I want to tell you about my theology professor from seminary- Bob Kimball. By the time I got to Seminary he had been teaching generations of ministers, and had served as president of the seminary. He was ornery in all the best ways.
He was my adviser, and when the other new students and I met with him for the first time, he tried to explain to us how truly radical his trust in us was. We had these orange registration cards that had to be signed by our adviser, and he said “just give them to me now and I’ll sign them blank. You are in charge of your own learning.” He also said “if you find that anyone has a rule restricting your choices here, you let me know and I’ll fight to get rid of it.”
Kimball’s theology class was very popular, but he kept a tight limit on the number of students in that class, because he wanted an intimate number that would fit around his desk in his office. Folks would argue powerfully with him when he said the class was too full and he couldn’t take any more students. “Why can’t you just teach it in a classroom?” and Kimball would say “if you can’t tell the difference between a conversation in a circle of folks in my office and a seminar in a classroom, then this class isn’t for you.” Because for Professor Kimball, this was the essence of all that was important and good in the world; a conversation, a REAL conversation where people genuinely connected, was a sacred event. And any rule or regulation or registration form that got in the way of genuine connection between people, or connection with one’s own self, or with the divine, this was something akin to evil.
In his course description he would quote from Romans (and let me say this is the first time in 15 years I have ever preached on Romans)
Who shall separate us from the love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
…For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love. [Romans 8:35-39]
I was so impressed by this quote that I had to go looking for it in the bible. And those of you who know this passage will notice that what Kimball has changed; the original says “love of God” rather than just “love.” At the time I assumed he made this change because he wanted to be inclusive to the Humanists. But now I think that for Kimball, there is no difference between the Love of God and Love itself. As it says in 1 John 4:16b “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” If God is love, then the most important thing that a theology class could do is gather a few students in a circle where real connection, real conversation could happen.
If God is love, then God is not up in the firmament somewhere, God is in this room right now. God is like a web connecting each one of us to every other. Think about our UU conception of an interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. Consider how you cannot step outside of it even for a moment. Every breath you take connects you to that web. What if love is like that? …This is the radical good news of our Universalist heritage. This was the radical message of our founding fathers and mothers like Hosea Ballou, a Charismatic Universalist preacher who helped spread our good news who asked in 1805:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity… to say that he did not intend good to all whom his acts concern, would be limiting his goodness and an impeachment on his justice.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82)
So it was Ballou’s contention that it was not possible for us to be separated from an infinite and loving God.
Closer to our own generation, Universalist minister and social Activist Clarence Skinner wrote in 1915 “The Universalist idea of God is that of a universal, impartial, immanent spirit whose nature is love. It is the largest thought the world has ever known; it is the most revolutionary doctrine ever proclaimed; it is the most expansive hope ever dreamed[i].
This is the leap of faith that my theology professor was asking me to make, this is the leap of faith that Unitarian Universalism invites all of us to make. It is our good news. It is what Bob Kimball called the “radical yes” - there are no parts of our world, of our being that are excluded. As the hymn says: “God’s love embraces the whole human race”
But that is a leap, isn’t it. Some days that seems like an impossible leap to make. Some days it’s not just that I can’t believe that we are held by a love that will never let us go, it’s that I don’t even believe that I am loving. Reflect with me- what in your average week what makes you lose track of the love? [pause]
For me it can be something as simple as trying to get dinner on the table in time to rush off to an evening meeting can make me forget I am a loving person. The unanswered e-mail that causes me to be late for reading with my son at bedtime. What keeps us from love? “Shall tribulation” And what small tribulations those are. “or distress…”
Then think about the profound kinds of distress that we experience that have kept us from love. [pause] We have heard members of this congregation drop a rock in this water telling us about families in terrific fighting and fracturing as they prepare or grieve the death of a loved one.
“What shall keep us from love? …persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” It’s starting to sound like the apostle Paul might be a little out of touch, right? Because we do know these things keep us from love.
