Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

A Practice of Atonement — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on October 23rd, 2011

I remember a particular conversation with one of my military chaplain colleagues, while I was at the U.S. Army Chaplain School in Ft. Jackson, South Carolina in 2007.  I’ve thought for awhile that all Unitarian Universalist ministers should have an experience while in seminary similar to my experience of becoming a U.S. Army Chaplain.

In my class at “Chaplain Basic Training” there were 2 Unitarian Universalists, 12 Catholic Priests, 3 Jewish Rabbis, 1 Imam, 1Buddhist Priest, 4 Mormons, about 20 mainline or liberal Christians, and about 140 Conservative and Evangelical Christians… all of us clergy or seminary students in process of becoming Military Chaplains.

For three months, we spent every day together, attending each other’s worship services, reading each other’s papers, and taking classes together.  Often, between classes, we spoke with one another about our faith traditions.

I wish each and every Unitarian Universalist Minister had the kind of opportunity that I had, to spend three months explaining and sometimes even defending Unitarian Universalism.  One of the ways to really learn your faith tradition… to see if you really do hold to the tenets of that faith, is to be required to explain it daily, to be in dialogue and sometimes defense about your faith tradition.

So, each day, for three months, I would have 5 or 6 conversations where I was called to explain Unitarian Universalism.  Sometimes these conversations were with people who were genuinely curious about our liberal faith tradition, but not usually.

Usually, the conversation was with someone who either felt threatened by the values and beliefs I expressed as a Unitarian Universalist, or who was using the old Evangelical tactic I learned as a child of listening to what someone else believed only enough to find a wedge that could be used to convert them to your brand of faith.

I learned to cherish all of these conversations, no matter the motivation of the person who was asking me about Unitarian Universalism, because each conversation challenged me to go deeper in my own understanding of our liberal faith.  It showed me places where my understanding of who we are was weak… where I had unexamined assumptions, and where my own doubts and discomforts with our liberal faith tradition rested.

In short, daily attempts at conversion by my Evangelical colleagues made me a better Unitarian Universalist!

The most common question I had about Unitarian Universalism from these military chaplain colleagues was a question about atonement…

Atonement is one of those big words that carries many different meanings for many Unitarian Universalists.  It is one of those words that for many of us who come to Unitarian Universalism from other religious traditions, can carry some very negative connotations.  It can carry meanings of punishment, including both spiritual and physical pain for many.  For many different religious traditions, one or another form of atonement for wrongs or sins is a primary part living that religious faith.

Atonement has the secular meaning of making amends… of righting a wrong that you have done to another person.  In many religions, atonement has meant to make amends to God, to seek God’s forgiveness for being less than perfect as a human being.  In some religions, such as Judaism, atonement incorporates both of these together, with the requirement that you first must make amends with people that you have wronged before seeking such forgiveness from God.

Many of my chaplain colleagues saw in the idea that we Unitarian Universalists are already saved an excuse to never have to atone for things we have done wrong.  It was difficult for them to grasp that anyone would choose to be moral, ethical, or just without the threat that some people would be saved and some people would be dammed.  If, as classical Universalism says and as Rev. Jan preached last week, we are all “good enough” just as we are… that our imperfections as human beings do not make us less valuable, less loved, of less worth than others… why we would ever ask forgiveness for anything?

When I stated that in my experience Unitarian Universalism required of me a higher level of atonement than I had ever experienced as a Southern Baptist… well, they would look at me somewhat cross-eyed.

It is a bit counter intuitive, right? That Unitarian Universalism could ask of us a deeper level of making amends not just with each other, but with that which each of us holds sacred.

That in knowing that we are good enough, that a God of Love would accept us as we are, we are given both the freedom and the responsibility of a kind of atonement that is not just about making amends, of setting things right… but of transforming ourselves and the world.

