Sunday, October 10, 2010
Sermons from Last Year: #3 Human Christianity
Delivered to UUSF 12.27.2009
After last week’s sermon, one of our congregants mentioned their newfound appreciation of Unitarian Universalism upon hearing in Reverend Greg say(and I paraphrase) “We’re not the religion about Jesus, we’re the religion of Jesus.” That’s a pretty strong and important distinction. As Unitarians, as Universalists, as UU’s, instead of worshiping Jesus as a god--unattainable other--we endeavor to see Jesus as an exemplar, as a brother, and as a fully human being cut from the same cloth as us, as a man who was ever seeking to strengthen his connection with the divine.
Jesus was aiming to be the messiah of the oppressed Jewish people whose once-rich autonomous culture had been assailed upon for centuries by the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. His ministry struck a chord in many, and drew in disciples, who carried his stories forward, and the stories became universal. Jesus, because he was working to save his people, was anointed by his followers as Christ.
Now—regarding today’s lesson, in which Kevin Drewery mentions looking in the mirror—how many of you have given any thought to the idea that you might be the messiah? There was a time during my calling when I was genuinely worried about that myself. Coming from a theist background, I wondered, was God calling me to be a prophet, or even Christ? During moments of youthful indiscretion, I’d sometimes entertain a solipsistic point of view—what if all the messed-upness of the world was my fault--a result of me not taking my station in life? YIKES! Who would choose to be Christ, and who would wish all that responsibility on anybody, really? But the thought had crossed my mind. And once a message like that arrives, it’s not so easy to dispel. Some advice from a bumper sticker I occasionally see has provided guidance: “Don’t believe everything you think!” Yet confusion abounded as I wrestled down a low self-opinion from comparing my simple humanness with the legendary brilliance of Christ. So I naturally turned to the book of Jonah for advice. In addition to the story about the whale, Jonah was also one of the rare prophets who, instead of prophesying to the people of Nineveh about the doom to come upon them as a result of their wrongdoing, dragged his feet on his divinely-inspired mission for a while, and things actually turned out pretty okay—the city didn’t get destroyed and there’s no mention of Jonah getting stoned, burned, or crucified for delivering his message. Many prophets, especially those speaking against the rulers or the ruling class, seem to meet a grisly end.
For that reason alone, I wanted to dispel this notion of Christness, and get back to a “normal” life—there is so much beauty and potential in this world, and I want to be here for it. There’s a joke from Annie Hall that might help explain my continued attachment to this thread. ‘This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, uh, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but we need the eggs."’ The world needs saving, and it needs prophets. And I’m so glad none of us have to do it alone.
So while dragging my feet in my late-20s and early 30’s, I was testing the possibility of making a Type-I error. Type-I errors are where you declare a hypothesis to be true, which is actually false—in other words, declaring “I am the Christ,” but actually, “Oops! Just a guy,” who’s going to get looked at weirdly by people, or worse, perceived as too loony to fit into the job market. On the other hand, a Type-II error is the one where you declare your hypothesis false, but it’s actually true—in other words, deciding, “Well no, I guess I’m just a guy,” but actually being the guy who’s supposed to save everybody. I didn’t really want either for myself. I was just trying to figure out a way to make my calling real. How could I be Christ or a prophet or whatever, in community, and have some serious amount of collective responsibility, authority, and accountability? I thought bringing this into being would take some serious time and study, along with a very flexible and double-jointed paintbrush.
But that was almost two decades ago, long before I’d stumbled upon Unitarian Universalism, the one place where people barely blink at things considered heretical in more traditional Christian communities. In fact, when I got to seminary, I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to find several of the students there overflowing with this Christ spirit, even if they might not have named it as such.
In Unitarian Universalism, our 4th principle is the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” When we identify the meaning of Christ as that which saves our culture, our interconnected web, and ultimately saves each of us—when we identify that which saves as Christ, all that business of Type-I and Type-II errors and testing for truth is set aside. (In theologians’ terms, the Christology of UUs is very similar to our “soteriology.” Christology is the study of humanity and divinity within the person of Christ. And soteriology is just a fancy term for “the study of what saves or preserves us.”)
Where then, does Jesus fit into all this? He was inspired by the events in his world to devote himself wholly to teaching a way of life through which the world might be saved—so inspired and devoted that he wouldn’t shut up even under the looming threat of capital punishment. Now, when people focus on the death of Jesus, or even the person of Jesus, they miss the point, and run dangerously close to falling into idolizing him and fetishizing the crucifixion. Putting a person or event, especially a symbolic one, on a pedestal is a form of idolatry. Our authentic connection is to recognize the underlying spirit of Christ that would cause Jesus to mold his life into such a wondrous piece of art. And then to ponder the art he created and find how it inspires us.
When we recognize that the qualities of Christ lurk beneath our embodied exteriors, we see that Jesus was the first incarnated instance of Christ, kindling an energy capable of saving us. This vital energy that transcends between us is what Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to as the Oversoul, our shared soul. Regarding claims of Jesus being the only Son of God, he was unique in the same sense that each of us are unique, but also was quite an outlier in his fulfillment of potential—his devotion to study, perfection of character, and embodied commitment. He was the “only” child because he was the first. Think for a moment on the eldest sibling in your family. For how long were they the only child until the next sibling was born? In the same way, more humans have adopted this consciousness and strive toward those qualities we would assign to divinity--qualities which also happen to be fit for our collective salvation.
Kevin Drewery listed five distinct qualities or dimensions of Christ consciousness, along with exemplars and descriptions. Here are a few excerpts:
- Culture Consciousness, exemplified by Gandhi, involves “knowing one’s own culture and maintaining an identity with and of it.” Through this connection, Gandhi was able to realize the effective use of nonviolence, also known as ahimsa, literally translated as “not injury.”
