August 30th 2009
(Job answers Zophar the Nasamathite’s misunderstanding of God)
Job 12: 22-13:19
…But for my part I would speak with the Almighty and am ready to argue with God, while you like fools are smearing truth with your falsehoods, stitching a patchwork of lies, one and all. Ah,… if you would only be silent.. and let silence be your wisdom.
The tempter said ……”If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. Jesus answered …Man shall not live by bread alone”.
John 8: 31-43
…”If you continue in my word, you are truly by disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Richard Dawkins in the preface of his controversial book “The God Delusion” tells the story of his wife who hated her school as a child. When she was in her twenties and finally told her parents how unhappy she had been …. her mother was aghast. “But darling, why didn’t you come and tell us? “I didn’t know I could” she said to her mother. …… “I didn’t know I could.”
I suspect that many of us have had that… “I didn’t know I could” experience growing up. For one reason or another we learned to rein in our questions… or mute our feelings for fear they might not be acceptable or appropriate. When faced with some adult directive most children ….at least initially … are taught to be obedient to authority without question….whether it is parent, teacher, policeman, or pastor. Don’t misunderstand me….I believe obedience has it’s time and place. We don’t want our toddlers to run into the street, or our soldiers to desert the battle field, or speeders to run stoplights. But throughout history the claims of authority and the consequences of compliant obedience have had some disastrous results. Especially in the history of religion …the litany of disasters is long indeed.
I think we know today that the search for God or ‘truth’ of any kind requires autonomy…. Not obedience… , freedom… not compliance. Each of the scripture readings this morning make that clear. If you are trying to grasp the vastness and depth of the milky way on a dark night.. but are told to look out a window covered with blue paint and white specks to see it…most of us would not assume we were discovering the mysteries of the universe while looking at the blue paint. But let me tell you…millions have assumed exactly that. Any genuine seeker of truth today needs to scrap the blue paint of orthodoxy off the glass and open the windows of tradition to feel the spirit, the “ruach”, the wind of God’s ever unfolding truth about creation.
I think Gerhard Lenski, the Chicago sociologist, gave us insight into this process several decades ago in his book called “The Religious Factor”. He showed how parents with authoritarian religious belief systems had a very strong tendency to use child rearing practices that had obedience as the highest priority. While more open, non authoritarian religious parental practices had autonomy as the goal in child rearing. The resulting consequences for the development of character were significant indeed. Whether you can think for yourself and make reasonable choices really matters in life, not just for yourself but for society as a whole.
Steve Nelson said in last Sunday’s Valley News that “Too Few Know How to Think Critically” anymore. He wrote ..”Combine the decline of critical capacity with the explosion of information in the digital age and you have a society where truth is whatever one chooses to believe”. He went on to say “ ..these days critical inquiry has been turned on its head. Many Americans seem more inclined to adopt an emotionally or ideologically satisfying point of view and then cherry pick observations of so-called authorities”… to confirm their bias.
And not just in America. The consequences of blind obedience are clearly seen in the very orthodox Muslim world where some teenagers, taught absolute obedience to the Koran, are willing to forsake their own lives to become suicide bombers for Allah and a taste of heaven’s delights. They have been taught to never question the Koran and …that the Jews are infidels. And of course it happens… in more subtle ways…. right here in Christian America as well. The film we will show on Sept. 14th is a good example of the consequences of obedience to an authoritarian, Protestant religious belief system.
It is becoming increasingly evident, at least to some of us, that all too many true believers of the religious right are asked to be obedient and compliant to an outmoded set of misunderstood conclusions about God and the Bible made some 1600 years ago. Those beliefs were then canonized and made the dogma of the church…then empowered by the Roman emperor Constantine almost 350 years after Jesus actually said or did anything. Those conclusions…. the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed as just two examples…. are still recited today in major denominations as if they express our final understanding of God. They are instead…. the blue paint on the theological windows of our cathedrals of orthodoxy. We would never demand our children espouse and believe in a first century cosmology that has the earth flat with a domed sky above it. Nor should we ask our students to label Darwin and much of modern science as heresy. And yet that is the very bind many children, teenagers and adults are in today when directed to believe the Bible as literal, historical truth. In spite of the Scopes trial almost 100 years ago some school districts are still trying to have the ‘Creation’ myth in Genesis taught in our schools as an equal historical truth to the biological facts of evolution. It’s sad ..and disturbing.
