Do You Hear the Bells on Christmas Day? (A Christmas Day Meditation. Eighth in Sermon Series: Sermons from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

I.

The troops have been coming home from Iraq, and the last one connected to the U. S. Military will be back here with loved ones and friends no later than today!  What a wonderful, overdue gift to the military women and men themselves, to their families, and to our nation.

Back on October 21, “Stars and Stripes,” ran an update about the return as of that point:

 

   President Barack Obama announced that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year, marking an official end to the controversial eight-year war that killed almost 4,500 U.S. troops and divided the American public.

    “The long war in Iraq will come to an end by the end of this year,” Obama said in a White House address. “Our troops are finally coming home.”

    On the October day when the President delivered that historic speech, about 40,000 U.S. service members remained in Iraq. Obama said all would leave the country in coming weeks.

    At the start of the war in March 2003, military planners and members of President George W. Bush’s administration initially predicted that war could be over in a matter of months. Instead, it stands today as the third longest war in American history, behind only Afghanistan and Vietnam. Even though U.S. forces quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi military forces at the start of the conflict, the country quickly descended into sectarian violence, complicating the mission.

    So far, the Iraq War has cost the United States more than $800 billion in operations costs alone. In addition to the troops killed there, more than 32,000 have been wounded, and outside analysts predict their rehabilitation bills and lifetime benefits will push the war’s total cost for taxpayers to more than $3 trillion.

 

From the New York Times:

 

    Last Sunday the last troop movement out of Iraq, which included about 110 vehicles and 500 soldiers, began in darkness. Around 2:30 a.m.; the convoy snaked out of Contingency Operating Base Adder, near the southern city of Nasiriya, and headed toward the border.  As dawn approached on Sunday, the last trucks began to cross the border into Kuwait at an outpost lighted by floodlights and secured by barbed wire.

    The crossing into Kuwait brought a close to a final troop withdrawal drawn out over weeks of ceremonies in Baghdad and around Iraq, including a formal if muted flag-folding ceremony on Thursday, as well as visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and a trip to Washington by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

 

All fighting in that general region has not ceased by any means, but at least this chapter of one war seems to be closed.  If there were nothing else to celebrate on this Christmas Day, that would be more than sufficient.

 

 

II.

It is interesting to me that during war time, enemies will often show respect for the key holy day or days in the dominant religion among the people against whom they are fighting.  Even during times of intense fighting, the Palestinians will often leave the Jews alone on and around HIgh Holy Days.  Jews, Americans, and others who are fighting a predominantly Muslim nation will typically leave them be at least at the beginning of Ramadan.  Those who are fighting nations with a predominantly Christian population will often fire no weapons on Christmas Day.  Peace may not prevail at Christmas, but in many places there is respect for the hope of the ideal embraced by many, world peace.  There’s some kind of message there, even if one day of no aggression in the midst of an endless war may not seem like much, may not seem like a big deal.

One of the nicknames originally coined for the ideal Jewish nation, “prince of peace,” was eventually applied by some to Jesus, whom many people hoped would bring Israel to its full potential as a chosen people, a light to the nations, and among the nations a prince of peace.  Jesus was not not, tragically, able to help accomplish peace principles and peace practices among his fellow Jews or among many of the groups who followed by carrying his name.  The exceptions would be most, not all, Quakers, the Mennonites, and maybe a handful of scattered others.  Therefore, seldom in history have many swords been beaten into plowshares and just as seldom have many spears been melted down and reshaped into pruning hooks.  Nations are still lifting up swords against other nations, and war is being taught in more places than ever–including in academic settings where degrees are rewarded to those who specialize in warcraft.

How, then, can Robert Maynard Hughes, with any credibility at all, say, “The goal toward which all history tends is peace…peace pure and simple based on that will to peace that has animated the overwhelming majority of humankind through countless ages”?  Where is any evidence that the majority of people through the ages have longed for peace instead of war?  I’d like to believe what Maynard has said so eloquently, but is possible to do that honestly?

George McGovern, who might very well have been President of the United States had he not advocated the legalization of marijuana at an especially early point in considering that possibility, said, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up  wars for young men to die in.”  More pointedly, H. G. Wells said what very few of us really believe, “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”  I have previously shared this quote from General Omar Bradley, but it is well worth repeating:  “Ours in a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

 

 

III.

In the ancient Hebrew world, there were lots of prophets–prophets for kings and prophets for commoners. In both groups there were true prophets and false prophets, and one of the signs of a false prophet was that she or he proclaimed, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace.  There are plenty of people, an abundance in the world I’d guess, who see peace as, at best, a break between wars.

One of the youth musicals we sang at my home church, the Beaver Dam Baptist Church, during the era of the Vietnam War had us singing a song that went something like this:

 

There is no peace.  There is no peace.  In all God’s world there is no peace.  And behind every door, there’s always another war.  Oh there’s never, no not ever any peace.

 

Plato said:  “It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.”

Maybe you can hear Kate Smith singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and right near the end of what we expect to be a song optimistically proclaiming peace as a possibility, yeah a probability, she stuns us by singing:  “There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to all.”

Well, I keep hearing the Bells of Christmas Day and Kate Smith finishing her song:

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to all.”

 

Till, ringing singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to all!

 

We, sadly, must stop looking to Christian and other religious groups to make the peace.  Tragically, religious groups, Christianity included, have instigated and promoted more wars in than all other groups combined.  Some may preach a peace ideal, but very few do anything about making or keeping  peace.  The answer must be somewhere else.  Could that answer lie in secular agencies and institutions?

Jesus told his disciples, and we are their heirs, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”  Not all worldly groups are war lovers or war mongers, however.

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War era, one lone school in the whole United States, Manchester College, a Church of the Brethren school in Indiana, offered a degree in peace studies. Today, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, housed at Prescott College in Arizona, estimates that there are now more than 500 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs offering peace courses and peace degrees on US campuses. The schools include American University, Manhattan College, Hobart, Guilford, Tufts, Wellesley, Earlham, Goucher, Colgate, Goshen, Berkeley and the University of Colorado. Costa Rica has the University of Peace. The Rotary Foundation funds up to seventy master’s degree fellowships in peace studies annually. Before her death in 2003, McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc gave generous financial support to the University of San Diego and the University of Notre Dame to create peace studies degree programs, which today are thriving.

Do you hear the bells on this Christmas Day?

 

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to all.

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Love Will Grow and Will Endure (A Christmas Eve Meditation. Seventh in Sermon Series: “Preaching from A HUMANIST BIBLE”)

A reading, from A. C. Grayling’s A HUMANIST BIBLE:

 

The words of love we spoke have stored themselves in our history to await in secret another time.  One day they will fall, as seeds, with rain to earth, and grow green all over the world. 

 

When I was in college, The Captain and Tennille were one of the hot signing duos of the day, and besides singing about Muskrat Love, a sing I never quite understood, they rhythmically belted out, “Love!  Love will keep us together.”  And while they were certainly not thinking about couple love and not the love of humans for other humans, the message still applies–and the beat’s still not too shabby either:  “Love!  Love will keep us together.”  And so it will if it can; it would if it could.

 

Human love, however, is not a given in any circumstance.  Someone or someones must be working to keep that love alive, and they must be working diligently, consistently–not always with heavy lifting or manual labor love that causes tremendous emotional exertion often with sweat; sometimes the dainty, but consistent effort of embroidery–tiny stitch by tiny stitch.

