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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 4, 2012

John Murray and the Gospel of Love

Though I speak with the tongues of people and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long, and is kind; love envies not; love vaunts not itself, is not puffed up, does not behave itself unseemly, seeks not her own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil; Rejoices not in iniquity, but delights in the truth; Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

Today I want to talk about love. I want to talk about a mysterious current in our human lives. It is, I suggest, the most powerful thing we experience. It is also dangerous. It tears down as well as builds up. It changes things. It is a god. And it is a way of life. Embraced love brings miraculous transformations, allows us to become something better than we would ever otherwise have been. Love brings hope.

Today I want to tell you a story about how this message of hope is our deep message, is the very heart of our way. Let me tell you the story of John Murray, the founder of American universalism. John Murray was born in 1741, his father an Anglican, his mother a Presbyterian, but both in fact were Methodists from that period before Methodism fully separated from the Anglican church. He was raised in both England and Ireland. From early on Murray became concerned with the fires of hell and seeking assurance that he would be saved from them.

In his young adulthood he joined the separatist Methodism of George Whitfield, found his assurance of salvation and became a leader of his community. Let’s pause a moment. That “assurance,” is where he found love as transformation. But the doctrine, which supported that love proclaimed it only came to a few. I suggest this was hiding a great light under a basket. This story is how Murray removed the basket hiding the light of universal love. But I’m getting just a bit ahead of myself.

In his autobiography Murray recounts leading a delegation of elders to meet with a young woman who had been led astray into universalism, in order to dissuade her from that pernicious doctrine. I love Murray’s account for his own self-awareness, and ultimately his humility and open-heartedness.

The delegation went to the young woman’s home, she welcomed them in, and then without much preamble Murray launched into an assault on the very idea of universalism. The conversation did not go as he expected. Rather he very quickly found himself in deeper waters than he liked. Her sophistication and relentless logic decimated his assertion that Jesus died only to save believers. It’s unclear from his account whether it was her gender, her youth, or her logic that most annoyed him. Clearly none made him happy. He wrote of those moments after realizing he wasn’t going to win the argument.

“Here I was extremely embarrassed, and most devoutly wished myself out of her habitation; I sighed bitterly, expressed deep commiseration for those deluded souls, who had nothing but head-knowledge; drew out my watch, discovered it was late; and, recollecting an engagement, observed it was time to take leave.”

In his memoir, he continued how, “I was extremely mortified; the young lady observed my confusion, but was too generous to pursue her triumph. I arose to depart; the company arose; she urged us to tarry; addressed each of us in the language of kindness… and when we bade her adieu, she enriched us by her good wishes.

“I suspected that my religious brethren saw she had the advantage of me; and I felt, that her remarks were indeed unanswerable…” Outside her house he spoke briefly with his colleagues and indeed they found her points compelling. Murray concludes his remembrance of this encounter. “From this period, I myself carefully avoided every Universalist, and most cordially did I hate them.”

But in fact he continued to think and wonder and began to read about this emergent English universalism, both pamphlets and James Relly’s notorious book Union. He also started visiting the congregation led by Relly. After a time trying to accommodate both communities, Murray finally threw in his lot with universalism.

In the meantime his life was turning from worse to the worst. His only child died. Then his wife died. Broken financially by these events he was briefly thrown into Debtors prison. When released, while Relly urged him to take up preaching, he was heartbroken, and wanted none of it. Instead he decided to disappear into the American wilderness, booked passage to the colonies and left England forever.

When he sailed to America, through a series of misadventures the ship on which he came went first, not to New York, which was his destination, but instead to Philadelphia. Then on the final leg up to New York, the ship grounded on a sandbar off Cranberry Inlet near Good Luck Point on the southern New Jersey coast.

While there he joined part of the crew going ashore to secure provisions while waiting for the winds to shift and to allow them to resume their trip. Here it proved to be very good luck for universalism in America and one of American universalism’s great, few, and perhaps for that reason all the more delightful - miracle stories.

This story has been retold a thousand times. Russell Miller, chronicler of American universalism tells us there even was an epic poem composed about it. I gather it may not be worth tracking down. Now it really is a small story, but, I don’t know, I love it. Perhaps you’ll find something lovely in it as well.

Thomas Potter was the fourth generation of a family that had come to New Jersey from Rhode Island. While illiterate he was hard working and intelligent and had come to create a substantial farm there on the shore. He also had, as if inheriting the Rhode Island spirit, blending Quaker and Baptist sentiments he had come to a universalist stance. He’d also built his own chapel on the farm. And confident God would provide, Potter was waiting for someone who could occupy its pulpit and proclaim that particular universal good news.

