My sermon today is in two parts. Part one is what I preached at our partner church in Székelyudvarhely, although there I had to pause every once and a while for Rev. Kedei to translate what I was saying into Hungarian. I want you to hear what I had to say to them. Here we go:
I bring you greetings from your sister congregation 6000 miles away. But despite the distance, we are at one in heart:
Where there is faith, there is love;
Where there is love, there is peace;
Where there is peace, there is blessing;
Where there is blessing, there is God.
Where there is God, there is no need.
Now, I begin by noting something perennially tragic in human history. Always the haves and the have nots. Always insiders and always the rejected, the outcast. Two thousand years ago, Roman rulers spoke of this as a kind of peace. The peace of Rome was a way of life in which the Emperor was at the top of the pyramid, then wealthy men right below. Only these had inherent worth and dignity; everyone else was a tool to be used, controlled, subjugated, humiliated. No compassion for these people: women, poor men, slaves, and the conquered.
But this was the way of Rome, the way to a unified empire, the way to true peace. Fight Rome on this—serve any gods that contradict the Roman way—and it’s war.
And now begins our Living Tradition. It begins with the grungy followers of a discredited rabbi whose teachings were judged as treasonous and he was crucified. Pontius Pilate thought it would have been enough to crush the spiritual rebels but it was not to be so. The love of Rabbi Jesus was too powerful to die. Rabbi Jesus died but his spirit was resurrected in the lives of his followers, who refused the peace of Rome. They refused to be pacified. They resisted and it was all about Love. Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, said, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” That’s what the Jesus followers did. Religion wasn’t so much a matter of what you believed as what you did. To care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. Subvert the perennial tragedy of human history. Resist the peace of Rome. No more have-nots.
Everyone get inside the circle.
So you can imagine how Rome felt about the apostle Paul when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”—which is to say that everyone has inherent worth and dignity and not just some. Teachings like this made Paul and every person who received them into their hearts criminals.
Suffering is no stranger to our Living Tradition. One of the greatest gifts that our Transylvanian Unitarian Churches have given the world was Francis David. Back in 1568, he was warned by a debater from the Calvinist persuasion, “If I win this debate you will be executed.” He replied, calmly, “If I win this debate, you will be given the freedom due to every son of God.” Because David knew: faith is the gift of God. A person’s faith is their secret way of being with the mystery, and it cannot be compelled by any external force, it can’t even be compelled by the person in question gritting their teeth and trying to force themselves to believe. It comes from a place within that’s deeper than trying, it comes from the soul, it comes from God.
For almost 500 years, this has been our tradition. Tolerance is synonymous with who we are.
But suffering is no stranger. We know how the story ended for David. Tolerance met with intolerance. The power of Rome reincarnated. Rome rearing its ugly head yet again. The last book David ever wrote was one line scratched upon the wall of a prison cell, as he was sick and pitifully weak: Egy Az Isten. God is one. He died of neglect on November 15, 1579. His body was thrown into an unmarked grave, and not one person, to this day, knows where he actually lies.
But now listen to something else about our Living Tradition. It does not quit. It does not quit! Does not matter that the grave of the great Francis David is unknown. Does not matter how he died. The last book he ever wrote—those precious three words scratched upon a prison wall—are above the door of every Unitarian church in this land. They hang on the wall of my home congregation, on a beautiful banner which was a gift from you.
The spirit of Francis David, just like his Master Jesus, can never die.
And neither can the spirit of love that Jesus magnified and his followers caught and taught, despite the opposing power of Rome and every reincarnation of Rome up to this point in time, including Communism, including the Donald Trumpism of my own country. Despite all their promises of peace…
When Rev. Kedei visited my congregation back in May of 1998, he said, “Through centuries of persecution, of depravation of our rights, we learned well the lesson of history: we could survive only if we help and love each other. It remained a proverb from those times: ‘They love each other like Unitarians.’”
As we together–you here in Romania and we in the United States—navigate the complexities of the 21st century, let us love each other like Unitarians. Our partnership has lasted for 26 years, since 1990, and let it last for untold years more. We are both religious minorities surrounded by majority upon majority. We can feel so small at times. But our shared Living Tradition transcends geography and transcends time. It is like a river with a far distant origin and purpose and we are at the forming edge of it and it goes beyond us too, on and on. Our Living Tradition. All our heroes. All the stories. And also this: the something that is universal. How we are all one in the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, which bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things, is greater than faith, greater than hope, never ends.
I don’t care how powerful Rome was, or its current versions.
Let us love each other like Unitarians, and all will be well.