 

Divine love, unlike human love, is a given because divine love is precisely who or what God Godself is.  Many of us, sadly, have been brought up in traditions in which we’ve been taught that God had to be manipulated in changing God’s mind about us and extending the divine love to us despite our gross unworthiness.  I have believed that.  I have taught that.  I have preached that. I am filled with remorse for having passed along such demeaning, manipulative nonsense to well-intentioned hearers taking my views seriously and often adopting my beliefs as their own.

 

The biblical writers have no consistent position on to what degree God loves or can love humanity, but I think it’s safe to say that very few of them, though they may taut the notion of unconditional love are really able to embrace unconditional love and a viable concept.  Could God really love us in our imperfections?  Oh, yes.  If God didn’t or couldn’t love imperfect people, God would have no one to love.  Even our revered and highly esteemed political leaders in this country occasionally have one of their rare imperfections come to light.

 

Many of you are aware that the early church had no interest in the details of Jesus’ birth; they were caught up in who he was or had been as an adult, ultimately rubbed out by the Romans.  The first recorded celebration of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, was in the year 336.  Jesus was born in the year 6 BCE, and the Romans put him to death in the year CE 27 or so.  It was some 310 years before the followers of Jesus became concerned enough about the details of his birth to make the commemoration a celebration.  I don’t know when it became an annual celebration.

 

His birth began to be remembered when people got his message about God’s love for all people; then, followers went back and tried to piece things together to help them solve the puzzle.  How did a carpenter’s kid, born in a barn know about the core truth of human experience:  God’s unconditional love for all people?  Bar none.  That core message, the key message, more than anything else is why Jesus is remembered still today so, “Love!  Love will keep us together.”  Or stated in Christmas Carol Fashion:

 

Love will be our token

Love be yours, and love be mine

Love from God to all of us

Love for plea and gift a sign

 

Amen.

Eternality and Little Ol’ Me (Six in Series: Sermons from A Humanist Bible)

 

 

I.
William Blake begins his “Auguries of Innocence” with these words:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

If you were asked by your child or grandchild to define the word “eternal,” and I hope each of you has been or will be asked that question by someone under the age of eight, what would you say?  What have you said?  What does “eternal” mean to you by way of definition, at least?  Maybe something like this:  without beginning or ending.  It means lasting forever or always existing. How about some single word definitions?   “Perpetual.”   Another single word definition:  “ceaseless.”  Another:  “endless.”  “Enduring” could be a synonym for “eternal” as could “immutable.”  Whatever is eternal is outside the boundaries of time as we know it or think we know it.
I remember in my sophomore year at Carson-Newman College the precise moment when I knew without the shadow of a doubt that I was not cut out to be a philosopher.  My philosophy professor walked into the classroom (and incidentally I grew to admire this man greatly and cherish friendship with him to this day but do not share with him a love of his discipline)–he walked into classroom and asked a room full of mostly 19 and 20 year-old kids, “What is time?”  I thought to myself, “Man, time is what I don’t have enough of to listen to this kind of conversation of presentation!”  I did not leave the room and hoped my face did not express my honest response to his question since “Introduction to Philosophy” was a required course, and while I may not have known what “time” was I certainly knew that, for me, “hell” would be having to repeat the course.
Eventually, on the other side of campus where I was taking my religion courses, I realized that I needed to be able to define “eternal” and that some kind of understanding of time was necessary.  I think I have a reasonable handle on the meaning of “time” by now.
A member of my church in Baltimore, an older gentleman, did not believe that when I first arrived there I was mature enough to understand time or at least to understand the importance of time the way a senior adult understood time.  This gent, Pete Hudson, bought a little travel alarm clock, say about three inches by three inches in size, and he screwed it into my pulpit.  It was his self-ordained responsibility each Sunday to come to the pulpit between Sunday School and church, wind up that clock, and set the time, which was usually a couple of minutes ahead of the actual time.
Only later did I discover why the length of my sermon and the worship service in which it was set mattered so much to a retired guy who sometimes complained about having too much time on his hands.  Pete and Charlotte didn’t like to have to wait too long in line at the nearby Picadilly Cafeteria; it opened at noon, which was usually when our service ended.  They sat on the back row and darted out without speaking to a soul, and if they drove the maximum city speed limit they could be there well ahead of other Baltimore Christians.
Alfred De Vigny said that it is “the providence of religion, of philosophy, of pure poetry only, to go beyond life, beyond time, into eternity.”  Is that so?
I am intrigued that the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”  I can’t imagine why he would let us get by with any illusions!
Practical, this-worldly oriented Emily Dickinson said, “Forever is composed of nows.”  Woody Allen describes it like this:  “Eternity is really long, especially near the end,” and the Lebanese-born poet-philosopher, Kahlil Gibran, causes us to lose a few winks at bedtime if we call to mind his perspective on eternality, “I existed from all eternity, and, behold, I am here; and I shall exist till the end of time, for my being has no end.”
Neither the Hebrew Bible by itself nor Christian scripture alone–or, obviously, both taken together–has a consistent view of life after death. Instead there is very uneven treatment of the subject depending on when the material was written and by whom. One thing is for certain, though, there were initially no concepts of either heaven or hell–a place where the unrighteous were punished for eternity called hell or a place called heaven where the righteous were eternally rewarded.
Rabbi Or Rose points out, however, that there are several references in Hebrew scripture to a place named Sheol. It is described as a region dark and deep in the bowels of the earth.  It is at times referred to as “the Pit.”  It seems to be the land of forgetfulness where human beings, all human beings, are sent after death.  It is the true netherworld, Sheol.  Those in Sheol are often regarded as being separated from God, though one psalmist, at least, contested that notion.  What no one questioned who wrote of Sheol, however, was that those who were there with no end in sight were mere shadows of the people they had been during their earthly lives.  Shades or shadows living in a shadowy world.  No rewards.  No punishments.  Just enough consciousness to be aware that one exists, though barely.
Many Hebrew scripture scholars believe that the foundation for a belief in a life beyond this life where there was a reward for good people and a punishment for bad people is tied to the longings of, the teachings from some of the ancient Hebrew prophets who began to see very clearly that evil people, truly evil people, could not from human perspective be adequately punished  in this world and, therefore, would have to be punished in the next world.  Similarly, the truly righteous, the really good folk could not be fully rewarded in this world; in fact, in this world some of the best people suffer the most so the rewards if there were to be rewards would have to come in another place, in another level or realm of existence.
The idea of immortality may also be tied to the consistent view in Hebrew and Christian scripture that God Godself is eternal.  Eventually, Christian writers began to think about life in the next world building on what the prophets had laid as groundwork for eternal life and adding to that more concentration on the eternality of God.  To be in relationship with God meant, in some way, to share God’s kind of life.  An intentional connection to God begins in this world and continues into the next for those who choose it.  Since God is eternal, then those sharing life with God in the next realm are also caught up in eternity.  I find that mind boggling.
The Greek words translated “eternal life” in Christian scripture, zoe aionios, the noun preceding the adjective in Greek, “life eternal,” did not mean “timelessness” per se.  Rather, the words idiomatically referred to life in the world to come.  It turns out that life with God is timeless, but temporality is not the concern of the concept.  When Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness to ask him what he, Nicodemus, had to do to have “life eternal,” he wasn’t asking Jesus how he could be sure he’d live forever.  For all anyone knew, the shadows in Sheol lived forever.  Who wanted that?  Nicodemus wanted to know how he could be assured that he’d have life with God in the next realm.  His concern was much more qualitative than quantitative.

