Sermon – “Flames of Truth”  by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 6, 2011

Call to Worship

In this season of falling leaves, when all the bright greens of summer turn crimson, honey and bittersweet, and float down to rest on the hardening earth, we remember all those forebears who have gone before; we recall the heroes of our faith who by cross or stake,  jail or protest march, or everyday work and travail  have been present to the life of the spirit in all their suffering, in all their human courage and integrity, in all the love that binds them forever to us, part of the eternal process that brings them and us out of nothing. We are blessed by their souls; those who live and die for human good. May we remember those lives who have borne witness to truth, healed and blessed the world, and may the testimony of our consciences help us claim a sacred way of living, granting peace to those who have gone before, expressing our gratitude for life, and inspiring us to live generously with and for others, making life more glorious for those who follow.


Readings –  from Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

       from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion


Calvin Meets Servetus



Michael Servetus is 500 years old this year.  That’s old.  Born in Spain in 1511,  Michael grew up thinking he would be a lawyer like his father, but two thing happened that changed his mind.  First, he read the Bible, and he discovered that the Jesus of the Bible was a human being who taught us how to live by loving others, and was not the lifeless God of the creeds, who people worshipped.   Later Michael saw the Pope crown the king of Spain, and he was horrified by how the people carried the Pope through the streets, fell at his feet and bowed down to him as if he was  some kind of God.  Michael decided to publish a book pointing out the errors in the doctrine of the Trinity.  It was the first Unitarian book, and it was a best seller, but it got him in trouble.  Both the Catholic church and the Protestant reformers came after him.  He spent more than twenty years on the run.  He even escaped from jail once.  Living under an assumed name, he became a doctor and did some important work on the circulation of the blood.  Finally, he was thrown in jail in Geneva, Switzerland, and that’s where we meet him.  


(Servetus is in jail cell, and Calvin enters)

Calvin:  Servetus, do you know me?

Servetus: Yes, right well, though we have both aged since we first laid eyes upon one another.  I was in the crowd at church, listening to you preach, when they seized me.  Do you always cry of victory over beaten foes?

Calvin: When they are foes of God and the people of this city, then I have served the Almighty well.

(S):  You think that God is always on your side, and agrees with whatever you see fit.  I am sure that is a comfort.  I wish I was so sure of myself.  I  worry that I would confuse God with my own brain.

© Do not scoff at me.  Many years ago you wrote a book of heresy and lies, and now you have written yet another.   You incite the people to rebel.

(S)  I never saw that you gave any answers to my questions when we had a chance to debate.  Now you put me behind bars, and chain my hands and feet.  What kind of argument is that?  Why not use your brain? 

©  Fool! You are so stubborn.  I would have you yield.  My arguments matter little beside the Truth that is revealed in holy scripture (holds the Bible up).  I offer you peace, not a sword, but you must recant your heresy.  You must believe that Jesus is the perfect son, the eternal God.

(S) A thousand times no.  I have read those scriptures, too, and studied them from my youth.  I said it was an error then, and that I still believe.  There is no Trinity, you make a three headed God, when I find only one.  This is a fiction the church made up and foistered on the people.

© All the wise theologians from the beginning bear witness to this Truth.  You speak blasphemy.  You are surely mad.  You love yourself and what you say.

(S)  Others join me in this folly, and some day there will be more. Look around, our numbers will grow. We place our trust in God, and the use of reason. I must follow the truth that I see with mine own eyes.

© So your heart is hardened.  I will not waste my time on you any more. I have tried to make this city, these people, pure, and undefiled, and yet you would poison them with your heresy.  (Calvin leaves)

(Calvin outside the cell) 

That devil cannot be free again, even if he would confess his sin.  I must preach the word of righteousness and truth. I will stand upon a watch tower to guard against wolves and robbers.  This man Servetus – he is the wolf who would eat the sheep.  He is the robber who would steal their souls.   


(Servetus)  –  Recant?  Take back the truth?  I would never lie when my heart knows the honest truth.   The world will judge who was right and who was wrong, but nonetheless, I know that each and every soul deserves a fair hearing in the court of human discourse


Narrator: After Servetus died, Calvin’s treatment of him outraged people all over Europe.  This marked the beginning of the idea of religious tolerance, that people with different ideas about God can live together and respect each other’s views without wanting to deny, persecute, jail or even kill those who think differently from one another.  Today we remember Michael Servetus, as the first Unitarian, who taught us to question and doubt, to use our minds when we read and study religious books, and to respect and listen to one another’s ideas and opinions.  His ideas spread all over Europe, and help start the Unitarian church in Poland and Transylvania. 





