Sunday, April 29, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


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


April 29, 2007

Country: “You Can’t Take It with You!”
(Second sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


© Copyright 2007, Silverside Church



I.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to live in the modern western world and avoid being a materialist, at least to some degree. We love our things, don’t we?

One of the characteristics of the most growing branches of Christianity today—namely, the prosperity gospel movements—is that despite their purely fundamentalist approach to the Bible otherwise, the adherents to these movements completely and intentionally ignore Jesus’ experience with and teachings on material possessions.

Does anybody remember what Jesus said about such matters? I’m thinking of several comments he made.

Once, when the reality that Rome had it in for him was clear in Jesus’ mind according to the Gospel of Luke, an unidentified person ran up to Jesus in a burst of spiritual exuberance and blurted out, “I will follow you anywhere!” Wow! What more could the leader of a small, struggling band of spiritually-energized servants hope for? Of course Jesus would have signed her or him up on the spot just the way we do around here at Silverside when people keep rushing up to join us. Oh no, wait. That was a dream I had once.

Anyway, what Jesus says to the ears of a first-time hearer or reader of Luke’s version of Jesus’ life story sounds utterly shocking. What Jesus says to the anonymous would-be enthusiast feels like cold water in the face of someone who has been sleeping: “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Child of Humanity has no where to rest his head” (Luke 9:58). This would be one of those, “Look before you leap,” kinds of warnings.

Jesus was asking the person if she or he had any real idea of what being a part of the Jesus Movement demanded or led to. I can imagine that some of those who were already in Jesus’ inner circle flinched when they heard Jesus speak so plainly about what living by his values meant. Remember that even many of Jesus’ closest followers expected eventual possession of political power and prestige. In other words, they weren’t planning on being poor and subservient to Rome forever. One of the many reasons that the few Jews who paid any attention to their countryperson, Jesus, at all was that he didn’t pan out as the long-anticipated military messiah for whom they had long been hoping. The messiah they had wanted was going to beat up on Rome and any other enemy of the Jewish people making the poor rich and the powerless powerful. The more Jesus’ talked, the more he poo-pooed political power and personal possessions altogether. So how in the world was life going to get any better for his followers? It sounded like more of the same struggles with which they had long lived and from which they wanted to be liberated.

Very, very few leaders of “successful” religious movements throughout history have remained happily poor and out of the limelight. In fact, though there are and have been exceptions, just the opposite is normative and desirable. You won’t hear rich, pampered pastors and television preachers treating this text in their weekly “God wants God’s People in Rolls Royces and Mansions” prosperity preaching. Yet, even the skeptical Jesus Seminar scholars have little doubt that this teaching was authentically Jesus.

Here’s another story that the modern “God Rewards Faithfulness with Material Wealth” preachers and teachers systematically skip over.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.’” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 9:18-30 NRSV).

Now, Jesus didn’t have anything against rich folks across the board; in fact, his own ministry was most generously supported by several wealthy women. There were and are wealthy people who don’t love their money more than they love God, but Jesus is pointing out that most of us would rather rely on what we can see and touch that gives us comfort and the admiration of others than on an invisible God whose ways can’t be guaranteed to serve us on command.

It is interesting in this snippet from Jesus’ life story that it is a ruler who comes to Jesus seeking to understand what eternal life is all about. Evidently, this man was one of the Jewish rulers, which probably indicated that he served on the Sanherdrin, the Jewish ruling council whom the Romans permitted to function to settle most civil and religious affairs among the Jews. Most of the “rulers” among the Jews were Sadducees who, generally at least, didn’t believe in eternal life so either this man was a Sadducee questioning his sect’s perspective, or he was a member of one of the other Jewish religio-political parties such as Pharisees, Zealots, or Essences among others.

Beyond that, we know nothing about the man other than that he, like Jesus, had been brought up to keep the key Jewish laws, and to his knowledge he had kept them. He wasn’t bragging about having kept them nor was he of the mind that God, thus, owed him eternal life so he probably wasn’t a Pharisee.

Jesus’ response to him was stinging. Jesus said, “Yes, you’ve kept all the rules, but God isn’t first in your life. Your wealth is first in your life. You should give it all away to poor people, and then you won’t have any temptation remaining to worship wealth instead of God.”

How can literalists miss out on this? Later in the passage, Jesus does go on to say to his disciples who believe that they’ve given up absolutely everything they can give up in order to follow Jesus that those who give up everything to serve God will get back much more in this world and eternal life in the next, but he’s certainly not promising material wealth after telling this ruler guy to get rid of all of his!

I think we do have to remind ourselves that one of Jesus’ teaching techniques was overstatement. Do you remember, for example, when Jesus said, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out”? Well, Jesus didn’t literally mean if you keep looking at people and things the wrong way, it’s the fault of your eye so you should blind yourself in order that you won’t be tempted! He was saying, instead, that as long as we keep looking at what gets us into trouble, we’ll keep getting into trouble!
To the ruler, Jesus’ lesson was simple, “As long as your possessions mean more to you than God does, you won’t inherit eternal life because you’ll never have a personal connection with God. Your possessions will always be in the way.” And it doesn’t count or help if you pretend that God willed your wealth and everyone else’s poverty.




II.

Country Music, as we use the term today, is a mix of several musical subgenres including the Nashville sound, Bluegrass, Western, Cajun, Zydeco, and Honky Tonk. Having grown up three or so hours from the current capital city of Country Music; Nashville, Tennessee; you might be surprised to learn that I never became a great fan of Country Music although I do love Ms. Dolly Parton upon whom an honorary doctoral degree has been conferred by my undergraduate alma mater. And, yes, it is true that my oldest dog is named after Dr. Parton and was purchased in her home town of Sevierville, Tennessee. And, yes, it is also true that when Dolly is on the premises of her theme park, Dollywood, a bra instead of a flag flies on the flagpole.

That not all of us southerners love any or all Country Music is a shock to many people in the north who are regionalist and assume that all southerners are “country,” somewhat ill-mannered, lovers of Country Music and all the fried chicken they can get their hands on. This just ain’t so.

Jeff Foxworthy has become a multimillionaire I’d guess by telling jokes and stories about a special brand of country folk called “rednecks.” Surely you’ve heard of these redneck jokes.

 You might be a redneck if you think Taco Bell is the Mexican telephone company.
 You might be a redneck if you think a stock tip is advice on feeding your hogs.
 You might be a redneck if you think Sherlock Holmes is a housing project in Biloxi!

Anyway, back to Country Music. It actually has a fascinating history. Historians have demonstrated that for some three hundred years, immigrants to what we now call Appalachia brought musical instruments from their home countries. People who ended up living together in Appalachia also sang together accompanied by Irish fiddles, German dulcimers, Italian mandolins, Spanish guitars, and African banjos. Add to that the patterns of Indigenous Americans and immigrants from the Czech Republic of gathering together in communal settings to sing and dance and have a little something to drink at times.

The song we will hear today is a fine example of Country Music with a message about the pointlessness of materialism. Martha Brown put me onto this song, and I want you to hear it. The singer is Steven Ivey, and the DVD is called “Bluegrass Gospel.” The song itself is entitled, “Can’t Take It with You.”

[song clip]

You can’t take it with you when you go.
It’ll just be you and God, and He’s gonna have the
show.
All those possessions will be left behind on earth.
You’ll never see a u-haul pulled behind a hearse!

Have you ever seen a hearse pulling a u-haul? Surely not! But some among us seem to live as if that’s what’s going to happen by and by, and Country Music makes the deluded way many of us live with our possessions as picturesque as the emperor’s new clothes.

Malcolm Muggeridge, the twentieth century British journalist, spy, and--of all things--Christian apologist, had this to say about materialism:

The most terrible thing about materialism, even more terrible than its proneness to violence, is its boredom, from which sex, alcohol, drugs, all devices for putting out the accusing light of reason and suppressing the unrealizable aspirations of love, offer a prospect of deliverance.

That is powerful and powerfully disturbing, isn’t it?

Henry David Thoreau, whom many people forget was trained as a Unitarian clergyperson at Harvard, wrote: “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, he wrote. Can that be so? Jesus obviously hasn’t been the only one to have believed that the love of money is the root of all evil—not money, but the love of money.

Ghandi put things in perspective for modern women and men in a global context: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s need, but not every person’s greed.” And Einstein: “Three great forces rule in the world: stupidity, fear, and greed.”
III.

Our very Jewish Jesus was, quite naturally, heavily influenced by the teachings of the ancient Hebrew scripture writers in regard to materialism and wealth.