Thank God we’re part of a church that is open and inclusive and encourages the whole congregation to read and discuss books like Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity” as we did several years ago. What a good introduction to biblical scholarship …..and the freedom to which it can lead us to as a Christian community. At the same time, you must know that having such a church-wide educational effort makes us part of a very small minority of protestant churches. Even though most mainline seminaries teach some form of the scholarly pursuit of the historical Jesus ….and the ways in which the New Testament was actually written….very little of that important understanding ever reaches the pews of most protestant churches. Just recently Carol and I heard an 80 year old lady in Jacksonville, Florida speak at the end of one of these scholarship seminars… “How come I’ve had to wait all these years for the church to give me the facts about the Bible” she said. “All this time I just assumed I was an old, unforgiven cynic who didn’t have enough faith to believe in miracles”, she concluded…angrily.
Again, I think a lot of us can relate to that dilemma with our own unanswered questions. The best of modern biblical scholarship makes clear, in very understandable ways, how the miraculous and the supernatural were added onto the oral telling of the stories about Jesus. This oral tradition was, of course, all the early church had to go on for nearly 50 years after Jesus death. Finally Mark’s followers began to write the stories down during the later part of the 1st century. Some of Paul’s letters were passed around earlier, but Paul’s early letters don’t even mention the resurrection, suggesting that the myth of the physical resurrection had not yet begun to circulate among the churches of the Mediterranean.
There was a story in the papers a few weeks ago about this 20 month old boy who climbed up on the sofa and then the window sill and then fell two stories to the ground. The mother soon discovered him missing. She ran outside to find him crying but seemingly unhurt. She immediately took him to the doctor who told the mother that because the boy was young, and his bones were so malleable, he bounced instead of broke. The mother, throwing her arms around her son and with tears in her eyes cried out...”It‘s a miracle” The doctor had made a factual statement…the mother made a feeling statement ….about her relationship with her son…. who was still alive. Both statements were true… in their own way and for different reasons, even though one was fact and one was feeling.
We don’t have much verifiable history of those early days after Jesus was killed by the Romans. What scholars do know is that, because the ‘Jesus movement’ grew rapidly after his death, it must have had a powerful impetus or it would have gone the way of many other such movements. Clearly, in this oral tradition, there was some real history of Jesus’ sayings and sermons along with the powerful story of the life of a man who taught.. cared ..and fought for them in such a charismatic way against the religious and political powers of the time. After he died, his followers were genuinely moved to perpetuate his teachings and continue the work he’d started.
It is important to remember however that all the disciples ….yes all…. had betrayed him before he was crucified. Scholars think that had to be fact. But his disciples didn’t witness his death or his purported resurrection. We can only imagine the inner conflict each of them must have felt in the weeks and months that followed. And then it would have been almost inevitable for them to get together and reflect on all they had heard, learned and experienced in the three years they had spent with Jesus.
Such a meeting or meetings had to have been a heady mix of remembering all he had said and done. But most importantly they must have shared their deep love and affection for him and each other. You combine that with the powerful therapeutic process of expiating their guilt for deserting him at his time of greatest need ...and you can easily imagine the feelings, insights and memories that flooded to the surface as they dealt with their grief ... guilt and their newfound conviction to carry on his ministry. In that profound emotional matrix of meaning it must have felt as if they were speaking in tongues…because it all came so rapidly and was….so full of feeling. Working through their grief and guilt must have been liberating and renewing. It must have felt like an epiphany…like they were touched again with Jesus’ spirit and compassion. For them…it truly was… a resurrection …. a resurrection of their conviction,.. their devotion, …their passion, …the inspiration they had felt when they sat at the feet of their rabbi. Reasonable, everyday words were terribly inadequate to describe such an event…only ‘feeling’ words and God language could do the job. Jesus was now alive and among them…. they concluded. It was like the heavens had opened up and ….”It was a miracle”.
Again, many of us have intuited something like this for years. Some have even read the accounts of the search for the historical Jesus and found it helpful. Many more have just put aside or avoided the controversy of ‘reason versus faith’ that is so easily created by all the supernatural language and the feelings of the miraculous. Over the years these folks, myself included, have just relished the music of the church, the fellowship, the opportunities to serve and the liturgies and rituals of faith that organized our emotions and our lives in meaningful ways. But many more have rejected Christianity outright…. because they see in its’ required belief systems a claim for believing in miracles and the supernatural. They see its 1st century ethos as outdated and patriarchal-- - its’ ethic of love taken over and warped by traditionalists and keepers of the status quo who have turned it into judgement and exclusiveness. Ten percent fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians today than they did in the early 90s. Some have tried to replace Christianity with yoga, mysticism or some other form of spiritual pursuit. The pursuit of the spiritual is big business in America these days.
