“The Larger Faith: Thoughts On Our Universalist Heritage”

Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula

January 25, 2015

Rev. Maddie Sifantus and Pat English, Worship Associate

Give the people something of your new vision.  ~ John Murray



In song        The Size of Your Heart            Eleanor Daley

Walton Music

In word                                                    Rev. Maddie Sifantus

Let us enter into the spirit of prayer and meditation. In the hectic pace of our lives, we do not often think of those who have been here before us. Let us now think of those men, women and children who once sat within these very walls, the size of whose hearts made their lives. Those who sang here before us. Those who celebrated and grieved together, just as we do week to week, year to year. We think of those who founded and built this church—the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula. And we take a moment to remember those family members and friends who were here before us and did the work of this congregation. May the spirit of love and justice, which is the gift from those who came before, be renewed within these walls. And may we carry it beyond these walls to the larger world.     Amen.


READING                                               Richard Trudeau[1]

Let me (Richard Trudeau) tell my own story. I was raised in a mainstream Christian denomination in which–I say in retrospect–I was religiously violated. When I discovered UUism it was with a tremendous sense of relief and homecoming.

Over the better part of a decade I fashioned a new UU faith for myself out of bits and pieces drawn from many sources, including humanism, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, and the study of nature. But one day I started asking myself, “Richard, if your new faith is so inclusive, why does it include nothing of Christianity? Richard, if you’re so tolerant, why are you so intolerant of Christianity? Richard, why are you so angry?” Logic told me that Christianity couldn’t be all bad. And so I embarked on the delicate and exasperating process of taking my childhood religion apart–of separating all the toxic things from the few things that still felt good, of separating all the things I thought were silly from the few that still made good theological sense.

The midwife of this process was Universalism. Its use of Biblical language and traditional symbolism challenged me to make new distinctions-between the religious right’s understanding of the Bible as a single book expressing a single point of view, and modern scholarship’s understanding of the Bible as a library of many books expressing different points of view;

  • between the Christ of mainstream Christianity and the Jesus of history; and
  • between the cross as a symbol of a myth about a god dying for our sins, and the cross as a warning that defending the oppressed is risky business.

The process of taking my childhood religion apart was hard work, and took a long time. But when it was complete and my childhood religion lay before me disassembled, I noticed that it had lost the power to hurt me. I felt healed. And I was free for the first time to incorporate elements of my childhood religion into my new adult faith–elements that I treasure because they come from so far back in my personal past.

Universalism led me to see my UU church not as a “decontamination chamber” where I should try to forget my former religion, but as a workshop where I could confront it.

SERMON    The Larger Faith: Thoughts on our Universalist Heritage                            Rev. Maddie Sifantus

There was a day over seven years ago I had one of those funny experiences. You know the kind when your world tilts a little bit and you realize a sort of unexpected synchronicity. One of these days I will tell you the synchronicities that occurred when I was trying to decide whether to come here as your minister. Stay tuned for that. But THAT day, as I was standing in my kitchen drinking my morning coffee, I was vacantly staring at my refrigerator door. I had one of those refrigerator doors in my old Wayland house that had snapshots stuck on with magnets collected from long ago trips, postcards, and memorabilia from various and sundry occasions—not necessarily important ones but in some moment they were stuck there…and there they remained until just before Christmas when I was packing my house into the two PODs that will be arriving here, the sooner the better. I didn’t really look at them; they were just there like wallpaper—sort of an informal history of Maddie, if you will. But that day, I actually looked, and there, amidst pictures of my son at various ages, my two grandchildren, slogans to live by, and advertisements for plays or concerts was a snapshot of a sign out in front of a church building—a sign reading First Universalist Church, followed by my name and March 9. It was taken the first time I led worship at the UU Church of Wakefield in 1997 when a friend of mine was minister there, a friend who moved to California not long after my visit. I was a couple of years into seminary, and I had never had my name outside a house of worship for any passerby to see. I must have been impressed. So I took a picture of it and stuck it on my refrigerator. Imagine my surprise to see it there in my refrigerator “archives” while I was drinking my first cup of coffee! That day was two months into my service to UU Wakefield as their Consulting Minister, ten years after I first visited them. Was that photo preying on my unconscious mind for all those over ten years? Was their Universalist message out to pull me in?

The second time I visited them, in 1998, I led worship talking about our Universalist history through words and a number of our hymns, as well as some gospel songs of the 1800s, including the two Universalist hymns we are singing today, one that remains in the current hymnal and the other dusted off from long distant times. That service came out of study of our Hymnody with David Johnson who is an authority in our movement on Universalism and especially its music.

