Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Christ of Faith (especially for UUs, unchurched, dechurched)

Here is the text from which I preached my sermon recently in St. Louis. Which means you get more here than was actually delivered, except this time I did an introduction to the reading, and provided a reading on the reading, from Luke 16:1-8, which you don't have here in this post, at least not yet.

The Christ of Faith
First Unitarian Church, St. Louis, Sept. 23, 2007
Rev. Ron Robinson

We begin with the familiar words, words so familiar they risk losing their power, from the poet within your own church family:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
These words of T. S. Eliot, who would be 119 years old this coming Wednesday (whose grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot was the founding minister of this church when it was the Church of the Messiah), these words mark the journey of the Spirit for many whom I encounter through my ministry with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, as they do for me.
We have people in our particular UU movement whose journey began in different world religions than Christianity, or in none, but most started as Christians in other churches, though most became Christian or primarily Jesus-followers as adults after having first been non-Christian UUs.
We were born in the varied waters of Christianity, in this or that church, maybe even in one of our UU Christian Churches, having had this or that experience, some nourished and cared for, some oppressed and exiled; and some, as is the truth of things, with both experiences; but then we crawled from the waters onto the land, so to speak, and began breathing the air, everything seemed new, getting our free legs beneath us, and exploring the world--at some point, for me it was very early on, we settled into Unitarian Universalism because here we could feel at home and continue to feed our wandering souls. After a while, maybe it was from the wanderer’s fate that the only place left to really explore is the place you left too soon to fully know, or maybe it was from a personal crisis that left us feeling too dry, and the land too shaky, but after a while we were drawn to, or pulled to, arguing with ourselves all the way, back to the Christian waters again, to those words and stories again, to those practices and that “cloud of witnesses” through the millennia. And because we were different now, those waters were different too—what had been a shrinking reservoir or toxic pond was now an ocean full of life and energy, and yes, we felt born again, or rather the place was born again for us.

And we found we were not alone. It is why biblical scholar Marcus Borg has titled some of his books as he has—Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time; Reading the Bible Again For the First Time.

The funny thing is, the really shocking and radical thing is to many people who have certain ingrained, default mode worldviews of what church is, both other Christians and other Unitarian Universalists, we found this new water right where we were. We didn’t have to leave so much as look at our place and see it, too, deeper and broader, as if for the first time. It is as if the dry land we had crawled onto, grown up in, been saved by, and explored, after all, had been an island—the original ocean nourishing it, giving it its shape. As we look at the roots of Unitarian Universalism, we find Christianity. As we look at the roots of Christianity, we find unitarian and universalist theology.

And the same kind of journey of re-discovery often continues each time we now come into contact with the words and acts that once upon a time were more like stones, ones that if we held them would have spiritually dragged us down, but now are like the beautiful mysterious flora and fauna and reefs that make up the life of the waters. God. Christ. Holy Spirit. Communion. Faith. Mission. Incarnation. Resurrection. Discipleship. Revival. We know these words better now, for our having been away from them.

The past two years I have been physically living out the idea, the truth, which T.S. Eliot sought to capture in those words from the Little Gidding section of his great work, The Four Quartets. My Little Gidding is Turley, Oklahoma just north of Tulsa, where my paternal grandparents began living soon after the First World War and where my mother and father still live, my father being able to walk into his backyard and see the place where he was born 75 years ago, and where several of my cousins and even their grown children still live. Plus, my wife and I now live in the house and on the land where her parents lived from the time she was six years old until soon after we were married 33 years ago. We volunteer at the elementary school where we met in kindergarten, and scare the parents of the kindergarteners when we tell them that story. The house and land, like the community, had deteriorated quite a bit in the intervening years. The couple we bought the place from, who had let it sit empty for a few years, said if we hadn’t bought it they were going to tear down the rock house and put in a double-wide, to improve its real estate value. They were right, real-estate wise. Our life in it these past two years will be the subject of many other sermons to come. Likewise, Turley is not seen as the kind of place you return to; the poorest zip code, and the lowest life expectancy zipcode in the Tulsa metropolitan area—not especially if you are a couple with 23 years of higher education between us, and a teenage daughter. Turley, we have been told by more than a few, back when we originally lived there and now we live there again, is supposed to be where you are from.

And so that has also been said, during my same 33 years as a Unitarian Universalist, about Christianity. Though not so much lately, or not so bluntly. There were some times and some places, or some people within those places, where bringing up just Jesus or things biblical would not only turn heads but stomachs in UU groups. It was the definite third rail of our religion in those places, not to touch without turning off its power. That’s certainly a reaction that is on the wane as all theologies among us are minority theologies now, and as unchurched join us without the old church baggage, though being who we are and being in the religious culture we are, it will stay with us for some time to come.

