Significant Other Church

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

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Sermon Text

Many years ago, as many of you know, I lived in Athens, Greece for a few years.  Those were some of the most challenging, most shaping, most happy years of my life.  I made friends there, and some of my friends were Greeks who had grown up in Romania, under the fearful and terrible thumb of the dictator Nicolae Ceaucesceau.  Maria and Pascalis managed to get out of Romania, with almost nothing but their family, and relocate to Greece where they began a new life.  They didn’t like to talk about Romania.  They did so only in the most general terms, making it clear that years later, even after the death of Ceaucesceau and the beginning of a new regime, they would never go back, and never forget what they had suffered there.

Romania has had a tough time as a country.  In addition to the challenges of authoritarian and abusive governments, like Greece it is a poor country.  And like Greece it is a beautiful country.  One of its most beautiful regions is Transylvania.  Transylvania really does exist and it is most famous of course, for something completely fictional, being the home turf of Count Dracula, still the most famous vampire in all fiction. In reality, Romania is defined by appealing villages and romantic castles, the majestic Carpathian mountains and lushly wooded countryside that make sense of its name “transylvania” – ‘across the forest.’

One of the things Transylvania should be famous for is of course, King John Sigismund and the Edict of Torda, the anniversary of which is coming up, as I’m sure we all are aware, on January 28.

Edict of Torda was established exactly 450 years ago, in 1568.  The point of the edict was to allow congregations to choose their own preachers.  It was enacted, of course, in Torda, a city in Romania;  put in place by King John Sigismund,  following the advocacy of his Unitarian court physician, Giorgio Biandrata and his Unitarian court preacher, Ferenc David or, as we now name him, Francis David.  John Sigismund was the first and only Unitarian king ever in the history of the world.  The Edict of Torda was at the time – remember, 1568, a time when in most of Europe, Catholicism and Protestantism were in a mortal battle – the edict was an unprecedented declaration of religious tolerance.  John Sigismund’s generous reforms did not prosper when his successor took the throne, in fact the next ruler initiated a period of active religious persecution, but the seeds had been irretrievably sown, and Transylvania endured as an area with unusual religious freedom and acceptance.  Unitarianism has persisted there right up to the present day.  Outside of the United States and England, where our Unitarian forebears came from, Transylvania has the greatest number of Unitarian churches in the world.

Fast forward to the modern era and our own church’s entry into the story of Transylvanian Unitarianism.  We were one of the very first churches to enter into a partner church relationship with our spiritual kin, back in the 1930’s.  This connection was initiated by our minister Rev. Augustus Mendon Lord;  he’s the one whose beautiful portrait hangs over the fireplace in the ministers’ parlor where we have refreshments each Sunday after worship.  You can find another artifact of that time with the baptismal cloth on display in the adjacent front parlor;  it was a gift from our partner church back then.  The importance of this outreach is so obvious when we consider how Eastern and Western Europe were beginning to struggle with facism and unrest, and indeed the relationship was threatened and eventually overcome first by the chaos and devastation of World War II, and then by the rise of Communist dictatorships in the wake of the war.  For most of the rest of the 20th century, Unitarians in Transylvania suffered persecution and condemnation for their unorthodox faith.  And they stubbornly, faithfully, carefully endured.  For so many of those same decades the connection between them and us, lay there, sundered but not perished – instead, as it turned out, simply fallow, waiting for its season to rise and bloom again.

That season began in 2002 when we visited the UUA to restart our partner church relationship.  The next year, Transylvanian Unitarian minister Judit Gellerd came and spoke about all the years since we’d first been connected.  Her own father was the minister who sent that baptismal cloth to our church so long ago.

Since then, our relationship has flourished.  We have sent delegations to visit our partner church in Transylvania.  They have sent delegations to visit us here.  We have visited the very church were the Edict of Torda was first proclaimed by Francis David.   We have visited the prison where Francis David ended up jailed for his radical doctrine of acceptance, where he eventually died.  We have received from those who have become our dear friends the memorial post that stands in our small garden on your right as you walk out to the parking lot.  They also gave us, as we celebrate every Sunday, the large candle holder from which we light our own candles of joy and sorrow every week.  We have gone back and forth, building relationships that have grown from principle and interest to love and deep connections of experience and faith.  Back in 2010 we helped them complete a bell tower.  Before the tower, people used to gather to the call of a recording of bells and for the three years prior to the bell tower’s completion the recording they heard was a recording of our own Paul Revere bell here in our steeple.

The beautiful, important ways this relationship has endured, has been reborn and even now strengthened more than ever, is so inspiring. Being a Unitarian Universalist is lonely sometimes.  There’s no one like us in the world.  We have each other in our congregations.  Our congregations have each other in our Association.  But to have relationships – well, not just relationships, relations.  Not just friends, significant others if you will, to whom we are bound.  Significant other churches, spiritual kin, sharing the same name, even across the globe – it’s not just heartwarming, it’s precious.  We have ties, people who matter to us, to whom we matter, because of our faith, because of the heritage we share, one we live for, one some have died for, that people must be free to believe as they find, that respect for other beliefs and for authentic, seeking faith, is paramount, that care for each other is paramount, is, in fact, a manifestation of our faith.