 

II.
The Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 1-5, a passage frequently considered at Christmas since John sings this hymn and then immediately begins his version of Jesus’ life story with Jesus as an adult, about to begin his public ministry.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He [that is, the Word] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him [could be God, could be the Word], and without him [could be God, could be the Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him [could be God, could be the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The word translated “Word” is logos, and because of the prominence of that term in the first verse of John’s Gospel, this passage has been called “the Logos Hymn.”  I hasten to point out to you that the name of Jesus is not mentioned in this hymn though vast numbers of Christians including Christian theologians through the ages have believed that God’s living Word could have been none other than Jesus, but I just want to point out to you, again, that the name of Jesus does not appear in this Johannine hymn.
In the same chapter, we could jump down to verse 14 and read these words:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s unique child, full of grace and truth.”  Jesus’ name is, again, not mentioned at all.  The Logos became flesh and revealed God’s glory.  Sounds a lot like what has been described as Jesus’ role, but Jesus’ name isn’t mentioned.  Just to be sure that everyone who heard the hymn would be on the same page, no questions asked, I wonder why the writer didn’t take “Logos” at least once and say, “Jesus was that Logos.”
This passage gets us into a highly complex corner of Christian theology that scholars tend to refer to as “the preexistence of Christ.”  You may remember that in a recent sermon, I spoke a great while about the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith who has been essentially created by theologians.  If Jesus were the Logos referred to in the hymn with which the compilers of the Gospel of John chose to open the Gospel bearing the name of their faith mentor, John, then he lived in God’s realm before he lived in this earthly realm.  Instead of simply appearing one day as a human being walking around doing human things, this hymn says that God chose to experience humanity fully so God allowed Godself to be born like every other human child has been born–not conceived like all others, but born like all others.
If Jesus and God were one and the same, the Gospel of John, which more than any of the four Gospels opens the door to that possibility, offers more than its share of scenes making the idea of Jesus and God being the same entity suspicious, if not completely untenable.  If Jesus is God in the flesh, how and why does Jesus pray to God, to himself?  Why does Jesus claim when he has performed a sign, a miraculous deed, that he gives God the glory for what he was able to do?  Jesus dies on the cross.  Does God die?  Can God die?
Well, this is what John wants us grappling with–not baby Jesus, a manger, lowing cattle, an inn flashing its “No Vacancy” sign, night shift shepherds, and angels filling the skies to sing a song announcing the birth of Jesus, or of the birth of God if that’s your take on the tale.  We could say, the Gospel of John wants us confronting what led up to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Some see the hymn as teaching the reality of Jesus’ preexistence in heaven with God before his birth to Mary.  The hymn, for those who view it from this point of view, is unconcerned with Jesus’ earthly existence but rather with his preexistence if Logos, the Word, refers to Jesus.  Not all scholars believe that it does.
One of several alternatives is that “Logos” in the hymn is God’s word personified–not in the person of Jesus, but rather in God.  In the book of Genesis, God calls, by way of God’s word, various parts of creation into being.  God, therefore, creates through speaking.  Since John 1:1 touches back on Genesis 1:1 by using the same three opening words (“in beginning God”), and then the hymn uses the word “Word” personified.  That word, an extension of God, is not Jesus, but God.  Over time, God’s words became associated with wisdom so with that in mind, let’s have another look at the Logos Hymn that opens the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the powerful, wise, creative Word, and that powerful, wise, creative Word was with God, and that powerful, wise, creative Word was God. [“He”and “it” are the same word in Koine Greek so instead of reading what follows as He was in beginning with God, we can just as easily, just as justifiably read:]  It [that is, the Word] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through it [through the powerful, wise, creative Word], and without it [without the powerful, wise, creative Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in it [the powerful, wise, creative Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it [God’s powerful, wise, creative Word].

Now, my dear friends–faithful, thoughtful, pious, thinking, seeking friends–Christmas is not a time for celebrating Jesus’ divinity, but rather Jesus’ humanity.  Jesus was born just as each of us was born, and given his historical and cultural setting he struggled with the same kinds of questions people like us ask.  Jesus wondered how he was related to God.  He wondered what his contribution was to be in the short time he had to live, and I’m not suggesting that he knew he’d be dead by the time his thirty-fourth birthday rolled around.  I’m saying that even a long life by human standards–a hundred years, let’s say–is still just a speck in eternity.
That is no justification for failing to try to make a lasting contribution, however; to the contrary.  Because my time on earth is short when it is set in the context of eternity, that is all the more reason I have to work diligently to make a difference.  We have such a short time given the context of eternity, but our lives and our potential may still have profound meaning.  In this world, we do good deeds for all created beings and for the earth itself because we hope to pass on something better to the next generations.  Do we really, though, have enough influence and insight to leave anything good for those who come after us?  Absolutely, we do.
The writer of Psalm 8 asks a probing question of God in prayer:

O Lord, our Sovereign…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made us a little lower than yourself, and crowned us with glory and honor.  You have given us dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under our feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

We humans have been created just a little lower than God?  Really?  We can make a great, positive difference in the world during our time in it.

III.
I’m not sure the human mind can comprehend “eternality”–that there could be time without end.  Yes, as a theory that may be able to sink in, but really to look face to face at the possibility that there’s a place or a space where time never ends seems beyond the grasp of human comprehension in much the same way that we cannot grasp all of who God is.  Maybe wrapping our minds around eternality begins to make sense in bite-sized pieces.  Goethe’s words:  “Every situation, every moment, is of infinite worth; for it is the representative of a whole eternity.”
When I went to church boys’ camp one week out of every summer from of my ninth year through the summer of my twelfth year, visiting preachers would come and take a week apiece to be “Camp Pastors.”  Some were very popular with the guys; others had no rapport whatsoever with the campers.  Still the Camp Pastor was on call, as it were, to discuss spiritual questions and concerns with any one who had any and to preach in the covered pavilion each evening.  We all knew that the Camp Pastors were supposed to try to get as many boys as possible saved before the week was out, and if they didn’t make a dent they’d likely not be asked back the next summer.
Most of the boys went to church weekly and were interested in the camp because they’d already begun thinking about things spiritual.  Some of the pastors were fatherly; some kept our attention with humor; and some few tried to scare the hell out of us and were successful all things considered.
I had already been baptized when I was seven years old so this getting saved business was more than familiar to me by the time I was nine and certainly by the time I was twelve.  What wasn’t so familiar to me was my fixation on the eternal, life without end, world without end, whatever without end.  I’d go back to my cabin, and after a few practical jokes in which I always took part since you either played them or had them played on you, thoughts of eternity would take over my consciousness, and the only model I could conjure up was a cyclical one.  Eternal life was like running a race around the same circular track for ever and ever.  No matter how long that race course was, that was the one you kept running on forever.  Occasionally, I’d catch a mental glimpse of a hamster running in circles on his exercise wheel, but in a much worse way; poor little guy never got anywhere.  The cycles of eternity would make me dizzy, and maybe a little afraid even though I believed that God would be with me as I ran or walked the circular track of immortality for ever and ever.  Tom Stoppard, the British playwright, quipped, “Eternity’s a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it all going to end?”
At camp I’d lie wide awake in my bunk thinking without being able to stop myself.  What do you do with all that time on your hands?  Is it boring?  Is it like a camp preaching service where the preacher won’t let us go back to our cabins until more boys say they want to get saved, even though they already had been?  Whatever it was, it surely was a hell of a lot better than hell in which I still believed at the time, but cyclical repetition that never ended was not how I’d have designed eternity had anyone sought my input.  Even so, I was unable to see a place, a space where timelessness prevailed; there was no time to be kept or watched or worried with.
Forty-eight years ago, I went to the first of those camps, and I really did love them except for the nightly sermon and my forced meeting evening after evening with eternity.  In my more mature years, hopefully with some more mature reasoning and pondering, I now think of eternity as life in God’s more intimate embrace, and, generally, I get to think of it on my own timetable–except that I suspect most of us have the prospects of eternity cast upon us when we have to consider our own mortality or the mortality of someone whom we love.
I told you earlier, that John’s Gospel doesn’t have us at the manger.  John gives absolutely no attention to Jesus’ birth, but he gives attention to Jesus’ execution.  In the events leading up to Jesus’ senseless death, John mentions that Jesus goes into a garden to pray; he doesn’t name the garden, but Matthew and Luke do.  It was the Garden of Gethsemane, and in this painful, soul-wrenching prayer Jesus is reported to have prayed there, we know he was, at least in part, confronting not just mortality, but also eternity.
What I have to offer eternity must be accomplished or established before I go to live in that next realm, in God’s more intimate embrace.  Agatha Christie once wrote: “Everything that has existed will linger in the Eternity.”  Yes!  A snippet from A Humanist Bible reads:
History cannot shed us from its annals any more than nature can annihilate the particles of our being from its scheme. We are forever part of what is, indelible, written in the record of nature and the human story, whatever our part and place. For the time we have this shape and this consciousness of its possession, let us be worthy of it.
Along the same lines of thinking, Francis Bacon reminded us of this:  “Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand–and melting like a snowflake….”  Paschal:

