Sunday, August 16, 2009

No additional posts to Silverside Sermons until September 13, 2009.






I.
Not all fanatics are bad people, and some of them are, perhaps, to be admired. The sports fanatic is a fixture in many cultures around the world and certainly in ours with sports sections in every major newspaper and several around the clock cable sports channels. There are specialized sports fanatics, such as a football fanatic or a baseball fanatic, and then there are all around sports fanatics who love anything sports-related and who know sports history and statistics for every seasonal sport. My late father was a kind of all around sports fanatic. Back before split screen television technology, I used to see Dad listening to one game on his transistor radio and watching another game simultaneously on television while glancing at the sports section in the Knoxville News Sentinel. We love our sports fanatics, and they’re no danger to anyone as long as there isn’t a touch down called by the sports announcer while the sports fanatic is driving down I95 in heavy traffic.
Those of us who teach can really enjoy the student who is fanatical about doing excellent work; although, the student fanatic whose fanaticism goes beyond an excitement about the course and a desire to perform well grade-wise can drive a professor mad. Even so, a fanatic isn’t bad or dangerous until she or he decides that the zeal owned by her or him must be embraced by others and that those who refuse are people who must be disciplined or decimated.
People whom we used to refer to as “religious fanatics” were the excessively zealous who went over the edge in the way they expressed their devotion and in trying to force their faith on others. One of the really charming and endearing facts about Jesus was that he was NOT a religious fanatic. He alternated between being angry with and poking fun at religious fanatics--notably the Pharisees. The Pharisees were those among Jesus’ fellow Jews who, today, would be the unnecessarily pious and zealous members of the religious right. The late Jerry Falwell was the epitome of a modern-day Pharisee, and Wiley Drake, the nut case who is praying for President Obama’s death, is a living example of a modern-day Pharisee.
Wiley Drake is a former Southern Baptist Convention vice president, which says volumes about what the Southern Baptist Convention has been reduced to. In early June, Drake, who is a Southern Baptist pastor in California, called the death of Dr. George Tiller “an answer to prayer.” I think that was about the same time he said publicly or at least outside the confines of his own congregation that he was praying “imprecatory prayers” against President Obama. When I heard this, I was as astonished as I was sickened.
You may remember Drake as the vice-presidential running mate of another nut case, Alan Keyes. They had their devotees!
Imprecatory prayer is praying that tragedy or evil will befall someone. It amounts to trying to use prayer to curse someone--trying to get God on board with your wish that ill will befall someone whom you hate and/or fear, someone whom you think of as evil. Biblical literalists get their impetus to believe and practice such unGodly acts directly from the Bible itself.
Here you go, directly from Psalm 35.

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers; say to my soul, “I am your salvation.”

Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on. Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.


For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.


Then my soul shall rejoice in the Lord, exulting in God’s deliverance. All my bones shall say, “O Lord, who is like you? You deliver the weak from those too strong for them, the weak and needy from those who despoil them.”


Let me be quick to point out that we never find any prayers like this on the lips of Jesus. In fact, when he was being executed by Rome, which was a serious enemy to Jesus and the Jews and seriously evil in a number of ways, Jesus from the cross prayed, “God, forgive my executioners; they don’t understand what they’re doing.” That prayer utterly amazes me.
Back to someone who doesn’t know much about Jesus at all, Wiley Drake, but he does seem to know a lot about imprecatory prayers. According to Southern Baptist Drake, “Imprecatory prayer is agreeing with God, and if people don't like that, they need to talk to God.” I’m not sure how wishing others ill is agreeing with God. What more likely is going on is using prayer to presume to get God to dislike the same people whom you dislike.
My take on this issue of bad or evil people is that God flat out doesn’t get involved in human conflict. Loving all humans, even the mean and stupid ones, God created us as one big family and lures us all toward love; if we choose to fight God doesn’t approve, as it were, but God doesn’t get involved. Thus, it’s always wrong to place God on one side or the other in war. War is human business, not God’s business.
In an interview, with Alan Colmes, Wiley Drake said that Obama wasn’t the only one. There are several others against whom he is praying these imprecatory prayers.
I suspect many of you are familiar with Mark Twain’s “War Prayer.”

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun....[I]n the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.....Sunday morning came -- next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled, and the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation: “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.



II.
A stranger interrupted that service about which Twain wrote. He asked the pastor to yield the pulpit for a moment, which the pastor did. The stranger told the congregation that he had been sent by God to teach them a thing or two, and the main lesson was that prayers often have two parts--what we actually articulate and what is desired as a result of our prayers though we don’t say it. The stranger told the people to think about what the pastor had prayed aloud as well as what he had left unspoken, what they also had prayed silently in their own hearts:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.


