Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sermon from December 24, 2006, morning service


SILVERSIDE SERMONS

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 

Sermon Series Winter 2006-07

God in Great Art


 

December 24, 2006 Morning Service Sermon #5

“Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child”

Mary Cassatt


 

http://academics.adelphi.edu/honcol/modconart/img/Cassatt-mother.jpg


 

I.


 

Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt loved to paint scenes of women and women with children; she was fascinated with children, as a matter of fact, even though she never had children of her own. The image of the painting before us today is an example of her amazing work. Incidentally, she was also famous for her printmaking skills.

The painting at which you’re now looking has the title, “Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child.” One art historian made these comments about Cassatt and this painting in particular:


 

Miss Cassatt has known the way to escape from the sentimentality on which most [English artists] have foundered. In “Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child” a luminous and tender domesticity is Cassatt's subject, one to which she devoted nearly a third of her artistic production. Here she explores surface patterns, elements of composition she observed in Japanese prints, and the awkward naturalism of pose typical of Degas's work and an important element of the impressionist concern to catch a moment’s movement or light.


 

Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in 1844. When she was still a little girl, her parents moved the family to Paris. One would think such a move would be a most fortunate stroke of luck for a child with so much artistic skill awaiting to be born. That might be true today, but not so in Cassatt’s time. Cultural historians tell us that it was easier for a woman in Cassatt’s time, even in Europe, to become a physician than an artist. Both were still clearly the domains of men. Nonetheless, acclaim and success came to her–largely because of the embrace of Edgar Dugas.

After a few years in Paris, the family moved back to Pennsylvania. In 1861, still in her teens, Mary Cassatt began to study painting formally at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philly. Five years later, she would return to Paris, and that city would become her professional home.

On a personal level, Mary Cassatt is remembered as a very outspoken personality. In fact, as the years rolled on, and as she grew increasingly blind, her sharp tongue kept even one-time friends at a distance. She referred to the works of Matisse and Picasso as “dreadful paintings,” and the water-lily paintings of Monet she called “glorified wallpaper”! Ouch!

Now, let’s think for a bit about Mary the mother of Jesus and her baby boy who was surely sleepy and who needed a bath! Many of you fathers were not in that generation who went into delivery rooms with their wives, coached them on their breathing, saw their children being born, and held them as soon as the doctor forced a healthy cry from them, if a good cry hadn’t been volunteered almost immediately. I was in that generation, though, and I can tell you that at birth, Jesus needed a really good scrubbing down. The chances of that having happened in a stable or a cave with only a trough of drinking water for the animals available are almost non-existent. Baby Jesus might have been a little cleaned up, but not a lot, and there is no way he was completely and totally silent.

The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us much at all. In fact, it’s a grand total of one verse long!


 

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Matt 2:7 NRSV).


 

That’s it. That’s all that needed to be said, according to Matthew.

Who helps this little 13 or 14 year old girl deliver her first child? Well, according to Matthew, no one or no one worth mentioning. But according to legends, stories that were widely told but not chosen for inclusion in the writings that came to be designated as “scripture,” when Joseph realized that Mary was about to have the baby, he went and found two midwives to help her. This makes perfect sense to me! And literarily speaking, it would have made perfect sense also for a writer who wanted to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus since the Jews in Egyptian bondage, during ancient times, had been saved through the disobedience of midwives who ignored the Pharaoh’s order to kill off the Hebrew babies as they were born.

In any case, the two midwives in the legendary stories did what Joseph asked them to do, but one of them wondered biologically how a reputed “virgin birth” could work, and when she did a quick pelvic exam to see for herself her hand withered! Miraculously, of course, when she held the baby Jesus...her hand was healed. Wow!


 


 


 


 

II.


 

Jesus is the most inconsequential person in the New Testament birth narratives. And why not? The holiday named in his honor, as it is celebrated by most modern Christians, has almost nothing to do with him anyway. Jesus is the most inconsequential entity in most every Christmas event.The New Testament writers, the two who cared to write about his birth, don't let him make a peep, and the carol writers follow suit.

• He doesn't cry. • He is not frightened by the sounds of animals all around him–strange sounds to any newborn. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”• He doesn't resist Mary and Joseph as they bind his little body likea papoose in strips of cloth, "swaddling clothes," so that his little bones will grow straight and strong from the get go.• The prickly straw in the manger, the animals' feeding trough, pokes his tender newborn skin, and he doesn't even whimper.• Mary never nurses him; maybe virgin mothers don't get breast milk. And there were no bottles as far as we know; yet, he never cried from hunger. Maybe those cattle, though, did more than "low"!• You hardly know the kid is there, and most surprisingly: hisdiaper is never changed, and he never needs a diaper change!• Jesus is just so sleepy; practically all the little guy does is sleep.That works! Inconsequential equals innocuous.


 

We live in a world in which those who claim to live by the

teachings of Jesus will fight, literally fight, to try to force someone

to believe in Jesus' so-called immaculate conception, but feel noresponsibility whatsoever to live by the love about which he taughtand by which he lived his own life. There is no clearer indication than this that Jesus really doesn’t matter at all.

One of the realities that becomes clear to me as we people of faith find ourselves once again at this culturally-dominated holiday season is that the typical “Christian” is a fan of a passive, helpless Jesus only. Most Christians, and I’m not referring to those who only show up for worship at Christmas and Easter, only think of Jesus in two contexts; in both of them he has been silenced–as a baby in a manger and as a criminal being executed.


 

 

  • In one scenario, his hands are bound with swaddling clothes; in the other, his hands are nailed to a Roman cross.
  • In one setting, the writers and rememberers have made him nothing more than a lifeless, plastic baby doll like the prop used in most Christmas pageants–and a Caucasian one at that! In the other setting, as he dies, he has barely enough energy to speak since the Romans have already nearly beaten the life out of him.


 

Such a passive Jesus, whose plight can do no more than cause us to emote, is much easier to deal with than a Jesus who actually teaches us how to live–a Jesus whose lessons and life example demand a response from us, a series of responses to be precise. This kind of Jesus is just too bothersome for us. We want to take cues from our culture on how to live, not from a first-century Jewish rabble rouser who wasn’t and who wouldn’t be welcomed into polite society.

We don’t love Jesus’ pain and death, but we surely prefer relating to a man who has nothing much left to say than to a man who keeps reminding us that living God’s way always, always, always disrupts the status quo and always, always, always calls on us to act for the well-being of others; not tolerating self-centeredness in ourselves or a closed-ness to God’s love for us and for all people. It’s so much easier for us to feel sorry for the passive man whom the Romans have overpowered and left virtually life-less and word-less.

We love oo-ing and ah-ing over sweet little Jesus boy. He’s just a precious little sleepy child like the one in Mary Cassatt’s painting who doesn’t know her or his state of comfort is about to be disturbed by a bath. Everybody except the early Scrooge loves cute little silent babies. Silent babies don’t require anything from us. They don’t awaken our slumber. We don’t have to haul out the pampers. A mother doesn’t have to get ready to nurse the baby, and a dad doesn’t have to start warming up the formula. Our treasured silence isn’t disrupted by piercing or otherwise loud cries of dissatisfaction.

The Jesus, between his birth and death, who speaks and lives in such a way as to make us uncomfortable unless we’re at least willing to try to live the way he lived...he’s too much! Give me a holy infant, tender and mild who sleeps in heavenly peace, make the Jesus’ whose teachings challenge the way I live…make him go away!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
www.silversidechurch.org


Sermon Series Winter 2006-07
God in Great Art

December 17, 2006 Sermon #4
“Virgin Annunciate”
Antonello da Messina

www.http://lnc.usc.edu/~brannon/pix/antonello-de-messina/virgin-annunciate.jpg



I.