When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then?

There’s a theo-blogger named David Williams, and those of us who are animal lovers can likely identify strongly with how he sees eternity:
Every joy caused and every harm inflicted is unmediated and fully us, written forever into the fabric of existence. That standard, as I know it through my faith, includes not just our interactions with the homo sapiens around us. It also includes the creatures with which we share this beautiful and fragile little planet. If I strike or harm another being, that harm is mine, forever scarring me. If I give comfort to another being, that comfort is a part of my place in eternity.
Jesus flat out did not want to die, did not want to suffer, did not think he had offered all he had to offer.  He sweated so profusely as he prayed that the sweat flowed as freely as blood would flow from a wound.
“God,” Jesus prayed with both immediacy and eternity in view, “if there is any way this cup of horrible suffering and death can pass me by for now, let it.  If not, I’ll face what I must to remain true to the message I’ve taught and preached.”  Well, you know the rest.  If not, come back around Easter time, and I’ll tell you.
I may be just a speck in the vastness of eternity, but I am a speck; and a speck can make an impact.  Here is Oscar Wilde without a barb:  “Love is not written on paper, for words on paper can be erased. Nor is it etched on stone, for stone can be broken. But it is inscribed on a heart, and there it shall remain forever.”

Who Gives You Permission to Feel Inferior? (Fifth Sermon in Series: Preaching from A HUMANIST BIBLE)

 

 

 

I.
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a touching, lesson-based children’s story that has endured for nearly 150 years.  It’s a story about inferiority based on appearance, and most of us know and understand the lesson being taught in the tale of “The Ugly Duckling.”  As you know, the “ugly ducking” was really a swan who, as a baby, found himself growing up among ducks to whom, obviously, he looked different.  The ducks interpreted different as ugly, and the “ugly ducking” adopted their way of looking at him as the basis of his own self image.
When the “duckling” is grown, and after so many hard knocks that he wishes he were dead, the truth comes out.  He’s not a duck at all.  He’s a gorgeous, elegant swan, but it took accidentally finding some swans before he really understood what he was.  The swans did not think him ugly at all; in reality, he may have been the most beautiful swan of all, so beautiful that many swans bowed when he swam near them.
Perhaps reading more into the story than Andersen intended, the swan may still have felt like an ugly ducking deep down inside.    Though he rejoiced to find out that he wasn’t any kind of duck, he had a horrible past that might travel with him for the rest of his swan-life.  Those who knew Andersen well, said when they read the story that it was autobiographical, that he was the ugly duckling who grew up feeling very unattractive.  Despite his enormous success as a writer of children’s stories and other types of literature that brought him fame worldwide and admirers who saw anyone who could write such stories as a beautiful person, he always saw himself as the ugly duckling and never the gorgeous swan.  Fortunately, Andersen didn’t let his inferiority complex keep him from taking the risks necessary to achieve, and to achieve remarkably, but he could have lived with much greater personal happiness if he had been able to think well of himself personally and not just well of himself as a writer.
There are loads of people all around us who were taught or conditioned as children to think of themselves as inferior, as of less significance and value than everyone or nearly everyone around them.  That self image has stayed with them to this point in their lives, and, sadly for most, it likely will follow them to the end of their days.  It has crippled them emotionally, and their lack of confidence, which is the typical companion of a sense of inferiority, keeps them from believing they deserve the best so they choose pathways where they will not be expected to achieve great things.  They often choose a partner, if they do that at all, who isn’t suitable for them, but if they dare risk relationship they typically connect with someone who will keep them feeling inferior about themselves.
It’s a way overused cliche by now, but I can recall in my teen years when I heard one of the youth leaders in our church say to one of the misfit kids in our group, “I wish I could buy you for what you think you’re worth and sell you for what I know you’re worth!”  I thought that was a supremely liberating comment for someone to make to an individual who felt less valuable than other members of our youth group, and all of humanity for that matter, even the jerks.
My maternal grandmother, who died about a year ago at the age of 93, treated almost everyone close to her unkindly–her husband who adored her come what may, her daughter, her son, her mother, and so on.  She grew up dirt poor and had very few opportunities to break out of that prison of poverty.  She had both of her children out of wedlock.  Each one had a different father, and the man she married who understood and practiced unconditional love was not the father of either.  Raised in religious fundamentalism, she hated herself for what she considered her “sins,” and her innate exceptional intelligence caused her to see that there was a much better world out there in which she was capable of functioning if only she could break free of the cycle of poverty and the powerful sense of inferiority that her environment nurtured so effectively in her.
For someone with so few opportunities at hand, she did very well for herself.  She became a nurse’s aid and excelled at that at a young age; she studied, did the practice, took the tests, and became a Licensed Practical Nurse.  Registered Nurses who supervised her, praised her work, and in her early 50’s I’d guess the University of Tennessee Hospital where she worked at the time sent her to New York City from Knoxville to take a course, on its dime, in pharmacology.  She finished the course with the best or one of the best grades in the class–a final grade average of something like 98.  The hospital could then give her a position as a charge nurse, a position at that time, which almost always went to a Registered Nurse.
From there she was hired as Director of Activities at the county-operated nursing home for the indigent and soon after that Director of Activities at a snazzy Independent Living facility.  She could never believe that she was a part of the management team and had a plush office with her name on a gold plate on her door: “Pearl Foust.” At work, she was amazing–confident and successful.  At home, however, she was, in her mind, the inferior mountain girl, a failure, poor and loose.
Only when she was stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease did she forget to hate herself and to strike out at those around her who tried their damnedest to love her.  She hated not being at home once a care facility was required, but she never got beyond a mid-stage Alzheimer’s so, during her later years, she knew her children and appreciated them and spoke to them finally with kindness and love.
Getting rid of inferiority is not just a matter of waking up one day and saying, “OK, today I’m tossing my inferiority complex since I realize that I’m at least equal to everybody else.”  Something like that does have to happen, though.
Last week we talked about John the Baptist and his being Jesus’ mentor originally, but realizing as Jesus progressed that Jesus was and would be far beyond him, John, in terms of spiritual understanding.  In pointing those who had come to him to Jesus instead, John said, “He will go so far beyond where I have been able to lead you that I don’t feel worthy to be his slave and carry his dirty sandals.”  As to roles, though, each had his own, and Jesus wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did without John’s instruction and support.

