“Safe to Fail” 3/19/2017


Spirit of Life and Love, Justice and Peace:

Someone threw a brick through our window and we don’t know why.

We do speculate about it.

The image that was broken is the one we use as our profile picture on the church’s Facebook page. So it looks like this is about who we are.

The brick was thrown during our worship service, so it looks like it was meant to scare us.

It was thrown two days after we hosted a well-publicized Town Hall to lift up to city officials the voices of our transgender friends and neighbors at a time when violence against them – here in our city – has escalated to murder.

We speculate that these events are connected, and that this act of violent property damage was a reaction to our mission and ministry to stand by and support transgender people.

And to that, we say: no brick will deter us from our mission as a church.

And to that, friends around the country have let us know they stand with us – with messages of support for our mission and ministry, and gifts for the repair of the window, and statements of support for both transgender people and religious freedom.

Through the hole in our window has poured a whole lot of love.

Come what may, O Spirit of Life:

We will stand by all our neighbors who are marginalized and targeted for systemic oppression.

We will stand by one another in covenant and commitment to our mission.

We will stand by this faith.

In the Spirit, by the Spirit, with the Spirit giving power, so may it be. Amen.


READING: from Letters, and Sketches of Sermons, vol. 1 (of 3), by John Murray

Letter IV, To a clergyman in the city of London, Great Britain; pp. 105-106 (Boston: Joshua Belcher, 1812)

You are solicitous to know if it be a fact that I have been pelted by stones while engaged in the pulpit. Assuredly, and that more than once, and in the metropolis of New England! one stone weighing one pound and a half was thrown violently in at the window but missed me; I lifted it up, and waving it in the view of the people, observed, [“T]his argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.[“] Exclamations from various parts of the house were echoed, and re-echoed. “Pray, Sir, leave the pulpit; your life is at hazard.” [“]Be it so,[“] I returned, [“]the debt of nature must be paid, and I am as ready and as willing to discharge it now, as I shall be fifty years hence. Yet, for your consolation, suffer me to say, I am immortal, while He who called me into existence has any business for me to perform, and when he has executed those purposes for which he designed me as the humble instrument, he will graciously sign the passport for my emancipation. With your good leave then I will pursue my subject, and while I have a ‘Thus saith the Lord’ for every point of doctrine which I advance, not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth or arrest my testimony.[“] The congregation was astonishingly large, but order and silence were gradually restored, and I had uncommon freedom in the illustration and defence of those sacred truths which will be ultimately triumphant.

SERMON: “Safe to Fail”

The man who picked up the stone and called it unconvincing was not the same man who had left England in 1770 for the New World. That miracle at Good Luck, New Jersey, had changed him – encouraged him, emboldened him. He became willing to take risks again, after a very punishing life in England. He had had a series of hard experiences that had made him quite shy to stand out and be noticed, even if what he wanted to say or do would share an important truth or make an important difference to others.

John Murray might be described as a downwardly mobile son of a marginalized but privileged family. His grandmother – his father’s mother – was a French girl whose Catholic family had sent her to study in England. When she not only became a zealous Protestant, but married one, she effectively exiled herself from her family and renounced what would have been a substantial inheritance. She and her husband did well, however, and when John knew her – after she was widowed – she had remarried and as he put it, “the remains of affluence were still visible” and she lived “in easy circumstances.” John’s father, growing up in that zealous household, became a strict and passionate Calvinist Anglican, married a Presbyterian, became a terror to his nine children as a disciplinarian, and often singled John out for even more strict discipline because he was the oldest. The younger children needed an example, you see. He also kept him from gaining an academic education, wanting him to stay in the family and learn a business trade.  John’s father evidently hustled and worked hard to bring in the family income, often traveling on business (for which the children were grateful). He moved the family to Ireland, where his mother lived, when John was 10; she saved them from financial ruin when their house burned down when John was 12. Now, because his own health was failing, he wanted John to become head of the household after he died. That came about when John was still a teenager. All of this suggests that, while providing a good living for the family, John’s father was not able to save or invest very much, if at all.

As head of household, John established an income for the family by regaining title to several houses that his grandmother’s second husband had owned, that somehow had been wrongly deeded to others. This gave the family both a home and rental income on the other houses. Friendship and tragedy combined to provide him his own income: his best friend died of a disease John had survived in childhood, and that friend’s parents – who lost both their sons that way and became childless – in effect adopted him by making him manager of their business affairs. At the same time, he became interested in preaching and pursued it, a hobby they complained of because it took him out of town so often. Eventually they decided to give him a large gift of money and let him go; he first offered the money to his mother, but she felt she had adequate income from rents and told him to keep it. He left for London and spent a year there, which he described as “a life of dissipation” – sounds like the biblical story of the prodigal son – and he said he gave his last half-penny as alms to a beggar and then contemplated suicide (and not for the last time). But then he got a factory job and found George Whitefield’s Tabernacle. George Whitefield was the Calvinist evangelist who had come to the American colonies and started the First Great Awakening. Whitefield’s movement was a sort of back-to-basics Christianity that we today might call non-denominational. The Tabernacle welcomed people of all denominations. Good-hearted acquaintances there helped John keep out of debtors’ prison during his factory-worker period. He came to feel that, while he loved to preach, he was not ready to accept a pulpit because he didn’t know enough yet how to preach a good word to folks in all of life’s circumstances.

