October 9, 2016
Reclaiming and redeeming the word Jesus begins with the realization that it has two quite different even though related referents: the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The first—also called the “historical Jesus”—refers to what he was like before his death. The second—….refers to what he became after his death in Christian experience, reflection, and tradition.
spring song by lucille clifton
the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible
Rainer Maria Rilke
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong
and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, an in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.
Gospel of Jesus
When will the Empire of God come?
It won’t come by watching for it. It won’t be said, “Look, here!” or “Look there!” Rather, God’s empire is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.
You won’t be able to observe the coming of the empire of God. People won’t be able to say, “Look, here it is!” or “Over there!” On the contrary, the empire of God is among you.
We are all following something, whether we know it or not. It is better to consciously choose who or what we are going to follow. Its better to choose, I say, and to choose well.
Me? I am choosing Jesus. Maybe it’s partly because Jesus, of all the prophets and philosophers and “savior” figures in the pantheon, is the one with whom I am most familiar as a result of my growing up and living in a particular time and place. But conscious exploration has lead to something deeper. The lure of this figure now has less to do with familiarity and more to do with the relationship I see him having to something about life that is so striking and disillusioning…..
….It’s the gap we experience as individual human beings navigating the immediate world around us, where we have our ideas about what we want that world to be, what we think that world should be, but where we invariably find people misbehaving, people suffering, things getting screwed up, and everything seeming like a disillusioning mess. This gap between what should be and is also appears inside each of us. It’s the gap between our idea of how we ought to behave and treat other people, on the one hand, and what we actually do, on the other hand—the upsetting reality that we, too, can be instruments if disappointment and misery.
To put it another way, I realize that the reason I choose to follow Jesus is that his way is so antithetical, and such a powerful corrective, to aspects of life that are most disappointing and depressing.
What is the difference between Lutherans and Presbyterians? Sounds like a bad joke is coming. But I mean to speak in a theological way. I am talking about how both the Lutheran and the Reformed branch of the Reformation responded to the great changes in the early 16th century.
Lutherans named for Martin Luther and the Reformed Tradition starting with the figure Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin saw the task differently. You see that difference reflected in the way the descendants of these reformers order worship and government today.
If you attend Lutheran worship you will find it different than Calvinist worship. To the outside observer a person might say the Lutheran worship is more like a Catholic or Episcopal service. Same for the form of government. Lutherans and Catholics have bishops, not so for Presbyterians or Baptists who are also descendants of the Reformed tradition.
The metaphor for the difference is how you decide to clean out a kitchen drawer. The big drawer at the bottom is where you will find everything from sponges to lightbulbs, screwdrivers, twist ties, batteries, all the stuff you never can find when you need it. Every now and then you go through the process of cleaning out the drawer.
Imagine the drawer is the Roman Catholic Church of 1500. Time for a Reformation! The drawer is too cluttered. Here is the difference between the Lutherans and Calvinists.
The Lutherans go through the drawer and pick out all the stuff they don’t want in there any longer. The pull out the paper clips, old gum, outdated phone books, that gizmo that is still in its packaging that was supposed to make life easier but now you don’t remember why you bought it. They pull out all the stuff they don’t want anymore but largely leave the drawer the same in many ways. A lot of the stuff is still useful and should be in the drawer is the reasoning.
The Calvinists are a bit more brutal. They pull the drawer out of the cabinet and dump it on the kitchen floor. Then they say to themselves, “This drawer will only have what I want in it.” They pick out several items to keep, put them back in the drawer and throw the rest of it away.
If people ask you the difference between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian, that’s basically it. Lutherans made some modifications but kept a lot of their Roman Catholic tradition. Presbyterians dumped it all out and started over.
I use this image to paint the picture of where we are with Christianity in America today. Some say we are in the midst of a reformation. The drawer is in need of tending. It is so full of stuff that it can barely be opened. Once we open it we can’t find a thing.
With what is it filled? You find habits, idiosyncrasies, creeds, confessions, practices, styles, buildings, early 20th century business models, curriculum, salaried professionals, and other pieces of cultural kitchen drawer stuff that is no longer useful or being used. It is just there. It needs tending. It is so jam-packed full that we can’t even open it. It sits there useless.
How do we reform this drawer? Pick through it and toss the stuff we don’t use or want? Dump it out and start all over? I have no judgment on which method is right or wrong or better or worse. It is what is.
It is important to know that this drawer is not filled with junk. It is filled with sacred icons, memories that recall people and great works of service. Like the things in the drawer. Each item at one time served a purpose or had the potential to do so. Each item as you go through it sparks a memory. The drawer has perhaps photos that never made it to a photo album. You may find yourself, regardless of the method of reformation (dumping it out or picking through it) sitting on the floor feeling melancholy, eyes welling up a bit as these objects touch your heart.
That, of course, makes the reformation much harder. For some, it is so hard they won’t or can’t do it. Shut the drawer again. Forget about it. They can’t bear to reorder it. They may not even want to talk about cleaning out the drawer. They aren’t too thrilled about having someone else do it either.
