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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.


Therefore, 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 12:1

Each 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.

Freedom 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.

As 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!")

Let me tell you about a man I met in a church I served decades ago. I met Jim during the salad days of my ministry, when I was green and a little tender. A slightly more experienced and sly minister from the neighboring UU church had sent Jim to our church. "They're more 'open' there," he had said. ("Thanks a lot!" I later told him). Jim was tall of stature, loud of voice and forceful of personality. These traits might have made him short of friends—except for the fact that he kept volunteering to take charge of things. With enough people long on fatigue and short on discernment, the church found Jim leading a program he called "A Retreat On What We Believe." The whole process was something I had trouble believing—especially when, in Burger King non-church fashion, he declared that whoever happened to attend his shindig would determine what the beliefs of the church were because, as he delicately put it, "Our church is whatever we say it is!" (This is when I became short of patience, firm of conviction and in his face). Think of it, "The church is whatever WE say it is," as if the church existed in a vacuum with no past, no tradition, no heritage; as if it were a tumbleweed dropped from outer space. Jim's not alone. Hang around a liberal church long enough and you will run into a few people like Jim, people who are confused about religious freedom.

Unitarian 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 of it.

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.

John Hus

A 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.

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.

Hus 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.

Hus's 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.

That's what he said. That's what he did. It doesn't sound like the Burger King, "believe-whatever-you-want" non-church to me!

Michael Servetus

Then there was Michael Servetus. Servetus was born in Spain in 1511. He is known to some as "the First Unitarian." Like Hus and the other church reformers of these earlier times, Servetus was not on a "Go with your feelings, Luke" kick. That's "Star Wars" religion.

Servetus was a learned man, a scholar and a physician. He studied religion seriously before 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.

Like 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 dance-to-your-own-inner-God/Goddess-under-the-full-moon- in-your-"meat sucks"-tee-shirt -solstice-celebrations? How about potato chip or cookie communions?

Freedom isn't free. Disciplined religious open-mindedness doesn't mean your mind is so open that your brains fall out.

Francis David

Then there is David Ferenc, or as we translate the name,  Francis David. David is certainly one of the greatest of the witnesses of free religion.

High 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. 

Colleague 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 primacy of the Unitarian church, we could have saluted the eloquence of David and said, "Hooray for our side!" But David was not an "our side" kind of guy. When the Catholic debater said, "If I win the debate, I will have your head on a plate," David said, "If I win the debate there will be religious tolerance for all!" And that's what happened. In 1557 an Edict of Religious Toleration was issued, the first such declaration in Western history. This due to the efforts and eloquence of Francis David.

Unfortunately, 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.

Freedom 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: After my death the dogmas of untruth shall fall!

The 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 denominational dole.

Norbert Capek

I want to mention one other great witness for religious freedom. His name is Norbert Capek, a twentieth century Martyr. Some of you remember Capek for the institution of the Flower Communion, a rite which celebrates the beauty of diversity within unity. Like Hus, Capek was a Czech. Like Hus, Capek spoke to the aspirations and needs of his people. He was a champion of religious and political freedom. In the 1930's he built a church of over 5000 members in Prague and started churches in five other Czech cities.

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 1942.

The Noblest Part of Free Religion

There are those who believe that Unitarian Universalism is an "easy" religion, that religious freedom is vague "anything-arianism" which affirms everything and demands nothing, or that we are mainly interested in the trends or social agendas of the day. Tell that to Jan Hus. Tell that to Michael Servetus. Tell that to Francis David. Tell that to Norbert Capek. They are part of the great cloud of witnesses which hovers over every free church. They are among those whose positive beliefs kindled the light of free religions. They are among those who paid the ultimate price.

I 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 religion which 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 witnesses paid.

If 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.

Our 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