Pirates and Rabbi’s, Meg Barnhouse and Bob Marley, I love those combinations. It is funny how a mistake, like hearing a word wrong, can lead to an insight you might not have had otherwise. Sermons work like that sometimes. There is the one I write, the one I actually speak, and then there are all of the sermons that each of you hear, none of which are exactly the same. The saying goes that people hear what they want to hear, but I also think that just as often we hear exactly what we need to hear. We all need different things at different times. If the spirit is moving as it so often seems to be in this room on Sunday mornings, the possibility of that happening is increased. Open your ears, open your heart, and let the sun shine in.
Last week, I shared some insights that I gained from a class I took by the authors of “A House for Hope.” If you missed it you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
Last week we talked about Eschatology.
That sermon introduced the concept of radically realized eschatology is that heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and with respect. The kingdom of God is among us.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. Some of you remember that, right? If you don’t or weren’t here last Sunday, don’t worry.
Today, we are going to check out the roof of Parker’s theological house, see how the shingles are doing, and notice if there are any pirates about. What keeps us warm? What keeps us dry? What saves us? What can shelter us from life’s hurricanes? Are you ready for another new word? Soteriology is the theology about salvation. Another way to think about it is; “What delivers us from evil?”
Anne Lamott says there are only two really sincere prayers, which are: “Help me, help me, and thank you, thank you.”
Some folks may be uncomfortable with the term “salvation.” It might help to think of it as the answer to that “help me help me” plea that I believe most of us have felt at some of the hard times in our lives.
Just as there are a variety of eschatologies, there are different soteriologies, and the two are linked in interesting ways.
Some people see salvation as an individual way to escape the punishment of hell. Many conservative Christians believe that. Evil came into the world when the devil tempted Eve in the garden. We are all tainted by this original sin.
In various stories in the Bible, God punished people by floods and other disasters and then finally sent Jesus to die on the cross. If you believe in Him, you will be saved and will go to heaven after you die or after the world is destroyed in the final days.
The response to evil in this soteriology is to defend against it, to avoid evil doers, to try and convert them if possible, and to perhaps punish them in this life as God will in the next.
There is a lot of evil in this world view, everyone is a sinner and deserves punishment. Only by the grace of God can we find a salvation that we don’t really deserve.
I frankly find those ideas pretty creepy. Salvation is defined as being saved from God’s wrath.
God is not a loving force in that soteriology, but a being that punishes by sending earthquakes and hurricanes, and sending everyone to hell if they don’t believe just the right things. It also lets humans off the hook for dealing with the real evil that is in our world and damages life.
Luckily, there are other options.
This week, we are in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days where the faithful review their thoughts and actions and try to make amends for the harm they have done. It is about getting right with the world, with yourself, with God, and beginning the New Year with your soul refreshed and restored. That is a form of soteriology. There is also been the belief that what we need to be saved from is not the wrath of God, but the consequences of human sin and human evil, that salvation comes not from holding a specific belief, but from the powers of life, love and goodness that are all around us. In more liberal Christian theology, Jesus saves by the example of his life and work. His death was not a sacrifice demanded by God, but the result of the oppressive Roman Empire. His resurrection, which does not have to be taken literally, is evidence that the powers of life and love can counter and even, at times, defeat evil.
But what is evil? What is sin? Two more tricky concepts. Some define sin as a rebellion against God. The liberal theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, rejects that notion. He says when theologians speak of rebellion against God, it reminds him of despotic governments which treat every offense as treason.
“Our universe is not a monarchy with a despotic God above and humans down below, but a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.” For Rauschenbusch and others, sin is not the betrayal of God’s rules, but the betrayal of one another. Sin of that sort destroys life giving relationships of love and justice.
Rebecca Parker says that evil is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.
Evil is not just what individuals do, it hides in systems of oppression, in racism, in anti-Semitism, in sexism, in homophobia, and in economic systems that do not include any protection for those with less power and less money. Salvation is also not individual. We save ourselves when we work for a world of justice where everyone is saved. This fits in well with the social Gospel eschatology of building the Kingdom of heaven here on earth.
It also fits well with Universalist eschatology where we will all end up in heaven together – so it only makes sense to try and get along now.
I don’t think I have told you the story of the tourist who was taking a tour of heaven? No? Maybe some of you have heard it.