Two months ago I guest preached a sermon on the revolutionary changes in the way the Apostle Paul is now being understood, which is causing a shaking of the foundations in some Christian circles unlike what even the Jesus Seminar created, and there was a young man, a new UU, who couldn’t physically be in the sanctuary to hear the sermon, because he had just come out of a fundamentalist Christian church and if he encountered in a sacred way just the words of and about Jesus and Christian faith, it would trigger his wounds, not to mention confounding his definition of who he thought we were, his new-found blessed home. (I often tell UUCF members that being in relationship with those such as him, even as we might be hurting, is part of what it means for us to do UU Christianity. Who better than people who freely follow Jesus to help heal the hurts done in the name of Jesus?)

For others, though, it is not quite that extreme, what is called “cross-cringe” comes at a different point. We UU Christians have usually been there in our journey too. I know I have. That’s in part why, in describing our movement, terms are used like “the Jesus of history but not the Christ of faith” or “we believe in the religion of Jesus but not the religion about Jesus” (which seems to not only negate our own history but the history of Jesus himself whose “religion,” if you have to use that term for it, was very much that of first century Judaism and not like our Protestant Reformed Modern Enlightenment tradition). And though all we have of Jesus we have because of those varied, imperfect, dedicated souls who followed him. The temptation to focus only on the person Jesus as a shadowy historical person, or wise guru, is also fed by our age’s and our tradition’s emphasis on hyper individualism, the Great Man myth. By contrast, to grapple with the word Christ is to grapple with the community which attached it to Jesus, and formed themselves in relation to it. Still it is understandable, this pulling Jesus close but pushing Christianity away. Think of all the real harm done by some powerful Christians, then and now; the stereotypes of Christians held by many today have solid basis.
It’s interesting how many of the growing new emergent evangelical Christian churches, especially those which are anti-megachurch, understand this and are taking up the very same message we honed so well. And are reaching new generations of the unchurched and the dechurched who want to follow the radical way of Jesus, but don’t do it in opposition to or as a contradiction in terms to Christian faith, but as its fulfillment.

People are asking again, in the 21st century in ways not heard since the first century, as the biblical gospels did too, what, who, is this Christ, this Anointed One, this most unusual Messiah, of which people talk, and how is it all related to the one, the son of Miriam, this Jesus of Nazareth?. As one new book title puts it, why from one Jesus, so many Christs? Which is now as it ever has been. Each of the different groups that produced and preserved the accounts of Jesus in the Bible, plus Paul, had a different Christ in mind and heart and soul.

We find that in our midst too, as UU Christian. We talk about the broad categories of those who are a part of us. They fall along the spectrum of how people shape their response to the shape of Jesus in their lives. Many among us don’t call themselves Christian. You don’t have to be Christian to be in the UUCF, nor do you have to be UU to be in the UUCF. We don’t think Jesus, in his radical hospitable way, would have it any differently. These might have Jesus as a moral example, a wise teacher. They follow Jesus as a guide and don’t have much use personally for the word Christ. Many follow Jesus as a social revolutionary leader of the oppressed, and see Christ as the spirit of God opposing the Caesars and Rulers of the Status Quo, now as then. Many follow a Jesus and Christian path and draw strongly or primarily from other religions as their source. Many are a part of us simply because they like our conversation and to keep up with us. Many have left Unitarian Universalism to experience more identified Christian communion and company but don’t want to leave their religious family of origin behind and what it still feeds them. Many are in Christian communities not UU, some happily and some not, but are drawn to our radical ways of being in covenant with people of other faiths than Christian. It’s where Jesus might be. Many are in historic or new Unitarian Universalist Christian churches and hope to help us seed this faith that does not feel like an oxymoron but a redundancy to them, the way the term Methodist Christian might seem. And many follow not just the teachings or social acts of Jesus, but the traditions, disciplines, worship, study, prayer through which Jesus touches their lives. And many may be at different of these points at any given time. I have. One historical Jesus, many faithful responses. We need one another to better reflect the hospitality that is our way. We say we have a particular faithfulness, as UU Christians, but not strictly exclusive faithfulness. One of the gifts of UU Christianity to the ecumenical world is a reminder that our Jesus, our Christ, our God has liberty and freedom at the core. We wouldn’t, couldn’t have one without the other. And to answer the old question of why stay UU, we find UUism to be a great garden of freedom, and a place where we, who follow one who sought out right relations with those different from him, can best follow him, embody him howsoever we refer to him.

