Saturday, August 30, 2008

Saving Jesus

The following is a loose report of a sermon preached earlier in August in Houston.

Saving Jesus? Good luck, you might say.

When the UU publisher Beacon Press published the new book Saving Paradise by UU Seminary President Rebecca Parker and Disciples of Christ minister and social activist and author Rita Nakashima Brock, it continued a tradition, a practice, that goes back without ceasing to the beginnings of our faith communities. For in writing Saving Paradise, they are trying to do, what UUs have for centuries done, along with many in other traditions also these days, which is to Save Jesus. Save from what? Well from what Christianity has often become, of course, and from irrelevancy in a world with reigning values of appearance, achievement, and affluence.

Their book lays out how, for the first millennium after Jesus, Christians, on the whole, kept alive his radical spirit that challenged all the destructive powers of the world out of a deep love for the world and for Creation. They point out, for example, how in the first millennium there were no images, that we have found, out of all the images we do have, that show a dead Jesus on the cross. They say it apparently took Jesus, in the imagination of his followers, a thousand years to really die. For the focus of images and faithfulness during those centuries was on new life, a transformed world instead of the death on the cross as some kind of God’s purpose. It’s not that the death on the cross wasn’t vital to the shaping of the faith of the first followers; it clearly was; but the cross image was not the be all and end all, divorced from the act of what God did in the resurrection of the martyred Jewish rabbi as a sign of what would come soon, they thought, in the great righting of wrongs that was to happen to this world in the here and now, a belief that prompted creation of radical egalitarian communities of peace and justice as a mark of what it meant in the first millennium to be Christian.

And then they document the way Christianity, on the whole, in the second millennium after Jesus, betrayed that original spirit and became merged with the interests of the dominant powers of the world through the medieval and modern and Enlightenment eras . They also keep alive though the stories of the minority voices, the dissidents and the heretics, including sometimes the U and U Christians among them, who went against this grain of Empire Church that came to be the kind of normal Christianity so many of us struggle with and against still today.

Finally, Parker and Brock envision, in this dawning of the third millennium after Jesus, another kind of Christianity that reclaims that original revolutionary spirit of Jesus and his early followers and incorporates into it the best of what has come in other sacred ways since then. This is made all the more possible because of the ways the 21st century is echoing the religious pluralism, the drastic changing ways of communication, and the issues against American Empire values that marked the first century in the Roman Empire.

Mostly we have sought in our free church tradition to save Jesus from the sin of creedalism, one of those things that came to mark the second millennium Christianity, especially in its Protestant forms from which our historic communities emerged. Note I said the sin of creedalism, not of creeds. Our argument was not, and is not, so much against this or that creed per se; in fact they may contain much of truth and beauty and goodness within them, especially given the contexts they were created; but we sought to save the ultimate nature of Jesus and of God and of religion from the ultimacy of creeds themselves, the notion that they were the supreme and final touchstone of Christian faith for all time. That’s why the 1800 Unitarian Christians issued pamphlets that asked “are you a Calvinist or a Christian?” Is it in theological talking points, or character, that Christ is mostly manifest? Or as we echo Thomas Jefferson’s “deeds not creeds” marker for Christian faith. And it is why many of us shrink from how things like the Principles and Purposes statement can take on this creedal-like function.

Speaking of creeds in themselves though and how individually they may be found helpful, one of the best parts of Saving Paradise is the discussion about how the forming of the statement about Christ’s divinity, in that infamous Council of Nicea in 325 of the common era, was done as a kind of first millennium slap against the very Emperor who convened the Council, for in highlighting the importance of Christ’s divinity they were continuing the original anti-Empire stance that Jesus, the state-crucified peasant radical rabbi, was Lord, Christ was divine, and not the Emperor, as it was commonly held.

And I have to point out, in fact I enjoy doing so, that even our non-creedal ancestors in the 19th century flirted with creeds, composing affirmations of faith that would give most UUs today the shivers. Such as…….American Unitarian Association statement of 1853 that “WE BELIEVE in Jesus Christ, the everlasting Son of God, the express image of the Father, in whom dwelt all the fullness of the God-head bodily, and who to us is the Way and the Truth and the Life. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, the teacher, renewer, and guide of mankind. WE BELIEVE in the Holy Catholic Church as the body and form of the Holy Spirit, and the presence of Christ in all ages. WE BELIEVE in the Regeneration of the human heart, which, being created upright, but corrupted by sin, is renewed and restored by the power of Christian truth. WE BELIEVE in the constant Atonement whereby God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. WE BELIEVE in the Resurrection from mortal to immortality, in a future judgment and Eternal Life. WE BELIEVE in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the final triumph of Christian Truth.