The editor of the book of Proverbs included this gem in her or his massive collection of wisdom sayings: “Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves” (Prov 11:28 NRSV). There’s suspicion in this perspective that one can both love her or his wealth AND be a morally upright person. And here’s another proverbial reflection on the issue of wealth, which—by the way—wasn’t a problem for many people at all in either the time it was originally written or in the time of Jesus; most people who heard these teachings were quite poor. This reality makes the reflection from Proverbs, chapter 30, compelling, to say the least: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God” (vv. 8-9 NRSV). The proverb urged people to long for a place in life of having neither too much nor too little; neither extreme was to be desired.

The prophet Hosea used unforgettable images to make his point about mismanagement of and utter devotion to wealth. Hosea puts these words into the mouth of God Godself:

When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel, but he incurred guilt through Baal and died. And now they [“they,” referring to God’s people] keep on sinning and make a cast image for themselves, idols of silver made according to their understanding [moving now to a context of idolatry], all of them the work of artisans. “Sacrifice to these,” they say. People are kissing calves! Therefore they [“they” meaning idolaters] shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes away early, like chaff that swirls from the threshing-floor or like smoke from a window. Yet I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. It was I who fed you in the wilderness, in the land of drought. When I fed them, they were satisfied. They were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me. So I will become like a lion to them; like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them (Hos 13:1-8 NRSV).
When our hearts our “satisfied,” according to Hosea, we feel no need for God so we forget God. God, for many humans, is to be called on ONLY in crisis, ONLY on an “as needed” basis.

Any of us who have or who have ever had all we needed or wanted know how easy it is to make our possessions or our money or the prestige that comes with being “well off” in most cultures our god or gods. Oh, it’s not that having once believed in God and having relied on God—perhaps because there was absolutely no other hope for us in a bind—we now come formally to renounce our belief in God. No; it rarely happens like that.

Much more often, our atheism isn’t an honest intellectual position that we all have to respect. What happens is that our wealth gradually moves us to “practical atheism.” If anyone asked, now that we’ve won the lottery or carried away the top prize from “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” we’d say, “Of course we still believe in God.” And many of us would even dare to thank God for giving us our big winnings while leaving hungry and thirsty and homeless people out there. But in the day to day living that goes on after a big win, God for all practical purposes is removed from our consciousness.

The angry, wild animal image of God in the prophecy of Hosea is often misunderstood. The wild animal waiting to devour the materialists, those who worship idols and take their comfort and contentment to be signs that they don’t need God, isn’t God Godself—not at all. God isn’t waiting to devour or mangle anyone. What God pledges to do as Hosea has God speaking is to tear their hearts open; to force them, if there’s an opportunity to do so, to revisit the feelings they had lived with when they believed that they had to rely on God if they were going to have any life at all.

Then comes Jesus in his twenties, some 740 years after Hosea began prophesying, with a parable that can be summarized with this statement: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.”

What scholars now call Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is actually a collection of several of his sermons. He didn’t present all of these heavy-duty teachings to a big group of people all in one setting. We should remember that when we are reading it.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:19-21 NRSV).
Spiritual treasures are the lasting treasures. Aside from having basic needs met, the intangibles always matter more than the tangibles—to most of us anyway. Do you believe that? Jesus did. More about why in another sermon excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:23-24 NRSV).
There were lots of slaves in Jesus’ world and lots of slaves who were in the groups who first heard Jesus’ teachings. They knew that Jesus’ assessment was absolutely on target. One slave cannot love and serve two masters equally; it isn’t humanly possible. That’s one of the many reasons, to compare, that someone participating in an affair outside a committed relationship often gives herself or himself away long before the truth is spoken. It isn’t always guilt by any means; there are too many near-sociopaths when it comes to relational fidelity. Sometimes, guilt does cause a cheating partner to break, but more often in my counseling experience the partner who is being cheated on knows the devotion that once was evident is no longer present.
In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t blame greed as the basis for materialism and a preoccupation with possessions. He makes worry the culprit. That is a much more pastoral approach than charging us with being greedy.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?....For it is the Gentiles [Ouch! Matthew has his Jesus slam the non-Jews rather roundly on a few occasions! This is one of them.] who strive for all these things; and indeed your God knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the realm of God and divine righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:25-27,32-33 NRSV adapted).
Once again, we have to look in one of Jesus’ teachings for his overall emphasis, not for meanings behind every little word. Indeed, birds do put a great deal of energy into finding food, and as we know now in a scientifically informed society they happen to eat quite a bit. Jesus isn’t worried with all of that. He’s encouraging people who spend their days living for the future and fretting over what they will have tomorrow and next year and the next to stop it. One way that materialism overtakes us is with this worry that has us so preoccupied with what we will have out there in the future that we can’t even enjoy today—a truth about which we at Silverside have been reminded too painfully and too frequently lately.
Jesus says that whatever else tomorrow may bring, it will bring enough potential worries of its own if we’re going to be given to worry. “Things,” “possessions” aren’t going to make us happy anyway—no matter how much we have stored away in our silos.
Give up greed. Give up worry. And give up the notion that hearses will someday start pulling u-hauls.
Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


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


April 22, 2007

Rap: Taking the Gospel to the Streets
(Second sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


© Copyright 2007, Silverside Church



I.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most of you do not, regularly at least, listen to Rap. In fact, it may be the case that the only time any of you have ever heard Rap is when someone—probably younger than you---pulls up beside you at a red light. At one time, I’d have added “and both you and she or he had auto windows down.” Now, however, thanks to those speaker companies that have succeeded in manufacturing speakers that can play so loud, they play for all vehicles in a twenty-five feet radius without ever needing the auto owner to lower a window. In fact, now we get not only the sound but also the actual physical feel of the beat because of bass vibrations.
I have had for some time a vision of retaliation for what I call this kind of “forced listening”—as if the speaker owner’s certain deafness won’t be enough of a punishment by and by! Despite the fact that a student this week did a speech-class presentation on road rage and informed me that if I’d ever even pondered retaliation for anything that happens on the road I was a candidate for committing road rage. With that disclaimer, I continue.
Here is my “pay back” scenario. An older couple who have lost most of their hearing “naturally,” likes to go out for an early evening drive now and then, and when they do they love to take out their hearing aids and crank up the musical volume on their top-of-the-line auto sound speakers and blare out their beloved Big Band sounds in such a way as to drown out and overpower the Rap to which they have long been helplessly subjected!
In their Rolls Royce, they pull up right beside some young Rap lovers trying to force their sounds on everybody within a city block or two and give them a good dose of Big Band! In my case, of course, it would be Broadway tunes instead of Big Band, but you get the idea. And for special fun, the older couple moves their heads to the Big Band beat as they stare through their mildly tinted windows at the Rap fans.
What do you think? I’m not suggesting that anyone actually try this—although I’ve wondered if I could sell the idea to an ad agency representing a big speaker manufacturer.
One of the things we have to be careful of when we look at Rap music is potential racism. Not all rappers are persons of color, and not all fans of Rap are persons of color. Neither is it the case that all persons of color endorse the rugged aspects of Rap that we’ll consider in a bit. So, let’s get rid of the temptation to be racist about this issue here and now!
For many years, I was grateful that I only had to deal with Rap when I was stuck at a red light. Then, the unimaginable happened. My younger son took a liking to Rap. I protested. He still listened to it; in the end, all I could control was the loudness of how it was played in the house. I continued to criticize and cajole, but to no avail.
When Carson started driving and wanted to be asked to take me on every outing and errand (man, did THAT ever change!) he assumed that the driver was in charge of everything about the trip. This included the musical selections. By the time I’d made my point about turning off what I called “that trash,” we had already arrived at our destination. It was essentially a losing battle on my end.
On vacations, we had to compromise. This is what we came up with. Each of the three of us got to choose a CD to play on a rotation basis. My older son, Jarrett, in those days was into what he called “Alternative music.” If the Rap Carson listened to had too much violence and graphic sexual references for my taste, Alternative music seemed to find every reason in the world to be unhappy about something, then depressed, then Nietzche-esque, and—finally—suicidal. Of course, each son had to criticize the other’s musical choices and tastes until when my choices were playing, they united in their utter hatred of what I was putting them through. “Ethel Mermann was an American icon,” I’d say, “and so was Gypsy Rose Lee! If I want to belt out, `Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ with her, I’m an adult who is doing all the driving and paying for all the gas, and—by golly—I can enjoy my turn after patiently listening to your selections without pulling my hair out or swerving off the interstate!” Ah yes, vacations were delightful in those years.
I must now confess that my bias against Rap kept me from learning anything about it at all until much later. And while it will never be my preferred beat it, has tremendous merit as a modern musical form and as a one of the perfect vehicles for getting a message heard by our kids.
What would justifiably offend decent people in Rap isn’t in all of Rap; so there’s another of many ways that generalizing leads to misunderstandings and out and out lies. As it happens, there are several types of Rap, and we’re going to listen to one of each over the next several Sundays! JUST KIDDING! Today’s the only day we’re giving to Rap, but I wanted to wake a couple of you up!
In a moment, we’re going to listen to listen to some “Christian Rap.” What offends most of us is a type of Rap known by many as “Gangster Rap.” That is the Rap music filled with references to murder and other violence, drugs, and abusive sex. I can’t see how anyone’s life is enhanced by hearing it, and I can’t see how society is enhanced in any way through it.
Here’s the thing. Ganster Rap offends us and frightens us, and justifiably so; Christian Rap tries to undo such praise of violence and crass portrayals of sex and drug use; if it can help undo or neutralize the Gangster Rap, then I’m all for Christian Rap on that basis alone!




