The Crime of Innovation

Although this congregation has a long history, in fact, one of the longest in Unitarian Universalism, of partner church work with our Unitarian cousins in Transylvania, – for this church it goes back to the 1930’s – we still need to learn, or remember, how that kinship came to be.  Maybe next year, at our annual Partner Church service I’ll check in with you all, introducing that dreaded ministerial tactic, the possible pulpit pop quiz, as a follow-up to this year.  Because I know – well, I remember – how it’s possible to let some of this information come in one ear and leave by the other.

But this June a bunch of us First U folks are going to Transylvania to visit.  (And no it’s not to late to sign up.  See our Worship Associate Betty Finn if you’d like more information about the trip.)  So a bunch of us are going as a church program, and it’s important that we all know, even if you’ll be staying here, where our church delegation is going and why.

In the mid 1500’s, most of Europe, including Transylvania, was a hotbed of religious conflict.  Catholicism and Protestantism were locked in a mortal battle to define Christianity.  In addition, Protestantism had its own internal struggle for supremacy going on between Lutherans and Calvinists about particular details of Protestant theology.  And amidst all these furious struggles for dominance, came Unitarianism, head high, to Transylvania which was then the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom.

Unitarianism was on the one hand planting a Protestant flag, asserting that God is one, a unity, as we heard earlier in our reading, rather than a trinity.  But also it was bucking the trends of larger battles for authority, because the other thing Unitarianism did in what eventually became Transylvania was it proclaimed religious tolerance, that all congregations should be free to choose and elect their own preachers and that people could not be persecuted on religious grounds.

This happened at the hands of Francis David via the only Unitarian king ever in the history of the world… so far… King John Sigismund.  John Sigismund was very interested in religion and his views were evolving.  He converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism, then from Lutheranism to Calvinism.  This was the same faith journey followed by Francis David, the preacher brought by the king to become his Court Preacher.  David, along with the King’s Court Physician Giorgio Biandrata were both Unitarians.  Together they persuaded the King round to their views, and the result of this was the passing of the Edict of Torda in 1568.  The Edict, as you no doubt remember with complete clarity from my sermon on it last year, was an unprecedented declaration of religious tolerance.  It allowed congregations to pick their own preachers, and guaranteed freedom of belief across all four religions then active in the area: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Unitarianism, without persecution towards any, throughout the nation.  Again – especially in this time when religious competition was fierce and merciless, when whoever won the upper hand usually condemned or exiled or imprisoned or executed the weakened competition – this kind of commitment to tolerance was absolutely extraordinary.

Why did they do this?  What was the understanding that generated the Edict of Torda?  As David understood it – and preached it – in order to follow the pure Christianity of Jesus, people needed to be able to search for truth with complete freedom of thought.  This meant there had to be acceptance of different strains of theology that would allow people to encounter and consider them with authenticity.

The power of David’s vision made for a brief but fertile heyday for Unitarianism during John Sigismund’s reign.  But at the court things changed drastically when John Sigismund eventually died and a new successor, Istvan Bathory, a Catholic nobleman, took power.   Bathory shifted his court’s policy back toward persecution.  David was continuing to preach new ideas.  He rejected infant baptism, and the adoration of Christ, declaring that it was not necessary to invoke Jesus Christ in prayer, that prayer should only be directed to God.  Of course, this was unacceptable to the ascendant Catholics.

Unhappily, one of his main antagonists during the reign of Isvan Bathory was his old partner Giorgio Biandrata.  David’s theological evolution, even under Catholic dominance, was dangerous and Biandrata wasn’t willing to support him any longer.  After failing to convince David to moderate his beliefs and declarations, Biandrata eventually worked against his old colleague.  David was convicted of the religious crime of ‘innovation,’ sentenced to life imprisonment and died in prison in 1579.

But the seeds of religious tolerance had been so effectively sown across the region that this remained characteristic of the area for a long time.  For instance, laws were maintained that protected serfs from being forcibly converted to their lord’s faith.  And Unitarianism theology also gained that it never entirely lost, which is why there are still many Unitarian congregations in that part of what is now Romania.

All these centuries later, many Unitarian Universalist churches here in the US have a Unitarian partner church.  Not all partner churches are in Romania, but most are.  Our partner church is in Romania in the town of Szentegyháza.  We stay in touch, support each other in tangible and intangible ways, and visit each other regularly.  We have visited our partner church before and they have visited us.  We have contributed to their congregation and their building, they have contributed to ours, including hand-carving the memorial post we have in our garden by the breezeway, and the tall pillar at the far end of this meeting house that holds the candle from which we light our candles of joy and sorrow.  Back in 2010 we helped the Szentegyháza congregation complete a bell tower;  for three years prior to that completion, the bell that called them to gather was a recording of our own Paul Revere bell here in our steeple.