 
II.
In the Season of Expectation we usually look at some of the key characters involved in the stories of the birth of Jesus. One of those persons whom we must consider is the young woman who became his mother, Mary.  If Jesus were Mary’s firstborn child, and we have no reason to believe otherwise, then Mary probably was about 13 years old when she delivered him. The societal sign that she was ready to bear a child was the onset of puberty.  Young boys at her age were being bar mitzvahed; young girls in Mary’s time we’re not bat mitzvahed, and so it is surprising how much Mary, at the tender age of 13, knows about the history of messianic expectation among her people especially since she, unlike the boys, would not have had an opportunity to study and learn.
When Mary responds affirmatively to the angel’s moving announcement that she has been tapped by God Godself to be the mother of God’s Anointed One, that is the child who would grow up to set right the Jewish people and perhaps the whole world,  Mary seems calmly accepting of what she will have a role in creating, even though the description the angel or messenger gives of what the messiah will be about is not a full picture of what Mary’s people were hoping for.  Many believe she, nonetheless, sung these words:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness [read that: ‘the inferiority’] of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; or the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is the divine name.  God’s mercy is for those who reverence God from generation to generation.  The Lord has shown strength with the divine arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty, has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of divine mercy, according to the promise made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

Mary’s response to the messenger’s message is memorable from literary, musical, and theological perspectives.  When she agrees to become the vessel, not that she seems to have had much of a choice, but when she affirms that she’s willing to be used of God to bring this child into the world, she expresses first of all her feelings of inferiority, her lowliness.  Now, I’m not saying that it is uncommon for someone who has a great honor bestowed upon her or him to feel humbled at the prospect, and especially if the position to which she or he has been appointed or elected requires ongoing effort, work.
Mary is going to have the baby, and Joseph the father of the child has only to stand at Mary’s side and wish her well as the pregnancy progresses and as the delivery is underway.  This is the sad and awkward position of every father who ever participated in the procreative process nine months ago but at the time of delivery may be filled with a plethora of emotions but feels no pain, except possibly for sympathy pain.
Jesus grew up the way any other little Jewish boy of his time in that place would’ve grown up.  His parents had the same expectations of him that other parents had of their boys.  Mary and Joseph had no special ways to raise someone anointed by God to do some special task so Jesus was treated like the other boys in the family.
Mary is very much a woman of her time, and there was a certain amount, a large portion, of inferiority heaped upon all women by their culture.  Even in the child bearing arena, men of the time who pondered the men’s role in that part of life came to the conclusion that men were the key players in the procreative process and women merely incubators who because of Eve and that stupid fruit tree were supposed to have excruciating pain when the little one popped out of the oven.  Such a horrible myth.
Here’s the thing that catches my eye.  As informed as Mary appears to be at the beginning and as unshaken, we are caught off guard at her ongoing surprise at how Jesus matures.  Mary is surprised at how vigorously Jesus preps for his bar mitzvah.  She is completely stunned at how taken the rabbis at the Temple are with the knowledge this 12 year old boy has.  His father was a carpenter, certainly a devout Jew and maybe much more widely familiar with Jewish scripture and traditions than the average carpenter, but he wasn’t a rabbi.  There was only so much Joseph could teach Jesus about religion.  Maybe Mary and Joseph attended a synagogue with a rabbi who took a special interest in Jesus because of his precociousness or because of his drive to learn.  Mary was totally unprepared, though, for what his efforts gained him intellectually.
Jump ahead to Jesus at 31 or 32 years of age in the midst of his public ministry, and Mary along with the Jesus’ siblings are humiliated with what he is saying and what he’s doing in conflict with the ancient traditions according to which he had been raised and which served as the foundation for what Jesus learned in order to be called a man, a son of the covenant.  Some of the storytellers let us see moments when Mary with her other children, and we have to assume that Joseph had died by the time Jesus’ public ministry began, were humiliated by the reputation Jesus’ was developing in certain quarters.  In their confusion and embarrassment and anger, they told people, and not in hushed tones, that he had lost his mind.  “Please don’t think ill of him; he’s insane,” they said.  A mother with an inferiority complex undoubtedly expected that at least one of her children would cause her to look bad as a parent, but she hadn’t thought Jesus would be the one–James maybe, but not Jesus.
When the Romans through Pontius Pilate pronounced Jesus’ death sentence Mary stayed as near him as she could until the moment he died and his body was taken down off the cross and put into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Aramathea.  At the end, as she took in first hand the death of her firstborn, Mary isn’t, for the moment, any more focused on feelings of inferiority than were other Jewish women who lived when she did; however, she does wonder at the glowing song she had sung back when the angel or messenger told her that she would have a son whose name would be something in the family of Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”  Really?  Is this how God’s Anointed One prevails?  Is this how God is with us?  Isn’t this, instead, the most wasted life she’d ever known anything at all about?  Perhaps a mother, she thought, with a little more self-confidence would have taught him how to stand up for himself and not die unless all, absolutely all, other avenues had been pursued.

III.
Hear again this instructional word from parent to child as found in A HUMANIST BIBLE:

“…do you find yourself hurt and mortified when another makes you feel her or his superiority, and your own inferiority, in knowledge, parts, rank or fortune?  You will certainly take great care not to make a person whose goodwill, good word, interest, esteem or friendship you would gain, feel that superiority in you, if you have it.  If disagreeable insinuations, sneers or repeated contradictions tease and irritate you, would you use them where you wish to engage and please?  Surely not, and I hope you wish to engage and please, almost universally.”