II.

I was saying a moment ago that one of the reasons I favor Christian Rap, even though I certainly don’t support its theological suppositions across the board, is that it may be a tool to help challenge or even undo some of the out-of-hand violence that runs rampant in our world and, yes, our very own country.
Normally, we think of an urban context when we think of out-of-control violence in this country, but that is to be close-minded and intentionally na├»ve. The worst act of gun violence in the history of this country took place since we last gathered here, and it wasn’t any where close to an urban area. It played out on a big sprawling campus about as far away from a major urban area as a sizeable American university could locate itself.
I’m not sure the tragedy could have been avoided, but I certainly think the extent of it could have been averted. Dr. Jack Varsalona, who succeeded Audrey Doberstein as president of Wilmington College, has acted promptly and decisively, and I feel very good about how Wilmington will respond to the possibility of potential acts of violence on our campuses.
In the mean time, lives have been lost. The hearts of parents, spouses, significant others, and friends are broken as a result of the murders of students and faculty members by the disturbed perpetrator who had absolutely no business being on campus until a mental health professional had declared with confidence the passing of the probability that this troubled stalker and angry loner was a threat to himself.
We grieve for those who lost loved ones in this tragedy. But one of the things we tend to do in our culture because of how the media directs us is to pretend that the dead had no feelings worth remembering or pondering. We do that with all the announcements of the war dead. How cold and insulting of us! Each of those students and faculty members who died felt the ripping open of their bodies by the assassin’s bullets. They felt the pain, and they lay there, bleeding and dying—having been shot by illegally purchased guns and ammunition legally purchased from e-bay!!!
I saw the gun seller on the news the other evening, and he was very remorseful, he said, that guns he sold could have done this. And I thought to myself, “Uh, what were those guns supposed to have done?” The weapons were made by Austrians who brilliantly saw to it that the rapid change of ammunition cartridges was virtuously effortless. Well, let’s break out in resounding applause for the Austrians on this one! And let’s watch the legal and illegal sales of their guns shoot, no pun intended, through the roof!
Though I couldn’t hear about any of the victims without weeping, I suppose there was a special poignancy associated with hearing about the deaths of those who died trying to help the others—like the young resident assistant and the professor, a Holocaust survivor, who held his classroom door shut as long as he possibly could to keep the gunman from his students.
Anything we can do to get such acts of violence out of the minds of everybody makes us all better off. If we can fend off the manufacture of a VA Tech Video game that makes taking out students its object we’ll be doing well.
Christian Rap wants to do that, as do many of the other Rap forms other than Gangster Rap. My hat is off to all Rap artists and their music who want to make the world a better place, and there’s plenty of that going on. We should be thankful and not critical of all Rap in a wholesale kind of way.
Many of you new folks may not realize that Dick Holmes during his working career was one of Wilmington’s most beloved radio and television personalities. Not to say he is now unloved; it’s just that he’s retired! Anyway, the entertainment part of his brain was working yesterday afternoon, and he called me and said, “I want you to listen to a clip of a musical piece that was sung at Silverside Church as far back as maybe twenty years ago.” I was expecting Mozart or Handel. This is what Dick played for me.

[Ed Stivender audio clip]

Silverside Church. Twenty-something years ago! The artist in that case was telling Bible stories to a distinctive beat.
I want you to listen to another audio clip, this one from a rapper who claims for himself the designation “Christian rapper.” His name is “Izrael” (I-z-r-a-e-l). His song is entitled, “Focus.”

[Izrael audio clip]

You may not have been able to follow all of it, but I do hope that at the first you heard his affirmation of the teaching of Matthew, chapter 6. And I also hope your heard his continued call of his listeners to “focus, like a thief in the night.” The song has a great collection of messages, and I find it very moving.




III.

Lest I leave you with the notion that, among the religious, only Christians are using Rap to present constructive values to our young people, I want to tell you about a Jewish Rap artist, an Hasidic Jewish Rap artist no less, named Matisyahu. Carson told me about him, and told me I had to tell you about Matisyahu.
He was born right up here in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1979. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to California, but they would eventually settle in White Plains, New York, about thirty minutes north of Grand Central Station on the commuter trains. By the time he was a teen, he realized that he was a hippie at heart and lifestyle. He grew dreadlocks and hated regular school and Hebrew school.
Near the end of high school, he decided to ponder a void he felt by going on a camping trip to Colorado. He recalls that it was the beauty of nature as framed by the Rocky Mountains that convinced him that there is a G-d. (A good Jewish boy would know better than to include a vowel in the writing out of a designation for God.) Matisyahu soon thereafter made his first trip to Israel, and his thirst for G-d and his exuberance for G-d were fueled.

This is how someone describes Matisyahu’s performances:

Matisyahu’s performance is an uplifting, powerful experience for all in his presence. Even the most pessimistic in his audience is inspired by his ability to so honestly convey such a delicate, topic as faith/spirituality. It is his dedication to his belief and openness to others that compels one to respect his artistry and message. It’s in that fleeting moment when our skepticism melts and our souls open up, that Matisyahu enters with his booming sound of faith.

Now, I can’t even simply “say” Rap words correctly, much less try to actually put them with a distinctive Rap beat. I don’t know what I said last week to bring this up as even a possibility, but Judge Stapleton got the idea somehow that I was going to perform Rap today. You can see that he’s not here! Actually, at lunch on Friday, he told what he thought I was up to and that he had a Federal Judge’s meeting in Cambridge today so I knew he wasn’t going to be here. But even when I told him I wasn’t going to attempt to perform Rap, he didn’t say, “Oh, I really wish I could be there!”
OK, words from Matisyahu:

What’s this feeling?
My love will rip a hole in the ceiling
Givin’ myself to you from the essence of my being
Sing to my G-d all these songs of love and healing
Want Mesheach now so it's time we start revealing

You’re all that I have and you’re all that I need
Each and every day I pray to get to know you please
I want to be close to you,
Yes I’m so hungry
You’re like water for my soul when it gets thirsty
Without you there's no me

Strip away the layers and reveal your soul
Got to give yourself up and then you become whole
You're a slave to yourself and you don’t even know
You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow

If you're trying to stay high then you’re bound to stay
low
You want G-d but you can’t deflate your ego
If you're already there then there's nowhere to go
If you’re cup’s already full then its bound to overflow
If you’re drowning in the waters and you can’t stay
afloat
Ask HaShem for mercy and he’ll throw you a rope
You're looking for help from G-d you say he couldn’t
be found
Searchin’ to the sky and beneath the ground
Like a King without his Crown
Yes, you keep fallin’ down
You really want to live but can’t get rid of your frown
Tried to reach unto the heights and wound bound down
on the ground
Given up your pride and then you heard a sound

Out of night comes day and out of day comes light
Nullified to the One like sunlight in a ray,
Makin’ room for his love and a fire gone blaze.

I think this is SO exciting and so hopeful and so encouraging! The people who are opening themselves up to God because of Rap are never, ever going to be compelled to do it by the urging of their parents or by the very best I can do with preaching a sermon. But they are going to listen to Izrael and Matisyahu, and the good news is going to break through.
Perhaps the passage read early in our gathering from 1 Corinthians has been darting in and out of your consciousness as the service has moved along. If not, let’s review it:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings (9:19-23 NRSV).
Paul is making a point to some of his sharpest Christian critics—and never forget that Paul had plenty of enemies both inside and outside the faith movement—that he is free as a person of faith to live out his faith as he chooses. If that gets him in trouble with Rome, as it eventually would, then that would be his choice.
Yet, as a person who is fully free spiritually, he may choose to live out his freedom in ways that don’t necessarily benefit him, but that benefit others. He is mature in the faith. He has paid his dues. He has even been imprisoned for his faith. He has “earned the right,” if you will to live out his faith from this point on as he wishes.
Even so, he may choose to live for the benefit of others and not for himself. Some regarded Paul as an elite in the Jesus Movement, but Paul would live as a slave rather than an aristocrat if it meant winning slaves to the faith. To those who still believed that they had to live by the letter of the law in order to please God, Paul could live like that too in order to have the privilege of walking with them until he could tell them about a liberating God who wanted to love them and not hold them to a set of rules as the basis for establishing their worth. Same with those who were living as if no religious principles applied to them. Same with those who thought of themselves as too weak even to reach out and grab anything of spiritual significance. Paul was willing to live in their worlds and speak their languages so that in ways they could understand he could tell them about the living God whose love was trying to embrace them too.
If I see some of you at Borders or Best Buy this afternoon in the Rap section, I’ll know why, yo. Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


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


April 15, 2007

“To God Compose a Song of Joy”
(First sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)

©Copyright, Silverside Church 2007


I.
Music is part of the core of monotheistic faith understanding and expression. The Christian scriptures are filled with references to music as are the Hebrew scriptures that were foundation stones for Jesus himself.
Music is and has been a part of our faith-lives from the beginning. Biblical references to music are plentiful.
From the fifth chapter of the book of James are these seemingly twin admonitions: "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise" (v. 13 NRSV). It is natural for us to sing--or try, anyway--when we're happy, and if we're convinced that God is love then we connect God to our basis for happiness. Our songs naturally praise God. I would guess that praise of God has been the primary purpose of music in Jewish and Christian traditions. "Praise" is a way of trying to honor God by acknowledging who God is. Though it is often connected to thanksgiving, giving thanks is really a separate process focusing on what God does and has done. Thanks, too, has become a part of our spiritual singing, but I still believe that praise of God in song has been the dominant use for music.

