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So Great a Cloud of Witnesses
Rev. John Corrado
Gross Pointe, MI
From a sermon delivered at The 2003 Annual Meeting of
the AUC at Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church May 4, 2003.
since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us...lay
aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with
perseverance the race that is set before us. —Hebrews
of us this morning is partaking in something that is not only special,
but exceedingly rare in the entire cavalcade of human history. We are in
a free country, freely choosing whether and where we worship. Our choice
is to worship in a free church. For most of the people who have
inhabited the planet such freedom has been unimaginable. Yet, we
have it, enjoy it and, sadly, often take it for granted, trivialize it,
or piddle it away. Many people act as if religious freedom were nothing
and treat it as though it were unimportant. The "Faith of the
Free" becomes just a bunch of vacuous words. That's what I'd like
to talk with you about this morning.
isn't free. Our freedom is an inheritance. We didn't invent it. We
didn't earn in. We didn't do anything to deserve it. It is an
inheritance, a gift, and it is a gift which has been paid for—in blood.
far as religious freedom is concerned, I have come upon more than a few
people in the Unitarian Universalist movement who have a very limited
and cheap sense of what they have inherited, or, since this is their
chosen church, what they have chosen to inherit. I have come upon more
than a few people who interpret freedom to mean a church free from tradition, free from
history, free from
anything "religious" (whatever they mean by that), and even
free from the name "church!"
They want a non-church church. Yet they come into our doors—I
must assume because they've heard that we are the church of the
free—and they are disappointed to find that we are not the Burger King non-church. (The Burger King jingle goes:
"Hold the pickle, hold
the lettuce... Have it your way at Burger King!")
me tell you about a man I met in a church I served decades ago.
Universalist churches are not the only churches of freedom. Unitarian
Universalist Churches are, however, among the very few churches which have no creed to serve as a corrective for any abuses of freedom that may occur.
We rely on the good faith of people assembled, the dialog with one
another, and with the accrued tradition of our faith to be correctives
to trivialization, narcissism and any other abuses of freedom. But you
have to know that you are accepting an inheritance. You need to learn,
remember, and incorporate your history—or at least some
If you want to measure your faith, I suggest this: don't measure it
against the trends of the day. With all of your reason and the best that
is in your soul, measure it against the accrued wisdom, history and
sacrifice of the past. This enlightened freedom we now enjoy was paid
for by a great cloud of witnesses. It would do us well to act as if
their eyes look down upon us and what we do with the gift they have
bestowed upon us. Let me remind you of a few of those witnesses.
symbol Unitarians and Universalists have appropriated since shortly
after they merged forty-plus years ago, is the flaming chalice. Do you
know the roots of that symbol? When people in our churches around the
world light the chalice on Sunday mornings, they inherently recall the
witness of John Hus.
was not a Unitarian, but he was one of those devout questioners who is
part of the liberal
religious heritage. Hus was born over 600 years ago. He was ordained to the Roman
Catholic priesthood in 1401, more than one hundred years before the
start of the reformation. Things we take for granted today were part of
the bill of particulars which led the hierarchy of the Roman church to
label Jan Hus a heretic.
not only preached in Czech, his native language (rather than Latin), he
preached of "native matters," i.e. common everyday concerns.
He believed in religion for all the people. He preached out
of the shared experience of the people rather than preaching
"theology." As Hus once said, "If God had intended
himself to be revealed through theology, we would all have
been born with doctorates." Hus also believed in what
Unitarians later called "salvation by character," that
goodness is shown in a person’s actions rather than in what she or he
professes to believe. Hus also taught that
communion bread and wine did not change into body and blood, but
were merely symbolic. To make matters worse, he taught that this
sacrament of fellowship should be put in the hands of all people. He
believed in the fellowship and religious equality of all
believers. For this Hus was arrested. His priestly robes were
torn from his body and he was burned at the stake. But to burn a man is
not to stop a truth.
followers identified themselves with badges and drawings of the flaming
chalice. Out of the ashes of post-World War II Europe, Unitarians all
over the world reclaimed that symbol of religious freedom. In the words
of Jan Hus:
God needs people who will
Seek the truth
Listen to the truth
Teach the truth
Love the truth
Abide by the truth
And defend the truth
Even unto death.
what he said. That's what he did. It doesn't sound like the Burger King,
"believe-whatever-you-want" non-church to me!
was a learned man, a scholar and a physician. He studied religion
he "critiqued" it. (Do the Jims of our time do that?) He found
no biblical basis for either the belief
in the Trinity or that Jesus was God. He wrote about this in his book, On the Errors of the Trinity.
