Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sermon from July 30, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 

©Copyright July 2006, Silverside Church


 


 

Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

July 30, 2006 Sermon #12

“Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?”

“Big River”

(final sermon in series)


 


 

I.


 

    I was driving out across Highway 41 this week and happened to see a message on a church’s sign board that has really stuck with me–like indigestion. It read–and I know you’ll want to make note of this to share with your internet friends across the world: “Exposure to the Son [S-O-N, not S-U-N] may prevent burning.” On yet another Sunday with the new air conditioner less than full installed, I have appropriately decided to preach oh hell. I have heard that the Board of Finance, before asking for additional contributions to cover the serious costs of replacing our 30-something year-old air conditioner, wants you to feel first-hand what an un-air-conditioned sanctuary feels like during one of the hottest times of the year here.

    Seriously, though, folks, hell is a sobering subject, and I want to let you know right up front that I don’t believe in hell as a place of eternal damnation, torment, and punishment for enemies of the same God who loved the world and humanity enough to bring it/us into being. The only hell there is, is the one we keep creating or recreating on this earth, in this realm. The concept of a loving God who either “wills” or tolerates a burning, eternal hell is completely incongruous and intolerable. Furthermore, the Bible–the Judeo-Christian scriptures–do not teach the doctrine of hell as it has been well-developed and utilized by various preachers and religious institutions as a tool of threat, fear, and manipulation.

    The Broadway musical, “Big River,” opens with the song, “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?”, in which Huckleberry Finn is given the two options in his life–heaven or hell–by practically everyone he knows. In a moment, you’ll hear this song sung. When you do, I want you to listen for the alternatives and antidotes presented to Huck in this song by the late Roger Miller based, of course, on the writings of Mark Twain. (Readers of this sermon manuscript will find the lyrics to this song at the end of the manuscript.)

    This isn’t the only place hell comes up in the funny–yet very moving–production. Some of you may have seen the amazing production of this musical at the Dupont a couple of years ago; it was produced and performed by the American Deaf Theatre using a combination of deaf and hearing/speaking actors. In any case, as you may know from your reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is caught between lots of rocks and hard places. The most painful of these for him is how to manage his friendship with a slave named Jim. What is the ethical thing for him, Huck, to do? Ensure that Jim, as a piece of property, stays with his “rightful owner” OR help Jim, as a human being, escape to full freedom. Having been brought up to believe in the preservation of slavery, the notion of freed slaves is rather novel to Huck, but at one very agonizing moment, painfully torn between those two worlds but deciding to help Jim find freedom, Huck screams out, “Alright, I’ll just go to hell!” We have to understand, as is so often the case, people are taught by their religious leaders and mentors that a societal norm is God’s will and that to go against that principle in any way is to slap God in the face, to reject God–as it were.

    You would shudder, perhaps, to go back and read copies of some of the sermons preached in pulpits of practically all denominations in the southern United States that “use” Scripture to defend slavery. The various implications of rejecting slavery wound back to the notion that to oppose slavery was to oppose God. One wonders if slavery in the south could have lasted as long as it did apart from the complicity of effective pro-slavery Protestant and Catholic preachers.

    In any case, that is exactly what Huck has confronted. He chooses Jim. He chooses freedom for a fellow human being. He rejects the institution of slavery, and in so doing–because he doesn’t know any better–he believes he has rejected the God who so ordered the world. Brave young man he was, that Huck! He chose humanity over hell.

    When Mark Twain was writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he gave a potential publisher an insight into this very episode. Wrote Twain: “In this crucial moral emergency...a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into conflict, and conscience suffers defeat.” So, does hell, by the way.


 


 


 


 


 

II.


 

    More and more preachers and scholars, of even a more traditional or conservative persuasion, are reading the scriptures as we have them and admitting–reluctantly or in celebration–that there is no such thing as hell as currently popularly presented in either Hebrew or Christian scriptures. One rather traditional scholar called the Christian doctrine of hell a myth that originated not in the Bible but rather in the traditions developing some three hundred years after Jesus’ execution. Indeed, the English word, “hell,” was chosen by the King James translation committee to translate several biblical words including “sheol” and “hades.” Instead of letting each word have its own intended meaning, this catch-all word was chosen for convenience. We can honestly say that the word, “hell” doesn’t appear in any of the original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts that became a part of Judeo-Christian scripture.

    We learned at one of our mid-week gatherings a few months ago about the Reverend Carlton Pearson, the African American Oral-Roberts-protégé, who for years had preached the doctrine of a literal hell in keeping with the general theological outlook of his denomination, the Church of God in Christ–the largest, predominantly Black pentecostal religious group in the world. He was pastoring a 5000 member church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was holding annual conferences to which 20,000-plus participants routinely came. He was making serious money himself and leading a congregation that took in about a million dollars every four months. (You may want to get him here for the weeks I’m away to help raise the money to pay for the air conditioner and the roof!)

    Everything seemed to be going just the way any literalistic, Bible-belt preacher would have wanted them to do when, in 1999, he had a talk with himself and had to be honest about the fact that he no longer honestly believed in a hell. He changed his message. He lost most of his congregation. He lost his church building. He lost his income. He lost his prestige. But he could no longer preach what he disbelieved.

    If you had the benefit of a religious upbringing minus threats of hell, lucky you! We don’t want our adult members and friends confronted with that kind of nonsense around here; and we especially don’t want the children who grow up in this church ever even to entertain the notion that God would punish them in the present–much less in eternal, burning fire.

    I grew up on hell. Hell was one of the most popular topics for sermons by some of the pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads. We had Sunday morning and Sunday evening preaching services every week, year ‘round, and if we didn’t visit hell in morning worship, we surely visited in that night; sometimes, we’d get to think about hell on Sunday morning AND Sunday evening.

    I shudder to remember and confess to you that I have actually preached hell-based sermons. I was always nice about it, of course; after all, I’m a Southern gentleman. I never got angry when I reminded people who didn’t get “saved” that they would have to spend eternity in hell. I remained very calm when I told them that their eternal destinies ultimately could take them in only one of two ways–heavenward or hellward.