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of
Creation.
Oh, my soul, praise God for God is thy health and
salvation.
All ye who hear, now to God's Temple draw near.
Praise God in glad adoration!

Two Gospel accounts have Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn after they had partaken of the meal and discussion that we now call "the Lord's Supper." The older of these two, the Gospel of Mark, says: "When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (14:26 NRSV).
The Passover meal, which was the setting for this gathering of Jesus with his followers, was a celebration of the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians so that was in the hearts of Jesus and his closest associates. But a somber element was introduced into the theme of their gathering that evening. Jesus didn't believe he would always be with them. They must remember him and, at the same time, keep building community with each other as they take on the responsibility of continuing after Jesus what he had helped them begin.
I wonder what hymn they sang that night as they left the upper room and went out with Jesus to the Mount of Olives. Though they weren’t yet called “Christians,” I wonder if it could have been anything like the chorus I first heard in my adolescence?

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
They will know we are Christians by our love, by
our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

I wonder.
When Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi for preaching the Gospel and, in particular, for exorcising a demon from one young lady, the jailor and their fellow prisoners late, late at night heard the two men beaten, bruised, and in bonds praying aloud and singing hymns of their faith. Along about midnight, as the two men sang, an earthquake caused enough movement to force the prison doors to fly open and the bonds or stocks on the feet of Silas and Paul to fall off.
Now, that had to have been quite some quake. Causing doors to fling upon, OK; but to have shaken two prisoners to the degree that stocks came loose from all four feet, that must have been astounding. Legend, my friends, is based in just such exaggeration.
Still, as the story was told, the jailor having been required to keep a special eye on Silas and Paul, was ready to kill himself rather than have to explain to his superiors that these particular rabble rousers had escaped. Both men assured the jailor that they had no intention of running away and would happily serve their full sentence, which seems to have been only an overnight thing after all.
What in the world had Paul and Silas been singing at midnight that touched the jailer so powerfully? "Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect." No. No. Sorry. That was Rogers's and Hammerstein's Mrs. Anna's song. I wonder when Paul and Silas were singing if they sang a hymn like one of ours:

Give to the winds your fears.
Hope and be undismayed.
God hears your sighs and counts your tears.
God shall lift up your head.

Through waves and clouds and storms,
God gently clears the way
Wait you, God's time, so shall this night
Soon end in joyous day.

“Let the word of Jesus dwell in you richly in all wisdom,” Paul once wrote to the Christians at Colossae, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (3:16 preacher's paraphrase). There are piles and piles of paper on which various writers have tried to explain what Paul meant by “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” There are Christians who believe that only psalms should be sung in worship and that Paul is using here these three words to refer to different kinds of psalms within the book of psalms itself. I think that’s absolutely wrong and an impossible case to make. Without going into great detail, I think Paul was suggesting that people of faith use a variety of musical styles to support their faith expression. There are different kinds of songs; different kinds of songs and music appeal to different kinds of people. As long as the theology is sound, why not use a variety and try to appeal to as many people as possible?



II.

This past Friday evening, I went down to Arlington, Virginia, to see a performance of a musical entitled, “Saving Aimee.” The Signature Theatre is hosting the world premiere of this work written by Kathie Lee Gifford—yes, Kathie Lee, formerly of “Regis and Kathie Lee.” Let me tell you, if you ever thought of her as “just” sidekick to Regis or as “just” the wife of football great, Frank Gifford, you’ve been all wrong about Kathie Lee! She has been working on this project for eight years, and I think it’s Broadway bound. I was amazed, and—as those of you who know me are aware—my expectations of a play or a musical are very, very high.
The musical is about the most famous preacher in the United States during the 1930’s and early ‘40’s—a woman! Aimee Semple McPherson. I’m pretty sure that many of you here today have heard of her and that some of you heard her on one of her historic radio broadcasts. I say “historic” because many people believe she was the first woman ever granted a license for radio broadcasts by the FCC.
Aimee was the first woman to found a new Christian denomination in the United States. She called it the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and it remains strong and healthy today nationally and internationally.
Aimee “fell from grace,” as it were, because of several widely publicized scandals in her personal life, and the guardians of her memory became defensive and tight-lipped about her. For the longest time, only a very whitewashed version of her 54-year life was offered by her two children and the Church of the Foursquare Gospel headquartered in Los Angeles.
I first became aware of Aimee in the mid-1980’s as I was researching my first book, which set out to provide a broad overview of the preaching of women in American history. In order to be granted permission to publish a sermon of hers that was previously unpublished, my goal for all the women I studied in the book, I had to agree to have her son, Rolf McPherson, who had succeeded his mother as head of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, approve the brief biography we published about her. I couldn’t even hint at scandal so if you didn’t already know about her three failed marriages, her rumored sexual alliances with a number of Hollywood types including Milton Berle, her very close friendship with Charlie Chaplain, and her tense relationship with William Randolph Hearst, my biographical sketch of her—approved by her loving son—wouldn’t have made you any the wiser. Joan Crawford’s daughter could have learned a few things from Rolf McPherson.
Before establishing the first Four Square Gospel Church building, Aimee was a traveling evangelist. It is said that she and her mother were the first women to drive cross-country without the help of a man! She was in this area twice that I know of. In 1918, she preached a series of revival services in Philadelphia. At that time, she was still preaching many of her services in a tent. By 1919, she returned to the area and preached in Baltimore. She had really “moved on up” by then because in Baltimore she was able to rent out for her services the famed Lyric Opera House, and the word is that the rent for a week or two was $3100!
Aimee and her Church attracted a huge following, and set in such close proximity to Hollywood plenty of her adherents were entertainment professionals. One proud regular was Anthony Quinn who once said that many actors went to hear Aimee on Sunday evenings as much for learning presentation skills as for spiritual nourishment. Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe made it to Angeles Temple every now and again, and avowed atheist Charlie Chaplain supposedly took great delight in helping Sister Aimee design sets for re-enactment of biblical scenes to which she was partial during her Sunday evening sermons. Aimee called them “illustrated sermons.”
She adapted well to the glitz and glamour, at least publicly. She was more famous than many of the Hollywood stars! There’s a reference to her in the famous song, “Hooray for Hollywood!” The second verse—I guess you’d call it a verse—sings:

Hooray for Hollywood__
Where you’re terrific if you’re even good!
Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple
to Aimee Semple is equally understood
Come on and try your luck_
You could be Donald Duck!

In a less flattering way, for indeed Aimee had many enemies, she is clearly the person after whom Sinclair Lewis styles his lady evangelist, Sharon Falconer, in his biting 1927 satire, Elmer Gantry. In the film version, she would be played by Jean Simmons, and Burt Lancaster plays a souped-up Billy Sunday kind of character.
By the way, at her height of Sister Aimee’s popularity, she was preaching to packed houses of 5,000 people every night of the week with two additional day-time services on Sundays. She openly acknowledged that she was willing to learn everything she could from filmmakers and actors and professional musicians to get a hearing for her open and affirming version of the Gospel. So if you wonder where my inspiration comes from for pepping things up around here sometimes lately, read up on Aimee! Of if you don’t want to go back that far, just study up on worship styles and patterns of churches that are experiencing the most growth today.
Anyway, pitting herself against the preachers who consistently condemned hearers to hell, Aimee set out to make everyone feel welcome and at home in God’s family. Her self-proclaimed mission was to preach a gospel of love, and she did her best to live out the kind of inclusiveness that she thought was central to the gospel.