Servetus not only challenged the Pope, he challenged the other religious
reformers of the day. Servetus's writing circulated through much of
Europe in the 1530's. Since he was sought by Catholics and Protestants
alike for his challenging views, Servetus himself circulated through
much of Europe too, hoping to live and press on another day. He was
finally captured by John Calvin.
Hus, Servetus was taken to the stake. His books were tied around his
body, his body was tied to a stake, and then he was burned. I wonder how
seriously Servetus would take
How about potato chip or cookie communions?
isn't free. Disciplined religious open-mindedness doesn't mean your mind
is so open that your brains fall out.
on a hill above the town of Deva, Romania lies an old castle. Were you
to climb the dusty road to the castle and brave the trees and vines that
have grown around the castle, you could look down upon the town and
sense the might and power that castle represented to the people of
Transylvania 400 years ago. If you go into the castle, you will discover
not, as you movie buffs might expect, Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory, but
something greater. In one of the towers, by the entrance to a prison
cell, you would see these words:
Here died the martyr, Francis David,
the reformer of immortal souls,
the founder and bishop of the Unitarian church.
Carl Scovel writes: “All he did [in five years] was establish a
Unitarian church—a national church—which...proportional to the size
of the national population is five times the size of the American
church—a church which for over half of its existence has endured
persecution most of us would find hard to imagine.”
That's a good five-year output! But there's more to it than that.
In the 1560's, four competing religious groups fought for dominance in
Transylvania: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Unitarian. It was up to
the king, John Sigismund, to decide which church would be the
"official" state church. To this end, the King sponsored a
series of debates to be held throughout the country. Francis David
represented the Unitarians.
Had David merely won the debates and established the
religious liberty was short-lived. King John Sigismund died in 1571. His
successor removed all Unitarians from public office and severely
restricted the practice of the faith. David persevered despite this, and
in 1579 was thrown into the cell in the castle at Deva where he died.
is not free! These words were
discovered scratched on the walls of his cell:
Not lightning, nor cross, nor sword of the Pope, nor
death's visiblest face, no
power whatever, can stay the progress of Truth! What
I have felt I have written; with faithful heart I have spoken:
my death the dogmas of untruth shall fall!
continuing presence of those who would impose their religious dogma on
the rest of us attests to the fact that the battle is not over. Did
David die for "trend du jour," or undiscerning eclecticism? I
doubt it. I also doubt that he died for religious political correctness,
or for people who would turn their
favorite political agenda into a test of faith for everyone in their
church. And I can't see such martyrdom as an affirmation of those who,
while they call
themselves Universalists, not only wish to divide us up into little
identity groups, but through some magic I don't understand do it on the
freedom of Capek's body ended in 1941 when Hitler's SS troops took him
into custody. The freedom of his mind and soul continued to flourish.
Even at the Dachua concentration camp, Capek composed songs for him and
his fellow prisoners to sing. In this way, Capek gave hope to prisoners
who later said they would
have given up and probably would have perished if it had not been for
Capek and his songs. Capek's free spiritedness did not please his
captors. They made him the subject of their "medical"
experiments. He died of the injections he had been given in October of
Noblest Part of Free Religion
guess we'll always have the Jims of the world among us, those people who
say Unitarian Universalism is whatever you want it to be, those who
affirm everybody else's religious practices from ancient Hindu to modern
secular Kwaanza, while putting down the traditional aspects of their own
they do little to learn about anyway. I guess we'll always have the Jims who
trivialize worship and the celebration of any rite from the blessing of
a baby to the mourning of the dead, who whitewash any hymns which fail
to meet the politically correct agenda of the day. I guess that's the
price we pay for having a church that's free. As annoying as you may
find all that to be—and I find it quite annoying and tedious—it's a small price to pay. It's certainly a
small price when you consider the price that our great cloud of
you want a yardstick to measure the length and breadth and depth of your
faith, consider the great cloud of witnesses who represent the noblest
part of free religion.
church is not a first century church or a fifth century church or a
sixteenth or nineteenth century church. It is a twenty-first century
church. It is a church in this time, but it is not merely a church of
this time—it is not merely "The church of what's happening
now." What was said in the first century by the apostle Paul (quoted at the outset) remains
relevant to us today. Be free in the best sense of the word; remember where your freedom
came from and be blessed. Amen.
© 2003 American Unitarian Conference™