With this relationship we remind each other that our faith has many forms and places, that we are part of something larger, not just this congregation or region or the UUA nationally, but a faith that has spanned many continents, sometimes small, and yet often also pivotal, with leaders and stories that we all can learn from.

What does this mean for us now?  What can we learn from this relationship now?

This month our ministry theme we’re exploring in worship and in religious education is Truth.  And while we Unitarian Universalists love to embrace the integrity and imperative of truth, the truth is that truth is not always easy on us.  Just about this time last year, we learned that many Unitarian churches in Transylvania had taken a stand against gay marriage.  We inquired whether this included our own partner church and discovered that it did.  This was dispiriting.  We weren’t sure how to proceed.  We weren’t even sure if we could, or should, preserve our relationship with Szentegyháza when we had such a serious, foundational difference with them.  We looked hard at that question of what to do.  We had conversations and presentations within the congregation about it, making sure to solicit input especially from our many GLBTQ members and friends.  Our own identity as a Welcoming Congregation, proudly and absolutely committed to the rights and place of GLBTQ folks in our own community and in our nation, is firm.  So how could we engage with people who denied this position we have not only established for ourselves but worked and fought for in our state and in our country?

But the conversation that unfolded here within First U was surprising – and inspiring.  People expressed dismay or anger abut the position of our partner church but they also reminded each other that just two or three decades ago, our own congregation’s position on gay marriage might have looked similar, had the question arisen then.  Our denomination first, and now our nation, has made – is still making – an intense journey on this issue, one that has unfolded faster than many people would have predicted.  I can’t count the number of GLBTQ friends or parishioners who have told me they never expected to see gay marriage in their lifetimes.  Many people in our faith went through their own evolution on this issue – it took some time and it took learning and patience and commitment for that to happen.

In which case, who are we to sever a long-standing relationship because another church hasn’t arrived where we ourselves only recently arrived?  Indeed, as we affirm again and again, the imperative of learning to talk with those who hold different views rather than continuing to become increasingly polarized and hateful towards each other, this is an opportunity to do just that, with a community that likewise wanted to stay in relationship although they also knew this was a place of deep difference between us.  That is so precious – their position on gay marriage wasn’t a rejection of us, though they know what we are and where we stand.  Because also we have such deep ties of knowing and caring about each other. There are people in this church that know and love folks over in Szentegyháza.  And people in Szentegyháza who know and love people in this church.

And we share, after all, this faith that has always been defined by the crime of innovation – which implies a premise that is foundational to our faith, that ‘revelation is ongoing,’ as the great American Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams put it.   That our understanding is never perfect, never complete, and so we have to stay open to what more we can learn and embrace, and what that learning and embracing will require of us in both body and soul.  Our Transylvanian cousins know that innovation – and evolution – are part of faithful living.  They too embrace that reality, including that our American faith has legitimacy for them as well as for us, and that we have much still to learn from each other, as well as much caring to share with each other.

I’m grateful that this relationship matters to them, that they didn’t withdraw from us as part of their rejection of gay marriage.  And though I admit that I had to think my way through this challenge, in the end, I’m even more grateful that we didn’t withdraw from them as part of our embrace of gay marriage.  We have to learn to do this, to be big enough to span differences, to find ways to talk with ‘others’ – however those others are defined.  We have to be part of the solution, and help find the ways to do this work of bridge-building and healing that our nation desperately needs, that our world desperately needs, that I know from you so many of us and our extended families need.   Frankly sometimes we need those skills even just within this one congregation.  Regardless of the context, this is absolutely a time when we need to commit some innovation, and I am glad that we have our shot now at figuring out what contemporary innovations and understandings we need to develop to meet the needs and challenges of our time.

I don’t expect that this one trip will teach us all we need to know.  Nor will their return trip which they are making to us next year, 2020.  And doing this work in terms of our partner church is just one part of a much larger puzzle.  But my hope and belief is that maintaining this relationship will teach us something about how to reach out to other communities within this nation, region or even just in this state, might help us negotiate differences within our families or other circles of community.  Maybe this relationship will be part of what helps us learn to build bridges that might foster understanding around our deeply conflicting values and priorities for how we should live in the world?  If we manage that at all, if we do learn something about how to do this – what to say, or what not to say, when to say what, how to be patient, how to be courageous while also being respectful, while also being caring, – that is precious, that is deepening, that is exactly what faithful living is supposed to offer us.  It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it, sometimes most worth it when it’s hard.

This is the thing with innovation – with a faith that believes in innovation, in the careful discernment and exploration that progressive religion requires of us now and again – then we never just get to stop. To say we’re done.  We’re never done.  That’s the challenge – and it’s also what justifies hope.

Think about that hymn we sang before the sermon.  It comes from those Transylvanian Unitarian cousins.  “Where there is faith, there is love.  Where there is love, there is peace.  Where there is peace, there is blessing.”  If they really believe that, and we really believe that, then over time, love wins.  And then we are all blessed.  Amen.