• She welcomed people of color long before the nation as a whole said officially that segregation and racism were wrong. She may, in fact, have preached the first interracial revival service in the United States—though that would be difficult to prove since nobody was keeping up with such things across the board.
• Aimee welcomed lesbians and gays into her Foursquare Church.
• Her personal secretary had been a drunken prostitute whom Aimee taught to love herself.
• During the Great Depression, many people believed that the Angeles Temple helped more hungry people than any other single organization in the whole country.

Music was a part of what made services at the Angeles Temple rock. Aimee had a choir who could sing AND dance; we’re talking serious choreography! Even the “old hymns” were sung with vim and vigor, and the preferred service songs wouldn’t let the masses sit still in their seats. If you were to watch the 1976 film version of Aimee’s life starring Faye Dunnaway and Bette Davis, as Aimee’s mother, you’d hear a repeating theme song at services, which I take to have been researched and, thus, as authentic. “I’ll Take Jesus for Mine,” they sang with gusto every time.
God can be presented--indeed, felt—in a whole variety of music, and that is undoubtedly why music of some sort has been a part of most religious worship—monotheistic and other—from ancient times to the present.

III.

Getting back to what Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians about psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, he also distinguished two types of singing: singing aloud and inner singing or making melody in one's heart. This distinction is important for two reasons, I think. One, I’m not sure singing the hymns of faith out loud does much for us if an inner song is absent. Two, not everyone can sing out loud, but everyone can have a melody in her or his heart.
Singing isn't just for us, though-not in the context of a faith community. Paul is telling the Colossians to sing as a means of teaching one another and as a way to admonish one another. Again, there are two purposes. I would guess that many people know most of what they know about their faith because of the music of their faith rather than sermons; as painful as that is for me to admit, I suspect it is so. Thus, we must make sure that we have people, including our children, singing songs that teach them the right things about their faith. They may remember the songs when they remember nothing else. Singing does, and it should, serve an educative purpose.
Admonishing, as I understand the word, goes a step beyond teaching in that teaching can be a start from scratch proposition or an ongoing reminder of a profound spiritual reality while admonishing challenges a view or an idea and calls for a change in outlook or perspective.
The foundations for modern music therapy are in the Hebrew Bible. The story goes back to the first king of Israel, King Saul, who had some sort of mental or emotional problem that the people of that time could only refer to as "evil spirit." Whatever it was that came over King Saul was taken to be a sign of the temporary departure of God's Spirit and the arrival of an evil spirit. The shepherd boy, David, was found through an "Israeli Idol" competition, and David's performance with his kinnor-that is, his ten-string lyre--was the undisputed audience favorite.
David was brought to live at the palace and was on call to play soothing music for the King whenever he had an episode. The music wasn't just soothing; it was healing. The writer of the book of First Samuel tells us:

And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him (16:23 NRSV).

There's certainly nothing wrong with music to soothe us in worship-as long, of course, as it doesn't move us to nap!
From soothing to stirring in the spiritual songs of ancient Israel, we turn to the last psalm in the book of Psalms, Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord! Praise God in God's sanctuary; praise God in God's mighty firmament! Praise God for God's mighty deeds; praise God according to God's surpassing greatness! Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp! Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe [that is, flute]! Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise God with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Brass, strings, woodwinds, percussion! These instruments were to be used for Sister-Aimee-style worship--and with dance!
I should be careful. The last time I mentioned dance in a service, an unknown stranger danced in the aisles during the offertory! She actually did a very lovely and graceful job, and I for one would like to see more liturgical dance around here. But the funny part of that day was, everybody thought somebody else had asked her to do this without telling anyone else. The deacons were looking at me with perplexed looks on their faces, wondering why I hadn't discussed this with them in a worship-planning session. I was looking at everybody in the congregation wondering who would have something like this done in worship without telling me; someone was trying to throw me off for sure! The only person who didn't have any reaction to the mystery dancer was our organist; John was playing some beautiful piece for us and had no idea some stranger was dancing in the aisle to his music. All he knew was that the choir members had odd expressions on their faces! It was one for the history books here at Silverside, and don't let this give any of you any ideas!
Occasionally we have trumpet, harp, and tambourine right here in Silverside gatherings! Think about modern instruments intended to create these kinds of sounds and the kinds of music they play. You're going to be hearing some of these as a part of our gatherings in the next several weeks as the sermon series that begins today evolves: "From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles." Next week, right here in the Silverside sanctuary, God in Rap! The writer of Psalm 150 would be delighted.

To God compose a song of joy,
To God make melody,
Whose arm of strength does wondrous things,
Whose hand brings victory (Ruth C. Duck).

Now, to the last book in the Christian scriptures as they have been collected for us, the book of Revelation, from Rap to Rachmaninoff to Revelation:

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped (5:6-14 NRSV).

It’s a beautiful scene that the Seer John, envisioned. The book of Revelation is not about the end of time, but about the renewal of the created order. What eventuates in this book of symbols, none of which was intended to be read literally, is not a cosmos minus Planet Earth and its inhabitants, but rather a “new heaven and a new earth.” And in one of the early movements toward this heavenly and earthly renewal, the scene I’ve just read transpires.
Music is key to the unfolding drama. The further we go in the scene, the more people there are in John’s vision who are singing.
At first, it’s only the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, God’s closest attendants in the drama who sing. They are singing a “new song,” a mere hint at this point in the drama of Revelation that a new heaven and a new earth are on their way.
Next, myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels join the living creatures and the elders in singing. The joyous music grows in volume and, naturally, in intensity.
Finally, every being—creature and human—in all of creation is singing, everyone and every thing in heaven and on earth, under the earth and in the sea is singing. They are blessing God and Jesus who lost his life revealing God.
Music helps us feel and articulate what is deepest within us and most heartfelt. Because of that, we too are in that great cosmic choir singing a song that blesses God and the Jesus who showed God to us: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And as we sing, we perform our own roles in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
As the four living creatures said in the Revelation vision: “Amen,” so be it.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington , Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


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


April 8, 2007

Is the Cross the Proper Symbol for the Jesus Movement?

©copyright 2007 Silverside Church


I.

There are so many aspects of any religion that most adherents simply accept-intercept-from their forebears without any questions or critical evaluation. We could call these unexamined inheritances "sacred cows."
That term, "sacred cow," by the way, can be traced back to Hinduism. Because of Hindu belief in reincarnation and the idea that humans, in subsequent lives, won't always make it back in human form, any cow could have been your dearly departed Aunt Mabel who feel short in some way last go 'round. In this life, she has lost a step in her ultimate progress toward Nirvana, and she has come back as a bovine. She's a cow now, a sacred cow, which means both that Hindus respect all life forms and that Aunt Mabel is supposed to be left alone. Don't touch her! If she walks in front of your car, all you can do is stop for how ever long she decides to stand or rest in your way. You can't even criticize her behavior because she's a sacred cow.
Today, I'm going to go out on a limb-totally out of character for me, I know-and talk about a Christian sacred cow-the symbol that many have made the key visual for the Christian faith: the cross. Most of us, I daresay, have accepted the cross as THE or, at least, A PRIME symbol for our religion. I bring it up today-on Easter-because I'm not sure it is or ever has been the proper symbol for the Jesus movement. I ask you to venture out with me today into these potentially turbulent waters despite the shock or anxiety or frustration that many or most Christians might feel in response to our doing so.
We have glorified the cross even as we have glorified the excruciatingly painful execution of Jesus. I can't think of anything more deluded or disrespectful than that. Still we sing, as we have or will this morning, songs like these, and I have to tell you that musically I have loved these hymns through the years:

*In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks
of time
All the light of sacred story gathers 'round its head
sublime.

When the woes of life o'ertake me; hopes deceive,
and fears annoy
Never shall the cross forsake me. Lo! It glows with
peace and joy.

The cross sounds so lovely, and this implement of death has become a sign of God's never-forsake-us nature. Furthermore, it's a catalyst for peace and joy. Now, how in the world could an electric chair, a noose, a gas chamber, or a syringe administering lethal injections ever become anything like this?

*When I survey the wondrous cross on which the
prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on
all my pride.

His dying crimson like a robe, spreads o'er his body on
the tree
Then I am dead to all the globe, and all the globe is
dead to me.

The cross itself can never be wondrous. The message of resurrection is that God wouldn't let Jesus' death be the last word about Jesus, but the implement of execution still did its job. It was used by Roman executioners to kill Jesus. And what God was reacting against was not an instrument created by human beings but rather against the evil makeup of certain human beings prompting them to have used it to cause the suffering and death of innocent women and men like Jesus of Nazareth. So the executioner's task wasn't the last word about Jesus, but he, nonetheless, suffered beyond words, and-thus-his instrument of death can never be wondrous or wonderful!