It is almost as if someone must lay a cloak of inferiority across us, but emotionally healthier people say that those of us who embrace inferiority give someone or someones permission to make us feel that we are worth less than other humans like us and worth less than human beings in general.  In the words of the great First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  For thinking first world people with power and privilege that is absolutely the truth, but there are vast numbers of people in the world, plenty right here in Wilmington, who have been handed a sense of inferiority just for being born, just for being whom they can’t help but be.
Back when there were jobs–remember that far back?  What was the most commonly uttered critique of someone who appeared to make no effort to nab one of those jobs that paid minimum wage and left a worker after a full week’s work still below the poverty level and maybe paying a higher percentage in taxes than the stunningly wealthy pay?  “Lazy.  Won’t work.  Won’t even try to work.”
The wage business aside, if you have been told that you are good for nothing all or most of your life, out loud or through silent stares, then you believe it.  You wish you had it in you to risk applying for a job, but you are so completely convinced that you don’t have a shot anyway that you refuse to bother.  Especially when there were jobs–remember when there were jobs?  Lots of people who felt too inferior, too lowly, to give it a shot, might have had a chance after all, but there’s no way the government mail or paid political announcements can undo what a lifetime has taught jobless folks with inferiority complexes:  you’re just not good enough, and you won’t ever be good enough so get back to the ghetto or the homeless shelter rotation you’ve worked out, and leave those who are worthy alone.
What if the task tossed to you is something more than securing a run of the mill job?  What if it’s an amazing responsibility or opportunity, and the only thing standing between you and it is your inferiority complex?  You have to fight the inferiority thing tooth and nail to give yourself a chance.  What if Mary had sung in the presence of the angel or messenger, “My soul does magnify the Lord, for God has come to me and called on me in my lowliness, and while I’m deeply touched I’m gonna have to sing, Uhm, no.  Find someone stronger emotionally–someone a little older, say 15 or 16; those girls are really smart!  Mr. Angel, I know that you know that God knew I’d say no when being presented with this frightening, but awe-inspiring opportunity.  If God ever sends another Anointed One, be sure to have me called on.  I’m seeing this healer called Dr. Philip, and in a few years much of the inferiority could be gone.  I might be able to say yes then.”
We create a healthier world when we raise children to grow up believing that they are capable and empowered.  Feelings of inferiority really can cripple people and families and clans and communities obviously causing them not even to try to do what they might be able to do with the right kind of encouragement.  You see, an inferiority complex is synonymous with self-disqualification, and often by virtue of family structure or dysfunction the companion disqualification of others closest to us from achievement or success or simple self-satisfaction most likely will result.
Let’s remember this about dealing with inferiority:  the invitation is the authorization.  Being tapped for some great task supersedes inferiority–not that you can instantly get rid of it if it’s been with you all your life as I said earlier but that you must cast it aside in order to do the great thing that lies before you.  Sadly, your success is no guarantee that your sense of inferiority will disappear, but despite it you may reach your potential.

 

  • When I lived in Baltimore I heard often about the virtual miracles performed by the magnificent pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson.  He came from a single parent home in the hood.  Black kid.  School was hard for him.  He had no future did he?  Wouldn’t he certainly be on the street corners in West Baltimore selling crack before he hit his teens?  Well, thanks to his mother and others who believed in him, people who pushed him to battle feelings of inferiority and who stuck with him, he’s one of the most widely respected physicians in the world today.  At the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine his official title has evolved to this:  Professor of Neurosurgery, Oncology, Plastic Surgery and Pediatrics.

 

  • Susan Boyle kept her glorious voice a secret half of her life because she thought she was too common to be much of a success and that the brain damage she experienced early in life would eventually break her down even if she should ever begin rising to the top.  She took a risk, a wild and far out risk on one of the perform-and-humiliate-yourself-in-front-of-judges-who-have-no-talent-at-all television shows.  “I had a dream that life would be,” she sang, “so different from this hell I’m living,” and the dream came true for her if not for the character who originally sang the song in “Les Miserables.”

No one is ever again going to be asked to birth and raise Jesus of Nazareth, so, ladies, you don’t have to worry about that one.  Thank goodness Jesus was born, and thank goodness he lived his life as divinely directed, not as others told him he had to live, what he had to do.  We have such spiritual grounding from Jesus and such a grand vision of how life should be, how life could be.
Tibetan Buddhist mothers at this very moment, though, are wondering as their babies are born if their particular son might be the one the spirit of the Dalai Lama will inhabit when the present one can no longer fulfill his role.  The discovery process is complex, but one of those boys, or one yet to be born, will be the next Dalai Lama–maybe the one who can help the Tibetan Buddhists reclaim their geographical home.  I can tell you that these mothers, most of them living in very humble settings, will shed their inferiority and become stage mothers in a heartbeat to try to have the group who finds the next Dalai Lama already waiting for them within a male child in their home.
You may have heard Dr. Sharon Watkins preaching to brand new President Barak Obama and brand new Vice President Joe Biden and a few of their closest family members and friends filling, literally, the National Cathedral.  Dr. Watkins is Executive Minister of the Disciples of Christ denomination and a very gifted preacher, one of the ministers, it is said, from whom the now battered President Barak Obama seeks clergy advice when he feels the need for that.
In her sermon, Dr. Watkins told this story.  It’s an old Cherokee tale, and I pass it on to you today as either a reminder or a fresh thought for you to ponder.
An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people.

“My son, the battle is between 2 ‘wolves’ inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The grandson was perplexed and finally asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’
The grandfather replied simply, ‘The one you feed.’”

Mary had a baby.  Mary had a baby.  He grew up and was able to teach us which wolf to feed.  Amen.

Why Jesus Still Appeals to Us Today (Fourth Sermon in Series: Preaching from a Humanist Bible)

 

 

I.
I am not aware of a time since Jesus was executed by Rome that the world lacked a significant number of people trying to know all that could be known about Jesus.  As oral tradition about this remarkable man was put into writings that were eventually designated as scripture, there were those–and there are plenty of them around still today–who say that everything we need to know about Jesus is contained in a handful of books, notably the four Gospels, that have been baptized as Christian scripture; these people are not interested in searches for other sources that might give hints, at least hints, of other words Jesus may have spoken and/or other deeds Jesus may have done.  The Bible for them is the final story, as much of his story as anyone needs to or will ever need to know.
Others of us would be thrilled if anything new showed up in writing or as an archaeological artifact that as much as hinted, something blatant would be better, at one more saying from Jesus or at a miraculously preserved piece of wood, a part of something Carpenter Jesus built and uncharacteristically, we assume, scribbled his name on to make it known to others who saw the piece that there was a very fine carpenter in town who could do the same kind of top notch work for them, a little advertising if you will.
I have no sense of what the life of a first century Jewish carpenter was like except for a couple of scenes in the film version of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ.  Probably entirely fabricated in service to the fictional plot, nonetheless, I will never forget the portrayal of Carpenter Jesus in that film.  Ironically, he was under contract to make crosses for the Romans, and in the most macabre of turns the cross on which he was crucified might well have been one that he had constructed.
A number of Christians around the world were incensed at the discovery made under a present-day Jerusalem apartment building about 1980, but only made known to the world a few years ago.  The archaeological team observed intensely by investigative journalist, Simcha Jacobovici, and financially underwritten by mega successful movie producer, James Cameron, believed it found the Jesus family burial chamber.  There were several small limestone chests, ossuaries, containing bone dust and fragments.  Families with sufficient income or inheritance had tombs in which their loved ones would be buried; these tombs would belong to a larger family for generations.  A family had a tomb where the remains of each deceased loved one would be placed.  In time, when nothing but bones remained, the bones would be placed in one of these ossuaries and then transferred to a chamber where a number of these would be kept permanently, making room for other present-tense entombments.    The name of the person whose bones had been placed in a particular limestone chest would be written on it at the time it was placed in the burial chamber.
Jewish religious and antiquities authorities forced Cameron and company to put the ossuaries back exactly as they had found them and to seal the burial chamber, now called the Talpiot Tomb, fairly rapidly out of respect for the remains themselves, for the descendants of those buried there, and for the people living in the apartment complex built directly on top of the now-underground chamber.  Before calling the actual handling of the artifacts quits, and naturally Cameron had massive film footage made of every second of observation and investigation, names on ossuaries were noted.  While skeptics of faith said the names discovered were very common names in the time of Jesus, the carbon dating associating the limestone with the era in which Jesus lived was a pertinent fact, as was the DNA testing of bone fragments establishing biological ties among four of the five persons buried there, a wife being biologically connected only to the remains of her son, and  the particular collection of names found on five of the ten ossuaries this much of a coincidence?  Joseph, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Judah Son of Jesus, and Jesus.  If the decaying bones of Jesus were found, they harpooned all traditional perspectives on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Biblicists naturally said that scripture forbade the possibility that any such discovery could have been made, at least of bones of Jesus.  The Bible describes a bodily resurrection just as it describes the earth as a big flat island kept from sinking into the seas by huge support columns.  This method of faith first and science last if at all gets us right back, seriously, to the attitudes of the people who lived in the Dark Ages before a few remarkable Renaissance scientists began to demonstrate that science can precede faith and even inform faith.  It seems odd to me that people who claim the preeminence of personal experience with the divine would fight so hard to prove as historic one long-standing interpretation of an obscure story nicknamed “The Ascension of Jesus,” a biblical tradition that would call the conclusions of Cameron’s team into question.  Yet, nothing that Cameron’s experts found or said could have any bearing on experiences people of faith claim to have had with God or with the risen Jesus himself.
When I talk about searching to know more about Jesus, I can assure you that vast numbers of people on the inside of Christianity don’t want Cameron or any of his counterparts to fund excavations that lead to these kinds of discoveries.  My very first academic course in the discipline of Religion was titled “Jesus,” the masterful professor, Dr. Bill Blevins, at Carson-Newman College, said on the first day of class–the first time the course had been taught, by the way–that his primary goal in the course was to help us separate the Jesus of history from the stained glass Jesus who, sadly, is the only Jesus that many people ever know about.
Other theologians have talked about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.  The Christ of faith, though, no matter how glorious he sounds is the creation of theologians and hopeful believers.  Whatever he is, he doesn’t reside in reality, but in the ideas and hopes of those who tried to make theological sense of Jesus after his death.
The person who matters is the Jesus of history, our ancestor, a real flesh and blood being, about whom we know, so far, thirty-three day’s worth of information, and even those are not whole days.  We have knowledge of parts of thirty-three days of a life that spanned approximately thirty-three years.  With no more than that to go on, many of us, once introduced to his teachings about God and life, have never been able to let him go, and we never will.

