I served on the original Board of Mid-Fairfield AIDS in the early 80’s, when we were at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis — trying to ‘improve the property.’
You were invited to participate in the Microfinance project, which is an effort to ‘improve the property’ where the poorest of the poor scratch out an existence. This effort has gained world-wide attention, especially since the Nobel Peace prize was given to Dr. Muhammed Yunus and his microfinance organization, Grameen Bank.
The Nobel Committee said, “Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large populations find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is such a means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.’
Let me tell you about a personal experience with “mico-finance.”
Between semesters in my freshman year at Salem State College, just after Christmas break, my car broke down. Since I commuted to school, where the tuition was $50 a semester, my car was essential. I didn’t have money for a major repair, so I dropped out of school and decided to join the army before I got drafted. My oldest brother, Chet, urged me to find a way to stay in school—he himself had dropped out of college after two years; he was driving a truck, earning $60 dollars a week; it was 1959. I told him I just didn’t have the money I needed.
One night, a couple of days later, as I sat at the kitchen table filling out forms for the Army, Chet walked up to me, put five $100 bills on the table and said, “Now what’s your excuse?” I bought a car for $225, paid the tuition and stayed in school. That was my first experience with micro-financing. (Chet later went back to school, finished college and became an art teacher at a high school in Cambridge.)
As it turned out, Chet had borrowed the $500 from Beneficial Finance. A few months later I was able to pay him back by getting a loan through the National Educational Loan Fund that was started after the Russians put Sputnik in space — the race for higher education was one of the good things that came out of the cold war with its nuclear arms race.
I learned about micro-finance first hand. Those five $100 bills from brother Chet provided the money I needed at the time, but his gesture was equally important. I realize, now, that it was also an experience with the heart of universalism – Chet was committed to the charge to ‘improve the property.’ He wasn’t a Universalist with a capital ‘U.’ But he understood the underlying theology of a here-and-now religion.
We’re trying to find ways to ‘improve the property’ that we inherited from our Universalist forebears.
You heard the announcement this morning about the Guatemalan Fair Trade sale where you can buy Guatemalan goods made by women in Guatemala – I was in Central America on this very day in 1983; I saw the colorful crafts of these women who are ‘working to improve the property.’ I visited the villages where a small loan could make all the difference to a family.
We know that life on earth has been evolving for millions of years, and we human beings are that part of life on earth that has become conscious of itself — we have been evolving, and we need to participate in the process of continuing that evolution toward civilization.
Religion, as a way of helping us to create human bonds, and to deal with the limits of our knowledge about why we’re here and where we’re going after death, has also been evolving. We Unitarian Universalists are committed to being ‘out front’ on the cutting edge of that evolution – that ‘growth toward maturity.’
We share common roots with three of those religions – we call it the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One tree. Three branches.
Judaism has been around for about 3,500 years; and it’s eldest child, Christianity, has been in the process of formation for about 2,000 years, and Islam for about 1,500.
There are several big branches in the Jewish tree; Christianity sprouted thousands, and Islam has several distinct branches.
This is where the tree metaphor breaks down, since the three Western religions have been fighting with one another, as well as fighting among themselves for most of these years.
While our deepest roots are in the earth itself, out of which we came, and to which we will return in our time, we share the Jewish monotheistic trunk.
The two great debates out of which our Unitarian and our Universalist branches grew were about the Trinity (Unitarians said that ‘God is One, not three) and the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal punishment (Universalists said that ‘all are saved.’)
The earliest unitarians (before there was a capital ‘U,’) said that by saying that Jesus is God, Christianity had become ‘a religion about Jesus.’ Rather than following the simple teaching of Jesus – to love your neighbor as yourself – people were worshiping Jesus. They asserted the One-ness of God, thus the term ‘unit-arian,’ to distinguish from Trinitarian, and suggested that real worship happens in living life, day to day, with kindness and compassion.
The earliest universalists (before there was a capital ‘U,’) said that ‘since God is a good, loving God, all souls are eventually saved.’ They debated the idea punishment after death – some saying that there would be some punishment, even designating a maximum 50,000 year period after which all souls would finally be saved.
Neither Unitarians nor Universalists demanded total agreement on these theological speculations, though there were attempts at writing creedal statements – the Winchester Profession of Faith, drawn up by the Universalists is the most famous.
The name, Winchester Profession, came from the meeting place, Winchester, NH, where the conference took place in 1883. This attempt at a creedal statement included: ‘the Universal Fatherhood of God; the spiritual authority of his son, Jesus Christ; the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God; the certainty of just retribution for sin; the final harmony of all souls with God.’
Then there was the famous ‘freedom clause’ that says: “The Winchester Profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this, nor any other precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship…”
Here in Westport, CT in 2006 we take many things ‘for granted.’ We do well to pause, from time to time, to remind ourselves of the precious freedoms we enjoy – and in this context I’m referring to freedom of religion, or, more precisely, freedom from religion, in the sense of having religion imposed on us either by the government or by society’s conventions.
Society can be more tyrannical than the government, since the government, by definition, is at a distance, while society is always looking through our windows, watching what we do, where we go, and listening to every word.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to our Universalist forebears. They dreamed of this place as an open-minded, rational approach to religion and life; they dreamed of the freedoms that we’ve inherited; they dreamed of our being free to speak our minds openly, without fear of being put on trial for heresy, as many of them were…and many were burned at various stakes as heretics.
The hymn reminds us to “…guard we well the crown they won; what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.”
One of the interesting things about this aging process is the deepening sense of appreciation for those who came before, both in our own families – parents, grandparents, and so forth – and our forebears who founded this great nation, this place of freedom…with all its flaws, with all the mistakes that have been made by its leaders, and the subtle complicity of those of us who have elected them and allowed them to sully the soul of this nation…it is important to remember that we are still in the process of creating this nation. It will be what we make it; that’s the awesome responsibility of the freedom we inherited: the responsibility that comes with the package!