If patriotism and nationalism have been bases for violence and war, so has faith itself been the foundation for fanaticism. I’m thinking today of three glaring examples of this: the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the forced conversion of South American natives by the Spanish settlers there.
You recall that the Crusades were a series of medieval military campaigns initiated by Roman Catholics against Muslims in the Middle East--particularly the Muslims in Jerusalem. In 1076, when the Islamic religion was barely 400 years old, the Muslims captured Jerusalem, clearly the holiest of all places on Earth for Christians. Jesus was born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem, and he had spent most of his life in and around the great city. He was crucified and buried on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and the whole resurrection tradition was intricately connected to the tomb there. Christians in the Middle Ages, using the language of St. Augustine, called Jerusalem the “City of God,” and now the Muslims had it!
Jerusalem was also important to the Muslims because of a rock there on which Muhammad was said to have prayed fervently and from which his heavenly journey initiated and culminated. Even so, the Christians reasoned, it was theirs first, and they intended to reclaim it rather than letting people whom they regarded as godless upstarts control their holiest of lands. This impetus and this determination led to 200 years of bloody wars. Both sides killed in the name of God.
Pope Urban in 1095 called for the first of these offensives. Those who volunteered to go to fight the Muslims cut cross shapes out of red fabrics and sewed them on their tunics. The French word “croix” means cross. The battles to come were called “croix-sades,” cross battles or battles for the cross.
Getting enough people to fight was no problem. Some saw themselves as true Christians who wanted to reclaim the key city of their faith. Others went for one of the main perks; these were people who were concerned about the multiplicity of sins they’d committed. Pope Urban promised them forgiveness for their sins, especially if they died in battle. Then there were those who had heard there were plenty of riches to be had in Jerusalem, and they went along as fighting mercenaries. Bottom line, however: killing in God’s name those who were not a part of your faith tradition.
The Inquisition was a system of Roman Catholic tribunals for discovering and punishing heresy, which were marked by the severity of questioning and punishment as well as the lack of rights afforded the accused.
Many people associate the Inquisition with Spain and Portugal, and some call it the “Spanish Inquisition.” The fact is, though, the Inquisition was instituted by Pope Innocent III in Rome. Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition, in 1233, to combat the heresy of the Abilgenses, a religious sect in France. By 1255, the Inquisition had spread from Italy and France into most of Central and Western Europe.
Briefly, this is how it worked In areas where there were suspected heretics, such as the medieval equivalent of Silverside Church, a tribunal would be set up, and the very first aspect of the tribunal would be the establishment of an edict of grace--a period of grace authorized by the big-hearted pope himself during which anyone who thought that she or he might be a heretic could confess--presumably without penalty. When the period of grace had ended the officers of the local tribunal could make formal accusations against presumed heretics, and, honestly, from that point on gooses were cooked.
Clergymen would oversee the punishments that would begin at the point of accusation, not when proven guilty. Punishments included imprisonment in dungeons, physical abuse and torture. Those who reconciled with the church were punished anyway; they probably would have their property confiscated and be banished from public life. Those who refused to repent or recant were burned at the stake without strangulation; those who did confess on their way to execution were strangled first. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word is that burning heretics in Spain was equal in popularity to attendance at the bullfights. These were religious fanatics who would put people in their own religious movement to death if they faltered along the way.
When the Spanish conquistadors were making their most significant inroads in the Americas, they were instructed and empowered to Christianize the natives in every locale where they presumed to take power. They were at their peak of success between 1512 and 1573. Interestingly enough, in Europe during this time, Protestantism was born and nurtured in its infancy.
When they took an area, the conquistadors read a formal speech called “the Requirement” to the natives; the document had been prepared by Catholic theologians and filled with doctrine and double talk. Not that many of the natives understood what was being presented to them, but the document established these Spanish warriors as God’s agents. Then it, without mentioning Jesus, invited the natives to become Christians. To become a Christian also meant that one was agreeing to become a loyal subject to the Spanish crown and a taxpaying vassal of the country. If they did, they would be entitled to the same protection all subjects of the Spanish monarch were entitled to.
“The Requirement” made very clear that the decision to become a subject of Spain and at the same time a part of the Roman Catholic Church had to be entirely a free choice, made without any type of coercion whatsoever.
Here’s where the major installment of double talk came in. After all the promises of the absence of force in this process, “The Requirement” finally spelled out a threat--a threat that could only have been conceived and carried out by religious fanatics. It will your fault, not ours, the document read, if we have to resort to forcing you to do what we’ve already asked you nicely to do:

With the help of God, I will enter forcefully against you, and I will make war everywhere and however I can, and I will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and His Majesty and I will take your wives and children, and I will make them slaves...and I will take your goods, and I will do to you all the evil and damages that a lord may do to vassals who do not obey or receive him.



III.
In our day religious fanaticism has taken on a whole new meaning. Not that religious fanaticism is a new thing as we’ve seen, but surely it’s a more pervasive reality in a world context with modern weapons and communication technology than at any other time in human history; I’m talking about the wedding of religious fervor to blatant terrorism.
I was so disappointed a couple of weeks ago when I commented to my older son, Jarrett, who is a nature religion kind of guy, that his people were setting the standard for peace in the world while more organized, mainstream religions were keeping terrorism alive and well. He wrote me a long, thoughtful email in response to my limited understanding of nature religions and said that one of the aspects of nature religion most disappointing to him was the fact that even in that movement; which he described as much more intense than aging, pot-smoking hippies might suggest; is that even in nature religions he had encountered those who believed that the only way for truth to prevail is to get rid of certain key people who stand in its way. I had no idea. If those people can become religious fanatics, I guess there’s little hope for other religious movements.
Short of a willingness to kill people, which plenty of fanatics in the world are willing to do in the name of their God/god or gods, there are those who will harass those who differ with them until they break down or run away. This has happened in our own state not so very long ago with so-called Christians were intimidating the life out of Jewish children--calling them Christ killers and all that nonsense. Children and adults are supposed to be protected from this kind of abuse in this country of religious freedom for all, but law enforcement personnel did a very poor job of making these Jewish kids and their families feel safe.
I don’t know how you can be nice to people who want to kill you because of something you believe or because of some innate personal trait you have that you can’t change even if you wanted to. I would say that before our country can tell the world how religious fanatics should refrain from killing each other off, we need to be able to show how it’s done here. And we’re no where close to that. Churches are still being torched and synagogues defaced. Again, before we tell Israel and Palestine how divergent religious groups should get along we need to make sure the religious groups living together on our shores do that very thing. I’m sure you know that we seem to be a long way from that in certain quarters.
I have been pondering what we might learn from the teaching of Jesus on this very practical and very problematic issue. The first thing that occurred to me was that Jesus regarded religious fanaticism as the most destructive and problematic threat to his movement. Jesus didn’t spend much time criticizing anyone except religious fanatics--especially the Pharisees, whom I mentioned earlier today. With a wide range of religious types he could have criticized, Jesus focused especially on this group of holier-than-thous who lived as if religion was rules, and if you didn’t agree with them and live they way they told you to they ridiculed you and tried to make you feel written off by God. This is a very powerful tool used by religious fanatics across time. They prey on the insecure and ill-informed. They come across as closely connected to the God/god or gods, and they make you feel that if you don’t agree with them all sorts of bad things can happen to you including having to spend an eternity in hell if it’s a heaven/hell tradition.
Religious fanatics come in all varieties, but another type of fanatic has a list of rules that must be kept in order for people to be loved by God. This is precisely what had happened in legalistic Judaism. There were so many rules to be kept that only the professionals knew and understood them all.
The Pharisees were often in the company of lawyers called scribes. It was their job to make copies of the laws and to keep on interpreting them--typically much more literally than the rabbis would interpret them. In any case, there was a time when Jesus lambasted the scribes for making religion a burden for the common woman or man, which is precisely what one brand of religious fanatic does.
To these lawyers Jesus said:

Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them....Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:46,52 NRSV).