    I have heard, in recent years, that Jonathan Edwards, when he delivered his Infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” did so not in the style of today’s loud and angry fundamentalist preacher, but rather in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. Edwards preached his unforgettable sermon 265 Julys ago in Enfield, Connecticut. He wasn’t even forty at the time he preached his most famous sermon.

 


 

There is no want of power in God to cast wicked men into hell at any moment. Men’s hands cannot be strong when God rises up. The strongest have no power to resist him, nor can any deliver out of his hands. -- He is not only able to cast wicked men into hell, but he can most easily do it. Sometimes an earthly prince meets with a great deal of difficulty to subdue a rebel, who has found means to fortify himself, and has made himself strong by the numbers of his followers. But it is not so with God. There is no fortress that is any defense from the power of God. Though hand join in hand, and vast multitudes of God’s enemies combine and associate themselves, they are easily broken in pieces. They are as great heaps of light chaff before the whirlwind; or large quantities of dry stubble before devouring flames. We find it easy to tread on and crush a worm that we see crawling on the earth; so it is easy for us to cut or singe a slender thread that any thing hangs by: thus easy is it for God, when he pleases, to cast his enemies down to hell. What are we, that we should think to stand before him, at whose rebuke the earth trembles, and before whom the rocks are thrown down? They deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine justice never stands in the way, it makes no objection against God’s using his power at any moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, justice calls aloud for an infinite punishment of their sins.


 

    In any case, I can’t tell you how badly I’d like to be able to take back all my sermonic hell-talk; I can’t imagine whom all I hurt with my horrid theology from that time in my thought-development. But I preached what I’d heard, what I’d been taught; and I didn’t do my own study and reflection. I only read commentators with whom I agreed. Of course, we always find it easier to understand the Bible if we decide what it says before we read it and let it say what it really says–which, at best, will still be prescientific and tied to ancient cultural perspectives about which we know very little yet today. Even so, if a doctrine of hell isn’t even there to misinterpret to begin with, so much the better!

     We can all understand the convenience of hell in the hands of manipulative preachers and popes who need to have people acting in certain ways, in ways THEY want their hearers to act, in order to preserve order and the institution. Either do what I tell you to do in just the way I tell you to do it, OR you’ll go to hell.

    I find the idea of hell as a threatening means to force people to accept the God as one person or group defines God reprehensible. It is the epitome of speaking for God or, actually, of putting words into God’s mouth. One human being, regardless of power and position and insight, absolutely cannot know what the relationship of any human being is to God. That having been said, we also go so far as to say that a person who either never understands what God’s love is about or who knows about God and rejects God anyway still will NOT go to hell. For one thing, again, there is no hell; for another thing, if there were a hell a loving God wouldn’t send anyone there OR allow for the possibility that some stubborn types might choose to go there just for the hell of it, so to speak.

    The words of our second hymn today have stirred me since I first heard them several years ago. The original words come from seventeenth century Spain; they were translated into English in the mid-nineteenth century, and they are profoundly inspiring for someone who believes there is a reason to embrace God’s love other than a fear of hell if she or he doesn’t so embrace:


 

My God, I love thee,

Not because I hope for heaven thereby,Nor yet for fear that loving notI might forever die...


 

Then why, most loving Jesus Christ,Should I not love thee well,Not for the sake of winning heaven,Nor any fear of hell;Not with the hope of gaining aught,Nor seeking a reward;But as thyself hast loved me,O ever loving Lord!E’en so I love thee, and will love,And in thy praise will sing,Solely because thou art my GodAnd my eternal King.


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    Our reflective reading for today came from the First Gospel (not in terms of chronology but rather literary order), Matthew’s Gospel, and it offered us words attributed to Jesus by the writer or writers of this literary masterpiece. You heard it read from a literal translation of Matthew, but this is how it reads in the most reliable modern translation of the New Testament, the New Revised Standard Version:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? (Matt 23:27-33 NRSV).


 

Dang! Jesus is mad at the Pharisees; I suspect they were his “fellow Pharisees,” as I believe that was his own political party. In any case, Jesus did NOT raise the possibility of their being sentenced to hell. We know that for certain because he doesn’t use the word for “hell” here. In fact, there was no word for hell. What he does use is a reference to the big city garbage dump, gehenna; and that is exactly how the literal version leaves it.

    So, what’s gehenna? “Gehenna” is based on a Hebrew word–and is actually used in the Hebrew scripture passed down to us–meaning “valley of Hinnom.” This valley evidently bordered ancient Jerusalem and had become the city dump–except worse. In addition to trash thrown there to burn up, the bodies of children sacrificially offered to gods such as Molech were taken there for mass, ongoing cremation. The bodies of criminals executed by the government–which, in Jesus’ day of course, meant Rome–were also taken there to burn. In all likelihood, the bodies of the two men crucified on either side of Jesus were taken from their crosses out to the Valley of Hinnom for disposal. If you recall the Jewish cleanliness laws, the constant tossing of dead bodies there made the very space intolerable to “law-abiding” Jews.

    This whole pericope (passage, segment) attributed to Jesus by Matthew is about a rather immediate spiritual death and condemnation–not about some kind of “eternal” anguish in a fire that never goes out. Notice the repeated references to tombs, graves, and death in the space of just a few verses.

    There are only a couple of places where such a horrid, godless concept could have come from. One would be the book of symbols at the end of the present New Testament, the book of Revelation. In the twentieth chapter of this brilliantly conceived and written piece of apocalyptic literature where everything is a symbol, as you’ve heard me say on other occasions. There is mention of the major forces/sources of evil being cast into a lake of fire that always burns and that will, thus, cause them unquenchable anguish day and night.

    Then, there is a reference in the Gospels that, at first blush, MAY SEEM to have Jesus pointing to an eternal fire. In Mark chapter 9, we find these words on Mark’s Jesus’ lips:


 

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to [ge-henna NOT hell], to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into [ge-henna NOT hell]. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into [ge-henna NOT hell], where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9:42-48 NRSV).


 

Jesus has in mind in this Markan passage exactly what he had mind in the Matthew passage, which is our reflective reading for today. The unquenchable fire is the fire in the city dump, in the Valley of Hinnom. Indeed, the fire never went out there; there were always more garbage and more bodies to burn.

