September 11, 2016

Take my hand in yours,
Walk with me this day
In my heart I know, I will never stray
Halle, halle, halle, halle
Halle, halle, halle, halle
It’s Love, Brother Love, say
Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies
And grab the old ladies and ev’ryone goes
–Neil Diamond

Rumi
Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty & frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Isaiah 43:1-4
But now thus says the Lord….
Do not fear…
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior….

you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you…

Matthew 5:1-11
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Beloved Community Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
….Desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the ultimate goal which we seek to realize. Desegregation will break down legal barriers, and bring men together physically.
But something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right. In other words, our
ultimate goal is integration which is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living.

Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.

….I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end or that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.

….The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.

Raymond Carver Late Fragment
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth

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My sermon series through the Fall and Winter is on “churchy words.” One of my guides for this project is Marcus Borg who wrote Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored.

That is one of the longest titles for a book I have read recently. He will be orchestrating the project but he will not be the only guide. I will be using his book to shape the discussion, but I will be introducing other conversation partners. I will be bringing up Lloyd Geering, the 98-year-old religion professor and Presbyterian Church of New Zealand minister who faced heresy trial in the 1960s for saying what is now commonplace among progressive Christians, that the resurrection is a symbol, not a literal event.

Resurrection. That is a churchy word. What does it mean? What do you think it means? It would seem that it is important to define words as well as we can, and admit it when we can’t, so we can avoid rush to judgment, heresy trials, and other unpleasantness.

It appears to me that if you want to silence someone by ending her career, you ought to be conversant in the subject matter before being granted such power. But as we know, that isn’t the case. It is often up to the bureaucratic, those with limited vision, who seem to possess the keys to the kingdom and thus choose who is in and who is out. Thankfully, Lloyd Geering’s opponents were no match for him and he remains one of the bright lights in religion to this day.

I will also bring up Don Cupitt from the United Kingdom. His 50 books chronicle his own theological journey into non-realism. Fascinating philosophy and theology that is breathtaking in its honesty. Cupitt decided on his own that the confines of church belief were too small for him. Too bad for the church.

Both Geering and Cupitt come from a different place than the late Marcus Borg. So what should we do since these thinkers have different ideas? Raise our flag in support of our hero and condemn the other as wrong, dangerous, and unworthy of employment in the field of religion? Of course, not.

Let the words flow. Let our struggle with uncertainty be praised. We don’t know all the answers. We are barely exploring the interesting questions. What do we mean to say, what to we wish to hold as we explore the language of faith? As Rumi said,

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

We will be exploring churchy words. We often think we know what words mean, but words change in meaning. Words have many meanings. Dictionary definitions are not comprehensive when it comes to words. Would you trust the dictionary to define the word, “love?” If you wanted to know what love is, would you go to Random House or search a thesaurus? No. You find a poet, perhaps, or a thousand of them, or a songwriter, ore ten thousand of them, or maybe you ask your lover while gazing at the moon. The moon has heard a lot about love from the earthbound.

Churchy words have history. A bloody and beautiful history. Both. Churchy words inspire great acts of courage and compassion and terrifying acts of violence and cruelty. They are not beholden to a dictionary. Churchy words are dangerous words. They are words of passion. Churchy words evoke rather than specify.

What is resurrection? It depends who you are asking and when, doesn’t it? It is a word larger than the dictionary or a bible. It is a word with a life that illuminates as it darkens. Let us talk of resurrection. But let us talk of mortality and shame, loss and devastation. Speak to me of your joy and victory, but speak first of your sorrow and failure, so I can trust your depth. Don’t talk of it glibly. Don’t define it for me. Speak what you see and hear, but know that there are other eyes and ears.

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

My friend and colleague, Rev. Gretta Vosper, has been deemed “unsuitable” for ministry in the United Church of Canada. The decision was made this past week. This is a liberal denomination, one of the most liberal in the world. But denominational bureaucrats have been stumbling over churchy words and have been trying to use the disciplinary process to tie strings around a mystery that is far larger than the personality of one minister.

The churchy word in question is “God.” Apparently, her definition is “unsuitable.” It would be helpful to be given a suitable definition of “God” first. The bureaucrats didn’t do that. A great theological education would be to read her submission to the committee and the committee’s response. It is about 250 pages of reading. A theological education. I think I might use those documents for a Tuesday night class.

Atheist is another churchy word. That one gives people the willies, doesn’t it? Atheists? They must be bad. You know what an atheist is? An atheist is 28-year-old law student, Nazimuddin Samad. He was hacked to death with a machete in Bangladesh in April. According to the Associated Press,

“the attack follows a string of murders last year targeting outspoken advocates of secularism….Multiple attackers, who were reportedly riding on a motorcycle, have not been identified. They escaped while praising Allah, according to the news service.”