*Alas and did my Savior bleed and did my Sovereign
die
Would he devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light
And the burden of my heart rolled away
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day.
This hymn is explicit about why there can be happiness and joy at, in, and around Jesus' cross. It takes us back to one of the horrid metaphors that some of the early Christians came up with to try to describe, theologically speaking, why Jesus died. They were left at a loss to explain why a God whom they regarded as all powerful and as in control of everything that happened on earth would have caused or allowed Jesus' death. One of several answers that came back was that Jesus was the sacrifice who had to die to appease God's anger. In this sense, Jesus died "for sinners such as I," or in some versions of the hymn "for such a worm as I."

*On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem
of suffering and shame
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
for a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I'll cherish that old rugged cross, till my trophies at
last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day
for a crown.


*Come, brethren, follow where our Captain trod,
our King victorious, Christ the Son of God.

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.

Each newborn soldier of the Crucified
bears on the brow the seal of him who died.

This is the sign which Satan's legions fear
and angels veil their faces to rever.
Saved by this Cross whereon their Lord was slain,
the sons of Adam their lost home regain.

O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree,
as thou hast promised, draw the world to thee.
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred Name.

At CarsonNewmanCollege, in either my freshman or sophomore year, my beloved Greek professor, the late L. Dan Taylor, asked us in class one day why Christians were so preoccupied with an implement of execution. Wearing a cross, he said, would be the same as wearing a little electric chair around one's neck. I don't think any of us really understood what he was asking. We snickered a bit, looked around at each other, and then went back to our angst that we would be next to be called on to translate in front of Mr. Taylor and the whole class. Thirty-four or so years later I attempt an answer, and I attempt it in honor of the man who taught me to love with passion the language of the New Testament.




II.

As Professor Taylor mentioned when he challenged us more than we realized with his question, many of you wear crosses as signs of your devotion to God or to Jesus. Some of you wear them just because they're popular-I've heard the most popular single symbol for jewelry in the western world. And some of you who are going to get angry with me today for saying what you suspect I'm going to end up saying are going to be more upset by my comments because of interference with your jewelry collection than with your theology.
Many of my fellow clergy wear cross necklaces constantly in their clergywear. I have myself, though not in recent years, worn a wooden cross necklace on occasion. If I did that today, it would cause more of a stir around here than did my long hair. Some of you would be scared to death that I'd been born again or something!
Few Christian sanctuaries fail to display a cross in some form, and we have ours too. Nothing I'm going to say today is intended IN ANY WAY to be critical of anyone who envisioned its creation or placement. If you don't already know, the beautifully crafted wooden cross that hangs over our baptistery-and some of you didn't know we had one!-was made by Hal Barker.
I want to tell you two key things about the cross. One relates to the form of the cross we envision today, and the other has to do with the history of the church's use of the cross as a symbol.
The Greek word that we translate "cross" and automatically think about the crosses we have seen in paintings and in Mel Gibson films is stauros ( ???????) . The word most specifically refers to a single post for purposes of execution. Many criminals were simply impaled upon stauroi, crosses. There were no cross beams much of the time. We have no proof that Jesus was hung on a cross with a crossbeam. He may have been impaled on a single, sharp post-a "cross."
Why are we busying ourselves trying to keep traditions alive that aren't even the real traditions of our faith? There were no wise men at the manger, but we have created elaborate Christmas pageants around them there, so they have to be there. Those who first told the story of Jesus' birth told about shepherds coming to the manger, but the wise men didn't make it to Jesus until he was about two years old. This is what the Christian Season of Epiphany is all about; it's a completely different celebration or commemoration than Christmas is. If we're going to celebrate it at all, why not at least try our best to do so using the best historical evidence we have available to us?
Palm Sunday. The Synoptic Gospels, Mark and Matthew and Luke, never mention palm branches. In the first three Gospels, they are only braches. The Gospel of John alone, often out of step with the Synoptics as to details and chronology, mentions palm leaves.
Chances are, if any of those shouting hosannas to Jesus as he rode the little donkey into Jerusalem used palm branches, just as many used olive branches or shrub branches such as from the mustard shrub. If anyone used a palm, it was from a date palm tree-not the random kinds of palms used today. In New Orleans, one of my senior adult deacons actually climbed palm trees in public places early on Palm Sunday mornings to cut fresh branches for the elaborate palm arrangements we had in our sanctuary and, thus, save the church some money. We hoped every year that the NOPD would keep turning its eyes away from the devout Mr. Fred Prince.
Anyway, why don't we call it Olive Sunday or Mustard Sunday instead of Palm Sunday then? Or better still since we don't know for sure what kinds of branches they used, why don't we call it Branch Sunday?
By the way, the use of palms by North American churches has grown so much that we've helped create an environmental crisis of sorts. Here's the deal. Indigenous third world farmers have been getting palms to those of us who can't grow our own palm branches. The demand is damaging in yet another way third world environmental balance. Some groups, like the Lutherans who spearheaded the Fair Trade Coffee movement, have decided only to buy human- and environmentally-friendly palms from now on. They are called "eco palms." And their use is on the rise! Of course, once this sermon gets out, I'm sure churches all over will use other kinds of branches too! (Right!) The New York Times reported that the

. program began in 2005 with 20 American churches that bought about 5,000 palms. It grew last year, with 281 congregations placing orders for 80,000 palms. On this Palm Sunday, 1,436 churches [distributed] 364,000 eco-palm stems.

Now, back to the cross itself.
I said earlier that, historically, the followers of Jesus, the Jesus Movement, didn't use the cross to remember or celebrate anything. The cross was clearly a part of a horrid reminder of needless suffering and death. I think this makes perfect sense; no one for a very, very long time used the cross, an implement of cruel execution, as a symbol of Christianity. We can bet no one who saw his crucifixion first hand wanted to remember it in any way. No one who knew and loved Jesus wanted to remember him in his state of unspeakable suffering. And yet, since the fifth or six century-no sooner, Roman Catholics have wanted crucifixes, and Protestants have wanted their empty crosses. The Catholics have wanted to continue emphasize with their crucifixes that have Jesus nailed to a cross and bleeding and dying his suffering. Protestants have wanted to emphasize the empty cross along with the empty tomb; the empty cross came to be a symbol of resurrection, a symbol of God's power over physical death most clearly demonstrated in God's having raised Jesus from death to life. Either way, why have Christians come to center themselves on the cross? Well there are lots of reasons.
Some archaeologists have pointed out that the earliest use of crosses was for purposes of magic. Evidence has been found that farmers would brand the shape of the cross onto the cattle to protect the cattle from illness. Also, long before the cross came to be a part of devotion and worship, there were those who carried crosses to protect them from evil; this practice, of course, was carried over to Europe when there was a flood of fear about werewolves and vampires. A crucifix was believed to run such an evil creature away or, at least, render her or him powerless.
The earliest use of representations of crosses might have been in burial chambers. One of these has been found going back as far as the third or fourth century. A cross is painted on a wall, and with it there's an inscription proclaiming life to the deceased and death to the devil. The earliest known use of the cross in Christian art can't be found any earlier than the sixth century.
Plenty of those who have studied the history of the use of the cross have pointed out the obvious connections between the shape of the cross with a cross beam to numerous pagan symbols predating Jesus altogether. Certainly, the Christian movement was known to take pagan symbols and ideas and "baptize" them as it were.
In all likelihood, the first use of a cross as a religious symbol was to honor the Babylonian sun god. Other uses of a cross emblem in pre-Christian times, such as the image for the Scandinavian god's, Thor's, hammer, are too numerous to name. If we add this information to the fact that Jesus may have been impaled and not crucified with a cross beam and that the followers of Jesus didn't begin using the cross as a symbol for Jesus or the Jesus movement until the six or the seventh century, why would we still use it today?
Most disturbing to me is that the cross has become an object of worship to many people. The Roman Catholic archaeologist Didron has stated that ".this sacred wood is adored almost equally with God Godself."



III.