    Jesus isn’t threatening the Pharisees and other listeners with an eternal, agonizing, fiery punishment to begin when they leave this earth. The kind of death and punishment to which he refers are very much present-tense spiritual deaths; their souls are being destroyed as they live out a “religion of appearances.” People who separate themselves from God, regardless of how pious they may look on the outside, are in agony, and that kind of agony won’t go away.

    So, any hell there is, is now. Any hell there is, is human-made; and on occasion–certainly not always, self-made. Hell is the torture of a soul, the torment of a self.

    Huck Finn didn’t have to wait until his earthly life ended to experience hell. He was already in hell–trying to propagate the institution of humanity-as-soulless-property. His willingness to go to a literal hell in his afterlife as the price for freeing one human being was actually his resurrection; not his condemnation.

    You know what hell really is, and it has nothing to do with the next realm of living, which is for all who choose it, all who want to enjoy God’s loving embrace beyond this material world. Hell is:


 

 

  • war–waging it and waiting for its weapons to maim you or your loved ones, or to take your earthly lives;


 

  • suffering an illness not popular enough to “warrant” governmentally-endorsed treatment options...and making the corporate decision not to try to find cures for such disorders;
  • being a helpless child enduring physical and/or emotional abuse with no means of escape...and abusing such children–that, too, is hell;
  • being a part of a hell-oriented religious movement, fearing constantly that you might displease an angry and vindictive God, even by accident, and land yourself in a literal, eternal, burning hell...and being the proclaimer of a such a hell.


 

All of these are hell; they destroy souls in the here and now. The only hell there is, is the one we create or recreate for ourselves and/or others. We can do something about such hells.

    Amen.

                    __________


 


 

Looka here, Huck, do you wanna go to heaven?Do you wanna go to heaven?Well I'll tell you right nowYou better learn to read and you better learn your writin’Or you'll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.

You may think that the whole thing is sillyBut it ain't silly really, and I'll tell you right nowIf you don't learn to read then you can’t read your BibleAnd you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how

Looka here, Huck, now you better think it over.Do ya wanna be a loafer like your pappy is now?You better learn to read and you better know your writin’Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.

Hey, hey do ya wanna go to heaven?Do ya wanna go to heaven?If you don't go to hell.

Looka here, Huck, do you wanna go to heaven?Do you wanna go to heaven?Well I’ll tell you right nowYou better learn to read and you better learn your writin’Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.

You may think that the whole thing is silly,But it isn't silly really, and I'll tell you right nowIf you don’t learn to read then you can’t read your Bible;You'll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.

Looka here, Huck, now you better think it overDo ya wanna be a loafer like your pappy is now?You better learn to read, and you better learn your writin’Or you’ll never get to heaven cause you won't know how.

Hey, hey ain’t the situation concernin’ education aggravatin’ and how?Do you wanna go to heaven?Well you better get your lessons or you won't know how!

Looka here, Huck, do you wanna be a fellerLike a feller really ought to beI'll tell you right now,You better learn to read, and you better learn your writin’Or you'll never get to heaven cause you won't know how

(these lyrics from the musical, “Big River”).

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sermon from July 23, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 

©Copyright July 2006, Silverside Church


 


 

    Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

July 23, 2006 Sermon #10

Til We Reach that Day

“Ragtime”


 


 

I.


 

    One of my first trips to New York after having moved to Delaware found me in the amazing city with nothing official to do on a particular afternoon. What to do? Oh yes, there’s Broadway! Lack of advance preparations are often not a problem if one seeks single seats, and I lucked into a ticket to see “Ragtime,” not really knowing a whole lot about it but admiring the work of its then-star, Brain Stokes Mitchell. That was a life-changing afternoon.

    The musical version of “Ragtime” is based on a 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow and adapted for the stage by Terrance McNally. Before the Broadway debut, however, there was an Academy Award winning film by the same title.

    “Ragtime” is set in the earliest years of the twentieth century. It is set in New Rochelle, New York. Three non-power groups within a developing American society are finding their way toward claiming their respective voices in the thoroughly-Americanized-white-male-dominated citizenry. The three groups struggling for rights are: Blacks, immigrants, and women in all groups including the white power center. The “ragtime” music being heard and felt in the era over against the various music styles people were accustomed to hearing becomes the metaphor for pervasive challenge and change being felt in every corner of this country’s cultures. Every norm was threatened with the possibility of being uprooted.

    We hardly expect such a message-piece to offer so much entertainment, but it does; and “Ragtime” was a huge hit. The inescapable message regardless of which struggling group is singing is, “Justice needs to be done.” How can oppression of human beings be tolerated? How long can and will human beings tolerate diminishment? What happens to people who suffer limitation of privileges and rights when they can take such injustice no more? And what happens to those who inflict and/or propagate such limitation of life upon them?

    “Ragtime” isn’t a comfortable musical to watch or hear at several critical points.

 

  • Immigrants are living in squalor; they’re starving, and their children are dying. They can’t tolerate that. Emma Goldman speaks out on their behalf.
  • Women in the privileged classes are speaking up and saying, “We are no longer willing for men to determine our destinies! It’s time for us to take control of our lives and our futures.”
  • Black citizens can’t get justice even when officers and courts agree that they’ve been wronged white individuals and institutions. Coalhouse Walker speaks out in their behalf, and Booker T. Washington urges patience and understanding between the races.

In the mean time, the nation is distracted by entertainments of Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini. Henry Ford is getting rich as he makes America mobile, and J. P. Morgan is moving from rich to filthy rich.

    The production is about beginnings; it is about “the human struggle”; it is about justice, and it reminds us if we allow ourselves a few moments of reflection how fleeting possibilities for justice actually are for many if not most people living in this world at any given time. We can so easily feel overwhelmed when allow ourselves to observe the many injustices that beset the majority of individuals and groups of humans on the face of this earth; what many of us have had to do is to keep looking to the future as the only possible time for being able to see justice overtake injustice.

    “Ragtime” shakes us out of our futuristic approach to problem-solving and says the time for problem solving is now. In fact, the time for problem-solving is long overdue and can’t wait until some moment in the future to be resolved. The song you will hear in a few moments, “Till We Reach that Day,” hit me initially and still does with its refusal to allow us to wait. (Readers of this sermon manuscript will find the full set of lyrics at the end of the manuscript.) The song states in no uncertain terms just what it is the world needs in order for justice to prevail: “...a day of peace, a day of pride, a day of justice....” And what if we continue to make justice for all people tentative and negotiable? Well, as the song says it, “We’ll never get to heaven till we reach that day...”: that day of peace, that day of justice, that day of pride.