 Sermon –  “Flames of Truth”  by Mark W. Harris


  I was raised in a fundamentalist tradition, and so, as Kathlenn Norris notes in our reading, it has always been more difficult for me to feel religious trust.  We sang the old hymn Trust and Obey, but I felt more of the obey than the trust. I had one of those Monster Gods inflicted upon me.  It wasn’t so much my parents doing.  I think they hardly noticed that the preacher told us how sinful we all were, and that we needed Jesus to save us from the devil, and his accursed temptations.    My mother smiled sweetly, and my father ranted at how long and boring the sermons were.  I endured, and took what the preacher was saying very seriously.   When I recited the seemingly innocuous bedtime prayer that ends, “and if  I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul will take,”  I was frightened by it, and sweated through the night thinking what might happen if I did die before morning.  After I survived childhood, I needed some faith I could count on besides rebellion or rejection of that childhood religion that was still percolating in me through my anger and lack of trust.  Even as I began to try to reason it all out, and found some foundation of individual worth and freedom from constraint in personal and intellectual explorations, it was simply not enough.  I needed someone or something to be there for me.

The question of religious inheritance is a big one for many Unitarian Universalists, for up until recently few have been raised in the faith.  We are mostly adult converts, from either that monster God inheritance, or increasingly no inheritance, a mostly secular upbringing.  Yet we all construct some new foundation of faith out of whatever inheritance we have.  When we experience love or learning or friendship or creativity or beauty then we feel more acclimated to the world that some of us felt was always ready to bite us.  We start to build a mature faith, not one dependent on not breaking God’s or the church’s petty rules, but more on the acts of love we perform, and a life of integrity and conviction that those acts grow from.  Kathleen Norris says that Emily Dickinson once wrote that she could be Eve, the mother of all.  We never read in scripture that Eve died.  Could she live on?  Did she live when our mothers or some caregiver came to our bedside when we cried out in the night in pain?  Was she there?   Didn’t that hand of love brush away the terror we felt?  Maybe we all have a sweet moment of memory of a hand on our forehead, of a gentle word, or a cold cloth wiping the sweating brow, holding us close.  In what little moments does Eve still live?  She is there in the memory of comfort and care.  She put the world together for us, and perhaps it seemed as though she stayed all night, even as we fell to sleep.  She gave up her sleep to stay by our side.  She chose this life of parenthood, but then fulfilled it, by being the world builder, the world holder.

When we choose to become part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation we adopt or embrace an inherited faith.  It becomes ours. You learned this morning in our skit that our liberal faith began during a time when there was widespread opportunity to study and interpret the Bible with honesty and integrity.  This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Michael Servetus.  As a young man he read the texts, and concluded that Jesus was not God. He believed that loving, acts of compassion were more important than believing. His anti-Trinitarian works encouraged others to examine the texts for themselves leading to the institutional foundations of our movement in Poland and Transylvania.  Printing presses spread the word.  But the word could also be burned by those who said it corrupted susceptible hearts.  Of 1,000 copies of Servetus’ book, The Restitution of Christianity, that were printed, only three survive.  One of the burned ones was strapped to his leg when he lost his life at the stake, “Flames of Truth”.  That was something we did not share with the children this morning. We may forget how hard the struggle for freedom of inquiry once was, and still remains.  We may also forget that the origins of our faith are in those Biblical texts, and what kind of influence they have on our own hearts.

It is difficult for us today to get our minds around the large scale burning of books and people.   We often think about it in the context of who is doing the burning, and how evil they are.  Yet for Calvin, this heresy was a violation of the word of God, the absolute truth that would bring about salvation.  Heresies were also a threat to the preservation of the community.  On the other hand, Servetus gave what we sometimes refer to as the ultimate sacrifice, he gave his life to uphold what he perceived as truth.  We can see his sacrifice as an act that paved the way for freedom of conscience as a civil right in modern society.  In a way it is a communal gift to us, in building the foundation of our faith as UUs, and to the  larger world.  It is sometimes said that the public reaction to the sacrifice of his life led to a widespread calling for religious toleration.   Perhaps Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and the separation of church and state are children of Servetus, and all of us, UUs and others, the inheritors of this sacrifice of faith.