II.
In most places around the world today, Jesus would hardly need an introduction; he is known and respected by all three brands of monotheism and by many others also.  We might well wish that all who know of him knew more about the few limited facts we have in hand than about the Jesus distorted by self-serving preachers and would-be theologians who act as if they can get people into heaven by manipulating them to embrace the Christ created for them by these preachers and “theologians” who seem to think that they are on a commission arrangement with God–one heavenly gold coin in glory for every person they can coerce into rationally embracing the Christ they have created for their hearers.
There was a day when Jesus wasn’t known much of any place unless the place had a nickname like “Podunk.”  Enter John the Baptist whose job it was to introduce Jesus to seekers in his day and by extension to introduce Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry to those in every generation who look back to the real Jesus of history.
John was Jesus’ cousin, and they were in the same line of religious work.  Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected corrupt society and had moved out into the wilderness to join a group of spiritual seekers who were convinced that they could never be the people God wanted them to be as long as they lived in the middle of societies that lived by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness.  Therefore, John joined an escapist party within Judaism called the Essenes, and he lived with this community out in the wilderness depending on nature alone to provide for his needs.  His shelter was carved out of a cave.  His clothing was made from shorn camel’s hair, and his food, distinctive wilderness delicacies:  sun-dried locusts and fresh out of the hive wild honey.
Jesus, a little younger than John and focussed on secular work and not ministry, became inspired by his cousin’s utter devotion to God and went out into the wilderness to study with him.  He became one of John’ s disciples though he did not elect to join with the Essenes and live out there in the Qumran Community.
Jesus was a standout disciple in John’s band of followers, and the day came when John knew that Jesus had to leave the wilderness nest and take up his own ministry that would reverse what John had done.  John had left big city pressures and corruption; people who wanted to hear him preach had to go out into the wilderness to do so, and if they were sufficiently committed to John’s radical ethics as made known in his fiery sermons, they would be baptized right there in a part of the Jordan River that ran into the wilderness area near where John lived.  Jesus himself had followed this pattern.
In any case, as I said a moment ago, the time came for his teacher, John, to push him out of the nest; ironically, though, his path was the opposite of John’s.  Instead of renouncing city life for the wilderness, Jesus left the wilderness and went back into the urban fray.  Though many people gladly would have come out into the wilderness to hear Jesus preach, he came to them right where they were, and most of them were in cities.  Facing both political antagonism and religious condemnation, that is where he stayed until the end when high atop a hill overlooking big city corruption, this man devoted to goodness and love alone was unjustly executed by utterly uncaring occupation forces who thought they’d silenced Jesus, but that has never yet happened.  One-third of the people in the world today, 3-plus billion, call themselves Christians or followers of Jesus.  Oddly told birth and death stories, ignored by most writers of Christian scripture, a handful of stories about what he may have said or done, and the world was changed by people dared to live the way he did.
If I know only one theological fact–namely that God loves all people unconditionally as Jesus preached the gospel; and if I embrace only one ethical norm–namely to live out God’s love that I’ve experienced in practical ways, compelling me to feed the hungry and house the homeless, to visit the sick and incarcerated and, otherwise, to give hope to the hopeless, then I am a bone fide follower of Jesus.  I will increasingly be strongly connected to Jesus in spirit every time I risk living as he lived.  I’m not looking for any greater reward than to know in my depths that I’m living something like the way the person lived who became the window through which I could see the reality of a divine love and the inescapable call to emulate it to the best of my limited capabilities.
There was a time when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his cousin, John the Baptizer.  Speaking to small collection of Jewish uppities who had come to hear John and having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism in order to be baptized in the Jordan River, and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John preached.  They realized as they heard John preach that, indeed, religious rules would not make them or keep them rightly connected to God or to human beings.  They knew in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and proclaimed themselves better than others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were, and in their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d given their lives to treating with angry disgust because they believed themselves to be so much better than anyone who didn’t do religion the way they did.
These converts to John’s take on living in such a way as to honor God, just a few minutes before Pharisees and Sadducees, must have said to John, “We leave you now teacher for we must get on with the business of serving, but we will always honor you and know it was you who saved us from being swallowed up by lifeless religious rules.”
John said in response to their pledges of devotion to what he was about, “Hold on here, gents!  I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”  John believed that Jesus got it even more profoundly then he did; thus, the real guy to go to henceforth was not John, but John’s disciple, Jesus, who was so spiritually mature that John regarded himself unworthy, spiritually speaking, to be Jesus’ slave.  It would have been a slave’s job to carry her or his master’s dirty, dusty shoes.  Thus, the adult Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus was introduced to the world.

