Late last July and early August, I had the great honor of bringing greetings from West Shore to our partner church in the little village of Bagyon, in the Transylvania region of Romania. The minister there, Rev. Bela Fekete, invited me to lead a Sunday service. Since the Unitarianism there is primarily Christian Unitarianism, my sermon would be based upon a passage of the Christian scriptures I would choose.
Today’s sermon expands on that one.
To get to the village of Bagyon, it was a voyage of 6000 miles! And, as you can imagine in any long voyage, I and my small group of travelers had long waits in one line after another. This is the way of things with international travel. We were herded like sheep, and soon enough, I found myself lulled into the strange illusion that I was a sheep and nothing but. A traveling human sheep, obeying whatever the flight officials and attendants had to say.
It’s a human thing to do—to play games of pretend. And there’s a purpose behind it. International travel is a very complicated thing, involving many parts and relying on cooperation, and if I (as the traveler) don’t pretend to be a sheep and don’t allow myself to be herded, I’m not going anywhere.
But these games of pretend—call them “identity games”—can go too far. After 16 hours of travel and playing the sheep, I could feel the sheep taking over. Tired and hungry as I was, when I saw something I wanted, I felt tempted to run others over to get to it. I also no longer thought for myself, and I wanted the authorities just to tell me where to go and what to do.
I was tired and I was hungry.
Thankfully, we made it to Bagyon, and my game of pretending to be a sheep was at an end. After all the months of planning and all the anticipation, finally, we met Rev. Bela and his wife Poli and the Bagyon community face-to-face.
All their hospitality and kindness brought me back to my humanity.
One highlight in that two-week period of highlights was entering for the first time into the Unitarian church building. Soon after arriving, Rev. Fekete invited us within those ancient walls for a tour. We climbed its tower and saw Bagyon and the surrounding hills in all their beauty. We came back down and took a closer look at the outstanding restoration work that had recently been done. I took special note of the ancient stones that had been found on the church grounds, remnants of the Roman garrison that used to occupy that same space almost a thousand years earlier. The stones had been set in the walls, precious nuggets of history.
The largest, inscribed with a broken Latin phrase, stood right across from me preaching in their pulpit. It was a mute witness to the passage of ages with all its changes, as well as to something that has remained the same throughout human history: oppression.
In stark contrast, the peace of that space felt freeing, liberatory. Closing my eyes, being still, I could feel a deeper peace within me which would never allow itself to be pushed down, pressed down indefinitely. In that moment, our First Principle came to mind: that you and I and all people are beings of “inherent worth and dignity.” But it was the “inherent” part in particular that came alive for me, with a meaning that I realize I hadn’t reflected on enough in my life–a meaning that I dare not ever forget if I am to be fully alive in my world.
“Inherent” means that there is nothing I can ever do to earn or deserve my worth and dignity.
“Inherent” means that there is nothing I can ever do to lose it.
The fundamental worth and dignity of all of us is a gift of grace.
What came next from that moment of deeper peace and realization, in the space of the Bagyon church, was a recognition that here, in the very naming of grace, is a wholly other side to our Unitarian Universalist faith than what we today usually hear about. Normally we are encouraged to be hard at work, busy at self-actualizing and maxing out our potentials as people with certain collections of social identities. We are male or female or non-binary; we are cis- or trans-; we are gay or straight; we are black or white or brown; we are poor or middle class or wealthy; and we are so many other things in the eyes of society. Each and every one of these identities is something to understand, something to celebrate, something to deal with. Each and every one is also burdened–with either privilege or oppression. And our faith wants us to be free from burdens. It wants liberation and aliveness for all.
Yet that other side of our faith we don’t hear as much about (the side of our faith that hangs on that one word “inherent”): it is not so much about doing the work of fulfilling social identities as it is about being the peace we fundamentally are. The difference here is a matter of two categorically different kinds of identities. Social identities are at one level, and they require a lot of work. But then there is the deeper identity, which a Christian might call the Child of God identity, and which comes to each of us in unearned fashion, as grace, and the task here is simply to allow it, to be it.
If we can allow it and be it–
the fullness of the Love that we always already are at the deepest level of our being—
if we can operate from that spaciousness of compassion and peace—
then the justice work we do at the level of our social identities
will be more fulfilling
and less likely to do damage to ourselves and to others.
So often, all our busy doing in the world smacks of desperation, or unconscious agendas. So often, in our work to become more personally healthy and socially responsible, it can feel like we are coming from a place of emptiness. It can feel like we are running to stand still. It can feel like we are trying to fill an inner emptiness by gorging ourselves on the latest wisdom or the latest “silver bullet” strategy.
How is that even possible: to feel empty when, at our core, is a fullness of Love and Peace which comes to us as a gift of grace, which is our “inherent” worth and dignity?
