November 6, 2016

Exodus 33:18-23
Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And [God] said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, [God] said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

David Galston, God’s Human Future: The Struggle to Define Theology Today (Kindle Locations 2230-2260). Polebridge Press. Kindle Edition

When asked whether or not God exists, what would it mean if you responded that God almost exists? To be “almost” is to be between something and nothing, to be partially there but not fully there. I almost arrived on time for a dentist appointment. When the dentist looked for me at 9: 00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, I was nowhere in sight. I was an experience of absence and nothingness. But there was a message at the receptionist’s desk, “I am running late today. I will be there by 9: 10.” So, at 9 a.m. I did not “exist,” but there was a trace of my existence in my absence that promised my presence. There was a sign that I will be but am not yet; at the moment I am “almost.”

God is good at being almost. Through religion God leaves a trace in human history and culture of being around but never really present. Lots of words and writings about God promise that God will show up. But God disappoints. There is a delay. Morning arrives and God is nowhere to be seen; there is an absence left in the notes that made the promise. Of course, God does not “really” exist. We know, do we not, that God is a human creation? Language about God and religions concerning God are signs made to stand in place of the absence of God. It is not God but words about God that remain like a promissory note. God resides in the regard to the heavens, the question of why, and the silent response. God is the emptiness of the fullness of it all.

If God was really the fullness and not the emptiness of things, there could be no question about God’s existence. If God really did exist no one could ask whether God existed. If there was a God, there would be no reason for religion…..

Religion exists only because there is no God but an absence of God. If God were absolutely present, there could be no question about God, no yearning for God, and no belief in God. No one needs to believe in something that is present. It is only absence that raises the question of belief…..

What about people, you might ask, who say they experience God? This makes the point: we experience God in the yearning for God, which is the presence of the absence of God clinging to our hearts. In such conditions I must say “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9: 24). I believe because I have unbelief. My act of believing is against unbelief, against the consequence of the absence of God. So, believing is willfully taking a leap over the abyss of absence without knowing where one might land. Such is religion: it exists because God does not exist; it is the willfulness of being human. It is the act of leaping across unbelief…..

God is not about certainty, and religion is not about God’s existence. Religion is about creating God while it awaits God. Religion is the “almost” of God; that is, religion is the record of beliefs that arise while waiting for the arrival of nothing. Religion is the trace of a God, culturally conditioned, who almost is.

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Over the weekend we held a Jesus Seminar on the Road. Southminster has held this annual event for over a dozen years. We had a nice turnout. Over 90 people heard Joseph Bessler and David Galston provide a history of Christianity with the hint of a possibility of its future.

Starting with the historical Jesus, David and Joe showed how his story was framed in the idiom of a hero’s story within the gospels themselves. He became a theological figure as he was interpreted through Platonism and neo-Platonism. From this the church councils created the great creeds such as the Nicene Creed. The creed married power and Christendom held sway through the middle ages. Finally cracks developed in the system and through the Reformation and scientific revolution scholars began to examine the texts with new eyes.

There were various quests for the historical Jesus in part to challenge the power of the church. This last quest in America that began in the 1980s was a response to the rise of political Christian fundamentalism. Thus the Jesus Seminar was born. The Jesus that has emerged is nothing like the church’s Jesus. If you are curious about this Jesus, I recommend checking out some of the books in the Petersen Gallery.

We may wonder now what? What would happen if the historical Jesus went to church? What if we divorced Jesus both from Plato and empire and let him be once again as Dominic Crossan called him, a peasant with an attitude? This Jesus who told parables, who asked more questions than provided answers, who eventually was lynched by empire. Would this Jesus survive church? Would the church accept this Jesus or exclude him as too much of a rabble-rouser?

Then what would happen if we began to examine all of the other churchy words associated with the Jesus of Plato and Empire: salvation, original sin, the Trinity, Christ, Bible, the second coming, heaven, hell, God. Could the church handle that?

David Galston, who runs the Quest Learning Centre in a suburb of Toronto, concluded our gathering yesterday afternoon by answering that question: Can we bring the historical Jesus to church? Yes, he said. Yes we can.

It was a hopeful weekend.

Yes we can and why not give it a go?

Asking the question, “Can we bring the historical Jesus to church?” is similar to asking, “Can humanity live sustainably on Earth?”

Yes we can.

Yes we can and why not give it a go?

These questions are similar because they require of us great maturity. They require of us to let go of illusions of permanence. They require of us to let go of fantasy and to embrace reality. They require of us the courage to resist all of the reality-denying forces whether they be political, religious, economic, or militaristic, that provide short-term profit for the few at the expense of the many and at the expense of the future of all.

August 8th 2016 was an important day.

On August 8th human beings used up all the resources Earth can regenerate in a year. It is called Overshoot Day. Overshoot Day occurred five days earlier in 2016 than in 2015. If we continue to live the way we are right now, as a global population, we would require more than 1.6 planets to meet our demands. This is from the website, Science Alert:

If everyone in the world lived like Americans, we’d need 4.8 planets to have enough to go around – Australians are even worse, using up 5.4 planets worth of resources each year.

Overshoot day is calculated by the Global Footprint Network each year, using United Nations data on thousands of economic sectors, such as fisheries, forestry, transport, and energy production.

When we talk about resources, it’s not just water, land, and food – it also refers to things like carbon storage, so we’ve now reached a point where we’re pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere than can be reabsorbed by forests and oceans….

The network has calculated Earth’s overshoot day dating back to the 1960s, and has shown that, up until 1970, we were only using as many resources as the planet could sustainably reproduce. In fact, in 1961, we were only using three-quarters of our annual resources.

