Sunday, January 28, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

January 28, 2007

(tenth sermon in series, “God in Great Art”)

© copyright 2007, Silverside Church


Operation “Iraqi Freedom.” Ever heard of it? The promise of freeing a repressed people spoke to American altruism almost as much as “weapons of mass destruction” spoke to our suspicions and fears. Too bad neither image was grounded in either truth or reality.
According to the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, Jesus once made a connection between truth and freedom, and if I have a “favorite” saying from Jesus, this would have to be the one: “The truth will make you free.” In context, this is how Jesus’ truism came out:
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-36 NRSV).

This is an interesting passage in a number of ways. It shows that the Gospel writer believed there were Jews, other than the named and famed ones, who were taking Jesus and his message seriously. The wholesale classification of all Jews as anti-Jesus couldn’t be more incorrect.
“If you continue in my word,” Jesus taught those who had already indicated a level of openness and supportiveness to his message, “then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That is so profoundly gripping and meaningful to me at so many levels! It means if we are unashamed of being a theologically progressive congregation (i.e., “proudly progressive”!!!), we don’t have to hide our exuberance. Which of the following three options sounds better to you as a slogan for a hypothetical church sign? 1) Progressive and Subdued; 2) Matter-of-Factly Progressive; OR 3) Proudly Progressive. Anyway, back to Jesus.
Those who heard him assumed Jesus’ use of the word, “freedom,” referred to political freedom, and they took issue with what they thought was Jesus’ assumption that Jews, “children of Abraham,” had ever been anybody’s slaves. This is surprising because a key part of Hebrew history was the story of Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrews and their subsequent exodus or liberation from that slavery. Surely Jesus’ contemporaries knew as well as Jesus knew this chapter in their own history. Maybe they were proud of the fact that in their lifetimes, none of them had ever been a slave. Maybe the Jews to whom Jesus spoke that day had done some work with an empowerment therapist who had taught them never to admit that there had been struggle and other ugliness in their past. “Us? Slaves? Never! Don’t even mention the word!” Or, maybe mentioning the time or the times the Jewish people had ever been slaves had become “P.I.” (politically incorrect).
In Albert Vasile’s book, Speak with Confidence, Professor Vasile gives his readers advice about which subjects to avoid in speechmaking and in personal conversation in certain places around the world. For example,
➢ in England, Scotland, and Wales, don’t gossip about the monarchy—even though there’s a lot of good gossip to consider;
➢ in Israel, never bring up US financial aid;
➢ in India, it’s considered very rude to discuss openly the poverty problems in certain parts of the country;
➢ in Mexico, one keeps one’s mouth shut about the subject of illegal aliens; and
➢ in Japan, World War II is off limits!

Interestingly, neither Jesus nor his listeners were politically free. In fact, as I point out from time to time, Jesus never knew one moment of pure political freedom in his entire life. He lived under Roman domination all of his years. High levels of freedoms were allowed for subjects of the Roman Empire as long as behaviors didn’t conflict or threaten standing Roman policies.
Jesus had a subversive streak to him; contemporary scholars like Borg have shown us that. So, on the one hand, Jesus might have been talking exclusively about spiritual freedom here—freedom of one’s spirit, freedom of one’s soul. Unless we can be honest with ourselves about who we really are and what we truly want out of life, there is no freedom for us. Said another way, living according to lies and half-truths will never allow us to be free. In context here, Jesus is telling his listeners that if they heed his word—namely his teachings about the God who loved the whole world (John 3:16)—they could know the truth about God, and that truth could free them because it would free them from pictures of God as selectively loving and oppressive rather than liberating.
On the other hand, we probably can’t completely rule out the possibility here that Jesus pondered the notion of political freedom for him and his people. It’s hard to imagine that he relished Roman rule. In contrast to the Zealot political party who wanted to reclaim full freedom by violence against Rome if need be, here is Jesus suggesting that truth rather than violence might just be the key to spiritual as well as political freedom. If this is true, then truth is a necessary part of the liberation process, and those who live by lies will not forever maintain their freedom.


Diego Rivera was regarded as a cultural hero in twentieth century Latin America. He was born in Mexico in 1886. He was well-trained in the visual arts from a young age. As he matured, he studied in both Spain and France. He didn’t return to his home country until 1921, just after a decade-long civil war was coming to an end.
He was immediately drawn into a program of painting murals. Rivera’s political views were regarded as radical. A year after his return to Mexico, he was one of the leaders in the formation of the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, which set out to make art pieces, physically and intellectually, accessible to the public—not just to intellectuals and the privileged.
His first murals were portrayals of nature scenes, especially Mexican plant life. He soon set out to complete a huge assignment for the Public Education Office Building in Mexico City. He began in 1923 and worked nearly nonstop for four years on 117 panels covering the walls of the structure.
As his style developed, Rivera settled in on large, simplified figures that he painted with bold colors. His subjects became increasingly political and nationalistic. Many of his most praised murals are on the walls of the National Palace in Mexico City.
The mural at which you look today, entitled “Liberation of the Peon,” has a naked peon being liberated by soldiers; a “peon” is an unskilled farm worker in a Latin American context. A knife is cutting loose the ropes that have bound him. The soldiers are focused on freeing the worker. But the horses are looking at us; one interpreter says that the horses looking at us draw observers like us into the scene.
We need to be drawn in, don’t we? I mean, it’s so easy to look at the world and see only those parts that we want to see—with all the scenes that are unpleasant to us erased. The horses’ eyes draw us into the scene of liberation, which is joyous, but at the same time it reminds us that there are people yet to free; people in our world who need to be liberated. Many of them aren’t in countries where their governments prevent them from being free; many of them have had their freedom taken by, or they’ve given it to, forces within a society that allows for/provides for full political freedom.
Much of organized religion has been about believing the right things and minimizing or discounting altogether right actions. We could say that the manifesto of such religious movements might be, “Creeds, not Deeds.” Orthodoxy, rather than orthopraxy, becomes dominant and ultimately essential. In the extreme, religious movements of this stripe will say that, bottom line, if you believe the right things, all will be well for you in this world and in eternity.
I’m delighted that this is a congregation that finds itself at the complete opposite end of that continuum. We’re definitely a “Deeds, not Creeds,” kind of seeking community.
A theological movement that grew up in Latin America--just like River’s artistic style and political perspective--came to be called “Liberation Theology.” You heard earlier one definition of liberation theology, and I repeat parts of it for emphasis and clarity. I have taken it from an online site called, of all things,

Liberation theology is the effort to think clearly about the meaning of religious faith in the context of oppression, war, poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction, and the effort to live a compassionate, courageous, and life-sustaining response to those conditions, a response that both addresses the needs of those who are injured and oppressed, and also works to change the structures and ongoing processes of injury and oppression.

Liberation theology as a movement may have been birthed by Roman Catholics after the second Vatican Council. That historic series of meetings that took place over a three-year period began to change the face of Catholicism and of Christendom; sadly, some of the more progressive initiatives were stalled.
Pope John XXIII called the Council, but was only able to preside over its initial meeting in October of 1962. There would be three other sessions, but these were presided over by Pope John’s successor, Pope Paul VI.
Some scholars of Liberation Theology believe that its foundation was initially articulated by the modern martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant pastor and theologian who lost his life for defying Hitler’s massacre of European Jewry. If Bonhoeffer were the parent of Liberation Theology, its foundations were laid some thirty years before the Second Vatican Council. In any case, by historical standards, it’s still a movement in its infancy in many ways.
Since many of the tenets of Liberation Theology made it seem like a “Christian socialism,” it has had opponents from the get-go. And, ironically, though born or initially developed within a Roman Catholic context, Pope John Paul II curtailed its growth and, therefore, its potential influence. John Paul’s opposition was largely carried through in the person of his doctrine czar, one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. By the way, we don’t hear of Ratzinger any more, and there’s a good reason for it. He’s now called Pope Benedict XVI!!! That tells you what the present Vatican’s position is on Liberation Theology.
Liberation Theology intended to be a justice movement. It dared to challenge how scripture was read. Instead of being read through the eyes of the rich, the powerful, and the privileged, Liberation Theology insisted that because of Jesus’ undying concern for the poor and downtrodden, the same scriptures that had been applied by First World readers as special words from God just for them had to be read through the eyes of those to whom Jesus gave his greatest attention--namely those who were consistently robbed of justice and compassion. In our times, that means reading scripture from the perspective of the economically disadvantaged and the politically oppressed particularly in the Third World. Now, that alone made comfy First World types more than a little uneasy.
Another aspect of Liberation Theology that distressed the religious and political status quos around the world was its criticism of faith as introspection. I think that’s a reasonable way to state it.
Liberation theology is critical of Christian groups who think their work is done, their Christian service complete, when they have prayed and met with other Christians to ponder and debate doctrinal points of the faith. Least helpful of all are those Christian energies expended on debates with other Christians about who has the best, i.e. the most correct, point of view on various categories of theology--God, Jesus, the Church, the end of time, and so on.
Liberation Theology is much more concrete that all that. Esoteria is fine for some settings, but lofty thinking and eloquent theological debate don’t get hungry people fed or homeless people sheltered or politically abused persons to any place where they actual, real needs are met. Beyond the ongoing struggle to make certain people don?t have to go without what they need for basic survival, Liberation Theology insists on visible, measurable responses intended to overcome “the dehumanizations and depersonalizations resulting from classism, sexism, racism, technocentrism, and militarism” (Matthew Lamb).