The oldest symbol for the Jesus movement may very well have been the fish. Oldest or not, we know it was widely used.
Some historians have suggested that in a Roman Empire with increasing hatred for persons associated with the Jesus Movement Christians devised a way of identifying themselves to each other in code. If one follower of Jesus approached someone unknown to her or him, the person could make a sort of half circle in the sand. If the other were also a follower of Jesus, she or he would make the same design, but in the opposite direction, over the half circle that had already been drawn. The two opposite half circles created a simple line drawing of a fish; thus, the two people knew of each other's faith, and no Roman soldiers or spies were the wiser.
Some of those who have studied the fish symbol the most carefully have pointed out that the Greek word for fish, ichthus ( ?????) can be an acrostic for the Greek words for Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. The details of this are questioned and debated, but it seems very plausible to me.
Furthermore, Jesus called his first disciples, some of whom were actual fishermen by profession, to become fishers of humans-catching people, as it were, for God. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest story we have of Jesus bringing together a community of followers, has Jesus saying point blank, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people" (Mark 1:17). This becomes a great image for the mission of the Jesus Movement--people bringing people in from the deep to God.
In addition, fish was a staple in the diet of the people to whom Jesus ministered. And, beyond that, in stories of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, he eats a piece of fish with his bereaved disciples. A fish, therefore, represents sustenance. For all of these rich and positive reasons, the fish could be an excellent symbol for the Jesus Movement.
Items related to the fish have also spawned (no pun intended!) connected images or symbols. Water was certainly a symbol for the movement, so was a ship, and so was an anchor.
Some church and art historians have suggested that the original prevailing symbol for the Jesus movement was the good shepherd. Certainly, one of the most memorable and beloved images Jesus used of himself was the good shepherd who goes out in search of lost sheep and even lays down his life in the process of trying to ensure their safety.
You may be aware that there are absolutely no artistic representations of Jesus from his time. We don't know if none were ever attempted or whether some were created and then either lost or destroyed. The closest we come is in various images and sculptures of good shepherds; they weren't intended to look like Jesus, and they are all quite different. But they were intended to express the essence of who Jesus was and what he was about. In these, he looks young and strong and happy. He holds the sheep up, sometimes carrying them across his broad shoulders. From all indications, this image persisted in the Jesus Movement for some 500 years.
John, chapter 10:

So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as God knows me and I know God. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason God loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from God" (John 10:7-18 NRSV).
One flock and one shepherd--that is an amazing image that appeals greatly to me, but maybe something less personified is preferable.
It does seem to me that a symbol that grows out of Jesus' teachings themselves is much more preferable and much more powerful than what killed him. The vine is another image that the early church used--one that has been enduring and rightly so. Like the fish and the good shepherd, there is nothing but positive and unifying connotations that go along with it. This is the kind of image we need for the Jesus Movement today--and that we have needed in all generations. A couple of years ago we tried to run a vine on our bulletin, but we never could get it just right; and sometimes it didn't look like a vine at all. We may come at this again.
In any case, the image or the symbol of the vine takes us right back to the teachings that have been attributed to Jesus himself, and again to the Fourth Gospel. This time to chapter 15:

I am the true vine, and God is the vine-grower. The vine-grower removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit is pruned to make it bear more fruit..Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-2,4-6 NRSV).

Jesus spoke to his followers as God's spokesperson, as a human being who was trying to unify the people of faith who sought to commune with God as he, Jesus, did. The secret was unanimity-unity of purpose and a healthy connection to the source of all spiritual strength, God Godself.
These are all very strong symbols for Jesus himself. They are positive and strong. They are hopeful and enriching. They are superior to a cross or crucifix. But what about a symbol to go along with these, one for the movement itself that continues in Jesus' name?
Perhaps an image of light works as the symbol I sense we need today for the modern Jesus' Movement-not a light like the sun; for one thing the sun has too easily been mistaken through the ages as a divine image and for another there can never be a full light or a pure light in this world. We are always still learning about God and about life itself. If light somehow is the proper symbol for the Jesus Movement, it will have to be a brilliant but a partial light. And darkness will have to be a part of the image; pure light or light without the reality of darkness won't work.
The Fourth Gospel offers a symbol that informs the image I have in mind; a good foundation is there in this, somewhat mysterious, saying attributed to Jesus therein: " As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:5 NRSV). John's Jesus knew that he wouldn't always be in this world, and he is clear about that. When he is not in the world, who, then, is the light of the world?
God is what we are trying to see, but who makes God known? The answer to that question was given long before the Gospel of John came into being; we find it in the Gospel of Matthew, in one of Jesus' parables. Jesus is speaking to his followers at a time when, as far as we know, his death wasn't anticipated. Even so, he said:

You are [NOT "I AM"!] the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God. (Matt 5:14-16 NRSV).

Light lighting up a dark room but not ridding the room of all darkness, as there will always be more darkness to overcome in this world, that is the most powerful symbol I can dream of. Just as Jesus became light for us, so also we in the Jesus Movement must always, always be light for others.

Amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


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


April 1, 2007

Bones, Burial, and Resurrection
(“Palm” Sunday)

© copyright 2007, Silverside Church



I.

Easter season going back who knows how far has been the time for the church to stress, as aggressively and cruelly as it will, who’s for it and who’s against it and, based on those assignments, who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. In a belief-based system, Easter made the black and white of it all abundantly clear. If you believed in Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection from death, regardless of how you lived otherwise for the rest of the year, you could pat yourself on the back and confirm your eternal place with God even if you lived like hell all the rest of the year. All that mattered was right believing.
Here is what you have to believe in that faith system. Jesus died an unspeakably horrible death—just the way God wanted it. His battered lifeless body was hurriedly thrown into a borrowed tomb, and then, some time between Friday evening when the tomb was presumably sealed and Sunday morning, God raised him from death to life, and God did this physically. Jesus’ physical body that had died was restored fully to life. If you believe this, you can relax now and forever because if you believe this it is proof and confirmation of your orthodox views, and God calls only the orthodox to eternal life in heaven.
The churches would be packed out on Easter Sunday if at no other time of the year. Squeeze in your pew and sing the Easter favorites with gusto. At the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, one Easter hymn was a special favorite. We would sing the stanzas very, very slowly: “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord.” And then we’d pick up the chorus and sing as fast as the congregation could go, “Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes. He arose the victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with the saints to reign. He arose. He arose. Alleluia! Christ arose.”
Easter for people in this kind of faith tradition is affirming the historicity of all the related stories. Jesus really came back to physical life and had a chat with Mary Magdalene and another one with Thomas. He appeared to his frightened disciples who had come back to the upper room where they had only a few hours earlier celebrated Passover with Jesus. He passed magically through walls and doors. He even ate some fish.
He had a little time to be with his loved ones between various public appearances, and eventually he would be ascended into heaven—also in bodily form even though it’s pretty clear that a physical body can’t make it in the heavenly realms. We’re not supposed to ask about that.
I wonder how many people with problems believing the historicity of such stories wrote themselves off as unacceptable to God in those services or who went home depressed and defeated because they couldn’t believe in the historicity of what they were hearing—a truly dead body, buried for 36 or so hours being brought back to life, leaving the tomb empty and doing magic things like walking through walls and doors, conversing, eating, and saying good-byes. If you couldn’t believe all of it just as presented by the biblical writers, the problem was with YOU, not with the stories. There was no room for questions, even thoughtful questions of faith. If you couldn’t join in with the full-scale affirmation of believing the right things and saying so and singing about it too, the message for you was clear. You don’t have much of a reason for being here because you’re going to hell anyway. No need to be associated with those who have believed themselves into heaven.
The empty tomb proves absolutely nothing; honestly, it proves absolutely nothing. Yet, we have based much of what is the supposed orthodox position on it. It’s not the only evidence used, but it is the foundation of the belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
The Romans accused Jesus’ followers of stealing the body of Jesus. Some of Jesus’ followers thought the Romans had taken Jesus’ body away. In fact, there’s a telling conversation between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus, so the story goes, when she didn’t recognize Jesus at all and instead thought he was a gardener who might have seen someone moving the body to another place or stealing it.
There are several problems here. One of them is a belief-based faith system as opposed to a relationally-based faith system. I’m not going to tie myself to doctrine and dogma, and I don’t need to. They may provide some interesting reasons to reflect on this or that, but they can never do a thing in the world about my relationship with God. The only way God is ever going to make any difference whatsoever is if I open myself up to the presence of or the reality of God.
The idea of God is one thing; the presence of God is entirely something else. Those who have been led to think that they can believe their way into heaven and/or into a right relationship with God have been grossly misinformed.
What I want to tell you today is that you can believe in a physical bodily resurrection of Jesus and the literal interpretation of every other aspect of the various gospel stories told with it. You can believe it as literally as you wish and treat it as fully historically reliable and still have absolutely no true relationship with or connection to God. How sad is that?
I don’t believe in devils and demons, but I do find it telling that the book of James says that even the devils believe. All they can do, though…is tremble.




II.

So here’s the thing. If you believe in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus, that’s great. You shouldn’t feel bullied into tossing aside or ignoring what is important to you. By the same token, however, there is no reason for skeptics to keep their silence any longer about their spiritual convictions. The truth is, neither “side” can prove its point by any reference in the New Testament itself or in any extra-canonical source. The New Testament neither proves nor disproves the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I think the stories are terribly unconvincing on that point, but discounting them altogether may not be the right step to take either.
Let me say more about what I mean in regard to the unconvincing quality of the bodily resurrection passages, and please do notice that I’m stressing bodily resurrection. I’m not by any means suggesting that any kind of resurrection of Jesus was either impossible or implausible.
Many people, when reading resurrection stories, begin with those stories that proclaim resurrection and then read back into those that don’t. Plenty of New Testament scholars say that’s how the whole of the New Testament evolved; nothing was written down, absolutely nothing, until after Jesus’ death and rumored resurrection. None of the stories in the New Testament as we have it were passed onto to us without first having been evaluated by an early follower or an early community of followers of Jesus who affirmed resurrection. The writers did not write before or in anticipation of Jesus’ resurrection; they wrote after the rumored resurrection as people who affirmed it and may have gone as far as did the apostle Paul in proclaiming that without the resurrection, meaning without Jesus’ resurrection, we who are followers of Jesus are of all people the most pitiable. In addition, Paul stressed that without Jesus’ resurrection, well, we’re all up the Jordan River without a paddle.
Be very careful as I read through a snippet of 1 Corinthians 15. Paul takes some daring turns on slippery terrain to make his point.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that God raised Christ—whom God did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:12017 NRSV).