Atheist bloggers have been brutally murdered in Bangladesh over the past few years and the government of Bangladesh does nothing about it. Rafida Ahmed, the widow of one of the bloggers said on NPR,

“You can do very little when your elected government doesn’t give you any support, especially when these kind of brutal murders are happening,” she said. “The government has stayed completely quiet about this. The prime minister called my father-in-law privately and tried their best to keep it a secret so that nobody knows that they have sympathized with us at all.”

“The prime minister’s son … gave an interview to [the press]. Pretty much said that they are walking a fine line, and they’re scared. They don’t want to side with the atheists,” Ahmed said.

Her husband, Avijit Roy, was a Bangladeshi American who

“founded the website, Mukto Mona, which translates to Free Thinkers. It’s a site for articles and discussion about science, atheism and rationalism.”

He and his wife Rafida Ahmed were attacked in February 2015. He was killed. His wife survived. As of July 2016, 48 people have been killed in such attacks.

It was because of these attacks that Rev. Gretta Vosper, a United Church of Canada minister in Toronto, began calling herself an atheist. It is hard for me to imagine Jesus Christ doing something different.

She should be praised, celebrated, emulated by her denomination and by all of us who have any sort of ethical sensibility. Instead she is ruled “unsuitable” by her denominational authorities. Bureaucrats. Scaredy-Crats.

Gretta’s theological journey, that she outlines in her report to the bureaucrats, is little different from many of those in this very room. Her understanding of theology and God has evolved.

She, like me and many of her colleagues in the United Church of Canada and many of my colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA), affirm similar things. Like Marcus Borg, we all reject “supernatural theism” that there exists a supernatural being controlling events and intervening in our affairs.

For those of us who use the symbol, “God” we use it in many different ways. God is love. God is a word to describe our highest aspirations. God represents the mystery beyond our knowing. Take your pick. Pick none of the above. Discover your own response. Like love, God is not contained in a dictionary definition. What is God? Ask your lover while you gaze at the next full moon.

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

Except say the bureaucrats, Gretta’s way. Gretta’s way is not the way.

I protest.

Gretta is kneeling and kissing the ground in a more profound and heartfelt way than the lot of her accusers. Her congregation knows it. They support her fully.

But this sermon isn’t about Gretta or God. I speak of Gretta and God because this is a fresh issue and because it is a good way to introduce the topic of churchy words.

Today’s churchy word is “salvation.”

What is salvation? Being saved? Savior?

Jesus is my lord and savior.

What does that mean? In common parlance, salvation usually means saved from going to hell and instead going to heaven. That is but one way to understand the term. Not the only way. Not the best way. In the view of many, not a necessary way.

Salvation or saved in the scriptures has a wide variety of meanings. It means being saved from slavery as in the Exodus story. It means being saved from persecution or an abusive relationship as in the Psalms. It means being made whole or well as reflected in the various Jesus stories, “Your faith has saved you” that is made you whole, made you well.

Salvation is return from exile, liberation from bondage, healing from sickness, both on an individual level and a collective level. Being saved is the work of participating in the realm of God, or in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the beloved community. In the words of King,

“…the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.”

Jesus is my lord and savior. Whatever we might think it means, it must have something to do for me with participating in non-violent resistance to oppression and eventual reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor. The Beloved Community, where atheist and Muslim, Christian and secularist live together in peace, with respect, with seeking to understand, with love. If you want to know what any of those words mean, you can consult a dictionary.

Or you can kneel and kiss the ground of your enemy while the moon smiles.

Or you can sing along with Neil Diamond,

“Take my hand in yours,
walk with me this day,
in my heart I know, I will never stray…
It’s love…
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes…”

Everyone goes. Everyone is needed to build the beloved community, to work for our collective salvation.

My heart feels a heaviness this morning for the decision announced against Gretta Vosper and her community. But my heart is also grateful for her witness, her intellect, her compassion, and her courage.

I am hopeful. Sometimes these things must happen for true change to occur, for the beloved community to be glimpsed and sought.

I stand with Gretta Vosper.

If Gretta is an atheist minister for her stance with the atheist bloggers of Bangladesh, I, too, am an atheist minister.

If Gretta is an atheist minister for speaking aloud what other clergy are too afraid to admit to themselves about the shortcomings of churchy words,
I, too, am an atheist minister.

If Gretta is an atheist minister because she has opened her own mind and the minds of others to the amazing insights of science and literary exploration of our sacred texts and symbols,
I, too, am an atheist minister.

If Gretta is an atheist minister because she won’t let the bureaucrats define the terms of the argument,
I, too, am an atheist minister.

I am an atheist to any version of God that silences free-thought and open-ended exploration and compassionate solidarity.

The God of the United Church of Canada is obviously way too small. Sometimes it takes an atheist to protest a too small god.

If Gretta is an atheist minister for doing that,
Then I am honored to be in her company.

I, too, am an atheist minister.

Amen.

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Music credits on mp3

“Shine on Me”, arr. Rollo Dilworth, Southminster Chancel Choir

“Where the Streets Have No Name”  arr. Matt Thompson-Aue, Southminster Keyboardist