So here we are this morning, gathered in a Universalist building, gathered together once again, as generations have been gathering. Gathered to be in community with each other—gathered to think about the larger things of life, a larger faith, and to think about how to be together in good times and difficult times. Now that I am here as your minister, I am interested in this particular congregation and its roots, wondering about its path to today, what its guiding vision was and what it will be, and what might be symbolic of that vision. Each week I will get to know you a little better, and I look forward to your sharing with me more of the history of this place and your own personal history, not to mention your vision for what we can do together here. And equally as important—what do you have on your refrigerator?! A little history lesson mixed with symbolism, all in less than twenty minutes.

As you may know, and as I discovered from my first forays into finding more about this congregation, the Santa Paula Universalist Unitarian was among less than a handful of churches founded on the Pacific Coast by Easterners in 1889.[2]  We might imagine what those twenty-three Universalist founding members were thinking as they went from the frigid temperatures of the Northeast to a January like the one we are experiencing here in this valley. They came here to farm, explore for oil and develop a community. You all know the story better than I do but suffice it to say that these folks, especially Wallace Libbey Hardison, felt the need to follow the vision of a Universalist church in Santa Paula. The Universalists of that time believed in Universal salvation rather than the Calvinist view. They believed that God’s eternal love would restore all souls to heaven. But the roots of Universalism goes back to Pre-Revolution times.

Universalism arose in this country at a time of great political and intellectual ferment. It is one of several religious strands, including those of early Unitarians, running through the early days of the Colonies and the path towards an identity as a nation. By 1781 the folks who were embracing Universalist thought began to gather to hear the message of God’s love as preached by Adams Streeter, the first minister of one of the congregation’s I served before I came here, the First Universalist in Milford, Massachusetts. As was common among Universalists at that time, Streeter was somewhat of a circuit rider, bringing the Universalist message to towns from Rhode Island to the North Shore of Massachusetts. Adin Ballou famously served the Milford congregation and the central sanctuary windows are dedicated to him, as he was remembered not only as minister there but as the founder of the Christian utopian community—what these days would be called an intentional community—just down the way in Hopedale.

Universalism taught that no one is outside of the grace of God or the holy. This was a huge departure at the time in an atmosphere of Calvinism. In Universalism, heaven was not limited to the chosen few. Justin F. Lapoint wrote at the time of the Bicentennial of Universalism in a sermon, “Universalism for Such a Time as This”: “Whatever one believes about the afterlife, there can be no doubt that there is plenty of hell in this life. Much of this hell is created by people determined to shut other people out of the ‘chosen’ circle. Unitarian Universalists identify some of these partialisms with such labels as racism, sexism, homophobia. There are many forms of this partialism. It all boils down to the need of a group to keep out the ‘unacceptable’.”

Which brings me to the words of my colleague Richard Trudeau I read earlier. They are potent words of someone struggling to come to terms with his religious upbringing and the search many of us go on, especially in our young adult years. You remember Richard’s trek through “humanism, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, and the study of nature.” What path has your trek taken? Perhaps yours has included womanist theology, astrology, spiritualism, or earth-based theologies? I know that I certainly walked a path similar to Richard’s, reading widely in Eastern Philosophies in my twenties, dabbling in Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, thinking I was spiritual but organized religions was not for me. Eventually, I found Unitarian Universalism and realized that there was a place for me, as many of you have found for yourselves. I loved talking about the worth and dignity of every human being, the justice seeking, and the many sources of our tradition. But I realized at some point that even though we SAY that one of our sources is our Judeo-Christian heritage, in practice many have great difficulty with it. It drags with it all the ways we may have been damaged by a faith tradition of our childhood or it seems hopelessly unrelated to life in the twenty-first century. But I, like Richard, have come to terms with my own upbringing and the roots of our Unitarian Universalism and think it is a grave mistake if we don’t recognize that heritage as part of our universe. And that our Universalist heritage has something to offer us as a liberal religious movement.

Let me digress for a moment. On the altar of the other church I served for the last six years in Wakefield, Mass. there was for many, many years a Universalist Off-Center Cross. Wakefield, like you, had been through some very difficult days of transition before I arrived and in their case, there were still some angry and hurt feelings hanging around. One of the first disgruntled people I talked to when I arrived was upset that that Universalist cross which had always been on the altar was no longer there—and furthermore, it was not to be found! Turns out some of the newer members found that the cross part of the Universalist cross put them over the edge, having been wounded by the churches they grew up in and wanting nothing that smacked of Christianity, Judeo-Christian heritage or no!

I have long known that the Off-Center Cross was the symbol of Universalism but I didn’t realize until doing my research that it was only invented in 1946 during the Universalist General Assembly where a number of Universalist ministers pooled their ideas. I guess I thought perhaps John Murray or Hosea Ballou might have come up with it in the earlier days. Albert Ziegler, one of the ministers in attendance for the invention of the off-center cross, described it this way: “The circle is drawn to represent the all-inclusive faith of universalism which shuts no one out. In that circle is placed the cross, symbolizing the beloved faith out of which our wider insight has grown. We feel that universalism is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths…we consider ourselves to be ‘Universalists of Christian descent.’”  Symbolism.

