Without Being Left Behind
by Derek Lee Parker
Readings: From Esther 4:13-14
At the Universalist Church of Eldorado, Ohio, where I served for three years as their pastor, there is a seldom noticed stained glass window behind the choir seats. If you’ve ever visited our church in Eldorado (and many of you were there for last year’s Convocation), you probably paid attention to other windows in the church. Perhaps the window depicting the all seeing eye of God? Or maybe the Parable of the Sower window? The choir window had no spectacular pictures. It only has names written on a pane of green grass. Our choir director proudly pointed them out to me. She said, “You need to notice these. They are our ancestors. They sacrificed to found this church back in 1849. You need to know where we’ve come from.”
It is good to know where we’ve come from. Much of the Unitarian Universalist Association has forgotten where we’ve come. They think we are a brand new religion, perhaps invented in Berkeley, California, in 1969. At Eldorado many of our younger visitors from other UU churches thought we had bought our chapel from the Methodists, perhaps in the 1970s. Little do many of our newcomers know, but we are heirs to a time-tested, centuries olf heritage of open-minded and inclusive spirituality. So it is good to know where we Universalists have come from, we are not a mere invention of the 60s but a living stream of spirit. But knowing the past is not enough if we are to be a living church.
All too often our Universalist faith is treated by both others and ourselves as an artifact of the past. Our faith becomes a quaint elderly aunt whom we love, but who lives in the shadow of her eloquent and lordly husband – perhaps some have called Universalism by the name Mrs. Unitarian. In other words, ignoring her name and treating her as a mere extension of her partner.
It isn’t hard to understand why our faith is treated like a religious artifact. I can drive across Indiana and Ohio and see the artifacts of Universalism scattered far and wide. There are two lovely churches in Champaigne County, Ohio. One in New Westerville is now an art studio. The other in Woodstock is now used by an odd congregation called the Church of the Oversoul, which I hear is a strange fusion of Christian fundamentalism and new age religion. There is also a lovely plaque on Rural Route 2, outside of Aurora, Indiana; at the site of the Universalist meeting-house, where the frontier preacher Prudence LeClerk spoke to crowds at a time when women preachers were often rejected by the masses. There are Universalist cemeteries in places like Versailles, Indiana, and Twin Forks, West Virginia (just downstream on the Ohio from Steubenville, Ohio). And shopping across the Mid-West, I’ve acquired gobs of antique books by Universalist visionaries and theologians. I have a rare 1866 edition of the Gloria Patri Prayerbook, a collection of essays by Clarence Russell Skinner, and a copy of The Life of Edwin Chappin. And if you are curious, I am still seeking a copy of Clinton Lee Scott’s Religion Can Make Sense. And as books go, these are all good for doing theology, philosophy, and church history.
But is historical scholarship, antique collecting, and nostalgia enough for our faith? It is good to know where we’ve come from, but I don’t this will be enough.
Now in the story of Esther, a great heroine of Jewish folklore, we have the tale of Jewish faith in Persia on the verge of becoming a thing of the past. Esther is the bride of the Persian kink, but her people are in danger of genocide at the hands of an evil politician named Haman. At a key point in the plot, Esther’s Uncle Mordecai comes to her and warns her that life in the palace will not be enough to save her from the coming anti-Jewish massacres. He urges her to speak up, and speak out, because perhaps she is in the palace for such a time as this.
Now we do not face persecution on the scale experienced by Jews in ancient Persia – even if some of our neighbors disdain the liberal generosity of our faith. But we do face possible extinction. Our numbers as avowed Universalists have grown fewer and fewer almost every decade since 1930. A colleague of mine estimates that there are a mere 25,000 of us left in the churches rooted in the old Universalist Church of America. And so we sit in our ivory towers of books, and historic buildings, and stained glass, and hope we will be spared from the final wave of extinction. But perhaps we are a Universalist remnant, in this time of growing global fundamentalism, for the purpose of being prophets in such a time as this?
My brothers and sisters, we are people who are rooted deep in the unbroken line that extends back in time to Judith Sargent Murray, and her conviction that universal salvation is both true and must be proclaimed. She knew that God loved both men and women, and so she became the Grand-mother of feminist Biblical scholarship. She knew that God was present with people of all races, and so she advocated for the abolition of slavery. And it wasn’t antique collecting that made her ministry possible. Nor was it a love for historic architecture. Her power grew from her faith in the ability of God’s Spirit to reconcile all the people of the world, despite our human idolatries about gender and race.
We have the advantage of knowing the history. We have the roots. But are we more than just a spiritual tree stump? Do we have the branches? Have we opened ourselves to the mystical experience of tasting universal salvation – that Divine reality of universal peace which is being slowly built even as we speak? And are we willing to go into the highways and byways to open the eyes of a humanity blinded with theological despair? By sharing the experience of universal salvation we can give hope to those who live in fear of hellfire! By sharing the experience of universal salvation, we can expose the illusions of fundamentalism and religious violence! By sharing the experience of universal salvation, we can proclaim the integrity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, who many bigots in the world would prefer to live lives where they lie about who they were born to be.
History is not enough for a living faith. It never was enough for a living faith. In rooting ourselves in the historical tradition of Universalism, we must also have a present day of mystical experience and spirituality. This is what will move us forward, so that we are not left behind among the religious artifacts. And so I conclude my spoken ministry to you, with words of prayer, that are akin to Judith’s prayer written in that letter to her parents.
Gracious Spirit of Divine Love,
I give thanks for the faith given to me by my elder brothers and sisters of the Church Universal,
They express to me the coming transformation of humanity... the universal salvation of all people, from all religions, and all times.
And I do trust that such a Peaceable Kingdom will come to pass.
And if spiritual weather should continue to bear fine –
I suppose that we shall soon find ourselves on that Promised Day.
God who is both Mother Spirit and Father Spiritis on the wing.
May the Spirit forever bless us, with the knowledge and wisdom that
Nobody is left behind. Amen.
Reverend Derek Lee Parker is currently serving as Education Minister at the Irving Friends Meeting and as Administrator of Programs for the National Episcopal Health Ministries.