Nobody Believes Me! (A Christmas Eve Meditation)

 

Interview with a Shepherd

Or:  “We Were Counting Our Blessings Instead of Sheep…Oops!”

 

We have re-learned in recent years that December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas not because Jesus was actually born on that day but because it was already widely used in pagan religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun.  A developing Christianity was, frankly, in competition for adherents with a number of those religious movements so why not have the birthday for the central figure in the Christian movement be born on that day too?

Lacking any specific scriptural pointers to Jesus’ birthday, early Christian teachers suggested days and dates “all over the calendar,” as one scholar put it.  Clement of Alexandria picked November 18.  Hippolytus had no date in mind, but became convinced that Jesus had to have been born on a Wednesday, which works out well for Hippolytus in 2013.  Take your pick; December 25 wasn’t the time.  So when might it have been instead?

I’m no armchair meteorologist, but those in the know tell us that from early May through late September Bethlehem had warm to hot weather with humidity dropping into the 60% range.  This meant that it “felt” hotter than it actually was.  Even without Daylight Savings Time, there were more hours of sunlight in those summer months than in the coming winter time.

In Bethlehem from May to September there was little or no chance of rain except on those rare instances when a brief downpour came on a particularly sweltering day—doing little more than creating a sauna effect. These extremely hot days today are called humsin in Israel, and the dry dusty heat—such as we learned about in the early days of the war in Iraq—can be unbearable.

Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman-established census.  Romans weren’t ridiculous with those over whom they ruled so they wouldn’t have ordered people to travel to their places of birth during winter months when temperatures in and around Bethlehem were typically below freezing with no one to clear the ice off the preferred pathways into the city.

This changes a great deal about the way we have envisioned and sung about the birth event of Jesus, Yeshua.  Unfortunately, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is one of my favorite Christmas carols.  Oh well.  What a more correct concept of climate in view, let us move ahead.

Nearly everything about the Gospel of Luke’s retelling of the the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, one of only two birth narratives that made it down to us, stresses the starkly humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The angels in the heavens, skies, take note of the birth and break out in joyous musical rejoicing, but on earth no one takes note of the birth of Jesus except a handful of shepherds who get a tip from a lone angel/messenger that someone born to be great had just been birthed not far from where they were tending to the sheep of their employer.

The shepherds were shocked for a number of reasons–most significantly that anybody born who’d be destined for greatness wouldn’t be born anywhere near their pastures. Further, if news needed to be spread that a baby destined for greatness had just been born, the shepherds would have been near the bottom of the notification list.  All the social higher-ups and uppity-ups would be notified first, and then, eventually, the news would circulate, and people at the periphery of society like shepherds and tanners and fishermen would hear third and fourth hand–perhaps from an employer or a customer.

Imagine an interview with a shepherd:  “There we were—counting our blessings instead of sheep, for just a moment–when this dude who said he was God’s messenger walked up to us, out in the middle of no where, telling us that this baby who was going to grow up to live under the anointing of God Godself.  Sure thing, we laughed, and where are we going to find him?  At the Blow On Inn?  He didn’t think we were funny and told us to walk toward town toward a hostel at the edge of the city limits, and in the barn attached to that hotel we’d find a newborn whose parents were using a feed trough for a crib.  He disappeared, and the second he did, the whole sky was lit up by a chorus of angels singing.  All of us on duty that night saw them, but the wildest thing is, no one else did.  And since then, no one we’ve told has believed us.  How could we have made it up?  We took the dare and went and found that little baby just like the messenger had described him.  I’ll never forget it.”

We’ve been thinking during these weeks leading up to Christmas about what makes one a spiritual seeker.  This is one of the traits that should be on the list that defines a spiritual seeker:  nobody believes me when I try to describe what I consider spiritual experiences.  Add that one to being a misfit, having a greater commitment to behavior in contrast with beliefs, and having had the lonely experience of finding yourself in the middle of life crisis for which the theology you have claimed to believe offered you no sense, solace, or support.  The shepherds certainly were seekers.

