Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

November 11, 2018: “Freedom Isn’t Free”

Chalice Lighting Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
We light this chalice in honor of the memories that hold and heal us.
For stories we tell of those whose heroism inspires our own.
For the pictures of loved ones who have passed
in whose images we see our better selves.
For the work of remembering that we stand on the shoulders of others
who paved the path on which we walk
and blessed us with advantages we didn’t earn all on our own.
May these memories of those who came before
inspire us to pass on a better world to those who will come after us.
May their light guide our way.

Call to Worship Rickie Beck
Angela Herrera writes
Don’t leave your broken heart at the door;
Bring it to the altar of life.
Don’t leave your anger behind;
It has high standards,
and the world needs vision.
Bring them with you,
And your joy,
And your passion.

Bring your loving,
And your courage
And your conviction.
Bring your need for healing,
And your powers to heal.

There is work to do
And you have all that you need to do it
right here
in this room.

And so I say
We have all that we need under this Beacon
Where together
We Love
And Connect.

And in service to this mission we gather to celebrate

Personal Reflection Rickie Beck
Sometimes it’s not so easy to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Last summer, buoyed by a sense of relief I didn’t know I needed, and backed by any number of friends and family, I reluctantly agreed to go to my 50th high school reunion. I did not want to go because there were bullies in my school. From the 6th grade on to 12th grade graduation, those bullies made life a misery for many in my class. In the 6th grade, there were only 24 of us in a special class selected for our high scores on two years’ worth of IQ tests. 

But in the 7th grade, we were merged with the 146 other students in the school system who were our age. The bullies who emerged in the 6th grade honed their skills on us in the 7th and 8th grades, and by high school they were pros at causing so much psychic pain that 2 of our students attempted suicide multiple times. 

I didn’t know that, though, back then. I only knew that I was terrified, and I did my very best not to attract the bullies’ attention. After high school, I never wanted to go back. I never wanted to see those people again. For at lease 30 years, I carried guilt and grief because I hadn’t had the courage to stand up for the kids who were bullied. I told people that the only way I ever wanted to run into some of those folks — was with my car. And I meant it. 

But in May, before the reunion, you all gave me something I never had before. You gave me a kind of love that I never knew I so needed. When I spoke my 6-minutes of truth up here on Mother’s Day, you let me know that even though I had failed badly in so many ways, you still loved me. I can hardly express how that changed me. I was filled with joy. Light. Pure happiness. Even now, I am still zipping around with my feet off the ground, because of the way you said, “It’s OK. We like you just as you are.” 

So in June, I decided maybe I could do the 50th reunion. Maybe I could be wholly me. Fully own my self. With my y thoughts. My beliefs. My failures — and my successes. If there were bullies, I thought I could handle them. The night of the first get-together, I arrived intentionally a tad late, so I could just mosey in without a lot of hoopla. But I was spotted, and hugged! Hugged so much I had to shower when I got home because I couldn’t sleep with all that perfume and after shave clinging to me! And guess what? The bullies weren’t there. 

The second night was a dinner, and MORE hugging. And stories, and introductions to the mom of one classmate, and the brother, an introduction by a man who dated my aunt, recollections about my dad’s Sunday breakfasts with dinner plate-sized pancakes, the 4th grade Valentine’s party I was invited to because I had a crush on a boy in my class—(during dinner he sat between me and his wife). It felt so much like being here, in church — people liked me. I couldn’t get over it. I had so much fun. I felt so accepted, so remembered, so appreciated. So SEEN. So recognized. 

And to think I almost missed it. I almost didn’t go. I was going to stay home, snubbing the school and my classmates because I still carried a wrinkle of pain and hurt and outrage from my years of being afraid. 

Being here, belonging to this community, saying my truth to you, has opened me in a way I never knew could happen. I had been shielding my true self from everyone, because I was afraid. When I stopped doing that, I felt like a helium balloon, just set free. 

Reading “My Memory Fails Me,” by Students of JTSNY
Rickie: Our reading this morning is called “My Memory Fails Me,” and it was written by the Students of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In the wake of the events in our nation int he last few weeks, it feels especially appropriate this morning.

Denis: My memory fails me.

Rickie:Things happened.
We both experienced them.

D: You saw them your way – colored by experiences in your past, or by resentment or impatience. I saw them my way – colored by fear, by pride, by the fact that I am myself and not you. So our memories of what happened were very different from the start. And then, before we knew it, memories hardened into myths and myths into dogma.

R: Now we find ourselves divided.

D: We stare across the chasm, but we don’t see each other.

R: Parent. Partner.

D: Friend. Child.

R: Denomination. Nation.

D: Race. Class. Creed.

R: I’m tired of being alone on my side of the chasm. I’m using up so much energy fearing and resenting you. Sometimes I wish you and I could crack the dogma, peel away the mythology, and trade memories.

