APRIL 5, 1998


A Congregationalist, a Christian Scientist and a Unitarian Universalist found themselves together in hell. The Congregationalist was asked, "What are you doing here in hell?" He replied, "I guess old John Calvin was right. I was predestined to hell for the glory of God even though I led an exemplary life." The Christian Scientist was asked, "What are you here in hell for?", and he replied, "I'm not here." Finally, the Unitarian Universalist was asked, "And what are you doing here in hell?" And he said, "I'm here, but this is not hell because there is no hell. This is heaven."

As many of you know, in the course of my religious development I have been a Congregationalist, a Christian Scientist, and finally a Unitarian Universalist. I went to a Congregational Sunday School until the third grade. Then I went to a Christian Science Sunday School with my father. In high school I went to the Christian Science church in the morning and a Congregational youth group meeting in the evening. In a college history course I learned all about John Calvin's doctrine of double predestination to heaven or hell before you were born and didn't like what I heard. I went to theological school preparing for the Congregational ministry. After much soul searching about my own state of sin and salvation I came out a Unitarian Universalist. It was then that I learned about John Murray and the Universalists and the belief in universal salvation. I liked what I heard, but at the time I wasn't sure there would be anything left of me after death to go to heaven if there was a heaven.

To coin a phrase, the question of salvation was a burning issue in the historical origins of the Unitarian Universalist movement. The Universalists sent missionaries and evangelists up and down the countryside preaching the gospel of universal salvation, declaring that God's essential nature was love and that no human being would be utterly cut off from that love forever. They cited Scripture and verse and won many adherents to their vision, over 800,000 by the middle of the 19th century. The Unitarians were less zealous in their cause. They preached the love of God like the Universalists; but put more emphasis on the dignity of human nature and the use of reason in religion. It was these distinctive emphases that led Thomas Starr King to say that Universalists believed that "God" was too good to damn anyone forever while the Unitarians believed "they" were too good to be damned.

Salvation is not the burning issue it once was, at least not for Unitarian Universalists. Some years ago Robert Miller did a values survey of Unitarian Universalists. He asked a representative sample of UUs to rank order a dozen or so value words such as Truth, Beauty, Love, Creativity, Self-Worth and Salvation. Salvation was ranked the lowest of all the values and some even wrote it in the margins at the bottom of the page upside down and said it was a negative value or they could care less about it.

How do you know when you're saved? This was a question that pre-occupied our historical ancestors. The Calvinists in those days had an answer. You knew you were saved if you had a born-again conversion experience that gave to you the inner assurance that you were among the elect chosen and predestined by God for salvation. If you did not have the experience you could not be sure. You were probably predestined for hell and there was nothing you could do about it since salvation by works (i.e., by doing good deeds and living a moral life) was not enough to get you into heaven. Salvation could only be known through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour confirmed inwardly by the Holy Spirit. Salvation by faith in God's grace, the one and only way to heaven.

You have to understand that this salvation business was serious business in those days. Unitarians and Universalists were heretics to be avoided (still are in many circles) and orthodox clergy would not exchange pulpits with them. I offer you the following quatrains from an anonymous author that contrast the two groups:

God bless me and my wife,
My son John and his wife.
Us four;
No more.

We are the sweet selected few,
Let all the rest be damned.
There is room enough in hell for you.
We can't have heaven crammed.

Well, the Calvinists sure in hell did not want Unitarians and Universalists crowding heaven. They were quite sure there was only room for144,000 souls in heaven (according to the Book of Revelation) and they did not want to be faced with a housing shortage because of too many UUs taking up valued space. The Unitarians and Universalists thought heaven was big enough to accommodate the whole human race including the hell fire and brimstone Calvinists.

They drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took them in.

So, when the Universalists preached universal salvation and the Unitarians talked about Salvation by Character they were setting themselves in opposition to the prevailing creed of the times. They believed they had something better to offer people than the fear and gloom of the conservative orthodox gospel. That gospel was to them not good news but bad news. They wanted to offer something better. John Murray's charge to the people gathered in the chapel at Good Luck, Barnegat Bay, New Jersey in 1770 meant something then, and I would say, means something now. It was a charge to spread the Gospel of Universal Salvation throughout the land:

Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to human hearts and minds. Give them not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

With the rise and resurgence of conservative born again Christianity in our land we need to recapture John Murray's vision of hope and courage, light and understanding, and make it our own. And we need to make salvation an important value again for ourselves and for others. We need to make it important because it is important, but we need to see it and understand it in a new light.

If our historical ancestors saw salvation as primarily an other-worldly after-death state of being known only through faith, we need to see it as a this-worldly state of being and becoming. Salvation is as much a direction of growth as a state of being. If the question, "Is there life after death?" is important (and I believe it is), more important for us living in this critical age of global conflagration or ecological disaster, is the question, "Is there life after birth?", and "Will there be life on planet earth for succeeding generations?" These are salvation questions that have immediate and long-term consequences for each individual person and for the human race as a whole.

If there is life after death, and I happen to be one of those who believe it to be so, it will be there for all of us or not at all, and nothing we think or do or say can change its essential reality or unreality. It is, or it is not. But whether it is or not the most important task before us is to make the best of the one life we have while we have it and rest confidently in the faith that the best will follow what e'r betide. Robert Weston put it this way: "For this I feel, the spirit never does betray the one who trusts it. Physical life may be defeated but life goes on; material goals may fail of achievement and in this very defeat the spirit find a transcendent victory--confident that whatever good lies beyond will come to us as surely and as inevitably as ocean tides come to the remotest shore."

