Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sermon for November 26, 2006



David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


Wilmington's Progressive Christian Congregation



Sermon Series Winter 2006-07

God in Great Art


November 26, 2006 Sermon #1

"Winter Landscape with Church"

Caspar David Friedrich





    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, " 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.





    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.





    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

Blog Help
Sermon from November 19, 2006


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

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

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

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.”


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.


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.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sermon from November 12, 2006



David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation



Sermon Series Fall 2006

Name That Sermon!

The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects


November 12, 2006 Sermon #9

In God We Trust





    Monotheists, on the whole, haven’t done a very good job seeing the one God as the God of all humanity. At most giving lip service to the notion, the majority of monotheists have tried to make the one God, the only God there is, either their private or at least their special possession. God, then, ends up as either the God of only one nation or as the God who loves one people more than others, but who somehow makes a little room in the divine heart and the divine appointment book for people outside the favored nation.

    We live in this country today with a foreign policy based on God’s favoritism toward the Jews, ethnically all the way and nationalistically up to a point. We only limit God’s ongoing preference for the nation of Israel by our view that God likes the United States with almost as much fervor. It is certainly a schizophrenic approach to foreign policy and to theology, but it’s as plain as can be to anyone who follows America’s nearly blind endorsement of whatever Israel does, even if in other contexts certain actions would be considered terrorism.

    This perspective of ours comes from a fundamentalist Christian endorsement of the ancient Hebrew sense that the Hebrews were God’s “chosen people.” This view of things undoubtedly goes back to the fact that Hebrew Abraham was the first person in any culture to challenge prevailing polytheistic norms. He first sensed that there weren’t multiple goddesses and gods out there, but only one deity. As a result, the Hebrews were the first people on the face of the earth to entertain seriously the possibility of monotheism. After a long time to consider this notion, monotheism became worked into the religion of the Hebrew people as an essential.

    The foundation stone of Judaism from that point until now is the confession of faith “nicknamed” the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deut 6:4 NRSV). Christianity and Islam, the two later expressions of monotheism in the world, have that same affirmation as foundational to their respective faith expressions.

    With that vital monotheistic affirmation in hand and heart, the Hebrew scriptures teach that God called the Hebrew people to be a light to the nations, to share the truths of monotheism with all people. Their calling to this weighty task had them being called

God’s “chosen people”–not God’s preferred people or favorite people, but God’s people who know the truth of monotheism and who are, thus, CHOSEN to tell others. Needless to say, this concept of “chosenness” has been seriously misunderstood both by some Jews as well as by literalistic scripture readers across time and into the present.

    Another complication in this ancient process was that YHWH, the God whom the Hebrews would eventually claim to be the one and only, was originally regarded as one god among many and later was considered the supreme God among a host of others.

In one scholar’s view:



Yahweh [originally] was the god of the southern Palestinian tribes, who associated this concept of deity with Mount Horeb, the Sinai volcano. Yahweh was merely one of the hundreds and thousands of nature gods which held the attention and claimed the worship of the Semitic tribes and peoples.


Monotheism came after a long process of that kind of thinking; Yahweh got a promotion, in other words, but this history didn’t make it easy to let God “become” the God of all humanity rather than exclusively the deity of the Semetic people.

    Honestly, the Jews have done a better job with it than Christians or Muslims. The probable reason for this is that many in Judaism refused to let themselves think being a part of the Jewish religion was a requirement in order for God to embrace a human being. Muslims may indeed affirm the teachings of Moses and Jesus, but there are some Muslims who believe that ultimately God only embraces Muslims; thus, not being a Muslim, in their way, is a way of cutting off oneself from God in this world and the next.

    Christianity has some adherents who go down the same pathway insisting that only Christians can be fully embraced by God and, thus, that only Christians can inherit the gift of eternal life. These Christians believe that, at the end of time, God will give Jews a special opportunity to confess Jesus as the Christ gaining for the ones who do the gift of eternal life. That is one of the reasons a “Godly nation” like ours can’t dislike the Jews or endorse any plan that causes them to lose even an inch of the land on which the nation of Israel now sits.