As perhaps many of us know, long distance relationships take a lot of work.  You have to make time to honor and nurture them, to communicate with care, and intention.  I have a message for you this morning, from Szabolcs Kelemen, the minister of our partner church:

“On Saturday, 13 January, we lived through some touching and happy moments. Seventeen people from our congregation went to Torda and participated in the commemoration of the 450th anniversary of the Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience, or the Edict of Torda. It was a great and intimate moment that we were faced with the simple fact that one who lives in a community must not be restricted by our fellow humans with respect to our decisions about their faith. The Edict says faith is a gift of God that we choose to follow. Therefore, humans have the right to live life as one finds right and true. Furthermore, no one should be punished or insulted because of their faith and everyone has the right to live a faith-based life, to establish a community life value in their community, and thus to shape their future.

I remember when I was there with you in 2008. You proudly showed me the Church that was founded by Roger Williams that was you’re the start of religious freedom in Rhode Island. This founding religious movement in Providence, which told of the importance of community, of religious freedom was like our Edict of Torda.

The Unitarian Church exists because of this law. It was this law that defended our church, our faithful, and which led us through the past to our present. 1568 is an important date, an important date for our history. The people here have understood that they can only jointly and freely change the future. Today, I think, the law of freedom of religion calls us with the same weight and the same importance. It tells us that our human communities need to be built and the world of love must be lived. It is not the differences to be sought, but we need to find common points, feelings, and opportunities that make the future more beautiful and better.

With these thoughts we would like to wish you a warm Partner Church Sunday.


Szabolcs Kelemen and the congregation of Szentegyháza.”

At this point in re-writing this sermon, I went online to find the words I read for our chalicelighting, which a colleague had sent me in a Facebook message.  And in my Facebook feed I found a post, Martha Rice Sanders, showing all the people from First U gathering for the Women’s March here in Providence.  There a bunch of you were, with your coats and hats, your signs and smiles, your camaraderie and commitment.  I couldn’t be there because I had to be working the last couple of days on this service and a bunch of other preparing and organizing and researching.  But I didn’t have to be there because you were there.   We can’t all be everywhere, and we don’t need to be everywhere, because we have each other and together we can do so much more.  We cover more ground, represent each other, in all that we do in our faith.  Our relationship with the Szentegyháza congregation is part of this.  That partnership is heartwarming and it is more, it is part of our strength, and part of theirs, part of our reach and part of theirs, part of our past, and part of theirs, part of our future and part of theirs, part of who we are, and part of who they are – no, part, really, of a larger we altogether.  A beautiful ‘we.’  A precious ‘we.’  An enduring ‘we.’

And speaking of all that – of the larger we, and all we do and are together, remember those 5 commitments I’ve been talking about this month?  Ha – this far into the sermon, you thought maybe I’d forgotten.  Nope.  They matter too much.

You’ve got an insert in your order of service.  It has a place for you to put down 5 things you can do this year to make a difference.  I hope you’ve been thinking about it.  I have.  It’s hard to choose, I find.  It’s hard to figure out what’s enough.  Here’s the thing: in the end, if you do really do what you can do, it will be enough.  If you can go somewhere and be a presence for something we are committed to, that makes a difference.  Some of us can make phone calls.  Some of us can run a phone bank.  Some of us can write a letter to the editor.  Some of us can write a check.  Some of us can come to a class, or a conference, or a rally.  Some of us can go visit a place or people we’ve never known before or never worked together with before.  Some of us can host people here at church.  Some of us can cook a meal or serve a meal.  Some of us can cast a vote that will change something for the better.  There are countless ways.  Many of us, I know, will do more than five things, and some of us are going through great hardship, and will do one or two things that still represent extraordinary faithfulness.  For all of it, I’m grateful.

So here’s what I’m asking you to do.  Take this paper and write down what you commit to doing this year.  Think about what’s the most you can do – whatever that looks like.  Don’t let yourself off the hook.  And don’t beat yourself up.  We all do what we can do.  Whenever I have truly done what I could do, whether it is a lot or a little – and sometimes it is a little because I’m mortal, we all are – and whether it succeeds or not – even when it fails – there is a peace I feel because a lot or a little, I did what I could and I know it.  And that is all I can ask of myself.  That is all anyone can ask, and that is certainly all I am asking.  Think about what you can commit to and write it down.  Do it now as I’m talking and you’re thinking about your choices and only half-listening to what I say.  Or do it this afternoon.  Do it tonight before bed.  But do it today, and look at what you have put down.  That is your faith, in action.  That is a great gift and a testament.  Be proud of it.  I am proud of it, proud to be with you, proud to be your minister, proud to be serving you and walking with you in these times that are so hard, so full of urgency, and opportunity, these times that will not leave us as they found us.  Put your commitments on your fridge or in your bedside table or your wallet.  Keep them somewhere close.  Look at it from time to time, to remind yourself, and to be proud, of your faith, of our faith, in action.  You are not alone.  We are not alone.  Our kin in Transylvania are not alone.  In Transylvania it is nigh onto evening now.  They are lighting their lamps.  There, here, and between our two places, our two peoples, our one broad faith, the light comes from the people.  Thank goodness.  Amen.


