“Salvation by Character” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 19, 2012
Call to Worship – from Edward Frost
I love those who are angry with me –
Because they care deeply about something they feel I may have hurt.
I love those who criticize me –
Because they need something they think I can give.
I love “witty” people –
Because their minds are usually in a nicer place than where we think we really are.
I love shy people –
Because they are more like me, than the blustery and self assured, and I know how they really feel.
I love the know-it-alls –
Because they know they don’t know what is really important.
I love those who talk too much –
Because I know how much they fear the silence.
And I love the quiet ones –
Because they are usually listening.
I love those who love me –
In spite of what they know.
UU Moment – Charles Dickens
Reading – from The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
Sermon – “Salvation by Character” by Mark W. Harris
The organizing members of this congregation in 1630 believed in TULIP with every ounce of their being. Yes, I said tulip. Does that mean they were flower children longing to go to San Francisco with braided blossoms in their hair? In 1630, there was no San Francisco. Were they nature loving pagans? Not that either. They weren’t even closet Unitarians. Tulip is an acronym for the five points of Calvinism, which were adopted at the Synod of Dort in 1619. Calvin, as you may member was the one who burned Michael Servetus at the stake, for his anti-Trinitarianism. While they may have had tulips in his home city of Geneva, Calvin spent more time on planting a strict Protestant faith than growing bulbs. Any guesses as to what these letters stand for? T – total depravity; you are born a sinner and always will be, no matter what you do; U – unconditional election – there is nothing you can do to bring about your own salvation, God and God alone will determine that; L – limited atonement – Jesus did not die for everybody, but only for the elect or the saved; I – irresistibility of grace – if God wants you, you cannot say no; P – perseverance of the saints – once a saint always a saint. You might think, why bother? This is about as far from Unitarianism as one can get. There is nothing you can do. It is literally “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” And yet, Unitarianism developed almost entirely in response to these points. For good or ill, Calvin is our theological parent.
You will note that it is the five points of Calvinism, and so it is no surprise that one of the most widespread Unitarian statements of belief from the 19th century also had five points. Today’s sermon is the second part of a series on James Freeman Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism, which was often carved onto plaques and emblazoned on the walls of Unitarian churches both in Britain and America well into the 20th century. As you may remember it was the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the Spiritual leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character, and the Progress of Mankind, Onward and Upward Forever. While not as dated for us as Calvin, even these aspects of our liberal faith seem bound to a particular time in history. While a loving parent was a staple of our faith in the nineteenth century, today many of our members eschew the idea of God entirely, or if they believe in a divine spirit, it does not connote some daddy in the sky. The brotherhood of man calls for an understanding of a common humanity, but perhaps it was naïve to think of human nature as innately good, as this goodness was laid bare in the assorted genocides and holocaust of the 20th century. The leadership of Jesus acknowledges our Christian roots, and while we still follow Jesus as a great leader, other spiritual avatars such as Buddha and Mohammed often join him. In my last sermon we looked at progress, put in the context of a liberal view of eschatology, or teaching about the end things. While we no longer believe that science and knowledge will always make things better, we still offer hope, especially if we live now with great respect for earth and its resources. And finally, we come to today’s topic, Salvation by Character.
It seems to me that “Salvation by Character” offers a two-part conundrum – salvation and character. Who among us wants or needs to use the word or believe in salvation? As my wife says, “Saved from what? I just don’t get it.” When Christians refer to being saved, I do understand it better than Andrea, because she was brought up UU, and I was raised a fundamentalist Christian. In the shadow of Calvin, I learned I was sinful, needed Jesus to save me from my sins, and that embracing him would lead to everlasting life. Signed, sealed and ultimately delivered to heaven’s gate. And so for many of us, there is an inherent sense of being flawed, and in need of a transforming love to keep us from falling into the fiery pit of hell. This debate over needing to be saved from damnation was a hot topic about a year ago when Pastor Rob Bell from an evangelical church in Michigan that draws 7,000 people on a Sunday, asked the question, what if hell doesn’t exist? His book became a best seller, and he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. An evangelical, but non-dogmatic church, the congregation there put on an art exhibit about the search for peace. It included an entry that had a quotation by Gandhi appended to it. A visitor had stuck a note on Gandhi’s words. “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell remembered thinking, “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? The standard view of salvation is that you must believe in Jesus as savior for the eternal reward. Thus Gandhi as a Hindu, or most of us would not qualify. While many of Bell’s evangelical colleagues were busy assigning Bell himself to hell, because he had fallen into a form of liberalism that failed to judge non believers, Bell adopted what amounts to a form of our historical Universalism which is that Jesus’ love makes it so everybody can have a place in heaven.