One of the strengths of the free church is that such wording would be found evocative to some among us today, however nuanced in interpretation.

These were from a time when it was commonplace for Unitarians and Universalists to claim Christianity, and of course it is still commonplace in certain places—that’s the beauty, the aggravating beauty, of the free church tradition. We have the churches that make up The Council of Christian Churches within the UUA, and we have the churches where, as they say, the only time you hear the word Christ is when the minister trips down the stairs. You have in our Association churches like Kings Chapel where the creeds still adorn the walls from its founding in 1686 as the first Episcopal church in the U.S., where its motto is still “Anglican in worship, congregational in polity, and Unitarian in theology”. And you have the church where for years our UUCF offices were located, a church founded in 1635, the First Church of Christ, Unitarian, of Lancaster, MA.

And you have as an emerging church my church plant in Oklahoma where we have a cross in our building too, and we have weekly communion, but since we are native to our place and our time of founding, the UU Christians of New England might not recognize us—we put the low in low church, we meet in the mission community center we created and worship right as the Center is open and busy around us, always having a common meal, conversation, and then candles and prayers and communion passed around by our children, and singing Shalom Havyreem and Go Now in Peace at the end while people are browsing the library or using the free internet or giveaway room and sometimes joining in with us. No, just like UUism in some historic churches of New England or the South wouldn’t be recognizable to many UUs, neither would we to some of our fellow UU Christians. And I like to say that when the UUCF offices were moved from MA to OK that it caused people around here to say “UU what?” and it caused folks back there to say “UUCF where?”
There was also a time, and there are certain places today, where it was not commonplace but a contradiction to be a UU Christian; and in my 30 plus years as a UU, all of it in our area, it has been more of a conundrum, a kind of parable; and most recently, I ‘d say the word that marks UU Christianity, perhaps UUism itself and Christianity itself too, is convergence. There is not one prevailing type anymore within UU Christianity, and there are those who converge their spiritual paths, Buddhist-Christian, Pagan-Christian, Humanist-Christian (once our UUCF president was also on the national board of the Covenant of UU Pagans), and there are those who join with us but also are in other faith communities (we say you don’t have to be Christian to be in the UUCF, and you don’t have to be UU either; that Jesus would have it no other way), and there are many many more links and labels, as well as those who are among us and simply call themselves UU, or just Christian, or resist the urge period. One of my mentors and former ministers in Tulsa, John Wolf of All Souls, used to preach piggy-backed sermons; as a frequent guest preacher I envy that luxury; he would preach once on Why I Am A Christian and then the next Sunday on Why I Am Not A Christian, and on Why I Am a Unitarian, and the next Sunday on Why I Am Not A Unitarian. Among his reasons against claiming Unitarians was our constant seeking after statistics and labels to demonstrate who we were—how many of this and how many of that—trying to fill up with them a spiritual emptiness of the soul.
So UUism is much changed and changing still; that we can sometimes handle, but it’s tougher at times, particularly if we have come from an explicit Christian background, to grasp how Christianity is much changed and changing still; and so of course are also we who stand in both worlds of UUism and Christianity. When we stake our authority in ongoing revelation, there’s no telling where you will end up, for you might even circle around again and as T. S. Eliot wrote know your place of beginning for the first time. The founders of the UUCF in 1945 might be perplexed, perhaps irked, perhaps pleased, to see us today, especially at one of our national Revivals as we have been holding since 1999 in New Orleans and will again this coming March in Tulsa at All Souls. We are still committed to saving Jesus from dogmatism or irrelevance, but the reasons and the ways we go about it are much different. The talk I hear more and more is about we, free thinkers, free followers, are committed to saving Jesus because we have experienced Jesus saving us, truly, deeply, madly. Not saving us from the eternity of punishment, not saving us by prompting us to say a certain prayer and agreeing to a set of mental propositions, but saving us nonetheless.
In the fairly recent book from Skinner House, C hristian Voices in UUism, there is some of this through the words of the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, who wrote:
Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.”