I sent around an email last night to a few of my grad students past and present, and asked them, “In what language did the angels sing to the shepherds?”  Most ignored me, just like in class, but a few bit and dared an answer.  One of my first grad students, going back about thirty years, instantly texted his response:  “Ebonics.”  Not a bad guess huh?

One of the current students thought and thought and came back with the answer, “Aramaic, the conversational language spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries.”  I liked that one so I looked up a transliterated-into-English version of the Aramaic New Testament, and instead of, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” I found, “Tsbwhta lalha bmrwma.”  As far as the tune to which they sang these words, I feel certain that Handel had to have gotten it right.

We speculate a lot at Christmas; if we didn’t we wouldn’t have much to think about or sing about.  None of the details of Jesus’ birth matter except that actual fact of his birth.  At the end of the season, that’s all that matters anyway.  Jesus was born in a distant land.  Tell the good news.  Tell the good news.  Lived on earth for humanity’s good.  Tell the good news.  Tell the good news.”

Glory to God, and to humanity:  peace.  Amen.

Having to (Work and) Wait a While

I. South African Anabaptist and Christian studies scholar, John W. de Gruchy, wrote an article of excitement and amazement when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa. He followed that article with several others, but none as pivotal, perhaps, as the one he wrote on the occasion of President Mandela’s death. De Gruchy did the unthinkable, as many would certainly view it, when he used the word “messiah” in connection to Mandela. It wasn’t a slip up. He explained, “The term ‘messiah’ is for [the majority of] Christians so exclusively associated with Jesus that it is difficult to think of anyone else in these terms. So we cannot use the world lightly or thoughtlessly when we speak of Mandela in this way.”

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De Gruchy reminds his readers that in Judeo-Christian scripture, the word means “the Lord’s anointed.” In the Hebrew Bible, it is used to refer to those chosen by God to fulfill some divinely ordained purpose such as liberation of oppressed people—for example, Moses who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egyptian bondage into what they took to be their new land of promise. De Gruchy says that many other pivotal personalities in the ancient Hebrew world were referred to as divinely anointed ones: the prophet Elijah, King David, and benevolent Cyrus, the pagan King of the Persian Empire, who allowed—yeah, encouraged—Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians before the Persians took control, to go back home and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. This being the case, how could it be off base to refer to Nelson Mandela as a messianic figure raised up to lead South Africa out of the bondage of apartheid and into long, long delayed freedom?

De Gruchy insists that those who are self-proclaimed messiahs through their very claims instantly disqualify themselves as what they claim to be. Mandela never did that. In fact, he said point blank, looking back over his hard life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary person who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Therein was his greatness. Quoting De Gruchy directly again: Mandela “would never have claimed the title of messiah for himself, or thought of himself in that way. He lived and acted with the kind of humility, compassion, and self-service that allows us to refer to him as a messianic figure, a true liberator, an agent of God’s justice, peace and reconciliation; someone who, through his life, words and deeds [pointed] towards Jesus and not to himself….”

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 Interestingly, Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be a or the messiah who’d been dreamed of from ancient times. That identity was thrust upon him like the most ill-fitting of garments. It’s all summed up in several places such as in Ezekiel 37:24-28 where the prophet shares what he believes to have been spoken by God Godself:

My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there for ever; and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them for evermore. My dwelling-place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations shall know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is among them for evermore.

Jesus didn’t achieve any of these and didn’t set out to. He wasn’t a failure. He achieved what he set out to achieve. Those who thought he was a failed messiah said all the things the messiah was supposed to have brought about will happen at the end of time when Jesus reappears—this time, finally, as messiah-in-full. You may have heard of the group Jews for Jesus; members are Jews who claim that Jesus was the messiah. There’s another group, Jews for Judaism, that refutes what Jews for Jesus say. The Jews for Judaism make the following points in denying the claims of Jews for Jesus. They say that Hebrew scripture teaches that a complete list of criteria must be met by the one who is the long-awaited messiah.