In a scientifically-informed society populated by many people who refuse to buy the perspective that matter in general and sexual expression in particular are evil, I am wondering how the story of Mary’s discovery that she would be the mother of a reveal-er of God would go today. Let me assure you that I don’t think the original version of the story is a bad story as long as it is understood in its social and literary context, but I don’t believe that has typically happened across the years.
Only two of our four canonical Gospel writers were concerned with the details of Jesus’ birth, and they tell the story in completely different ways. Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth to help them create the particular picture of Jesus they each set out to share. Both want to define Jesus in terms of his earthly connections as well as in terms of his “heavenly connections,” if you will–that is, in terms of his relationship to God.
They each take on the challenge of saying what they want to say about Jesus in a world where the greatest of leaders were often said to be of divine origin so they had to figure out how the Jesus whom they loved and admired could be presented in writing in such a way to make the kind of impact they felt his story deserved to make. They had several problems with that issue alone. The major one was that Jesus had never attracted any great societal attention, was never the official leader of any organization larger than twelve men and a handful of “the women,” and he died not a great man’s death, but the death of a criminal. If you’re looking for someone’s teachings to follow that will make your life better and/or more focused on God this wasn’t an appealing choice, frankly.
Further, both Matthew and Luke were telling the story of Jesus in a “mighty-Roman-Empire-context,” in which many of the emperors were said to have been of divine birth and were called sons of the gods. Each had taken a turn at the helm of a true world power and had been admired if not worshiped by millions. They may have died at the hands of those jealous of their power, but they certainly weren’t nailed to a criminal’s cross. Luke, and maybe Matthew as well, was written after Rome had re-squashed Jews and, in the process, had destroyed their beloved Temple in Jerusalem.
The question comes, quite naturally, why would anyone want to live according to the way of life, according to the teachings of, well, a loser? Both Matthew and Luke dealt with that negativity by giving Jesus a “divinely orchestrated” birth and an earthly connection to the greatest of Israel’s kings, David, who ruled when the Jews were powerful and independent, ruled exclusively by their own leaders.
In both cases, a God-sent messenger makes known the impending birth of Jesus, but in the Gospel of Matthew, that angel or messenger comes to Joseph while, in the Gospel of Luke, the angelic birth announcement is made to Mary. Each of these two Gospel writers decided to rule out sex in Jesus’ conception. This put Jesus, as they portrayed him, on the level–at the beginning of his life, anyway–with the worldly-powerful Roman emperors.
In addition to these literary-cultural issues, a few of us were reminded this past Wednesday evening that we can’t let the Americanization of Christmas, among other problems, keep us from seeing the revolutionary nature of the two birth narratives. James Carroll, writing for The Boston Globe a couple of Christmases ago, brought up several uncomfortable issues that are strikingly easy for us to overlook at this time of year.

• “In modern times, religion and politics began to be understood as occupying separate spheres, and the nativity story became spiritualized and sentimentalized, losing its political edge altogether.” We all want a few moments every now and then when all seems well for us and all seems right with the world. Christmas for many of us is one of those times, and, as a result, we do not wish to disrupt all the beautiful artistic and literary work that have been done to lull us into the sense that all was just right for Jesus and everyone who surrounded him at his birth and that when we reflect back on that blessed event we can glimpse such peace and calm and re-experience it in a way today. “Silent night, holy night. All is calm all is bright.” If all had been well, dear friends, Joseph wouldn’t have had to drag his very pregnant wife to his place of birth because Rome demanded it.
• James Carroll again on the biblical birth narratives of Jesus as they came to be seen and used: “`Peace’ replaced resistance as the main motif. The baby Jesus was universalized, removed from his decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative’s [narratives’] explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth were blunted. This is how it came to be that Christmas in America has turned the nativity of Jesus on its head. ” Again, the first hearers and readers of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels weren’t at all pleased that the Jews in the stories were being yanked around by Rome, but we moderns want no part of that especially, ESPECIALLY, in our Christmas celebrations. We like the Christmas our carols portray: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”
• James Carroll one more time: “If the story were told today with Roman imperialism at its center, questions about America’s new self-understanding as an imperial power might arise. A story of Jesus born into a land oppressed by a hated military occupation might prompt an examination of the American occupation of Iraq. A story of Jesus come decidedly to the poor might cast a pall over the festival of consumption.” You see? You see! It’s one thing to take Santa Claus away from the manger scene and delay the arrival of the wise persons by two years, but this is too much! Leave our sweet little Jesus boy and his sweet little birth scene alone! We want a feel-good Christmas!




II.

The Antonello da Messina painting before us today shows the artist’s sense of what Mary looked like at the moment her future was made known to her. This painting was done in oils on wood. It was painted by da Messina in 1476 probably in Sicily. Da Messina was probably the most famous painter in the Italian Renaissance, and this very well may have been his most famous painting. He only lived 49 years, and this painting was produced when he was about 46 years old–interestingly enough, the last painting he would ever complete. As an artist, he was praised for his handing of perspective, his attention to detail, and the glowing colors he tended to choose. An art historian sees in the painting a young woman who is “shown isolated against a neutral background and behind a simple reading desk, her hand outstretched in blessing. Few 15th-century paintings have a similar quality of pure geometry and repose.” Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that “Virgin Annunciate” was da Messina’s “most compelling painting–a work whose haunting beauty and enigmatic character can only be compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.”
In the painting, Mary has been reading, and the unpictured angel/messenger from God has just told her what we now have recorded in the Gospel of Luke. This is how the artist thought of her facial expression after having gotten life-changing, earth-shattering news.
I think it’s highly significant that da Messina chose NOT to include an image of the angel/messenger in his composition. Was this because da Messina conceived of this experience for Mary as something purely internal? Certainly, the emphases of Humanism during the Renaissance would have been calling many things supernatural into question.
It could be a further reflection of the artist’s sense that Mary’s angelic visitant came into her consciousness, but not into her house, that she has been reading and has been interrupted internally. By the way, a young Jewish peasant female in that time and place would likely never have been taught to read, and if she did she would be reading from a scroll, not a book or a codex. While it’s nearly impossible that Mary would have been literate, I still very much like da Messina’s perspective that Mary’s religious experience happened as she meditated or reflected. No winged being had flown into her home through an open window or through a wall; a child of the Renaissance would have known that, even though many of the other great Renaissance artists painting on the payroll of the institutional church kept the winged angels coming! One has only to think of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel to know what I mean.
A man can never fully understand what a mother-to-be feels; fatherhood, indeed, has its own unique wonders, and anyone who knows me knows how much I celebrate those–and cherish them. Still, the most attentive and devoted father-to-be cannot anticipate parenthood the way a mother-to-be does. I wonder, though, if our male artist was trying to do with his captivating visual what I might try to do with words.
She’s a lovely young lady, as da Messina envisioned her, isn’t she? She isn’t laughing; she isn’t even smiling. She’s not frowning either, though; there’s not a hint of unhappiness or fear.
I see her as deep in thought. Her eyes could be focused on something–the door out of which the angel walked, perhaps. Or her eyes could only appear to be fixed on something to us; for Mary the frozen gaze could mean that she is deep in thought, seeing nothing in particular. That’s how I’m inclined to read the painting. I’d say, she’s pondering. She surely doesn’t seem to be perplexed in our picture. The perplexed part seems to have given way to pondering in da Messina’s imagination.
The unseen angelic messenger had said, “`Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
It wouldn’t be the only time Mary pondered. Shortly after she had given birth to Jesus, the shepherds hear the good news and come to express their amazement. From the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find these words:

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:16-19 NRSV).

From the annunciation on, Mary must have done a lot of pondering. Parents ponder a great deal.
A contemporary poet, a female, Denise Levertov, has a poem about the annunciation to Mary entitled, of all things, “Annunciation.”

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.

The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or anotherin most lives?

Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.




III.

In the sixth month of the year or the sixth month of an unannounced pregnancy, the divinely ordained messenger, Gabriel, was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman engaged to a man of undisclosed age whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, who had been Israel’s greatest king. The young woman’s name was Mary. And the messenger Gabriel came into her consciousness in the midst of her prayers and meditations one day and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” There is no indication of fear up to this point so the fear to which Gabriel referred must have been fear anticipated she would feel when he told her what he had to say to her that day, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor, David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” If she had never been sexually intimate with anyone, Mary also wondered how her son-to-be could have been a descendant of David unless there was some Davidic blood in her that no one had ever bothered to tell her about. That was much less of a worry, though, than what it would mean to conceive by the Spirit of God. Or had the angel meant that the Holy Spirit would bless her union with Joseph to produce a son who was a real heir of the great King David?
In any case, responding to the news that the angel had shared with her, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” What an outstanding and exemplary young woman of faith Mary was! Then the angel departed from her consciousness.
As I think about it, I don’t think Mary’s partially outstretched right hand is Mary reaching out to the angel for a blessing, as the one art historian had suggested. A hand open to receive a blessing would more likely be turned up and open, wouldn’t it? I think, instead, she has slowly moved her hand off the page she was reading (in da Messina’s mind, remember–not in real life!) and gestured as she has said, perhaps aloud, “...let it be according to your word.” Da Messina, was, after all, Italian, and he couldn’t have conceived of dialogue without hand movement!
I am thinking as I reflect on this excerpt from Luke’s Gospel with the help of the mysteriously beautiful visual produced by our Renaissance brother, Antonello da Messina, of how God interrupts us to lure us, empower us, to take on the most astounding and outlandish tasks imaginable right in the middle of everyday life. This is to say that many of our greatest contributions to people around us and beyond our circle of acquaintance begin when God interrupts us.
It’s not so often when we’re practicing our professions where we expect to make a difference if we’re going to make one. And it’s not when we gather for inspiration and celebration where one might expect to hear from God, but typically in our quiet times, our aloneness, our living out some daily routine that God interrupts us with insights that will leave us changed forever. And if we take God’s lead, we can leave others changed for the good also, all because we have been willing to say, “Yes,” to God’s latest outlandish enterprise.
All Mary had to do was say, “Yes,” I’m willing to rear the child you say I’ll bear. And often times for us, all that is required from us in order to accomplish something wonderful for God is also a simple, “Yes.”
Last week, when Tom Ledbetter stopped by my office before church to share with me firsthand the wonderful news from Neil’s recent surgery by Lance Armstrong’s surgeon, he told me, in addition, that he had been communing that morning with one of his patron saints, Thomas Merton. There was a whole generation of students from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville–can you imagine?!?–who studied the writings of the Roman Catholic mystic. Many of these young seminarians had also met Merton personally by going to his Gethsemane Monastery about an hour away from Louisville, near Bardstown, Kentucky. It turns out that last week, December 10, was the thirty-eighth anniversary of Merton’s death. I’m not sure Tom was in the seminary early enough to know Merton personally. Tom was a little ahead of me, and I arrived there ten years after Merton’s death.
In any case, Merton was a spiritual giant, an ecumenist, a social activist, and a poet. He wrote several poems about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and one is entitled, “The Annunciation.” It was written in 1957.