Ralph Waldo Emerson was one who was mightily puzzled by this irony. He once spoke of how people are like Kings and Queens suffering from amnesia, wandering their kingdoms in tattered clothing, frantically busy, trying to work their way up the social ladder from the very bottom. If they could only realize who they truly were, though. If they could only do that, they would (as Emerson said) “vault at once” upon their thrones and be who they truly are.
Where does this amnesia that separates us from our deepest identity (our Child of God identity) come from?
A thousand years before Emerson was born, an answer came from Rumi, the mystic poet of Sufism, who said, “Our task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” We have built barriers within. Barriers have been built.
But how is it that we could ever build barriers within to the compassion and peace that is already fully ours? It is so because we have been taught how, we have been taught to do so, in a world that grants worth and dignity only conditionally.
The world teaches us how.
To sum up so far: What I am saying is that there is a largely unknown side to our Unitarian Universalist faith that is a light that shines in the darkness of a world which tempts us constantly to forget who we fundamentally are.
There has always been this darkness. It was this way thousands of years ago, in the time of Rome, and it is this way now. Society has always divided people up based on arbitrary things—like which family you were born into, or what country you were born in, or your physical characteristics. Society exerts power to judge some identities better and others worse. Society does not care that you, personally, had no choice in the matter of what you were born into. Based on these arbitrary things, we are given social roles to play, and we better get busy and play them to the hilt, or else.
This is play-acting at a much different level than that of the traveling sheep role I spoke of earlier. I chose that sheep role so I might cooperate with the authorities to get to Bagyon. But the sort of roles I am talking about now: others choose them for us. Their eyes are constantly upon us, looking to see how well we play along. If we don’t start taking them personally—if we don’t start taking them very seriously—the feedback can be brutal. If you’re born in a male body, for example, you better get with the cis-gender, heterosexual, patriarchal picture, or you get punished. And on and on.
To stay within the social roles chosen for us can be a matter of survival. To be human is, in part, to be a hodge-podge of all sorts of survival strategies, learned amidst the stresses of family life as well as life in the larger world that likes to differentiate and categorize and make sure everyone is in the “right” box and stays in that box.
But did you know that survival strategies are like scars that form over our souls? Every time we live from a survival strategy place–that running to stand still place–the scar only thickens. Eventually it gets to the point that God’s peace deep within is covered up. The amnesia Emerson spoke about takes hold and takes over. This forgetfulness can become so complete that the amazing good news that it is possible to live from a place of sheer being (as opposed to doing) can meet up with … apathy. Just to raise the issue that our social identities are only one dimension of our living—and that deep within all of us is God’s peace within—just to raise this possibility may inspire intense skepticism, even ridicule.
God’s peace? God’s peace within me?
What are you talking about?
And yet, in the space of the church in Bagyon (and I would say this space also), one can almost believe again. One can almost feel like the child of God one really is, and touch one’s inherent worth and dignity which is an identity categorically different from any of the others we have.
This is what came to me, all those months ago while within the Bagyon church. I felt re-inspired by our Unitarian Universalist heritage and faith, and this morning, with my Installation service just hours away, I’m coming to you in the same way.
That we don’t have to live from a survival strategy place–that we don’t have to continually salvage our sense of fundamental self-worth and dignity in the face of omnipresent shame: this is the message of possibility that the ancient founder of our faith, the rabbi Jesus, preached. It is why he was crucified. The Roman leader in Palestine where Jesus lived, Pontius Pilate, thought that to crucify Jesus would have been enough to crush his teachings, but it was not enough. The love of our teacher Jesus was too compelling to die. Jesus died but his compassionate spirit was resurrected in the lives of his followers.
For them, as for us today, true religion was about seeing through all the survival strategy roles people play to get to the heart of the matter: that all people are children of God, including oneself.
True religion, then, operates at two different levels. One level addresses human life as it is lived in the context of society’s judgmentalism, together with all the social identities that that context creates. Here we seek to heal from judgmentalism (which becomes a shame-based judgmental voice within all of us), and we do so with compassion. At this level we also acknowledge how the hearts of the socially privileged are harmed by the very privilege that the world prizes, and to heal that harm. And, we invite in from the margins the poor, the sick, the despised; we hear their voices, we respect their agency, we work together to dismantle oppressive systems.
But that is only one level of true religion. The other level is to do as Rumi says: to seek and find all the barriers within ourselves that have been built against the Love that we fundamentally are. It’s about learning to live more frequently from a place of grace, from the knowledge of who one fundamentally is as a Child of God, from the fullness of our being.
All of this is implicit in the passage from the Christian scriptures I chose for that Sunday service in Bagyon all those months ago: Galatians 3:28: where the writer Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 2000 years have passed since Paul wrote, and so today, we could cite other examples of national, class, and gender identities, together with altogether different identity categories. But, from a God’s-eye point of view–from an infinite point of view–they are all games of pretend. In the face of all the ways socialization takes a small sweet baby and processes it into type and category and caste, Paul insists: “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
To the ears of this Unitarian Universalist, what Paul is saying here isn’t so much about Christianity vs. other faiths as it is a reminder to people of all faiths that there is, in each of us, an identity which is deeper and truer than any of the ones society imposes upon us, with love and peace at the core. Buddhists call it Buddhamind, or one’s Original Face. Mystics call it “cosmic consciousness.” Stoics call it “cosmopolitanism.” Jungians speak of the Self within. Paul is just using words he is culturally and intellectually comfortable with, but the bare concept itself appears in religious and spiritual traditions worldwide.
