Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Secret Message of Jesus Sermon

Here is a rough draft from which I recently preached two sermons, one in Louisiana and one in Texas, both titled The Secret Message of Jesus, using readings from the parables, from Brandon Scott's book Reimagine the World, and from Brian McLaren's book The Secret Message of Jesus. Both sermons ended up different from this text but I like to use the texts as blog posts. When you google the words Secret and Jesus you get a lot of end-time scenarios and conspiracies, etc. But I am not interested in that kind of secret; rather in why the essential message and way of Jesus has been kept a secret from so many for so long. You don't need a decoder to get Jesus, as you didn't back then (or else he wouldn't have been crucified). But you do need messengers.

The Secret Message of Jesus

I still remember the day I first learned something liberating of Jesus that had had been a secret to me, to my church, my family, and it seemed most of the society and world. It was in 1974 and I was a college English student in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I had recently moved emotionally and theologically away from the Methodism of my raising. I was hanging out with a few of the Bahai’s on campus, reading a lot of Nietzche, and a lot of 19th century American writers. In my textbook as I read works by William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and many more, I kept encountering this word Unitarian in their bios. Now I had grown up in the town where I live again now, Turley, Oklahoma, and it is just eight miles north on the very same street from where one of the largest Unitarian churches in the world, even back in 1974, was located, but the word Unitarian was a secret to me too. (Universalism was even more of a secret word; I didn’t really encounter it until after I had been a member of a few Unitarian churches). I decided to write a term paper on these writers’ religion as a way to find out more about it myself and so I spent most of one day in the college library reading and reading what these and other early Unitarian Christians had to say about Jesus, the Bible, God, church, social justice. I came out of the library into the dark of that evening, and into the light, it felt like, of being a Unitarian. And, having been raised with church in my blood, I went to the yellow pages to find the local Unitarian church, there along with all the other churches in Tahlequah, OK. I didn’t find one. How could that be? It was all through the pages of my textbook. Years later, when I returned to Tahlequah to teach and raise a family and to start a UU congregation there, I discovered why the library had such an extensive collection on Unitarianism. One of the librarians there, for whom my wife had actually worked as a student for a few years, had been a Unitarian. Now he hadn’t planted a church, and one would have been oh so helpful to me and the community at that time, but he at least had done something to sow some seeds where he was and how he could, and in doing so to let out one of the main secrets about Jesus--that you didn’t have to only see him as the creeds saw him in order to follow him, be moved, and changed by him. When we did start the UU church in Tahlequah, in the first meeting in our living room, one of the original eight was the widow of that librarian.
And yet, and yet, when I read books by the new emergent evangelicals like Brian McLaren, or the best-selling works by progressives like Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and so so many more in recent years, I do wonder---why is all this still a secret? Why is it still so new to so many, and to new generations? Unitarians and Universalists, I say, were the original progressive Christians. Why are we most prominently in textbooks, in history, both of a cultural and theological kind in America? Why did we keep the secret to ourselves? And why are we continuing to do so? As one of my colleagues said, himself not a Christian but a lover of all things from the Jesus Seminar, why was the Jesus Seminar necessary since the UUA has been around for so much longer? There are so many wonderful new DVD curriculums out now exploring all the new work by biblical scholars like Brandon Scott, but they aren’t coming from us. We who were on the cutting edge of all things Jesus are now playing catch up. Now it’s better than it was when I became a Unitarian in 1974 and, as they say, in many many places Jesus Christ was only heard back then in the church when the minister tripped on his robe. But we are still sidelined. I’ll give my answer to some of these questions about us at the end, but now I want to get at the heart of the message of Jesus itself. Because getting that wrong might have something to do with why it’s still considered a secret.

When I was growing up as a Methodist, and for years as a Unitarian when I would hear sermons about Jesus, I rarely heard much about the parables of Jesus. It was all, pro or con, about the birth, death, resurrection, and the miracles. Those parables like the prodigal son and the so-called Good Samaritan, the ones that adorned stained glass windows, even in historic UU Christian churches, were all about conventional wisdom and morality tales of being good, or like the mustard seed they were seen as allegories about the Church. You got their lessons in Sunday School and then were supposed to not need them after that. And we didn’t ever hear much if anything about leaven. But today the parables are seen as the key to Jesus’ message, ministry, mission. These parables about a revolutionary vision of God have themselves gone through a revolution. So much so that for many who write on them today, you can’t deeply understand even the stories of birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus without seeing them as parables about Jesus told in the spirit of the parables he himself told.