“An angel takes the tourist around, showing that everything is beautiful and varied. Some people are chanting in a park, some are sitting in silent meditation by a river, some are laughing and dancing on a hillside. The tourist then notices some walls that reach up to the sky. What is that? It is the section for those that wouldn’t be happy if they thought anyone else was here.”
Universalism – everyone gets to heaven, even those who want to be alone there.
So far we have covered three theologies of salvation. One says only some are saved. The criteria can vary depending on the particular group. Another says that salvation is collective not individual and that when we create a just world with a healthy and sustainable planet we will be saved. The third says that everyone is saved.
There is one other soteriology that I want to describe.
It, as far as I know, hasn’t been called radically realized soteriology, but I think it should be. In this one, the hope for salvation isn’t deferred to another life or tied to success in building a better world, but is realized in the here and now. Salvation can be defined as what we long for, what we need to feel like our life has meaning. What do you long for? What would be your salvation? What is the metaphorical roof over your life that keeps you from harm. For me, it is very simply being fully alive, engaged with each other and with the world, staying “woke,” if you will. It is trying to resist evil with patience and wisdom and it is also taking the time to celebrate all that is right with the world. It isn’t neat; it isn’t particularly easy, but for me it is what being alive is about. We don’t have to lose everything and we don’t have to be kidnapped by a pirate in order to appreciate what is most important. It isn’t money and it isn’t clothes, it isn’t a job or a house. You know that. It also isn’t a dream of an otherworldly paradise, particularly if your vision of such a paradise causes you to be less than kind to others who may not share your specific vision.
“Old pirates, yes, they rob I.” They rob you too. But we still sing songs of freedom, redemption songs. We sing them together. That can be our collective salvation. Blessed be.
We’ve got a feast for the spirit here, and a feast for the mind. Mango thoughts and jalapeno talk. There is nothing bland about the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, right? Oh, yeah.
But church should be more than interesting dishes on a potluck line. A church should be a sanctuary, a place for respite from a sometimes painful and frightening world, and a place to give us the energy to live our lives in ways that can make a meaningful difference in the world.
While I was in seminary at Starr King, I studied both preaching and theology with Rebecca Parker. Several years later, I took a class taught by both Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, a former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We discussed the instructors’ recent book: “A House for Hope, the promise of progressive religion for the twenty first century.” If you are interested in reading it, you can order it online from the UUA bookstore.
Their book contains some serious and meaty theology, and presents, I believe, some critical understandings of Unitarian Universalist theology, a theology that help us hold onto both hope and purpose in these challenging times. It is important enough and complex enough, that I am going to do a sermon series on it. For three weeks in a row, we are going to dive fairly deep into theology. I hope you are ready for the ride.
Parker and Buehrens use the metaphor of a house to explain the theological basis of progressive religion, including, but not limited to, Unitarian Universalism.
This metaphorical house has a foundation and is built in a particular place. It has walls and rooms, a roof and a doorway. All of these correspond to categories in systemic theology, which is simply an organized way to look at the different aspects of various religions.
Briefly, because this might give some of you a headache, the foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
We are going to start with the last one: Eschatology, our location and relationship to the earth, the end of the earth, the end of time.
But first, some context:
There is a lot to Unitarian Universalism. We have our seven principles and six sources. We read the principles earlier, and both the principles and our sources are in the front of the grey hymnal.
The sources help to explain who we are and where we come from, and the principles are good guides for living. But neither the principles or the sources are actually theology.
Some folks confuse theology with creeds, so let me clear that up immediately. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a creed, no one tells us what we have to believe. As the song goes, we welcome atheists and redneck Hindus, as well as Pagan Buddhist Jews. That is part of what we offer to those who would join us. No one needs to check who they are and what they believe at the door.
I know that is very important to many of you. It was to me when I first found Unitarian Universalism.
We don’t have a creed, but we do, my friends, have some particular theological perspectives that influence how we interact with each other and with the world.
These perspectives are made up of the various parts I mentioned earlier: theology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, missiology, and eschatology.
If you can’t remember the definitions of those words, don’t stress. Think about a house with a foundation, walls, rooms, a roof, and a doorway.
Just like a house, none of these theological parts can stand alone.
How we conceive of the divine affects how we organize our churches. How we see salvation affects how we determine our mission. How we worship together reflects all of the above.
Let’s start with how we see the world and the ultimate purpose of existence. The most common eschatology in our wider culture here in the United States is the one that goes something like this: God created the world and in the end humanity will meet its maker, be judged and end up in either heaven or in hell. The end of the entire world will come at the end of a cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon. The world will be destroyed, but the faithful will be saved and taken to a new paradise. This is not what most Unitarian Universalists believe. As it said in the song, in case of Rapture, pack a snack, ’cause we’ll be left behind.
