Inclusion – Drawing the Circle Wider

a sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
10:00 AM, Sunday, July 16, 2017


In my time as a chaplain at Christian Hospital in St. Louis, I worked alongside a young seminary graduate. He was in his mid-20s and had the appearance and manner of someone who had little experience of the world. I liked him a lot, and we frequently had lunch together. He was from a very conservative Calvinist tradition and had a hard time understanding what Unitarian Universalism was. He would ask me what Unitarian Universalists believe, and I would talk to him about covenant rather than belief as the basis of our spiritual communion. He would ask about beliefs, and I would talk about our commitment to our right and obligation to search for truth and meaning, our commitment to the right of conscience, our openness to reason. He kept returning to questions of belief, not comprehending that belief per se is not the center of our faith.


This went on for months. He told me about his faith tradition. I had a marvelous and theologically precise elevator speech that I shared with him. He argued from the Bible. I talked with him about our principles. I talked with him about what I saw as the shared essence between our first principle, in which we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, on the one hand, and the biblical assertion that the human was created in the image of God. That turned into an interesting test case for our conversations. He got angry that I would equate the humanist wording of our first principle with the words of his sacred text. He had a difficult time understanding how his sacred text could also be holy to me without my accepting his tradition’s interpretations of it.


One time when he was frustrated with the difference between our traditions, he told me that my theology, my tradition, indeed that I was irrational. I had a hard time keeping a straight face. This coming from someone who believed in a literalistic interpretation of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and the End Times. It was he who believed in Original Sin as a literal inheritance from Adam and predestination to heaven or hell as God’s incontrovertible will. But I was the irrational one.


We both kept coming back to these conversations about our many differences and some similarities. But it always ended with him telling me that he respected me but did not understand my religion in the least. After months of this, one day were walking toward each other down a long hallway when he started to run toward me to reach me sooner. As he reached me he blurted out, “I think I understand! For you inclusion is the highest good, and exclusion is the greatest sin!” I was amazed! It had finally registered. All our conversations. My elevator speech. Some slow fermentation. And, voilà! He told me better than I had told him what I saw as the heart of Unitarian Universalism: inclusion is the highest good; exclusion, the greatest sin.


He immediately went on to say how he didn’t agree with it, but he understood it. He still believed that exclusion was the model on which God worked and that all-embracing inclusion was a Godless endeavor. He was serious Calvinist, remember, and so he believed that before the foundations of the earth, before Creation was more than a glint in God’s eye, God had already determined who would be the elect and who would be damned.


Many aspects of his theology were the theology also of the New England Puritans. Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears developed their early distinctive and non-orthodox Christian beliefs largely in response to and rejection of this Puritan, Calvinist theology. Calvinism taught that the human individual was totally incapable of resisting the will of God, that we were predestined to our eternal fate. But Unitarianism said, the human being is perfectible. That is, we can by our actions effect our own salvation. In our humanity itself was the means by which we could rise above. And where Calvinism taught that the majority of humanity was not of the elect and, so, was predestined to hell, Universalism said, God’s love is infinite but human sin is finite. No all-loving God would punish humanity for eternity. And to suggest God would do so was blasphemy, a refusal to recognize the overwhelming power of the love of God.


The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, one of my seminary professors and a Universalist in his theology even though he grew up in a Unitarian , has preached, in multiple venues, a sermon titled “Dragged, Kicking and Screaming into Heaven,” which plays on a historical Arminian objection to a theology of universal Salvation. Arminians were non-Calvinists who believe human freewill must accept God’s love. The objection being that universal salvation would require that God overthrow human free will in order to save even those who wanted nothing to do with God. It is not only the objecting Arminians who used such language. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, 20th Century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis called himself “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England…drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.” He wasn’t weighing in on the issue of free will, and yet he used language pointing to the irresistible love of God. There is a bit of universalism dusted throughout Christian thought and expression from as early as church father Origen (185-254 CE).