    One fundamentalist preacher has this warning posted on the internet: “America must not abandon Israel; God's chosen nation. As God’s Word clearly indicates, any nation that turns its back on Israel is doomed.” Even the secular or atheistic Jews in the nation of Israel today love Christian fundamentalists despite the fact that there were fundamentalist Protestants and Roman Catholics who read the New Testament the way Hitler wanted them to read it and joined him in his hatred of the Jews as so-called “Christ killers,” justifying in their sick minds the Holocaust!

    Here’s a news except of which we should be aware:


David Parsons is a spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem (ICEJ), an organization created to give Christians worldwide a focal point in the State of Israel and to represent Christian concern for the Jewish people. Opened in September 1980, the Embassy exists in part to represent the concern of millions of Christians who love and honor the Jewish people and seek to obey God’s Word concerning them. Parsons says it is “a dangerous game for any nation to pressure Israel into divesting itself from land that God gave to her,” and that America’s role in Israel’s prophetic destiny is still “hanging in the balance.”

    There’s not an anti-Semetic bone in my body. My whole spiritual foundation is based on the teachings of a Jew; his name was Jesus. One of my most trusted friends and valued colleagues in the world today is a Jew; his name is Edward Paul Cohn. But I don’t think that God does love or ever has loved the Jews more than anyone else. As soon as any other people learned the truth of monotheism they, too, became God’s CHOSEN people–chosen to share the news of God’s oneness and love with others. Nor do I imagine for a moment that I live in the country that, in modern times, God loves more any other country except, maybe, Israel.







    Yesterday was Veteran’s Day in our country–though officially celebrated on the day before. I would like to say how much I admire and appreciate each of you who is a veteran along with all your fellow veterans. Thank you for what you have done to make life safer and better for the rest of us.

    I’d also like to say, sadly, that I fear all too many veterans have been forced into unnecessarily dangerous situations because of some leader’s (leaders’) theology as in civil religion. Let me explain why I make this connection. You may or may not, of course, agree with my assessment.

    The theological views that the Puritans brought with them from England to the Plymouth Colony were wrapped up in a tidy little bundle that we could refer to as the doctrine of “divine election.” The Puritans who wanted to purify the church of England from within had decided that this could be best accomplished at a distance. Biblically based in their views, their oppression in England was comparable to the enslavement of the ancient Hebrews in Egypt. Their treacherous travel to the New World was parallel to the exodus. That being the case, the New World had to be their Canaan, their “promised land.”

    I don’t know of any reference to themselves as a new chosen people per se, but they did believe that God was in covenant with them during this process, and they did compare themselves to the glorified ancient Jerusalem, which Jesus himself had referred to, literally and figuratively, as a “city set on a hill” (Matt 5:14). Governor Winthrop preached to his citizens, “We must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill.”

    Professor Carl Mirra points out what we wish were not the case about the views of Puritans whom we have idealized, especially for our Thanksgiving celebrations. Professor Mirra’s words: “This theology was quickly bound to violence and massacre.”     

    Of course, the reference was to abuse of the Indigenous Americans. I very much appreciate the tremendous interest many of you have shown in my Native American spirituality sermon. Let me remind you, however, that as a backdrop to much of their spiritual expression from the 1630's on, there was tremendous abuse being inflicted upon them by Europeans who were freely attacking them in God’s name, in the name of the God whom, they said, had given them this New World as theirs despite the fact that it was clearly already well populated by Indigenous Americans.

    Some time a year or so ago, I reminded you of the comments of William Bradford describing the burning of a Pequot village in 1636. Let me repeat it:


Those that scraped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they [the Europeans] gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.


    Professor Mirra again:


America’s self-proclaimed status as God’s favored nation gradually climaxed in the Great Seal of the United States in 1776: “God has blessed this undertaking, a new order from the ages.” Placing the Seal on U.S. dollar bills alongside the slogan, “In God We Trust,” further imprints the feeling of divine election on the American character. Recall that one founding father preferred that a portrait of Moses parting Red Sea serve as the nation’s Seal. America’s founders [I would say SOME of America’s founders] assumed it was their right and duty to spread God’s will and forge a new order for the ages.