    When you hear this song, you need to know that the immediate cause for the coming together of the people to sing about a better way was the “official” killing of a young Black woman, Sarah. She was Coalhouse’s girlfriend, the mother of their son, and their unborn child. He has promised to marry her when some of these justice issues are settled. Sarah can’t believe anyone would want to withhold justice if they only knew the truth.

    Coalhouse is in the middle of legal battles to have his automobile fully repaired after it was damaged by some roughneck racists. It seems that the Vice-president of the United States is in town, and Sarah attends his speech and then pushes her way through the crowd to try to explain to him what has happened to the man she loves. As she nears the Vice President, someone screams, “She has a gun!” She, of course, had never had a gun. Nonetheless, the police beat her, and I think I remember gun shots from the play. In any case the officials leave her bloody body in the streets.

    My dear friends, heaven as a utopia isn’t in the next world. Whatever the next world is or isn’t, justice of the sort we must confront today doesn’t matter. Now is when it matters, and there is no heaven without justice. Forget the next world when it comes to justice. Now is the time that injustices must be impetuses to making justice happen. Some of us still say a pledge to something or other about “liberty and justice for all.” Wow. What a scam that is!


 


 


 


 

II.

My online morning news summaries alerted me just a couple of days ago that President Bush had addressed the NAACP–FINALLY!!!– and “acknowledged” to them that racism was still alive in the United States! Wow! I had no idea. Did you?

    Actually, I felt the way I felt when I was standing with a couple of teaching colleagues from Wilmington College last fall. We were on break from a Faculty Development Day, and one of them–a Caucasian–said to my buddy, a man of color, “My students were just about to crucify me.”

    “Oh, yeah,” we both said knowingly. All professors have days like that.

    “I was trying to explain to them,” she continued, “how racism was dead in the United States, and the Black students in the group were ready to run me off campus. I don’t know what the problem was. I thought I was giving them good news.”

    There was a long silence there, as you might imagine. Neither Joe nor I knew what to say. We wondered if she were trying to be funny–and just failing miserably. Then we realized that she was soberly serious. In her white hopeful mind, she had created a reality that didn’t exist anywhere else. An American society minus racism.

    Joe could only puff on his cigarette–to choke back either tears or guffaws; I’m not sure which. Finally, I spoke. Surprise to all there and here! And I asked, “Joe, I’ll bet that’s the best news you’ve heard in ages. How does it feel in a society without racism?” He called me some name I’m not able to repeat from the pulpit, and the professor trying to teach her students that racism had been eradicated just smiled at both of us and about life itself.

    Lest I unfairly represent our President, let me just pass along to you a few of comments he made to his almost all-Black audience:

 


 

  • “I understand that racism still lingers in America.”
  • “It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart. And I understand that many African-Americans distrust my political party.”
  • “I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community,”

    I was looking up something on the United Church of Canada’s website the other afternoon, and I saw in prominent letters on the home page a big thank you to Canadian political leaders for what they had done to curtail the ethnic violence in Darfur; yet asking them to do more. There’s a lot more justice in that kind of concern than in how many people will attend an annual or biennial denominational gathering. If all denominations called off their next national or international gathering and sent the same amount of money to fight homeless and hunger that they would have spent on flights, car rentals, mousse and hair spray, hotels, meals, convention hall rentals, security, and honoraria for guest speakers, an honest dent would be made in meeting the needs of those who struggle with those particular injustices. We are proud the Gordon Umberger is a part of our congregation, and we celebrate and admire his diligent work with homeless persons in Wilmington, many of whom are recovering addicts.

    This very week at our midweek gathering, Dr. Steve Fifield made an outstanding presentation on the subject of same-gender marriage. Steve’s tables and statistics showed us, screen after power point screen, how impossible it is in this country to be gay or lesbian and want to be in a monogamous state-sanctioned union and receive the same legal benefits offered straight persons who marry someone to whom they are naturally, physically and emotionally attracted. The Federal Government blatantly discriminates against single straight people and gay and lesbian persons in loving, monogamous partnerships and civil unions. If you happened to be gay or lesbian or the parent of a gay or lesbian child, these statistics would pierce you to the heart. (By the way, we must prevail on Steve to offer this information to a larger audience, and I hope we can do that in a fall Forum session.)

    Most of you have heard by now about the wedding I attended on the tail end of my study break, as I headed from Atlanta north through Tennessee and from there on back home to Wilmington. For those few who haven’t heard the gist of my response to what I witnessed, let me share just this much–with all due respect my nephew and his wife of two weeks now. As fundamentalist theology prevails among many members of my family, somehow it was determined that liberal ole Uncle David couldn’t take part in any part of the wedding festivities. He is not to read scripture. He is not to offer a benediction. He isn’t even a holy enough clergyperson to bless the rehearsal dinner food. I don’t know how that happened exactly. I anticipated it, but it hurt my feelings when it happened, nonetheless. Aside from my hurt feelings, though, there was something else more disturbing.

    As I sat through the ceremony conducted by the bride’s fundamentalist-preacher-grandfather I still was NOT prepared for what I heard as the ceremony came to its close. He said to his little twenty-year-old granddaughter, calling her name, “You are the weaker partner in this relationship, and in order to please God you must submit to your husband from now to the end of your life.” Women subservient to men! Wonder how that idea gets propagated? I wouldn’t be marrying off any daughter or granddaughter of mine to any man who lacked understanding about the importance of equality and interdependence in a long-term monogamous intimate relationship. And some years ago, I began refusing to use the word “obey” as a part of the vows I ask brides to make to their grooms. Any couple who wants that in their ceremony definitely doesn’t want me to officiate at their wedding.

    Captain Steve Shaw, fresh off the front lines of Iraq, told a midweek group while I was out of town that, in the name of justice for all involved and in the name of pragmatics, the US should pull troops out of Iraq. “A day of peace...may I live to see. We’ll never get to heaven till we reach that day.”

    
 


 


 


 

III.