In the end Bell said he was only raising this possibility, and it is a case where we must live with the mystery of who is ultimately saved. For most of us this question of salvation is not very relevant. When we hear stories of Mormons baptizing dead Jews so that they can access heaven, we become a little uncomfortable on several levels. But two of Bell’s own concerns might help us think about salvation in a new way. Bell’s theology begins with the story of his own father, who was eight years old when his father died. All his evangelical relatives told him his father was in a better place in heaven, and so he was not suppose to cry, but instead be happy. This story struck a chord deep within Rob Bell, knowing that his father had never been allowed to express his feelings, or his sadness for what he had lost. In his life, people were going to come before any dogmatic truths. The other concern has to do with the location of heaven and hell. It may have been a little easier to condemn a Hindu when he/she lived in far away India, but today it is just as likely that a Hindu is your college roommate, or on the other end of that customer service line. So, too with heaven’s location. Even the evangelicals often think of heaven as a transformed planet earth, and if it is our eternal home, then we better take better care of it. Bell was saying you have got to create the life of heaven now.
This might point us in the direction of an idea of salvation that seems relevant to us. A domestic idea of heaven was created in the 19th century, when one novelist wrote that an eternity of contemplating God sounded awfully unfulfilling when it was really the young dead brother who was killed in the war that she wanted to see. We want to picture ourselves with loved ones. This is obviously still popular fare with best sellers as seen with the book about the five people you meet in heaven. One problem is that if you are washed clean and perfected of all your faults, you will be a pretty boring person. And as UU minister Kate Braestrup points out, “If I’m perfect, and perfectly happy, I won’t be me.” So why would I want to be saved? And would my loved ones even know me? Mark Twain clearly understood this when he reminded us where the most interesting time would be. “Heaven for the climate, but hell for the company.” So what we want for salvation might be related to expressing our feelings for our loved ones, our sadness and our loss. And it might also might mean that we want all our friends and loved ones, whether they are Mormons, Jews, Hindus, or even Unitarians, that is all believers, to not be condemned because we know they are all children of earth deserving of love.
Historically, both Unitarians and Universalists wanted to embrace an idea of salvation where people could feel loved. The historical distinction between the two was once humorously defined as, Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God, and Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people. In both cases there was an under girding theology that said people are worthy, and therefore, can work out their own salvation, or that God loves all because all are deserving of love. And so salvation should be defined in those terms. While the Calvinist said there are no conditions that can bring about salvation, the Unitarian said, you have the ability to achieve it by your works. While the Calvinist said you are depraved, and there is nothing you can do about it, the Universalist said, you don’t have to do anything because you are already loved. While not seeing the need to be saved from sin, we might think of other things we can be saved from – enduring heartache, indifference or ignorance. What keeps each of us from feeling truly alive? What drags us down, and how can that be transformed into energy for happy and healthy living?
Rob Bell’s family story reminds us that salvation begins when we experience some healing from that which is broken. For his father perhaps it would have been merely the opportunity to express his sorrow at the loss he felt, or perhaps it would be someone giving us the reassurance that we are worthy and capable, or perhaps salvation comes when we find a purpose in life. One of my favorite children’s stories is called The Man Who Had no Dream. It is the tale of a truly depressed and aimless individual who has no purpose in life whatsoever. Then an injured bird lands on his windowsill. He nurses it back to life, and then creates a park for the birds to come and enjoy themselves. He finds purpose in caring for another living thing, and purpose in a project that will improve his community. He is saved. We all know stories in our own lives, and in the lives of loved ones, who are saved from a broken relationship, an addiction, or even a religion that teaches not love, but blind acceptance of a dogma. Saving may mean saving us from ourselves – from spending, or desiring, or rescuing, and making another live up to their own responsibilities. Saving may mean our own mortification at how some person or institution is treating others or the planet, and we decide to act to do something to save others from a life of misery and pain.