In the late 1700’s, there was a young man who discovered such a faith, a faith in the idea that all of us were already saved that transformed his own life.  This young man was so transformed by this radical, saving idea that he became a Universalist minister himself, and dedicated his life to telling others that, no matter who they were or what they had done, they were loved by God, and no one was dammed to hell.  His name was Hosea Ballou, and he became the most famous Universalist preacher and theologian of his day.

With his own journey from a conservative Christian faith into the blessing and challenge of a belief in Universal Salvation, it is no wonder that Hosea Ballou is something of a theological hero of mine…

Among the many essays and sermons about this faith of “All Souls” that he wrote is one essay that was especially transformative for me.  He called it the “Treatsie on Atonement”, written in 1805.  Through an emphasis on using reason to look at Christian Scriptures, Ballou uses the essay to make the argument that God, being infinite, would not be offended by the fact that humans are finite creatures.  Ballou argues that an infinite God that encompasses all things would include human imperfection as a part of God.  Therefore, the mistakes that we humans make, the times where we fail to live up to our best ideals, the places where we are less than perfect… even these are part of an Infinite understanding of God… so how could God be offended at something that is a part of God, and therefore divine?

What was transformative for me, in my journey into Unitarian Universalist faith was the next part of Ballou’s argument…  Hosea Ballou believed that Atonement, or seeking to make personal and spiritual amends for times we humans have been less than our best selves, he believed that such atonement was of the utmost importance, but for us… not for God.

Ballou believed that in order to be spiritually healthy as human beings, we needed to be able to atone for things we had done wrong… to name those places where we had been less than we could or should be to ourselves, to others… to make amends where we can, and most importantly, to learn and grow from our growing edges.

Ballou argued that without a practice of atonement in our lives, we do not grow as human beings.

I think back to something my mother used to say to me all the time when I was a child.  She would tell me “Do not say you are sorry until you are sorry!”  I, of course, had learned as a child that what was expected of me when I did something wrong was to say I was sorry.  One of the first times I heard this particular phrase from my mother was when, while playing a game of “Barber Shop” with my sister I cut her hair here, here, and here… all with the real pair of scissors from the kitchen.  My mother came in and saw my little sister’s beautiful, long brown hair all over the living room, and me with a very large, mischievous grin on my face.

When she asked “What in the world did you do that for?” I responded with a loud “I’m Sorry!”, still with that big, mischievous grin on my face…  Kind of like this one I’ve got right now… I’ve still not completed all of my spiritual work around atoning for cutting off my sister’s hair… and my sister lets me know almost every time I see her that I’m still not completely forgiven in her book yet, either…

Don’t say you’re sorry until you are sorry, my mother said… and she’s right.  The spiritual practice of atonement that Hosea Ballou called us Unitarian Universalists toward is the spiritual practice of doing the hard, deep work of understanding why we sometimes fail to live up to the values we set for ourselves.  The spiritual practice of atonement is remaining committed for our whole lives to the work of seeing ourselves in the light of our mistakes and imperfections, and learning from those mistakes so that we can become better, more whole and healed human beings.

Universal Salvation… the idea that we are all saved, that we all have inherent worth and dignity, and that the interdependent divine that is the universe accepts us just as we are… this is not an excuse not to do this spiritual work, but rather it is a gift that allows us to delve into the practice of atonement knowing that we are already accepted.  That we are loved, no matter our faults.  Without this understanding of our Inherent Worth and Dignity, I do not know whether any of us would ever have the courage to face all the ways in which we are less than we might hope to be.

Let me tell you a story about the seminary I attended in Chicago, the Meadville Lombard Theological School.  It is a Unitarian Universalist Seminary that was first in Meadville Pennsylvania, and moved to Chicago in the early 1900’s.  A few years ago, it became clear to both the students and the faculty at the school that, despite our best ideals and intentions, some of the basic assumptions upon which our school was based lacked awareness of and sensitivity to many of our students who were people of color.