  • The messiah must be biologically connected to the Tribe of Judah, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he—I think there are no references to the messiah as possibly being female—must have descended from King David. Jesus was not connected to that tribe nor was he biologically descended from David through he may have had a legal connection to the pivotal monarch.
  • When the messiah comes to reign as King of Israel, the Jews will be ingathered from the various exiles and all together in their homeland. This has never happened since they initially dispersed. And, by the way, Jesus never ruled over any individual or group.
  • The Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt/restored a third time. This is an odd one since the Temple was standing in all its glory during the life of Jesus. It was destroyed by Rome some 43 years after Jesus’ execution, and has never been rebuilt. When the messiah rules, peace will prevail throughout the world. Hmmm. How much we wish that had ever happened! It surely hasn’t happened in modern times. I saw a news clip the other day pointing out that though wars are waning in so far as the United States is concerned, the Pentagon budget remains robust and untouchable.
  • When the messiah’s reign is in full swing, all the Jews worldwide will be following the commandments said to have been established by God and recorded in what is now known as holy writ. This has never been going on and isn’t going on right now.

 

Now, none of this is a negative reflection on who Jesus actually was and what he was about. He was as remarkable a human being as ever lived—maybe the epitome. But we are operating at a double deficit during the Christmas season in this country. First, Santa Claus is not the reason for the season. Second, the Jesus who is supposed to be, needs to be remembered as the baby who grew up to be a remarkable person, was not a deity, was not a monarch. Nonetheless, we cannot fault those who looked to him as a liberator who might have made all things right. We’d all like one of those.

 

II.

According to Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy, Jesus, up to Jerusalem to present him at the Temple to the Lord since it had been written in the Torah, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” To mark this joyous event in their lives and to demonstrate their gratitude to God, they—doing what they believed they were supposed to do—offered a sacrifice, likely a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

 

At the Temple, the little family of three is approached by a man named Simeon, whom Luke tells us had been drawn to the Temple that day by God Godself. Simeon was well known among some Temple-goers as the old guy who insisted that God was going to let him live long enough at least to see the messiah. He believed the well-being of his people, the very future of his people, was dependent on the that person sent from God to for the people what they had not been able to do for themselves.

 

Presumably with Jesus’ parents’ permission, Simeon takes baby Jesus in his arms to bless him and to announce to all who would listen in such a bustling place that the long-awaited messiah was now among them though in the form of an infant. That was a bit of jolt for many who expected a messiah, but expected a messiah who was already seasoned, mature, and ready to get to work. They didn’t think they, the Jewish people living and struggling at the time Jesus was born, could wait any more; they might not make it if they tried.

 

Simeon holds up the baby boy and blesses God, praises God saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28–32). This is what Simeon had lived for. He was now prepared to die. He wasn’t going to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and end it all; nor was he going to retire from spiritual seeking despite the fact that in this event he’d been able to check off the last item on his bucket list.

 

Many elderly US Americans, persons of color in particular, had a similar feeling when the news of President Obama’s first election was initially announced. How do you suppose an African American butler felt, a man who had served presidents in the White House from Truman to Reagan? Eugene Allen apparently respected all of them, but by the time Obama was elected he was retired and in service to no one. He was given a VIP pass to the events planned for family and closest friends during the inauguration. He died less than a year about Obama’s first election.

 

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The movie about this gentleman, titled “The Butler,” is still one of the hottest films showing around the country. Simeon thought he could die in peace because his people were now in the hands of the one, whom he believed, God had sent to lead them into the greatest days.

 

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We don’t know how soon after that magic moment he did, in fact, die. Then, an elderly woman, Anna, approaches baby Jesus and his parents. She, like Simeon, takes Jesus to be the messiah, but she has a very different response: “At that moment, she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Anna is 84ish years old, and she does not want to die. She wants to preach. Like the faithful ones who will follow her, she is driven to share with others what she has experienced. Anna is a “prophet” (Luke 2:36). In fact, she is the only woman in the New Testament explicitly described as a “prophet.” She then stands alongside women like the judge, military leader and prophet Deborah as well as the Jerusalem prophet Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, was asked to verify the reliability of scroll found in some Temple renovation work.