Paul is also implying, I believe, that there can get to be a point in anyone’s life where it feels like you are nothing but a continuously busy sheep–running to stand still–but there is something mysterious inside that resists capitulating to that, that insists that you are suffering from amnesia and forgetting something of momentous importance.
This resistance and insistence: it is a restlessness that grows and grows until it can no longer be ignored.
At this point, some people might go to the therapist. Still others might dive deep into science, or philosophy.
They might even start going to church.
These are all good and needed things.
But I believe that the complete medicine that can heal the mysterious restlessness we feel inside is the medicine of Unitarian Universalism, which wants to help us remember and never forget that below and beneath all the identities society has forced upon us, is the identity that is the gracious gift of the Spirit of Life.
This is indeed a dangerous teaching, because judgmentalism “makes the world go round.” This teaching upends all the things people take for granted about what is valuable and valueless. It certainly outraged the rulers of Rome. This is why Christians suffered so, in the early days.
Over time, however, Christianity was established as the official religion and became as bad as Rome in dividing people up into powerful and powerless, rich and poor, ugly and beautiful. It began to play the same game that society always plays, in judging people as worthless or worthy on the basis of identities that are in themselves arbitrary. Christianity strayed from Jesus. It required reform, and both Unitarianism and Universalism was born with a passion for reform.
One of the greatest gifts that our Transylvanian Unitarian Churches gave the world was Francis David. Back in 1568, he was warned by a debater from the Calvinist persuasion, “If I win this debate you will be executed.” He replied, calmly, “If I win this debate, you will be given the freedom due to every son of God.” Because Francis David knew: to get to the root of who we really are—children of the living God—is to realize what it means to be free. Faith is a relationship with God that frees us from the tyranny of having to deserve one’s dignity through believing orthodox things or practicing orthodox rituals or any of the like. Faith is knowing unshakably that worth and dignity is unconditional, so there is no more need to waste energy keeping ourselves small so that we can live down–not up but down–to other people’s prejudices and to society’s superego voice within us.
This has been our Unitarian Universalist tradition for a little more than 500 years now. Proclaiming the freedom that comes from dwelling in the grace of the Love at the core of one’s being. When you live from that, the voice of judgmentalism towards self and other softens and goes quiet. Compassion on the other hand grows, and your heart becomes big enough for this world–for all its sorrows, for all its joys.
This is the freedom in feeling connected to your core self.
Loving others in the spirit of that freedom.
Society in all its judgmentalism hates that.
And we Unitarians have suffered for it. Suffering is no stranger to us. We know how the story ended for Francis David. Tolerance was met with intolerance. The oppressive power of Rome reared its ugly head yet again, reincarnated into a newer version: the opponents of David.
The last book Francis David ever wrote was one line scratched upon the wall of a prison cell high upon a mountain top in Deva, as he was sick and pitifully weak: Egy Az Isten. He died of neglect on November 15, 1579. His body was thrown into an unmarked grave. Not one person, to this day, knows where he actually lies.
But now listen to something else about our faith tradition. It does not quit! It does not matter that the grave of the great Francis David is unknown. It does not matter how he died. The last book he ever wrote—those precious three words scratched upon a prison wall—are at the heart of every Unitarian church in Transylvania and in this country as well.
Egy Az Isten.
God is One.
The spirit of Francis David, just like his Master Jesus, can never die.
And that was my sermon. My sermon to the church in Bagyon.
They are 6000 miles away! And they are right here and right now with us. Our partnership has lasted for decades, and let it last for untold years more. We in America and they in Romania are both religious minorities surrounded by majority upon majority. We can feel so small at times. But we must know: our shared faith tradition of Unitarianism transcends geography and transcends time. It is medicine to the hearts and souls of people whom life has made weary, if people make room in their hearts and time in their schedules to receive it. It is a sign to all the world that, while society impresses role upon role upon people, there is yet a deeper identity to everyone, and it is a source of peace, it is a source of blessing, it is a source of such tremendous joy that people in all ages and all countries have given it the most sacred names they can muster: Great Spirit, Atman, Goddess, God.
Above all: we can draw on as often as we like, because it is in us. It is within.
As a popular Transylvanian house blessing goes:
Where there is faith, there is love;
Where there is love, there is peace;
Where there is peace, there is blessing;
Where there is blessing, there is God.
Where there is God, there is no need.
In most Unitarian houses in Transylvania, you will find this blessing.
Let it be a blessing that consecrates this space as well.