The major problem with that eschatology is that this world, this life, has meaning only so far as it gets us to heaven. If we believe that, we don’t have to worry about degradation of the environment as it will all be destroyed anyway. The pain and suffering in our own lives, the oppression so many are forced to live with, doesn’t matter because the rewards will all come after we die.
Most Unitarian Universalists don’t believe any of that. We do worry about the end of the world, more at some times than others, but our fears are about climate change, war, and other disasters, and not the wrath or judgement of some God.
There are three eschatologies that can be defined as liberal, all of which have been around at least since the beginning of Christianity.
Briefly, these three can be defined as Social Gospel, Universalist, and radically realized eschatology.
All are fairly popular within Unitarian Universalism and many are also shared by other faith traditions. As I go through, think about which one fits what you believe.
Quite of few of our hymns reflect the social gospel eschatology. “We’ll build a Land” is one of the more obvious.
We are here to build the Kingdom of God here on earth where justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. This social gospel eschatology is also very popular with Methodists and many Catholics. The only problem with it is that building heaven on earth is hard work. You have to feed all of the hungry people in the world, end all oppression, and probably be extremely nice all the time too. It can also be frustrating when the arc of the universe seems to be bending away from justice. The approach can be inspirational, it can feed the spirit, but if it the only dish served at the church potluck it can also be overwhelming.
The second of the more liberal eschatologies is Universalism, which holds, basically, that “God’s love embraces the whole human race: another line from one of our hymns. If God loves all of us, then we should try to get along. The Universalist faith is in a God of Love who works to bring all into relationship with the divine.
The third liberal eschatology is radically realized eschatology. It is radical, because it says heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and respect.
Jesus said, the kingdom of God is among us. Moses was told to take off his shoes for the ground he stood on was holy.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. As Rumi says, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Personally, I like some of all three of the progressive eschatologies. I still dream of a better world and want to help that come about. I believe in a God, a sacred source of love and compassion, that loves each and every one of us. But for my house of hope, I want to live in the radically realized vision, because with that one, heaven is already pretty much here. Yes, there is pain and suffering, but life is also to be enjoyed and treasured. Let it be a dance we do, another line from our hymnal, reflects this attitude.
As I said earlier, the parts of a theological house need to fit together. I am not going to go as deeply into the other parts today, simply because there isn’t time. We will do more in the next couple of weeks
But briefly, some of what we try to do in our worship services relate directly to radically realized eschatology. We have fun. We sing joyful songs and we recognize that life itself is a blessing, that it can be simply awesome. And yes, we can work hard for justice in so many ways, but we also have fun while we do it. It affects our mission, how we organize ourselves, and how we see God. It helps us figure out how to “let nothing evil cross this door.
It tells us that heaven can be right here, that comfort and healing can be found, not in some far-off place, but right here, right now.
That is the hope, a hope that is here because we can feel it among us when we gather together. We all know about hell. We all see the damage that is being done by those who believe that this life doesn’t matter, who don’t really care about protecting our planet because they think God will destroy it anyway.
We also know heaven. We see it in the sparkle of our children’s eyes. We see it in the tenderness of our caring committee. We feel it in our chalice circles, where we share our stories from deep inside.
Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens say that to thrive, hope requires a home.
The fire rains down across the west
Choking smoke and flames
The water rises with the wind
Drowning out our southern lands
The drums of war beat loudly
Behind the Nazi chants
Dreams turn into nightmares
None of us are safe
I don’t believe in Armageddon
That’s not my kind of God
This horror is not holy
And prayers are not enough
Breathe deep with battered lungs
And sing into the howling wind
Beat your hands in time to music
Keep heaven in your heart
The roots of love run deep
A taproot to our souls
Be like the mighty redwood
Staying strong amidst the flames.
Snap your head
Back over your shoulders
Though it might seem
The world has gone insane
No time for dreaming
Lost in the clouds
Of a sweet fantasy land
Where reason might rule
Break open your hands
Dig in the dirt
Find the lost souls
Buried in fear
Wind up your wisdom
Carry your load
Speak when you’re able
As loud as you can
The rain is still falling
The flood waters burn
With the acid of lies
From clouds of despair
Pack up your troubles
And lend me a hand
If we stay woke
We might witness the dawn