For me it was sitting in hospitals with a young daughter and picking up the Bible, literally seeking an escape from the uncertainties that had become routine there, and scanning the Psalms and being drawn in to the poetry of suffering and survival of a people as a people, not as individuals; and then later going to a weekend seminar on the parables of Jesus put on by Hope Unitarian church in Tulsa, and being blown away by the power of Jesus’ parables that, as one Jesus Seminar scholar puts it, reveals a God who has “changed sides” and is experienced now with the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the wild, status-quo breaking, unholy, empty, shamed, hungry folks of the world—I recognized my story in his story, my community in his, and my calling, and seminary and all the rest have followed, particularly my commitment on where I live and how and with whom my neighbors are and where and how church is done, in the poorest section of the Tulsa area, just eight miles straight down the same road from All Souls, but where the life expectancy in our zipcode is 14 years lower, where for thousands of people around us there is nothing much for the youth but gangs—no pizza delivery, no movie theaters, no safe commercial gathering spots, and for the aging you can’t find volunteers for meals on wheels drivers or for hospice, and up to now little advanced health services, a weak public transportation system and no grocery stores for many for miles, not to mention, and most don’t, the schools (just yesterday morning a group of us from church were out before sunup and the heat painting over graffiti on abandoned houses with broken windows and trash-strewn yards right across from the local elementary school so the children who start there tomorrow won’t have to walk past it; instead they will walk past the gardens of native wildflowers we plant at the school. Jesus calls me to all this in order to save myself, and I like to think it is a small part of saving him in today’s world.
For us, the church’s mission is simple: to make Jesus visible in the world. That’s why we do what we do and how we keep trying to save Jesus, because Lord knows, I still struggle to be faithful to his spirit, and am the most prodigal of sons at times, and I catch myself tossing around the name Christian so loosely that when I stop and think about it it scares me, for it is always something I am more striving to be than having achieved. And I know, whether UU or not, Christian churches are sometimes the last place and people that actually seek to make Jesus visible in the world. Instead we are apt to hide him behind respectability or tradition. But as in our story this morning about his encounter with the Syrio-Phoenician woman, Jesus himself, I know, from his own experience, would understand our struggles. As he would understand our kind of inclusive convergent faith tradition seeking to keep that welcome table open for all.
We seek to save Jesus still because still in ways people might not understand he still saves us, his story still our saving story, the practices of community he began ones that shape and save us still, whether we are in a UU church of whatever theological orientation, or a UU Christian small group or covenant group in our church or area, two or three gathered together, really two or three, seeking together to freely follow his Way. And wherever two or three are gathered, no matter how they describe their theology, who are seeking to make his spirit visible in the world.
I close with a story by Parker and Brock, but from their earlier book, Proverbs of Ashes. In it they write of struggling against the church and particularly the practice of communion because it had been portrayed as an act of exclusion, reflecting a medieval theology that sanctioned violence and abuse in the name of sacrifice, and for those abused it seemed to perpetuate it. But then the deepest healing also happened through the act of communion too (just as I tell those in the UUCF that one of our missions is to be healing agents in the name of Jesus for those who have been abused in the name of Jesus). Parker writes of having been in a small group with a man who had abused his children, who was learning to tell the truth about his life, as she was about the abuse suffered in her own, how at first she wanted to flee from the group and the memories, but then she writes:
“I remembered that he and I were there for the same reason. We were trying to recover from living a lie, we were there for each other, all of us in the group, and we told the truth about our lives because telling the truth restored us to the human community. It brought us back from the dead. It was a way of showing up. Of coming back, alive. It made us free. Not long after that meeting, I was at a worship service. Communion was to be observed. I was preparing to make a quiet exit during one of the hymns, but decided to stay. I knew the worship leader and trusted her. We were sitting in the round in a small chapel. We could see one another’s faces in the candle light. Words were spoken that told of Jesus’ crucifixion. It was a narrative of lamentation and grief, not praise and thanksgiving. Prayers were offered for victims of violence and abuse, all those who suffer in mind, body, and spirit. Then bread and wine were offered to any who wished, as a sign that there is nourishment for the suffering, comfort for the grieving, and hope that someday all people will gather at one table in peace.
My consciousness slipped into another realm. I felt the presence of Frank (her abuser). I could see him in the circle across from me. The bread and cup were passed to him. He ate and drank. Then the elements came to me. I ate the bread and drank from the cup. Somewhere deep inside me a noise that had been roaring for years became silent. An old ache, like a stone, began to fall. I returned to normal consciousness. Around me were the quiet voices of familiar friends. I knew that in the end, all there is, is mercy. The promise was true. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. “
So it is that saving Jesus saves us so we may help save others. May it be so in your life whatever your guide, your God.