REMEMBERING OUR PAST

June 10, 2001
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


I have sworn upon the altar of the living God eternal hostility
against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
- - Thomas Jefferson

They sat there, unmoving. Their eyes fixed fiercely upon whatever moved below them. Their heads would turn, first this way, then that. They were wary, but in a calm, almost detached way. They knew who they were and showed no fear of the busy happenings far below them. I moved as quietly and smoothly as possible, trying, ever so carefully to keep something between myself and their view of my approach. But it did no good.

Each time I would get almost close enough to capture them on film they would casually spread their great wings and fly across the lake to another tall tree. There they rested, ruffling their feathers into a comfort zone. After three tries, with long treks in between, I gave up. They were smarter then me. Better at the game. There was no match.

I am referring to a pair of Bald Eagles in once encountered right in the middle of the town where we lived. They had built their nest, their aerie, in a tall pine close by the road. I planned my strategy to photograph them very carefully, entering the broad expanse of forest perhaps 300 yards from their next. For two hours I tried everything I could to get a picture of them. I failed miserably. If they had been able to laugh, they would have. In remembering that day I am reminded of Unitarian Universalists.

Think for a moment. Eagles are vigilant. They seek lofty places. They are independent to a fault. And they make up their own minds. As . . . do . . . most . . . of . . . you. So this sermon is dedicated to that wonderful love of free thought and sense of excellence that typifies eagles and hawks and ourselves as thinking beings. And the approach I want to take is in remembering our religious heritage.

In the history of the western world, two magnificent periods of intellectual brilliance brightened the horizon. Each was comparable to a super nova, blazing through the light years of space and time. The first of them lasted a thousand years and faded into the era called the Dark Ages.

A flame of free religious thought burst upon the scene at that time. He was an Egyptian pharaoh and his name was Amenhotep IV. He lived about the year 1350 B.C. and is believed, along with Moses, to have been one of the first monotheists.

Amenhotep was amazed at the ruthless cruelty of the priesthood in the kingdom he had inherited. They were money-grubbing politicians - all of them. It disturbed him to no end. To make it worse he didn't have a clue how to solve the dilemma. He wanted his people to have a good life. But it didn't seem possible given the polytheistic nature of the country's religion.

Realizing his puzzlement, Amenhotep then did what many great religious figures have done in order to find clarity in their thinking, He went into the wilderness - into the great desert. It was there that he had a vision. That vision was of a world in which men and women would find peace and assurance from a single god. He came to this conclusion after realizing how vitally important the sun was to the continuance of life on the earth. The sun would be his god. He would call his god Aton. He would announce this to all in his kingdom.

The results were not surprising. The priesthood began to plot on how to rid themselves of this pesky pharaoh. They found it outrageous that he had ordered an end to temple sacrifices. Still worse, he had told the priests they could no longer profit by the selling of "favors". Finally, and with much popular acceptance, he had called his people to embrace this new deity in love and in trust.

It went very well for a time. But, as history proves, idealists often come to an end at the hands of unworthy people. So it was with Amenhotep. His kingdom came to an end; his life, as well. But his vision of one god was the earliest record we have of Unitarianism in its most classic sense. The manifest belief in one god.

In yesterday's Boston Globe an article appeared in which a Protestant theologian who teaches at Boston University. It spoke of his criticism of the latest Vatican pronouncement regarding what is permissible and what is not in the Roman Catholic liturgy. Self-evidently, the Holy See is suspicious of any changes in the Mass, and especially when they come out of the United States. The spokesman's conclusion was that this action was the most limiting statement out of Rome since Vatican Two.

History is replete with similar happenings. Jon Hus was born in Czechoslovakia in 1369. He took his name from the village in which he was born - Huscinez. Although he received an education at the University in Prague he was not an especially brilliant scholar. But he was a true humanist. He loved people, so much so that he was ordained to the priesthood in 1401. As he began his work we take note that he was not particularly adept at politics. He wrote to a friend, a "I choose the office of priest because I have in mind a safe shelter, and goodly apparel and a comfortable living." (Urquhart, "What's the Flaming Chalice to You?")

He was later appointed Minister to the University Chapel in Prague. He began to preach and to say the mass in the Czech language rather than Latin. He was an enormous success. He spoke to the people "where they lived". He spoke to their feelings. After all, he said, if God had intended himself to be revealed through theology, we would all have been born with doctorates!

Notwithstanding his success, trouble began brewing. The town was made up of Germans, French and Italians who wanted things to stay the same. And, of course, the University was governed by an ancient system. Also, there was little in the way of Czechoslovak representation on the Board of Trustees. Unrest and religious ferment began to be felt due to Hus's preaching in his native tongue. It divided the town and caused the majority of people to cease to support his ministry.