Ashes of paper, ashes of a world
Wandering, when fire is done:
We argue with the drops of rain!

Until On[e] comes Who walks unseen
Even in elements we have destroyed.
Deeper than any nerve
He enters flesh and bone.
Planting His truth, He puts our substance on.
Air, earth, and rain
Rework the frame that fire has ruined.
What was dead is waiting for His Flame.
Sparks of His Spirit spend their seeds, and hide
To grow like irises, born before summertime.
These blue thinas bud in Israel.

The girl prays by the bare wall
Between the lamp and the chair.
(Framed with an angel in our galleries
She has a richer painted room, sometimes a crown.
Yet seven pillars of obscurity
Build her to Wisdom's house, and Ark, and Tower.
She is the Secret of another Testament
She owns their manna in her jar.)

Fifteen years old -
The flowers printed on her dress
Cease moving in the middle of her prayer
When God, Who sends the messenger,
Meets His messenger in her Heart.
Her answer, between breath and breath,
Wrings from her innocence our Sacrament!
In her white body God becomes our Bread.

It is her tenderness
Heats the dead world like David on his bed.
Times that were too soon criminal
And never wanted to be normal
Evade the beast that has pursued
You, me and Adam out of Eden's wood.
Suddenly we find ourselves assembled
Cured and recollected under several green trees.

Her prudence wrestled with the Dove
To hide us in His cloud of steel and silver:
These are the mysteries of her Son.
And here my heart, a purchased outlaw,
Prays in her possession
Until her Jesus makes my heart
Smile like a flower in her blameless hand.

Amen.
SILVERSIDE SERMONS
David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
www.silversidechurch.org

Sermon Series Winter 2006-07
God in Great Art

December 3, 2006 Sermon #3
“Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist”
by Guido Reni

http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images/view?back=http%3A%2F%2Fimages.search.yahoo.com%2Fsearch%2Fimages%3Fp%3Dsalome%2520with%2520the%2520head%2520of%2520john%2520the%2520baptist%252C%2520reni%26ei%3DUTF-8%26fr%3Db1ie7%26fr2%3Dtab-web&w=800&h=1130&imgurl=www.wga.hu%2Fart%2Fr%2Freni%2F2%2Fsalome.jpg&rurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.romansonline.com%2FEv_P_img.asp%3FIid%3D3494&size=98.1kB&name=salome.jpg&p=salome+with+the+head+of+john+the+baptist%2C+reni&type=jpeg&no=3&tt=4&oid=2a60ea2c044c1e48&ei=UTF-8


I.

Have you ever pondered how many religious reformers throughout the ages have lost their lives specifically because they were trying to alter the religious status quo? I think the religious reformers are much more at risk in our world than are those who just go out and start up a religious movement from scratch!
The reasons for this are clear enough. Defenders of the status quo usually have both clout and power, and when their established religious idea, ideals, and ways are challenged–especially by someone with bona fide critiques and suggestions for improvement–they are willing to ostracize and eradicate, if need be, a “reformer,” someone who would try to change how things are already going. Part of the problem, not all of it, is that religion touches so many areas of life to which some people, at least, have grown very accustomed.
Jesus himself was a religious reformer. It doesn’t take a great deal of study of the teachings that have been attributed to Jesus to discover that he wasn’t out to start a new religion–not by any means. He only wanted to reform his beloved Judaism, and I should pause here to say that any of us who loves our religion should always be proponents of healthy reformation. In institutions as with relationships and biologically alive organisms, what becomes static dies.
If you’ve done even a quick read-through of the teachings of Jesus, the following words must have jumped out at you:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-20 NRSV).

Jesus was calling his sister and brother Jews to an understanding of the Jewish religious laws that saw the laws as instructive but not as ends in themselves. The clearly ethics-based first expression of Abrahamic monotheism was a religion that pulled people into a personal relationship with God and into service to humanity; it was never an either-or deal, but always a both-and approach to faith-living.
What had happened by the time Jesus came along was that many of his fellow Jews thought EITHER that their Jewishness was all that was needed to be in a right relationship with God OR that if they kept all the religious rules and regulations that had been passed down to them they would both honor and be honored by God Godself. Jesus said to them, over and over again and in all kinds of ways, “Get real, people!”
Jesus scared many of his religious leaders nearly to death when someone once asked him to summarize all those hundreds of laws that Pharisees were following day by day, and Jesus said that he could! He said, “Ladies and gentlemen, they all boil down to this: love God with all you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself.” From there on out, there were Jews who wanted him dead, and these few powerful Jews would play on the Roman Empire’s fear of uprisings by constantly telling the Roman power people that Jesus was out to organize an empire to rival the great Roman Empire. In the end, Rome took the bait and had Jesus executed as an enemy of the state.
Anne Hutchinson, whom I regard as the first female preacher on this continent. (This would not take into account any preaching or preaching-like activity that was done by Indigenous American women before Europeans hit these shores.) She had migrated here from England to continue her years-long support of her pastor, the Reverend John Cotton. She was a well-educated woman, which was surely one of the reasons her life here in the so-called “new world” became as difficult as it did.
She certainly couldn’t have been recognized formally as a preacher or any other kind of minister here the way female Quakers and Shakers had been in her native country. But she did begin having Bible studies in her home to discuss the Bible and Sunday sermons. Her comments on the Bible were tolerated, even if begrudgingly, as far as we know, but when she had the audacity to take her own theological positions in conflict with what the male Puritan divines were saying in their pulpits, well that’s when hell broke loose for her.
She, like Jesus whom–oddly enough–she desired to emulate, said that all the rules that had been put into place by Puritans for Puritans in this supposed space for “religious freedom” were keeping the people away from what really mattered in religion.
Two other items probably pushed the religiously-fundamentalist governing powers over the edge.

1. One, many men began to attend these meetings with Sister Anne, whereas in the beginning only women had gathered together with her each week. And among these men were some very powerful people from the Massachusetts Bay Colony–Sir Henry Vane, for example, who would become governor of the colony in 1636.

2. Two, when challenged about where she got her authority to make the kinds of claims she was making she answered, “...an inner spiritual truth.” Oops! Not the Bible per se. Not the teachings of the influential men in her life. But what she knew in her heart to be right.
In 1637, Vane lost the governorship to the religious hardliner, John Winthrop. That would be today like Pat Robertson becoming the governor of Virginia. Winthrop was neither a supporter nor a sympathizer of Anne Hutchinson’s. He brought charges of blasphemy and lewd conduct against her. Those meetings she’d been conducting in her home were, he said, things “not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for [her] sex." She was portrayed as a threat to the well-being of the colony, and not surprisingly with the governor running the trial, Mrs. Hutchinson lost and was banished from the colony.
There weren’t many places to go when one was banished in those days. A widow by this time, she left the Massachusetts Bay Colony in search of safety and religious freedom for her and her children. Vulnerable in so many ways during her search for a new home, she was killed by some Indigenous Americans who had been brutalized by some of the colonists and, thus, had become fearful of all Europeans. Tragedy. Her blood was upon the hands of Winthop and others who feared her religious reforms as much as upon the Natives who scalped her.




II.

John the Baptist was born to two fascinating parents. They were both know for their devotion to God. His father, Zechariah, was a priest within Judaism, and his mother, Elizabeth, a devout woman in her own right, was herself born into a priestly family. So many PK’s (preacher’s kids!) running around I wouldn’t trust any of them, but that certainly was not the perspective of the Gospel writer, Luke.
Before John came along, his parents, who were getting on up in years, had not been able to have children. There were certainly parallels between their story and the story of Abram and Sarai, that geriatric pair who would bring Isaac into the world.
In so many birth stories, in Hebrew and Christian scripture, there are angels involved in announcing both to mothers-to-be as well as to fathers-to-be that a baby was on the way. Maybe that’s the way it was done before obstetricians and early pregnancy tests. In any case, mothers weren’t necessarily the first to know that a baby was on the way.
As to the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her husband, Zechariah, was the first to know what was what. And the angel who came to him was one of ranking messengers from God–none other than Gabriel himself. This, in part, is what he told Zechariah about the son that would be born to him and Elizabeth.

You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:14-17 NRSV).