When I officiate at a wedding, when it comes to the exchanging of rings, I often speak about the symbolism of rings with words like these: “A ring, as a circle, is known as the symbol of the sun and the earth and the universe of wholeness, and perfection and peace.” A circle is a traditional symbol of infinity because it has no beginning or end, representing the universe. In the off-center cross, the empty space at the center represents the mystery at the heart of the universe which some people call “God.” By placing the cross off-center, we leave room for other points of view and acknowledge the validity of many paths toward the holy.

So our Universalist off-center cross is a symbol. Which got me thinking about what a symbol is. The definition in the dictionary for “symbol” is: “something that represents something else by association, resemblance or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.”[3] Carl Jung differentiated a symbol from a sign, in that a sign stands for something known, while a symbol stands for something unknown and which cannot be made clear or precise.[4] Swami Harshananda in the introduction to his book “Principal Symbols of World Religions” says: “The fundamental concepts of any field of knowledge which form the basis of its complicated super structure are essentially abstract. Unless these abstract principles are made concrete following the principle of ‘From the seen to the unseen’, ‘from the known to the unknown”, they cannot be comprehended. He goes on to say that in religion they are particularly necessary since religion deals with such topics as God or the holy, creation, our ultimate destiny, problems of good and evil and so on which are highly abstract.

When I was ordained in 2002 in Wayland, there were many symbolic parts of the ordination ceremony. For one thing, I was intentionally ordained during a normal morning worship service, symbolizing that, in our tradition, it is a congregation who has the power of ordination who can call someone out to the ministry, as I was called out of the Wayland congregation. There was a laying on of hands, where all present, colleagues, friends and family, laid hands on me, blessing me as I took this new path. On that occasion, I gave to those who participated a little gift, which I think some found surprising coming from one that seems to many to be far from a traditional Christian, revering the Jesus of history as a model for ministry but not as the Christ who died for our sins. However, I gave each person a bullet shell cross which came with the words from Micah (4:3): “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” For me, these crosses made in Liberia from the discarded bullet shell casings from Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s symbolize how the worst of what man can do to each other can be transformed through the force of good and of hope.

Today I am wearing the stole that I received from one of our ministers from Romania, one the birthplaces of Unitarianism. On it you can see symbols from many world religions, as every religion has one or many symbols. Here on the left you can see the cross representing Christianity. There are many other symbols representing Christianity. For instance, if you take the cross and turn it upside down, it represents St. Peter. I was fascinated during a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts while I was in seminary by the professor of our History of Christianity showing us the great wealth of Christian symbols hidden within the masterworks.

This next symbol you know as the flaming chalice, a symbol that was chosen by the Unitarians and which we light each week being part of that living flame. I often use this stole when I do interfaith work. Last year when I wore it at an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, a colleague of mine who is a Methodist pastor admired it and actually borrowed it to wear while he was officiating at the wedding of his son who was marrying into the family of another faith. The symbols alone signified to him the openness to other traditions which draws the larger circle.

In April of 2013, Wakefield celebrated the Bicentennial of its founding as a Universalist congregation. I chose as the theme “Draw the Circle Wide” the title of a choral anthem that was inspired by a poem by Edwin Markham. The poem reads:

He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to float.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle and that took him in.

The chorus of the anthem which I directed, sung by a combined choir of singers from the Interfaith community in Wakefield, area UU congregations and friends went:

Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.

Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.

No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side

Draw the circle, draw the circle wide.

So here we draw a circle together and we hope to take in all who wish to search with us. We will look together through our Universalist heritage in our time together in the coming months. We can imagine the symbols of all the world’s religions on our walls. Perhaps we will consider putting new ones in their place one of these days. We can put different symbols on our altar, as I will put a statue of Buddha there when I speak about meditation sometime this year. We can sing the hymns and songs that will bring alive this place, including the ones which may not be our personal favorites but which may be a gift to someone further down the pew.

May we be tolerant of each other as we are on our spiritual path together. May we not be allergic to our Judeo-Christian roots, just as we stay open to wisdom from all sources. May we pick and choose from Christianity, just as we pick and choose from other traditions. May we draw a wide enough circle with love to draw a place for all of us. Blessed be. Amen.


BENEDICTION                                       John Murray

Go out into the highways and by-ways.

Give the people something of your new vision.

You may possess a small light,

But uncover it, let it shine.

Use it in order to bring more light and understanding

to the hearts and minds of men and women.

Give them not hell, but hope and courage,

Preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.



[1] Trudeau, Richard. http://www.nmuc.org/WhatOffr.htm

[2] UUCSP Search Packet, 2013-2014, 41.

[3] Answers.com

[4] Wikipedia, symbol.