And of course it’s not hard to understand how these earliest members of …”the people of the way” (they didn’t call themselves Christians then) were anxious to make their case to other Jews as they struggled to gain followers. Jesus’ followers were just one of many movements in Judaism at the time. So in the synagogues where most of Jesus’ followers continued to worship for many decades after his death they had to tell his stories in a way that portrayed him as the promised ‘messiah’ to their Jewish neighbors . He had to be in the line of David … he had to be like Elijah and Elisha and Moses…..he had to be born in Bethlehem, etc. It’s easy to see how… after thousands and thousands of retelling those same stories in the synagogue, where the stories of Moses and the prophets were also read every sabbath, Jesus was not only associated with those heroes, …he became one of them. Like Elijah he raised the dead, like Moses he fed his people, etc. After decades of telling the story, Jesus was not just a ‘maybe’ messiah…He became the Jewish messiah… who now fulfilled all their hopes .
That these elaborated stories became central to their liturgy and their developing liturgical year was almost inevitable. Liturgy incorporates the past…relives it over and over to set it in place and etch it into the memory as if it had been there forever. Like the priest in the Norwegian cathedral at Trondheim, who described to me how the swinging of incense began there. During the 12th and 13th centuries Christians across Scandinavia made their annual pilgrimage to the cathedral. It took weeks for some of them to make the trip. Of course a few chickens, goats and pigs were needed to sustain them on their journey. These animals, along with the pilgrims, were housed in the back of the cathedral so the pilgrims could eat and the animals wouldn’t freeze. The only way to get rid of the terrible stench before each service was to burn lots of incense. It only less than a hundred years or so for the swinging of incense to be an integral part of the liturgy… goats or no goats. It continues to this day and now expresses the presence of the holy spirit and the cleansing of the temple for the worship of God.
So all those hopeful… feeling,… meaning statements about Jesus....were reinforced over and over in their developing liturgy to tell the story of their compassionate, healing, miracle working, ‘messiah’ who loved them like a mother loves her child. By the end of the 1st century the stories were fact. …feeling facts. And for them that was all that mattered. And then, of course, that’s what finally got written down as …‘gospel’ … not to convey literal history as some conclude today but to express in liturgical language, in the God language of the time, the awe and inspiration they experienced in this incredible man called Jesus. For them he became the “Christ”, the messiah, the ever present one. And when you sense that you have seen the face of God in a mortal human, there is no language to adequately describe the magnitude of the experience but ‘God talk’ like…. angels….earthquakes …rending of curtains,….skies opening up…doves descending and on and on. . Yes, they were feeling ……“It’s a miracle”.
To understand how our faith traditions have developed has been, for me… tremendously important and freeing. That’s why I love Jesus’ statement to his disciples when he said “If you continue in my word, you will be my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” …free… not obedient…not orthodox….not righteous….but “free”. Free to be a disciple….free like Martin Luther suggested that… “If you truly love God…you can do as you please”.
So it’s been a long journey. And today my faith is far more meaningful and relevant as a “skeptical pilgrim” than it ever was as a conflicted and confused evangelical at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church in Calif. many years ago. In that hothouse of Southern California evangelicalism I was full of unasked and unanswered questions. The words ‘Confused’ and ‘conflicted’ barely describe my state at the time. A friend of mine at Occidental College remarked one day, “Yunno” he said, “ that church of yours is really just religion in tight skirts”. And in deed it was. The simple, seductive way in which Christianity was presented was one of its’ main attractions… and a source of it’s greatest confusion.
Again, ..as I’m sure you know…what we experience in this church is in sharp contrast to most protestant churches on the far right in which belief in the miraculous and the supernatural are prerequisites for membership and practice. That’s why I like our covenant so much. It is an agreement and a pledge to and for ourselves. It is not a creed! Creeds are statements of orthodoxy. In distinction, we scrape a little blue paint off the windows of orthodoxy at the end of each service when we affirm our pledge to stay open to finding God’s truth for our lives and the world we live in.
OK .. Here’s the 64 dollar question. Why is this whole issue so important for us today ? Why is it so important to be a ….. “Skeptical Pilgrim” in the 21st century and demythologize the stories and actions of Jesus the Christ so we’re free to find the truth about God that the actual Jesus was trying to show us. Some think there can be no real faith without the supernatural and the miraculous. I don’t believe it. To look behind those “feeling” statements .. .. is not to lose one’s faith …it’s to find it. I believe it makes faith more realistic, relevant and reasonable. Jesus finally becomes a real man not a magician… a person not a perfection. Seeing him this way doesn’t make it easier to be a disciple…..it makes it harder. Because ‘faith’ is a journey in which we grow and learn and serve. It is not meant to make us feel safer, more secure and certain about life’s future, even though that seems to be the goal of the fearful. The skeptical pilgrim is not too interested in the recitation of liturgical museum pieces or hopes for heaven, however comforting that may be. Our life together is the search for and the practice of God’s truth in our time..