In those days the Roman church owned huge amounts of land and other property. The people were taxed by the Church to support these holdings, receiving little in return. In addition, the institution of the Papacy was a scandal. At one time there were two Popes. Each sent emissaries to the cities and towns to carry out programs of taxation. So things weren't so great. And in 1410 a third pope was elected to "fix things". So it all ended in a kind of stalemate.

Through all these happenings Hus continued writing and preaching. He questioned the authority of the Church and its outrages against the common folk. As a result he was excommunicated. But Hus was so popular in his church that when the Archbishop came to Prague to read Hus's excommunication, the congregation picked him up, robes, miter and all and carried him straight out of the building.

But the die was cast. Authority had been questioned and it was angry. The announcement came. Unless Hus ceased his preaching every bishop and priest in Prague would be put to death by Papal Edict. Realizing the tragedies his continued presence might cause, Hus went into exile. And, though his enemies tore down his church, the stones were recovered by his supporters. Many of those same stones are contained in the walls of many Unitarian churches in Czechoslovakia today.

While in exile Hus continued to write and preach. He naively believed he could continue to live out his days in peace. But his enemies were not satisfied simply with his exile. They continued to gather evidence against him. His books were carefully read in order to discover any heresies they might contain. His hymns, sung as popular songs in the streets, were banned. He was followed everywhere. One could see by reading the record of the cruel treatment he received that he was greatly feared because of his popularity.

At about this time Hus began asserting that he did not believe that communion bread and wine changed into the real body and blood of Jesus. To him they were simply symbols. He also said that the bread and wine should not be kept only for the priesthood but should be shared with the whole congregation. This - was pure - unadulterated heresy. Hear the words of the hypocritical priesthood grumbling about Hus's new beliefs:

"...some of the precious blood may be spilt by clumsy lay people, it might become contaminated by coming into contact with the beards of laymen, although the beards of priests were OK because they were consecrated . . . it might become frozen as it was passed around the large church on a cold day (they didn't understand the principles of anti-freeze), or it might be seen to indicate that priests and lay people were equal.

This, of course, was what Hus intended. So in the year 1414 his enemies created a trap. He was given a pass assuring him of his safety if he would appear at the Council of Constance to clear himself of heresy. If he refused to go, he was told his land would be attacked. So he faced a 15th century "Catch 22".

The Council of Constance was anything but what it said it would be. It advertised itself as a deliberative body that wanted to come up with suggestions "for the good of the Church". It wasn't a council, however. In fact, it proved to be anything but Actually It was a conglomeration of over one thousand committees. One can imagine what an affair it was! The little city of Constance, usually at a population of around 600, swelled to one hundred and fifty thousand.

To this "circus" comes Jon Hus with his "safe conduct" pass, expecting to offer reasoned arguments for his theological beliefs. Instead, he was taken immediately to a dungeon and chained to a wall by his hands and feet. Various officials came and yelled at him. They informed him that they would not allow even one meeting with the committee to hear his case. Instead, he was tried in court.

Two hundred and fifty nobles signed a petition pleading for Hus's release. But it was all to no avail. There were three court sessions. In the final one on July 6, 1415, Hus was forced to dress in his priestly garments and was handed a communion chalice of wine. The charges were read, he was convicted and they tore the robes from his body. They seized the chalice from his hands with the words, We take from thee the cup of redemption! The chalice had become Hus's symbol of the equality of the lay people and the priesthood. It was meant for everyone, freely offered and obtainable.

On that same day Hus was taken out into the city square and burned at the stake. As he burned, he made a pun of his own name which, in Czech, means "goose". Today, he cried in his agony from the flames, you are burning a goose, but out of my ashes will be born a swan, whom you will not burn!

On that day, then, the chalice he had been given was hurled into the flames. It became the symbol for a great religious movement in Bohemia and Eastern Europe. The Flaming Chalice of communion for all people was created out of the death of Jon Hus.

Another bright light in the diadem of Unitarian history was a man named Michael Servetus. He joined a line of courageous people who helped to light the darkness of bigotry, superstition, prejudice and hate during the years of the 16th century.

When you read about Michael Servetus, you are struck with the parallels in his life and belief with that of the literary figure of Don Quixote. Servetus is described by his historians as a gaunt man of medium height. His eyes were melancholy. He had money, being descended from a prosperous Spanish family. But he left his native land early in his life to pursue his education away from the influence of the Spanish Inquisition. Although he retained much of his Spanish character, he never returned.

Servetus, though, was not a saint. He was a highly emotional man. He possessed a great deal of money and he spent it to please himself. But he was also equipped with a touch of genius and a sparkling wit. His energy and extraordinary imagination made him truly one of the "Renaissance Men" of his time.

During is life he was continually getting into intellectual combat with some of the more conservative elements of religious and political society. In the end, he became perhaps the greatest heretic Roman Catholic Spain ever produced.

