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Presented November 6, 2016, by Rev. Krista Taves
From Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the 21st century.
There is no life apart from life together. In many Buddhist traditions, taking refuge in the sangha (the spiritual community) is necessary for enlightenment. "There is no salvation outside the Church" said third-century Christian bishop Cyprian of Carthage. These may be startling claims if you have been steeped in the dominant U.S. culture of individualism, which suggests that looking out for number 1 is the only way to survive. But life is relational through and through. Everything exists in interaction and interdependence with everything else. The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given. The question is how we shape our modes of being with another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.
. . . . "Ecclesiology" from the word ekklesia is the theological theme that speaks about religious community.
[For Unitarian Universalists] . . . . Two progressive theological claims about congregational life stand out. First, congregations can be "communities of resistance" - countercultural habitations in which people learn ways to survive and thrive that can resist and sometimes even transform an unjust dominant culture. Second, congregations can provide an embodied experience of covenant and life-sustaining interdependence . . . . When religious communities are formed by the will of the people themselves and governed by the members, they can be liberating and life-giving places."
The Hungarian Unitarian villages in Transylvania Romania have been there for 450 years. They are the oldest Unitarian communities in the world. During the Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation in the 1500s, when reformers questioned everything that had ever been accepted about the church and were being hunted as heretics, many found refuge in Transylvania. In 1568 King Sigismund, who had converted to Unitarianism, declared an edict of tolerance, that people were free to adhere to the religion of their conscience. It was the first of its kind in Europe and created the conditions for Unitarians to establish themselves as communities and to live freely, for a while. When Sigismund died, his Catholic successor ended the policy, and the Unitarians had to very quickly adjust to this new dangerous reality of they would not survive.
The Transylvanian Unitarians became adept and knowing when and how to go underground. They had created a church structure that didn't depend on buildings or charismatic leaders. This helped them to be resilient enough to survive the hard times. Once the persecutions of the Reformation era ended, the Unitarian churches could come into public view again and began to grow stronger. Transylvania is now filled with Unitarian villages.
Fast forward to the mid 20th century when Romania joined the Soviet bloc. These were very hard times for the Unitarians. They found themselves between a thickening closing in wall and there was no coming or going. Not only were they an ethnic minority, not only were they Christian, they were also a religious people who questioned. It wasn't long before they were targeted. Many ministers were imprisoned. Churches were closed. Unitarian villages were even flooded when rivers were damned for hydro production. The Communist authorities hoped it would kill two birds with one stone.
So this is what they did. Unitarian leaders created a new community survival and resistance plan. Unitarian parents and church elders taught their children how to look in public like they were compliant with the communist order. They went to the communist schools, they joined the communist youth clubs, they looked like good communist children. This ensured their physical survival because there was no way you could publicly resist the system and not suffer. But after school, they went to member homes where they received a counter-education. They learned their religious heritage and practices, they learned who they were as a people and, as one Unitarian minister said "we learned our obligation to resist as disciples of Jesus." This counter-education was how they spiritually survived as people of faith.
What they had going for them was 450 years of being a people, a tightly knit community of resistance in a hostile environment. This is how they covertly resisted the Communist regime and created pockets of liberation. This is what gave them hope to go on and the strength to survive.
Today we're talking about ecclesiology, which is the theology of how we do church. This is the third in a seven-part series. Last month, we explored the foundational theological question that every faith tradition answers: What is the nature of humanity, the nature of the divine, and their intended relationship? We talked about how in the history of Unitarianism and Universalism, the concept of God evolved from a judging God into a benevolent caring partner who was radically on our side, and how the understanding of humanity shifted from one defined by original sin, with its grounding in fear and shame, into an understanding of humanity made in the loving image of God. As North American Unitarian Universalism shifted away from its sole foundation in Christianity, we have evolved into a multi-lensed understanding that we are made for sacred partnerships steeped in love for the purpose of personal and collective transformation into servants of life, striving for justice and freedom.
Our ecclesiology, or theology of church, is about how we organize ourselves to make that sacred purpose happen. It's the kind of walls we build to hold us together. Like our reading said, we humans are made for connection. We gather in groups, families, tribes, nations, we gather in political parties, alma maters, in community groups, this week many of us gathered behind a particular baseball team! and we gather in religions where we try to approach, together, what we have felt in our hearts is the ultimate truth that is bigger than us. James Luther Adams, one of the most influential Unitarian theologians of the 20th century, said of us, by our groups do we know them. Every religious system since the beginning of our creation, including the smallest tribal religions and the largest organized religions, have provided some answers, usually evolving, for how we are meant to move through this life journey together.
When the Romanian communist regime began to crumble in 1989, the Hungarian Unitarians, including adults who had spent their whole life living under communism, still knew who they were. They brought their communities out of the shadows and reconnected with Unitarian Universalist communities outside of the former Soviet Bloc, saying, "Here we are. We are alive. We are still a people. We have resisted all these years and we've made it."
The Hungarian Unitarians, through a living ecclesiology, fulfilled both those elements that Parker talks about in our reading. They learned ways to survive and thrive that resisted an unjust dominant culture. Their survival plan also created an embodied experience of covenant and life-sustaining interdependence. The walls of their church lived in covenantal relationships, not in a building, not in their leaders, not in a particular doctrine, but in their love and respect for each other, in their deep concern for their children, who they put above all else, and in their sense of responsibility for each other.