    President William McKinley justified his attacks on the Philippines in the Philippine-American War by bringing God into the picture. (There may have been another US President or two who brought God into his justification for war; I’m not sure!) He would later explain, in short, that God had led him to commit our troops to that war: “I went down on my knees and prayed, and it came to me. It was our task to civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them.”

    In 1900, Senator Albert Jeremiah Beveridge of Indiana, said in a speech to his fellow senators regarding this same war:


God has...given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man.




    Thank goodness for the occasional prophet like Samuel

Clemmons who had this to say about that exact war:


We have pacified some thousands of islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining tens of millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket...and hoisted our protecting flag....And so, by these Providences of God–and the phrase is the government’s, not mine–we are a World Power.







    Bob Enyart is host of yet another “Christian” talk show. He asked: “Should Christians govern and are Christians the only ones who are truly qualified to govern? The answer is, of course, `Yes.’” Sorry, Senator Lieberman.

    Gary North is author of a book with a very interesting title: Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism. Listen to a tidbit that he wrote:


The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.


    The Reverend David Chilton is Pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Placerville, California. He proclaims,


We [and I have no idea who `we’ are] believe that, institutionally, Christianity should be the official religion of the country, that its laws should be specifically Christian.


    Patrick Henry College is an institution of higher learning that trains young Christians to be politicians. The New Yorker reported that, in the days before the 2004 election, all students were excused from classes because so many of them were working on campaigns or wanted to go to the swing states to get out the vote for George W. Bush. Eighty-five percent of these students were home-schooled. Political conservatives love home-schooled kids. They tend to remain life-long conservatives, and Patrick Henry graduates rarely have trouble finding jobs on the staffs of conservative politicians.

    Some playful political pundit has compared modern America to a theme park named “Godland.”


In its center is the shrine of infallibility, which celebrates two key conservative beliefs. The first is that America is God’s favored nation, which has been chosen to carry democracy, capitalism, and Christianity to the rest of the world. Closely related is the notion that God selected George W. Bush to be president, so that he could lead a moral crusade to purge the US of secularism, and create a Christian nation. Because of his divine mission, Bush can do no wrong. While there may be occasional missteps along the treacherous path, these are not his fault, or those of his advisers; rather they are an indication of the difficulty of doing battle against the forces of evil.


    Are these “true Christian” views of politics and patriotism as exciting for you as they are for me? At least I knew what I was going to be saying to you this morning and could take my Mylanta in preparation!

    If we were to have such principles at work in our nation, among the many problems would be the fact that someone would have to define what KIND of Christianity each political leader would have to espouse; just as in New Testament and early Christian times, there are multiple Christianities alive and well in our world and in our nation today. This is precisely one (and only one) of the problems with prayer in public schools.

    Not to be in favor of prayer in public schools has never meant and could never mean any attempt to prevent children (and teachers and administrators, for that matter) from praying privately whenever they wish. But if an individual Christian is to pray a prayer aloud–in an assembly or over a loud speaker–then someone’s theology is of necessity going to be reflected in the prayer. This is a problem for any number of kids including those whose parents are teaching them a faith perspective other than what the local school pray-er is praying and those who are part of religious movements other than Christianity or those from families with no connections to organized religion whatsoever.

    At the Halls High School in Halls Crossroads–right across from the Beaver Dam Baptist Church. We never had prayers over the loudspeaker or in assemblies, but we always had them before football games–never before baseball or basketball games, but always before football games. Some local pastor–Protestant, of course, since there were no Catholic churches in the area, not that we would have trusted a Catholic anyway!–who was physically capable of climbing the ladder up to the little platform where the microphone was would pray just before or after our band played the National Anthem. The prayer always asked God to protect the players on the field, especially the players on the home team, and to protect them from injury even though they were out there intentionally knocking each other down and around as hard as they possibly could. Often we would hear in those prayers how football was like life and how we all should be running toward the goal–eternal life though Jesus Christ our Lord. Since I was a Christian and assumed most others were also, even those adults and students who were already drunk from guzzling beer under the bleachers before the prayer or the kickoff, it never occurred to me that anyone might take offense at those prayers.