Chalice lighting

As the renowned headmaster of Hogwarts school, Albus Dumbledore reminds us:

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”


Meditation Story

A LAMP IN EVERY CORNER by Janeen K Grohsmeyer

Many years ago in the land of Transylvania, in a mountain valley watered by quick rushing streams and shadowed by great forests of beech trees, there was a village of small wooden houses with dark-shingled roofs. The people in the village were of the Unitarian religion, and they wanted a church of their own. A church set on the hillside, they decided, looking down upon the village as a mother looks down upon her sleeping child.

So all the people of the village labored long and hard to build themselves a church.

Finally, when the building of the church was done, the painting of the church could begin.

…When the painting was done,  when it was finished—when their church was finally done—all the people of the village stood back to admire it . . . and then to sing, a song of happiness and praise.  “We will eat now!” announced an elder of the village, because everyone was hungry after their long day’s work. “And later tonight, we will come back to pray.”

So the people of the village went down the hillside to their homes and their suppers, all except one little girl named Zora and her father, who stayed behind. They had brought their own bread and cheese. They ate their food slowly, sitting on the grass on the hillside and admiring their new church with its strong stone walls, its tall tower, and its magnificent bell.

After they had eaten, they went back inside, opening the carved wooden doors to go into the gloriously painted sanctuary inside. “Oh, look, Father!” Zora cried, running from picture to picture, with her footsteps echoing off the stone walls. “See how pretty the church is!” She stopped in the center of church and twirled slowly around. “See how grand!”

“Yes, it is,” said her father, looking around and nodding with pride. “Yes, it is.”

“But, Father,” she said suddenly, “we have not finished!”

“What do you mean?”

“There are tall iron lamp stands all along the walls, but there are no lamps! The church will be dark when the people come back.”

“Ah no, little one,” said her father. “The light of the church comes from its people. You shall see!” He rang the bell to call the people to worship, then took his daughter by the hand and led her back outside. They waited on the grassy hillside, next to their beautiful church of strong gray stone.

The sun had set behind the mountains, and night was coming soon. Yet in the growing darkness, tiny points of light came from many directions and moved steadily up the hill.

“Each family is entrusted with a lamp, little one,” her father explained. “Each family lights its own way here.”

“Where is our family’s lamp?”

“Your mother is carrying it. She will be here soon.”

The many lights moved closer together, gathering into one moving stream, all headed the same way, growing larger and brighter all the time. Zora’s mother arrived, bearing a burning oil lamp in her hands. The father lifted Zora so she could set their family’s lamp high in its tall iron stand. All around the church, other families were doing the same. Soon the church was ablaze with light in every corner, for all the people of the village had gathered to pray and to sing.

All through the worship service, Zora watched the lights flicker and glow. She watched her family’s lamp most of all. When the service was over, her father lifted her high. She took the shining bronze lamp from the lamp stand. Its curved sides were warm and smooth in her hands. Her mother carried the lamp home, with the flame lighting the way.

The lamp flame lit their house when they returned home. Zora washed her face and got ready for bed by the light of that flame. “Mother,” Zora began, as she climbed into bed and lay down.

“Yes, little one?” her mother asked, tucking the red wool blanket around Zora’s shoulders.

“Father said the light of the church comes from its people.”


“But also, the people take their light from the church!” Over on the table by the fireplace, the shiny bronze lamp was still burning. “And we have that light every day.”

“Yes, indeed,” said her mother. “And even when we are not in church, even when the lamp is not lit, we carry the light of truth in our minds and the flame of love in our hearts to show us the right way to be. That light—the light from truth and love—will never go out.”

“Never?” asked Zora.

“Never,” said her mother. “And this bronze lamp will last for many, many years. When you are grown, we will give the bronze lamp to you, and when your children are grown, you will give the lamp to them, and all of you will carry it back and forth to church every time.”

“But there is only one lamp,” Zora said.

“So make another, and let the light grow. And someday, tell your children to make more lamps, too. And now goodnight,” her mother said and kissed Zora once on this cheek and once on that cheek and once on the forehead. Zora closed her eyes and drifted into dreams, while her mother looked down upon her sleeping child.

The years passed; Zora grew. The bronze lamp came into her care. She kept it polished and clean, and when the bell rang out across the valley to call the people to worship, she carried the lamp back and forth to the church on the hillside, the flame always lighting her way. When the time came, she made more lamps and gave them to her children, who made more lamps and gave them to their children, and so it went, on through the years, even until today.  And always, the light of truth and the flame of love from that Unitarian church on the hillside continued to grow and show them—and us—the way.


Closing words

Every one of us carries a light, a lamp, of our heritage, our understanding, our knowledge and our care.  Lift it high, let it shine further, most important: let it mingle with the light of others from near and far, because we all shine brighter together.