This remains so relevant as a critique of some religious fanatics today. Religion is nothing more than rules and regulations, and if you don’t keep all the rules tragedy and hell to you.
Also, so many people jump on these fanatical bandwagons not knowing a whole lot about the movement they’ve joined. No matter. Suddenly they portray themselves as experts and are willing to be the most adamant in condemning those who follow an alternate pathway.
In Jesus’ way of thinking religion should be the opposite of anything burdensome, and no one on the inside--or who thinks that she or he is on the inside--has the right to frame the faith as a heavy burden rather than a meaningful means of connecting to God.
How can one be polite to the fanatics, those who are intentionally selling short your present way of looking at life and spirituality and treated you as someone therefore excluded from God?

1) Do not stoop to the level of religious fanatics. Do not play by their rules; do not allow them to have access to your innermost convictions. Do not argue. Do not attack. Do not become defensive. If they come at you, turn the other cheek. Have your say if you like but don’t return evil for evil.

2) Do not sell yourself and your experiences short even if a fanatic appears to have all the answers to try to whittle away your hunches.

3) Remember that Jesus said that his followers would love their enemies. Loving someone doesn’t mean liking that person. Love means acting in another’s best interest even if she or he doesn’t return the favor; there is no requirement or obligation to like anyone.

4) Jesus told his disciples on another subject, but we have to let it apply here: don’t cast your pearls before swine. There are pigs out there. Love them; you don’t have to like them. Your spirituality is your personal treasure. Don’t let the pigs stomp on it. And be sure not to let the fanatical pigs give the other pigs a bad name.
Amen.

Sunday, August 09, 2009








I.
What if God isn’t the transcendent being most people who believe in God think? What if God, instead, is strictly “earthly” and not “heavenly,” if you will? There are those who speculate that this is exactly the case. Furthermore, in such a scenario, God may exist specifically in positive, productive human relationships and, possibly, no where else.
The theological study of “incarnation” is concerned with the way or the ways through which God has made Godself known in human beings and, in particular of course, Jesus of Nazareth. Our English word “incarnation” literally means embodied in flesh. How can a being who has been portrayed as exclusively a spirit become anything at all in the flesh? Some would say the very notion is impossible; others would say, quite possible. Still others would say, maybe the conception of God as spirit--if “spirit” means anti-material--hasn’t been exactly correct and needs another look.
Incarnation is hardly the sole possession of Christian theology. The notion has been considered widely. Removing the bias of Christian theology, “incarnation” refers to “the conception and birth of a sentient creature (generally a human) who is the material manifestation of an entity or force whose original nature is immaterial.”
Many ancient Egyptians believed that their pharaohs were incarnations of the gods Horus and Ra. Horus was the god of the sky and the god of war. Ra, as we discussed recently, was the sun god.
Rastifarianism is an Abrahamic monotheistic movement, a fairly new one, that takes the late Haile Selassie I, as the incarnation of the one true and living God. Selassie was the final Emperor of Ethiopia.
His Imperial Majesty Emperor Selassie was born in 1930 and died at the age of 43 in 1975. Selassie almost certainly was assassinatd. I’m telling you: these gods incarnate have a rough way to go on this earth!
Begun in Jamaica during the first decade of Selassie’s life, the Rastafarian movement, which uses cannabis in its worship, revers Haile Selassie, an Ethiopian and not a Jamaican, as a messianic figure who as God in the flesh will lead the people of Africa, on the African continent and in the African diaspora, to a golden age of peace, righteousness, and prosperity.
Haile Selassie was an adopted name that means “power of the trinity.” His full title was: His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Elect of God. It’s not clear that Selassie himself embraced this modest title or the divinity that was accorded him by the Jamaicans who established the movement.
Incarnation gets God visibly, actively into the human realm in a way a mere spirit could not operate, but back to my initial line of questioning. What if there is nothing transcendent to God at all? For example, what if God is love, literally, so that every time we see love at work there is God, and God is no where else?
In the musical version of Les Miserables, there’s a trio in the finale. Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine are singing. It’s probably been a long time since you’ve seen Les Miserables, but if you think really hard you can probably call up the song I have in mind:

Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting.
And remember
The truth that once was
spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God!


I believe that last part is a direct quote from Victor Hugo’s massive novel: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” To love another person or to have another person love you is to see God; that’s where we’re headed today.
There is this rather mysterious bit of instruction that the writer of the book of Hebrews gives to her or his readers as the epistle is nearing its close. By the way, there is growing support for the idea that the book of Hebrews was written by a woman named Priscilla. She was certainly a leader in the part of the early Christian movement in which the Apostle Paul had a hand. If so, based on the evidence currently available to us, the book of
Hebrews, whose author isn’t directly named, could be the only book in the whole canon of Christian scripture to have been written by a female. With that in mind, let’s hear what she, Priscilla, had to say that may be relevant to what we have on our minds today.

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured (Heb 13:1-3 NRSV).