    The prophet Micah preached to the Hebrew people during part of the eighth century before Jesus was born. He is remembered as the proclaimer of messages stressing, in particular, authentic worship of God, genuine service to God, and social justice. His ministry was set in a context of destruction. Israel was not unified when he served; it had separated into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. The northern kingdom was destroyed, and Micah taught both that the people had brought such destruction upon themselves. His explanation was that the people had displeased God, and the destruction was the result of their disobedience. Even so, Micah felt strongly that there would be a restoration at some future point–likely not terribly far into the future.

    I say this for several reasons–the most important of which is that the prophets, contrary to the ways they are most commonly portrayed–had no real interest in a far-distant future from them. They were, rather, concerned with a relatively immediate future. It wasn’t any great consolation to the people who experienced or saw the destruction of Samaria to think that thousands of years ahead there would be some kind of restoration. The only thing that could encourage them was to think that in the not-too-distant future their way of life might be restored. For the most part, few groups of people–religious or otherwise–have ever had any sustained interest in any future that wouldn’t or couldn’t impact them. If you want a good example of this, think about how little most people today are concerned about global warming; as long as we’re comfortable enough with our air conditioners and utility bills, we’re fine with making ole Al Gore a “Chicken Little.”

    Here is a familiar passage from the mouth of Micah along the very lines we’re pondering:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken (Micah 4:1-4 NRSV adapted for inclusive language).


 

Micah assumed that human family before the end of his life–and certainly BY NOW–would have long since ceased the lunacy of war. The only sane way to function as the human family is to take those implements of war that we have learned we don’t even need and turn them into instruments for feeding the masses; turn killing into kindness.

    This, to me, connects beautifully and logically with the passage from Micah that we read responsively earlier in the service:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8 adapted for inclusive language).


 

These pensive questions asked of one thoughtful prophet to his own soul bring into his consciousness profound truths that, as I’ve said fairly recently, the institutional Christian religion and others still will not embrace. There is nothing anyone has to believe. There is no doctrinal test one must pass to get to a connection with God. Doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God. If the churches allowed the people to read and reflect on this principle too long, the crowds would go down indeed! The people would have to stop learning to believe a mess of irrelevant theological notions and be challenged and charged up to get out into the world, getting busy with making justice real, NOW.

    The prophet Amos also prophesied during the time of the divided kingdoms of Israel, and he also had a passion for seeing social justice realized. Amos’ special concern is to convince his people, the so-called “chosen people”–that they are on the same level as all the other people in the world. Their “chosenness” doesn’t make them exempt from the same ethical behavior expected of all people. If they do what is evil, they will suffer the consequences of doing evil–just as is true of everyone else.

    I must interject here that this has not been understood by many people yet today. Plenty of people–especially fundamentalist Christians–still carry the idea with them that “the Jews” are the chosen people of God in terms of favoritism. That, by the way, never was and is not now the case. Their status of chosenness made them responsible for sharing what they had understood about one God and God’s care for all of humanity; they were never God’s “favorites.” The New Testament makes it clear that God’s chosen people are those who chose God. Ethnicity as well as national or tribal affiliation have nothing at all to do with how God sees or relates to any people. Three Sunday ago, I was stunned down to my shoelaces to be sitting in Duke Chapel ready to get out of there, having heard the most poorly delivered sermon of my career–and by the new Dean of the Duke Chapel! There really was no excuse for such lack of all expressiveness in the delivery of any sermon by any breathing preacher. Anyway, there was a prayer from this Dean thanking God for God’s “special people,” the Jews and asking God to show us how to relate to and care for them!!!

    Hear once again the words the prophet Amos heard God speaking:

 


 

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sakkuth your king, and Kaiwan your star-god, your images, which you made for yourselves; therefore I will take you into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts” (Amos 5:21-24 NRSV).


 

Let justice roll down like waters! Let righteousness become in your life and in your world an everflowing stream. Justice pervades all communities and societies where the presence of God truly prevails.

And, we’ll never get to heaven, till we reach that day!

    Amen.


 


 


 


 


 


 

    
 

        
 


 


 


 


 


 


 

“Till We Reach that Day”


 

Sarah's Friend

There's a day of hopeMay I live to see,When our hearts are happyAnd our souls are free.Let the new day dawn,Oh, Lord, I pray.We'll never get to heavenTill we reach that day.

Mourners

It's a day of peace.A day of pride.

Sarah's Friend

A day of pride...

Mourners

A day of justiceWe have been denied.

Sarah's Friend

It's been denied.

MournersWhere a man can live,And a child can play.We'll never get to heavenTill we reach that day.

Coalhouse

What they did to her,What they took from her.She had life in her,Lord, she had my baby!Look what they left of her,Left of her,Left of my girl!

Emma

She was nothingTo them,She was a woman.

Coalhouse

My girl...

Emma and Mother

Nothing and no one to them,

Emma, Mother, and Coalhouse

So they beat herAnd beat her and beat hear and...

Mourners

A day of peace...

Coalhouse

There was blood on the ground!

Mourners

A day of pride...

Coalhouse, Emma, and Mother

She was only a girl!

Mourners

A day of justice...

Coalhouse, Emma, Mother's Younger Brother, Mother, and Father

It will happen again!

Mourners

We have been denied...

Coalhouse, Emma, Mother's Younger Brother, Mother, Father,Immigrants, People of HarlemIt will happen againAnd againAnd again...

MournersLet the new day dawn,Oh, Lord...

Tateh

Why does nobody care?

Mother's Younger Brother, Emma

There is blood in the air!

Women

We have voices and souls!

Coalhouse, Mother, Emma, Mother's Younger Brother

What is wrong with this country?

Immigrants

She was somebody's child!

Harlem Men

There are Negroes out there!

Immigrants, Blacks, Women, and Emma

There are people out there!

All

Give the peopleA day of peace.A day of pride.A day of justiceWe have been denied.Let the new day dawn,Oh, Lord, I pray...We'll never get to heavenTill we reach that day

(these lyrics quoted from “Ragtime,” the musical).

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sermon from July 16, 2006

    SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 

© Copyright Silverside Church, July 2006


 


 

    Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

July 16, 2006 Sermon #9

Puzzlement

“The King and I”


 


 


 

I.