So here comes Jesus, finally ready to inaugurate his ministry. He hadn’t gotten to the place overnight, and he hadn’t gotten to this place without the loss of sleep or without powerful uncertainties nearly overtaking him. But for now, he could at least articulate the theme of what he intended his ministry to be; this, no doubt, had grown out of countless days, weeks, months, years of soul-searching and attempts to stay open to the presence of God within himself.
What we have recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4 are words from Jesus’ mouth that he borrowed from the ancient Hebrew scriptures. He had given a huge chunk of his life to learning those holy books, and he had had to do so bivocationally; that is, he never got to study full time. He was always a carpenter, and time for his study and then his teaching and preaching and healing had to be worked in around the one job he had that actually paid the bills for him, his widowed mothers, and perhaps a couple of sisters who weren’t yet married off.
From the very beginning, Jesus articulated the basis for his ministry as liberation.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus had just come from a painful wrestling match with his conscience and his imagination; they challenged him to channel the good he sensed he would be able to accomplish into selfishness and self-promotion. Those impulses finally had lost out, but he was weak--weak physically, that is. Spiritually, he may have been at one of his pinnacles.
He chose to use the words of, perhaps, his favorite prophet, Isaiah; and he applied them to himself, to what he hoped to accomplish. We have to be clear on the fact that Isaiah had not envisioned Jesus as the one who would fulfill his prophecy; Isaiah had his whole nation in mind as the ones who were supposed to fulfill his prophecy. Those very words summarized a great deal of the responsibility of the nation called by the God of the Hebrews to be a “light to the nations.”
What was the essence of Israel’s calling, the very same calling that Jesus would adopt as his foundation for ministry?

1) It was a spiritual calling. It had been hammered out, finally understood, after seemingly endless periods of prayerful reflection and self-challenge. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”
2) The Spirit of God Godself compelled Jesus to bring good news to the poor. They are FIRST on his list of ministry constituents. Taking good news to the poor was his foundational responsibility. Jesus’ ministry was to have a justice component to it. What, by the way, do you think could or would be good news for poor people in any generation?
3) The Spirit of God pressed Jesus to involve himself in a ministry of making oppressed persons un-oppressed and a ministry of releasing captives--those unjustly imprisoned as well as those who denied the blatant reality that they were living under Roman domination. Jesus’ ministry was to have a political aspect to it; there are many more ways to attack the problems that plague people’s lives if the spiritual folk can work in concert with political structures--not to have favored candidates elected, but to lean on the political realm to be compassionate.
4) The Spirit of God lured Jesus into a ministry of healing. He was called to help the blind people recover their sight. The way I read this passage at this time in my life, I don’t believe the primary meaning of blindness here is to spiritual blindness. I think Jesus understood his calling to be a physical healer as well. Thus, Jesus ministry was to have a curative function as well.
5) Jesus’ ministry would be about proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” The year or the time of God’s favor referred most likely to the ancient Hebrew concept of the Jubliee year. In the ancient Hebrew conception of time, every seventh year was to have been a “sabbatical year.”

For six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But the seventh year you shall let the land lie untilled and unharvested, that the poor among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what the poor leave. So also shall you do in regard to your vineyard and your olive grove.

Every fifty years, right after the seventh sabbatical year, there was to have been a Jubilee year.

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property.

In the Jubilee year, all outstanding debts were forgiven and all slaves, the self-indentured and others, were free. In all likelihood, Jesus wanted to have people think in terms of the Jubilee as a way of life, not something that ONLY took place every fifty years. This is not something those of us who claim to be or want to be followers of Jesus can take lightly.
Back to the Rivera painting before us today. Some art historians have compared this painting to various artistic depictions of Jesus being taking off the cross. If so, the peon in the mural is Jesus. Jesus is one of the oppressed among us. The limp body surrounded by liberators is striped with whip marks. Ropes that have bound the peon’s wrists are being cut away, and even his nakedness is covered by a liberator. If Jesus really is “one of the least of these” among us, how can the ministry of liberation be ignored?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

January 21, 2007

The Rock of the Dome
(ninth sermon in the series, “God in Great Art,” focusing today on the Dome of the Rock)

(c) copyright 2007, Silverside Church

According to one online source sponsored by Islam:

At the heart of Jerusalem is the Noble Sanctuary, Al-Haram al-Sharif, enclosing over 35 acres of fountains, gardens, buildings and domes. At its southernmost end is Al-Aqsa Mosque and at its centre the celebrated Dome of the Rock. The entire area is regarded [BY SOME!] as a mosque and comprises nearly one sixth of the walled city of Jerusalem. The Noble Sanctuary is one of the three most important sites in Islam, and a showcase for Islamic architecture and design from Umayyad to Ottoman times that continues as an important religious and educational centre for Muslims to the present day.

The Dome of the Rock has been called one of the architectural glories of the world. ABC News and its show, “Good Morning, America,” did a feature this past fall on the seven new wonders of the world; the “Dome of the Rock” was second on the list. Diane Sawyer traveled to the site on behalf of the show, and her commentaries and interviews were nothing short of inspiring. The power and the beauty of the place greatly exceed what we will be able to take in, in as short a time as we have together.

Most of us would recognize the Dome of the Rock by sight in a photograph or a film even though we may not know a great deal about it. Looking at the beauty and understanding the importance of this amazing piece of architecture will be well worth our time.

Jerusalem, since King David ruled there a thousand years before Jesus was born, has been the heart of Judaism. Both of its great temples were constructed there, and both stood on a site known as the “Temple mount.” That is the place thought to have been originally called “Mount Moriah,” where legend has Abraham attempting to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God but stopped by God Godself just before the slaughter.

King Solomon built the first Temple. His workers labored some seven years to complete the project. It was probably completed in 968 BCE though not officially dedicated until 961 BCE. Once finished, the Ark of the Covenant was moved there, and worship for the Jewish people became centralized there. Jewish men, regardless of where they happened to live, were called upon to appear the Temple at least three times a year to make sacrifices in honor of God. That was minimal. This magnificent structure stood for more than 400 years---until it was destroyed in 586 BCE, with everything burnable burned by Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers in the Babylonian conquest of Israel.

When Babylon was defeated by Cyrus’s Persian forces, the Jews who had been deported were permitted to return to their land. Most refused to return, but seventy or so years after their deportation some did return with a plan to reconstruct their Temple. A semblance of the first Temple was managed.

A completely revamped and enlarged “second Temple” was constructed on this same site many years later. By the time of this second major reconstruction, Romans ruled over Israel and its central city, Jerusalem. Rome had appointed Herod to be the puppet “King of the Jews.” A puppet though he may have been, he had the drive to press Rome to allow him to renew his people’s Temple. This effort took some twenty years to complete with about ten thousand workers involved in its construction. It was a grand structure indeed—like the original.

The first Temple had been called “Solomon’s Temple”; this one was called “Herod’s Temple.” The Talmud has a reference to its beauty insisting that anyone who hasn’t seen Herod’s Temple has never seen a beautiful building. The rabbis contemporary to the Temple’s use said that God had allotted ten measures of beauty to the world, and with the construction of Herod’s Temple nine of those measures had been bestowed upon Jerusalem.

Sadly, as a means of retaliating against insurgent Jews forty and a few years after Jesus’ execution, Rome destroyed their Temple in 70 CE. Many Jews still grieve the loss of their beloved holy site, but the site is nonetheless profoundly revered.