Yet we are a little squeamish about those who give up their life for a greater cause or religious truth.  Just this week, a friend of the young man from Sudbury who is accused of terrorism, revealed details of their conversations.  He said how they spoke about dying for their faith, using the cryptic phrase, “Let’s go donate blood.”   This idea of their blood becoming the sacrificial fuel of suicide bombers smacks of pure fanaticism to most of us.  While we guard against thinking of all Muslims as fanatics, the idea of this sacrifice still makes us uncomfortable.   We may think of David Koresh burning up with others in a Texas compound, or the Kool-aid suicide of Jonestown that represent Christian fanaticism, but where do we draw the line?  While many people of my generations protested Vietnam in the conventional manner of protests and sit-ins, we all recall Buddhist monks who self-immolated in the early 1960’s.  There is a political tradition, seen most recently in Tunisia, where it is said the suicide of one man led to the toppling of the autocratic ruler.

While we would never condone suicide, we certainly have instances where deaths like this are seen as historical sacrifices, part of a larger struggle for freedom or even peace. Perhaps a critical distinction is the meaning of the act.  With Calvin and the city of Geneva choosing to execute Servetus, or a Muslim carrying out jihad, it is done to preserve a community or a faith in its absolutism.  It is a narrow or restricted definition of what is allowed in a community, or what is defined as acceptable dogma.  Belief is more important than right action. 

In our own US history there is the story of John Brown, told in a new book by Tony Horwitz called Midnight Rising.  Years ago on one of my Civil War pilgrimages, I visited Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  I remember it as a sleepy place at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenendoah  rivers. Imagining Brown’s raid was difficult for me.  At the time of the assault on the armory in 1859, even abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called it an insane act, but yet it helped precipitate the Civil War, which once and for all brought an end to the evil sin of slavery.   Brown had inherited a faith in ardent abolitionism, and used violence more than  once to bear witness against   the slave powers. His arrest, trial and death by hanging made him a martyr to the cause of freedom.  At the time Louisa May Alcott said his “Dying, made death divine.”   Horwitz even speculates that Brown sacrificed himself to the cause on purpose, believing his death would bring about the end of slavery that much sooner.  While certainly not purposeful, we know that the assault by white racists on UU minister James Reeb in 1965, which resulted in his death helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.   What means does it take to achieve freedom?  What we would do in repressive conditions?  How far would we go or what means would we use? What would we sacrifice for truth, for faith, for freedom?   Quoting Langston Hughes, Horwitz writes that Harpers Ferry is alive with ghosts today.   Do we see them around us?  What do these ghosts urge us to do with our lives?   Whose sacrifices do we recall, and what methods do we employ to build a world of peace and plenty for all?    

When I worked at UU headquarters I had many contacts with a woman who was the daughter of a Transylvanian Untarian minister, Dr. Judit Gellerd, or Zizi, as she preferred to be called. She told the story of her father’s ministry.   During the time of the Communist control of Romania under Ceausescu, ministers were restricted in that they could not speak out on social issues, or expand their church mission in any way, shape or form.  One quarter of them spent time in prison.  There were hundreds of recent Unitarian martyrs.  Martyrs not because they were radicals in any religious or social way, but because the simple freedom of access to school, expansion of church programs and free speech were denied.  Each found certain limits that he could tolerate, and when he reached the breaking point where his integrity or his faith were violated, he said in turn, I can take no more. Zizi tells how her father was harassed, imprisoned, released, tortured, re-educated, imprisoned again.  Finally, he could not take the continued abuse, and he committed suicide.    In a remembrance of him, she quotes Elie Wiesel  “Last night I saw my father in a dream.”    She, too, met her father in a dream after he had died, and she found her faith shattered.  In the dream they walked into their church. She asked him if he would ever leave her again, and he said ” “No, never!” She says this felt like she received his blessing, and it gave her a renewed focus in life.  This dream reassurance gave her  new meaning and responsibility for life: “to become a martyr myself,”  she said, not in the sense of giving up her life, but in the “sense of witness.”  “I honor my father’s memory in abiding commitment to his words of his last sermon the day before he died: “God does not expect from you to save the world, your mandate is limited to one single human being, which could be just yourself.  God never expects more from us than we are capable of doing.  Each word of comfort, each act of compassion is a small bonfire during dark nights.  But these tiny flickering flames, the simple gestures of loving hearts will add up and will eventually save the world.  Salvation is not something we have to wait for, but we should do something about it.  Because we can.  And because we can, therefore we must.”

