“Brave in Faith” a sermon on the theme of Courage a sermon by Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, January 31, 2016
Being a faithful or a principled person in Canada is an interesting dichotomy. To identify with a religion, or even a set of values carries with it an expectation that we will live and even promote those values in our everyday lives. That can seem daunting as visions of Jehovah’s Witnesses standing ignored in front of the Milner Library dance in your head.
Mostly, however, this living your faith thing is neither that stressful nor that public. Most of us get to live our faith in peace. Compared to other places in the world it’s not even too troubling for our Muslim sisters and brothers to live in peace here- though they face more resistance than the rest of us.
We Unitarians have no real challenges in that vein, for our faith carries no outward symbols and places few demands or limitations on our actions. We can freely strive to treat the people we meet with respect and affirm their worth and dignity in daily interactions and call that living our faith…and we would be right to do so!
Mostly that’s not too hard….except when we encounter THOSE people, the ones who are difficult, or obstreperous or who make us feel nervous or uncomfortable. You know who I mean – the kind of people who leave you feeling threatened because of their manner or their actions or their words. They can certainly dampen our enthusiasm for affirming their worth. I’ll get back to them. But for most people we meet, following our first Unitarian Principle is not that hard. We can even get away with being pretty low key about it. In fact, unless we decide to make some noise, we can live all of our Principles pretty quietly.
We can practice little acts of justice, like the woman in front of me at the IGA who pointed out to the clerk that she had forgotten to charge for the big jug of water she was buying. We can write letters to editors or legislators without real fear of reprisal. We can care for the environment by not bagging grass clippings and bringing carry-alls to the supermarket.
In other words there are lots of quiet ways that we can live our beliefs into being. I think those little ways are important. I think they are small contributions towards improving our world and our society. It might be the very best we can do, given our life circumstances. And even if we want to live our values in a larger way, well the opportunity to be a hero doesn’t often come our way.
Practicing our values in a quiet way seems very Canadian to me. As a society we like to live and let live, we don’t like to intrude. If we do get into a discussion about things political or social, we tend to try to persuade with ideas and perhaps a measure of conviction. And sure we have all run into folks, often relatives, who come off as insensitive at best and red neck rude at worst. Talking with them patiently can be a challenge. But it’s generally not our style to get in someone’s face about it.
But what happens when one of THEM gets in your face? What happens if someone disrespects your values or even tries to stop you practicing them? How will you respond? Might there be a moment that demands you to act bravely? To speak up for your convictions? To take a risk?
In 1519 a Spanish physician and theologian, Michael Servetus wrote a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity”. It was a very simple book. In it he pointed out that nowhere in the Gospels, nor anywhere else in the Bible, is the idea of the Holy Trinity ever proposed. It was entirely the invention of the church centuries after Jesus died.
I can imagine how exciting you all find that claim. Indeed, I have spent my adult life immersed in religion and even I think, “Big Whup!”
But back then…it was. Up until then the Catholic Church was the only Christian church in Europe. It’s absolute teachings ruled not only the theological world, but large swaths of the political world as well. The church required that their teachings- their doctrines and dogmas – be given the same weight as Scripture. Disobeying the Church was as serious as sinning against God. Central to all of their teachings was the Trinity, God in three aspects, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In Germany at the same time, some priest named Martin Luther was rebelling, arguing that church teachings were not as important as the Scripture itself and that people could get closer to God just by reading the Bible. Thus too was radical. The Roman church insisted that the priests had to interpret Scripture. Almost no one had actually ever read the Bible.
Then Servetus says their key teaching on the Trinity is flat out wrong. There was only one unitary God. The Church would not stand for that.
Servetus was in France at the time. He was arrested for challenging the teachings of the church and tossed in prison condemned to die. In time he escaped, changed his name and worked quietly for 20 years. By then the Protestant Reformation was in full swing, so he tried again. This time he was arrested by Protestants – by Swiss Calvinists. He was tried again and condemned to death for heresy- for rejecting the teachings of another church.