The New Testament tradition has Jesus dedicated in the Herod’s Temple in accordance with the Law of Moses, which called on parents to accompany this kind of dedication with an accompanying animal sacrifice. His puberty-time visit to the Temple where he talked with the teachers there is also recorded. He was raised to be a devout, religious Jew, and he had obviously become thoroughly versed in Hebrew scriptures from an early age. Either near the beginning or the ending of his ministry—the Gospel accounts differ on chronology here--Jesus “cleansed” this Temple and called people who gathered there to do nothing but worship there; he called it “God’s house.”

Sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives near the end of his life, Jesus spoke of the coming destruction of the Second Temple. Some readers take from this discourse a prediction by Jesus that a third physical Temple would be constructed after the destruction of the second. Other readers of that same material believe that Jesus’ reference to a third Temple was clearly a spiritual temple. Still, many conservative Christians believe that the drama surrounding the predicted end of time will center on the Temple Mount. All of these ideas in Christian literature have something to do with why Christians also venerate the sacred site on which now stands the Dome of the Rock.

Muslims embrace Abraham as the father of monotheism just as most Jews and Christians do so they, the Muslims, respected the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, which still sat with only remains of the second Temple, Herod’s Temple, when construction on the Dome of the Rock began. However, Muslims had their own particular interest in the site independent of Abraham’s legendary near-sacrifice of his son.

In Muslim tradition, the place was/is also identified as the “furthermost sanctuary” from where the Prophet Mohammed, accompanied by the Angel Gabriel himself, is said to have begun the so-called “Night Journey.” A reference in the Qur’an says: “Glory to Him [that is, God] who made his servant [Muhammad] to go on a night from the Sacred Mosque to the remote mosque of which we have blessed the precincts, so that we may show to him some of our signs; surely He is Hearing, the Seeing.”

Muslim belief identifies the two temples mentioned in this verse as being in Mecca and Jerusalem. According to tradition, Muhammad once took a mystical night journey in the company of the Archangel Gabriel; the most significant part of the journey began on the Temple Mount, and Muhammad with Gabriel rode on a winged steed called El Burak (the name meaning “lightning”), which according to Islamic Hadith tradition was a winged, horse-like creature smaller than a mule, but larger than a donkey. Stopping briefly at Mt. Sinai and Bethlehem, they finally alighted at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and there encountered Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, whom Muhammad led in prayers. Gabriel then took Muhammad to the pinnacle of the revered rock where a ladder of golden light appeared. On this ladder of light, Muhammad ascended into the presence of Allah, from whom he received instructions for himself and his followers. Following his divine meeting, Muhammad was flown to Mecca by Gabriel and the winged horse, arriving there before dawn.


Muslims conquered Jerusalem in CE 638, and fifty years later Muslim Caliph Abd al-Malik began constructing what would come to be called “the Dome of the Rock.” Those who named it had a particular, literal rock in mind, but it occurs to me that a “rock” is often a metaphor for God in Hebrew scripture, and no spiritual undertaking or structure can matter or endure unless God, the rock is its foundation.

“There is none Holy like the Lord, there is none besides God; there is no Rock like our God” (1 Sam 2:2).
“My God, my Rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my Savior; you save me from violence” (2 Sam22:3).
“To you, O Lord, I call; my Rock” (Psa 28:1).
“You are…my God and the Rock of my salvation” (Psa 89:26).
“O come…let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation!” (Psa 95:1).

Thus, my sermon today could be called “The Rock of the Dome.”

So, the construction on the Dome of the Rock began in 688. It was completed in 691. Islam was a new, new religion—the third, the thus far the final, monotheistic religion in the world.

It was designed by Byzantine architects engaged by the reigning Muslim Caliph. One architect has stated, “The Dome of the Rock was the greatest monumental building in early Islamic history and remains today one of the most sublime examples of artistic genius that humanity has ever produced.”

The dome is sixty-seven feet tall at its highest point; it is something like thirty-three feet in diameter. Each outer wall is also sixty-seven feet long. The supporting structure is made of lead. The dome was originally covered in pure gold. The real gold was removed over the centuries, and the present dome is made of anodized aluminum—more about that in a moment.

The sacred stone, which the dome covers, is encircled by sixteen arches that came from different churches in Jerusalem—interesting huh? These churches had been destroyed when Persian forces took Jerusalem in 614 CE.

The columns are made of rare marble, and brilliant mosaic creations are clearly reflective of Muslim traditions that prevent representations in art of living persons or living animals. The multicolored Turkish tiles that adorn exterior are precise copies of the Persian tiles that Suleiman the Magnificent added in 1545 to replace the damaged originals. The lower half of the exterior is white marble.

A scholarly overview of the structure points out,

Under a scheme whereby the size of every part is related to every other part in some definite proportion, the building instead of being a collection of odd notes becomes a harmonious chord in stones, a sort of living crystal; and after all it really is not strange that harmonies of this sort should appeal to us through our sight, just as chords in music appeal to our hearing. Some of the ratios involved are fundamental in time and space, they go right down to the very basis of our nature, and of the physical universe in which we live and move.

Israel took control of the Dome of Rock during its victory in the Six Day War of 1967. A few hours after the Israeli flag was hoisted over the Dome of the Rock in 1967, Israelis lowered it on the orders of General Moshe Dayan, and invested the Muslim Religious Trust with the authority to manage the Temple Mount in order for peace to prevail. Currently, as territory of Israel, the Israeli government is still allowing the Muslim Council full administration of the site. Jews and Christians are barred from conducting services there.

In 1995, an extensive renovation was begun by the government of Jordan, with funds supplied by various Arab governments. In 1998 the dome covering was refurbished following a donation of $8.2 million by King Hussein of Jordan who sold one of his houses in London to fund the 80 kilograms of gold required.
There is significant difference of opinion as to whether or not the structure was intended by its builder to be an Islamic mosque or a shrine for Muslim pilgrims coming to Jerusalem, or, possibly, a sacred space for any and all religious groups to use. In any case, today it is the third holiest site for those who embrace the religion of Islam. The holiest of sites for them is the Mosque of the Ka’ba in Mecca, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, and the Masjid Aqsa, adjacent to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
A much less unifying proposal is often offered as well. In the Oxford Archaeological Guide to the Holy Land, the scholars suggest the original builder “wished to erect a beautiful Muslim building that could compete with the majestic churches of Christendom and would be, by its location, a symbolic statement to both Jews and Christians of the superiority of the new faith of Islam. His building spoke to Jews by its location, to Christians by its interior decoration.”

We know that religious and political tensions that converge in Jerusalem today make being there, being anywhere there—even in supposed sacred sites—very, very dangerous. As Diane Sawyer walked to and through these sacred sites, touching them if she could, the presence of armed guards and military personnel was impossible to miss. One wonders if the history of conflict in and around Jerusalem has not been taken by many Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others to be normative and, thus, something that will always be—this despite the meaning of the city that houses so many things sacred: “the city of peace.”