Zechariah really thought the angel had confused him without someone else. He scratched his head and wondered how in the world such things could come to pass.
Gabriel wasn’t nearly so patient with Zechariah as the angels had been to Abram who nearly laughed himself to death when the angel told him he was to be a dad at the century mark in his life. My oh my! Wouldn’t that give Willard Scott something to tell America on the “Today” show!
Poor old Zechariah only questioned Gabriel to be sure he wasn’t hearing things. There certainly doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that, but Gabriel wasn’t either amused or patient, and he caused a plague to fall upon Zechariah that was an especially rugged punishment for a preacher! Gabriel took away Zechariah’s speaking voice. He couldn’t say a word for months; not until John was born and baptized did it return. I know of people who have prayed that the same fate befall their preacher, but for reasons, I assume, very different from why Zechariah was denied the privilege of telling kin and pals how virile he still was and, thus, that his wife was “with child.” That, I think, must have been the cruelest part of all!
By the way, Elizabeth was a relative of Mary who would be the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth was getting on up there, and Mary was a young teen. We don’t know what their relational connection was for sure, but I think a good guess might be that Elizabeth was Mary’s aunt, the sister of either Mary’s mother or father. They had a close bond, and when Mary was confused about her own pregnancy, she sought Elizabeth’s support and counsel. We have to doubt that with the particular fear Mary experienced she would have gone to a peer. If this is the correct familial identification, that would have made Mary and John first cousins and John Jesus’ first cousin once removed.
John grew up to be a fiery preacher who felt no compulsion to endorse any part of the religious status quo of his day, that institution that had sustained his family economically and otherwise. In fact, he was known to have told countless fine and upstanding fellow Jews that all their attention to keeping religious rules wasn’t doing them a bit of good in regard to their relationship with God, and if they really wanted to be right with God they needed to repent of their preoccupation with dead rules and open their hearts instead to the living God! If they were sure that’s what they wanted to do, then John called on them to be baptized as a sign of their seriousness about undertaking a life of faith very different than they had ever been called on to live out before.
The discomfort that plenty of people had with his message may have had something to do with why John ended up living out more or less on his own in wilderness-type areas, away from the locus of how life for most people was shaped by religion. This meant, among other things, that those who wanted to hear for themselves what John said had to make the trek from their comfort areas out to the wilderness.
The religious establishment wasn’t at all pleased with John. In essence, he was telling people that living out their faith the way they, the leaders themselves lived out their faith, was inadequate. Worse, it was missing the mark.
John was a nonconformist in several ways. Not only did he have his own take on religion, which came to him so he believed, by listening directly to God; but also, he didn’t wear or eat what most of his contemporaries thought a Jewish preacher should wear and eat. And if you don’t think people pay attention to such things in preachers’ lives, just notice what happens today if a male preacher lets his hair get long and starts eating a vegetarian diet!
John wore animal skins, camel skins to be precise–not your typical toga! He also completely gave up worrying about Jewish dietary laws by making the staples in his diet locusts or grasshoppers and wild honey. Yum! (By the way, the next time we have one of our Bible-based meals here, Marie Neal has agreed to prepare a locusts and wild honey main dish!)
John, who was preparing the way for Jesus in various ways, was direct and to the point with his listeners, some would have said “abrasive.” He wouldn’t let his fellow Jews assume that their religious heritage was the basis for a life of divine applause; he preached to his fellow Jews:

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

His listeners believed him, but they wanted specifics.

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

From all indications, John believed that loving God had everything to do with how one lived in relationship to others, especially the strugglers. Sounds like what Jesus said, and no wonder! Jesus had learned these truths from his first cousin once removed, John!




III.

John the Baptist didn’t sit back and keep silent about anything he saw that was immoral, even when those failing morally were the rich and the famous and the powerful. One of the persons whose morals he openly criticized was his ruler, Herod Antipas.
After the death of Herod the Great, King of the Jews by Roman decree, four of his sons each were appointed to rule over a portion of the territory their father had ruled himself. One of those sons was Herod Antipas. Another of those sons was Philip.
You have to put yourself into a Jerry Springer mindset to take this in. Philip was married to Herodias. She left Philip to marry her brother-in-law, Herod Antipas. She brought her daughter, Salome, into her new union. Salome was the niece of her new step-father. Are you following this?
Jewish law stated that a man could not marry his brother’s wife or ex-wife as long as the brother was still living. The Jews who were concerned with keeping the laws were incensed that such shenanigans were going on at all, particularly among their leaders.
The fiery preacher, John the Baptist, wouldn’t keep quiet with his criticisms of the new blended family around Herod Antipas. And while Herod Antipas generally respected John, he tired of being criticized by an eccentric preacher, and he threw John into prison.
John is in jail, and Herod decides to celebrate his own birthday. It was a big to-do. Herod invited all the bigwigs in the area. He and his friends and political supporters had a great time and plenty to drink. Somehow or another, he had his niece/step-daughter dance for the crowd, and everyone was stirred up by the sensuality, including Herod. This is over-the-edge, isn’t it?
How could Herod thank young Salome for what she’d added to his bash? He tells her to name the gift of her dreams, and she says she wants the head of the loud-mouth prophet on a silver platter. That man had embarrassed her father; called her mother, Herodias, a tramp; and harangued her step-father. She didn’t think anyone could speak against royalty like that and get by with it. And, evidently, she was right.
So, John the Baptist was executed, and his head produced for the teenager who used sensuality to manipulate her uncle/stepfather. One of the great voices for religious reform was put to death because his take on Judaism was that just keeping the rules at worship wasn’t enough. True religion and true faith had everything to do with how one lived one’s live day by day in response to the core teachings of the religion.
John believed that being a leader among the Jews didn’t excuse Herod Antipas from fundamental morality and law-keeping. John wouldn’t be a part of allowing religion to create one set of standards for leaders and another set for the masses. King David himself had once thought he could live above the laws of the land and above basic morality, but his arrogance caught up with him in particularly painful ways.
The scene of John’s head being handed over to Salome has been captivating to artists for centuries. The particular painting on which we focus today is Guido Reni’s “Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist.”
An Italian, Reni lived from 1575 until 1642. He specialized in painting religious and mythological scenes. One art historian said of Reni:

He exalted the clarity of light, the perfection of the body, and lively colour. Toward the end of his life, Reni modified his style. His paintings became so airy as to seem insubstantial and were almost completely monochrome. He also used long, flowing brushstrokes and conveyed an atmosphere laden with intense melancholy. Guido Reni was a quintessentially classical academic, but he was also one of the most elegant painters in the annals of art history. He was constantly seeking an absolute, rarefied perfection, which he measured against classical Antiquity and Raphael. Because of this, over the years the...painter has been in and out of fashion, depending on the tastes of the times. The eighteenth century loved him, the nineteenth century... hated him. But even his detractors cannot deny the exceptional technical quality of his work nor the clarity of his supremely assured and harmonious brushwork (http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/bio/r/reni/biograph.html).

As to the fascinating work before us this morning, we see the head of one of the great reformers in monotheistic religious history on a platter.
An historian of Reni comments:
In “Salome,” a late work, Reni used a limited palette, employing a narrow range of colors. A dark background frames the central figures, who vibrate in soft tones—yellow,
white, and green against pink. The luminous transparency of the colors is heightened by the loose brushwork with which they are laid down. Certain areas that are especially sketchy, such as those around Salome’s feet and the page’s legs, raise questions about whether the painting was completed, an issue unresolved by historians of Reni’s later work.

Reni envisions the very moment that the head of the Baptist has been brought to Salome, and it’s intriguing despite the fact that the characters look like Reni’s cultural contemporaries and not at all like first century middle easterners.
There are those who believe that Reni was contrasting three distinct expressions on faces in the painting. One is the serene expression on the face of John the Baptist’s head. Two is the nervousness of the young attendant or servant who lifts the platter up to Salome. And three is the distant and disinterested expression on the face of Salome herself.
I find myself wondering today if the three key expressions featured in the painting represent responses of people today to daring, status-quo-challenging religious reformers like Martin Luther King Jr., to add another essential name to our list.

• The reformer, herself or himself, remains calm in the face of challenge and serene when death comes calling.
• The news bearer of a deed of horror is terribly nervous.
• The one responsible for the death of the reformer is neither pleased nor moved in any other way by the death; she or he feels nothing as a result of the death instigated and/or plotted by her or him.

Something else occurs to me. The few onlookers we see in the painting are barely even aware that the death of someone trying to make the world a better place has occurred. The reality of John’s death in no way challenges their business-as-usual attitude.
I think the truth that reformers have their lives threatened with many of them dying is something for people like us to remember since we attempt to be reformers of modern-day status quo Christianity. To try to challenge status quo Christianity is risky business indeed, and few people care when would-be reformers are removed from the picture.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sermon from December 3, 2006


SILVERSIDE SERMONS

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
www.silversidechurch.org


Sermon Series Winter 2006-07
God in Great Art

December 3, 2006 Sermon #2
“The Gates of Hell”
Auguste Rodin

www.http://classweb.gmu.edu/dantecritlit/images/gatesofhellrodin.JPG



I.

