The Irreducible Minimum
A sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
November 18, 2018
I Samue1:4-20 Mark 13:1-8
Everything in my small home office has to earn its place there. On the bookshelf are only the most essential theological resources, and of course the poets – Rumi, Mary Oliver, Shakespeare. Books I love no longer are banished to the basement or the Goodwill – goodbye for now Scott Fitzgerald, farewell comparative religion books from my teaching days, ta-ta English novels about World War I.
There are family photos, but nothing that will plunge me into too much nostalgia… “Ohh… they were so cute!” And there are two bird feeders outside the window, or what I call “kitty television.”
Many of us First World, privileged Americans have to curate our abundance, periodically downsizing, simplifying, giving things away. We get rid of things to offer them to someone who may be able to use them; to rid ourselves of the outdated or the embarrassing – ties that are too wide, shoes that are too formal, or embarrassing gifts, things like a wall plaque with a fish on it that turned its head toward you and sang “Take Me to the River” when you walked by. (Full disclosure; the rector has offered me big bucks for Big Mouth Billy Bass). We get rid of things because we have changed, the culture has changed, or our circumstances have changed. We curate our abundance.
What if we did this on a spiritual level? If we thought about religious faith as intentionally as we do a pair of shoes or stack of old picture frames. What beliefs make the cut? Which don’t?
Wait… are we even allowed to do that? Actually, we do it all the time, certainly in the questions we ask—or don’t ask– that won’t go away. For some people, their questions become so large and the answers they hear so problematic that they leave the church altogether. Many have.
A great preacher, friend, and mentor for me, a priest and Classics Professor at Macalester for 40 years, The Rev. Canon Bill Donovan, recently gave a sermon at St. Mark’s Cathedral which he entitled “The Irreducible Minimum.” It is his brilliance that has inspired much of this sermon.
In the sermon, he did a thoughtful personal inventory of key Christian teachings, setting aside many of them, and then narrowing down to one key idea which he called “the irreducible minimum.” I will tell you his conclusions, but first I want to attempt this process myself and invite you along as well.
First what has to go? What is not essential or gets in the way of a credible faith?
First, for me, is Biblical literalism
Today one in three Christians reads the Bible literally as in Jonah really did spend three days in the belly of a whale), although it is only in the past 150 years that people have done so. Before that, Scripture was seen as a record of faith, not as a history book. The danger of Biblical literalism is when one or two verses are taken out of context and presented as truth, or worse, as the basis for public policy, such as taking isolated verses from Leviticus to argue against homosexuality or using some words of Paul to keep women in their place.
This is a good place for a reference to today’s Old Testament reading from Samuel. Hannah’s husband Elkanah already has a wife and children, in addition to Hannah. His response to her distress about her inability to have a child is this question, “Hannah, am I not more to you than ten sons?” Cluelessness, across the ages…
Secondly, what has to go for me is the “only-ness” of Jesus. I am skeptical that a loving God would condemn billions of people throughout history because they hadn’t heard of the first century person of Jesus of Nazareth or failed to “believe” in him. Rather, Jesus as the pane of glass through which I see God, or the face of God turned in my direction. It is outrageous for me to think otherwise.
So here’s what stays for me, my “irreducible minimum,” for today at least.… What is underlying the core beliefs of Christianity?
First is the reality of impermanence, which is the topic of today’s lesson from Mark.
Jesus and his disciples are at the temple in Jerusalem, just after watching the poor widow put all she had in the offering box. One of the disciples says, “look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
Sidebar: The theologian Karoline Lewis once suggested a fairy tale overtone here: Does this remind anyone of “Grandma, what big teeth you have!” What big ears you have!” … (Humor always has to be in the Irreducible Minimum…)
According to the first century historian Josephus, the Jewish Temple was a wonder. Its retaining walls were stones, each forty feet long. It soared ten stories high and was the length of 25 football fields, it’s exterior was inlaid with gold. It took a thousand laborers ten years to finish, under the direction of the cruel king who saw it as a monument to his fairness.