If I were a great religious leader, if I had the eye and the ear of multitudes of people seeking to know God and to understand the mysteries of life, if I could influence people in the world to make a commitment, I would not ask them to become “Christian.” I would not ask them to embrace any body of dogma or to join in with any one particular religious movement. I would, however, ask the people of the world to join me in two basic affirmations:
1) that God; the creative life-source, life-force; is unconditionally loving of the whole of the human race; and
2) that the human race is a single, unified entity, which means all the bases for categorizing human beings that we tend to use (race, cultural connection, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, educational achievement, and geographical location) are simple census matters and nothing more.
Two affirmations about life, for a lifetime.
So far as we know, Jesus never asked anyone, not a solitary individual, to become a part of a religious movement. He was a faithful Jew, and even with his high regard for his own faith tradition, he did not see the value in prescribing a homogenized set of rules, regulations, and limitations for every human being. This was true of Jesus for several reasons, and two of those reasons stand out:
Jesus had a more than adequate understanding of the human psyche. This insight alone was ample justification for reacting against notions that every human being could or would understand and respond to God in exactly the same manner. Not only is that unnecessary, but also it’s impossible. We are all products of our environments and our experiences. We have all been influenced by mentors. One person may be deeply moved and impacted by times of personal prayers. Another person realizes that she or he has never gotten too much out of verbalized prayers, but the beauty of nature has always touched her or him at the soul-level.
A dynamic, living God could not be treated an object that, with sufficient study, would be fully understood and objectified. The mission or goal to understand God is a lifelong undertaking, and when we begin it we do so with the full realization that this spiritual task or undertaking will never be completed.
So, if those of us who find our way to God through what we know of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings come to grips with the reality that Jesus never asked anyone to be “religious” or a part of any religious movement--either his beloved Judaism or a sect within Judaism that came to bear a name some people had for him, we have to face head on the reality that our ministries of calling people into connection with God is never about getting to claim them for “our side” or “our group”; rather, it’s about encouraging them to open themselves up to the reality of the loving God within them and blessing them in their lifelong journeys of seeking. We are, indeed, fortunate if we get to travel alongside some of those who helped us find our way to God in the first place as well as some of those with whom we have been privileged to share the news of God’s unconditional love for all of humanity.
I hate to have to be the one to point this out to you, but monotheism, in any or all of its institutional expressions, has not done a very good job either with helping people embrace the God of love or with helping monotheists get along very well with other monotheists. Thank goodness the flaws of monotheists and monotheism can’t impact the reality of who God is--only human perceptions of who God is. Don’t get me wrong. I’m more than keenly aware of the dangers and the tragedies of mis-portraying God. Even so, who God ACTUALLY is, is not changed or diminished because of our misunderstandings or our lies. What I mean by that is, there are plenty of people out there--highly influential ones included--who know full well that God is love and nothing but love. But it’s hard to stir up fervor and acts of devotion if God’s just going to keep on loving us, no matter what we do. Without some threat that God will, sooner or later, cut off all those who don’t do what this particular religious leader says, religious functionaries lose all their power; and plenty of them are simply not willing to let it go, even though it means lying about the full extent of God’s love for humanity.
The three great monotheistic faiths in the world are, at least, siblings. In a sense, our abiding affirmation that there is but one true and living God--though we differ GREATLY in our understandings of who this God is--keep us tied together. This should be the basis for unity among us, with little more difference than there should be between an American Baptist and a Methodist. We’re talking mere hues, mere shades, of difference--not differences that support, encourage, lead to serious conflict and even violence. All monotheists in the world today should hang their heads in shame at the tension we have historically and presently openly encouraged or, at least, tacitly, endorsed.
Christianity, when we take into account its Roman Catholic as well as its Protestant numbers, is embraced by about one-third of all the people on Planet Earth today. The population of our planet today is something over six billion; that means there is something over two billion Christians in the world. That, of course, is before any one group of Christians is allowed to tell you why these others who claim to be Christians aren’t or can’t be. We have been a majority in the first world for a very long time--not that we’ve done much of a job of bringing Jesus’ values to bear on our parts of the world. By 2050, mostly as a result of third world growth, Islam will be embraced by more people in the world than Christianity. Perhaps the non-radical Muslims will lead their people to do a better job promoting worldwide peace and presenting the reality of God’s love for all people than those of us supposedly representing the concerns of Jesus have done.
If I were a great religious leader, if I had the eye and the ear of multitudes of people seeking to know God and to understand the mysteries of life, if I could influence people in the world to make a commitment, it would be to the God who loves us all unconditionally and who spreads that love unceasingly among the only group of people there is in the world, the one human family.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.,

January 14, 2007

Copyright © Silverside Church 2007

Spiritual Spelunking

(eighth in sermon series, “God in Great Art” based on the
Lascaux, France, cave paintings)


Today I invite you to think with me about a most unusual subject: finding God in caves! Yes, I said “caves.” I guess you could call my sermon “spiritual spelunking” or something like that.
One of the most significant art-related discoveries in modern times, according to numerous art historians, happened in 1940. The setting was southwestern France. Four or five teenage boys and a dog found an opening in a hillside, and they decided to see what they could find in the cave–treasure maybe!
What they discovered wasn’t the kind of treasure they had in mind, but their discovery was artistic gold. The cave is now called “The Cave of Lascaux,” and it was filled with some 600 detailed paintings dating back some 20,000 years. Until fairly recently, those Lascaux paintings were the oldest examples of prehistoric art known any where in the world. Now, there are cave paintings known to go back probably twice as long as the Lascaux paintings! These older paintings are in the Chauvet caves, and as fascinating as they are, they are not the bases for our spiritual reflections today.
Twenty thousand years ago,

the climate on earth had warmed and the glaciers receded. Rising sea levels caused more rainfall that supported vegetation and small game animals. Groups of prehistoric people took advantage of these improved conditions and migrated to the Pyrenees of France. Among them were the artists of the Lascaux cave.

The artists were not deterred by the darkness, the lakes that had to be crossed, or the stalagmites that had to be removed to reach their destination.
The paintings in the Lascaux cave are mostly depictions of animals. There are limited images of humans in the bunch. The horse is most frequently painted, and with the horses there are aurochs (now extinct), bulls, antelopes, bison, and less frequently bears and felines.
Why, one wonders, were these pictures painted on cave walls? Well, even though they are scattered and not well-organized from our modern perspective, the paintings weren’t just created spontaneously or just for fun.
Archaeologists have determined that the cave was a special cave, and the fact that the first paintings don’t begin until a little over a mile into the cave shows that great effort had to be made to get to the area where the art was created. Archaeologists along with art historians have also helped modern folk realize that the cave is more than an art gallery; the paintings aren’t there because some artists wanted to paint solely for the purpose of displaying their art work.
There are two fascinating proposals for exactly what went on in the cave and how the art work enhanced those activities. Both proposals suggest that the cave was used for a very important ritual.

1. The first proposal calls the cave some kind of sanctuary. It holds that the animals were painted by artists who, in a manner of something we might call sympathetic magic today, created visually for public worship gatherings images of what the community hoped its hunters could capture or kill for the community’s use. Such worship was, of course, most sacred as the people depended entirely on what the hunters in their midst could bring back to provide for the needs of the people.
2. The second proposal for how the cave was originally used is more detailed and more tantalizing. At least one person who has studied the cave in tremendous detail proposes that it was the place where rulers-to-be were initiated. The ruler-to-be, probably a male in most or all cases in that setting, needed to be as strong as a bull, as caring as a pregnant mare, and as determined as a feline. The ruler-to-be would have been led, according to this theory, into one room in the cave wherein nothing but stags were painted on the walls; this might have represented strength in numbers. Another room had paintings as symbols of what might happen to an ineffective ruler: a wounded bull and a bird not in flight but on a pole, as if having been captured.

In any case, the art is amazing, and it ties nature to the goddesses and the gods. The detailed pieces of art are awe-inspiring on so many levels! All in a cave.
One of my favorite biblical cave stories is about Elijah, the prophet, and the cave he found to hide and pout in. The cave scene in the Elijah story is the climax of a rather detailed narrative of what happened to Elijah–inside and out–during and after his greatest moment of prophetic triumph. His triumph was the defeat of the prophets of Baal, which was good for him and the monotheistic cause, but not good for him politically as the king’s wife was a Baalite and a benefactor of the Baalite priesthood. Since the biblical story has the many prophets of Baal slaughtered when Elijah’s God demonstrated divine realness in contrast to the god Baal who was only real in the minds of those who pretended he was real.
Queen Jezebel ordered the execution of Israel’s greatest prophet–namely Elijah. And Elijah was in shock. He wasn’t so stunned that he was unable to do the practical thing and run like hades to get away from the Queen’s henchmen, but all the while he kept saying to himself, “How could this be happening to ME? I’m God’s chosen and most valuable servant on the face of the earth. These kinds of things just can’t happen to those who are as sold out to God as I am. God must be nodding off, or else God got God’s signals crossed! How could this be happening to ME?!?!?”
Well, if you are or ever have been God’s most valuable servant on the face of the earth–and several of us have, in fact, taken turns in that role!–you know exactly how Elijah felt! How could this be happening to ME indeed!?!
After his initial journey of escape, Elijah continued to run from Jezebel’s death order. He went, in the King James rendering,

forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and...said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah? And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away (1 Kings 19:8-10 KJV).

See? I told you! He was the only person faithful to God in the WHOLE world! (Do you believe that?) And this realization came to him as he sulked in a cave. Now, I’m not saying Elijah lacked the right to be frustrated, disappointed, and afraid. Yet, megalomania is an unattractive trait. And, since when did evil decide to leave the good folks alone?
In response to Elijah’s pious pouting,

...God said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice (1 Kings 19:8-12 KJV).

