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

Character and Grace

(Sermon given at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, Maryland, on March 19th, 2017)

As a minister serving a Unitarian Universalist congregation, you can’t just buy a car.

A few years ago, before moving to Delaware to become the District Executive of the Joseph Priestley District, and now a member of the Central East Regional Staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I was serving as a minister for a medium sized congregation on the coast of Southern California.  While I was serving there, the old mini-van I had been driving met its end, and I found myself needing to buy a car.  I had never bought a car while serving as a congregational minister, and I faced a dilemma that I had not expected.

Because as a minister serving a Unitarian Universalist congregation, you can’t just buy a car.  Why?  Because several hundred people were waiting to make value judgments about the character of their minister based on the choice that I would make about what car to buy.  My choice in vehicle would be seen as an expression of how much I was willing to live each person’s impression of what a Unitarian Universalist of Good Character should have.

Now, I’m not complaining about this.  Unitarian Universalist Minsters agree to live a public life when we accept Fellowship and Ordination into this ministry.  No, I bring it up because it was one of the clearest expressions of a tension that exists at the heart of our faith movement that I have experienced.

My choice of vehicle became a theological issue within the life of the congregation.  I was soon being heavily lobbied by the “Prius Faction” of the congregation, who felt that the only possible expression of character that a Unitarian Universalist could make would be that of a hybrid.  Others, told me that if I was to be “perfect” I should think about biking the 15 miles to and from the church each day.  Or perhaps investing the time in taking public transit.  And I should make a public commitment within the congregation that, at a minimum, I would foreswear all thoughts of SUV’s from even entering my mind.

A few came to me, mostly privately, to tell me that they would love me no matter what I decided.  That my choice of car would not affect their perception of me as their minister… unless I got a sports car, and then that might be a problem.

When the moment of truth came, and I pulled into the church parking lot one Sunday morning in my brand new Smart Car, the congregation was astonished.  My moral character as a Unitarian Universalist was affirmed, and I spent the next four Sunday Coffee Hours giving people “tours” of the inside of my Smart Car, they were short tours.  Everyone agreed that, except for biking to church or buying a Prius, it was the best decision I could make… and within a year there were four other Smart Cars in the church parking lot.  I had begun my own faction!  And, just to say, I love and still have the Smart Car, although my wife drives it most days.

I would like to talk this morning with you about the theological concept of salvation.  As a member of the staff of our Association of Congregations, I do not get to preach about theology all that often.  I’m usually visiting a congregation to speak about church theory or beloved community.  However, this morning, I wanted to engage with you about a theological tension that rests at the heart of our religious movement, and that, unacknowledged, can create hurt and harm in our own lives, in our religious communities, in our families, and in our culture.  We see this tension in families, in churches, and even in our politics, especially now.  I have seen this tension at play in our work for justice, and I have seen it at play in our society at large.  If we can acknowledge this tension, if we can see how it pulls us in two different directions, I think it is actually a healthy tension for us to have.  Unacknowledged and unseen, however, and I think it creates harm and hurt that is unhelpful.

I can best begin to name this tension by telling an old Universalist joke.  Like much of Unitarian Universalist theology, our sometimes discomfort with it has led to us trying to express our theology through humor.  The joke goes back to the late 1800’s, as far as I can tell, to the time when the Universalists and the Unitarians were two different religious traditions, even though some congregations had come together into community, such as this one had.  The joke goes like this:

Universalists believe that God is too Good to damn anyone to hell.  Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.

Theology works in our lives at a level deeper than belief.  In talking to you this morning about salvation, I am not speaking to you about the salvation of any souls for a promised afterlife.  Personally, I have no idea what happens to us after we die, except that whatever it is, I believe it will happen to us equally.  No, in speaking about salvation, I am speaking about how we know, internally, in our hearts and minds and bellies, that we are a good person.  How we judge whether someone else is a good person.

Because we, each of us, make this kind of assessment all the time.  It is one of the core aspects of being human, the desire to know that we are a good person, and that we are both loved and lovable, by the divine as well as by others.

So, in speaking about theology this morning, I’m not focusing on what anyone believes.  I’m focusing on what we feel.  And on how we know to feel that we are Good, that we can be loved, and that if there were to be a chance to be reconciled with the divine in this life or beyond, we are worthy of that reconciliation.  Such a human need for knowing you are good and worthy of love extends beyond any belief.

In assessing our own worthiness and that of others, we Unitarian Universalists have two theological frameworks that are in tension… that address this question of worthiness differently.  Rev. David and I read from two of our earliest theologians, one Unitarian and one Universalist, expressing two of the clearest exhortations on each of these theological frameworks.  They have come to be known to us by the names the “Doctrine of Salvation by Character” and the “Doctrine of Salvation by Universal Grace”.  Now, I know we Unitarian Universalists do not accept that we have any particular doctrines anymore, and no one is required to “believe” in any doctrine to be a Unitarian Universalist, but that does not mean that these patterns of thought, based around how we assess our own worthiness and that of others, do not still play out in our congregations and in our lives.

In some ways, if we still treated them as Doctrines, then we would acknowledge them more, and perhaps they would have a healthier effect upon us.