That’s a rather haunting rationale, isn’t it? The most memorable version of this verse in English is from the King James Version of the Bible: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2 KJV). Entertaining angels unawares. What a mental image!
Now, I know very well that, despite my many warnings otherwise, many of you still think “winged, heavenly, harp-playing” being when you hear the word, “angel.” Most biblical references to angels are to those who serve as messengers for God. They didn’t flutter around and fly up to people; instead, they walked up and talked with people--giving the people to whom they spoke the message God had directed them to deliver. Therefore, the folks who received messages from God through these messengers, these angels, didn’t immediately recognize the angels as angels. Very often also, angels appeared to those who claimed to see them in dreams or visions.
Angels by the gender of the noun are always male as far as we know. In English, nouns do not have gender, but in Koine Greek they do; and they do in several other languages as well.
Spanish for example. A wise Latina was sworn in yesterday as the first Hispanic person ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court; the word for her ethnicity itself has a gender so in Spanish we don’t have to wonder about the gender of our newest Associate Justice. If I said, “A wise Caucasian was appointed to the high court,” you’d know I wasn’t referring to Clarence Thomas, but you wouldn’t know if the person to whom I referred was male or female.
Though Paul once used a masculine word as a title that applied to a female, for the most part the gender of the word in Greek tells us--feminine, masculine, or neuter. The exception for Paul was when he announced that Phoebe, a female, was a deacon--masculine noun; not deaconess.
We can have a pretty good idea of what was on Priscilla’s mind as she writes in the book of Hebrews about entertaining angels unawares. If an angel flew up to your door--or right in through your window without bothering to knock--you wouldn’t have any trouble at all recognizing the angel as an angel. The epistolary advice, which is now biblical advice, would have made no sense at all if the angel looked like artistic representations from eras before us but long after biblical times rather than as someone you’d allow into your home as a recipient of your hospitality.
You never know who you’re being kind to so you should show kindness to everyone. Show hospitality to strangers, first, because it’s the culturally proper thing to do in the New Testament era and, second, because you could be caring for God’s messenger or an extension of God Godself. This would not preclude a transcendent God, but it does bring up a powerful possibility of God being known, seen, experienced in a human connection--namely something as down home as hospitality.


II.
One of the few teachings of Jesus that has given credence to the notion that he believed in eternal punishment is a parable that I’m about to read to you, and the only way you can get an eternal hell out of the parable is if you don’t understand the basic principle of parabolic interpretation. I’ll explain this more as we go along, but when I read this parable to you, you’ll see why literalists find in it a teaching about heaven and hell.

When the Child of Humanity comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the empire prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Sir, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Sir, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt 25:31-46, NRSV adapted).


I have altered the original “Son of Man” with “Child of Humanity” to make the reference more inclusive. The huge argument in New Testament studies is whether Jesus used this title, Son of Man/Child of Humanity, to refer to himself or if he used it to refer to someone yet to come, like the messiah. If we take it as Jesus’ reference for himself, we are essentially buying into a perspective that has Jesus deifying himself at some point in the future; “Son of Man” in Jesus’ present would have underscored his humanity.
I believe that Jesus spoke about a messiah without thinking of himself as that messiah. Similarly, I think Jesus knew about a teaching that had a Son of Man or a Child of Humanity coming at some future point to act essentially in God’s stead to do what God, presumably, could not do or what God chose not to do.
I take the passage to be a parable, and I believe that the Son of Man or the Child of Humanity referred to in the parable was a figure yet to come--about whom Jesus had heard, but not a figure that Jesus identified as himself. So the Child of Humanity comes at the end of time with God-like responsibilities and God-like perks, such as messengers traveling with him to carry out his orders, to send messages where pronouncements needed to be made.
Some of you have heard me preach about or teach about parables on other occasions and have, thus, heard me point out that, fundamentally speaking, in parable interpretation we look for one overall point that Jesus wanted to make with his parables, and that’s what we focus on. Too much attention to secondary details will cause certain distortion in our attempt to understand the teaching of the parable. That said, this parable is clearly about people who are doing what matters in this world; in fact, the work that they do is God’s work. It is divine work, if you will. God is in their compassion and their service to others.
Folks who don’t expend any energy serving the poor, the needy, the outcast, and the lonely, according to the parable, have no connection to God whatsoever. The issue of a future and eternal residence in either heaven or hell is at most a secondary concern of the parable and maybe not something even to be taken into account.
Ironically, most of the sermons I’ve heard based on this passage, and I’ve heard a lot of them, have been used to promise heaven or threaten hell based not in the least on the heart of the parable. The typical preacher on this subject overlooks altogether that not a single point of doctrine is mentioned as a requirement for receiving the heavenly reward.
Those who make it to heaven are stunned at the reasons they are being rewarded; they didn’t do what they did for a reward, and they are shocked that anyone at all, from an earthly or a heavenly vantage point, bothered to take notice of what they were doing when they made sure that a hungry person got a meal or that a thirsty person had some clean water to drink or that a stranger was welcomed into a community or a country or that a destitute person was given some clothing or that a sick person was cared for or that a prison inmate got a visit.
We are not told a thing about their doctrine or their take on who or what God is. Their guiding principles for interpreting the writings that they regard as scripture aren’t listed or taken into account. These good-hearted and kind-hearted people couldn’t even imagine that they were God’s instruments to those who were suffering. Some would say the connection between those who served and those who were served--that bond, that ministry, that care, that I-Thou regard and respect--was precisely what God is.
The use of this passage for my purposes today is, admittedly, iffy. I refrain from portraying Jesus as divine because I don’t think he was. I also don’t want to pass along the idea that there would ever be some Child of Humanity showing up at the end of time with angelic messengers at his side pronouncing judgment on humanity on God’s behalf. I think the idea that God judges people and condemns some to hell is ludicrous; and the idea that some intermediary does that work FOR God is more ridiculous. Even so, I chose to use it on this occasion because I believe that the passage clearly identifies what is truly godly in this world.
It’s not religiosity. It’s not scripture memorization. It’s not doctrinal correctness or sophistication. It’s not a matter of faith, and it’s not a so called salvation experience. In this parable, the only bases for commendation are acts of ministry and kindness and concern, and the only bases for condemnation are the absence of those. That’s it. That’s all. God is in the deeds of concern, compassion, and care and no where else.


III.
The Child of Humanity says in the parable, “I was sick, and you took care of me.” Let me focus there for a moment.
Those of you who are on the e-blast list got a long message from me this week, which was a copy of a long email I received from one of my beloved mentors, John Killinger. A preacher and a teacher of preachers for years and years, John has influenced preaching in this country for the last fifty years like few others. Many of us who love and admire him listen to anything he has to say with respect, attentiveness, and appreciation. This is exactly how I read his call for every preacher deserving of the title to step up to the plate at this critical juncture and call on our people to demand that their legislators do whatever is necessary to get this first effort at universal health care for Americans passed and put into practice.
I want to be a preacher deserving of the title in your eyes and in Dr. Killinger’s eyes so I dare to speak up today and say I am whole-heartedly in favor of health care for all Americans. I do not understand how it will be paid for. I don’t know if the present proposals are the best and deserving of embrace and enactment.
I do know that we have never been so close even to the possibility, and I’m not sure that weak knees now can work. Taking the risk may be the only hope we have that every citizen of this country receives the best medical care available. Being taken care of when one is ill shouldn’t be something that only those who can afford to buy insurance are entitled to.
The words of Dr. John Killinger:

There has not been an opportunity like this in our lifetimes, when the United States Congress is poised to act or (perish the thought) not act on the question of HEALTH CARE FOR THE MASSES.