 

    Rogers’s and Hammerstein’s musical, “The King and I,” debuted on Broadway in March of 1951, starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brenner. A young Mr. Brenner could not have known that this would be the role of a lifetime; he performed as the King some 4,000 times in his career.

    The musical was based Margaret Langdon’s 1946 book, Anna and the King of Siam, which grew out of the questionable memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who was said to have gone from Wales to Siam–now Thailand–in the early 1860's to be a teacher for the royal children of King Mongkut and his several wives and concubines. Factual or not, it’s a great story, and it makes for top-notch entertainment. I think the production also makes for a great impetus for plenty of theological and social reflection.

    Because of the novel and the musical along with two nonmusical film adaptations–one of them fairly current–most of you are probably aware, at least to some degree, of the essential plot; some of you may even have seen Stephanie Powers in the role of Anna here at the Dupont Theatre a couple of years back. And many of you have probably hummed or sung or whistled one or more of the musical’s tunes whether or not realized you were making Rogers and Hammerstein music as you showered.


 

 

  • “Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid....”
  • “Getting to know you, getting know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to hope you like me....”
  • “Hello, young lovers wherever you are, I hope your troubles are few....”
  • “He may not always say what you would have him say, but now and then he’ll say something wonderful...”


 

    The King is a forward-thinking leader, trying his best to hold together the traditions of his people while coming to grips with the broader world of the 1860's. His majesty is especially challenged to bridge his nation to parts, at least, of the western world.

    He is essentially a benevolent ruler–although tyrannical tendencies haven’t completely disappeared by any means. Mrs. Anna actually becomes bold enough to challenge his cruelties at one point; it appears that he has never been challenged by anyone, and he doesn’t take kindly to her advice on such matters, which–among other issues–prompts her to plan her departure from Siam despite her unbounded love for her pupils, the royal children, and their mothers–not to mention an interesting kind of affection for his majesty himself.

    The King, whose public persona does not indicate it by any means, nonetheless expends great energy fretting and worrying about how to do his best for his family and his people, and we get our clearest glance into this part of his life when he prays to the Buddha. You will hear this song in a few minutes. He is greatly puzzled as he prays.

    I don’t think Christians understand much about prayer to their own God; I know we don’t understand anything about prayers a non-Christian may pray to her or his deity. I didn’t realize that Buddhists prayed to the Buddha and had never pushed myself to think about it until I began putting this sermon series together.

    Meditation is closely akin to if not an aspect of prayer in Buddhist practice. The Buddha taught that there are five meditations:


 

 


 

  • “The first meditation is the meditation of love in which thou must so adjust thy heart that thou longest for the weal and welfare of all beings including the happiness of thine enemies.”
  • “The second meditation is the meditation of pity, in which thou thinkest of all beings in distress, vividly representing in thine imagination their sorrows and anxieties so as to arouse a deep compassion for them in thy soul.”
  • “The third meditation is the meditation of joy in which thou thinkest of the prosperity of others and rejoicest with their rejoicings.”
  • “The fourth meditation is the meditation on purity, in which thou considerest the evil consequences of corruption, the effects of wrongs and evils. How trivial is often the pleasure of the moment and how fatal are its consequences!”
  • “The fifth meditation is the meditation on serenity, in which thou risest above love and hate, tyranny and thraldom, wealth and want, and regardest thine own fate with impartial calmness and perfect tranquillity.”


 

    There are several “types” of Buddhists–just as there are several types of Christians, thank God! Perhaps the most well-known type of Buddhism in the western world is Tibetan Buddhism, of which the Dali Lama is the famed leader–despite his ongoing, forced exile from his homeland, his beloved Tibet.

    In Thai Buddhism, which the musical intends to reflect, the adherents do, on occasion, ask a favor of the Lord Buddha in prayer. Before the statue of the Buddha in a temple or in their homes, they bring to the session of prayer three incense sticks–one in honor of the Buddha himself, one in honor of the Sangha, the Buddhist community, and one in honor of the teachings of the Buddha, collectively referred to as the Dharma. With the incense sticks, they also traditionally bring an orchid or a lotus, symbolizing purity. Finally, a small candle is lit for the ritual; the light from the candle symbolizes enlightenment.

    The whole prayer experience is enhanced by acts of merit that make the Buddha more inclined to grant the favor sought in the prayer. One of the most reliable ways of gaining such favor is to give generously to mendicant Buddhist monks–not with cash but with practical necessities that, since they make absolutely no money, they cannot buy for themselves. Actually, little care buckets are put together for the monks, and they may contain any number of useful items such as rice and noodles, fruit juice, personal care products such as tooth paste and toilet paper, laundry products, and something like candles, perhaps. If monks in a community collectively feel that they have enough of these items among them, they can actually sell the buckets when worshipers come to a temple. The more widely the products are used, the more merit comes to the one who has given them. I don’t expect you to remember all of this, but do keep in mind how being nice to your clergyperson helps you when you pray!


 


 


 


 

II.


 

    Well, the King was greatly puzzled, and he made seeking answers to his dilemmas a part of his prayer content. (Readers of this sermon will find the lyrics to the song, “Puzzlement,” reprinted at the end of this manuscript.) I find it very interesting that Rogers and Hammerstein have the King asking Buddha to show him the way, or acknowledging the fact that IF the Lord Buddha would show him the way he could be confident or more confident about the decisions he needs to make as he keeps living and trying each day. That’s a whole lot different from the way a number of Christians pray–giving God directions on what God should do–in essence, telling God how God needs to go about being God.

    I very deliberately included this musical in the summer sermon series because I didn’t want to have only references to the God of monotheism–that is, the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are many other perspectives on God in the world. I think both acknowledging and embracing pluralism when it comes to theological reflection is the wiser course. This, as many of you know, is one of the key tenets of the Center for Progressive Christianity. We acknowledge that Jesus’ insights about God are our windows into the nature of God, but as we do that we do NOT diminish other seekers and their pathways to truth for them.