So, let me summarize these theological frameworks for a minute.  The Doctrine of Salvation by Character, which was expressed by Unitarian Minister William Ellery Channing in his sermon “Likeness to God”, expressed that it was in a person’s character that they were able to best express their worthiness in this life.  That a person’s ethics, morality, judgement, honesty, commitments to their values, and their lack of hypocrisy was not only the indicator of their worth, but was also the way to become closer to the divine themselves.  At one level, it has been expressed that the closer one could come to the ideal set by God through the example of Jesus of Nazareth, the closer we would be to God.  It expressed that living a Godly life meant being a good person of high moral standing and character.  That your actions matter, and that it is by living your values that you are judged worthy, before God and in the community of fellow human beings.

Now, we have expanded our understanding of this theological framework a bit since the time of Channing.  It expresses itself now mostly in that which calls Unitarian Universalists to live lives according to the values we express.  That it matters less what we may believe than it does the lives we live and how we act in the world.

Now, this gets a little more complicated, in that there is not one clear set of values for what living a good Unitarian Universalist life should mean, and each of us is drawn to different priorities amongst those values.  For some, this theology of salvation may be expressed through a commitment to the environment, like the members of the Prius Faction of my former congregation.  For others, it may be an expression of economic modesty, such as those who did not want their minister driving around town in an expensive Sports Car.  For myself, I know that part of the reason I bought a Smart Car was because I wanted to be seen as trend setting… I did not just want to follow the crowd.  I wanted to express my values in a new way that would be unique to me.

I’m sure you can think of all the other ways that the theological concept of expressing and affirming our own Goodness can play in our lives.  I’m not going to name them, for fear of sounding dismissive of someone’s expression of their values that I may not share.  I am going to name the challenge though in the expressions of this concept of Salvation in a congregation and religious movement that does not set one way, one set of principles, one category of valuation that defines what it means to be a good person.  We experience many people attempting to live their ideals in ways that define their worthiness, both internally and in community, in ways that often do not translate well to one another.

I am not a vegetarian or a vegan.  I’ve never even tried, and likely never would.  I have learned to cut down on the amount of animal protein I consume, but that is often more about cost than it is about an expression of my values of environmentalism and the ethical treatment of animals.  And so, for someone who holds those values higher than I, that I do not share their commitment can be viewed as a challenge both to my character and moral standing, as well as a dismissal of theirs.  That my commitments and expression of my ethical character is different than theirs can mean that we are in some ways, speaking different languages in our expression of character.  It takes intentional work to acknowledge how others are expressing their worthiness and goodness by character, especially when it is expressed in ways different than our own.

And this is where the second theological framework becomes important in our religious faith movement, and that is the Doctrine of Salvation by Universal Grace.

There are several different expressions of this theological framework, some of which go back to the earliest days of the Christian Church.  At their core, however, lies the understanding that God’s love was so great, that no being or soul would ever be forever separated from that love.  In some expressions of this framework all would be reconciled with God’s love eventually, and in others no one was ever separate from God’s love.

One expression of this entire school of Christian thought says that Jesus’ death on the cross was so great a sacrifice that it paid the debt for human sin for all time.  Another expression of this theological framework denies the existence of the concept of sin, and that there is nothing a human being could ever do that would separate them from divine love.  That we are loved merely by being, and that each of us always has inherent worth and dignity that cannot be taken away.

No matter the formulation of this theological framework, be it that of the early Christian Theologian Origen of Alexandria, or the expression by Universalist Minister Hosea Ballou in our second reading this morning, the important manifestation of this theological framework for us is that our worthiness, our value as human beings is assured no matter what our expression of our character might be at any given moment.  That even when we fail, even when we are less than we might have been, we are still loved, and still worthy of being loved.

That even if I had shown up to church that Sunday morning in the twenty-four foot flaming red pick-up truck with a gun rack in the back window that I once test drove to my wife’s horror, my worth as a human being would still be assured.  That I would still be worthy of love.

And that, perhaps, I might have a reason for that pick-up truck being an expression of my character, if I could be given the grace in which people might listen and learn what that truck might have meant to me.

You can see how these two theological frameworks, one that calls us to express our worthiness in this world through acts of character, and one that guarantees our worthiness through divine and universal love, might be seen as being in conflict.  And indeed, this tension, this perceived disconnect is often at the root of many of the congregational conflicts that I am asked to help congregational leaders and ministers to engage and mediate.  And yet, I have come to believe that the tension between these two theological frameworks of salvation and worth are together a vital part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

For it is only by beginning from a place of seeing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, of acknowledging the divine love and light that is at the heart of each and every one of us, that we can acknowledge such variation in our expression of our values through our character in ways that are healthy.  It is only through the assumption of Universal Love that the Prius people could accept that, even though my Smart Car was not a Hybrid, I was still had inherent worth and dignity.

For it is only from a place of Universal Love that we can see the Value of our Character.

So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.





One Thought on “Character and Grace

  1. This is excellent. I appreciate your naming the tension, and naming the benefit we could have from this tension if it is within our creative consciousness. I like to think that one descendant of salvation by character is the personal responsibility to work on our character, to continuously learn from our mistakes and try to grow in right relationship to other people/ the earth/ the Divine, onward and onward (and inward and outward) forever. Hope all is well with your Soul.

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