Forget all the smokescreens thrown up by those who represent the HMOs, hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies, that 75% of Americans are satisfied with their present health care arrangements; that having comprehensive health care will break the bank; that a public option would ruin other plans and disincentivize physicians; that Congress couldn't make a paper airplane that would fly, much less create a health system that would work.

The important thing is that we have NEVER BEEN SO CLOSE to crafting some kind of legislation that will enable the poor of America––45 million people––to live with actual health care and stop depending on emergency-room treatment and over-the-counter medications to get by when they and their children fall seriously ill.  What is it going to take for Congress to find the courage to step up to the plate and hit this one out of the park?  Nothing short of a unified, no-holds-barred push from the American people!

So why are the pastors of America's churches so quiet about this?  It isn't a political issue.  They don't have to worry about the thin (and often wavering or broken) line between politics and religion.  They should be mounting their soap boxes and crying out to the rafters, “NOW IS THE TIME FOR EVERY CHRISTIAN IN AMERICA to rise to the aid of the poor of our nation!”  We can’t eliminate poverty.  Jesus was right when he said we would always have the poor with us.  But WE CAN DAMNED WELL DO SOMETHING NOW as a nation to make life a little easier for our poor and see that they are accorded one of the most basic amenities any of us enjoy as citizens of the richest industrial nation in the world!!

...it might also be the finest hour for America’s clergy in a long time, helping to redeem us from the insignificance and marginalization to which our lukewarmness and timidity have recently consigned us.


Sir? When were you sick and needing care? And when was it that I either helped you out and acted like you mattered less than how long I had to wait for my cup of coffee at the diner this morning?
“Whatever you did or didn’t do to the neediest among you, you did or didn’t do to me.”
Marty Troyer is pastor of the Houston Mennonite Church, a congregation that refers to itself as “the church of the Sermon on the Mount.” In one of his Advent sermons last year, Pastor Troyer preached this:

Following 9/11, and Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike certain Christian leaders suggested that these events were orchestrated by God. I read in the Houston Chronicle...that some of them still see AIDS in the same light. America, it seems, is guilty and in need of punishment. Terrorists, devastating storms, and debilitating disease were simply the tools used by God to perform God’s will. These are all examples of where people claim to see God at work. But, funny thing is, I don’t see God in any of those. Or in sports victories, great parking spots, or robust stock portfolios....I’m not sure we’ve been taught how to see God. I, for one, have for too long looked in the wrong places and events. I need to be trained to see....Maybe when we see people [serving the down and out], God is there. Let’s be clear about something. [When we look for God] we’re not looking for angels, miracles, or storms....Maybe when we see those served become servants, God is there. I want to see God. To do so, I need to take off my ancient glasses of personal piety and blessing that focus on the grab-bag of goodies God provides with the wave of “his” magic wand.


One of the many issues raised by having to look at the possibility of God as tangible enough to be seen or experienced in the relationships that exist between human beings is how really innocuous and uninvolved and, frankly, callous a god is who is primarily concerned with how well people grasp and live by doctrinal principles.
Dr. John Cacioppo is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago. He’s a psychologist, and much of his research has centered on the importance of human connectedness and how positive human interaction enhances one’s conception of God and vice versa. Bereft of human connectedness, persons may still feel close to God when the connectedness fails, provided the relational connections have been long-term. In his words, “...divine relationships may not substitute but can supplement existing social relationships to enhance life satisfaction.”
It is no accident that many people/most people need positive human experiences and relationships in order to be able to affirm positive divine connections or to affirm divinity at all. What I mean specifically is that a child who is consistently and warmly loved by her or his parents from conception on will have a much easier time embracing the notion that a loving God exists and more particularly that this loving God loves her or him. I’m not saying that atheists and agnostics lacked parental love. What a silly proposition!
I’m simply saying that someone who has experienced loving relationships person to person has a much easier time affirming divine love. Similarly, someone who has known abandonment and abuse by the closest human connections will be inclined to have a view of God as angry and abusive.
So, whether or not you buy into the idea that all there is to God is what is seen in human connections, it’s impossible to deny that something about those human interactions influence what is perceived of deity. Therefore, a Roman Catholic priest hears confession, prescribes any required acts of penitence, and then pronounces the person who has confessed forgiven.
Obviously, the priest is not the agent of forgiveness, but the visible expression of the one who is. The priest, on God’s behalf, promises the contrite person that as far as the east is from the west so far has God removed our transgressions from us. As many of you, most of you know, I don’t believe that God is offendable and, therefore, requires no expressions of regret or sorrow from us. I’m more inclined to think of God as that force that pulls me back to center and self-affirmation when I know I have failed to be my best self. In those traditions, however, that stress God’s sadness and frustration with sinners and God’s accompanying willingness to hand out enough punishments until the wrong has been sufficiently punished, the priest’s presence to hear the confession and then be the literal voice of forgiveness is both functional and meaningful. This is one reason why confession and absolution can never become video and virtual experiences. The virtual priest simply could not be programmed to respond appropriately to all of the terrible things he would have to hear. “Oh my God, how could you have done such a thing?”, is not a suitable priestly response in the confessional.
So, I will not offer you forgiveness for myself or on God’s behalf, but I will still love you and be there for you when you sense that you have failed--whether or not I agree with you.
I will not try to hammer into your head my favored theological affirmations including my favorite--that God is love. But I will, to the best of my ability, show you what I believe love looks like--food if you’re hungry, water if you’re thirsty, a visit to your cell if you’re in jail.
I may not know what to say if you’re going through some difficult experience that I’ve never had even an inkling of, but I will try to take you out for coffee and listen to you speak about your difficulty or say not a single word about it. In either case, I’ll be there, and our communion drink to seal our bonding that day will be coffee instead of grape juice; but we both of us will hopefully know that God is somehow in the mix and the madness.
I may get misty eyed at a silly Broadway show, but whether anyone else gets it or not the performer who will never know my name or my feeling based on the words she just sang for the 400th time, touched me in a deep down emotional place I’d forgotten was there and maybe helped to begin a healing process I’d given up on. Surely God was on stage that night.
I may cry when you tell me your twin sister just died and not be able to speak a word even though I’m supposed to be a pro in times like that, but I would hope that the tears would speak to you of my deep feelings of concern for you and your loss and that God would be evident in such a bond of care.
God in human connections? More true and more real than dogma and esoteria any day. Amen.