    That’s how it usually happens for those who are a majority. We simply can’t imagine, without lots of effort on our parts, how the minority person or group thinks or feels. And, at our worst, we really don’t care about minority persons anyway. If the issue that makes them or keeps them in the minority is ideological, the simple solution is that they should change their views and become a part of the majority with us.

    Last Christmastime, John Buchanan, who is editor of the one “Christian” journal I read, The Christian Century, referred in his editorial to a piece he’d read in The Chicago Tribune in which the writer was reflecting on the increasing challenges to the religious side of Christmas in the public arena. The writer specifically discussed our “ever more-pluralistic society struggling to balance

the faith of the majority with the rights and feelings of the minority.” Buchanan then painted a very interesting picture in his editorial:


The seasonal issue is also related to a fundamental political challenge: simultaneously allowing for the free expression of religion and avoiding the establishment of religion. On a recent visit to the Pentagon with a group of clergy, I was taken to the very spot where the airplane struck on September 11, 2001. I was shown, through a window, the glide path of the plane as it approached the building. I noticed on that window sill a literature rack full of tracts with titles like “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “Jesus Christ Is the Only Way.”


    We should be very fearful of the true loss of separation of church and state. When some people refer to the religion of the founding parents, they are pointing back to the Pilgrim mothers and fathers who, by the way, had no interest whatsoever in separation of church and state. They had come from a place where church and state were very much intertwined, and they saw no problem with that. Others, when speaking of our nation’s founding parents, have in mind the 1776ers who, just up the road a piece, penned a Constitution that would from their time on into all future points protect the valuable, vital principle of the separation of church and state; the religion of Franklin, Jefferson, and many of the framers was decidedly “deistic”–unitarianish even. Familiar with scripture, they were hardly Bible thumpers.

    On the matter of separation of church and state, historian Geoff Price calls attention to the powerful influence of Thomas Paine’s writings on the developing young nation. Even though he did not sign either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, his views were still widely known and widely respected. The framers of our vital national documents were very devoted to Paine’s perspectives.

    In Paine’s book, The Age of Reason, he wrote these words, which undoubtedly influenced what a number of our nation’s founders had in mind when they conceived of the principle of the separation of church and state. Paine’s words:


I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. But, lest it should be supposed that I believe in many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them. I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church [wrong word as there’s no such thing as a Jewish “church,” but we get his point], by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church [again, the Muslims aren’t a “church”], by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches [today, we could say “institutional religious movements”], whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.


There was no notion in the minds of most of the 1776ers that this was or was ever to be a “Christian” nation. There is no such thing. No corporate entity–whether religious movement or family or nation–can be “Christian” or not. Only individuals can be Christian.

    “In God We Trust” doesn’t belong on our money or on any national document or property. A nation can’t believe in God, and, besides, there are plenty of outstanding American citizens who definitely do not believe in God. And even among all those who claim to believe in God, not all conceived of gods can possibly exist!

    We are not a Christian nation–shouldn’t be, can’t be. God doesn’t like Christians better than God likes Jews or Muslims or atheists. And God doesn’t love Israel or our country one smidgeon more than God loves all other nations on the face of this earth.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sermon from November 5, 2006



David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


Wilmington's Progressive Christian Congregation



Sermon Series Fall 2006

Name That Sermon!

The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects


November 5, 2006 Sermon #8

Mysticism in Progressive Christianity






    "Mysticism" is a tough word to define, and why should this sermon be any different in that regard from others in the series!

Even so, we have to try.

    Most simply put, I think of mysticism as religion or spirituality "without the rules"; one seeks/risks a full experience of the living God whatever it takes–typically in ways beyond the norm or at least beyond the mainstream. When I say, "without the rules," I don't mean to ignore the exacting disciplines involved in living out the mystical life and reaching toward the mystical goal. I also don't want to imply that by using any approach there is a guarantee God will come to anyone in God's fullness; indeed, God cannot be forced or manipulated to do anything at all by human actions. Those mystics who gave their lives to seeking to experience the fullness of God frequently reported only a few such encounters and lots of waiting between times in a lifetime. Some might have had only one such experience in a lifetime.