How do you know when you're saved? To ask that question in the context of today's world is to ask, saved "from" what and "for" what? If heaven and hell are states of being in a life after death they are surely states of being in this life before death. Human beings help to create their own heaven and hell on earth. We want to be saved and to save others from hell on earth and be vouchsafed a taste of heaven and the good life on earth for ourselves and our children and our children's children.

But what does it mean to be saved? It obviously means many things to many people. It would help, however, to note the derivation of the term. The word "salvation" is derived from the Latin word "salvus", which means to heal and be whole. To be saved is to be restored to a state of health, wholeness and well-being in body, mind and spirit. This can apply to the body politic and to the structure and relations in society as well as to the individual in his or her being and relationships. The late Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, notes that to be saved means also to be liberated and set free from bondage. To be saved is to be healed and/or to be delivered from servitude, and the two, he says, are the same.

Salvation happens, therefore, whenever an enslaving power is conquered or overcome, whenever a wall of estrangement or alienation is broken through, whenever a sickness or condition of brokenness is healed and made whole. We can all think of instances large or small, in our own lives or in the lives of those around us, when the power of salvation has been made manifest. It happens every time the body heals itself and we feel the resurgence of life and strength once more. We are given new chances to make life whole and meaningful once again for ourselves and others. The healing of the body and the mind is a mystery we do not fully comprehend, but we participate in that mystery time and time again, and are the recipients of the grace of being not of our own making.

I can remember a time many years ago when I was enslaved by the nicotine habit of smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day. I tried and thought I could control the habit and limit myself to six a day. But my habit knew no limits. It controlled me, I could not control it. My unconscious mind warned me of the consequences to my health. I had dreams of black smoke pouring into my house and I saw myself fleeing the house and running up the street to the drug store. It was time to be liberated from this enslaving habit once and for all. So resolved, I kicked the habit and began feeling much better both physically and mentally. I judge no one who is still hooked on the weed because I've been there myself. I can only testify that I think you'll feel a lot better about yourself physically, mentally and spiritually if you join the unhooked generation. We'll now have an altar call and you can drop your cigarettes in the offering plate.

Tillich declares that all liberators and healers are sent by God; they liberate and heal through the eternal power of being given to them. Then he asks, "Who are the healers? Where are these saviours?" And then answers, "They are here; they are you. Each of you has liberating and healing power over someone to whom you are a priest. We all are called to be priests to each other, and if priests, also physicians. And if physicians, also counselors. And if counselors, also liberators. There are innumerable degrees and kinds of saving grace."

Whether you are aware of it or not you are and can be an agent of salvation for another and for the whole human society, yea, even the planet. Again, we can all think of people who have been supportive, helpful, encouraging, ennobling, enhancing, role models and pace setters for us at crucial times in our lives. I remember my 2nd and 3rd grade teacher at White Street School in Springfield, Miss Newton, who manifested such love and patience and discipline towards me when I had such a hard time adjusting to the demands of learning. She showed me that I could learn and study and do well if I applied myself, and that could get my name on the Dependable List with five stars after it, if I made the effort, and that when I failed I could try again and succeed. If I had had an insensitive teacher at that time in my life school might have been damnation for me forever after. But because of Miss Newton a ray of salvation broke into my life and sent me on my way with a renewed sense of self-esteem and confidence in my capacity to learn and to grow. You are and can be an agent of salvation for another.

So, how do you know when you're saved? My colleague Bruce Clary once put it this way in a ministerial news column, which makes a fitting conclusion to this sermon on salvation:

This summer I was interviewed for a television program on Unitarian Universalist beliefs. The interview was scheduled for 8 a.m., and I don't talk about anything at eight in the morning, much less about religion. So I was caught off guard when the host popped the question, "How do you know when a Unitarian Universalist is saved?" The question came out of the blue and was odd, and I was tempted to be flippant and to answer that I know a UU is saved when he or she has paid their pledge. But the question is an interesting one and deserving of some thought.
We know we are saved when we have shown we are worthy of being saved. We know we are saved when we keep ourselves awake by a infinite expectation of the dawn, when we are encouraged to elevate our lives by our own conscious endeavor, when we respond with sympathy and by action to the needs of others. We know we are saved when we can still weep over cruelty and cry against injustice, when we can make an otherwise drab life more beautiful, warm with joy. We know we are saved when we have learned to live simply, without the paraphernalia that hid the depth of life, and honestly, without blame and excuses. We know we are saved when we have offered our imperfect gifts generously to the improvement and perfection of all life, to all creatures and to the earth itself. We know we are saved when we can say, and really mean it, that we can leave this life better than we found it, and when one other can say of us that we have striven well and will be fondly remembered.
Salvation is not the achievement of a final state of being--bang, you're saved and that's that. Salvation is a process, the ongoing process of becoming. It's a lifetime work, never done. It's a striving. You can tell who the saved ones are. They are the ones who never stop working for the good, who always keep loving, who try always to give the best of themselves, and who most of all are never stingy with the gift of Life. Salvation is a dynamic process and it is the aim and business of our religion.

Amen! Salvation is indeed the aim and business of our religion!