So it takes compassionate, patient persistence on behalf of those who know it needs to be done. It takes listening and thoughtfulness, good communication and wisdom.
This is the sermon series based on Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored. The church’s kitchen drawer is filled with churchy words. Words that have been in the drawer for so long that their definitions have changed over the years. Words that make up beliefs. Words that evoke emotion. Words that have defined us and still do for some and do not for others. Words that have been turning people away even as others cling to them. Words that need to be revisited. Together. In community.
Some, like my colleague, Gretta Vosper in the United Church of Canada is a “pull out the drawer and dump it out and start over” kind of reformer. For her and for her community, the words have lost their meaning but there is an essence of the church that survives, the ethic of love. If you go to her community, West Hill United in Toronto, you will find according to reports, I haven’t been there myself, I have just read about it and talked to Gretta about it, but you will find a community very much like our church that sings and reflects and gathers with different words. It is a community for whom the words have had too much negative baggage and they found it was easier and more fulfilling to redefine the experience in words that make sense to them. Of course, as we know, others feel that their method of reformation is too brutal, outside the bounds of Christianity.
The same was said of course of Martin Luther and Zwingli and Calvin by the Roman Church. They were outside the bounds. The irony is that each of the reformers also excommunicated other reformers because they didn’t feel the others did it right either. Thus we have over 35,000 Christian denominations in the world.
Others reform gradually. Picking out a few things, making a change here and there. Adding “mother” to the Lord’s Prayer as opposed to dropping it altogether. It is hard work. It is hard because it requires of us to be engaged with one another regarding matters of the heart. Matters that may surprise us in regards to how much we cared, when we didn’t think we did.
A friend of mine, Becky Garrison, who is a religion writer has been talking about this reformation. She doesn’t hold too much hope for the gradual approach. She says that there are alternative spiritual communities, “secular churches” so to speak, springing up. They aren’t church, really. The participants wouldn’t describe them as churches or as Christian. According to Becky, they fill the void left by those who left or who never participated in the first place in traditional church communities. Becky puts it this way:
“I need a community where people will care if I die.”
These are communities based on sacred dance or improv, sustainable farming, even cannabis. More than a club or an interest group there is an ethic about them, a need to give something to the world, to touch heart, discover authenticity, to accept those left out, to care when one in their community dies. To touch.
When we last met with our visitation team, Pat Eddy said something that stuck with me. She said many people go through the whole week without ever being touched. A touch on the arm, a connection, an “I’m glad you are here” can do more for human dignity, worth, and reaching the depth of joy than we may realize.
Thomas Krattenmaker is a reformer too. He, like me, I suppose, has a heart for Jesus but not as a supernatural figure or God. Jesus the teacher of ethics, the poet, the visionary is too good to toss out with the rest of the stuff in the drawer. For Tom, he doesn’t find the creeds or the Trinity or the miracles or any of that interesting. It is a barrier, actually. For him, Jesus represents the correction to a life of disappointment and depression within ourselves and among us a human beings. He calls himself a secular Jesus follower. Jesus is worth keeping as a model for challenging us to live beautiful lives.
Does he count? Is he Christian enough? Does it matter?
I met Dr. Mehta when I lived in Johnson City, Tennessee He is an internal specialist. He’ll work on your spleen if you need it. He is about internal matters in other ways as well. He is from India and is an expert in a delightfully folksy way about Hinduism. He introduced me to the concept of ishta deva.
Hinduism has 300 million deities, give or take. Too many for one person to take seriously. So you choose one. You choose your ishta deva. You pick a god or a goddess that comforts or challenges you and you devote yourself to the god. Krishna, Ganesh, or Lachmi. With 300 million there are enough gods for everyone. Your devotion, is of course, about your character. You devote, you emulate, you become, or you are always becoming. I thought Jesus, the historical Jesus, the radical poet and revolutionary, would make a great ishta deva. Challenging, comforting, character-building.
Just because I choose him doesn’t mean you have to do so. You could choose a different aspect of Jesus or some other figure altogether. There are plenty to go around.
Does that count? Is that Christian enough. Does it matter?
But I also choose to choose my Jesus not in isolation but in relationship with a community, a community that stretches back in time, across the globe, and intimately with the people I see and know and yet will know. Each of you opens my eyes to another aspect of Jesus for me.
I like to throw out the term, Christian Atheist, in part, because it is so marvelously jarring but also because it describes where many find themselves. They resonate with many aspects of the faith, but many of the beliefs don’t are no longer worth the trouble. The god of middle ages no longer inspires. So many versions of god are so bland or incredible or damaging that the only response is a courageous atheism. But I am a Christian Atheist because unlike some other atheists, I value religion. I don’t want to throw out the drawer itself even as I may not be consistent in how to clean it.
Jesus is a churchy word because Jesus is in one sense a creation of the church. Jesus also transcends church and perhaps can be a guide in how we reform the church. His parables are a good place to start.
But that is my story. You have yours. Let’s share them and see what we can do with that kitchen drawer.