Hell is a hot topic out there in preaching land; few Christians taking in sermons around the world today will miss out on the opportunity of hearing something about hell–something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. But hell leaves me cold. As many of you know, I recently preached on hell and concluded, for myself, that there is no eternal place of spiritual torment and punishment for those who fail to say the magic words for the faith tradition in which they participate; whatever hell is, is in the here and now. What it can’t be is separation from God. Human beings may close themselves off from God, but God, by God’s own design, cannot close Godself off from humanity or from any individual human being.
The Apostle Paul has thoroughly convinced me that nothing, nothing at all, can ever separate us from God’s love. Writing to the early Christians in Rome, Paul said:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39 NRSV).

In context, one can make the argument that Paul only promised such non-separation from God for persons of faith, and that may be correct in terms of understanding Paul. For me, though, I see more in his proclamation.
So, I don’t like the subject of hell or any of the speculations about a word that Jesus himself never uttered. And, yet, I’m back in hell this morning. Why is that? Well, there are three reasons.

1) One, as I’ve already suggested, it is still a much-discussed topic among many Christians and Muslims in the modern world.

2) Two, today begins the Season of Expectation here at Silverside Church. Our Season of Expectation has a lot in common with the Christian Season of Advent. One thing we normally do not share with Advent is the threat of divine judgement usually reflected in one set of readings for the Advent Season. But today we won’t shy away from that seasonal theme.

3) Three, Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Gates of Hell,” gives us some fascinating images and ideas about which to reflect. We will accept that challenge.


Christian and Islamic fundamentalists love hell–I mean, seriously love hell.


• It dominates their conversation and their preaching.
• Without the reassuring thought that the vast majority of humanity will be writhing in pools of fire and brimstone for eternity, life just isn’t worth living.
• A worship service without hell is like a day without sunshine for them.
• Nothing pleases a fundamentalist more than to threaten with hell someone whom she or he does not like or someone who disagrees with her or his theology.

A fundamentalist, someone who is supposed to have experienced God’s love, is much happier with the thought that someone who didn’t go to religious gatherings as frequently as she or he has in a lifetime, is going to be smoking like burnt toast for eternity.
Thankfully, there is no such thing as a place of eternal torment for anyone. I haven’t always known that.
I vividly remember the first time in my life that I had to ponder seriously the possibility that there was no hell. Of all places, I sat in a seminary classroom at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, listening attentively to the systematic theology lectures of Dr. Dale Moody–not to be confused with the evangelist, D. L. Moody.
I was 25 or 26 years old and half way though my Master of Divinity degree. Dr. Moody, who was rather conservative theologically in many ways, said that he couldn’t see how a loving God would allow people, or their souls, to be punished unceasingly; he speculated that hell, instead, was eternal nothingness once an earthly life was over. Death is simply “it” for those who choose to be unconnected to God. Any future life, in other words, is only for those who make a choice to enter into ongoing relationship with God. Anything beyond this world can only be good–not punishing and not merely neutral as the longer-held views of sheol and hades had it. (In ancient Hebrew cultures, the afterlife for everyone–the morally upright as well as the evil–was sheol, an eternal place where everyone lived on and on as a mere shadow of what she or he had been in life on Earth. Similarly, in much of ancient Greece, the perspective was that everyone, regardless of level of moral achievement in an earthly life, went in the afterlife to hades.
Hell had been so thoroughly ingrained into my consciousness and my imagination that it was very hard to let go of that aspect of my theological framework. Thankfully, by now, I have let it go, and I owe the freedom to let go of that horrific notion to Dr. Moody and to the wonderful circle of thoughtful progressive monotheists I’ve been privileged to know over the last several years–including plenty of laypersons; not just the theologians!
I feel doubly fortunate about my theological evolution away from a belief in and the intended fear of hell that those who taught me about it intended for me to feel. What I mean is that I know a lot of people who have a doctrine of hell ingrained in them from childhood on, are never able to let it go regardless of what anyone says. I have learned to live my life in celebration of God and God’s love for the pure purposes of celebration–not because I fear an eternity in hell if I fail to match up to either an ethical or a moral standard.




II.

Auguste Rodin was commissioned by the French Ministry of Fine Arts to design his first large-scale sculpture in 1880. He was already highly regarded for other art forms.
The assignment was to create an entryway for a decorative arts museum to be built in Paris. Somehow, a name for the doorway evolved, and it came to be “The Gates of Hell,” not “The Gate of Hell.”
It turns out that Rodin was a great fan of Dante Aligheri and his The Divine Comedy. One of the three major segments of this work, entitled “The Inferno,” was commonly referenced in French art and literature of the day. Rodin took some of Aligheri’s literary images and turned them into his visual art.
In “The Inferno,” Dante imagines himself on a journey to find God, and on his way he passes through hell, purgatory, and then paradise. Dante’s tour guide, as it were, was the Roman poet, Virgil. The two of them descend through nine circles of hell, and in each circle they see sinners being punished in hell for the sins they committed on Earth. Among those in hell were thieves, those who had been lustful, heretics, those who had been wrathful, traitors, and liars among others.
In addition to “The Inferno,” Rodin also had in his mind a controversial book by Charles Baudelaire entitled The Flowers of Evil. I’ve never read this book, or heard of it until I began to study “The Gates of Hell,” but one literary scholar said that The Flowers of Evil makes Edgar Allen Poe look like Mary Poppins in comparison! Death and depravity abound.
Why Rodin was captivated with these two books, I haven’t been able to discover. Nor do I know why this would be suitable for an entrance to a museum. In any case, Rodin undertook the commission in 1880. By the end of the decade, it became clear to the sculptor that the museum wasn’t going to be built. Even so, he was invested in his project and continued to work on it for the rest of his life. It was actually unfinished when he died.
There is much more in the sculpture than we can take in, in a few minutes. One thing we can tell for sure is that there is no hint of God in hell. There is no part of creation, created by God Godself, in which God should not and could not be. One of the psalmists was so convinced of God’s presence with her or him that there was the memorable declaration:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psa 139:7-10 NRSV).

Several of the numerous figures in the sculpture Rodin enlarged and sculpted, then exhibited, independently–notably, “The Three Shades,” “The Kiss,” and the one barely-informed appreciaters of art like me know about, “The Thinker.” How do such images signal that one is about to enter a place of eternal punishment and torment? I agree with what John Siegfried said to me this morning about what you seen on the screen now: “They don’t look very hellish.” I absolutely agree, and I think that clearly was Rodin’s intent.
Rodin’s figures look very much like real people. Their figures are not distorted, and they are not well-done. In Dante’s mind–and, evidently, in Rodin’s too–they were people who had lost their way; they were not inherently evil. There are some humans, thankfully few, who embody evil and who live it out to the fullest, but they are in the minority. If there were a hell, it would be filled mostly with those who had lost their way–those who made a mistake here or there and didn’t know how to fix it. Thankfully, God doesn’t actually permit hell.
It’s hard to get away from longstanding views of hell when we hear the threatening preaching of preachers like John the Baptist! “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” (Luke 3:9b NRSV).
Eve from the Garden of Eden is there in Rodin’s mix. She isn’t suffering in hell from the heat; her hell, obviously, is her shame and her contrition. She buries her face and tries to turn away from the gaze of onlookers.
“The Kiss” has two people locked in a serious kiss. There doesn’t seem to be anything hellish or wrong about a kiss. Rodin was using it, though, to convey how the lustfully immoral had been portrayed in Dante’s “The Inferno.”
The most hellish thing about hell, if the gates are any indication, is the absence of hope. How one lived her or his life goes with that person into eternity. Eve cannot undo what she did. Those who live their lives in service to immoral lust (and not all lust is immoral!) will never be free of it.
What all of these people have in common is that having not undone their ways that amounted to pushing God away they ended their lives on Earth without hope for anything more. As Dante’s “The Inferno” had it, people entering hell saw the following words atop the gate: “All hope abandon, ye who enter in.” Pretty scary stuff.
There have been a number of ideas about who “The Thinker” is, as he hovers over those entering “The Gates of Hell.” The best suggestion might be that “The Thinker” is none other than Dante himself, contemplating his pathway to God, which would take him through hell. This makes me wonder if humans have to ponder hell before they can be free to embrace heaven.




III.