 

Unlike Simeon, Anna is not just visiting the Temple for the day; she is there all the time. According to Luke, Anna “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37). Perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows (Luke tells us her husband died after only seven years of marriage) who had specific religious functions in the Temple.

 

The literary pairing of Simeon and Anna, according to the Biblical Archaeology Review, reflects Luke’s penchant for male-female parallelism when he writes about the recipients of divine blessing and salvation. The story of Jesus’ birth is framed by two such stories—that of Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1 and Anna and Simeon in Luke 2. Interestingly, in both cases, the woman is portrayed as the more positive example of a person of faith. The women are not only more receptive to the message, they are more willing to act upon it, with Elizabeth realizing that her cousin is carrying the messiah and praising God for this blessing and Anna spreading the good news. The waiting has been worthwhile! A messiah has arrived, as Simeon recognizes, but, as the prophetess Anna demonstrates, a new era has dawned, and it’s time to act, not relax.

 

 

III. We have said, in this Christmas-time sermon series, that you might be—or should own if you haven’t—a self-identity as a spiritual seeker if you find yourself a misfit, spiritually speaking, among those with whom you come into contact; if your orthodoxy is less significant to you than your orthopraxy; and if your traditional theological beliefs have come in your life to fail you completely. Today, I add another trait/experience to the list, and the fifth and final item in the sequence will be the center of our thinking on Christmas Eve. Today, fourth on the list of five: you might be a seeker—or you should be—if you realize that what you seek doesn’t have to drop instantaneously into your lap to be confirmed as spiritually worthwhile or significant. We may well realize that there is something more out there for us, as well as for others who seek, but we’re going to have to wait and/or work to get it or to get there.

 

Some of us are looking for a pivotal leader—perhaps, a messianic figure. That is exactly what this season is about for many traditional Christians. The world, whether the world realized it or not, was looking for Jesus when his birth delivered him into the service of struggling humanity. In addition, the world is looking for a new appearing of Jesus to close down this chapter of human history since we, it appears to many, have made such a huge mess of things that we are beyond repair.

 

Looking for a better time and/or a better way is fine—sensible even. But have you noticed that most of the messianic figures who have contributed greatly to the betterment of humankind did not think of themselves as messiahs as we said about Mandela earlier; rather, they are much more inclined to roll up their sleeves and get busy with making the world the kind of place it needs to be and has the capacity to be if only people of good will, selfless at least to some degree, will join in and make it so.

 

Have you heard, or do you remember, how the adult Jesus identified his mission—what he saw himself doing? He laid it out at the very beginning of his public ministry, and to hear or hear again what he had to say on this subject we turn, again, to the Gospel of Luke: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That didn’t sound like a mission to make him rich and famous.

 

Just think about the kinds of people he’d have to spend most of his time with in order to accomplish his mission. Also, though, take note of his motivation. It was internalized. He wasn’t looking for anyone else to come along to help him or to mobilized forces that would excite people to join him in trying to accomplish a set of improbable changes. At the end of his life, he had made a huge difference in the lives of countless poor people and prisoners, but the poor we still had with us; same with prisoners. Jesus didn’t have Simeon’s experience of being able to relax because God had raised up some great person to pick up where he, Jesus, had left off. He certainly couldn’t keep preaching as Anna did. Those of us who are seekers influenced by the teachings of Jesus have no precedent other than to keep working and hoping for little pockets of positive difference made. No rest for the weary seeker. Anna and Simeon do, however, give us models for actively looking ahead, despite the odds, to a better day. Amen.

“I’m a Misfit!” (First sermon in a five-sermon series for the Season of Expectation aka Advent: Signs that You Are (or Should Be!) a Seeker)

I.

As much as many human groups prize conformity, we realize with only a tiny bit of reflection that the world would never have progressed to any great degree without misfits.  Had every one remained a status quo type, nothing could have changed.  Knowing that, however, typically doesn’t make a misfit popular or welcome.  A spiritual community in which most everyone is a misfit might be an exception to that pattern.  Regardless, let me be quick to point out that there is often a heavy price to pay for being a misfit in groups that fear nonconformity.