The sense of Christ among us can be ours just like the disciples themselves must have experienced after his death…..by continuing in his word as they did. Our discipleship is to the Jesus who said “I have come that ye might have life and have it more abundantly”, not as some insist to be saved from our depravity. It is, rather, the road to full humanity. Our discipleship is to the Jesus who says, “I am the way, the truth and the life… and that way…. that word… will make us free”, although not necessarily safe. Skeptical Pilgrims, I believe ... should be on a journey to ‘unpack’ the meaning of statements like these. It might mean we would need to be free from the 1st century cosmology and social mindset that traps many ‘true believers’ in historical hypocrisy. Some of my Christian friends still feel the need to defend Paul’s supposed command that wives should be obedient to their husbands….even when they clearly know that contradicts Paul’s own declaration that “ ... in Christ there is neither slave nor master, Jew nor Greek, male nor female .. .but all are one in him”. Finding the truth can lead us behind the miracle, behind the ‘add ons’, behind the contradictions to the true meaning and the historically accurate Jesus in whose full humanity the disciples saw the face of the divine.
Sometime back, I heard a young woman share this story during a worship service here in New Hampshire. ”It occurred to me” she said, “ that when Jesus was preaching to the thousands on the hillside above Galilee , he must have been so inspiring about loving one another that when it came time to eat they all dug deep into their little rucksacks and pulled out the food they brought for the journey and shared it with each other. So much so, that when they passed it around, there was a lot left over. It seems clear to me” she continued, “ that Jesus didn’t have to magically produce fish and bread for everybody. The real miracle” she said was ..” he got everybody to …share.” I remember thinking at the time… She got it!! She got behind the miraculous to the real story that was far more important and relevant than the tale of magic. If you focused on the miracle you could easily miss the main point…the power of sharing. It is this kind of ‘search for the truth’ that is the goal of every skeptical pilgrim.
The second reason I think it’s important to get to the facts behind the fiction of the New Testament is that I think we are about to lose a whole generation of young people who are already skeptical. Their education and the times in which they live demand it. John Spong, a very thoughtful and prophetic bishop in the Episcopal church, wrote a book some years back entitled “Christianity must Change or Die”. While I don’t agree with all he had to say, he was on to something very important. In the 21st century, where the paradigms for understanding our complicated world are now mostly scientific, global and ethical, we cannot afford to perpetuate liturgies and dogma that suggest that the miraculous and the supernatural are the best way to find life’s deepest meaning, even if they are cast metaphorically. Even metaphors for supernatural authority, like “almighty God” too often create images of a theistic God…out there…all powerful...promising protection …threatening judgement, etc Unspeakable things have been done in His name. Young people don’t buy that patriarchal image anymore.
I would hate to lose this next generation of bright young Americans, either to the churches on the right or to the agnosticism and atheism that is currently the rage in America. There are now five such books on the best seller list today touting atheism or agnosticism. As I listen to our own grandchildren and their friends …they are clearly religious skeptics….and are already turned off by the churches’ tendency to judge human beings’ sexuality and gender on the basis of some scriptural standard 2000 yrs. old and clearly out of date. They don’t just believe in equality and inclusiveness…they demand it. They understand prejudice as a form of violence. They are finding meaning for their lives in service at ‘work camps’ and ‘food for the homeless’ programs in NYC. How to help them get a feel for the profound and prophetic ethic of the Jesus behind the myths ought to be a top goal of the church. I’m struck by the fact that when they do hear it they seem genuinely interested. They’re looking for just that kind of role model…in a world where good role models are hard to find. As a matter of fact, I believe the very future of our culture depends on finding a ‘reasonable’ way to give our youth an ethic of service, compassion, hospitality and a passion for justice and peace. That vision is all too easily lost in our materialistic, money focused world. The caring community in Christ, at it’s very best, has the mission and the means to be a critical part of such a cultural revolution.
So in the spirit of free inquiry, I’ll end here and let my ‘amen’ be an invitation to any and all who might like to talk back or talk about what we’ve discussed today. Let’s meet in the Kate Sanborn room with your coffee and cookie 15 minutes after the service so we can talk some more. Amen.