Elijah had to get out of his cave for the next level of spiritual understanding. God had come to him in the cave; no question about that. Elijah, though, was using that cave not as a sanctuary, but rather as a place to hide from God so he had to get out of there before he could perceive God’s intended message for him in his circumstance: it is not in the midst of the most highly dramatic experiences of life that God’s presence can be most clearly ascertained, but rather through “a still small voice.” Modern translations, like your New Revised Standard there in your pew, render the same idiom “sheer silence.” We may be aware of God’s presence or empowerment with us we struggle with life’s quakes and fires, but it is only after the ordeal, in our reflective silence, that we can apprehend God’s message for us.


King David had his flaws; even some few leaders of modern nations have flaws...just be sure not to tell THEM! Despite his flaws, though, he was remembered by many as Israel’s greatest king. Not all scholars and other readers of Hebrew scripture hold David in such high regard, but I think that flawed and all David demonstrated some remarkable standards at several points along his life’s way. One such situation is a story I loved as a kid growing up in the Sunday School program of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads.
As you may know if you’ve paid any attention to the history of Israel, that nation originally organized and governed itself around loose tribal connections. Every tribe had its own leadership, and all the tribes came together for the good of the nation when that was called for. That form of government has a name, actually; it’s called “amphictyony.” And there’s your sure fire winning response the next time you’re on “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”.
In other words, Israel didn’t have a king. The prophets and the judges in the various tribes were the leaders, and things went along pretty well like that–as far as we know, anyway.
The time came when many of the Israelites wanted a king so that they could be more like other nations around them. At least, that’s the way the story’s told in Hebrew scripture as we have it today. God, more or less, reluctantly gives in to allow Israel to have a king, and God chooses their king for them. That first king’s name was Saul.
Saul accomplished a great deal for Israel, but he had a host of personal and professional problems; and the time came for him to move over to make room for someone more capable of handing the multiple demands of the job. Few leaders want to admit that they are no longer effective in their leadership roles, and even fewer can accept their likely replacements with dignity and calm. Saul, following suit, came to hate his would-be successor, David, even though David had spent many of his growing up years as a part of the royal household serving, among other capacities, as the royal musician. In addition to his responsibilities to Saul, David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, had become the greatest of friends, bosom buddies or more, perhaps, depending on how you read the text.
Well, when David’s skills began to be evident and when the word got around the God Godself wanted David on Israel’s throne, Saul decided the best way to take are of that would be, simply, to kill David. Nothing surprising there. Many monarchs throughout history have murdered those whom they perceived as threats to their rule, and largely it has been accepted as perfectly kingly or queenly.
Ironically, David seems to maintain his love and respect for his king even though those aren’t returned. And there is this pivotal scene where that is proven beyond doubt.
On the run from Saul who himself, with his soldiers, was out in pursuit of David to be certain that he was wiped out of the scene once and for all. The tensely told tale has David and his own men hiding deep in a cave unbeknownst to King Saul who comes into the cave to relieve himself (read the Bible for yourself if you don’t believe me!) and to rest a bit.
While he sleeps in that cave, David could have hurt him, mutilated him, murdered him, and his men actually encouraged David to do just that, but David refused. How very admirable!
To make sure King Saul knew, however, that David could have ended his life right there in that cave, David slipped up to the sleeping King whose guards evidently had not entered the cave with him and cut a square out of his ruler’s robe. The next time he saw King Saul face to face, David held up the square of fabric he had sliced out with the same sword that could have ended the King’s life.
Keep focusing on caves with me!
Jesus’ best friends, at least outside his circle of women and men who traveled with him part or all of the time, were siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus took the time to visit with them every chance he had, every time he was traveling near their home in Bethany. And no others in the information we have about Jesus are mentioned in this manner so we might assume that theirs was a special friendship indeed.
Sadly, Lazarus died, and for reasons the Fourth Gospel writer really doesn’t go into in any depth Jesus had not gone immediately to Lazarus when Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother seemed to be seriously ill. When Jesus heard the word, he said something like, “Well, that’s rough, but it won’t kill him; and God will be glorified in Lazarus’ healing in some kind of way.”
I hate to have to point out the obvious, but Jesus was wrong. Lazarus’ illness did take its toll and Lazarus’ life too. The sisters were crushed for two reasons: the grief in having lost their beloved brother AND their hurt that Jesus the faith healer didn’t come right on out to Bethany at least to try to make their brother well.
Having not come when initially summoned, Jesus does come to Mary and Martha, but only after the body has been buried in a cave for four days. Any time up through the third day, people in that society believed that the body might be enlivened again or that death hadn’t actually occurred, but as of the fourth day it was believed the life force itself had left the body permanently. There could be no resuscitation of any kind.
Martha and Mary greet Jesus initially not with words and gestures of friendship, but with words of frustration, “Jesus, if you’d have come when we first called you, this could have been avoided. Why in the world would you not come to your best friend who was ill?” We understand that. If a person can help someone both of us know and love in common, why wouldn’t she or he offer the proper help?
Jesus weeps in dealing with his own grief and/or with the hurt he witnessed in Mary and Martha, but he says four days or not, his friend’s life will be restored if it’s the last thing he does.

Now there are all sorts of literary considerations in understanding how the writer of the Gospel of John is using this story to make her or his overall point, but we will look at the story for our purposes today as an independent entity, a stand alone story. Jesus, in the Gospel of John, doesn’t say anything at all about his miscue; he simply insists that all will be well. “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it” (John 11:38 NRSV). Sounds a lot like another burial setting that we will encounter again, later in the Gospel of John.
You probably know this story or at least a little something about it. Jesus has the stone rolled away from the mouth of that cave of death. Real death had occurred, and real decomposition had begun. The highly spiritualized Gospel of John doesn’t overlook that very real fact about dealing with a lifeless body.
Jesus made good on his promise. He performs the greatest, perhaps, of all his signs. Restoring life was something he’d done on other occasions, but restoring life to a body that had been dead for four days, that was something unheard of even in Jesus’ ministry up to that moment.
Jesus’ called for Lazarus’ body, life was restored to it, and out came Jesus’ dear friend all wrapped up in strips of burial cloth. The cave of death had become the cave of life.


I’ve heard the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews called “the faith hall of fame.” I think that’s rather apt.
This faith chapter begins with a profound and memorable definition and description of faith:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (Heb 11:1-3 NRSV).

Isn’t that an amazing definition of “faith”–the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen?
This passage says that at no point did Jews have to become Christian to be in good with God! “By faith” says the writer, “our ancestors [meaning our Jewish forebears] received approval”–that is, God’s approval. By faith. That’s it. Not by affiliation with a particular theology or religious movement, even Christianity, which would have been being well developed by the time this book was written.
Another thing that astounds me about this juicy little proem is that the writer affirms the reality of many worlds, not just one. Did you catch that? “By faith we understand that the worlds [clearly plural!] were prepared by the word of God....”
After this beginning words, the writer goes on to give example upon example of people who demonstrated their faith not by believing any particular theology but by doing the right thing in even complicated and confusing circumstances. This impresses me and inspires me greatly.
The writer of the book of Hebrews creates her or his list of pivotal persons of faith being careful to include the names of the stars as well as the supporting characters and also includes unnamed “extras,” if you will.

‚ Abel. Anybody remember him? He was the brother of Cain. They were the first two children of Eve and Adam. Cain took center stage because he killed his brother Abel since Abel acted faithfully before God, and Cain hadn’t. Not being able to live with himself he killed his brother who won God’s favor. Abel is in the faith hall of fame even though his life was taken violently from him, and he had done nothing more than act in faith.
‚ Rahab, the prostitute, had helped God’s people win a key victory. Her profession did not keep her from being offered God’s approval, and it didn’t keep her out of this writer’s faith hall of fame.

On and on the list goes.
This writer points to those whose names no one now remembers; still they were faithful in places where no one but God, perhaps, knew of their profound faith. Even so this writer wishes to honor them. This writer also stresses that some of the most faithful people of all were not embraced and loved by those in this world to whom they related. Being people of faith, acting faithfully, doesn’t always bring the world’s applause; in fact, just the opposite may be the case.

Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground (Heb 11:35-38 NRSV).