Let’s try to pick these circular arguments apart a bit if we can.

1) If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus cannot have been raised from the dead. This is something like saying, “If there are no such things as airplanes, then you cannot have flown in one.” It’s really very hard to argue with that kind of logic. Of course, this matter is much more important than whether or not there are airplanes. Indeed, if there is no such thing as resurrection from the dead, then no one has ever had or will ever have that experience; and that includes Jesus.
2) If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then all preaching based on his resurrection was a waste of everyone’s time—the time of the preachers who preached and of the hearers who heard them. And furthermore, preachers who preached resurrection as an act of God have misrepresented God as the agent of resurrection since resurrection doesn’t happen for anyone.
3) If your faith rests on a risen Jesus, and there is no risen Jesus, then I think you’d have to agree with Paul that your faith is futile.

What Paul doesn’t stop to address here or elsewhere that I know of is that faith is supposed to be in God anyway, and not in Jesus either resurrected or unresurrected. Poor Jesus gets unwittingly caught in the middle of these kinds of essentially insignificant debates. Another matter that Paul doesn’t entertain is that there were plenty of people who affirmed Jesus’ ministry and his message but who didn’t believe that he had been raised from the dead.
Let’s get back to the bodily resurrection issue itself. People have been told for centuries that they have to affirm the bodily resurrection “by faith,” which means that the evidence is very shaky, but if you’ll go along with us on this God will give you a big, fat reward including life eternal.
There were no first-hand witnesses to the presumed bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jesus himself is portrayed as having made all of these appearances to individuals and groups after his resurrection but before his final ascension to God’s abode, and he is the one about whom the stories of bodily resurrection were told. Why didn’t he say something about it? Why didn’t he tell people what it was like to be physically dead and then be physically alive? That would have settled the matter once and for all. But not one word from Jesus on the resurrection matter—only apparent confirmations that he expected to be raised “on the third day.” That got kind of messed up too, since the empty tomb was found a day and a half after burial.
Now this empty tomb thing again proved and proves absolutely nothing. It makes the probability even strong that the body was taken by someone or someones who either were enemies of Jesus and wanted to do away with the body of a hero to some disenfranchised types or who were Jesus’ friends who beat Rome to the punch by taking Jesus’ body and burying it where the Romans would likely not find it; the followers of Jesus would come back in a year, according to the custom of the time, and put his remains in an ossuary, which would have been placed in a family tomb somewhere. By that time, the Romans didn’t give a rip.




III.

I’m not convinced that the Apostle Paul either believed in or was very much concerned about a bodily resurrection for Jesus. If my hunch on this is correct, then it’s possible to affirm resurrection and the Apostle Paul all in one Sunday, and that’s a lot for Silverside types. Let me tell you why I suspect this of Paul.
It is rare to find any point about which New Testament scholars across the board are in full agreement. I’m sure there are a few dissenters here and there, but on the point of why the Jesus Movement survived and ultimately thrived there is little doubt that old Paul is the reason. He is the one who dared to take the teachings of Jesus outside the tiny region where Jesus had lived and ministered and where all of his followers had stayed. Mary Magdalene’s possible relocation to France and Thomas’ possible move to India after Jesus’ death notwithstanding, Paul’s carrying of the gospel message to the Greek-speaking world is what caused or allowed the spark that made the movement last. Christianity institutionalized and endured because of the work of Paul.
He was a dynamic preacher. He was tireless and determined. He was gifted in organizational leadership and management, and even though plenty of people hated his guts he had a strong following nonetheless.
We must always remember that Jesus had no interest whatsoever in creating a new religious movement. Everything he taught and envisioned had Jewish religious renewal as its goal. He didn’t plan for any institutional expression of monotheism other than what was already in place in Temple, synagogue, and festival-commemoration within the Judaism in which he had been born and bred. Jesus never, ever thought a religion separate from Judaism—especially one that would equate him with God Godself—could eventuate. In fact, Jesus would have considered that blasphemous. Only in the Gospel of John among the four Gospels do the writers and some of the characters dare, perhaps, to divinize Jesus. Paul will follow that same path at times along his theological journey, but we must never let ourselves make that mistake.
Paul dared to call himself an “apostle,” the last of the apostles as a matter of fact. Originally, the word “apostle” meant messenger or one sent with a message, but the word came to mean, as adapted by Paul himself I believe, “witness of the resurrected Jesus.” Thus, for example, Mary Magdalene who had been one of Jesus’ closest and most trusted followers was never called an apostle during Jesus’ lifetime because only twelve male followers such as Judas had that title, but she came to be called by many “the apostle to the apostles” because she encountered the risen Jesus and told Jesus’ grieving male disciples about a powerful experience she had before any of them did.
Paul never knew Jesus as far as we know. And when Paul first learned about the message of Jesus through Paul’s fellow Jews who kept teaching Jesus’ message AFTER Jesus’ death, he hated them for disrupting traditional Judaism as he understood it and lived it out. As a matter of fact, he detested the Jesus Movement so strongly that he became involved in a counter movement to rid the world of any memory of Jesus and any vestige of his message.
It was in the conduct of Paul’s program of violence against his fellow Jews who endorsed and shared Jesus’ teachings that Paul had his first encounter with Jesus himself, and this was in a vision of some sort. Jesus was already dead when Paul encountered him in a vision. In the very dramatic vision, Jesus demanded to know why Paul was persecuting, and in some cases having a hand in executing, those who had done nothing more wrong than embrace Jesus’ message about God.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary has this brief paragraph summary of that pivotal experience in Paul’s life, which—by the way—probably has everything to do with why we’re here today talking about Jesus.

While Paul was approaching Damascus he suddenly experienced a vision of Christ. This experience had dramatic consequences, changing his entire life, self-understanding, theological views, and goals. Whether this vision occurred in his mind or externally remains unclear, but it turned him from a persecutor to a propagator of Christianity. Christ himself commissioned him to proclaim the gospel among the gentiles. Although we customarily label this experience Paul’s “conversion,” this can be done only in retrospect, for at that time Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. In reality, then, Paul changed brands of Judaism, switching from Pharisaic to Christian Judaism.

On the basis of this experience, Paul would declare himself the least and the last of the apostles. He considered this his experience of the risen Jesus—Jesus in a vision, not a physical, bodily-raised Jesus.
From 1 Corinthians 15, we hear these words of Paul, “justifying” his ministry:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe (1 Cor 15:3-11 NRSV).

Paul based his conversion and his ministry and his “title” on an experience with the risen Jesus who was clearly NOT with Paul in any sense physically. Thus, I say again, Paul affirms resurrection, but not bodily resurrection as some of the Gospel writers do. I say “some” because the oldest of our Gospels, Mark, has no bodily-resurrected Jesus in it—only an empty tomb where some of the women get a mandate from a person whom the Gospel identified as simply “a young man” to preach a risen Jesus. And they are running away in fear as the “original” version of the Gospel closes.
The recent Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” by film legend James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, was a hugely exciting event for me. Evidently I wasn’t the only one who got stirred up by it. The production showed nearly a month ago. I ordered a copy of the DVD the very next morning for us to use here, and our copy still hasn’t arrived. Because of the overwhelming demand for it, they can’t keep up with the orders.
I think the evidence presented in the film is very convincing, and that’s a lot to say for a skeptical type like me. I don’t think there’s any way to prove beyond the shadow of any doubt that the remains are Jesus’ bodily remains, but the probabilities seem rather high.
The question that many people don’t want to have to ask is: what if those remains were proven to be the remains of Jesus? There might well have been no bodily resurrection although I suppose one could argue that there still could have been a bodily resurrection but no ascension. In any case, let’s say Jesus died and was buried like every other mortal in his time—no bodily resurrection. Resurrection can still be reality in hosts of ways. Lives are still being changed today by Jesus’ teachings and by stories about his life and his devotion to God.
Even if you don’t believe in a realm beyond this one, though I believe in one, resurrection can still be truth for you. Whether or not you believe it in any sense, however, you remain a beloved member of God’s family. Resurrection-belief must never and should never have been any basis for a clannish configuring of whom God embraces and whom God condemns.

Amen.