I just showed a film about Martin Luther to some of my undergrads at Wilmington College. The film is entitled, oddly enough, “Luther,” and I’ve been showing it to my “Human World Views” students for about a year now. It’s a very well-done, and I think, rather authentic portrayal of the odd monk who started the Protestant Reformation.
One of the practices that Luther came to detest in his Roman Catholic faith tradition was the selling of indulgences–those special prayers one could purchase to keep their own souls and the souls of their loved ones out of purgatory and, ultimately, hell. Alfred Molina does a disturbingly good job at portraying the Pope’s favored indulgence-preacher. And when he preaches about hell in this film, he actually has associates stoking literal fires and making them hotter and hotter as the flames stretch higher and higher. His poor listeners who don’t know any better than to believe exactly what this “man of God” tells them are terrified. So many of them are literally poor, and, yet, they do what they have to do to scrape the money together to buy those certificates of indulgence to protect their loved ones and themselves for eternity.
One sad-looking, poverty-stricken woman has been told by Molina’s character, Johann Tetzel, that purchasing a prayer of indulgence will allow her child who is crippled in this world to be able to RUN to Jesus in the next. It turns out that she is a member of the parish Luther, played by Joseph Finnes, is tending while he is earning his doctoral degree in theology. He looks at the piece of paper the woman proudly shows her pastor, and he says something like, “My dear, this is just a piece of paper.”
Later, in his own times of reflection he wonders aloud why the Holy Father, if he could indeed, keep people from hell wouldn’t do all he could to make that happen without any thought of commerce! If there really is a hell, and it’s as horrible as conservatives want to make it, why would we not try to LOVE people away from it? More importantly, why would a God, said to love humanity so much, allow for unending, divinely-ordained torture? My dear friends, hell and God simply can’t go together. If there is a God, there can be no hell.
This weekend I received an email from someone I don’t know, and I very nearly erased it without reading it. I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, I’m glad to have learned what I learned by reading the email, but the story it told heightened my already substantial fear of militant, UN-loving Christian fundamentalists.
Here’s the deal. Some of you may know about or even have read one of the novels in the “Left Behind” series. These were highly popular a few years ago, and they sold literally millions of copies. The author of these novels was a guy named Tim LaHaye who, when I was in high school, had already begun trying to scare the hell out of people by predicting the immanent end of time, the so-called “second coming” of Jesus to end this world and human history as we know it. And if one reads scripture literally there is an element of apocalyptic thought in both Hebrew and Christian scripture. Even Jesus is said to have touched on it–though without elaborating on it to any great degree.
The correct New Testament Greek word for this event is “parousia,” which means appearing or re-appearing; NOT “second coming.” Now, the fact that nearly two thousand years since Jesus died to this Earth have passed without Jesus having physically reappeared, and despite countless inaccurate predictions that he was on the verge of popping right though the clouds, might cause some people to wonder if that point of eschatology were misunderstood all along.
Even self-assured, overbearing old Apostle Paul who began his writing ministry warning the early Christians to be ready for immanent reappearing of Jesus on Earth had to change his tune as the years rolled along with no Jesus in the clouds. Truth be told, many Christians through the ages have given in to parousia-preoccupation when the world looked or felt too horrible for them. It’s a lot easier to sit back and passively wait for Jesus to come and rescue us from the horrible messes we have made in human life and culture than to roll up our sleeves one more time and take the risks and do the hard work of cleaning things up.
Anyway, Tim LaHaye resurfaced with these “Left Behind” novels after years of virtual anonymity. People were reading them like wildfire. I noticed that in Charlie Wiswall’s last difficult days someone had slipped a copy of one of these books into his hands–some horrible stuff to force upon someone who is so sick.
When my own father was in his last hours of life on Earth, someone from the church my family attends kindly showed up in the hospital the morning Dad would die, and his kindness notwithstanding he offensively struck up a conversation with my family and me about how near Jesus’ return to Earth was and how we should remember, therefore, that if Dad didn’t make it we’d be seeing Dad in the next world very soon.
Now, the LEFT BEHIND concept has been sold by Tyndale Publishers to a video game company that will devise it and market it to the children of fundamentalist Christians. Not only will these kids learn to think of life in this world as immanently ending, but also they’ll learn the Christian fundamentalist perspective on precisely how all things will end. These details include the notion that in the end everybody in the world other than Christian fundamentalists will be consigned to hell by God Godself. And with their games they can divine people up and themselves send their enemies to hell and watch them burn!
Progressives, including many folks associated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, are protesting the release of such a hate-filled, theologically misguided so-called “game.” I’ve recently added my name to a petition pleading with Tyndale Publishers and the Christian “game maker” to stop the project in its tracks. If it gets out, children will be pressed much sooner than they already are, and with less life-experience and emotional maturity, to embrace the concept of a God who hates everyone but people like their fundamentalist parents, to hate people who think differently than they do. That would mean hell.
Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sermon for November 26, 2006

    SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington's Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

Sermon Series Winter 2006-07

God in Great Art


 

November 26, 2006 Sermon #1

"Winter Landscape with Church"

Caspar David Friedrich


 

www.topofart.com/images/artists/Caspar_David_Friedrich/paintings/friedrich027.jpg


 


 

I.


 

    It shouldn't be surprising as frequently as it happens, but many of us are still shocked when, in one of life's bleakest moments, we are subtly reminded of God's nearness. That should be one of the most joyous realities of our faith; yet, we have been culturally and religiously programmed to think just the opposite–namely that when bad things happen to us God is testing us or punishing us in some way or, at the very least, God has dozed off or for some UngodLY reason passively "allowed" our lives to be disrupted if not threatened. As a result, it is much easier for us to allow ourselves to feel God-forsaken when the tough times come rather than God-embraced. I am definitely inspired by those who can walk life's rough roadways with a special sense of God's nearness and who don't take their crises as God's meanness or carelessness.

    I can't help but think of Jesus on the cross screaming out in his agony, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I don't by any means want to try to minimize his physical or emotional pain as he lived through his horrible Roman execution. I also think it's entirely out of order for us to try to make anything about Jesus' suffering a neat and tidy little package that was all cleaned up and made essentially inconsequential by the resurrection. Jesus' pain was as real as the pain of every other human being ever crucified by Rome; as he suffocated to death, suffocation being the ultimate cause of death in Roman executions, he was in horrible pain and fear, too, I think; it's definitely alarming when one can't breathe.

    All of this real world stuff clearly in our minds, I do think it is worth thinking about the proposal of some scholars–and not all of them conservative by any means–who say the words that have been designated as Jesus' "cry of dereliction"–were indications that in his pain he was quoting the twenty-second psalm, which moves through real pain to praise of God anyway.

 


 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; "Commit your cause to the Lord; let [God] deliver— let [God] rescue the one in whom [God] delights!"


 

Notice the definite thought transition that now occurs in the psalm.


 

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother's breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.


 

Back, now, to the reality of suffering, but suffering seen with the possibility of the nearness of God having been established.


 

Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.


 

If the Romans actually did cast lots to see who would get Jesus' better-than-average toga, the parallel here with Psalm 22 is striking!


 

But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion!


 

The psalmist moves after all of this remembrance of pain to pure praise of God ANYWAY, in the hope for–not the demand for–deliverance.

    I am reminded of the prayer Jesus is said to have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "God, if this cup can pass from me, let it be so; nevertheless, not my will but yours be done." I hate that Jesus had to think of his death as God's will if, indeed, that is what he thought, but my point is that Jesus hoped to be delivered from pain and death if at all possible. Back to Psalm 22:


 

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who [reverence] the Lord, praise [the Lord]! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify [God]; stand in awe of [God], all you offspring of Israel! For [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; [God] did not hide [God's] face from me, but heard when I cried to [God].


 

This is a long way from, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," isn't it?


 

From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who [awe God]. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek [God] shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before [God]. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and [God] rules over the nations. To [God], indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before [God] shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for [God]. Posterity will serve [the Lord]; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim [divine] deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that [God] has done it (NRSV, adapted especially for inclusive language).


 

From, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," to, "...in the midst of the congregation I will praise you," in the same psalm!

    At first glance, there is much more bleakness to note than any cause for celebration in Caspar David Friedrich's "Winter Landscape with Church." With a little thought and reflection, though, bleakness is only a small part of the artistic story.


 


 

II.


 

    Caspar David Friedrich's oil painting, "Winter Landscape with Church," hangs today at the Stadtisches Museum, the City Museum, in Dortmund, Germany. Friedrich lived from 1774 until 1840. He was regarded by many as the leading landscape painter of the Romantic period. Our resident art historian, Mimzie Uhler–without whose tireless research and other support this sermon series could not have been possible–tells me that Friedrich "liked to paint Gothic ruins, contorted trees, bleak seascapes and craggy mountains, often using mysterious lighting effects. He often included lonely figures who were insignificant in the vast landscapes."

    Romantic artists, and this is also true of musicians as well as writers of the Romantic period, were reacting against the constrictions of the Enlightenment era. Aesthetic types evidently felt that, among other misunderstandings, the Enlightenment had pressed people to rationalize nature–to think more about its scientific essence than to feel its beauty. The Romantics wanted to feel all that moved them; they were reclaiming emotions in a way, and what they felt, they felt deeply. One cultural historian has suggested that Romanticism stressed passion rather than reason, and imagination and intuition rather than logic.

    Romantic literary heros were often rabble rousers; "revolutionaries" might be a nicer word for them. Whatever we call them, they were rebelling against social norms and conventions. In parallel, some art historians have said the Romantic artists were in revolt against artificial ideas of "acceptable" art form.