    I was taken on my recent study break with the realization one day that Jesus didn’t actually tell us very much about God. He talked a great deal about the kingdom of God–at least, many teachings about the realm of God’s influence have been attributed to him. We learn about God through inference, really; and while inference and induction may be powerful teaching tools, they are not the preferred methods for establishing so-called “absolute truths.” In fact, the very reality that Jesus favored parables with their inherent indirect application is powerfully telling. Had Jesus thought he had all the answers about God, he would have spewed them forth, but he didn’t; and he knew he didn’t. He spent a lifetime trying to learn, but no human being can fully comprehend the whole force and/or reality that is God. So Jesus appropriately made suggestions about God that he obviously intended for people to take and use as a foundation for thoughtful reflection–not to write down on a list of absolutes and assurances.

    I can think of a few instances of direct attribute-listings about God from the mouth of the canonical Jesus such as when Matthew’s Jesus encourages people not to expend all their energies worrying over what they’re going to eat or wear. He makes the point that basic provisions for all God’s creatures–including all the birds of the air–are worked into the created order. Therefore, people shouldn’t have to fret about food and shelter and clothing and such. God intends that there are enough of the basics to go around to everyone and everything.

    This is a beautiful picture of God, caring about all creatures great and small. In reality, and Jesus lived in a world in which he confronted abject poverty all around him–maybe most every day that he lived; he knew that there are people who can’t sit around and wait for God to bring them what they need. It’s there for them, but someone else has taken it. Someone else has hoarded it. Someone else has controlled these basic necessities of life and used them as bargaining chips to get those without access to them to behave in certain specified ways. But that part is NOT God’s will.

    Most of the time, we gather from what we have had passed on to us, Jesus wasn’t nearly that direct in his teachings about God, and if that is true all followers of Jesus ought to take note! Think about it, though. Luke’s Jesus wants to make a point about how diligent God is in loving all human beings–the strugglers in particular. To make his point, Luke’s Jesus doesn’t preach a three-point sermon with the main points flashed upon the sanctuary walls or screens in a graphically-pleasing power point presentation. He doesn’t even make any points. What he does is to tell three stories in which one of the characters lives out a divine attribute, and the hearers are left to draw their own conclusions about what God must be like “in real life” if these vastly different characters demonstrate something of the divine character.

    The first in the trilogy is a little parable about a shepherd who has the responsibility of taking care of 100 sheep–evidently his responsibility all alone. One of the sheep gets lost, is somehow separated from the larger flock. The shepherd–probably a hireling and definitely not someone in a profession highly regarded by the society as a whole–leaves the 99 to go off and find the lost one. “What an imbecile,” most anyone hearing the story would have shouted out nearly instinctively! “You can’t run the risk of losing any more sheep. You just have to go back and report to the owner that 99 out of a hundred ain’t bad.” And she or he would likely have agreed. But Luke’s Jesus insists that God loves humanity just like that shepherd who takes a risk, who goes out on a limb–or a cliff, as it were–to try to save the only one who is lost, and these sheep don’t even belong to him! Sometimes, I’ve been lost, and I’m liking this God who comes after me as if, at the moment, I matter most.

    Then there was this woman, pretty far down the socioeconomic ladder. She had ten coins to her name. We have no idea what in the world would have prompt ed her to spend one of them or once she started spending how long it would be before she went through everything she had. In any case, somehow one of the coins gets lost, and Luke’s Jesus says God is like the poor woman who sweeps and sweeps her floors and moves her furniture and looks in every imaginable nook and cranny until she finds that one lost coin. Every single coin was precious to her–for obvious reasons. When she finds that lost coin, she runs all around the neighborhood telling her friends that the lost coin has been found–whether they’re all that interested or not.

    Luke’s Jesus says that God is also like the father of two sons–one of whom is careless and reckless; and the other of whom is a brown-nosing daddy’s boy. They each, in their respective ways, drove their daddy to distraction! But the hardest hit by far was when the younger son, the haphazard and thoughtless one, demanded his cut of what was promised to him on the occasion of his father’s death–long before the father was dead to this earth. In a way, the boy’s demand was something like saying, “Let’s fast-forward to the reading of your will, pops, and just give me now what is legally mine.” The younger son, and we have no indication at all that he was a young man, takes the money and wastes every denarius. In the process, he loses himself. (Lost sheep, lost coin–now a lost son.) He loses himself, and back home the loving father feels that he is the one who has lost what truly mattered to him. Yet, in this case, he cannot go out in search of his lost son for several reasons, but he waits patiently just in case the son ever decides to return. And, eventually–against the odds–he does. The lost son is found! God in this case is like the loving father unable to go out in search of the son who lost himself and only able to wait in agony for the son to return should the son ever find enough of himself to do so. When the son comes home, the father runs to greet him rather than making him grovel back into the good graces of his dad. And despite the objections of the goody-two-shoes brother, the father puts on a serious feast!

    This is what God is like, Luke’s Jesus suggested. Ponder that. Absorb it, and then respond accordingly.

    When it comes to the powerful reality that some of us refer to as “God,” these and other metaphors are about all we have to work with. That fact alone leaves us absolutely no room for dogmatism. We can play around or wrestle around with the images and let them help us on our journeys of spiritual seeking. There are simply no absolute certainties about God in this realm–at least not any we can get into or force into words.


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    Everything any of us knows about God–or thinks she or he knows–is a hope, a hunch, an approximation, a sense. Our ideas can be nothing more since faith claims are not objectively verifiable, and, furthermore, the conflicts and contradictions about what is attributed to God are literally endless. For practical purposes, we humans cancel each other out all the time in our projections of who and what God is. Becoming rigid and dogmatic in such a climate is both ridiculous and arrogant. Humility and respect for others in the face of a multiplicity of sincere efforts to understand God are the only sane ways to respond. And even when we think we’ve found something worth holding onto regarding an insight about or a connection to God, we still can’t–absolutely CANNOT–force our perspective on others.

    My protests, of course, don’t keep some members from practically all–not all, actually–religious groups from trying, to some degree, to force their views on others in one way or another–using subtle suggestion for a lite effort and actual brute force in the extreme. Certainly, Christians through the ages have used force many times to try to ensure compliance with their particular brand of Christianity while interacting with persons and groups who weren’t “Christian” at that time. Think back to how absurd it was for British Protestants to try to turn indigenous Americans into Anglicans and how absurd it was for Spanish Catholic missionaries to try to turn indigenous Americans into Roman Catholics, but both groups tried; and some, among each group, were willing to kill the natives who refused to comply.