At the Tabernacle he met Eliza Neale. When he married her, her grandfather cut her out of his will because he disagreed with Whitefield’s movement and thought John must be a fortune-hunter. They managed a modest but happy life together, and the Tabernacle was a big part of that. Though John didn’t preach as much, he did often give the prayer in services.

During these years John heard tell of a preacher named James Relly, who had been part of the Whitefield movement but had broken away and was now preaching universal salvation. He first learned of Relly when a member of the Tabernacle asked him to read a draft of a pamphlet opposing Relly’s teaching. John felt that one of the refutations in it wasn’t good enough, and that bothered him. Everybody around him was anti-Relly, so he was, too. He didn’t actually read anything Relly wrote, or go to hear him preach. He just sort of hated him in ignorance. Then a few months later he spotted Relly’s book on a shelf at the home of one of Eliza’s relatives, and asked to borrow it. He found the argument his friend hadn’t refuted to his satisfaction, and studied it. Relly argued that, contrary to Calvinist teaching, there was no “Elect” and therefore all people would be saved. John didn’t quite know what to do with that. He and Eliza studied the whole book together. After a while, they decided to go to their usual Sunday service half the day, and spend the other half of Sunday listening to Relly. They settled into this routine, so that they could regularly be “hearing the truth, without running the risk of losing [their] reputation.” They were still cautious about taking risks.

James Relly took notice of John, encouraged him to preach, and even gave him a book of outlines of his own sermons to study. Still, John refused to preach, not feeling confident enough. But members of the Tabernacle got wind of where John and Eliza spent their Sunday afternoons, and the congregation voted narrowly to expel them.

Then came the crucial year, 1769. John was arrested for debt, and being cut off from the Tabernacle, found no help from his usual benefactors. He somehow avoided being jailed. Then his only son died, and Eliza took ill and died, and he learned that one of his brothers and three of his sisters had died. In the wake of these tragedies, his remaining brothers and his mother came to London to live with him. The brother he was closest to, and his mother, both were opposed to universalism, making the household tense. John’s debts mounted. His brother-in-law rescued him from debtors’ prison, and after that he found a mercantile job that he hated. Through all this, Relly kept encouraging him to preach, but John didn’t want to risk being a public person in his precarious financial circumstances. He became increasingly depressed. A chance meeting with an American colonist visiting London led to his immigration the next year, 1770. He felt that, short of suicide, this was the best way to quit the world.

So I say, the man who picked up the stone and called it unconvincing was not the same man who had left England in 1770 for the New World. The man who left England was dispirited, ready to give up. But he had taken with him his consolation: he carried across the Atlantic that book of James Relly’s sermon outlines. And so when Thomas Potter asked him to preach in his private chapel, he may have been reluctant, but he was equipped. And after that experience, he became willing to take risks again. He had had a lifetime of experiences that had made him quite shy to stand out and be noticed, even if what he wanted to say or do would share an important truth or make an important difference to others. But with encouragement from Thomas Potter and his neighbors, he decided to recommit. He found the Universalist community in the colonies, and helped build the connections and organized groups that would result in the Universalist Church of America. For many years he was the link between Universalists in and around Philadelphia where he first settled, and those in New England where he later served churches. Probably for that reason, many Universalists dated the founding of their movement to his landing at Good Luck in 1770, though there had been universalist groups in the colonies long before, as early as the 1740s. And much of that earlier universalist history was forgotten in denominational lore, because John Murray’s newfound courage to risk, to stand out, to speak truth, to make a difference, was to them the more significant thing.

To John Murray, I think the most significant thing was that he found a community where he felt safe to fail. He found a community of universalists who were willing to support each other in taking risks. Thomas Potter took a risk building his own chapel – his neighbors must have thought that was a nutty thing to do. And then to invite any strange preacher he met to preach in it! Best keep your daughters away from him! But he did it. And by taking that risk, he made a safe space for John Murray to find his courage again. I would like to think that this small congregation bought this big building with a similar intention, because that is what we have become to our marginalized and targeted neighbors: a safe and welcoming place to meet, to organize, to find their courage, to stand up, speak truth, and make a difference.

And one other thing: to find a sustaining joy and good humor. We know how important it is to find joy and humor in life, to keep us going through its ups and downs. Our own Theodore Clapp, founder of this church, wrote that he found evidence of universalism in the joy he experienced at a New Orleans party. And all of us know what a difference of joy Carnival makes. And Jazzfest! Joy, as much as love, gives us courage, supports us in being a people and a community of risk.

There is another story about John Murray preaching in a New England pulpit, and the local outspoken Calvinist clergyman opposing him was a certain Mr. Rev. Bacon. Bacon showed up to argue with and heckle Murray’s sermon one Sunday. Defeated by Murray’s replies, he left. A little later, some of Bacon’s supporters returned and pelted Murray with eggs. What did he say?

“Well , my dear friends, these are moving arguments; but I must own, at the same time, I have never been so fully treated with bacon and eggs before in all my life.” And then he stepped out of the pulpit. So may it be. Amen.


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