Paul goes on to say: “…For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers…” I like this one- principalities and powers. I think of principalities as those kinds of national or tribal divisions that pit one group against another. Republicans against democrats, Israel against Palestine. Kimball used to talk about this. To him these “powers” were those systemic powers that are hard to put your finger on. The kind of powers that would restrict our educational choices at seminary. They were forces like Racism and Classism, homophobia. (Ironically, the words of this very same apostle are used to keep people of the same gender from being legally married to one another.) These forces too often keep us from love.
What shall keep us from love? Here’s another power- consumerism. Our desire for new things, the latest phone, a new piece of gear, a certain standard of living that often keeps us from being the most generous loving people we can be.
But Paul, the unlikely source of my Unitarian theology professor’s good news, assures us that “things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love.”
This love, whether we understand it to be God’s love, or the embrace of the interconnected web, or as Kahlil Gibran put it “life’s longing for itself” this love is there all the time, waiting for us, ready for us, never letting us go. That love can survive even the worst imaginable disaster, and will be there for us when we turn to it. That is why I love the story of Kali, who is usually the loving nurturing Shakti, or Devi- the divine mother, (remember Vivekananda’s words from a few weeks back, explaining that Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion, but one that considers many aspects of the divine) So here the female aspect of the divine turns into this monster as an act of love- as part of her calling to save all live from that destructive monster, but drunk with the adrenaline of that destructive power- have you ever felt this? When you are just on a rant, consumed with anger, righteous or not, and it continues even after the threat id gone? And so her partner Shiva lays down at her feet, knowing that if she doesn’t pay attention, that if her rage can’t be stopped she will destroy him to. But he has that faith in love, in their love, that when she sees his fragile form she will stop. That their love is even deeper, and stronger than her violent rage. And when she puts her foot right on his body, she does in fact remember. I want to be really careful about this metaphor, because so much abuse has been perpetuated in our society for asking us to submit to abuse as a loving act. The love I am talking about here is fundamentally not abusive. This is the love so powerful that it stops the rage of war. Shiva knew that his partner would be called back to her higher self when she saw this courageous vulnerable act of love.
I propose that we have been part of this force in the Christian Tradition for hundreds of years. Ballou wrote over 200 years ago:
"… they have exercised, toward their fellow creatures, a spirit of enmity, which but too well corresponds with the relentless cruelty of their doctrine, and the wrath which they have imagined to exist in our heavenly Father. By having such an example constantly before their eyes, they have become so transformed into its image, that, whenever they have had the power, they have actually executed a vengeance on men and women, which evinced that the cruelty of their doctrine had overcome the native kindness and compassion of the human heart."[ii]
Let me translate. Ballou is saying that when they imagine a “wrathful heavenly father” they are transformed by that image and they themselves become vengeful and cruel. Ballou believes that the image of an infinitely loving and compassionate God brings out the kindness and compassion already in our hearts. By remembering this web of connection that will never let us go, by daring to believe that it is in its nature loving, we ourselves become more kind, more compassionate, more loving. As it says in our hymnal “ That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”[iii]
When we remember the good news of Universalism, that nothing can separate us from love, we are called by that love to embody that the good news- the persistence of love despite all: a real connection in a group of theology students, a story read aloud at bedtime, a profound act of peace in a whirlwind of war.
I think that Paul’s long list of things that DO keep us from being fully present with love, from doing the things that we know to be the most compassionate, the most loving is not made lightly. Paul’s life was not an easy one, he knew what it was like to struggle. But he is holding out for us the belief that even the worst hardships you can imagine cannot ultimately separate us from love. Universalists grew up in the wisdom of the Christian tradition that goes all the way back to the earliest days, the tradition from which we inherit the conviction that love is always there, available to us. We just have to remember. WE are called to be like Shiva, to not only call ourselves back to love, but to call our community, call our world back to love. To say, even to the powers who were called into being to slay thing that needed slaying. Come back to love. It’s time.
Universalism is not an indifferent faith, it is a faith in love. This is our good news. It is not an empty or superficial faith, but one that sees love past the trials and tribulation of our busy lives. We see love past the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the classism built into our societal structures. Our faith sees love past the divide of nation against nation. Our faith sees love in the body of Shiva laid on the battle field calming the rage of war. And the best way to share this good news is through embodying it in the world. Each act of love, large and small shares our good news. The way to share the good news of Unitarian Universalism is to answer love’s call.