The parables show us that before Jesus was considered the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, he first anointed, or Christ-ed the world, especially those parts of it and those people who were treated as objects. And the strangely radical way he did that blessing of the impure and outcast created the climate, the new default mode and re-imagination of God, that then prompted his own followers to see him as a strangely radical, newly imagined Christ, that is a conduit of and to the divine. He showed people the image of God in the image of the poor and powerless, in other words in themselves, in the image of persistent women and foreigners and foreign women, in the image of illegal and wild mustard seed, unholy leaven, emptiness and loss, undisciplined and shamed fathers and sons, employers who upset expectations of workers, and respectable feasts thrown for unrespectable folk. And in living where he did and how he did, as if the world of the parables was the real world, in a time of great scarcity risking all in the spirit of abundance and generosity, he showed the possibilities of the real power that came, as Brandon Scott wrote, from such a re-imagined God. But what kind of sacredness, what kind of God, 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, addiction, as influence, coolness, consumption, fear, and feelings of scarcity, as if they were not in charge.

Today when I hear the parables of Jesus talk about the kingdom of God I think he would be instead saying here is what God’s Black Friday at the Shopping Malls is really like, or God’s Cyber Monday, here God’s Nielson Ratings, here God’s Gross National Product, here God’s homeland security, here God’s Ph.D., God’s McMansion, and perhaps, most of all, here is what God’s church is like, one that is willing, as the parables call it to do so, to reimagine itself, to get beyond itself, to worry not so much about who is in it and who isn‘t but ultimately Whose it is, one that doesn‘t seek to find a mission but to experience itself as a community formed in response to Mission. The parables challenge us to choose again and again between God and all of our Caesers. No wonder we have through the centuries and cultures found ways to rationalize the parables and hide their message. The hoopla of Church and Holidays can easily distract us from the message instead of feed us with it. Of course ever since the Empire turned Christ into a Caeser, an act that didn’t just happen with Constantine in the fourth century by the way but happens every time the powers that be in all quarters use Christ for their purposes, then the real meaning of the term Christ and Christian is betrayed.

Today, though, in the spirit of the parables, and especially here in the free church, we can turn the tables upside down and the tradition inside out and talk about the kind of King worthy of being called the Christ, one who was himself seen as powerless, roguish, shrewd, criminal, dishonorable, shamed, crucified, a failure, weak, nuisance, a dangerous homeless man who nevertheless was at home wherever he went. And yet just like in his parables, it was this kind of leader, and the ones who followed in his lead, who could change the world by creating community from the ground up, with God’s loving justice and radical inclusion and vulnerabillity, and not from the Empire down with all of the Empire‘s values of the status quo and control. Today, in the twin worlds of fundamentalism and consumerism (including spiritual consumerism) it is the kind of spiritual leadership seen in Jesus that needs to be seen and not kept hidden anymore. Among all its other virtues, this kind of change agent and leader who failed in all the ways of the world is a great antidote for that sin of perfectionism and risk and conflict aversion that so plagues so many of us and our churches.

Well, if for centuries Unitarian and Universalists were the main, if not only, preservers and promoters of the non-creedal radical Jesus, then for the past 63 years the institutional remnant of that particular sanctuary in which we gave shelter and kept alive the revolutionary message of Jesus, has been the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, who first gathered in Boston in December of 1944. Talk about a secret. Our first gathering included some of the most prominent clergy and laity in our movement, and one who would become later the first president of the UUA, and one of our officers for many years was the great UU theologian James Luther Adams. But I was a UU for almost twenty years before I knew about the UUCF, and my story continues to be replicated today. We are as much to blame as anyone for keeping the message of Jesus a secret. UU Christians, and the historic UU Christian churches, should look first to the beam in our own eyes before commenting on the mote in the eye of the UUA. One of my answers to why the UU world has kept the message of Jesus a secret from the wider world for far too long is that we have been too content to think of it as a message, as something for the mind to grasp, as a personal spiritual journey. We are not alone in this; it is a critique for all of the so-called mainstream Christian traditions. But especially we hyper-modernist Enlightenment Era faiths made Jesus and Christianity into an argument full of points and counter-points and focused on our organizations and traditions instead of on the Spirit of the Living God that breaks through all of that to become an organic relationship to be lived, a story to give our hearts and souls and own self stories to, and a path that must be walked with others, particularly others who aren’t like us, or it isn‘t a Jesus kind of path.