Jonathan Merritt is a young and very successful writer of books and blogs.  His blog is called “On Faith and Culture,” and on 9/11 of this year he published a piece on a misfit pastor.  Imagine how hard it would be to find one of those!  Where in the world would you look?!?

If any of you thinks I’m an alien, you need to get acquainted with the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She’s the author of a wildly popular book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.  She founded a congregation in Denver, which was named House for All Sinners and Saints; it’s an Evangelical Lutheran church, and an increasing number of people out there are drawn to it.  This is something for our Growth Committee to keep in mind!

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The Reverend Bolz-Weber has tattoos all over and makes no effort to hide them.  She cusses when she pleases even when her congregants are in earshot.  In the blog post to which I have referred, Merritt shared an interview he did with this pretty amazing woman.  One exchange went as follows.

Merritt:  You’re something of a misfit pastor, and you seem to embrace this identity.  In your book, you talk about your unusual call to ministry.  Can you tell us about this?

Bolz-Weber:  I left the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth when I was a teenager and spent a decade outside of the church quite literally hating Christianity. When I returned to it, I came back to a very particular tradition that had an articulation of the gospel and a liturgical tradition that put language to things I had already experienced to be true in my life. So, despite the fact that in some ways I’d rather be something besides a Christian, I cannot deny the experiences in my life of a surprising and unexpected and destabilizing God.  To not confess that would be to deny what I’ve experienced in my life.  So I have no other choice.

Pondering my sermon subject during the week, I found myself humming over and over again a song that was majorly popular when I was barely into my teens.  It was a solo release by Cass Elliot who was part of the group Mamas and Papas; these were the words of the refrain:

You gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along

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Thoreau certainly made his own kind of music.  He knew it.  He thought about it and wrote about it.  This snippet from Thoreau hung in poster form on the wall of one of my college professors:

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If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

There’s a spiritual short-short-short story by Shams-e Tabrizi.  I have no idea who the narrator is supposed to be, but we get the point.

I have been a misfit since childhood. I knew that no one understood me, not even my father.  He once said, “You are not a madman, fit to be put in a madhouse, nor are you monk to be put in a monastery. I just don’t know what you are!” I replied: “You know, father, I can tell you what it is like. Once a duck egg was put under a hen to be hatched. When the egg hatched, the duckling walked along with the mother hen until they came to a pond. The duckling took a nice dip in the water. But the hen stayed on the bank and clucked.”  Now, my dear father, after having tried the sea I find it my home. If you choose to stay on the shore, is it my fault? I am not to be blamed.

II.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus were misfits—though John was a PK (preacher’s kid) and more predictably became a misfit!   John, Jesus’ second cousin, was a little older and had gotten into the ministry biz before Jesus realized his commitments would take him in the same direction.  Initially, John was Jesus’ mentor, and Jesus springboards into ministerial service on John’s teachings and his example—though Jesus’ ministry would take him in a significantly different milieu.

Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected what he thought was 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 bound by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness.  Therefore, John joined an escapist—I think that’s a fair description—religio-political 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 monastic community’s 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 honey.  There has been some disappointing research lately trying to prove that John didn’t eat insects—one of the reasons I’ve always thought John was so cool—but rather that the word often translated as “locusts” actually refers to carob-like plants.  Oh well.  Believe what you will, but John wasn’t going to be dependent on a city-based market to get access to what he needed to be nourished.

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 personally had done.  John left big city pressures and corruption, as I’ve said; 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 and his brother-Essenes lived.

The time came when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his second-cousin, John the Baptizer.  John preached to various collections of Jewish city folk who had come to hear him and, having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said, more than a few renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism, for example.  As a sign of their new turn in life, they chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan River and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John’s sermons demanded.

His converts, we could call them, 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 had to admit in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and portrayed themselves as superior to others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were.  In their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d heretofore 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 must eventually have said to their Baptizer, “We leave you now, Preacher, 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 baptized you with water for repentance, but one who is more spiritually grounded and gifted than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

John believed that Jesus “got it” even more profoundly than 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, because of a misfit, the adult Jesus—Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus, Misfit Jesus—was introduced to the world.