I will never forget the sense of ‘salvation’ I felt when I discovered the Unitarian Universalist faith community; it happened to be precisely at the time of merger, in 1961, when I was evicted from the house of faith in which I had a home for my first 21 years.
I will never forget the deep, inspirational sense of appreciation I felt when I discovered this place, being introduced to this sanctuary before I met any of the people who built and inhabited it – that discovery came in the fall of 1983, exactly 100 years after the Winchester Profession and the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
That’s why I was so pleased two weeks ago to meet and to have a visit with the architect, Victor Lundy. He was thrilled to find his creation so well cared for, and to learn that it has served so many people so well during its first 45 years.
I referred to the statement that he wrote about the religious symbolism of the building – the hands in prayer that are not pressed together, but remain separate – he made that gesture a few times as he explained his design to his son and grandson who had never seen the building.
I thought of the line from the hymn, as it related to the man who designed the building for our use: ‘What he dreamed be ours to do.’ He had a vision, he said, that was in large part a result of his meetings with the minister, Arnold Westwood.
At one point on that special occasion I asked Victor, his wife, son and grandson, and Ken and Midge Lanouette, and Rob Zuckerman, who were here for the visit, to sit in the pews and I recited from Emerson: “There is a deep power in which we exist whose beatitude is accessible to us; it comes to the simple and lowly, it comes as serenity and grandeur, it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud. When it breaks through the intellect it is genius; when it breathes through the will it is virtue; when it flows through the affections it is love.” (The Over-Soul)
As I talked with Victor about his building’s theological statement, I told him that I prefer to spell God with a capital N…for Nature; that for me God and Nature are synonymous terms, and this sanctuary is the most effective way of articulating that reality, that theology.
As we walked in the memorial garden he asked, “When the time comes, would it be possible for my ashes to be interred here in this memorial garden?” I said, “Yes, of course. The memorial garden is for church members, their families…and for the architect!”
This sanctuary becomes a sacred place; it is made holy not by the building and its marvelous design, but by what we bring to it — the best of the human spirit: our hopes; our dreams; our individual and shared aspirations; or commitment to simple acts of kindness on a day-to-day basis.
This sanctuary becomes a sacred place, made holy by the sorrows we’ve shared here, by the grief that has found an outlet, here; by the sadness that has been supported in this room – made holy, too, by the acknowledgement of all our human limitations and failings, personal and collective.
But I wanted to talk with you about some of our forebears: about the first women to be ordained by a recognized denomination — Olympia Brown, in 1863, who worked for women’s rights, of course, but even more importantly, she lived it, setting a high standard for ‘improving the property.’
I wanted to tell you about another woman, Phebe Hanaford, who was ordained as a Universalist minister in 1868, and who ‘improved the property.’ Phebe was born a Quaker and discovered Universalism at the age of 39; she had been married early on, but she separated from her husband when she was 42 and lived for the rest of her life with her partner, Ellen Miles; she wrote 14 books, including a best seller on the life of Lincoln; she published sermons that were widely read and appreciated. She died in 1921 at the age of 93; so she lived to cast a ballot in 1920 after the Constitution was amended, giving women the right to vote.
By the time of that amendment there were 88 women who had been ordained by the Universalists in America – half of that number (42) had been ordained by the Unitarians.
I’m reminded of words spoken at Phebe Hanaford’s installation as the minister of the Universalist Church in New Haven, CT. Rev. William Haskell, a close friend of hers, delivered the charge to the minister, saying:
“I am not to tell you what to preach, or how to preach it, because I cannot do this. You know, or you will know ere long, the people to whom you minister, and will be best able to judge their needs and to shape your preaching to those needs.”
He added, “And remember – the great work of Universalist preaching is, to the end, that the world may be made a better place by it.”
Another friend, Julia Ward Howe, wrote a hymn for that installation that urged those singing it ‘…to loose the palsied spell of Fear, and woman with unfettered hands, keeps thine accepted priesthood here.’
In her fourth year of ministry in New Haven she wrote: “The popular prejudice against attending a Universalist church has been so far overcome that this large edifice has often been crowded to overflowing. Women are no longer ashamed to be seen at our meetings.”
A few years later Phebe accepted a call to the Universalist Church in Jersey City, NJ, with Ellen by her side. She was confronted about her relationship with Ellen and when her three-year contract came up for renewal the church fathers told Phebe, “Miss Miles or your ministry.” Phebe chose Ellen, then she set up a church across the street and continued to preach to large crowds about Universalism’s call to ‘improve the property.’
It’s interesting to note that she later returned to the New Haven Church and served as its minister for another six years until she retired from active ministry in 1884.
She conducted funeral services for her friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; she was the only one among that group who lived to exercise the vote in 1920.
We’re going to sing a hymn with words written by another Universalist minister of the 19th century, Adin Ballou. Adin Ballou is best known for founding the Hopedale community, which he called ‘an experiment in practical Christianity.’
Before singing Ballou’s hymn, however, let me close with some words from a modern day feminist, in the spirit of Olympia Brown and Phebe Hanaford, Mary Daly, from her book, Beyond God the Father. She writes:
“Why must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb—the most active and dynamic of all? Hasn’t the naming of ‘God’ as a noun been an act of (destroying) that dynamic Verb? And isn’t the Verb infinitely more personal than a mere static noun? The anthropomorphic symbols for God may be intended to convey personality, but they fail to convey that God is Be-ing.”
May we continue to ‘improve the property’ by finding ways to help one another in this Divine work of Be-ing!