Since all the “named” folk in this list are Jewish, we have to assume that the writer continues his list by referring to Jews whose names are not remembered perhaps as much as their deeds and the circumstances of their deaths because of their faith. One thing stands out about these nameless souls for us today; some of them had to live in caves rather than in homes because their homes had been taken from them as a part of their persecution for being people of faith.
On this note, today, I can’t help thinking of Dr. King. He was a person of faith who gave his all in the name of civil rights, and we shudder to think of how backward and immoral many facets of our culture might still be if not for Martin Luther King Jr. Tragically, he was martyred for his faith in the God of love and equality.
There are four quotes lifted from his longer sermons and speeches that have stuck with me across the years. Two of these, it seems to be, relate directly to the opening ideas in the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. You may well have heard or read these before:

‚ “Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” Remember the definition of faith that opens Hebrews 11? “ is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Dr. King again, “Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”
‚ And again: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” Wow! How many of us refuse to act as courageously, as decisively as we ought because, while we can see the first step clearly, we can’t see the place at the top where the ascending steps end. I’m not sure how far into his ministry it was before Dr. King began to realize, as had Jesus himself, that if he kept preaching the truths of God’s love and human equality violence would try to mow him down. He didn’t know, perhaps, how violent enemies of racial equality really were. He didn’t know, perhaps, how far they’d be willing to go in order to silence him once and for all. But he knew his enemies would come after him in some kind of way, and he was right.
‚ Continuing with his optimism founded in faith, Dr. King also said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Dr. King would have been one of those, in times gone by, who’d have been left to wander in caves, his home having been taken from him by someone whose happiness and hope rested on hatred of other human beings–racists and others. No doubt about it, and that would have been a preferable alternative to how his enemies ultimately decided to deal with him.
After today, we can hardly associate caves with cold, darkness, and hiding. Some amazing things have happened to people in caves. There’s another kind of darkness that we must truly fear. In Dr. King’s words,
Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies–or else? The chain reaction of evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars–must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Silverside Sermons

Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor

January 7, 2007
Copyright © Silverside Church 2007

Sowing Spiritually

(seventh in sermon series, “God in Great Art” based on Van Gogh’s “The Sower”)


A very decent man was buried this week. Our nation’s thirty-eighth president passed into the next realm leaving behind a personal, professional, and presidential legacy of goodness and morality. Those seeds sown in his life left like remembrances. A presidential historian commented that for a person to have lived 93 years, especially to have been a politician, and to leave this world with no one having anything “bad” to say about him is remarkable. May his tribe increase.
What kinds of seeds are you sowing? This is a question we should all be consistently asking ourselves, and Van Gogh’s painting before us today gives us a visual representation of a sower at work. He entitled this work, “Sower with Setting Sun.”
Originally, the top part of the painting was painted predominantly in yellow, and the lower part mainly in violet. The sower’s pants were white. The artist wasn’t pleased with the end result. He softened the yellows with some greens, and he toned down the violet with orange. The sower’s pants became blue. Van Gogh was still unhappy. He called this second effort a failure and only after four adjustments to the form of the piece did he leave it as complete.
Jesus also had an interest in sowers. This came out in his teachings about the so-called “kingdom of God,” which we should more properly refer to as the “divine domain.”
From the beginning of Jesus’ time of teaching, there always seems to have been differences of opinions about how Jesus himself saw the “Divine Domain.” That is, was the rule of God outside a person’s experience–communal, political, gradually breaking into human history? Or, in reality, was God’s rule always first and foremost an inner experience for someone who opened herself or himself to the spirit of God and, therefore, only secondarily ever anything outside personal experience?
We know that the difference of opinion about what Jesus had in mind was never fully settled since he appears in the New Testament literature as we have it to open the possibilities for both. I’d like for us to consider each option today even as we keep our eyes focused on what must have been one of Jesus’ favorite teaching images: the mustard seed.
Hear the parable of “The Divine Domain as Mustard Shrub”
from Matthew’s Gospel:

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matt 13:31-32 NRSV).

Jesus was surrounded by a handful of people, never hoards of people, who were interested in the practicalities of being an established religious movement, fully Jewish, within the confines of the Roman Empire, which occupied their land and ultimately had control over the worship practices that were permitted. Since all of Jesus’ followers were oppressed Jews like he was, it was easy to tie one’s religious hopes and dreams to political dreams.
What I’m saying is that the Jews, quite naturally, wanted to be UN-occupied by Rome as soon as possible, and they actively looked forward to that time. Some were ready to take up arms to help make it happen, but they were in the minority–at least during Jesus’ small piece in the puzzle of human history. Part of what the Jews happily anticipated at the time when their freedom would be returned to them was total religious freedom–no answering to Rome, no adapting religious practices or celebrations to watered-down versions so as not to offend mighty Rome, nobody other than sister and brother Jews even offering opinions about how religion should be practiced and lived out.
When hearers began to take note of Jesus’ frequent reference to God’s kingdom or the Divine Domain, many naturally wanted that kingdom to be real and visible and tangible–as real as, more real than, the trappings of Roman rule over them even as Jesus taught. The only way that kind of kingdom could be envisioned by most was if it came in place of the Roman Kingdom or Empire. Rome certainly wasn’t about to tolerate a parallel state just for the Jews. Thus, those who heard THIS emphasis in Jesus’ teaching began to be thrilled with the possibility that, in time, the kingdom of God, the Divine Domain, would exist. It would be an earthly kingdom, they thought, made up of Jews like them. God would be their sovereign, speaking through a king appointed by God Godself.
I must say that this is very nearly what many theologically conservative Christians still think of in terms of what God’s kingdom is. It’s clearly, in their minds, an earthly kingdom set up by God and ruled by God through God’s own appointed leaders. It will be a kingdom of Christians, though, and it will take the place of present day world powers and governments. Even so, it will not be completely political; indeed, the “laws” and “rules” of Christians will prevail.
Some Christians think it’s coming one of these days. Others think it has already begun to be realized within present governments that will only become more and more Christian as they transmute fully into God’s kingdom here on earth.
The parable lends itself to motivation and excitement for those who see the kingdom as an external reality, as a religio-political entity. Didn’t Jesus say in this parable as clearly as he ever said anything in a parable that the Divine Domain is like a little bitty tiny mustard, one of the smallest of all seeds anybody in his day knew anything about? And when this seed gets sown in the right kind of soil, with all the accompanying nurture, that minuscule seed grows into one of the largest of any known shrubs, as large as some trees. Beyond its size, the mustard shrub is full and strong–so much so that birds can even come and nest in its strong and healthy branches.
That’s a confidence-builder isn’t it? Wow!
Is this what Jesus’ meant? Was the Divine Domain for him a kingdom of this world, even in a new era for this world?
We well know that in the Gospel of Matthew at least, the writer or writers used the phrase “kingdom of God” intentionally to juxtapose the kingdom of Rome or the Roman Empire to God’s Kingdom. Matthew’s Gospel did not hold to the notion that Rome was as powerful as it thought it was or as “eternal” as it expected to be.
God’s kingdom, in contrast, was/would be the most powerful kingdom that humanity would ever know and the only one that would ever, in any sense, truly endure. All others would fail in time and fade away.