Much of the problem with the phrase the Christ of faith is how it has been linked to issues of the divinity of Jesus, and approaching faith as belief, as creeds defined it. We encounter these ancient words and issues by looking back at them through the centuries, in an orderly way. Christ and faith taken to be what they have become, after the Caesers et al corrupted them, instead of letting them speak to us in their own, original voices.
When I speak of Christ I don’t think of a Second Person of the Trinity, at least not as old theologians did, and some still do; instead I think, I feel, about a spirit of anointing, what the Greek word Christ refers to, about a spirit of blessing that is so powerful in its revolutionary vulnerable way, power-with not power-over, cooperation not competition and content and conquest, as we saw in our parable reading and commentary this morning from the lectionary, that this spirit could not be silenced and destroyed by evil and death, but lived on and grew in community more life affirming.
I think of Christ as a parable itself, and believe it is stronger, theologically for it.
And yes, as an aside since I mentioned that old bugaboo, the divinity of Jesus, my own shorthand response is that Jesus was filled with the spirit of God, but God is filled by more than Jesus, and the nature and character of such a God, the key issue, is one of freedom and relationship and imperfection.
Likewise, when I encounter or use the word faith now I don’t think of thought, or belief, of a series of mental affirmations and propositions. I translate it, as new versions of the ancient Greek are being translated, as faithfulness, more active than passive, more about trusting and choosing to follow a special way. As Parable Scholar Brandon Scott writes in our reading today, we have faith not in Jesus as an object, but faith with Jesus as a subject, a living companion.

This topsy-turvy Christology of our century owes itself I think to the rediscovery, coming to know them again for the first time, of the original counter-cultural power of the parables, one of our prime lens to the Jesus of history. It’s why I see the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith as two poles generating, like a Jacob’s ladder, the same energy flowing between them, charging the air.

The parables show us that before Jesus was considered the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, he first anointed, or Christ-ed the world. And the strangely radical way he did that created the climate, the epiphany, the new default mode and re-imagination of God, that prompted his followers to see him as a strangely radical, newly imagined Christ, a conduit of and to the divine. He showed his followers the image of God not only in the image of the poor and powerless, in the image of persistent women and foreigners and foreign women, but in the image of illegal and wild mustard seed, unholy leaven, undisciplined and shamed fathers and sons, employers who upset expectations of workers, respectable feasts thrown for unrespectable folk, and as in today’s parable in untrustworthy managers and selfish owners who still, in their vulnerability, are conduits for good results and the possibility of better relationships and a better world.

But what kind of sacredness is that, they asked? And still do. It makes no sense. It won’t work in the world.

Caeser’s world, then and now, doesn’t see God or ultimate values of honor and success and justice in those ways. In the parables, Jesus breaks apart the either/or worlds and structured roles and reimagines the world as if Caeser were not in charge. Today, think of the Caesers as affluence, appearance, achievement, influence, coolness, consumption, fear, and feelings of scarcity, as if they were not in charge.

It reminds me too that when the first followers of Jesus began to describe him as Christ, and then even later when they themselves were described as Christians, though they still saw themselves for quite some time as part of the covenant between Israel and God, that using the word Christ was their way of differentiating themselves from the values and worldview of the Caesers and those who followed Caeser as the Anointed One, the Son of God, Lord and Master. And I wonder if we stop understanding that difference, if we drop Christ altogether, will we also then drop our contest with the Caesers, the value-makers of our world? This problem of recognizing and responding to evil has been a perennial one for liberal or progressive theology. If this happens it is doubly ironic since our liberal problem with the word Christ is linked to the aftereffects of when centuries after the church was born Christ and the Church were coopted by the Empire and Christ became to many just like another Caeser. One way to defeat Caeser now is to free Christ from Caeser, and create new communities from this transformation, again undoing the Empire.

Given the radical world-upsetting nature of the parables, though, it’s no wonder that the followers who heard them and became leaders, and the followers who just heard the stories from them, and the followers after that have then seen the same image of God, and the same transforming possibilities of the healing spirit of life, most clearly in the one who was himself seen as equally roguish, shrewd, criminal, dishonorable, shamed, crucified, a failure, weak, nuisance, a dangerous homeless man, one still always looking to make connections, relations, build community from the ground up and not from the Empire down. And because of all that they called him God’s Beloved be-lover, Annointed Annointer, Christ

Let’s close, after all these words about words, with where we began, with words about the ineffectiveness of our words. With a humble reminder taken from the same poem by Mr. Eliot. Unfortunately, less familiar words, unlike the first these are not in our hymnal. He wrote this parable:
“You are not here to verify,Instruct yourself, or inform curiosityOr carry report. You are here to kneelWhere prayer has been valid. And prayer is moreThan an order of words, the conscious occupationOf the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.”