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Barbecue Religion

Rev. Jim Nelson: What would you be willing to give your life for? For anything? Where do you draw the line? What are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of your faith? For freedom, for truth?

It is 1553, a cold and rainy day in Geneva, Switzerland. Gray skies and people yelling at you to repent, or yelling for your death as you are led through the streets to a central square. You have spent months in a dank and vermin ridden prison; you ache and wish that you could live longer. Imagine you are Michael Servetus, tied to a stake, surrounded by the many books and essays you have written about theology and faith, your past as a physician in your mind, as the flame is put to the wood and the fire begins. You must know that the pain will be awful, and that your death will be slow, and that it was happening only because you took your faith so seriously and believed so strongly that honesty and reason would prevail, that people could disagree, but converse and come to agreement.

Michael Servetus

Somehow you really believed in the power of reason and in the inherent goodness of everyone. You really believed that everyone wanted to know the truth. You really believed all this.

Just imagine. You are in your forties, and as the heat increases, the flames rising, you think back over your life. You remember growing up in Spain and of the religious foment there, the inquisition and the beginnings of the reformation, of traveling to Rome and being repulsed by the opulence of the Roman Church and the trappings around the papacy, of fleeing to Switzerland and becoming a protestant, of publishing a book On the Errors of the Trinity. You might wonder if that was the best title for a book on theology during the Inquisition.

You think back to your time in Paris as a physician, of being convinced there is no such thing as original sin. You remember how proud you were of your book The Restoration of Christianity. You remember how excited you were to discover how the blood actually circulates through the body, delivering nutrients and oxygen to cells, though you would not know that the English physician William Harvey would be credited with that discovery even though he suggested it 80 years later. You remember corresponding with John Calvin, and you probably wonder why you chose to stop in Geneva as you fled France where you had been condemned.

Was it worth it, you wonder? Your pursuit of truth, your belief in reason, your hope that others would listen, that you were not alone? Was it worth it?

Michael Servetus was burned at the stake, his books tied around him, in Geneva, Switzerland on October 27, 1553 for the crime of heresy.

Most religions have their founder or their heroes and heroines. Christianity has Jesus and Paul, Buddhism has the Buddha; Islam has Muhammad. Hinduism has the mythic heroes of Krishna and Arjuna. Mormons have Joseph Smith. And they have good and sometimes great stories that go along with those figures; often founding stories, stories of religious discovery and struggle against old orders to offer something new.

As much as religion has depended on ideas, it has depended even more on stories. The stories of Christmas and Easter, the stories of the revelation of the Koran and early days of Islam, the stories of the Buddha’s long and arduous road to enlightenment, the stories of golden tablets and talking salamanders. But rarely is someone burned at the stake because of a story – it is often ideas that condemn us but not stories.

We tell our lives through stories more than through ideas. Sermons, while they have ideas [at least I hope so], are more powerful when they have stories. The whole world of therapy is based on the power of stories. Tonight, at the Oscars, the importance of stories will be central.

Stories – what is your story? What is the story of Neighborhood Church? What is the story of Unitarian Universalism? We have so few stories as a faith.

When Servetus was imprisoned in Geneva, the law stipulated that both the accused and the accuser were sent to prison until the trial was over. Whoever lost stayed; the winner was released. The intent, I presume, was to cut down on frivolous lawsuits. I can imagine it worked – wouldn’t that be interesting in our world? Calvin had accused Servetus of blasphemy but he was not about to go to prison so he had his cook sign the accusation. Fine man, that John Calvin. So the cook had to face Servetus at the trial and he did not do so well. John Calvin stepped in and for days it was Calvin and Servetus. It ended when Calvin declared himself the winner. It is quite a story.

Servetus is one of our stories. But Servetus is lost to history for the most part. When he died, Calvin ordered that all of his books be burned but three survived Calvin’s order, including Calvin’s own copy. But Servetus is hardly known. We know Luther and Calvin [or Calvin and Hobbes] – many do anyway. But try asking someone you know – say at work or ask a neighbor, or someone at the gym, “Say, do you know who Michael Servetus was?” Yet he is one of ours. He denied the trinity because he believed there was no Biblical basis for that belief; that is, Servetus insisted on a close and rational reading of the Bible, that we ought to have an open mind when we come to things and not see them through the filters of prior belief. He was a scientist, a believer in physical fact. He denied the doctrine of original sin.

He is one of ours.