The moment he set eyes on Murray across the water on the grounded ship, he knew. How did he know? Well, that’s where the miracle comes in. Miracles: extraordinary events, maybe the intervention of an angel or God, but, whatever its source, a wonder, a marvel. This wasn’t out of character for Potter. As would be true for many universalists particularly in that era, he was given to ecstatic moments. Universal love is an experience.

The bottom line of it was that Potter was right. It was as if a magnet was drawing Murray to that farm. The captain sent Murray with a small crew to see if they could purchase some food at the farm. The party was invited into Potter’s house, but it was as if there were only two people in the room.

In his memoirs Murray quotes Potter describing himself. “I am… unable either to write or read, but I am capable of reflection.” He told how inspired by a sense of overwhelming love he had built that small chapel the party saw as they came to the farmhouse. And Potter continued, he wanted a preacher who understood the connections beneath or behind or above all denominations and who could speak to that universal love. Possibly he didn’t even have the word universalism, but he knew what it meant.

In talking with Murray, he said, “The moment I beheld your vessel on shore, it seemed as if a voice had audibly sounded in my ears, ‘There, Potter, in that vessel cast away on that shore, is the preacher you have been so long expecting. I heard the voice, and I believed the report; and when you came up to my door… the same voice seemed to repeat, ‘Potter, this is the man, this is the person, whom I have sent to preach in your house!’”

At first Murray denied being a preacher, and asked Potter what he saw that convinced him otherwise. Potter replied, “No, sir, it is not what I saw, or see, but what I feel, which produces in my mind a full conviction.” Love can be absurd. Love takes us in new directions. One never knows when one surrenders to love where it will take us.

Potter demanded to know if Murray had ever preached. When Murray said he couldn’t deny that, Potter asked, “’Has not God lifted up the light of his countenance upon you? Has he not shown you his truth?’

Murray responded, “I trust he has.”

Hearing this Potter rebuked him, “’And how dare you hide this truth?’” He went on to declare to the preacher that the wind would not change and allow the ship to depart until Murray climbed into that chapel’s pulpit and proclaimed the good news. “’The wind will never change, sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting-house, a message from God.’” Fearing the wind might never change, reluctantly Murray agreed to speak.

He spent much of the night ahead of that service fretting, crying and praying to be delivered from this fate. The next day, somewhat worse for that long night, Murray came to the chapel, climbed into the pulpit and proclaimed the good news, a call to happiness, to joy. There is no hell. God’s love overcomes all evil. All of humanity is blessed through love. The world itself is blessed by love. A wonder. A marvel.

Part of the miracle here is that Murray didn’t come to America to preach universal salvation, to become the founder of the Universalist church, which he ended up doing. He was fleeing sadness. He didn’t realize he was running toward joy, toward love. The miracle is that his fire for a larger hope lit ready tinder, and sparked a conflagration that has continued to burn, and burns today, in this Meeting House and in a thousand others across this nation. Love. Universal love. A wonder. A marvel.

Now Murray’s particular turn on this was simply Calvinism’s election writ large. God’s love is irresistible. There would be variations on how to understand precisely what this mysterious current in our human condition that allows us the certitude of joy in the face of so much suffering. There continue to be.

I read where someone characterized classical universalism as the doctrine “dead people all go to heaven.” It did not seem kindly meant. While there is a bare truth to the summary I think it misses something about the heart of the matter of the universalist stance both originally and absolutely misses the point for today.

As to those earliest understandings, given the context of the world in which Murray was raised and lived, the question of postmortem existence burned with as much heat as the questions for a parent today to make sure her children are fed. And as for today, Murray’s vision provided a fruitful seedbed for an ever-expanding understanding of what universalism can mean, and does.

As we know within this Meeting House our understanding of what God is has expanded. Here we count people for whom God is that loving presence like a parent. And for many of us there is no human projection in the matter. We may discern the grubby roots, as one wise person put it, of our affections, in nature, in our biology. But, that’s looking at the mechanism. Whether found in the story of God as love, or of love as a deep biological urge made god, we discover something about ourselves and about how we can order our lives. Love is a powerful, compelling truth, when found in our own bodies, re-orients our lives from selfishness to openness, and creates currents of hope in a world with far too little.

Love shows us the connections. Love brings hope. And finding this love calls us to action.

And so, our great slogan: love over creed. Love over creed. From John Murray down to this day, we proclaim the universal wisdom: God is love. Love over creed, over every creed.

Open your heart and you will find it.

Open your heart and you will know what to do.

This is our way.

Love. A wonder. A marvel.