A Sermon by
The Reverend Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
May 11, 2014
I have several friends – whom I care for very much – who are extremely intelligent.
They are daily consumers of the New York Times, well-read (fiction and non-fiction), highly-educated, world travelers, human right activists — sophisticated people.
But many of them have problems with organized religion, some claiming to be “spiritual but not religious,” and often they are dismissively if not aggressively anti-Christian. The comments they make about Christians they would never make about blacks, gays, women, immigrants, Buddhists, or Muslims.
The comments often convey that, of course, no thinking person can accept myths like the divinity of Christ, the resurrection, or the possibility of an afterlife. For them, the boundaries of Christianity are the sex abuses of the Roman Catholic Church on one hand (although most do like Pope Francis) and on the other, news-grabbing evangelicals, one of whom recently proclaimed that “waterboarding is how America baptizes terrorists.” Last year, Christian fundamentalists in Congress shouted down a Hindu holy man called to begin a session with prayer. They yelled prayers to Jesus and had to be escorted from the room.
And of course there is the argument that Christianity is responsible for so many wars throughout history. I think that this is a pat and selective reading of the complexities of history and politics. Khalil Gibran speaks about those who “stand with their backs to the sun and what is the sun to them but a caster of shadows?”
Using today’s lessons as our guide, I’d like to talk about how to forge an unapologetic and vibrant Christianity.
First, we have to eliminate some roadblocks in our own thinking and distinguish one brand of Christianity from the other.
The first step is to recognize the exclusivity of many forms of the faith, which insist on the “only-ness” of Jesus, saying that it is only through faith in Jesus that we are “saved” – from hell, I guess. This is not only disrespectful and dismissive of other religious traditions (as well as those who lived B.C.) it is ignorant of much of Scripture and, I think, of the mind of Christ.
There is one verse in particular in John that is cited to support this claim. It is, of course, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” An exclusionary reading of this verse is inconsistent with almost all of what Jesus says in the other three Gospels and in the rest of John. But I think the best explanation is from Barbara Brown Taylor, her new book on darkness being this week’s cover story in Time Magazine:
She observes that Jesus is not speaking at an interfaith conference with Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims present, and telling them that their religious traditions are a sham. He is speaking to a small group of his closest friends on the night before he died. The language is love language. He was “giving them everything he could think of to help them survive without him.” Shortly after this, Jesus reminds the disciples, “In my father house are many rooms.”
Today’s Gospel also addresses the issue of exclusivity. Here Jesus is the good shepherd, the caregiver, the protector who will even “lay down his life for the sheep.” There is mutual recognition between the shepherd and the sheep: “I know my own and my own know me.” Others, perhaps in different faiths and other traditions, at other times and other places, different flocks, still beloved of God.
We are not the only ones frustrated with the clueless. Jesus was an intellectual of his day; he disappeared for three days at age 12 and his parents finally found him teaching the rabbis in the temple. He knew his Jewish Scriptures and cited them often, even on the Cross. He spoke in parables or metaphors to help people understand difficult principles. And he is always complaining that the Disciples don’t get it. In today’s lesson, we read Jesus used the shepherd metaphor with them, “but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
Jesus spoke of himself symbolically in many ways, not as Stephen Colbert asserts, as divine (“I am da vine and you are the branches”). Some of the metaphors that speak to me about God are these: We all see the same light but through different panes of glass; the world religions are like fingers on a hand all pointing at the same divine source.
So, while giving other faiths respect and recognizing a common moral code present in them all – as well as the presence of extremists in all of them that pervert and distort religious principles often for their own political purposes – why a specific faith? Why not practice a sort of cafeteria religion, picking and choosing what we want on our spiritual tray?
The historian Joseph Campbell says that an organized religion is “a shortcut into the mystery.” We do not have to start from scratch, so to speak, to explore everything ourselves from ground zero. One of the things religion gives us is ritual, ceremonies that help us walk through the high and low points of life. Campbell again: “A religion helps you to identify the mysteries of the energies pouring through you…. Ritual can help you know what it is you are experiencing.”
Frequently non church-goers will seek out a church to have a wedding or a funeral or to celebrate the birth of a child. Our secular culture lacks formal ceremonies to mark major changes in life as we do them in the church, and the objections to the faith are set aside by the importance of these life events and the need to mark them.
A specific religious tradition is not only a shortcut into the mystery, it can provide a way of thinking about God that feels personal, relational, especially when the going gets tough.
An example is the iconic 23rd psalm, at once a lament and a love song, where there is a major shift between verses 3 and 4. In the first part of the psalm, God is the third person, He. He is the Good Shepherd. He guides and revives my soul. He leads me my still waters.
But when the Valley of the Shadow appears in verse 4, the pronoun switches from “he” to the more personal you. You are with me; you comfort me. We move from describing God in general terms to encountering a more personal God who takes us through the valley of the shadow and doesn’t leave us there.
The Voice of God can come in many ways. It may be in a vague feeing of homesickness, as Taylor writes: “On any given night, however comfortable we night be, we remain vulnerable to a certain heaviness of heart that can come upon us for no apparent reason. It may begin in a sudden hollowness inside, pure melancholy, an inexplicable homesickness. The sense that there is a place you belong that you have somehow gotten separated from a place that misses you as much as you miss it and yet you don’t know where it is or how to get there. I think of it as God’s tug, a kind of homing instinct planted in each of us that nags at us, and makes us restless because none of us is home yet.”
As Campbell says, “Images topple but the Voice remains.”
As for me, I have heard that Voice through the Christian faith. I landed in the church as a child, left at 20, came back at 30, and stayed.
At first, I just felt a call to be a preacher because I was good at giving speeches, but in 32 years of writing sermons and examining the faith as honestly and uncompromisingly and even as ruthlessly as I could, I found that I could not defeat its basic premise that love wins. Christainity is the face God, turned in my direction. I claim Christianity now in a way I could not do until the faith and I had it out (we still have it out) as I struggle to understand the Gospel and life itself–- month after month, year after year, and God simply won’t let my cynicism win. I go to my literary sources – and there are many – again and again, to find that they reflect so many themes common to religion. Meanwhile God is working on my heart and showing up in my experiences and I pay attention. I am a practicing Christian, and I can say this to my most sophisticated friends.
A shepherd is a lot like a mother: nurturing, caring, and fiercely protective. Mother’s Day was first begun after the Civil War by women who had lost their sons, as a protest against the carnage of war. It began as a ferocious commitment to children. A worldview that said to the powers that be: Just stop it! Stop your wars and your bloodshed and your hating.
It is that spirit – of the nurturing shepherd and the fierce advocate — that we honor today.
Here is a part of the original Mother’s Day Proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe in Boston, 1870.
“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that or water or of tears!
Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies…
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
Blood does not wipe away our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,….
And for peace to occur – in the world, in our lives, and in our hearts, our similarities—what we share and value together—must be honored even more than the differences that divide us, for it will take all of us to heal our hurting world. Amen.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Only Way to God,” a sermon at Duke Divinity School, 1999.
Taylor, An Altar in the World, 2012
Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living, 1991.