Likeness to God

Likeness to God

September 25, 2022 | Sarah Stewart

Passage: 1 John 4:7-21

I wonder what kind of God you grew up with? Maybe a distant and uncaring force far off in the universe. Maybe a kindly grandfather who lived somewhere in the sky. Maybe like a universal helicopter parent, watching your every move, and has that location tracker on your phone and never lets you alone. Maybe you grew up with no God at all. In a family that didn't believe. Maybe you grew up with a God who was loving and present.


When I was a child in the Episcopal Church, and the church we went to in the suburbs of Detroit had a giant stained-glass window at the back of the church with a big image of Jesus in it. And I thought that one day, actual giant Jesus would come walking through that window, break it all up, end church, end time, and fix all our problems. And of course, as I grew up, I realized that wouldn't happen! We became Unitarian Universalists when I was 11. And in that church had a quite different stained-glass window was a very modern utilitarian building, but there was one beautiful window made of thick pieces of stained glass. Each family in the church had contributed one piece, shaped it, chosen it for its color and its beauty and together they form this abstract, nonfigurative stained glass with thick chunks and a concrete wall. And that's a good image for the God that I grew into, in adulthood. Abstract not exactly looking like a person, open to interpretation, but still a symbol of love and community. Beautiful, present, compassionate and loved. Unitarian Universalism also grew up historically, with one God, and rejected that concept in favor of another when the separatists came to America from England and Holland. They believed that God was completely other and different from the world. That the world was for the most part entirely condemned to hell, and that only a few people selected by God at the beginning of time would go to heaven. Now this God could seem very close to those people who had direct experience of grace. And as you can imagine, deciding to move to a completely unknown continent in order to set up your new life as a church together, there took a huge amount of conviction. And so those first generation of settlers were much more likely to have experienced that kind of direct grace and inspiration from God. But a God like that would be very distant to everybody else. It would be a God who lived in his own realm and judged humanity. A God who gave the world Jesus as a leader, and the church as a schoolroom and told people to figure it out for themselves. In the late 18th, and early 19th centuries, some lay people and ministers in Massachusetts and along the Atlantic coast in America began to rebel against this understanding of God. They began to read scholarship about the Bible. And they began to believe that God gave us the Bible to understand God's purpose, yes, but also gave us a mind with which to understand. A mind that we could use to understand the world around us and understand the difference between good and evil. That people had free will and could choose to be good. That Holiness was something that everybody had access to. This Church's founding is grounded in that story. In the 1780s, when the Congregational Church in Worcester needed a new minister, there were lay people here in Worcester who wanted a minister who would preach Free Will from this pulpit; who would tell you or those people then that they could choose to make a difference in their lives and choose to be good instead of bad. Choose to be moral people. That calling of that Minister, Aaron Bancroft, who would preach freewill founded this church and those lay people came together around that vision of a God who gave to people some ability to choose good versus evil. In the Sermon we heard an excerpt from today, William Ellery Channing said our “true religion consists in a growing likeness to the Supreme Being”. This was a challenge to Calvinist orthodoxy, which said that God was perfect. Often heaven and all humans were sinful.


Channing said, No, we're not entirely sinful. We have something in us that is good. We have a spiritual nature. We have a little bit of divinity in us that can respond to the Divinity out there. In fact, Channing said the experience of God comes from within us, we are the ones who experience it, so we must be something like God. And we can cultivate that capacity to know more about God. Channing said that knowing God more by being good people should be our chief aim in life. And we do not need to hide ourselves away in prayer, but can interact with the world and its problems, even trying to make this world a better place. And know God here. There is no need to wait until we get to heaven.


