All Souls Kansas City

“Dove and Serpents” January 7, 2018, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

In addition to our own All Souls 150th celebration, this month marks the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda, the first recognized declaration of religions freedom in Christian western Europe. Today we remember the Unitarian monarch and his remarkable mother who together brought this concept into official government practice, and transformed the relationship among the rulers, the ruled, and the holy. Our offerings will support our Unitarian Partner Church in Nyaradgalfalva, Romania.


Click here to start at the sermon.

Encounters with the holy are rarely convenient.  They usually have a bit of a fumbling quality to them as well; it’s not something you get smooth at, since practice only makes you more aware of how much you don’t run the universe.  I have never been a morning person, so it’s a very unnatural and onerous thing for me to get myself up and dressed for appearing in public before dawn.  This year it was new year’s eve rather than new year’s day, which was a small mercy, but even so, not convenient.  We stumble in to the Rime Buddhist Center, over on Pennway, up the steep concrete stairs of some old church building, out of the frigid dark into the welcome warmth and color of the shrine.  It is filled with prayer flags, lighted candles, images of the Buddha, and photographs of saffron-clad teachers from far away places and past eras.  A handful of folks I know from the Interfaith Council, but mostly the crowded room is full of strangers, all of whom have pried themselves from their beds to mark the turning of the calendar with this early morning meditation for peace.  We greet acquaintances, receive last minute instructions, and settle in to the folding chairs.  Gently the musics of many faiths begin to lift our spirits – Native American drums and flutes, the Muslim call to prayer, a Buddhist chant, a recitation from the Torah, the plaintive chords of a Hindu devotional instrument.  Words from scriptures I have known all my life are interwoven with languages I do not speak; the gods who are called upon have a dizzying plethora of names.  We are not here to endorse particular theological notions, but to put forth into the world our shared conviction that peace is the best way for humanity to operate, and the will of god – all the gods.


Jew and Muslim, black and white, celibate monk and pagan priestess and atheist, for this moment we defy the intractable struggles that have formed us, and ever so cautiously reach for a place of meeting, a common prayer, for less harm and less suffering.  We are confused and awkward, lined up to offer our 30 seconds of the particular vocabularies of the sacred that we each represent, but our reverence is sincere, audible, and as we are speaking, the sun rises.  There is an old Muslim teaching tale about the students who asked their teacher for a formula to determine when the day started, so they could observe the fast of Ramadan properly.  Is it when you can see a man riding a camel on the horizon? they asked.  Is it when you can tell a white thread from a black thread?  Until you can look into the eyes of a stranger, or any person, and see your sibling, the teacher answered, it is still dark, and the dawn has not yet come.


Would you like to visit the kingdom of god?  When I try to imagine such a being, I can only suppose that if they love us at all ever, it must surely be in that shimmering moment when we babble like so many toddlers, pointing to the divine and crying with our many names to call upon its attention and mercy.  There is a time for worshipping with the people who share your convictions by a comfortable margin, I know.  But for me, born into the freedoms and diversities of this faith, the real challenge and the brief, tantalizing accomplishment, is discovered at the intersection of our varying human experiences of reverence and accountability.  It is interfaith worship that calls me most reliably into the presence of what I know as holy, as part of my particular spiritual path.  I am entirely aware that this would not work as it does without my ongoing practice in this specific covenant community, with the disciplines of our history and tradition.  That is what grounds me to stand with integrity as a full member among those gathered faiths, and to speak with authenticity and authority from our unique vision for human community.  Part of what I know about our heritage is that this dynamic is rooted deep in our story, and it is of that story that I want to speak to you this morning.


In a few days, we will reach the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda.  There probably won’t be the same kind of international fanfare that there was over the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the start of the Protestant Reformation, but for us Unitarians, and for all who believe in religious dialogue and tolerance, it is still a significant moment to observe.  There are three historical strands that weave together in an unlikely combination to produce this particular moment; they include diplomacy, geography, and heredity.  Let’s set a bit of a time frame.  The Muslim Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city of Constantinople in 1453, placing the Ottoman empire on Europe’s eastern border, and casting covetous eyes on Vienna and points west.  Martin Luther announced his 95 Protestant theses in 1517; up until that event, the Roman Catholic church had succeeded in suppressing efforts of secession and reform, and maintained a religious hegemony throughout western Europe.  Fifty years of war between Catholic and Protestant kings followed Luther’s establishment of non-Catholic Christianity.  In 1553, exactly a century after the rise of the Muslim Ottoman Turks, the proto-Unitarian Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Calvinist Geneva.  Two years later, in 1555, the crowned heads of Europe made an effort to negotiate an end to the chaotic military conflict over Christian theology at the treaty of Augsburg.  As part of this peace plan, they agreed to the principle “Cuius regio, eius religio,” which means, “Whose realm, his religion.”  In other words, each monarch would determine the orthodoxy of his own realm; and one nation would not attack another merely because their kings happened to disagree about the proper interpretation of Christian doctrine.  Europe was no longer held together by a unified church.


Meanwhile, in 1518, a daughter of the Italian renaissance named Bona Sforza arrived in Poland to become the second wife of King Sigismund the Old, bringing with her the literature, architecture, and cuisine of the Enlightenment, along with its intellectual curiosity. Queen Bona raised her oldest daughter, Isabella, to be as politically astute and ambitious as she was herself, and when the girl was twenty, she was married to John Zapolya, the King of Hungary.  A year later, John Zapolya went off to quell a peasant revolt, leaving Isabella pregnant.  The child was born in July, and two weeks later, his father died of wounds received in a skirmish, never having seen his son.  The baby was crowned king of Transylvania by the nobility when he was six weeks old, and the young queen now found herself in between a rock and a hard place.