Sunday, August 02, 2009







I.
Roughly a third of the world’s people claim to be a part of one of the groups that make up the Christian religion. The “big three” Christian groups in order of size are: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Both Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy were splits from the original big-institution institution, Roman Catholicism.
As I’ve said on other occasions, the diversity of thought even within a single branch of most any religion doesn’t mean uniformity of thought, emphasis or commitment--not in any sense. Without exaggerating a tiny bit, a casual observer can see that adherents within the same religion are willing to kill others in that religion whose perspectives don’t agree with those who decide to become aggressors. Religions have been and remain some of the deadliest institutions ever created by humans, and besides scaring us and making us at least a little awkward about being a part of a religious movement of any kind, we are reminded that we have to keep ever before us the fact that God never founded any religion. Now, while founders of various religions might claim that God Godself founded their particular faith movement, thinking folks know differently. All religions are human-made.
Having said that, I point out the obvious: humans are very religious creatures. They like their religions. I said earlier that the largest religion in the world is Christianity with 33% of the world’s inhabitants self-identifying as Christians. The next group on a list of religions by size is Islam; 21% of the world’s inhabitants claim to be a part of this movement, which, in terms of organized religion, is the fastest growing.
The next largest group, the third, according to adherents.com with the latest statistics I could find related to religious affiliations (December of ’05), is a catchall designation termed “nonreligious.” This group is comprised of atheists, agnostics, those who refer to themselves as “nonreligious,” secular humanists, and those who, when asked, would say that they have no religious preference. Researchers find that 16% of the world’s people fit in this category, but the tricky thing here is that half of these folks, meaning 8% of the world’s population, do claim to believe in God in some kind of way. They simply find no place to hang their hats within institutional religion, which means, among other things, that they just don’t know about the eclectic group of folks known as Silverside Church and that we need to do a better job presenting ourselves to the world. What better place for the confused and uncommitted than here?
OK, so you left-brainers are doing math instead of enjoying my humor, and you’re right. I have to speak of that big ole wedge in the pie chart: 92% of the people on Planet Earth appear to be living with the idea that there is a deity or are deities. That’s huge! And 86% of the citizens of the world express their devotion to their deity or deities by being a part of one of the world’s religions.
If only we could get the 86% or the 92% to agree on a simple theological affirmation--that God or the gods is/are love--the world would change overnight. Of course, within a week, sadly, someone would kill someone else because of an argument about whose god was the most loving.
If there are many religions in the world, there are so many differing, divergent, and conflicting views of God or the gods that they can simply not be named or enumerated. Thus, when I get around to discussing key beliefs held by some people within a particular religious tradition, you must keep from losing sight of the fact that not everyone within the tradition would necessarily agree with what I’m suggesting as commonly held views. More about that later.
For now, I want to go back to the huge number, 86%, of people in the world who think of themselves as “religious.” Perhaps, in the ancient world, there were even higher percentages of those who thought of themselves as “religious.”
I want to tell you about a religion called Candomblé.
Candomblé is an African-Brazilian religion. It was born during that horrible era in history when people were taken from their homes in Africa and transplanted to Brazil, among other places, during the height of the slave trade. The religion is a mixture of various African tribal religions with some aspects of Brazilian Catholicism woven in for good measure.
From the earliest days of the slave trade, many Christian slave owners and church leaders felt it was important to convert the enslaved Africans. This perspective was certainly not true across the board; we know of some discussions among the Roman Catholic missionaries from Spain serving in what we now call South America about whether or not the indigenous South Americans were human and if they had souls. On occasion, the missionaries decided not, which made it much easier to kill them off in droves if they got in the way or failed otherwise to fulfill the missionary expectation of them.
Those who did want to convert the African slaves were fulfilling, they thought, their religious obligations. The added bonus was that the slaves, once Christianized, would hopefully become more submissive because of the clear New Testament teachings to slaves that they should be submissive to their masters--in a way not unlike how wives were supposed to be submissive to their husbands.
With so many Catholics owning slaves in Brazil, it was easy for the slaves to get together under the guise of prayer meetings. These meetings, though, were often, opportunities for Candomblé. They were also opportunities for the enslaved to plan rebellions against their masters.
Although the Catholic Church succeeded in Christianizing many of the slaves owned by its membership, not all Africans converted. For the sake of safety and expediency, many of the slaves outwardly practiced Christianity but secretly prayed to their own god or gods or the spirits of their departed ancestors.
Not surprisingly, Candomblé was condemned by the Catholic Church, and followers of the faith were persecuted violently. The condemnation and persecution continued until the 1970’s. The religion has surged in Brazil, and there are some two million adherents today.
The name of the religion, Candomblé, means “dance in honor of the gods.” It’s not surprising, then, that music and dance are important parts of Candomblé ceremonies.
In Candomblé, there is one supreme deity and hosts of lesser deities and an endless list of ancestors who also are worshiped. The supreme god is Oludumaré. Candomblé deities have individual personalities, skills, and ritual preferences. They are connected to specific natural phenomena. A core belief is that every person is chosen at birth by one or more “patron” spirits; a priest will eventually identify which deity has chosen a baby.
In Brazil, where Catholicism was dominant, adherents of Candomblé saw in the Catholic worship of saints a similarity with their own practice of worshiping ancestors. Candomblé practitioners often concealed the sacred symbols of their deities inside comparable Catholic saints so when your master wasn’t around you could pop off the head of the Virgin Mary and pull out the icon to one of your family’s dearly departed ancestors. That was ingenious!