Now Unitarianism really took this concept to heart. It was a powerful force. It helped to found churches. It helped grow a movement that sent missionaries out to the frontier in Ohio and Kentucky, and spread churches all the way across the country. By the end of the 19th century, the Unitarian motto was we believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character and the progress of mankind onward and upward forever. Unitarianism was quite ready for a New American Century that would try to live out that hope. Not just Unitarianism, but all across America, people grew up together. Science became ascendant. We put men on the moon. We developed nuclear weapons. We expanded our understanding of human rights. We reduced poverty. We fought history's deadliest wars. Science eclipsed some of God's light. But human mysteries remained untouched. In the 20th century Americans began to think that we were the master of all things, natural and supernatural. Technology would conquer all environmental problems - mere speed bumps; the planet's resources are ours to control. The majority of Americans then and now believe in God - believe in a supernatural God. But perhaps those in power did not quite believe in humility before that force. And no matter how much our science has advanced, human moral quandaries remain. There are questions that progress cannot answer. Like why can it be such a struggle to be a good person? How is it that good people get caught up in systems of evil and oppression and can't do anything about it? Why are we capable of such immense love, when all those we love will someday die? With all our progress we still mourn. We still struggle. We can still say the old prayer with St. Paul: “I do not do the good I want to do but the evil I do not want to do. This I keep on doing.  Science has taken us far; it has alleviated suffering but the moral challenges of being human remain and, God or no God, we are still looking for that meaning in our lives.


 Today, in Unitarian Universalism, there are as many understandings of God, or our ultimate concern, as there are people in this room. There are as many understandings of that as there are people in every Unitarian Universalist congregation in the world. Some have found comfort in a higher power, as in the 12 steps. Something bigger than us that helps us and supports us when we can't do it by ourselves. Some people don't believe in God at all. They may talk about the source of our inherent worth and dignity, which we affirm as Unitarian Universalists. The potential for human justice and love which we strive to meet that possibility inherent in the human heart. Some affirm a living essence of goodness in the natural world, which gives plants and animals and ecosystems their own dignity that does not derive from us. What these beliefs have in common is the realization that sometimes the individual human being needs help. Sometimes because of our own struggles, or because of something a bigger power that we are caught up in -  we cannot make our way alone. We sometimes need there to be a love that is bigger than us. A love that will not let us go; a love we may not even understand or fit into the cosmos, but helps us get through those hard times.

This summer, I was sitting in the Worcester Public Library, and I could overhear two men, who I couldn't see, having a conversation at the next table over. A man was there and his friend had come to help him with something. And the friend said to him, man, I'm really sorry about that thing that happened to you. And the first man said, yeah, it's been a really hard time. But you know what? I asked God to keep me out of jail. And he did. I thought about the power of that God in that man's life. Some of us will never be there. We will be lucky enough and we will have privileged enough that we will never need a power bigger than us to help keep us out of jail. But whoever we are, we will have moments of grief, struggle, hope and need, where we will connect what is in us to what is beyond us. We will connect the love in us to the source of love. We will connect the lives of loved ones we have lost to a larger love that conquers death, whether that great love is God, or human potential, or the spirit of goodness in all things. It's not something that we can test for. All we can do is turn to it in gratitude and fellow feeling. I have no doubt that that man in the library worked hard on his own account, to stay out of jail. Even being there in the library at that moment to meet his friend was a step that he had taken to make a better choice in his life for him. But I heard in his deep conviction that his strength was strengthened by a universal strength and that through that connection, he was free.


In Zen Buddhism, there is a precept against duality: no inner world, outer world. No breath in, breath out. No doing, not doing. In sitting and breathing and meditation, one writer said the breath becomes a swinging door. Here: there. Me: universe. In: out. Self: God. Flowing through and among each other intermingling with every flap of the swinging door. William Ellery Channing understood that the goodness in us is not separate from the goodness of God, two sides of the swinging door. In his theology, if we are able to respond to God's goodness, it's because we have some of that goodness in us. We do not need to live in fear of the judging God or give into the temptation of pride and become the center of the universe. All we have to do is be the swinging door letting the goodness in us intermingle with the goodness around us. Some days we need more support and some days we have more to give. Our prayer is in our lives, and the love we give and the spirit that connects us and the power that strengthens our power to do good in the world.


And be free. I love you all. Amen.