    I'm not talking about a little sense of God's presence. Mystics want it all in one dose when they can get it. Not many people really want that. Most of us prefer a Brylcreme approach to experiencing the divine: a little dab'l do ya!

    Many times, experiencing the fullness of the divine is not an altogether positive experience. For a quick example of what I mean by this, just remember the prophet Isaiah and his being overwhelmed by the presence of the living God when God came to him in a vision.


In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God's robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above God; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of divine glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts!" (Isa 6:1-5 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

    Another reason some people might not wish to seek the fullness of the divine is because their particular religious tradition frowns on mysticism. Within Christianity, at least, orthodoxy and religious institutionalism have tended to frown on mysticism because mystics who find their way into the presence of the living God often do so in ways not advocated by various institutional hierarchies. Back to my "religion without the rules" idea."

    Mystical religion can't be replicated exactly, can't be homogenized. It's not a cookie cutter approach to faith understanding or faith expression. Mystics have experiences with God that essentially can't be duplicated by another person, and having had an experience with God that can't be duplicated, the mystic in a sense has an "authority," if you will, that religious leaders are unable either to confirm or to condemn because the leaders haven't had identical encounters with the divine; generally, as you can imagine, religious leaders haven't liked this. As a result, though certainly not always, mystics have been suspicioned.

    Mysticism is or becomes a quest, a spiritual quest, not just to experience God's presence, but to be fully embraced by the divine presence, to fall into all that is God. Mystics set out intentionally to seek God or Absolute Mystery at the heart of life, at the heart of the universe; that is their goal. It is their burning desire to have full and complete communion with God, and so they give their total energy to learning to be open to receive the fullness of God if and when God decides to make Godself known in fullness. Someone has said that mystics "pursue the Unitive Experience the way someone whose hair is on fire pursues a bucket of water!"

    Mystics come from nearly every religious tradition. Native American religions have their mystics as do the Muslims. There are Hindu mystics as well as Jewish mystics. There are Christian mystics, both on the conservative end of Christianity and, believe it or not, on the progressive end as well.

    I read one person's view who proposed that there are mystics outside organized religion altogether–poets, scientists, artists among them. What makes them mystics is not their search for God since that is not their dominant goal; what makes them non-religious mystics is that they too have disciplines to help them reach the goals they do have. They have endurance, and they must have incredible focus in order accomplish what they set out to accomplish.

    Mystics, in Christian and other spiritual traditions, have been those primarily concerned with encountering the Great Mystery and the related development of the inner life, the spiritual self. Some of them, again, have given their whole lives to it.

    A philosopher might define "mysticism" as a belief in realities beyond human perception or intellectual apprehension and yet central to being and directly accessible by direct,
subjective experience. Obviously, if one doesn't believe that there is
a God and a God with whom humans may commune, then he or she can't be a mystic and will not affirm the validity of religious experiences with the divine that mystics claim they have had. Mystics themselves might define "mysticism" simply as the reality of having intense and direct, more than just passing, experiences of/with God.







Some time in the third century of the common era, there

were quite a number of hermits living in the desert areas around Egyptian cities. The particular hermits I have in mind today, though there may have been others, were Christians fleeing yet another surge in persecution of Christians by a Roman Emperor; the Romans were making life miserable even for the Christians who weren't imprisoned or executed, and there were Christians who thought there had to be options for persons of faith other than to live under constant threat or die under Rome's thumb.

    As far as I know, the Roman Emperor at the time wasn't distressed with the devotion of the Christians to their God as Emperor Domitian had been at the end of the first century. That was when he was persecuting and killing off Christians who wouldn't worship him by bowing down before the statues he had erected to himself, which all Roman subjects had to worship along with any other deities they revered.

    By the third century, the Emperors like Diocletian weren't generally concerned with that kind of adoration, but the Christians had become a hated people nonetheless; and as was the case with the circumstances for Jews in Germany leading up to the Holocaust, Christians in the third century Roman Empire were scapegoated as a result of everything that irritated the Romans about life in general. Some of these Christians under Roman control escaped Roman-dominated areas for Egypt–ironic in a way since, once, getting out of Egypt was required for the liberation of God's people.