Mark Morrison-Reed preached in that colorfully titled sermon:


Unitarian Universalists embrace many images of God, and reject even more. But a God who drags the last unrepentant sinner kicking and screaming (no, actually profanely cursing and resisting) into heaven—that might be a God we can envision, we can admire, we can have confidence in, we can have feelings about, we can even laugh at. It is a personification of the Most Holy rooted in a powerful, sometimes overwhelming, feeling. …What a relief to feel that ultimately there is nothing I can do to alienate myself from God’s loving embrace, the almighty but tender arms of the creative force that upholds and sustains all life.


The Rev. Thomas Mikelson, retired minister of the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote the hymn “Wake, Now, My Senses,” which we sang last Sunday, with this strong sense of universal embrace:


Wake, now, compassion, give heed to the cry;
Voices of suffering fill the wide sky;
Take as your neighbor both stranger and friend,
Praying and striving their hardship to end.

Wake, now, my conscience, with justice thy guide
Join with all people whose rights are denied;
Take not for granted a privileged place;
God’s love embraces the whole human race.


All good theology – whether focusing on the transcendent or on the immanent – calls us to bring the values, hopes, and actions of the tradition’s stories into reality in the world. This is especially true of a religion like this one which often has said that it’s about deeds not creeds. Mark Morrison-Reed’s exclamation “What a relief to feel that ultimately there is nothing I can do to alienate myself from God’s loving embrace” is always paired with bringing that Godly reality into lived experience. Thomas Mikelson’s lyrics are quite explicit, calling for compassion, accepting of others, ending hardships, being guided by justice, and overcoming privileges we may enjoy… Why? In relation to what holy story? The Universalist story that “God’s love embraces the whole human race!” It is a radical idea that we Unitarian Universalists have going on there!


We have some strong achievement and, yes, some notable failings in this great value of inclusion. We began ordaining women ministers with Olympia Brown in 1863, when no one else was ordaining women to do full-time ministry.


Unitarian Universalist ministers were among those who answered Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to come to Selma. Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist lay woman, and James Reeb, one of our ministers, were martyrs for the Civil Rights movement.


In 1970 at General Assembly, a General Resolution to end Discrimination against Homosexuals and Bisexuals was passed by the delegates from our congregations and congregations were called on to develop sex education programs that promote healthy attitude toward all forms of sexuality. In 1980 a General Assembly Business Resolution passed urging UUs, the UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) to assist in the settlement of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual ministers. A growing majority of our congregations have taken the steps to be recognized as LGBTQ-Welcoming Congregations. UU congregations were active leaders in the drive to bring equal marriage across the US.


UU congregations have responded to the deaths of unarmed African American young men, especially, by joining as allies the Black Lives Matter movement and having deep and sometimes conflicted conversations about hanging banners that are visible in the community. Confronted with a new or renewed awareness of structural racial inequity in our Association’s hiring processes, more than 700 of our congregations answered the call to engage with this reality through #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIns.


In recent years there has been a call for UUs to become more active and supportive of people with disabilities, as we become more aware of the ableism in many of our organizations and structures. This list of achievements and endeavors toward greater inclusion among us and in the world is only a tiny portion of all that is being done.


We Unitarian Universalists and the congregations and association that we love are far from perfect. The old-fashioned theology would remind us that we are flawed (some would say sinful) creatures. We are still learning how to live into our deepest values. But we keep coming back to new and renewed ways to become more inclusive in our congregations and ways we can promote equity and inclusion.


We can wordsmith forever, but my friend at the hospital was right. In Unitarian Universalism, inclusion is the greatest good and exclusion, which can be seen in personal biases against those who seem different, in systems of power, control and oppression, exclusion in all its forms is sin. Drawing the circle of inclusion to the maximum diameter for our current understanding and spiritual growth is the essential expression of our principles.


Edwin Markham, sometimes called the poet laureate of Universalism, wrote about inclusion and exclusion in his short epigrammatic poem “Outwitted.”


He 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 him in


We can strive for a world transformed by our care, a world where we keep growing our understanding, acceptance, and inclusion of others. Or we can retreat from the world’s miraculous and marvelous diversity. Let’s make the circle wider!


Amen and Blessed Be.


© 2017 by Rev. Paul Oakley