And I find myself thinking of these Unitarians, their resilience under oppression and their resistance to fear and about their love for their children and each other, about how they anchored their church in their own hearts.
I think about where we find ourselves today. Here in the United States, on the eve of an election that has been so divisive, so painful, so hateful, so triggering and traumatizing, that many of us are living in a constant state of anxiety. We too fear for our children. We fear for the dignity and worth of those in our country who are marginalized. We fear for the Constitution and we fear for the state of our democracy.
We have become afraid of each other. We have come to distrust our institutions and our political process. We have come to distrust our neighbors. But mostly, I wonder, have we have come to distrust and fear ourselves? The way that injustice is entrenched and sustained is by putting doubt and fear in the human heart so that humans are not only ignorant to our own deepest callings but will also betray them.
I think about how the Hungarian Unitarians engaged the struggle inside themselves in order to withstand the assaults of their time. What did they do with their fear? How did they ground in love while living in a political system that ruled with an iron fist? Where did they find hope when yet another minister disappeared or when they lost their villages or their churches were vandalized and their children were afraid? How did they persevere when it seemed as if the communist regime would last forever?
If they had withdrawn in fear and separated from each other, every shift of the beast gathering force in their country would have toppled them. Instead, they anchored in a foundation of centuries-old relationships of resistance and stood together.
And we have that history too. Did you know that the Pilgrims and the Unitarians emerged from the same religious movement? Both are children of the Radical Reformation. The same religious intolerance that drove Unitarians to Romania drove the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims were religious dissenters who resisted all forms of state religion, they wanted to return Christianity to its roots in the house church movement that emerged a generation after Jesus' execution. The Pilgrims wanted the freedom of religious self-determination. They couldn't get that in Europe so they fled.
Now we know that there was a progressive and regressive side to these Pilgrims. They fled for their own freedom but were rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery and had no regard for the Native people. It wasn't long before the Pilgrims had created a rigid doctrine that had little room for dissent, and was rooted in fear and shame.
The Pilgrim house churches evolved into the Congregational church. And after the American Revolution, the progressive wing of the Congregational church wanted to bring Christianity into harmony with the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and they hoped to bring their questions and their doubts into their faith. They hoped, like the early Pilgrims had hoped, and like the 16th century Unitarians had hoped, that there would be room for their reformist impulse in the churches they loved, that the walls had enough space to adjust to new ideas, but there wasn't. They were met by a thick wall of rejection, and were kicked out. And so here in America, the progressive wing of the Congregational church, the people who came to call themselves Unitarians, were kicked out by the shadow side of that Puritan heritage, the side based on shame and fear.
Just as the Hungarian Unitarians were able to draw on the 450-year heritage of resistance, Unitarian American ancestors drew on the Pilgrim legacy of self-determination to undo the culture of shame and fear that had taken over the Christianity they loved. They developed a covenantal religion that said there would be no religious test applied to determine who was in and who was out, who was saved and who was damned, who was Christian and who wasn't. They created a covenantal religion, meaning a relational religion that was grounded in free religious communities that encouraged each person to search their conscience and to be open to all the truths in the world around them. They believed that when you looked into your conscience, when you asked your questions free from the abuse of shame and fear, when you brought reason to bear on faith, and when you engaged this free and responsible search in the bonds of a free religious community, God was revealed.
Even today, as we are a religious tradition forged through the influences of Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism, Humanism, Paganism, Buddhism, Unitarianism and Universalism, we believe that there is something very powerful, very sacred, that happens in communities grounded in love and trust, where we protect and reverence each other's sacred journeys as if they were our own.
It's in the affirmation that we read every Sunday, which was written by James Villa Blake, a former minister of this congregation:
Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law.
United in the free quest of high values in religion and life;
We covenant with one another
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
You can see it in the covenant that the board reads at the beginning of every meeting:
We each covenant with one another
To be respectful in words and actions;
To be proactive, punctual, prepared, present and participatory;
To listen openly and refrain from cross talk and speak honestly and clearly;
To honor disagreements within the board;
To operate as a cohesive unit,
With transparency and accountability;
With humor, patience and forgiveness
To further the mission of our Church.
When we think about the anxiety of this election cycle, when we think about how we all look like deer in headlights and how fragile and tired many of us are feeling, can you see how our ecclesiology, our theology of togetherness, not only helps us to survive this time, but also be an agent of our individual and collective liberation. When we are tempted to go it alone, when we are tempted to join the fear and shame by retreating into arrogance and blame, when we are tempted to dehumanize each other, when we are tempted to build thick walls instead of ones that we can reach through towards each other, we can reach towards the foundational impulse in our Unitarian heritage, which is love and trust forged through relationships of the heart, mind and soul.
I close with the words of Unitarian Universalist minister Alice Blair Wesley:
Be gathered into communities of love. Find, together, what is more meaningful, more loving, more worthy of your attention, and be empowered in devotion to these things. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. The truth will make you free."
May it be so.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.