    Communities, which were in essence refugee camps, began to spring up at the edges of several sizeable Egyptian cities–far enough away from the reach of Rome to be safe for the fleeing Christians, but close enough to civilization for them to be able to survive. Some historians of this era say that these Christians actually lived in and around tombs and garbage dumps for extended periods of time; some few would stay more or less


    When Constantine became Roman Emperor in 313, Christianity was made legal, and there were no more threats to Christians from the Empire. Even so, some of these hermits, most of whom were young men according to the information available to us, wouldn't leave the graveyards and garbage dumps. They enjoyed solitude, and, while they didn't have much, they could get as much of that as they wanted, any day and every day! They decided to make living in such challenged and largely forsaken places a means of achieving self-discipline, and, in time, their prayerfulness without distraction became a hallmark of their faith


    There were several ironies about their leanings, and one of those is that while Jesus certainly took his times away from all people and responsibilities to pray and reflect, he unquestionably threw himself into building community and being right in the middle of where people lived and struggled. Said another way, solitude was definitely a part of how Jesus lived out his spirituality, but it was clearly balanced with involvement in the real world of busy-ness and lots of people and problems to be faced head-on, not dealt with from an isolated place of prayer somewhere.

    On the other hand, Jesus' mentor and cousin, John the Baptist, had been an ideal example for the Christian hermits of exactly how to live in the deserts, focused on prayer and preaching and avoiding all the problems of communal life. The example certainly fell short of ideal if stretched because even way out there in the desert John had offended the wrong people and ended up getting his head cut off in appreciation for his efforts.



(If that scene tantalizes you, we'll soon have a whole sermon on the subject in our upcoming sermon series, "God in Great Art." Yes, we'll even have a visual image for you to relish while the sermon is being preached! That Sunday will NOT be a Sunday when our children will visit "big church"!)


    A hundred years after this hermit tradition began, the desert areas around Egypt's more populous sections were still attracting Christian hermits who were opting for lives of nearly pure solitude. These hermits included women, and non-hermits in the Christian world began to hold the hermits, all of them–male and female–in high esteem. Their views on theological subjects were valued. Their wisdom was prized because they gave themselves fully to seeking the presence of God and to prayer. They came to be called the "Desert Fathers" even though they should have been referred to as the "Desert Mothers and Fathers." Formally or not, some were nuns and monks, and many Christians respected their instructions as highly, if not more highly, than they did the teachings of the formally trained Doctors of the Church.

    Early on, it had been every woman or man for herself or himself in terms of how a spiritual life in the desert was approached. After a while, though, some of the principles of the desert life began to be formalized. For example, Pachomius and Anthony tried to regularize and systematize things a bit. They shared suggestions and survival tips for those who wanted to make the desert way of life their own way of life; they also brought some communal elements of living to the desert, and eventually the formalized practices of monasticism grew out of them.

    Some very notable figures in the history of Christianity spent some time in the deserts. Among them were: Athanasius who would become Bishop of Alexandria, John Chrysostrum–who was one of the greatest preachers in early Christianity and whose very name means "golden-tongued one"; and even Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, spent time there. They yearned for pure communion with God, moments of utter unity with God.
    These and others contributed at least in part to the thinking and practices that would later be core in much of Christian mysticism. We would hardly call all of them progressive, but we can't get to the place of mysticism in progressive Christianity unless we remember them.





    The Apostle Paul wrote this to the Corinthian Christians in one of his several pieces of correspondence to them:


It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses (2 Cor 12:1-5 NRSV).


I suppose there are alternative interpretations of this passage, but the only one I know much of anything about is that this is Paul's third-person way of referring to himself and to an experience he himself had. If so, this is clearly part of the mystical Paul.

    The experience of the living God for Paul was so overwhelming that after years of reflecting back upon that event he wasn't sure whether it was an "in body" or "out of body" experience. Isaiah had realized his mystical encounter with God was a vision; it took place in his mind. Paul wasn't so sure it happened that way for him; he wondered if he were actually transported spiritually in some kind of way to the heavenly realm, to what he referred back to as "the third heaven." That should bring up some images if not red flags to those of us who are studying the Gospel of Judas together on Wednesday evenings since a "third heaven" sounds very Gnostic indeed, but, after all, the Gnostics were essentially mystics.