 

 

III.
One of the remarkable Jesus scholars of our time is Marcus Borg.  Professor Borg has recently retired from the University of Oregon where he was, for years, Professor of Religious Studies.  Several of his books have sold millions of copies; the first one that caught my eye was Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  Many of us were introduced to Jesus as some theologian’s or religious group’s carefully concocted Christ of faith.  We thought we knew Jesus, but we didn’t.  Until we know the Jesus of history, as limited as the information may be, we do not know Jesus at all, and to be introduced to the Jesus of history after knowing him only as someone’s Christ of faith, is like meeting him again for the first time.
Let me give you one simple, very simple, example that is appropriate to the season we’re approaching.  Baby Jesus did cry.  His swaddling clothes had two trap doors that made rewrapping him several times a day unnecessary.  Gorgeous art work aside, baby Jesus had no halo ruminating around his cute little Jewish head.  A reasonable argument can be made for calling the adult Jesus “Lord,” which meant master as in master teacher, but there was no such thing as any “little Lord Jesus.”  Those may be beautiful hymnic, poetic, symbolic words, but they are not soundly theological words and are definitely not the words of an objective historian.
A significant number of people in the Christian movement are drawn to Jesus today not because of the claims that he grew up and matured as illusion because underneath the human veneer was God in disguise, but rather because he grew up as one of us, a human being struggling through significant human challenges but managing, despite all of those, to keep his eyes focused on better ways and his heart open to love, which was and which is God.
Religion scholar, Claudia Setzer, writing for the extensive PBS study, “From Jesus to Christ,” guides us to more understanding on this subject:

“Whereas some scholars in the past may have talked about the Jewish background of the New Testament as if it were a mere backdrop to Christianity, or talked about ‘late Judaism’ as if Judaism, on its last legs in the first century, was superseded by Christianity, no serious New Testament researcher today speaks of ‘the Jesus movement’ or Jesus himself as outside the orbit of first-century Judaism….Further, we have a more nuanced view of the variety of Judaisms in the first century and where Jesus and his followers might have fit in….The current scholars draw upon many disciplines, borrowing anthropological and sociological methods. For example, John Dominic Crossan relies on some of the insights of anthropology to illumine agrarian peasant Mediterranean society, Richard Horsley and others use sociological data to understand Jesus as a radical political figure responding to economic and political persecution.  A number of different portraits of Jesus have emerged….Burton Mack describes Jesus as a Jewish Cynic, a popular sage who shocked people into understanding with his sharp and disturbing sayings. Like Marcus Borg, he sees Jesus as focused on the present state of the world, a dispenser of timeless truths. Crossan pictures him as a preacher of radical egalitarianism, addressing a peasant society suffering in political and economic straits, offering a message of healing: ‘You are healed healers, so take the kingdom to others, for I am not its patron and you are not its brokers. It is, was, and always will be available to any who want it.’”

Phillips Brooks was Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church before becoming Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts.  Regarded, hands down, as one of the greatest preachers in this country in the late 1800’s, Brooks whom you may know as the writer of the words to the calming Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” preached these words, shocking to his first hearers and shocking to many yet today:

“In the best sense of the word, Jesus was a radical….His religion has so long been identified with conservatism…that it is almost startling sometimes to remember that all the conservatives of his own times were against him; that it was the young, free, restless, sanguine, progressive part of the people who flocked to him.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote to Ezra Styles in 1790:
“As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see, but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes.”
One way to think about why Jesus is still appealing to a huge number of people around the world today is to take note of the people and kinds of people who found him appealing in his own day.  I begin with a widely known and widely respected religious leader of the day, a key figure in the religion of which Jesus was a part his whole life and yet the religion that he, in love, thought needed to be upgraded for the well being of people who sought to know God through that religion.  Nicodemus was so publicly, popularly, and powerfully tied into Judaism’s hierarchy during Jesus’ lifetime that there was no way, really, he could dare take any chances whatsoever of being seen with Jesus or known to associate with Jesus.  Nicodemus would lose all credibility in his professional position, and his clout, which he thoroughly enjoyed, would be down the tubes.  Even though he comes by night, which is still a HUGE RISK for him, he comes; he is a person with much to lose by associating with Jesus, but eventually the power of Jesus’ message, trickling back to him in bits and pieces through busybodies and spies hired to keep an eye on Jesus, began to mean more to Nicodemus than gossip or intelligence about a potential trouble maker.
Nicodemus goes to Jesus by night and says, “I’ve been a sincerely religious person all my life.  I don’t live this stuff for the fun of it; I live it because I’ve believed all these years that our holy laws will get me where I need to be with God, but when I hear the snippets of your sermons that float back to me, you, my fellow Jew, say that giving up on laws as the way to God and giving in to the reality of relationship as the way to God is such a radical change for almost everyone that daring to head in this new direction requires being born again, spiritually speaking.  Jesus appeals, still appeals, to highly religious people who have gone to the top in the religion they practice and participate in leaving, but who wake up one morning and know they’ve had it all wrong.  It’s not too late to make a change.
Women in Jesus’ day largely were property, but women flocked to Jesus because he loved them as people, not as sex objects, and he saw them as having as much to offer his movement as did any men so Jesus had two groups of inner circle supporters:  the men, whom he called the disciples, and women, whom he called of all things “the women.”  If women were so equal to the men in Jesus’ eye why not one group made up of both women AND men?  That was because social standards of the day didn’t permit women the same freedom they permitted men.  Women weren’t generally supposed to be seen in public unless they were with the man to whom they were societally related:  husband, adult son, brother-in-law, and so on.  For this reason and others, women could not travel the same distances with Jesus as the men could.  So Jesus appealed to those whom society as a whole had devalued, but whom Jesus revalued.
In his group of male followers, “the disciples,” he included men, several men, that most of the rest of society wanted nothing to do with.  He did not build a male base by calling into service the most highly regarded men around.  He had fishermen in his male inner circle; they were way down the social ladder because they stunk and because in killing and cleaning fish, animal blood ran over their hands, which was a mark of true uncleanness to the ritually sensitive Jews who had been taught only to deal with those who were clean, fully clean.  Jesus had at least one tax collector in the group, a Jew who worked for the Romans collecting outrageous amounts of taxes from the poor Jews and adding in their own ridiculously high commissions leaving many a Jew without funds to be able to feed a family, literally.  Two of the twelve had the capacity to talk a great loyalty game and mean it, but when tough times came one would out and out deny Jesus, and the other would leave Jesus in grave danger because he thought he knew better than Jesus what Jesus should be doing in his service to their fellow Jews.  There were two in the group who were blatantly power hungry, and Jesus had said, “They can learn to be humble servants too.”  James and John and their Mama weren’t crazy about Jesus’ plan for retraining those who expected favors and wide recognition for their efforts.
So if Jesus were putting together a group of twelve men to follow him today, Billy Graham wouldn’t be invited even if his health permitted him to take on the obligation.  Pat Robertson would excluded from the list.  No Joel Osteen.  No Bishop T. D. Jakes.  No Rick Warren.  No Bishop Eddie Long.  No Pope.  No Dalai Lama.  In fact, Jesus didn’t have any religious leaders in his inner circle; they were all laypersons until Jesus commissioned them for ministry.  Jesus appeals to us today, for this reason too, that he takes a chance on those others have given up on and those who may or may not stand with him when times are tough.
If Jesus were appointing a group of twelve male disciples today, I’d look for a couple of guys who clean and repair sewers just because Jesus had a thing for supporting those whom others held their noses around.  I’d look for Bernie Madoff.  I’d look for Tiger Woods.  I’d look for Newt Gingrich and Barney Frank.  I’d look for Bill Clinton and Herman Cain.  Jesus still appeals to us today because those close to him got second chances regardless of the severity of their blunders.
Jesus was down to earth, comfortable in the nitty gritty; he was supremely understanding and unfailingly forgiving.  He was squarely grounded in God and expected his followers to find their way to that place as well.  His compassion was boundless.  His respect for diversity in religion and in life was astounding.
We want a religious figure to look back to whose life exemplified such truths and principles and in an amazingly down to earth way.  Some of us are drawn to Jesus today because the Jesus of history as we learn about him is irresistible.  When it came to God and to life, he got it.  We want to get it too, and we can.
Amen.