I had the pleasure of preaching at Universalist National Memorial Church today, and by request am posting my notes. Be warned, these notes have as much in common with what I said today as grapes have with vinegar, but most of the points are there. The readings and benediction follow.
Thanks for returning to the pulpit
My thanks to UNMC pastors Crystal Lewis and Dave Gatton for having me return to the pulpit this morning, and thanks to you as we mark this third Sunday in Advent.
As we heard a few minutes ago, Isaiah said:
"Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst, is the Holy One of Israel." (Isaiah 12:5-6)
Let this be known in all the earth…
But how, friends, shall we sing praises, among ourselves, much less all the earth?
Since the last time I was in this pulpit, the world — if anything — seems dimmer. Not only are there more people desperate to flee violence in the Middle East, South Asia, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, but the violence in Paris and San Bernardino makes it seem that the most vulnerable people are the first to be blamed. Indeed, we have one presidential candidate who has gone farther to stir up viscousness that I thought possible — so far that xenophobic politicians can use him for cover.
And this says nothing about the older wounds fading from the news cycle, or the private hurts. The losses, the slights, the could-have-beens and what-never-will-bes at home, at work and in the wider world.
In short, there doesn’t seem to be very much to be happy about. And yet I feel a lot of expectation to be happy, with Christmas coming, and everything.
How can we look at our world and and hope that joy will follow?
We tend to chose the wrong frame
But I’m not ready for Christmas
I’ve not bought a single present for Christmas. I’ve not decided on what cards to send, or if we’re even sending cards from home. I’ve not even bought stamps.
Perhaps it’s the warm weather. It doesn’t feel like Christmas yet. And that’s not even taking into account how sad and miserable Christmas can be. Like when someone you love has died and won’t be here this Christmas. Or when you have to disappoint someone because the girt is wrong or the travel is too difficult. In those cases, it doesn’t feel like it’s time for joy.
But it’s not just Christmas. We are fixed to our calendars
We mark our whole lives with calendars. Even before we are born, our development is marked and measured in weeks. As children, our lives our tied to school calendars, and often, as adults, to quarterly reports and fiscal years.
This time of the year, we are particularly aware of our calendars. So much ends with December, and if you work in a nonprofit, for instance, you know that this is the time to bring donations in. And time to buy a new calendar for 2016. The predictability of calendars is part of the appeal, I suppose.
Calendars aren’t appropriate
But I think calendars, by simply existing can mislead us — mislead us into thinking that God’s desire for us can also be measured and scheduled.
If you can measure or schedule something — like joy — you risk acting like you have more control over than you really do. And I don’t mean a pink candle, a cross-country flight or a doctor’s appointment, as much as compartmentalizing our lives. Deferring everyday pleasures in hope of really enjoying something, somehow, sometime in the future.
But life is too short and too uncertain to be compartmentalized.
And I believe that we were made for happiness. And that we can and we should live our lives accordingly.
Joy, in particular, cannot be scheduled. It can be found or cultivated, but it cannot be scheduled.
So how can we find or cultivate it? We have some unlikely resources. Consider John the Baptist.
John the Baptist
According to the passage we heard this morning,
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
This is not what I associate with joy, you? But then again, John’s an unlikely character. But he’s certainly not someone who was likely to compartmentalize his life. What you see is what you get.
Usually depicted as a liminal, almost wild figure. He was probably acetic, certainly an apocalyptic, and given his diet of locusts and wild honey — he was definitely Paleo.
His camel hair suit sounds scratchy (Matthew 3:4) and I suspect he smelled less than fresh.
But John was the forerunner, anticipating Jesus. When Mary spoke to Elizabeth, John — still in utero — John lept for joy. We’re supposed to see him as a part of God’s greater purpose, and that’s not a tragic role.
Joy is more than getting what you want and when you want it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that John wasjolly, but he know what he was, know what he had to do, and saw it faithfully to the end.