You must be thinking of another place where Jesus used this mustard seed reference. I certainly am.
Jesus had just cast a demon out of a man, and his disciples wanted to know why they couldn’t do such deeds. Jesus told them that they should be able to if they had the faith for it. Specifically, he said, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, `Move from here to there,’ and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you.” Of course, no one has ever literally moved a mountain into the sea; Jesus must have been speaking figuratively again, as he was often known to do.
Faith is not something that can be described in precise detail so that you, if you don’t know what it is experientially, can walk around and look for it until you see it–kind of like a tree in a forest or a rainbow after a storm or a fixed kind of facial expression worn by those who are “in good” with God. Faith is certainly not something one can carry around in her or his pocket–as if it were a good luck charm or a pocket watch. It is not a garment to be worn so that one may immediately be designated a “person of faith” by someone looking objectively at her or him from the outside.
As a matter of fact, it’s difficult or impossible for someone to be able to look at someone else and say with assurance, “That person has great faith.” From the outside, faith seems to look like a lot of things it’s not. This is to say that there have been many instances when someone has appeared to have had strong and even exemplary faith–maybe even claimed it–so that lots of observers have stood in awe at what seemed to be the extent of this great faith. When matters come to light, later on, though, the person actually had no faith at all–just emotional exhibitionism along with the need to control and to try to make people think of her or him as spiritually mature.
And, just the opposite can be true as well. Someone can be scoffed at, criticized, diminished in a host of ways because “outsiders” say that she or he has no faith, acts only selfishly, has no concern for God’s ways. Yet, as time passes, it becomes clear to those who will take time to see that contrary to outer indications the person was acting in deep faith every step of the way–fully selfless, fully God-centered. The critics had been wrong all along.
Faith, as applied to relationship with God, is so many things rolled up into a single entity, but never static, never a museum piece. Faith is dynamic–growing, changing, losing ground, gaining ground, helping us, haunting us, challenging us, calming us, claiming us.
If you think, if you’ve been led to believe, that having faith is all about what YOU do, then you’re wrong. You can’t make faith happen one little bit. You can’t make it grow, and neither can you turn down the faith control as it were once you have been gripped by faith. You can try to block it out of your life altogether if you wish, and that works well for some, for many; but you can’t put limits on it, keep it on simmer until you’re ready to boil! If you want to experience the potential benefits from having faith, then about all you can do is to open your heart and your mind, very intentionally, to experience the living presence of God. God will move as God chooses and can’t be predicted, nudged, pushed, or used in any way.
The spirit of God–meaning God’s living but unseen presence–was described in both Hebrew and Christian scripture as “wind” that blows where it will–“ruach” in Hebrew and “pneuma” in Greek. You can see the effects of it; sometimes you can feel the effects of it as when a cool fall breeze blows in your face during an afternoon walk, but you can’t control how it blows or where.
Faith is a combination of trust in the goodness of the Creator, intellectual possibilities and probabilities (but never certainties). It is emotional satisfaction and hope; it has to do with confidence in God and God’s power, a willingness to lean into God’s love.
It is not an accomplishment or a once-for-all life achievement. It certainly isn’t simply something someone has said is correct any more than it is to be equated with “believing something to be true rather than false.” Having faith does not mean being free from doubts and even skepticism. And God doesn’t like the people with “more faith” more than God cares for those who have “less faith.” As a matter of fact, faith can’t be quantified.
Faith certainly isn’t a spiritual “aura” that allows some few to go into life’s battles and later come out unscathed while those without faith deal with the consequences of lack of proper ammunition, always coming up short in life’s challenging moments. Even so, there are all too many people who claim to “have faith” insisting all the time that those who suffer in life or have tragedies come to them or their loved ones are clearly lacking in faith. When bad things happen to these “faithless souls,” they are, without a doubt, suffering the consequences of lack of faith or, at least, lack of “adequate” faith–whatever that is.
Since faith is never based on certainties, and can’t be, there is another element to faith that many people don’t like and would prefer to stay away from altogether. I’m talking about risk.
It’s definitely the “dark side” of faith as many folks see it–both those who want faith to mean certainty as well as those who don’t want to take the chance of having tried to invest themselves and their time and energy and dreams in something that didn’t work out in the long run after all.
Faith is in part risk whether any of us likes it or not. If we could prove what we want to be certain of about God and God’s will and ways, then we wouldn’t need faith. We’d just buy the books that tell us how God’s existence and God’s will and God’s plan for the world are absolutely, without any doubt, made known in scripture and through the most faithful of those who dare to speak for God today.
I can tell you, if you don’t already know, that there are more preachers today preaching across the world who are trying to convince their listeners that God has told them or shown them or proven to them (the preachers, I mean) beyond a shadow of any doubt that what they are telling you in their sermon was made known to them by God Godself and that, therefore, there is no doubt about it. They don’t seem to entertain in any way the notion that they might have misunderstood or added in their own wishes to what God is “guaranteeing.”
Whatever that is, it’s not the gospel. It’s not the word from Jesus. It’s not life as Jesus himself experienced it. It’s not the way things really are on a spiritual seeker’s pathway. Even the apostle Paul–as certain as he seemed to be and to want to be about so many things–eventually said, “In this world, the best we can see of spiritual realities is something like looking in a mirror that is blurred.”
Think of faith not as something to learn and master–like your multiplication tables–but rather something to experience, something to awaken to, something that could be alive and at work in you if you didn’t suppress it.
The Christian mystics of old, including the Desert Fathers–those who gave their full attention to seeking closeness in relationship to God and depth of experience in knowing God–have been very clear in telling the rest of us that God’s presence cannot be forced; that a word from God cannot be squeezed out of God on our timetable; and that if one wants to have a deeper experience of God, all in the world any of us can do is to wait–to wait on God to speak or move. They talked about how rare those moments are in anyone’s life and, thus, how we must treasure and build on what we do have, even if those are few, few and far, far between.


The Gospel of Thomas also has its mustard shrub parable–very similar to the versions in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the Reign of Heaven is like.” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a large plant and becomes shelter for birds of the sky” (Gospel of Thomas 20, Scholars Version).

In Thomas, however, we are certain that an external political kingdom was no where near Jesus’ thinking. Here, the Divine Domain is totally something individual and internal. Of course, it has external indications and ramifications, but the kingdom of God grows within one’s own being.

Listen to this teaching from Jesus also included in Thomas:
Jesus said, "If your leaders say to you,`Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, `It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you (Gospel of Thomas 3, SV).

“Outside you” in the sense that you can’t keep secret having God at work in your heart. Obviously, how you live changes, and your values are transformed. People who know you, notice.
Thomas isn’t the only Gospel in which Jesus portrayed the kingdom of God as something inward. It’s also a theme in Luke’s

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, “The kingdom of God comes not with observation. Neither shall they say, `Lo here or, lo there!’ for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21 NRSV).

This is a very, very different kind of reality then, isn’t it? And it has a lot to do with faith also: the Divine Domain, the kingdom of God, as something completely inward. It has no political expressions at all and becomes outward only because my allegiances have changed. If the kingdom of God comes and grows within me then the persons to whom I’m relating and for whom I’m caring are different in my eyes than when I could comfortably live a self-serving life.
The mustard shrub parable has to mean something very different if it’s talking about the Divine Domain within rather than the kingdom of God, as political entity, external to myself and my faith. Think about it in this new context.
Jesus said, the Divine Domain is like an itsy bitsy mustard seed, a seed so small you can’t even see it past the age of forty (in a society that didn’t have trifocals!) Every now and again, one of those seeds that lots of people can hardly see and almost all regard as insignificant gets sown and takes root in some good soil deep down inside that you may not even have known you had. And the growth of that little seed is a sight to behold! It becomes tall and strong–so much so that birds can nest and find protection in the branches. And the now-towering plant becomes both our focus and our motivation for allowing continued growth.
You can’t make it grow, but, on the other hand, unless you cut it down, you can’t stop it from growing once it takes root! Do you think that kind of image perplexed or frightened the skeptics in Jesus’ hearing? Or what about the people in the crowd who maybe wanted just a little bit of religion but not enough to be bothered? You start fooling around with this stuff, and you might find yourself absolutely centered on serving God above all else! Your commitments will inspire others, and they will build your sympathies and your empathies for strugglers. You won’t be able to keep these from happening no matter what you do.
Liberals (or progressives) in the Christian religion are often accused of lacking evangelistic and missionary zeal–and indeed that may be true for many. But it doesn’t have to be.
Of course, we should oppose the old “missionary” model of trying to go into “foreign” cultures to try turning people there into United-States-Christians with on respect for their existing religious traditions, which may be much healthier and more God-honoring than many brands of “exported” Christianity.
As far as evangelism is concerned, yes, I for one progressive have given up old-style, invasive, pre-packaged, fear-factor “faith” sharing, but I haven’t given up on evangelism by any means. Indeed, I think the focus and the message have changed. Instead of pressing people to agree with some basic “facts” so that “new faith” becomes nothing more than intellectual assent, I ask people who trust me and who seek my input on such a pivotal life issue to look inward and open themselves up to the spirit of God that is already within them. After all, until faith is alive in you, in me; until the Divine Domain takes root in us, “theology” is both inconsequential and more likely than not to miss the mark.
David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

Sermon Series Winter 2006-07
God in Great Art

December 24, 2006 Evening Service Sermon #6
“Nativity/Virgin Crowned”
Parish Church, Corby Glen, Lincohnshire