When the past meets the present, we can be inspired to live the meaning of our faith.  This dream event in Judit Gellerd’s life fuses past and present.  There is the presence of the historic church as her inheritance, the legacy of her father’s life of witness to truth, and the challenge of living with renewed hope and meaning before her.  At one point in history, some might have interpreted this dream to mean that God was speaking to her, or that the spirit of life was giving direction to her heart. Whether we are born in this faith or adopt it as our own, forebears such as Servetus link us all with a continuing struggle, and a chance to discover within ourselves resources of courage to witness to the principle of liberty of conscience, and a lived faith of service to others. 

When we reject an inherited faith, we struggle to build a new faith from the ashes of the old. In the Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about how she has always struggled with meaninglessness.  She says it was geology that gave her a sense of world without end, in the midst of shifting plates and disappearing islands.  This confirmed both science and traditional church liturgy in the sense of ongoing life, but not of a God who personally keeps his eye upon the sparrow or me or you.  Instead, she came to build little fragments of meaning in her domestic life against the backdrop of uncertainty.  The little personal, worldly and orderly structure of love and care that came from her life as wife and mother gave meaning in the context of the indifference of the physical world.  She would bear witness to truth in her domestic patterns of the little world she inhabited, and perhaps like Judit Gellerd, the domesticity of an intimate connection saved her, leading to a connection with other loving hearts who together might save this weary world.

It is perhaps not so far fetched to see a parallel between the martyred Unitarian founder Servetus, and each one of us in our domestic trials.  Each soul who takes on this faith knows that they are challenged to live not by belief, but by love for others in action. Servetus gave his life so that he might unite with others in the freedom to speak openly without free of reprisal.  Judit’s Gellerd father knew that same trial, and it might come to us as well.  We know in our hearts the sacrifice of those who have gone before.  We each may bring to mind a parent who worked from morning to night that we might fulfill a dream of going to college that he or she never had.  They would do anything that we might live and have a better life than they.  We each may bring to mind someone who sat by our bed and nursed us  back to health. There are many sacrifices we could name in our domestic rounds of work, care or play when some parent, mentor, teacher or friend gave us time, gave us material aid, sacrificed something from their life to help us grow, mature, succeed, or merely carry on.

This time of year when the leaves fall is a time to remember those who have sacrificed, who have given us meaning, who have gone before.. These are days of remembrance.  Look at us. We often do not speak publicly of the deaths of those who have preceded us. Yet we are the harvest of the lives of others. Their work and sacrifice made us who we are. Some were names in history who gives us our faith of freedom.  Others were our parents,  loved ones or teachers;  each contributed to our growth with some sacrifice.  In our daily lives they lost sleep, worked hard, missed a vacation,  gave life in so many ways.  All the saints of our lives come shining through. For those we did not know, perhaps we read their works or learned about their faith through story , and were inspired.  For those in daily struggles, perhaps we felt their love or saw their devotion.  What was the legacy they bequeathed to us – tolerance, hard work, being faithful unto death

Sometimes it is difficult to look back. People seemed to have died in vain, or were victims of terrible violence and inequality.  For many of us it may mean we feel sorrow because the loved ones who gave us so much are no longer part of our lives, and as the holidays approach, we notice their absence even more.  So it is hard to remember in different ways, but it helps us understand ourselves, and it helps us see what pathway we might trod following their example, their courage and fortitude.  Barbara Farrell shared with me a brief story of a woman who writes about how we often have a conspiracy of silence about death.  We don’t talk about it.  She says that in the nineteenth century people always wore ribbons or medallions or clothes or some identifying mark that told others that you were in mourning.  People could understand that you were grieving when they saw them.  Now we have to tell a grief counselor when we are sad, rather than simply express that grief to others.  May this be a place where you can express your grief, that we might learn of the person who has gone before.  It may be a heavy weight upon your heart, but it is a weight that gives way to the possibility of renewed love in the days to come.  When we remember what has been, we begin to see who we are, and know we have the capacity to make a difference.   And in time we will pass that gift of ourselves on to those who follow


Closing words – form Michael Servetus


Faith is with respect to God, love is with respect to God and to our neighbor. . . Loving is more difficult than believing.  Love bears all difficulties, endures all things, and renders easy all things, including poverty and death. . . Because love is more lasting; love is a natural symbol of the future kingdom . . . Faith begins; love completes.  Most wicked people believed in Christ, but no wicked person loved Christ. . . There is nothng that makes us more like God than love because God is love . . . Loving, not believing, is a property of divine nature.”