    Back to Paul. In this "third heaven" or "Paradise," as he also referred to it, Paul saw and heard things that a mere mortal can't repeat–at least to other mortals. This is a fascinating notion in lots of ways. One of the lessons we have to learn from it is that this was clearly not one of those things about Paul's life he wanted others to imitate, and there were plenty of things about how he lived out his religious and spiritual life that he did think others should imitate or emulate. Not his mystical experiences though.

And one of the main reasons for this is that mystical experiences are not duplicatable. Even a mystic herself or himself, if she or he has more than one of these earth-shattering experiences, doesn't have precisely the same experience a second time.

    I don't know how many modern progressive Christians are concerned about the kinds of things classic mystics have been concerned about, but I'm sure there are some. The ones I know or know of don't refer to themselves as "mystics." They might use a designation such as "contemplative" to describe themselves. Some are Roman Catholics, nuns and priests living the monastic life with parts of their very vocations being prayer and reflection. Some are clergy types; plenty are laypersons. My life is immeasurably enriched by my association with one of these progressive Christian contemplatives, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson–former professor, present mentor and friend. What he taught me about prayer beginning in the summer of 1980 changed my spiritual perspectives and my life.

    Let me clarify something. Progressives tend to affirm that God is not "out there" somewhere, making prayer a process by which we wait for God to come to us from the great beyond. Prayer for us, whatever else it may be, is opening ourselves up to the presence of God within us. It's already there. What we need to do is to learn to awaken ourselves to the reality that God is nearer to us than the very air we breathe.

    God's presence is a reality available to all who seek it, to all who are willing to try to open themselves up to it. God's presence is not reserved only for the particularly pious. Yet, not everyone seeks it. Not even every person of faith seeks the presence of God. Some are happy and content to know that God exists in some kind of way and loves all humanity in some kind of way, and that's enough for them. They don't need or seek any special visitations from God; the last thing they want to is to have their hair or their spirits mussed by an uprooting experience such as Isaiah or Paul processed. At most, they might agree with Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill, who once said, "After all, it is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the irritating details of outer life."


  • Progressives who are "mystics" or "contemplatives" believe that God has some personal qualities, at least enough to be a reality with whom humans can commune.


  • They do not, as far as I know, live intentionally these days in deserts or among tombs or trash. Some might, as I said, live in religious communities, but most would not.
  • Progressive Christians, often falsely characterized as those who barely believe in God and who thus take life exclusively into their own hands, may–to the contrary–be people who have a very strong sense of the reality of God, just not the angry god or the chummy god various conservative Christian groups conjure up.
  • Progressive Christians may very well think of prayer and seeking God's presence as meditation or centering rather than as chatty-chat-chat. They may not think of any exchange between themselves and God–either communication to or communication from God–as having anything at all to do with words.
  • Progressive Christians affirm that, before God or in the presence of God, gender is a non-issue. There's no such thing as God favoring men more than women, and it's equally impossible for progressive Christian contemplatives to have any sense that God would either create or tolerate a hierarchy in which women are by design intended to be subservient to men. As with many of the great mystics throughout the history of the Christian movement, women are as fully respected by the Christian community as are men. I've already mentioned Evelyn Underhill who died in the early 1940's and who was regarded in her home country of England and in other places in the world as THE towering teacher of religion in her generation. There would also be on any list of women Christian mystics: Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, and others!
  • Progressive Christians affirm fully that religious experience is individual and individualized. We have no energy for trying to tell everyone what she or he must believe, much less trying to tell everyone how to have an experience with God and what exactly that will mean.
  • Mystics of whatever stripe end up, regardless of the potential roughness of an actual experience with the divine, centered on love, and that is certainly something progressive Christians can fully endorse. There was a Muslim Sufi mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, who lived from 1207 to 1273. He wrote a great deal about love on the other side of experiencing the divine. In one poem he said:

        Whatever I say in exposition and explanation of love,

        When I come to love I am ashamed of that explanation.

        The speech of the tongue may elucidate,

        But speechless love is yet more clear.