From the school’s main gathering hall filled with portraits of dead white men, to some historical trends in the curriculum, to the paternalistic way that the school had treated many students of color, this institution that set as its ideal as one of racial equality and justice had a systemic trend of not living up to that ideal. It was enough of an issue that many seminarians of color had left the school over the years, and some had left Unitarian Universalism completely because of these patterns of institutional racism.

It would have been easy to condemn the school, to say that “Meadville is a racist institution” and been done with it, and indeed many people outside of Meadville did do this.  Yet, the school as a whole, with many students and faculty, began the work of understanding our history, of exploring the ways in which our school had reacted to and treated people of color.  We looked at why most of the student body and faculty were Caucasian, while most of the staff of the school were people of color.

We had some hard and difficult conversations, and through those conversations learned not only about our school, but about each other and ourselves.  We took down the pictures of “dead white men” from the common room of the school, and instead made the space open to traveling art exhibits, with a preference for art that challenged the ways we think about equality and race.  The school sought out some of those former students of color, and listened to the hard truths they had to share about their experiences at Meadville.   And, through all of this and more, the school began the transformation from patterns and systems of oppression to being more in tune with our values and ideals as Unitarian Universalists.

We were able to do this work, and the school continues to do this work, because of the radical gift and simple beauty of the idea of Universal Salvation.  The school was able to do the work necessary to be transformed because we knew that both we as individuals and the institution as a whole had inherent worth and dignity.  We were able to avoid the spiritually debilitating nature of shame and move into the work of becoming more than we were before, because we knew we were “saved”… we knew we were loved… we knew we had value…

I believe that a spiritual practice of atonement, that exploring all of the ways and all of the whys we human beings often fail to live up to our ideals, and being transformed by that exploration requires knowing that you are already saved.  It requires knowing that, no matter our failings, no matter our faults, we are loved, we are precious, and we have inherent worth.  Without the assurance of our value as human beings, it is too easy to become trapped in patterns of shame and guilt that prevent us from growing and transforming as human beings… patterns of shame and guilt that keep us locked into the same behaviors, because we do not realize we have the capacity to change.

With the gift of Universal Salvation, with the gift of our own Inherent Worth and Dignity comes the requirement and responsibility to do our work… to practice atonement of the spirit… to name where we have been less than our best selves, where we have failed to live up to our ideals, and to seek to learn about ourselves and others through that exploration.

And I have something I wish to atone for this morning.  This past week I have been in prayer, in meditation, and in thought around some concerns that were raised about the Story for the Child in all of us that I told last week.  Though it was not my intent, and though it is far from my personal belief, the story was heard by some among us as implying that Muslims were good, and Jews were bad.

I have sought this week to listen to those who raised the concern, some of whom had deep emotional reactions to the story.  One person shared with me the pain of their family history, having lived their whole lives with negative prejudices about Jewish people.  I have explored, and continue to explore why I chose that story, and how the story was heard by people who were present, particularly those among us of Jewish heritage.

While I still believe that the story of Mohammed forgiving someone who was an enemy rather than seeking to take vengeance is one of the most important stories we can tell from Islamic scripture, I realized in my doing my work around atonement this week that I, in the haste of a long service, had not told the story well.  I realized that I could have, and should have told the story in a better way, one that was sensitive to the way that many people of Jewish heritage might hear the story.  I had several conversations with a Jewish Rabbi friend, and fellow Military Chaplain this week, around how to tell such a difficult story with sensitivity.  I have apologized for telling the story badly to those who came to me, as I am apologizing to the congregation as a whole now… and I have committed to being more aware of how such stories from sacred scriptures might be heard, in light of the centuries long tensions between many of our world’s religions.

And while I continue to do my own spiritual practice of atonement around this issue, I have already felt some transformation and growth from it.  The ability to do this work, the requirement that we as Unitarian Universalists neither seek nor accept an easy forgiveness when we have failed to live up to the ideals we set for ourselves, this is the responsibility that comes with Universal Salvation… and knowing we are saved, knowing we are of inherent worth and dignity… this is the gift that allows us to do such transformative work.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.


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