Servetus could have stayed quiet and lived out a life as a successful physician and researcher. He could have written about his ideas using a pseudonym, but he didn’t. And once condemned he could have recanted and had a relatively easy death by the sword. Instead he went to the pyre and was burned alive because his beliefs were the thing he valued the most.
I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have that courage, but I have to give Servetus credit for being brave in his faith.
Fast forward to 19th century America. Olympia Brown was born in 1835 to a farming family that valued education. She completed high school and with her mother’s support entered Mount Holyoke Seminary for Women. It was a place she grew to dislike for she felt it was only educating women enough to be good conversationalists in polite society.
She left and enrolled instead in Antioch College, a progressive institution run by the Universalists. There men and women studied together, but she was frustrated that women were still only expected to meet a lesser standard. She demanded that she be tested to the male standard. She also led a group of women on a campaign to bring a woman lecturer to the school, Antoinette Brown Blackwell a suffragist and preacher in the Unitarian tradition. Though having completed her coursework at Oberlin Antoinette had been denied a degree because she was a woman. She was ordained in the Unitarian church in 1852, though her ordination was far from accepted denominationally.
Olympia was inspired and as she put it was, “Gradually forming a determination to become a preacher”. Brown applied to St. Lawrence Theological School. Her application was dismissed unread. She applied again and this time marched it into the Dean’s office personally. Her persistence paid off and she was finally admitted. After graduation she had a hard time finding a church.
The same dogged persistence was required. She would recall:
The pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into ministry with whom I, at first the only woman in the denomination, had to compete. All I could do was to take someplace that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do.”
Indeed, she did that with great success in rural New York, later in Massachusetts and finally in Racine, Wisconsin.
Olympia Brown would go on to become one of the foremost organizers and speakers of the woman’s suffrage movement in the United States living just long enough to cast a vote in the 1920 federal election.
Unlike Servetus, no one threatened Olympia Brown’s life, but in pursuit of her beliefs she spent 50 years fighting an uphill battle against the ridicule and vitriol of men and a good many women who thought she was exceeding her place. She, too, was brave in her faith.
In my travels with the International Council I have encountered many such stories about courageously faithful Unitarians and Universalists. Some risked their lives, many more risked their careers and standing in the community just because of that they believed. Our brothers and sisters in Burundi have mostly all escaped the brewing civil war in their nation, their non-Catholic leanings putting them in even more danger than the rest of the population. Even today in the United States our cousins who stand up for Black Lives Matter are finding their signs and even churches vandalized by racist haters.
It may never come to us to face that kind of test here in Edmonton. Many of us like to march in the Pride parade each year, but the days of that being risky are long over. We have opted to support a Syrian Muslim refugee family, but almost every large religious group in our city has some congregations doing the same thing.
And so this leaves each of us as individuals with some questions: Will we ever be tested? Will we ever have to stand brave in faith? If we do, will the people around us back us? I don’t know. I’ve been a practicing Unitarian for 35 years and a minister for over 25. It feels like the riskiest things I have ever been called to do was to preach a few sermons that felt like I might get in trouble with all of you.
None of us might ever be called upon to stand bravely in defence of what we believe. That’s not all that important. The more important inner question is could you? Would you stand on a matter of principle and belief? And in this question I am not actually asking about you standing up to defend the Unitarian Church of Edmonton in particular. I am asking you to look at your personal faith, your personal values, the things that make you tick as a human being.
Do you have the courage to stand up for what you believe? How far would you go in support of your convictions? How far would you go to protect someone who you felt was being treated unfairly or harmfully?
None of us will ever know until we are in that situation, but I have found that spending some time pondering questions like that can help us to clarify what matters most. It is good to be prepared. That’s your job, to define what matters to you and define how much you would risk for the principles that give your life meaning. It is good to be prepared.