D: What would it be like if we could see each other’s pictures of the history we share? If we could see each other?

R: What we need here, you and I, is a little humility and a lot of house-cleaning.

D: Humility: to say “only God sees history whole and knows the whole truth. All I have is my perception. It’s valid, it’s precious, it’s fragmentary. Maybe I ought to try seeing as God sees, from all the angles.”

R: Housecleaning: Memory is selective, and I’m carrying around years of slanted, narrow memories. I can’t see past them. It must be the same for you. What we need to do is let some of them go. Trade a few. Listen. Maybe, if I ask you how things look to you, between us we’ll see something we never saw before.

Sermon Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

David Ferenc, or Francis David as he’s know in the West where we put the family name last. In 1568 he was serving as a court preacher to King John Sigismund, also known as King John II of Hungary.

It was during the violent and spiritually turbulent time of the war between the Holy Roman Empire and Ottoman Sultan Suleiman as they fought for control over Eastern Europe.

Sigismund was a young man, only about 28 years old at the beginning of this story. After the death of his father, he was made king by his mother, Isabella of Poland. He found great support and mentorship in the person of Doctor George Biandrata, who was both a physician and a politician. Not to mention a Unitarian. King John lived in Transylvania, which means “the land across the forest.”

These were heady times for the religious, as huge public debates raged over theology,
ritual and doctrinal practices. Some say that in this time, religious debates became the new death match tournaments. The primary combatants were the Catholics, the Lutherans and the Unitarians, each with a very different ideas of the divinity of Jesus. And most of them felt enormously threatened by the spread of Islam.

People were being tortured, burned, imprisoned, even killed for questioning the trinity, or even supporting religious freedom.

Things were getting pretty out of control in Transylvania so King John called a Diet, an assembly of religious leaders, in the City of Torda in January of 1568, where presentations and debates lasted for ten days….16 hour days at that. I could spend a lot of time spelling out the exact tenets of each faith, including all the sticking points, but for our purposes, that doesn’t really matter right now.

Suffice it to say that Francis David, as chief Unitarian theologian used the phrase, “Egy Az Isten.” God is One.
David won the debate and King John Sigismund sent out a decree which made Transylvania the one nation in the world in which religious tolerance and theological diversity was the law of the land.

Francis David became an instant legend.

The Diet made religious diversity possible, but it was short lived. In 1571, King John II died, and was succeeded by Stephen Bathori, as not the King, but as the highest ranking official.
For Bathori, the post was only a stepping stone to later becoming the King of Poland. He wanted to demonstrate his strength by being tough on heresy, so Bathori was willing to accept the tenets of the Diet of Torda, but only with a provision that made it illegal to change any religion.

Francis David wasn’t particularly worried about that little provision. Over three years, he’d become the Bishop of Transylvania, the church had expanded exponentially,
and in his sermons and writings he continued to explore questions having to do with communion, infant baptism, predestination and the worship of Jesus. He questioned everything in all four areas, but the thing that was getting him noticed was that he made it his practice to not pray in the name of Jesus.

So, Biandrata, who was way more concerned with the security and longevity of Unitarianism than he was with the finer points of doctrine, urged David to pipe down.
As you can imagine, that wasn’t how David rolled, and of course, he was ultimately brought to trial for heresy. His ever evolving process of theological reflection was seen as innovation, a heresy under Stephen Bathori’s provision of the Diet of Torda.

Biandrata was assigned as David’s counsel in the trial, and Biandrata, ever the pragmatist, threw David under the bus, denying even to the prosecutors that he’d adhered to the Unitarian Faith himself. David was imprisoned in 1577,
and died two years later in the cold damp dungeon below the castle. In order to survive, the Unitarian Church in Transylvania remained doctrinally and liturgically stagnant for more than 200 years.

Francis David died for his beliefs. It would have been one thing if he died solely for his belief in a Unitarian god, but he died for the belief that everyone has the right to believe and worship as they see fit. He died for theological diversity and tolerance, which isn’t just about a set of beliefs,
but about allowing space and dignity multiple understandings of truth and meaning.

It’s stories like this that give us our nine sources and our seven principles, Especially our fourth principle.

For the last few months, I’ve been focusing in my sermons on our 7 principles, the core of our identity, that we, the member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote.
If you need to be reminded what our principles and sources are, they are listed at the front of both gray and teal hymnals.

My thesis is that the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person is about the individual; and the seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, is about the collective. Our Identity as an association of congregations, our identity as individual UUs,
is about finding the balance between the autonomy of the individual and our responsibility to the whole.

The other principles, two through six, are the tools for navigating that tension and making the most of it.