II.
The oldest indications of people worshiping what they took to be divine go back some 30,000 years to the earliest evidence archaeologists and anthropologists have found of worship of nature deities and, in particular, the Earth itself revered as the prime Mother Goddess. What could have been more natural than worshiping nature? Nature supported life and, thus, was regarded as divine. In addition, the ancient humans felt helpless before the mighty forces of nature over which they realized they had no control; plenty of people today in our highly evolved, scientific era still bow to the uncontrollable forces of nature.
It’s sad to say but easy to see that part of the earliest worship of what was taken to be divine, a key aspect of what makes “religion,” was appeasement. More than honoring nature as an end in itself, though that was not absent in some of the acts, appeasement seemed to prevail. The people desired to live in such a way that nature would expend its efforts in their favor--by sending enough, but not too much, rain; by ensuring that there would be sufficient game and other food items for the hunters-gatherers whose pattern of finding nourishment dominated life on Planet Earth and, beginning only about 12,000 years ago when certain groups began to stay in one place for a lifetime or most of a lifetime, ensuring that neither drought nor disease nor enemy attack kept gardens from growing. People learned over time that they could do more and more to protect their food sources, but ultimately it was up the nature deities to take care of such things; they believed the deities had to be kept happy. Religion was born--utterly informal religion, but religion nonetheless. You have to have at least one deity to have a religion, and they had plenty.
The earliest objects of worship were not created by humans, but rather they were the natural elements themselves that were worshiped--bodies of water, the sky, the sun, and so on. The reason for worship can be traced back, not to inspiration but, to the locus of power. The natural forces were taken to hold all the power, and thus they came to be worshiped. Since primitive humans feared all manifestations of power, they worshipped natural phenomena such as storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, brush fires, heat, and relentless snow and ice. One anthropologist has said, “To the primitive mind there was no difference between fear and worship.” Tragically, in the modern world--yeah, in the post-modern world--fear remains at the heart of much religion. The monotheists, plenty of Christians among them, worship God as an angry, punitive force that can be tamed, or at least toned down, by worship as appeasement. If modern worship for many people retains fear as a foundational motivator, then the god who has evolved remains prone to fits of angry destruction--willing to kill off human beings and the created order itself. Ironically, modern paganism and earth-centered religions are least likely to fear what they sense as divine than are those who champion organized religions where God is touted as a love force in one breath and the cause of a murderous tsunami in another. As I wrote these words into my sermon notes, I was at a coffee shop, and I glanced up at the back of the tee shirt of the woman sitting at the table in front of me. It read: “ALWAYS BE READY, because you don’t know the day your Lord will come. Matthew 24:42.” Lord, help us!
Some history of religions scholars believe that Hinduism is the oldest, continuously existing “organized” religion--although it wasn’t called Hinduism until fairly recent times and doesn’t come from a single society or set of beliefs. Still, they suggest that if foundational movements and philosophies are taken into account, ancient roots of modern Hinduism can be traced back to 2000 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Hinduism has no required doctrinal core; nor did it have a single founder. The Vedas are the most ancient religious texts that define truth for Hindus; the earliest of these can be traced back 1200 years before Jesus was born, and scholars of Hinudism refer to this time as the early Vedic period. The people who first received the Vedas believed that they were given directly by deities to humans--thus, their inherent authority. The reception and transmission process continued for 1,000 years so the Vedas were believed to have been finalized about 200 years before Jesus was born.
Early Vedic religion centered around the sacrifice and sharing the sacrificial meal with others in your family or faith community and with the many gods, to whom they referred as demas. The offering of sacrifices was not confined to offering animals but included any offering to the gods presented in the sacred fire. Someone might offer an item from the garden; another person might offer some milk or butter.
Sacrifice was offered to different Vedic deities who were believed to live in different realms of a hierarchical universe, which was divided into three broad realms: earth, atmosphere and sky.


Gods believed to inhabit the Earth realm included the plant god, Soma; the fire god, Agni; and the god of priestly power, Brhaspati.


The gods of the Atmosphere realm included the warrior, Indra; the wind, Vayu; the storm gods, Maruts; and the terrible Rudra, the malignant god of death.


The Sky realm housed the sky god, Dyaus; the Lord of cosmic law, Varuna; his friend the god of night, Mitra; the nourisher, Pushan; and the preserver deity, Vishnu.


It is not clear whether modern-day versions of Hinduism have remained polytheistic or have evolved to a kind of monotheism. Some would say that Brahman is the one God, and what are treated as other or lesser deities are really aspects of the personality of the one deity. Others say that there are many gods and goddesses, and Brahman is the head guy, the supreme deity. There are debates within Hinduism as to whether Brahman is, in any sense, personal or whether he is an impersonal force.
Some of the early Vedic rituals were very elaborate and continue to the present day in certain Hindi traditions. Important to many branches of Hinduism is the practice of meditation. Hindi spiritual advisor, Sri Chinmoy, says this about what he takes as essential to faith practice:

Meditation is silence, energizing and fulfilling. Silence is the eloquent expression of the inexpressible. The key word here is “energizing.” That quiet place inside us is a source of tremendous strength. When we meditate what we actually do is enter into the deeper part of our being. Meditation is like going to the bottom of the sea, where everything is calm and tranquil. On the surface, there may be a multitude of waves, but the sea is not affected below. In its deepest depths it is all silence. To enter into that place, now, first thing, is to tap that strength inside us, let it sustain us through the day. When the waves come from the outside world, we are not affected. Fear, doubt, worry and all the earthly turmoils will just wash away.


Wow! I’ll take some of that!
Hindu worship is more an individual matter than a corporate experience, whether done at home or at a Temple of icons for the deities that are a very important part of the worship. Praise of deities is a central goal, but there are Hindus who, like many Christians, are also worshiping in the hopes of having sins washed away.
Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara) and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived (karma). If you accumulate lots of karma, your next life is improved. If not, you could be a cow or, worse, a gnat, which is why Hindus are vegetarians. You could never be sure that the bacon you ate at breakfast wasn’t Aunt Maybelle who never could give up sleeping around with multiple men and probably came back as a lower life form to pay for her sins.
Nirvana is the supreme state of being in Hindu thought. To achieve or arrive at Nirvana is to be free from suffering once and for all and to be free from the need for individual existence. Some Hindus may refer to it as “self realization” or “God realization”; some call it eternal bliss. Whatever it’s called, Nirvana is the ultimate goal of all Hindus. The attainment of Nirvana breaks the heretofore endless rebirth cycle. Interestingly, no one can really describe in words what Nirvana is. It can only be experienced.