- Dorothy Day demonstrated Compassion Consciousness when she worked tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others, making sure that the Catholic Worker houses were able to provide as much food and shelter as they could muster, to serve as many people as possible.
- Compensation Consciousness was exemplified by Cesar Chavez when he “inspired thousands to take a stand and to fight for what is fair and equitable…. He was able to remind those outside of the farm system that this work, their food, was being produced on the backs and hopes of people who weren’t [being fairly rewarded for their labor].”
- Outspoken civil rights writer W.E.B. DuBois exemplified Civic Consciousness in his writings, unapologetically demanding the need for Blacks to have the vote, still slow in coming even several decades after emancipation from slavery. His civic consciousness was devoted to empowering Blacks to claim their rightful place among the language of the founding documents of our country.”
- And Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, exemplified Community Consciousness, calling on “faith communities to be accountable for what they were or were not doing. He correctly and justifiably called the white religious community to task for its complicity and inaction in the civil rights fight. And he continually articulated that we (black and white) are all God’s children and of the same community.”
These four men and one woman allowed the light of these divine qualities to shine out through them and into the world. Looking back to the nature of our Christian roots, Unitarian theology has advocated for improvement of moral character, looking to Jesus Christ as a model for human virtue.
How does that Unitarian kind of virtue connect with those who’d rather not bother with “religion” or with those who see Jesus in a very different way, as a solitary Christ, with a separate and unattainable nature? I say we invite them in by taking the high road, humbly. Not only is there less traffic, but as we develop a moral system capable of saving that which needs saving, we’ll draw them in if they see Christ-like qualities in our way of being. And that if implies we are actively developing our virtuous character, or as the 3rd Unitarian Universalist principle puts it, “Accepting one another and encouraging spiritual growth in our congregations.” Next week’s sermon will explore virtue a bit more deeply.
In the blurb announcing today’s service, I indicated I would talk about what an atheist Christianity might look like, and I wonder if the atheists in our midst today are kind of miffed that I haven’t yet come to that. I mentioned God earlier because that was my way of understanding at that time. However, this work and theology can exist entirely within the framework of Christian Humanism, as a human endeavor that saves us even if God should disappear from the picture entirely. For those called to believe and serve theistically, Jesus as God is an expedient means of teaching and providing connection and comfort; and striving for deeper identification with his divinity should be a central duty. For those who believe more in our human connections, our interconnectedness, our reliance on, and responsibility to one another is our source. Yet there is a deep mystery to life, something that transcends all words and definition. I don’t see a need to name the mystery. Not everything needs to have a name. And that undefined mystery need not be separate from the common workaday stream of cause and effect at work in the world.
Before I close, I need to share a major pet peeve. “Religion.” The first amendment says that congress can’t establish it, and we’re free to practice it as we wish. Yet people tend to define religion into a neat little box involving worship, prayer, and special sacred buildings. About once a month, I hear somebody say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I cringe at that! To me, religion is the way you live your life. Religion shares a root with “ligament.” Religare, the root word, means “to bind back.” Without ligaments binding our bones together, we’d just be an unstructured mess laying in a pile on the floor. Religion is so much more than prayers, meditations and special buildings. Everybody has religion in their life. The practices and structure that hold your life together constitute your religion. How frequently you brush your teeth, and whether you use a circular motion, or up and down—that’s religion! How do you commute to work, and to church? What time do you wake up each day? Does that time vary? Foods you do and don’t eat—how they’re grown. Paper or plastic? Reduce, reuse, recycle. Decaf or regular? Or tea? Or juice? Your favorite (and least favorite) sexual practices are even a part of your religion. What is the nature of the community with which you gather, if you do—and how often? How do you handle your investments and finances?—do you buy things on layaway, or always with cash? Budgetary matters are most definitely moral considerations.
All those things are religion. Our beliefs, as well, are structures that help to hold us together as individuals and as a community. Likewise, the rituals we choose are part of our religion. Organized religion is when many people are bound to each other, or to a creed, and influenced to do (or steer clear of) a common set of practices or rituals. I’ve heard it said that the most common ritual in America now is swiping a credit card. I wonder if that means that capitalism is the organized religion now binding our nation together?
Even as we experience the failures of capitalism, I say that right NOW is precisely the time and a great opportunity for Human Christianity. We are here at the cusp of 2010, a full decade after the beginning of the new millennium, a time when some Christians had actually expected some form of second coming, for which some still wait. Yet we—collectively—save. Especially when we work together, and especially as more people are drawn to come together into this moral rekindling.
Back when I was worried that it might be me on my own as a Christ volunteer, I thought “How difficult and arduous it would be to fully flesh out a concrete moral compass and get buy-in.” But actually, over the last 48 years Unitarian Universalists have compiled what hopefully will soon be a not-so-secret secret document, based on putting our principles into action. Our Statement of Conscience packet, a 400+ page compendium of social justice statements, available online at uua.org/socialjustice/socialjustice (so good we had to say it twice!), is just such a document. All these years, we have affirmed our principled morality in this Statement of Conscience document, as it applies to current issues such as Equal Rights, Immigration, Racial Justice, Religious Liberty, Civil Liberties, Drug Policy Reform, Election Reform and Health Care to name a few.
Ultimately the morality of Human Christianity is about building community, it’s about connecting with compassion, it’s about fair compensation and just distribution, about polity and political action, and about recognizing the values at work in the cultures we live in.
So whether you believe in God, gods, or no God… believe in our collective human agency, an agency that is capable of transcending those beliefs, and be a part of what saves us. Be Christ. Be yourself. Be unafraid.
This… [gesturing to congregation] is Christ.
pax hominibus,agape to all,joel