David, in being imprisoned for and ultimately dying for his beliefs, was I think one of the primary motivators for our Fourth Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. He died 439 years ago this week for the search.
Considering the time of global religious violence, and the unique tolerance that existed in that place, long enough for him to establish the Unitarian church as a vital life force in the community, I don’t think he died for his doctrinal beliefs so much as he was willing to die for the right to engage in the search for truth and meaning with his congregation.

That’s the kind of freedom that the founders of this nation were seeking when they came here.
Maybe it’s naive, but I think that kind of freedom is the American way, the freedom that soldiers fight for.

I also want to say here that I find it hard to believe that any foreign country has designs on invading us, or any hope of being successful in doing so. Our soldiers aren’t protecting our democracy from outside invasion or interference. If they were, they’d be in Russia right now. It seems to me like we don’t have to fight forces outside of this country from trying to come in and take our freedom.
We have groups within our nation who want to take freedom away from each other, who want to upset the balance between the autonomy of the individual and responsibility to the whole.

Right now, as bleak as it all may seem, we are still free AND responsible to find truth AND meaning.

We’re free to explore whatever we want, wherever we want to look for it, whether it’s in the doctrine of the religious leaders of the past, the God we experience among and within us,
the power of the covenants we make with each other, Darwin, or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

We’re responsible to keep one another reasonably safe and healthy as we all do our own searching and seeking.

We are entitled to our own beliefs, but we have to be responsible to the effects of whatever it is we declare to be true, and the impact it has on others. Our beliefs don’t take precedence over anyone else’s freedom.
And just because we don’t like what someone else believes, we can’t just declare it fake. We have to accept the fact that the world is constantly changing.

And freedom doesn’t mean freedom from the discomfort of change.

Freedom ultimately can only be guaranteed by being responsible to one another in the face of changes that we have no control over.

The only way we can adapt is to engage in meaning making of it, figuring out why it’s happening, how it’s affecting each of us of us personally, how it’s disrupting — or enhancing — the institutions we count on.

This process of reflection can’t be done alone, because when we do it alone, we tend to get trapped in the first principle, finding ways to uphold our own worth and dignity, and forgetting our responsibility to the common good. Others among us tend to worry so much about the common good,
or the worth and dignity of others, that we give away our own power, our own freedom, and neglect our own searches for truth and meaning.

The balance is hard to maintain alone.

That’s why we share our stories with one another here, especially in the form of reflections during worship, as Rickie has shared today.

What I love about her story is that it reveals so much about the process of reflection,
the give and take and back and forth of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Last spring, Rickie asked to be part of the Worship Arts Team, so I asked her a tough question for reflection in our Mother’s Day service: I asked her to share her story of poverty. Specifically, her story of being a mother raising a son alone, in poverty. She laid herself bare. It’s been half a year, and I still regularly hear from folks who tell me how surprised they were by Rickie’s story,
how much she challenged their beliefs and understandings, and how inspired they are by her strength, in finding a way out of poverty and in sharing her story.

But Rickie needed a little bit of a nudge to reflect, as we all do. We all benefit from the honest, probing questions from people who care. And the result of sharing her reflection was that it gave her strength. It gave others a little nudge to see things — especially poverty and mental health — a little differently.
She walked away with a little less shame, and everyone else gained a little humility. Most importantly, everyone had the chance to see each other more clearly in the processm, and connect to our natural empathy.

Reflecting together gives us the chance to see one another in our personal narratives.

What Rickie did was seek the balance between what the students of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York called housecleaning and humility.

Humility is recognizing that your truth is only a piece of the truth, a valid, precious, but ultimately fragmentary piece of the larger truth that is impossible to see. If there is a god, then only god can see truth in its wholeness, and to honor each person is to honor their experience, their knowledge, their understanding. Humility is the Seventh Principle in action.

Housecleaning is recognizing how holding on too tightly to your own understanding,
your own thoughts and beliefs makes you blind to the whole truth. Being too mired in your own meaning makes you miss the bigger picture, and housecleaning is getting past them, shedding the old ideas that no longer work. Housecleaning is the First Principle in action.

Engaging in humility and housecleaning, in association with other people, is the only thing that gets us out of our own heads, connected, taking responsibility for something greater than ourselves.
Finding meaning by speaking the truth is how we and move from carrying wrinkles of pain and hurt and outrage to uncover our interconnection in the universe.

Freedom of belief isn’t free. It comes from taking the responsibility to be engaged with others, to see their truths, as well as their pain and hurt and outrage, while honoring your own. And sometimes, as it did with Francis David, it means making the ultimate sacrifice.

So on this Veterans Day weekend, as we honor all those who have fought for the kind of freedom we still enjoy in this country, even if it doesn’t feel obvious some days, the question I want to leave you with is not “what are you willing to fight or die for?”

The question I want to leave you with this morning is this: “What beliefs about yourself and the world are you willing to change — or even let go of completely — in service to the greater good?”