But in 1970, we burnt through our annual resources by 23 December, and every year since then it’s become earlier and earlier.

In the debates for the general election between Trump and Clinton, the moderators not once asked either candidate about climate change and certainly nothing about sustainability and overshoot day. No questions asked. We learned about Trump’s sexual bravado and Clinton’s email account but we learned nothing about what our new leadership has to say about humanity’s future.

What does this have to do with Jesus, John? What does this have to do with Church or with God?

Nothing. Nothing, that is with the neo-Platonic Nicene Creed Jesus. That Jesus along with the Father and the Holy Ghost don’t give a hoot about planet earth. According to the creed, Jesus was born of a virgin then he was crucified and is now in heaven. Life on earth is just about passing through.

That Jesus is too pure and holy for dirty politics, CO2 emissions, and resource wars. For that Jesus, the material is at most a shadowy reflection of the real form that exists in heaven above. That Jesus is above it all. His gift to humanity is escape. Escape from reality and an embrace of fantasy.

As goes Jesus, so goes God, who cares for nothing except for keeping accounts on who has been naughty and nice on a personal, individual level. The old grandpa pats our heads and tells us not to worry about climate change because He is in control. Just make sure you believe what the church tells you so you can go to heaven and not hell when you die.

The church? It exists to shelter us from any truth that might upset us. Evolution? “Don’t need to believe that,” say its preachers. “Just read about Adam, Eve, and Noah.” Historical criticism of the Bible? “Don’t believe that. It is just for eggheads who don’t have faith.”

Am I exaggerating? Of course, but not by much.

What happens when the historical Jesus comes to church?

All hell breaks loose.

Tables get overturned. Comfortable ideas get shaken. Illusions are shattered. We are presented with facts not fantasy. People are invited to struggle and to think for themselves. Earth matters. Neighbors matter. The houseless in tents matter.

We are confronted with white privilege, patriarchy, and issues we didn’t think had anything to do with God, Church, or Jesus. We are invited, called, summoned to do impossible things.

If the historical Jesus were alive today, I would imagine him hitching a ride to Standing Rock Indian Reservation and camping with the water protectors. Jesus took a side. He didn’t get executed for nothing.

I included a passage from Exodus for reflection this morning. Rabbi Harold Kushner called this passage one of the most strange passages in the Torah. Moses has just received the two tablets of the covenant on Mount Sinai and God instructs him to lead the people through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Moses is feeling a bit insecure. Moses needs reassurance. He needs to know that God has his back. He wants to know that God is there for him and will be there with him. God says to Moses,

‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

Isn’t that a strange story? God’s back. What could that mean? What is going on there? Rabbi Harold Kushner says that this story is what life is like when we want to see what God wants for us, when we want to do the right thing, when we need guidance and reassurance.

It is the story we get when we want the presence of God. We don’t get it. We don’t get the face of God, we don’t get a clear answer, a definitive “This is what you must do and where you must go.” All we get is a glimpse of God’s back.

All we get is a glimpse of where God has been. What might that mean? I included that passage by our speaker, David Galston, as I thought it was a nice reflection on the metaphor of God’s back. God’s back is the “almost of God.” We never get the presence. In Hebrew “presence” and “face” is the same word. We are in one another’s presence as we are face to face. The face or presence of God is not allowed. We get a glimpse of a trace of where God has been.

Jacob on the River Jabbok says he glimpsed the face of God, the presence of God and lived. How was that presence revealed? By an all night fight with the angel. A strange presence indeed. He gets a new name, one who fights with God—Israel.

Fight. Struggle. With God. That is how God summons. Religion is no easy business. It isn’t for the thin skinned.

To use another metaphor, the conductor invites all to board the train, but the train doesn’t stay in the station because some are afraid to get on. The train moves.

The people, too, need to move through the wilderness. They cannot remain stagnant. They have to pack up and go. Their assurance is not the face of God, not the presence of God, but the back of God, the trace left from where God has been. What is that trace?

This is where we have to tell our stories. Where have you seen God’s back? This is where we allow for sacred storytelling and for careful listening. As they say in AA without crosstalk, without telling others what to do or what they’ve really seen. We tell our truth. We listen to the experience of others.

Personally, I have seen what I call the trace, the almost of God, God’s back, as it were, in the struggle for civil rights and for human rights. I see the trace of God on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, as unarmed African-American men, women, and children marched for their dignity, for the right to exercise their vote.

They were beaten for it, attacked by armed police on horseback.

They marched again.

I see the trace of God as I mentioned earlier in the stand at Standing Rock, a stand led by Native Americans on behalf of water and of earth, with the prophetic challenge to the world:

“What are we doing and what are we allowing to be done by the unsustainable thirst for oil?”

Do I know for sure? Do I know absolutely that this is the face, the presence of God, the true clear action? No. We are never allowed that. We can never say with certainty where God is and where God is going. We only get a glimpse of God’s back, where we see a trace of where God has been, and even that is a matter of faith and trust. It is the almost of God.

But just because we cannot be certain, that does not mean we can pretend to be neutral, or to excuse ourselves from the summons.

To live is to risk.

To take a stand.

To be courageous enough to be wrong.

To live is to wrestle at the river and demand a blessing as Jacob did and leave limping because we have struggled and fought with whatever it is we call God.

To live is to ask for the presence of God like Moses,
and to have to settle for God’s back
and to carry on anyway.

When the historical Jesus comes to church, we are summoned to step into the arena.

It is not the critic who counts; not the woman who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

We could use a president like Teddy Roosevelt again.

That is my inclusive language version of his 1910 speech, “Citizenship in A Republic.”

We are summoned to the arena.

That is what I think happens when the historical Jesus comes to church.

Amen.