These stories are important; the story of his life is important. Someone who stood up for his beliefs, who had the courage of conviction, who believed that dialogue mattered more than monologue, that truth was discoverable by everyone. His life is an example that religion can be used to condemn and tyrannize. His story is our story – or can be.

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So imagine being Servetus. What would you be willing to give your life for? For anything? Where do you draw the line? What are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of your faith? For freedom, for truth?

How do you think Servetus felt? Alone in his beliefs? Alone in his trust in the power of reason and freedom of thought? Have you ever felt like that? Ever come to some conclusion about living and then wonder where the others who think like that are? Ever wonder where those who share your values, your beliefs are hiding? Ever felt alone in your beliefs or thoughts? Imagine being a gay person in Uganda or a woman in Afghanistan or a brown skinned immigrant in Arizona. Imagine being alone.

Ever feel how good it is to walk through these doors and enter this room, and know you will not be burned at the stake for what you believe or who you are, that you will not be shunned for what you think, not condemned for what you believe, that you can question things, and think about things, that you do not have to be alone? Have you felt like you have come home here? Found a refuge, a sanctuary, a place to be and become who you truly are, a place to put down spiritual roots? Or is that true here? Are we what we say we are?

Though he died alone, Servetus stood at the beginnings of a great liberation in western thought. He did not want to die; he did not choose to be a martyr, but he did not back down either.

What would a Servetus say today? It is clear that the religious forces of condemnation and judgment are still alive. The recent bill in Arizona – vetoed by the governor, we can be sure, because it would be bad for business – that would have legalized discrimination under the umbrella of religious freedom. The use of the argument of religious freedom to deny some basic rights to people, these are tactics John Calvin would have loved. The argument against marriage equality, against a woman’s right to control her own body – all justified by religious doctrine with the clear assumption that some religion is truer than others [where were the defenders of my religious freedom to marry same sex couples for all those years?]. I think Michael Servetus would be working for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

Like Servetus we are for mercy before judgment, compassion before punishment. Why all this punitive pressure; penalizing the poor, women, people of color, the elderly, the mentally ill in our society? Oh, God is a vengeful God we are told.

Not so, not so. That is not our story.

What is the line we sing every week – roots hold me close, wings set me free?

Deepening our roots. This means being aware of our history, not just own personal history but the history of our faith. Being aware that we didn’t invent this; that it has been given to us to care for and to expand, that we have some responsibility to support this free faith so that it will continue on and be there for others when they walk through the door, feeling alone and hoping for community and for companionship. Being aware that freedom, which is what Servetus was after, is won through struggle and often sacrifice.

This has been our story as a movement. Servetus, Francis David, Joseph Priestly, Margaret Fuller, Emerson and Channing. They all believed that a free faith, grown out of compassion and reason, led to an abundant life, a full life. I believe that too. I trust you do as well.

The essence of our faith is abundance, and the early Unitarians and Universalists knew this. It was John Murray, the Universalist who said, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” His is a good story too. Our foremothers and fathers broke out of doctrinal constraints, proclaiming that God was love rather than judgment, insisting, as Emerson and Whitman and Dickinson and Servetus and we claim, that the holy is in the world.

Emerson told us to feel the fullness of life and see the sacred in everything. He said that faith is about abundance; it is about hope; it is about those moments in life that break in with unutterable beauty and joy. It is about throwing ourselves into living. If we see the glass as half empty, we will miss those moments and despair and bitterness will be our companions. Servetus claimed that God was in everything and everyone, and that the world itself was sacred.

Emerson said that our faith is to help us to live fully and with passion. He wanted us grow deep and wide for justice, for equity, for our own soul. Isn’t Emerson right? Isn’t that what Servetus was after? Isn’t that the vision we need? Does anyone here want help in living a smaller life, in being more timid, in believing less, in hoping less, in living more fearfully? What if we are timid and unwilling to risk, to dig deeper? Who here wants to be a spiritual miser? We need Michael Servetus a whole lot more than we need John Calvin.

Our faith is about abundance, intellectual abundance, social abundance, abundance in music, in art, in relationships, abundance in service, spiritual abundance. Here is a place where we take out what we have - our beliefs, our hopes, our dreams and ideals. This is what Servetus sought. This is a place where life, not death, should rule, where hope, not despair, should live; where courage not fear should rule. It is about diving deep into the core of life. This is the essence of faith. It is about life, about abundant life. It is about the open heart and the open hand and the open mind. It is about hearing the song of your own heart. It is about those roots that grow deep and wide. It is about a free faith, a free faith. It is about a free faith.

Amen