The art piece before you this evening is a fifteenth century worked painted directly onto a wall of the Parish Church in Corby Glen, Lincolnshire, England. The artist has combined two major themes here, at least two: the Nativity and the adoration of Mary the mother of Jesus as the Queen of Heaven–a very Roman Catholic emphasis from a time before Protestants.
Queen Mary sits on a throne holding a scepter in one hand and the asoundingly advanced Baby Jesus in the other. Baby Jesus has his right hand raised. He must be blessing someone. Perhaps the person whom he is blessing once appeared in the painting to the our left, but over time her or his image has worn away. Already as an infant he is pictured as actively blessing people! That’s quite amazing.
To our right, and still very much visible, we see Joseph who also is crowned. He doesn’t appear to be haloed as are Mary and the baby. He is sitting on a stool, not a throne, and with are a couple of animals and, perhaps, the manger. In another companion painting opposite this one in the Parish Church of Corby Glen, obviously in an attempt to make the whole scene complete, there is a painting in which a shepherd, several sheep, two Magi, and evil old Herod the Great make appearances.
The two paintings were obviously attempts to combine the details of Jesus’ birth and early life recorded in the only two canonical Gospels that believe these stories were worth telling, Matthew and Luke. If you were to look at most creches today, you’d see many of these same characters except for Herod the Great, the King of the Jews. So far as I know, Herod hasn’t been invited to any modern painted, carved, or molded creches. What we will usually not find in most artistic representations of the Nativity are Mary and Joseph crowned. Interesting.
In the Gospel stories, they are anything but royalty. In fact, the biblical stories emphasize what “common folk” they are. There are no crowns, no scepters, and no newborn–a few hours old already standing up and raising his hand to bless visitors. In this picture before us today, the Nativity portrayed must be the artist’s idea of a highly spiritualized scene–not what happened, but what it meant in that artist’s mind.
One thing the artist was correct in assuming: this scene, or these scenes that come about by merging Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts was supposed to be interpreted. Neither Gospel writer told the story as a matter of history per se. Just a mental picture of a baby, a manger, and some attendants mattered very little to Matthew or Luke. The point was, this scene impacted life–immediately the shepherds and outwardly from there to people far removed from the birth scene geographically and ideologically. And it should impact us today.
Imagining crowned and haloed figures won’t help us today, but the message that the birth of Jesus matters to us and our world will help us. Jesus’ birth meant the birth of a renewed message that God is with all of us and with the world as a whole in the best of times and in the worst of times. Nothing can happen in the world or to any individual in the world–regardless of how insignificant and anonymous she or he may seem or feel–but that God’s presence surrounds that person.
I wonder at the end of another year with more bad news than good news for people in the western world how much any of realizes or embraces that truth. There isn’t a more important message than that, my dear friends, and there is no authentic Christmas message that departs from this foundation.


“Emmanuel,” God with us–one of Jesus’ nicknames. Can that be a true reflection of God and how God relates to human beings?
I think more monotheists known to me, and certainly more Christians and Muslims than Jews in the mix, will more readily say that God is the cause of whatever happens than that God is with us in the best of times as well as in the worst of times. Many people have such a need to affirm the power of God that they will happily sacrifice a sense of God’s love and universal compassion in order to “make sure” God’s in charge by crediting God with every single evil that occurs in the world–making the assumption that, if something bad happens, somebody’s getting punished and, further, that whoever is getting slammed by God at the moment deserves it. Can you imagine that all the people who died in the 9/11 disasters were deserving of God’s punishment? Well, yes, if you have a theological outlook that says all humans are filled with sin anyway and fully deserving of death. Those who live only live by the small measure of grace God extends to a few people–and only then is willing and able to hold back the divine desire to punish and kill because Jesus somehow intercedes.
In the 1700's in Germany, a philosopher/theologian/mathematician by the name of Liebnitz–though on a very different pathway than those who are eager to credit an angry God with causing all human and planetary suffering and destruction–came up with the idea that whatever happens is for the best since this is the best of all possible worlds or the best of all possible universes. His views were appropriated by many in his time, and since, and what they most often led to were a false optimism and a denial of true depth and reality of horror, terror, suffering, and loss.
This way of thinking, at best, gives me a serious headache, but let me share with you one scholar’s explanation of how Liebnitz reasoned through these matters. If you’d planned on a little nap during the sermon today this might be a good place to “rest your eyes” for a minute or two.

God is the final absolute [entity], the primal unity and highest good, yet present to all the individual [entities]. [God] necessarily exists, as the cause common to all the finite [entities]; otherwise the mutual adaptability between the [entities] and between body and soul would not be possible, whereas the universal harmony among them must be a preestablished one. The first cause has so organized each [entity] that it reflects the whole more or less perfectly. The ontological argument [Liebnitz] deemed valid only if the idea of the perfect being be shown to be possible, which he regarded to mean as including no limits or negation. The cosmological argument he construes so that, starting out with the contingency of finite things, a necessary absolute first cause must be presupposed. Inasmuch as every [entity] is a reduced reflex of the highest, God's attributes may be deduced by exaggerating those of the soul to the utmost. The world composed of distinct [entities] rising in their scale according to the clearness of representation must be the best possible world; for, if not, God either would not or could not create a better....In addition, without evil there would be no good; moreover, it multiplies the good....
Now, one of the enemies of Liebnitz was none other than the most sarcastic writer and thinker of the eighteenth century, Voltaire. In time, Voltaire would poke serious fun at Liebnitz and his disciples in his famous novella, “Candide.” Part of the motivation for that was Voltaire’s profound compassion for those who suffer, which became abundantly clear in writing in the poem he wrote in response to the tragic Lisbon earthquake.

But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!


From Leibnitz learn we not by what unseen
Bonds, in this best of all imagined worlds,
Endless disorder, chaos of distress,
Must mix our little pleasures thus with pain;
Nor why the guiltless suffer all this woe
In common with the most abhorrent guilt.
`Tis mockery to tell me all is well....


We will gather in the name of the God who DOES NOT cause natural disasters–not can we say with integrity that God “allows” them. We surely gave up by the time we were teens the notion that God’s in the weather business–making the sun shine at certain times and opening the windows of the firmament above to make the rain fall down from time to time. The natural world is the natural world. It is an amazing creation–most of time, enhancing human life in those places where humans live. God has not taken it upon Godself to control or use the weather to reward some and punish others–even though I didn’t know this when I was ten years old and playing Little League Baseball. If a game were coming up that I really wanted play–maybe because I was getting my first chance to play a new position in which I’d been interested for a while–I would pray fervently to God to hold back the rain in Halls Crossroads. You know, it was the strangest thing! Sometimes God would, and sometimes God wouldn’t! Some of my prayers must have been higher quality than others!
My dear friends, as long as there is a natural order there will be natural disasters from time to time. Scientific advancements will help us anticipate these more effectively and get more and more people out of the way of danger. We will be less and less surprised and more and more prepared. Fewer and fewer people will be left ill-equipped to respond to killer winds, rains, and quakes. That is incredibly good news.
As long as there are human beings in habiting the world, there will be differences. There will be conflict. There will be misunderstanding. There will be inequities. There will be injustices for some. But, our differences need not escalate to war–not even as a “last resort.” World peace is, indeed, something we can hope for and work toward and affirm fully as God’s will.
Now, of course, we live in a time–as, I suppose, has always been the case–when war is not a first or last resort, but maybe a second resort. I’m sure most of you saw the news this week that the search for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction has been shelved. The reason the American people were given as a justification for this war from our “commander in chief” was the immanent threat of weapons of mass destruction. Fifteen hundred lost American lives later, and who knows how many deaths of innocent Iraqis, the truth we have been anticipating for some time now finally makes the front page–along, of course, with frets about the separation of Jen and Brad. We must keep our priorities in order!
Dr. King’s vision of an American society devoid of all vestiges of racism isn’t yet realized, but we’re closer in some respects than we once were. And, without question, we have made progress in large part due the fact that he let himself dream when others had given up all hope. Without a doubt, we have put at least some racism aside in part, at least, as a result of his sharing of his dream. Unquestionably, there are many more instances of Black persons and White persons walking together in harmony than before Dr. King gave himself to the cause of racial harmony.
The powerful vision from first Isaiah, which has been guiding our service today, must be read by modern, thinking persons of faith as a challenge to make the world a better place and NOT a call to be spiritual couch potatoes who simply lie back and wait for God to do all the work of enhancing the created order, to make a “return” to Eden God’s singular responsibility.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots...Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

This beautiful vision is a prophetic restatement of God’s original intent for the world as expressed in Eden. We’re a long way from there, and much of it is stirring hyperbole. But its idealism calls us make the world a better place and to build our efforts on a foundation of a loving God who, by no means, would destroy persons or property or planets as acts of punishment. We can either sit back and try to analyze the tsunami disasters, or we can actively try to respond in reasonable and compassionate and practical ways.
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig once preached on this text, and what she said moved me a great deal. Jews, Isaiah's promise of redemption speaks...of our recurring experience of redemption through time. We believe that Isaiah's promise has already been fulfilled time and again whenever our people have been felled and new shoots have miraculously appeared....Jews are not awaiting the advent of a savior to ransom us; God taught us long ago to ransom our captives ourselves.