Servetus studied law in the city of Toulouse in France and received his degree. He then studied medicine and received his degree. He also observed nature with the intensity of an eagle's eye, developing a new philosophy out of these diverse experiences.

Long before Harvey, Servetus actually discovered the manner in which blood circulates throughout the human body. At the time it had no consequences for medical science but certainly would in time to come. For his findings he was able to attract a good deal of attention during his younger years. And yet, in the light of all these academic ventures, there was something far more serious that captured his mind and heart.

He was deeply concerned with religious matters. He had prided himself on his personal piety. This was intensified with the impact of the religious problems of the day, the Spanish Inquisition being one of them. As a youth, young Michael had been a devout Roman Catholic. But as he studied the Bible and the writings of the great Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, his pursuit of religious matters transformed him into an enemy of the Papacy. He regarded it as nothing less than an anti-Christian institution.

Servetus' thoughts concentrated especially upon the figure of Jesus. He constructed a whole new theory about him. But no established religious group accepted his proclamations. This was mostly because his declarations showed the strong stamp of his "eagle" individuality. Thus, Michael Servetus became a passionate antagonist and opponent of the Doctrine of the Trinity. He sought to replace it with a system that was totally in opposition to the declarations of the Council of Nicea. He argued that the folly of the trinity was incompatible with natural law. So he decided to codify his beliefs.

He accomplished this by writing a brief essay which he titled On the Errors of the Trinity. That's what got him into real trouble. The Inquisition raged on in Spain. But Calvin was raging on in Central Europe, too. In order to purify the order he had established, Calvin, powerful as he had become found that in order to keep that power he had to institute what he called "Purges" from time to time.

For quite a period, Servetus continued a correspondence with Calvin. He admired the great Reformer's mind and example. But Calvin began to see the danger of this heretical young man and when he read the published essay, Calvin denounced Servetus - put a price on his head and a death sentence in his future. Servetus was imprisoned for a time. But he managed to escaped to Geneva with the aid of some of the wealthy, thinking princes who admired him. There he continued his writing and teaching. But again he was arrested by Calvin. He had what was called "a trial" and not unexpectedly, he was pronounced a heretic. Given the chance to recant he refused. In 1553 in the town of Champel, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake with his books burning at his feet.

One last scene bears description. A silent procession leads a man through the middle of town. A chaplain babbles away as they walk. He tries to get Servetus to save himself; to admit at the last minute that he was wrong. They arrive at the place of execution. His executioners truly believe Satan has possession of this man and their act of burning him alive will release his soul to heaven. They tie him there. They put sulfur on his head as was traditional. The wood was wet down so it would burn slowly. Jesus, son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me! Servetus cried from the midst of the flames. He died a martyr to his religious conviction. He belongs to noble religious history. He belongs to us as a Unitarian.

It's easy to try and imagine the "foxhole experience". But of political and religious martyrdoms we cannot. It is utterly impossible for us in this free land to visualize being a prisoner, all hope gone, reason dashed upon the rocks of persecution, facing a mob of people while hooded executioners put torches to the wood heaped up around our feet. Now way of knowing, is there? No way of really feeling what must be the ultimate in human suffering.

Unitarian heroines? Where does one even begin? Would we inquire about the Unitarian woman who established the first nursery school - Elizabeth Peabody? Or perhaps we should study the life and work of Dorothea Dix who brought more humane treatment to prisoners and the insane. Women were second class citizens in the century before the one that we see ending. Four Unitarians stand out due to their fight to win the vote for women. Susan B. Anthony, of course, not to mention Julia Ward Howe, Margaret Fuller and Lucy Stone? Interestingly enough, the most popular novel about women was written by a Unitarian. Her name was Louisa May Alcott.

Her successor in letters and in education was a woman named Sophia Lyons Fahs, a religious educator who created a curriculum for church schools free of superstition and filled with opportunities to engage the youthful inquiring mind.

Let me conclude with a statement from one of my real heroes. The words I share was written in 1786 by a self-professed unitarian. The statement became its author's proudest accomplishment notwithstanding many more noteworthy achievements. It is titled simple, "The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom." It reads as follows:

That no (one) shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or (burdened) in . . . body or goods, or shall otherwise suffer, on account of religious opinions or beliefs, but that all shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain their opinion on matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

"The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom" was written by none other than a man who was to become the third President of the United States - Thomas Jefferson. Many of its points were subsumed into the Constitution of the neighboring state of West Virginia. I am still thrilled by the beauty of its words. For in the last analysis, these heroes; these heroines; these martyrs and prophets - all worked to tear down walls of separation and distrust. They worked for a world of harmony and tolerance; a world that would be free in all matters pertaining to the human condition - especially religion.

Amenhotep, Servetus, Hus, Anthony, Stone, Alcott, Dix and Howe. Heroines and heroes all. They gave us freedom. We should never forget them! They assist us in remembering our past.

Amen.