    Here’s another example that can apply just within Christendom. The fact that certain religious groups and institutions have taken the widely divergent sacred books of the Judeo-Christian religions and attributed "holiness" and "perfection" and “unified thought” to them is no indication whatsoever that the writings they call "infallible" actually are. These groups use the Bible to try to prove that the Bible is inerrant; and their circular arguments are quite amazing, but nonetheless unconvincing to many people who accept neither the concept of inerrant scriptures nor the argument or process used to come to such a conclusion.

    Here’s a novel notion. Why don’t we stay out of the business of other people and their spiritual lives?


 

 


 

  • Why don’t we concentrate on our own faith journeys, if we must critique at all critiquing only ourselves?
  • What is my progress, not what is YOUR progress, toward opening up to the presence of God within?
  • How can I find out more and more about God for myself? Not: how can I limit you in every way I can as you follow the pathways you wish to follow in your search for God?


 

    The King prays to the Buddha in “The King and I,” and some of the non-Buddhist God-seekers in the audiences smile or shake their heads arrogantly at such a spectacle because they “know” that Buddhists couldn’t find anything of the real God by praying to a statue of their long-deceased religious leader. How can we be so sure of that? We can’t! God, in the present as in the past, makes Godself known as God sees fit and in more ways than any one human being can comprehend or even imagine. Do I think the Dali Lama has some valid insights about the same God Jesus tried to describe? You bet I do! Do I think the Dali Lama has a personal connection to the same God to whom Jesus was connected? You betcha!

    Some of you still can’t understand how a former Southern Baptist like me could have found his way into the pulpit of Silverside Church, Wilmington’s progressive Christian congregation–a nice way we have for saying that many of us are liberal here. But, here I am.

    Anyway, I was still a Southern Baptist when the then-president of the Southern Baptist Convention made internationally eye-catching news by saying that God doesn’t or can’t hear the prayers of Jews. Do any of you remember that? It’s been quite a while back–1979, actually. It was just ignorance, arrogance, and dogmatism all rolled up into one; there’s no other way to explain how or why the Reverend Bailey Smith could have said such a thing, and equally as devastating to me was how little opposition and outcry came from rank and file Southern Baptists when he made his pronouncement that, among other things, negated Jesus’ prayers. Sometimes, I forget why I left that wonderful denomination. But, alas, I did and found most others to be lacking as well. One of the many reasons I would say such a thing about denominations is because, in so many cases, individualism is ultimately squashed or discouraged at the very least; and, yet, I think the individual following her or his own spiritual pathway–without any interference whatsoever–is precisely the model we should affirm and follow. That we are each on a journey makes us sisters and brothers; not where we stop along the way and certainly not where we think we might end up in this world or the next.

    I asked that we reflect today on the famous story about Elijah over against the prophets of Baal because of the perspective of the Hebrew scripture writer on the two types of prayer–how the Baalites prayed to their god in contrast to how Elijah prayed to the God of Israel. The story is obviously a legend developed either to demonstrate that praying to the God of Israel is efficacious while praying to other gods and goddesses is not OR to “justify” a mass killing of prophets of Baal once upon a time. The truth is God didn’t send fire down from the skies to ignite a soaking wet altar at the demand of dramatic Elijah in a particularly spiritually- exhibitionistic mood. God doesn’t respond to human demands like that; such an utterance isn’t a prayer at all.

    Even so the Hebrew scripture writer is idealizing the prayer of the prophetic-hero and castigating the prayers of the prophets of Baal. Indeed, there is no indication that they were praying to any living entity at all, but their prayers and the prayers of Elijah still sounded strangely similar; and their perspectives on whatever deity is were not at all far apart.

    Not a one of us can either grasp or articulate all that is God. None of our religious organizations–local congregations or worldwide movements–can do that either. Even the whole history of any religious movement, Christianity included, couldn’t accomplish that.

    This being the case, we should affirm all efforts to find and relate to the God who called this world and life into being and band together with all of those who, whatever they may call their deity, know that at the core there is love and love for all. The only false gods I know about are the ones said to promote war, prejudice, injustice, inequality, hatred, nationalism, and dogmatic dismissal of all human beings whom, ironically, the pray-ers happen to dislike before they ever begin their prayers.

    Amen.

    
 


 

    
 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 

KingWhen I was a boyWorld was better spot.What was so was so,What was not was not.Now I am a man;World have changed a lot.Some things nearly so,Others nearly not.

There are times I almost thinkI am not sure of what I absolutely know.Very often find confusionIn conclusion I concluded long agoIn my head are many factsThat, as a student, I have studied to procure,In my head are many facts..Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!Is a puzzlement...What to tell growing sonWhat for instance, shall I say to him of women?Shall I educate him on the ancient lines?Shall I tell the boy as far as he is able,To respect his wives and love his concubines?Shall I tell him everyone is like the other,And the better of the two is really neither?If I tell him this I think he won't believe it,And I nearly think that I don't believe it either!

When my father was a kingHe was a king who knew exactly what he knew,And his brain was not a thingForever swinging to and fro and fro and to.Shall I, then be like my fatherAnd be willfully unmovable and strong?Or is it better to be right?...Or am I right when I believe I may be wrong?Shall I join with other nations in alliance?If allies are weak, am I not best alone?If allies are strong with power to protect me,Might they not protect me out of all I own?

Is a danger to be trusting one another,One will seldom want to do what other wishes;But unless someday somebody trust somebodyThere'll be nothing left on earth excepting fishes!There are times I almost thinkNobody sure of what he absolutely know.Everybody find confusionIn conclusion he concluded long agoAnd it puzzle me to learnThat tho' a man may be in doubt of what he know,Very quickly he will fight...He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!

Oh-h-h-h-h-h Sometimes I think that people going mad!Ah-h-h-h-h-h! Sometimes I think that people not so bad!But not matter what I thinkI must go on living life.As leader of my kingdom I must go forth,Be father to my children and husband to each wifeEtcetera, etcetera, and so forth.

If my Lord in Heaven Buddha, show the way,Everyday I try to live another day.If my Lord in Heaven Buddha, show the way,Everyday I do my best for one more day!But...Is a puzzlement!(from “The King and I”)