    Romantic artists of all stripes were newly in love with nature; yet, they were largely discontented with everyday life in the world as they knew it. This surely had much to do with the fact that the Romantics turned their attention to remote and faraway, even exotic, places; to folklore and legends; and to nature along with a focus on common people.

    Romantic composers challenged the formalism of the classical forms emphasized during the Enlightenment. Some of them gave their works a distinctively nationalistic character by using folk songs as themes within their musical compositions.

    In terms of Romantic emphases in societies as a whole, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau taught that people are naturally good; they are not naturally evil by any means. The problem is, human beings have been corrupted by the societal institutions. Rousseau, following the Romantic interest in common folk, idealized the kind of person who came to be known as "the noble savage," any individual unspoiled by luxury and sophistication.

    The Brothers Grimm did their work during this same era. Their story collections were originally not children's stories at all–and, in original form, not even suitable for children! The stories they collected were stories the peasants of Germany passed down and around orally. Wilhelm and Jakob, for their part, simply wrote them down to preserve them in the spirit of the Romantic movement.

    As for religion in the Romantic era, we have to step back one movement and pause to see how the Enlightenment weakened the hold of Christianity over society to the extent that some leaders, at least, no longer felt the need to engage in fierce battles with various religious establishments. In fact, by the time of Romanticism religion became like any other discipline; it was studied with care, but plenty of critics felt free to say so and even to poke fun at some of foibles of faith traditions.

    In a sense, restraint and order were out, and spontaneity was in! There was a new preoccupation with what was exceptional and unconventional rather than what was well-ordered and universally true. Romantic painters often used bold lighting effects and deep shadows along with other techniques to cast a visionary quality over their scenes and subjects.

    Romantics were yearning for the eternal or, at least, the infinite, weary of being limited in Enlightenment thought and art to what was strictly of this world. English Romantic poet, William Blake, for example, believed that, if we looked carefully enough, we could see the whole world in a single grain of sand, and heaven itself in a wild flower.

    Now, let's see what stands out in the painting before us as distinctively "Romantic."

 

  • I certainly think this would have to have been painted by someone who loved nature and its intricacies. Just look at the detail!


 

  • It is not a typical scene someone up to that point in time would have wanted to remember in art. The weather and the setting are at least a little on the gloomy side, but to those who truly love nature even gloomy scenes are beautiful. A serious electrical storm isn't beautiful to me, but my freshman year college roommate, who is now a highly respected hospital chaplain in Knoxville, used to love horrible storms. He would go sit on a porch and watch the lightening and sheets of rain pouring down.
  • The use of bold lighting and deep shadows is clearly evident. The contrasts are striking.
  • Also, there is definitely a visionary quality to the piece. At first glance, anyway, this could easily be a part of someone's dream.
  • The presence of the church in this picture is attention-getting, and we're going to think more about that in a moment. For now, though, I mention it as a tell tale indication of the Romantic concern with the infinite. Regardless of the extraordinarily simple name Friedrich has given to this masterpiece, "Winter Landscape with Church," there is surely much more to the meaning of the painting than meets any first glance. Such an elaborate church structure out in what appears to be the middle of no where seems entirely out of place; yet, in this picture, though not in the foreground, it absolutely belongs.


 


 

III.


 

    A small village church might seem just right for a setting such as the one Friedrich painted, but not a cathedral-ish structure with dramatic spires out in the middle of uninhabited space. We expect a cathedral to be in a city where lots of people can easily come and go.

    Upon closer observation, we begin to wonder where the real spires are. I mean, can you see how much the spires of the great cathedral resemble the tops of the trees? And, surely it's no accident that the trees are more prominent and in the foreground, while the church is a background item. It's not that the church is unimportant, because the presence of the church building is certainly supposed to call our attention to God, but I have the feeling that Friedrich, a child of Romanticism, may be telling us that truer worship can take place outside the buildings especially erected for the worship of God.

    The Romantic artists did not have the need or the desire to protect or preserve the institutional church; that church, in the minds of many of the Romantic thinkers and artists, had neglected humanity. There was no need to hold onto something that had failed. God is being praised in nature here.


 

    Emily Dickinson's poem comes to mind:

 


 


 

SOME keep the Sabbath going to church; I keep it staying at home, With a bobolink for a chorister, And an orchard for a dome.


 

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church, Our little sexton sings.


 

God preaches—a noted clergyman— And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I'm going all along!


 

    The eighth Psalm is caught up in the wonder of nature, and the psalmist is driven to prayer and praise of the Creator of this amazing space we are privileged to inhabit and behold.


 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?


 

Here is a very powerful question! What is the basis for divine attentiveness to humanity? The psalmist answers the question, but not in a direct way. It's as if the writer is pondering the question in her or his mind before beginning to state facts that might have an impact on what has been pondered. What comes around is a two-part response.


 

Sunday, November 19, 2006

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Sermon from November 19, 2006


SILVERSIDE SERMONS

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
www.silversidechurch.org


Sermon Series Fall 2006
Name That Sermon!
The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects

November 12, 2006 Final Sermon in Series
From Judaism to Christianity, from Speculation to Dogma,
from Peasant Preacher to Resurrected Lord

I
Who really knows exactly how Jesus; the peasant, first century Palestinian preacher; became, in legend if not in history, the resurrected lord of the church? I doubt that any one person alone could answer that question. The differences of opinion on this matter are extraordinarily varied, one in conflict with the other, and these conflicting points of view have been around about as long as Jesus has. FINALLY, here at Silverside Church this very morning, we will be able to get the matter settled once and for all, and in a way that will be please everyone in Christendom! (I hope you’re laughing at how ludicrous the mere suggestion is!)
Seriously though, folks, answering this question gets right to the heart of Jesus’ true identity, and that takes us to the broad area of investigation in the field of theology called “Christology.” It is doubtful that the church has argued more passionately or for longer periods of time over any other set of doctrines than those related to Christology. This doctrine deals with who Jesus was, whether he was human or divine or both, what his relationship with God was, what his relationship to salvation is, and so on.
For some, Jesus was an amazing person, but not divine and certainly not pre-existent or co-existent with God. For others, Jesus wasn’t ever at any point human even though he may have seemed it to observers; even if he did SEEM human to some, he was divine from the get-to, before he came from heaven to live on earth.
We know where the “winners,” the power people, in the development of institutional Christianity ended up by looking at the so-called “Apostles’ Creed.” Tradition says that the apostles themselves, the closest followers of Jesus, pulled these affirmations of faith together; that is HIGHLY debatable. It is suspected by modern historians that pieces of the so-called Apostles’ Creed weren’t “inserted” until the sixth century CE.
Be that as it may, in time persons who couldn’t affirm affirm its tenets were in the wrong and needed to get themselves right by learning to think the way MOST Christians have always thought. Otherwise, they deserve to be excommunicated.
In truth, there have always been plenty of people who believed things about Jesus OTHER THAN what is stated in the creed, but opposition has been severely played down by the winners who told stories the way they wanted circumstances and events perceived (much more than the way they actually were). More about that later. For now, the Apostles’ Creed, and many of you know it and grew up in traditions in which you said it regularly, maybe weekly. Many of you here today can, no doubt, recite the whole thing by memory.
There are twelve “stanzas,” and they are built around absolutely literalistic understandings of the stories about Jesus spoken and later written by those presumably closest to Jesus.

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

This is a perfectly orthodox way to view Jesus–from birth to death and beyond. There was a time, in fact, there were lots of times, when–if one couldn’t affirm each and every one of these so-called apostolic assertions–she or could have been declared a heretic and excommunicated from the fellowship of the institutional church.
I’d like to point out that Jesus himself, in any and all literature we have reflecting his own teachings or sayings attributed to him, did not make many of these claims for himself. Being as articulate and opinionated as he could be, we have to wonder why–if each of these beliefs was so important as to be a part of the final proof of whether or not someone may spend eternity in the heavenly realms–Jesus didn’t get around to making these points about himself.
Let me be specific. I don’t recall anything in the teaching of Jesus that affirmed his belief in God as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He was a devout Jew, and he knew the Torah so we assume he accepted the stories of creation in Genesis as theologically accurate; but he didn’t himself affirm it. Now, the Gospel of John does indeed open with its beautiful Logos Hymn, affirming that God was the Creator and, amazingly, that Jesus somehow was that Creator God. That is a Johannine perception. The Gospel of John is full of grandiose interpretations of Jesus–most of which were not shared by the three Gospels that preceded it. In any case, I just wonder why Jesus didn’t speak up at some point and say, “I joined God in the creation of this world,” or even, “I know that God is the Creator.”