As one person observes, “What the disciple sees is an architectural marvel and also the biggest, boldest, and unshakable symbol of God’s presence imaginable. What takes the disciple’s breath away as he gazes at the temple is the religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones display to the world.”
Jesus, however, is not impressed.
Maybe he sees how much of it was built from the sacrifices of people like the poor widow, as is often the case with such monuments. It’s what I can’t help but see as I look at the gigantic soccer stadium hovering like a flying saucer over Midway –so many businesses already closed or forced to relocate — as worries continue about where to house the homeless this winter and how to feed the hungry.
Jesus rightly predicts that the temple will be destroyed (perhaps it had already fallen when Mark was written). In 66 AD the Jews rebelled against the Romans, the Roman armies slaughtered thousands and destroyed the temple. All that remains is one wall, called the Wailing Wall in present-day Jerusalem.
This passage is often called “the little apocalhypse,”a term we associate with the last times. But the original meaning of the word is “uncovering,” or “unveiling.” And what is uncovered here is the fragility of things of the world, and the reality of impermanence.
Certainly the past week has brought home the fragility of what we take for granted; nature doing the downsizing as thousands of acres and hundreds of homes burn in California; the town ironically named Paradise destroyed. Fifty plus lives lost and a thousand missing.
Meanwhile, mourning continues from another mass shooting; twelve killed at a bar in California. This on the heels of the eleven Jews massacred at a Pittsburg synagogue. Winter knocks on our door, without regard for those who have no protection against the cold. We are weary indeed as a country and as a world.
But if we push back the veil, there is also hope. Firefighters battle on; everyday people become heroes and helpers. Many homeless are being brought to shelters. There are a thousand points of light as goodness grows and multiplies.
So the second element of my irreducible minimum is the power of love – to hurt and to heal.
The most wrenching form of human anguish is the loss of someone you love, no matter what continent, country or tribe. Even the human Jesus weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus. Potentially, loving another being dooms us all to the most anguished suffering and pain.
But, paradoxically, the love of the Creator for us is often most revealed to us in these same relationships. That is Father Donovan’s conclusion. He notes that most of the stories about Jesus are about relationships he formed with other people and how he changed them–and some of them changed him. “Some (relationships) are brief and others long,” he says, ”but reflection always reveals the changes in the person I am when I realize what I have found in another person, one who becomes Jesus for me.” And we have the great privilege of being Jesus, of that love for another person, in small ways and in large.
Finally, stories and words are part of my irreducible minimum, the foundational stories of our Scriptures and the other stories – personal or literary—that reflect those themes. And also in the power of the metaphor, or comparisons that help understand what we cannot see.
I have preached at a number of funerals lately, and, for obvious reasons, have always included the following story. So if you haven’t been at one of those funerals, here it is. If you have, here it is again. Good stories bear repeating.
The Story of Two Twins in the Womb
One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense,” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
“I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
“That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
“Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
“Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know, but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
“Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists, then where is She now?”
“She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
“Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
“Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
“I don’t hear anything….”
You may never have to articulate your faith or defend it, but more and more even aligning yourself with a religion can be perilous. The people murdered at a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, Jewish worshipers gunned down in New Jersey, countless attacks on Muslims — all carried out with guns, the ultimate obscenity and almost all by troubled white men.
What do those who have lost everything still cling to? What is their irreducible minimum?
Auschwitz has become a symbol of human anguish, a place of unbelievable cruelty and evil personified. These are words found scrawled on a wall after the liberation:
I believe in the sun
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love
Even when I feel it not.
I believe in God
Even when he is silent.
Beneath everything else, there is this.
“The Irreducible Minimum,” sermon by the Rev. Canon William Donovan, St. Mark’s Cathedral.
“Storied Stones, “Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, Nov 8, 2015.
“Pretender to the Throne,” The Rev David Lose, Working Preacher, Nov 9, 2015.
“Reduced to Our Foundation,” Andrew Prior, The Theology of Mark, 2012.
“Not One Stone,” Journey with Jesus,” Debie Thomas ,November 11, 2018.