The geography of Transylvania places it as a buffer zone between the Ottoman Turks to the east, and the ever-grasping Hapsburg empire to the west.  For a decade, Isabella played these contending forces off against each other, attempting, as regent, to protect her son’s royal inheritance.  She also saw to it that young John Sigismund received an extensive classical education; he spoke nine languages, was an accomplished lute player and a noted scholar with special interest in religion and establishing schools.  In 1551, when John was 11, the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand, with the help of the Catholic church, was able to force the young king and his mother to flee to her native Poland, where they lived in exile for five years.  By the time they returned, with the support of the local nobles and the Ottoman Sultan, in 1556, the peace of Augsburg had been signed the preceding year, and it was up to the restored monarchy to decide what religion would be enforced throughout their realm.  Cuius regio, ius religio.  And that’s when Isabella made history.


During the period of their exile, Lutheranism had continued to spread among the Transylvanian nobility, and Calvinism had also been introduced.  It would have been difficult, bloody work to return the nation to Roman Catholic orthodoxy by force, and besides that, both Isabella and young John had been influenced by theological arguments among the Humanists at the Polish Queen Bona’s court.  Daringly, Isabella announced that as regent for her son, she would not require religious uniformity in the realm; let the various churches and preachers teach what seemed right to them.  She left open the possibility that when John Sigismund came of age and ascended to the throne, he could decide for himself which form of Christianity to impose.  But a year later, in January of 1568 at the assembly of nobles gathered in the city of Torda, the teen age king-elect confirmed that this was no stop-gap measure; it was, and would remain, his policy.  Four varieties of Christianity would be officially recognized by the state:  Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Unitarianism.  Moreover, in an early version of don’t-ask, don’t-tell, even Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Muslims were politely ignored as they carried on the practices of their own faiths.  In short, no one should be punished or persecuted because of their beliefs, not in John Sigismund’s kingdom.


In fact, one of the king’s great pleasures was to sponsor debates among advocates of various Christian ideas, to explore who had the better arguments.  One of the best of these theological defenders was Francis David, whose eloquence eventually persuaded King John, along with many of the high nobles, not only to embrace religious tolerance, but to dispense with the doctrine of the trinity, and become Unitarians.  Some of the churches that they founded continue to this time, in present day Romania.


It is certainly possible to overstate the significance of the Edict of Torda.  Its assurance of religious freedom was institutional, not individual.  Churches were allowed to teach and practice without government interference, but that did not mean that people alone could say or write anything they wanted; it was still possible to be punished for heresy, as Francis David would discover after King John’s death in 1571.  Even the more radical varieties of Christianity, such as the Anabaptists, were not protected.  And besides, the idea was not original to either John Sigismund or Isabella.  They got it from observing a tradition that had been practicing governmental religious tolerance for centuries; they got it from the Ottoman empire, from Islam.  If it had not been for the intervention of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent on their border, the entire little kingdom of Transylvania would have been swallowed whole by the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire several times over.  What the Muslim rulers knew from experience, in Spain as well as the middle east and eastern Europe, was that public order, taxes, and competent civil servants were all of more use in the long run than theological conformity.  They had learned that tolerating and protecting religious minorities was a far more stable, profitable strategy than sectarian persecution.  And, they had found that usually nothing bad happened, when you left peoples’ faith communities alone.


I like to think that it meant more than that to John Sigismund – he of the lute, and the nine languages, who liked to sit back with a cold one and enjoy a thumping good debate about the personhood of god.  I like to imagine that he had a glimpse of that same holy laughter I felt last week, when so many children, of so many gods, woke up so early to offer our various pleas for peace in the coming year.  You can never take it for granted; there are always people – there are still people – who think that their gods would like the world better if we would all agree on the same religious ideas and vocabularies.  Some of them are even Humanists.  But they were on to something back in the day, John and Isabella and their Ottoman friends.  Jesus is said to have advised his followers to be “as cunning as serpents, and as innocent as doves.”  So while it is true that vipers still occupy the rocks of Deva mountain, and pigeons still flock around its heights, it is really from the scriptures that the Unitarians take their denominational crest in what was once Transylvania.


Religious tolerance is a principle both cunning and innocent.  Cunning because it costs so little to leave people’s consciences free to say what it is they truly believe; to let them pray the prayers they feel are right, to whatever gods seem real to them.  As Thomas Jefferson once observed, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  But it’s more than just that, to me, at least.  If anything is true about any gods at all – and I’m not saying it is, but if it were – it has to be that all the little details and tiniest variations in this universe give them pleasure; that they take delight in all the diversities of creation, including the many names by which humanity knows them.  Four hundred and fifty years ago, a king who was barely more than a boy, and a queen who was only a queen because of a faith she did not share, made a decision, and a decree that changed the western world, and so offered a new way for people to be a human community together.  The Edict of Torda opened a window into a different perspective on Christianity, and on religion – a window that has opened wider and wider over the intervening centuries.  That window has opened on a time and place where no one is burned for the strangeness of their beliefs, or lack of them; where no one compels us, but faith is a gift, and our souls may be satisfied, all because of what they put in motion.  Dearly beloved, these are your spiritual ancestors, and their words have a claim on you across the years.  It is a worthy thing, to celebrate their vision, and to lift up their memory.