III.
One of the youngest or newest of the world’s religions is Bahá'í. It was founded by Baha'u'llah in Iran in the nineteenth century. Bahá'ís believe in one God who is known through God’s creation and prophets. Membership in the Bahá'í faith is open to all those who believe that Bahá'u'lláh is the latest manifestation of God on earth without requiring them, the converts, to renounce their previous faith.
The Bahá'í faith began to take its present form in 1844 in Iran. It grew out of the Shi'ite branch of Islam. The Shia or Shiite Muslims are a minority group within the third great expression of Abrahamic monotheism in the world. They believed after the death of the founder of Islam, Muhammad, that his successor should be a family member--not someone chosen according to political rationale.
Naturally, all of Muhammad’s survivors agreed with this and, therefore, insisted that his son-in-law, Ali, be his successor; other perspectives prevailed, and while Ali would eventually get his turn to lead the Islamic religion, his appointment was not based on his family connection. The Sunni Muslims advocated a more political transfer of power down through the ages. Two-thirds of Muslims today are Sunni, while only a third are Shia, and not infrequently the Sunnis persecute the Shiites. In any case, the Bahá'í movement grew out of the minority Muslim group.
The beginnings of the faith were proclaimed by a young Iranian, who called himself the Báb. He said that a messenger would soon arrive from God who would be the latest in a line of prophets including Moses, Muhammad and Jesus. Not only did he proclaim that a new messenger would be sent from God to a world in need, but also he himself went out in search of this prophet. Somehow, the Báb knew that this prophet would be purely descended from Muhammad, meaning that both of this prophet-to-be’s parents had to be descendants of Muhammad. In addition, the person had to have a remarkable understanding of the Koran, and he--I think it had to be a he!--had to be free of any physical malady or deformity. It’s interesting that God would care about that, huh?
Well, the Báb found his guy a couple of hours after sunset on May 23, 1844, and Bahá'ís celebrate this time every year as the latest major turn in human history based on the arrival of the next great prophet. If you know anything about Islam, you know that the two most important, the two most essential, faith confessions of Muslims are that God is one and that Muhammad is God’s final prophet in the history of humanity. To affirm the idea that another prophet COULD be sent, much less that one HAD BEEN sent, is utter heresy in Islam so we’re not surprised to learn that some Muslims persecuted those who were trying to follow early Bahá'í teachings.
Some of you may remember the 350,000 Bahá'ís of Iran who were severely persecuted following the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979. At least 200 Bahá'ís were formally executed or secretly murdered, hundreds more imprisoned, and tens of thousands discriminated against in work and education--all for daring to embrace a religious notion that God might just send another prophet to the world to pick up where Muhammad left off. The persecution has slackened off since those first post-Revolution deeds, but it has, by no means, stopped.
The idea of progressive revelation is of central significance for the Bahá'í faith. Bahá'í religion accepts all other faiths as true in some sense and, therefore, as valid. To Bahá'ís, every religion is a religion of God. They accept as divinely ordained the missions of Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad. They believe each one was a further stage in the revelation of the one God, and those stages continue as long as there is human history. Bahá'u'lláh is the latest prophet and is something of a manifestation of God.
The soul is one’s spiritual reality, and though the body dies, this soul does not. Every human being has a soul, and that soul migrates to another realm after physical death in this one.
One of my favorite stories about the Apostle Paul is about his fascinating sermon atop Mars Hill in Athens. Paul was visiting in Athens; let’s say somewhere in the late 50‘s or early 60‘s, and he became greatly distressed at the number of idols that he saw there. His frustration with seeing so many idols spilled over into his conversations with everyone whom he encountered--from local Jews whom he met when he went to synagogue to locals he met at cafes and in the streets. Paul even argued with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, but got no where.
The Epicureans were very nearly an ascetic group, emphasizing the simple life, the importance of knowledge, and freedom from pain. Though they believed in the existence of gods and goddesses, like their founder, Epicurius, they believed the deities were neutral so there was no such thing as divine intervention.
The Stoics who are often said to have believed that a virtually emotionless existence is best actually taught that
one of life’s primary goals was to be free from suffering through a refusal to allow emotions to prevail. They were not emotionless, but they insisted that emotions cannot be the final determinant in how life and life situations are understood or experienced. Clear judgment was taken as a necessity if one hoped to achieve balance in the face of what pulled one too far in any emotional direction.
Paul couldn’t shut up about his anti-idol perspective, and eventually some of the locals said, “What’s up with this babbler? So he doesn’t approve of all our idols! Who cares what a goofy foreign tourist thinks? If he doesn’t like our idols, what’s keeping him here? Is there some reason he can’t go home?”
Others were saying, “Well, he does grate on your nerves, but he may be onto something. He seems to know about a new religion that we’ve never heard about. He’s speaking about a Jew named Jesus who was put to death by Rome, but who came back to life. This Paul guy calls the return to life ‘resurrection.‘ I think we should hear what he has to say.”
A court or council that met in or near the ancient Areopagus had, among other duties, the jurisdiction for determining which new religions would be embraced in this wildly religous city. Not all religions were welcome. Some of the councilpersons met informally with Paul there. He wasn’t making formal application to have have Christianity approved as one of the approved religions for Athenians, but he did want to talk to the subcommittee on new religions; and they certainly wanted to hear what he had to say.

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” [just in case they left someone out!] What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, and is not served by human hands, as though in need of anything, since God Godself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for and find God--though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For “In God we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are divine offspring.” Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.


Citizens of the world, we see how extremely religious you are in every way! What great hope you have brought to the world, and what powerful healing! But, woe to you religious types and your religions that you prize more than your deity or deities for the death and destruction you bring to your sisters and brothers in the human race and to the habitat created for our well-being and that of future generations!