How many of us can say that of our own lives? And what we do to know ourselves so deeply, to know what we must to fully, and saw it through completely? And if the outcome was goodness, in what was would that not be joy?
The Winchester Profession
Each week we recite the freewill declaration of faith that this church adopted in 2008. Before that, we recited the officially adopted declaration of faith that Universalists adopted in 1899.
But that was itself an interpretation — and not a replacement — for the cornerstone document of Universalist faith. It was adopted in 1803 in Winchester, New Hampshire, and so is commonly called the Winchester Profession. Its three articles are short enough to be printed on an index card. Here’s the whole thing:
We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
There’s a lot going on there.
The Winchester Profession isn’t just focused on the nature of God or human destiny, but on how we should live our faith, and not simply think about it.
First, while we as Universalists speak about a lot about "the final destination" of the human family, our heritage puts equal weight on discerning our "duty" from scripture. A duty that isn’t spelled out.
Second, that this final destination has a character derived not from chance or fortune or luck, but from God’s own nature, and that this nature is love. Universalists would quibble that it’s wrong to say we will be restored, as there was no factual Garden of Eden. Our common past might be mythic, but they agreed on the source of our hope for a common future.
Third, and this is the kicker…
Say, do you have a phrase that you go back to in times of stress. A quiet mantra that helps you frame difficult problem?
After the Lord’s Prayer, my go-to phrase comes from the Winchester Profession.
"Holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected."
This little phrase reminds me of something early Universalists wanted to remind themselves and others. Just because God is loving, and will save all — it doesn’t mean that you can do just what you want.
What is holiness?
For one thing, we have to face the idea of holiness, and that’s going to be hard. For many of us, holiness is tied up from childhood with an expectation that God has prepared a list of dos and don’ts. If that was the case, correct living is a simple as doing certain things and not doing others. Mostly the don’ts.
We saw this dynamic vividly this year in Kentucky. We remember Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, who famously defied federal court orders to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. News coverage focused on the how, and less on the why.
But when I heard that she was a member of a Oneness Pentecostal church, it all made sense. Those churches practice what’s called outward holiness. Some unkind commentators pointed out her unfashionable clothes, unmade-up face and uncoiffed hair. But looking plain is as much as part of her Christian witness as her refusal to issue the marriage licenses. Presumably, she also avoids movie theaters and doesn’t wear jewelry, possibly not even a wedding ring. It’s a kind of rule-based separation from the world that at the same time identifies the believer with God and — here’s the problem — sets the believer over other people.
Kim Davis may not think so, but it’s not hard to see her setting herself over other people. Wearing her faith on her sleeve and lording her authority over others.
I can respect her response to discipleship, but not its form or its effect.
At its heart, it seems based in fear, and taking it beyond Kim Davis — because she’s hardly alone in this — that this kind of holiness is holiness in name only.
So, what should she — or we — do?
Our Universalist tradition offers hints to a mode of holiness that is at the same time more life-affirming and more resonant with the Gospel.
The implication is that holiness is a way of life where we grow into closeness with God. Thus, there’s no checklist.
The result of this closeness is not fear, but joy.
This closeness opens us up to be new people, unafraid of the moment’s hardships.
This closeness slowly transforms us to see other people and the world around us a God would see it.
To grow closer to God is to hope that joy may follow.
Joy may, but not necessarily, follow
I don’t want to mislead you. A life of increasing holiness and happiness takes work, and some people never know it in this life.
This isn’t the kind of thing you receive in a flash, or that gets better over a fifteen minute sermon.
Not just personal holiness
And it’s not limited to personal self-cultivation.
There is not one mode of happiness
You will never be happy — truly happy — living through someone else’s dream. Just as a you are a particular person with likes and dislikes, your vocation in God — one that will lead you to happiness and holiness — cannot be copied in full from one person to another.
Tools for finding happiness
John, for all his wild manners, did not focus on doom and punishment, but in repentance; that is, for people to find to change their lives and to live in harmony with God.
This church is a school and hospital for people who want to grow into something new.
And here Joy may follow.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.