Brian McLaren, one of the leaders of the emergent church movement, captures this sentiment well in many of his books, but most succinctly I think in The Secret Message of Jesus where he writes: “Can you see how the secret message of Jesus is meant not just to be heard or read but to be seen in human lives, in radically inclusive reconciling communities, written not on pages in a book but in the lives and hearts of friends? Can you see how the kingdom, originally hidden in parables, began to be hidden in new places--in the stories of real people and real communities across the Roman Empire and eventually around the world? Can you imagine yourself and your community of faith as a living parable where the secret message of Jesus could be hidden today?”

If the original parables of Jesus often left people scratching their heads--God is like what??--and if Unitarian Universalism often does the same today---church is like what?, then the ultimate parable might be in today’s Unitarian Universalist Christianity and our contemporary version of the UUCF. Often other Christians don’t get us; other Uus don’t get us; and, what might surprise a lot of folks, is that we often don’t get each other. This is because we too have grown so diverse since those first years in Boston at the end of the Second World War. We still have in our midst classic Unitarian Christians of the Channing variety, and Emerson and Parker Transcendentalist Christian variety, and still Trinitarian Universalists of the John Murray variety. But we also have UU Christians who follow a humanistic Jesus and don’t call themselves Christians but followers of Jesus, and we have those who follow Jesus in conjunction with their Buddhism or earth-centered faith, and lots of agnostics and atheists who still like to keep up with the latest Jesus and Paul stuff in a familiar setting where their own journeys are respected, and we have Christians who are members of the UUCF but in other traditions who still find connections and resources from us that feed them in ways that their own churches might not, especially for those who are gay, lesbian, bi and transgendered.

When I talk about UU Christianity as a parable, as embodying the radical message of Jesus, I like to talk about the time I worshipped at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA where the weekly Lord’s Prayer is recited but where also the time I was there the minister, a Theist but not a Christian, followed the prayer by preaching a sermon on why Atheists were welcome and needed in the church. Or I like to talk about the time a decade ago when the president of the national UU Christian Fellowship was also on the national board of the Covenant of UU Pagans. Believe me, the Jesus of the leaven and mustard seed and empty jar would get it. UU Christianity might once have been commonplace, the two terms considered one and the same at least by their own adherents, and it hasn’t been that long ago that it was, and there are places where it remains so. And it might once have been considered a contradiction, and there are places where it remains so. And it might be to many a conundrum, too difficult a concept to be worth the time and trouble. But for a growing number it is now a place of convergence--where the spiritual sides of one’s life and one’s community can be enriched--the mystical side, the prophetic side, the liberation side, the ritual-seeking worship side, the thinking exploring side, the healing side. Which only seems natural since all those sides show up in Jesus.

Ultimately the message of Jesus isn’t something you can put on a bumper sticker, in a book, or a sermon--it is an experience of changed lives and relationships and communities of love in the face of the experience of life, all the past lessons and all the experts and all that knowledge, that says change and love is impossible. The message of Jesus through the ages down to us is at its heart a calling more than a concept. We are called, in the arcs of our own lives and the practices that mark and shape our communities, to be both imitators within ourselves and initiators outside of ourselves of what Jesus’ parables pointed to as God‘s spirit--the Holy at work in what the world found unholy, the Sacred in what the world called profane, the Ultimate in the ordinary and the finite.

4 comments:

Steve Caldwell said...

Ron,

The sermon audio from the Shreveport, Louisiana version of your sermon is online:

http://allsoulsuushreveport.org/podcasts/25November2007Worship.mp3

Thanks,
Steve
All Souls UU Shreveport Webmaster

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

This sermon has greatly inspired me an accentuated a burgeoning interest in Unitarianism. You are correct, I feel, about the 'secrecy'element; as a historian, I have often encountered Uism but always more as a heresy or something wildly eccentric whose tenets were seldom considered. I now know better and can see what Uism has to offer everyone regardless of their faith or lack of it. Many thanks for this contribution to this new phase of my life.

Graham Louden