We may think of Charles Dickens who remembered that childhood pain of a father who went to debtor’s prison, and so he wrote to expose evil persons and industries that were exploiting children and others with cruel labor practices that trapped people in poverty and despair. The mean hearted Ebenezer Scrooge could be saved from his greed and misery by truly seeing the past, the present, and what would befall him and others in the future. Saving is healing the broken, preserving the good, and improving the quality of life. His saving experience results in better pay and working conditions for Bob Crachit, and help for the disabled Tiny Tim. We can be saved when we change the quality of our lives or the life of others. You can be a minister and have a parishioner say to you, as one said to me, this church saved me – it affirmed me, gave me a place to be, cared for me, and said here you are loved. Perhaps salvation is what we are all about after all.
The use of the term character in conjunction with salvation has always made sense for religious liberals. Who is a person with character? We might think of an individual who is not concerned with whether he/she is saved or not, but whether he/she is living with integrity. This describes the journey of Theron Ware in the novel of his path to damnation. Ware is a naïve young man who is saved by Jesus in the traditional way, but lives with a completely unexamined faith. What constitutes intellectual integrity, the novel asks in the encounter with Darwinism and women’s rights, great issues of the late nineteenth century? Ware is overwhelmed with both ideas and people. In the speech he hears when he first arrives at the church, the trustee says, “We ain’t gone traipsing after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the discipline and the ways of our fathers in Israel. No new fangled notions can go down here. Your wife’d better taken them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday.” This is a world built on suspicion of all who think differently, and one that is grounded in paranoia. When they shame him and his wife, we see there is no character here other than self-preservation and going along as you have before, such as when they tell Theron there will be no book learnin’ or dictionary words from the pulpit.. Theron sees he has lived a lie, and lays the basis for building character by realizing that he needs saving from this life that is now in shambles once he begins to question it.
If Theron Ware helps us see that integrity in living is the building block of character. Rather than an unexamined faith, we must constantly be examining faith. I am currently reading a book about Joseph Priestley, Best know as the discover of oxygen, Priestley was also a Unitarian minister and political radical, as well as being a scientist. When his friend Theophilus Lindsey opened a Unitarian church in London, when Unitarianism was still illegal in England, he was sharply criticized. Priestley defended the action with the same principle he used with respect to scientific investigation. “Expose as many ideas as possible to as many minds as possible, and the system will ultimately gravitate toward truth and consensus.” With freedom of thinking and acting – a truth will prevail. Priestley believed the growth of knowledge would stop all error and prejudice in both religion and science. This was courageous in his day, but even more so, when he linked it to political change. When he said the English hierarchy must be examined, too, the politicians had reason to tremble. To link science and faith and politics probably seems like a joke to us today.
I would posit that a person of character first needs wisdom. We liberals have long said that our salvation must come by education. The more we examine and know and explore the more we will understand about our world, and be able to care for it, and use its resources wisely. But wisdom is more than rational knowledge of our planet; it is wisdom to understand both our limits as a people, and our limits as individuals. We think of a person of character as a nice person, perhaps, decent and good. But it is not a moralistic person who decries others who slip or make mistakes, as we all do. A person of character has lived through and understands pain and loss. Gentleness is better than violence, and forgiveness beats revenge. So wisdom is smarts to strive to learn as much as we can, but wisdom is also using that integrity to not judge too harshly those who falter.. We have to be honest with ourselves with what we can do and when, and moreover when to stop, and learn from others. So character is wisdom – knowledge of the world, understanding of who we are, and finally a sense of where deeper meaning lies. It comes around full circle to that integrity that Theron Ware understood in the loss of his faith. It is living not by things or the appearance of things, but by the meaning of things. How do we build heaven on earth, or create a sense of heaven? It is how we live in the world. I sometimes define UUism as “deeds not creeds,” that is a faith grounded in love and compassion rather than the pursuit of dogmatic truth. Last week someone said to me, “Coming here reminds me to be a better person” That’s all salvation by character is. Simple. We make a choice to build our character by being better people trying to make a better life for all. It seems to me that if our faith were shared more broadly, it might just be a salvation path for the world.
Closing Words – from Dawna Markova
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live, so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom
goes on as fruit.