II

If Jesus really had descended into hell between his death and resurrection, why didn’t he tell somebody that? Even the Gospel writers know nothing of such a descent; in fact, this was based on a very obscure comment in the Epistle of First Peter about Jesus preaching to captives. No one really knows what that means, but there was absolutely nothing implied in the book of First Peter to suggest that Jesus ever, bodily or in the spirit, went to the abode of the dead for any reason. Yet, here that assertion is in the creed, and in times past those who wouldn’t affirm it were excommunicated from the church and told that they themselves would spend eternity in hell for denying the truth.
If Jesus really were THE Messiah, the Christ, for which Israel had been longing since ancient times, why didn’t he just say so?
We have several scriptural references to persons reflecting back on Jesus’ life and ministry, and saying, “You know, he must have been the Christ.” But Jesus himself never made that claim and never asked anyone to believe it.
The only “close call” is in John chapter four when Jesus is having this conversation with a woman at a well. It is evident from their conversation that he knows a great deal, and he is promising her living water if she will pay attention to what he’s saying, which is encouragement from him to embrace God as Jesus knows God.
She gets a little uneasy when Jesus seems to know a great deal about her not-so-exemplary personal life, and so she seems to change the subject a bit:

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:25-26 NRSV).

Now, literally, this last verse can be translated, “I am the one who is speaking to you,” which I take to mean that Jesus didn’t want her to change the subject. In other words, Jesus wanted her to concentrate on what he was saying.
I don’t think Jesus claimed to be the Messiah–a Child of God and a Child of Humanity, yes. But given the messianic expectations of the ancient Hebrews that he knew good and well he could not and would not fulfill, why would have claimed to have been a militant messiah having come into the world to liberate Israel from worldly powers like Rome? I’m right where Marcus Borg and Art Erhmann are on this matter.
The messiah the ancient Hebrews hoped for wasn’t a spiritual ruler; he was a military power who would suffer for his courage and his desire to free his people to worship God as they saw fit. If Jesus WERE a messiah, he was not the one anyone knew to hope for. And if he were, why didn’t he talk it up? Even if that one odd conversation in the Gospel of John is an indication that Jesus was claiming messiahship, why is there just that one obscure reference to something the church has made so central?
Let me bring up something else about Jesus’ teachings that are completely out of character in comparison to how the institutional church developed using his teachings. The church, as it eventually became increasingly powerful, didn’t have any qualms whatsoever telling Christians what they HAD to believe, but that is something Jesus NEVER did. Doesn’t that strike you as odd or as fascinating?
Jesus doesn’t tell us what we have to believe. Even his primary teaching/preaching method structurally and rhetorically was designed to be anything other than dogmatic. His parables pondered great spiritual issues, and evidently there were several truths hearers might consider embedded in the stories. Whether or not that’s the case, it is indisputable that Jesus left his parables open-ended. He did not draw the conclusions for his hearers.
If this is true, and I think I’m on target with my reading of Jesus’ teachings as they’ve come down to us, how in the world could we have a religion that evolved to be purely dogmatic–that is, with list upon list of list upon list of what must be believed in order for adherents to be in good with God? Ignore what Jesus taught. Disregard how Jesus conceived of faith. Create a religion that he would have no part of!
Jesus called on his fellow Jews to give up the attempt to find themselves in a right connection with God by keeping the rules. He didn’t say the rules, all of them anyway, were bad or wrong. He didn’t say children of God should live without principles and ethics. He didn’t say, “Anything and everything you want to believe is cool, man!” But he didn’t give a list of beliefs you’d better believe or else! Paul might get in the mood to do that now and then, but not Jesus. Jesus evidently believed that if we loved God, ourselves, and our fellow humans AND ACTED ACCORDINGLY, we’d get it; we’d believe as much as we needed to believe to find our way through this complicated world and into a richer, less complicated future realm.
What happened with the Christian religion as it developed institutionally is that various speculations ABOUT Jesus became more important than what Jesus himself said (to the best of our ability to ascertain). We all know that there isn’t too much left of Jesus’ teachings; the early institutional church knew that as well. And, while I can’t know for sure or second guess anyone’s motivations, it strikes me as more than a little odd that the religion supposedly based on the teachings of Jesus is much more connected to doctrines ABOUT Jesus than the teachings of Jesus themselves.
Jesus never said, “I am God.” He did say, “I and God are one,” meaning there’s a true unity between them–not that they are the same entity. If Jesus is God, then how absurd is it for Jesus to be running around praying to himself.
There are two reasons the developing institutional church didn’t build the key doctrines of the Christian Church around the actual teachings of Jesus. One, I’ve already alluded to. There wasn’t much there. Only a handful of sayings by and stories about Jesus made it even to the end of the first century. They were looking for more to hold on to; thus, Paul becomes so important, and in no time at all Paul’s reflections and efforts to settle early local church problems come to be taken as of equal importance to the teachings of Jesus himself. The second reason is that it’s much harder to live out Jesus’ open-ended, yet highly demanding, teachings.




III

I think there are two vitally important facts we must always keep in mind about Jesus and religion. I mention both frequently because I believe that Christianity must always define itself in light of these. 1) Jesus; in terms of his own religious commitment, identification, and practice; was from birth to death a devout Jew. 2) Jesus loved his faith tradition and did NOT set out to create a new religion, and as a matter of fact he did NOT create a new religion. Jesus was a reformer, clearly within Judaism.
Jesus never knew anything about Christianity or even the earliest name for its adherents: “the Way”; he never knew anything about a formal or institutional “church.” He never entered or even saw a church building. He never heard the words, “pastor” or “deacon,” or any of those titles that Paul tossed around with such frequency and ease. And I must say as plainly as I know how that Jesus would not have endorsed any religious movement that worshiped anyone other than the one and only God to whom he was utterly devoted and to whom his teachings pointed.
Much of Christianity as it developed and as it is today makes Jesus the object of worship, makes Jesus God. The doctrine of the Trinity in many of its interpretations has fundamentally denied monotheism. Any number of Christians glibly say things like, “Jesus was God,” “Jesus is God.”
The “Logos Hymn” at the beginning of John’s Gospel is the primary culprit, and yet the Gospel of John otherwise goes to great lengths to emphasize the separate identities of God and Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-14 NRSV).

This is a beautiful hymn, and if we had the time to study it with care we could see how brilliantly whoever wrote it–likely NOT the author of John’s Gospel who, almost certainly, borrowed it–used a set of images that would have been appealing both to Gnosticism and to Judaism.
The translation of verse one in this passage is especially important as it has, more than any other passage, been used to make Jesus and God one and the same entity. You just heard how the New Revised Standard Version translators rendered it.
A literal translation would be more like this: “In beginning was the word and the word was with God and God was the word.” In this whole opening verse or stanza, which would be verses 1-3, there is no specific identification of “the word” with Jesus. In my mind, a chronological and literary progression is being presented by the writer, and the word isn’t associated with Jesus until later in the passage.
There is no reason grammatically that “the word” has to refer to a person. It may refer to a substance or a non-personal entity.
If we take the translation offered in the Today’s English Version of the New Testament as more correct in terms of getting the essence of the Gospel of John into modern understanding, then what we end up with is this:

From the very beginning,
When God was, the word also was;
Where God was, the Word was with him;
What God was, the Word was also.

This beautiful translation doesn’t have us equating Jesus with God. It makes them of the same “substance,” if you will, but that doesn’t make them one and the same. This, I think, is clearly what the writer wanted to say. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NRSV). By the end of the segment, there is a clear DISTINCTION between God as parent AND the child of God who clearly reflects the essence of the parent.
In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul has borrowed a hymn, and it too has been used by many through the ages to make Jesus, who is again presented as having lived with God before having come to earth, God, but listen carefully:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (NRSV).

Jesus and God are clearly distinct here. Jesus takes on the form of a servant to humanity, and in response to that God exalts Jesus and calls on humanity to acknowledge him as Lord to God’s glory–not as an affirmation that he himself is or ever was God.
It is not necessary to make Jesus divine in order to affirm his vital and unique connection to God. In fact, if we don’t let Jesus be human in our minds–obviously we can’t change his reality–we will have no idea of who he truly was or what he was about.
Marcus Borg, in his book, The God We Never Knew, has this to say:

The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus. This Jesus is a figure of the past, a finite mortal human being born around the year 4 BCE....That Jesus–the flesh-and-blood Galilean Jewish peasant of the first century–is no more. The post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. More specifically, the post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience....The post-Easter Jesus of Christian tradition is the Jesus of the developing traditions of early Christianity....The post-Easter Jesus of Christian experience is the risen living Christ who was known after the death of the pre-Easter Jesus in the experience of his first followers and who continues to be known to this day (pp. 87-88).

The startling reality is that Jesus himself didn’t establish a new religion, nor did he give any thought or energy to the possibility. Had it not been for Paul, Christianity would never have become a separate religion. Institutional Christianity, building on Paul much more often than Jesus, has been immensely successful, and it remains so to this day; however, a thinking person has to wonder, except for the teachings of Jesus that have been preserved though often ignored in terms of both spirituality and ethics, if establishing a new religion was a bad idea.
Wouldn’t the world be better off with JUST the teachings of Jesus to guide us minus one more religious institution in the world that, at best, only gives lip service to what was truly important to Jesus? I wonder.