III.

Are you, or should you be, a seeker?  Many of us at Silverside Church consider ourselves seekers.  “Seeker” isn’t a code word for anything; there’s nothing formal about it.  The word “seeker” simply means that many of us refuse to believe that the end of all truth is anywhere in the past.  Having agreed on that, we couldn’t agree on hardly any point of theology even if you tied us in chairs and made us watch endless broadcasts of televangelists until we agreed to subscribe to a creed.  We’d be watching Franklin Graham until the cows came home.

Many of the folks in this same core group of misfits, frankly, don’t find theological reflection all that meaningful; nor do they believe that their spirituality must grow out of biblical teachings or theological formulations.  There have been plenty of prospective members here through the years who are very unhappy with all the organized religion of which they have tasted but who are afraid to let go completely of the beliefs and behaviors they once thought made them right with God and, perhaps, “saved” them.  Someone who keeps one foot in any established organized religion evidently believes that she or he will always have a safety net in case assurances of heaven are needed.

Silverside misfits are free-fallers.  They have no theological or ecclesiastical safety nets. They have no need to conform to what other religious folk think of the pathway they have chosen to travel.  Since I’m just an old-fashioned Bible preacher, I don’t know how I’ve survived here for 13-plus years!  (ha! ha!)

Seriously though folks…

There’s are prices to pay for demanding spiritual fresh air.  One of those prices is being a misfit and being willing to be regarded as a misfit by those who know you best.  I won’t say it is impossible to make this happen, but pretending to be a conservative or a traditionalist while being in the closet as a progressive is infrequent.  Some clergypersons do so to get a pay check.  How suffocating that must be.  I feel so bad for my clergy sisters and brothers who believe this is what they must do for survival.  And who knew that Mother Teresa, at least early in her life before she became a gold mine because so many people admired her work, sincerely served the poor, but only went through the motions of being a faith-based nun—not that she could help it.  I do not say that to be critical of her.
Some of you, I’m sure, have read excerpts from her diaries showing that from the time she began her work with the poor in 1946 through the moment she died in 1977 she felt absolutely no connection to God.  Listen to her words penned in writhing:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

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If someone at Silverside felt that way, she or he would say so—not that Mother Teresa kept her doubts a complete secret.  Her admirers and benefactors around the world didn’t know, but as Adam Lee points out, “The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.”  How sad for her.  How lonely.

Speaking of loneliness, misfits can easily find themselves without community, and few of us do well without community.  At Silverside, we have tried to connect without other groups, but nothing been lasting for us in that regard for the last several years.  I may have found us a solution though.  There’s a group, and I don’t know how I missed knowing about them, called “The Wild Goose Chase.”  They have an online presence, and they meet every summer down in Hot Springs, North Carolina, for their communal boost.  This coming summer, the conclave will be held June 26-29, and I’m thinking I’ll be scheduling a week off then so that I can attend.

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One of the participants describes the Wild Goose Festival as a progressive “Christian gathering centering on spirituality, justice, and art….The people the Wild Goose Festival attracts are from a very diverse range of spiritual heritages—many of us are recovering fundamentalists, along with a mix of mainliners, evangelicals, agnostics, neo-pagan-christians, `nones,’ spiritual-but-not-religious, confused, and everything in between.”  Misfits who need misfits are the luckiest misfits in the world.

At this time of year, as we anticipate our rather non-traditional way of celebrating or commemorating the birth of Jesus from Nazareth, we should incorporate into our reflections the vital role of a serious misfit who got Jesus started in a ministry that would change the world—John the Baptist.  John modeled for Jesus the life of a spiritual misfit.

If you know that you’re a misfit spiritually speaking and you can embrace it, giving up the need to conform to any religious group’s theological expectations of you, then you’re probably a seeker.  Come on in!  The water’s fine…and I don’t mean in the baptistry!

Amen.