Sermon for May 18, 2014
Okay, I’m cutting right to the chase on today's gospel:as far as I am concerned, the theology of exclusion expressed here is just wrong. I simply refuse to accept this as a doctrine of how God acts, end of story. Notice that I don't even begin to consider that Jesus might have actually said these words. Instead, I attribute this to the context in which this gospel developed: when the authoritative version of John was finally written down, the Jewish followers of Jesus had only recently been thrown out of the synagogues and declared persona-non-grata by orthodox Judaism. In some places they were even being persecuted for their new faith. As a result of this struggle we get quite a bit of defensive posturing in this gospel designed to shore up the position that belief in Jesus is the only true faith and that those others are all damned to hell.
Well, you all know the trouble this perspective has caused over the centuries. Enough that I’m inclined to agree with author Harper Lee when she writes, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)... There are just some kind of people who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” (To Kill a Mockingbird) It’s those results that make reading John in church very very thorny much of the time. I have to read it and study it and then reinterpret it, or dis-interpret it really, often distancing myself from the author’s intent and trying to make a case for him. It’s not always easy and it’s rarely fun.
Oh, wow, Theo. That's quite a position. Well, I have to admit that I have over-dramatized it for the sake of argument, but basically what I have offered is a progressive Christian stance on these verses. And like last week's topical side-trip on leadership and the missional Church, that’s really what I want to talk about today: Progressive Christianity. Ever since my first conversational interview with the Call Committee, I have heard the word “progressive” used as a descriptive marker for Gethsemane. We’re using it right now in a series of ads: “Historic Building: Progressive Faith.” My question, and the direction I’m taking this sermon, is: what do you mean when you use this term in talking about Gethsemane? Are you in agreement about it? Do you know? This is one of those things I hope you will hash out in your discussions this year. It’s all part of trying to create and offer to the outside world the clearest possible identity profile of this congregation in order to find the best fit in your next vicar. And, quite frankly, in order to attract others to join you around the table. I’ll tell you some things I know. First and foremost, when you use catchphrases like “progressive” or “inclusive,” they carry very distinct meanings in the ear of a theologian or clergy person. I’m speaking personally as someone who claims both labels. I associate both words with modernist ways of looking at God, Jesus, the Bible, and social issues. Progressive Christianity has deep roots, but as a distinct movement it’s only about 20 years old; you can trace its rise to the mid-1990s. It started in part as a liberal reaction against a fundamentalist perception of Christianity and in opposition to the enormous power of the conservative “religious right” so dominant in American political life. It’s not a one-size-fits-all movement, of course, there are always variations, but if you visit the website of The Center for Progressive Christianity, largely acknowledged as the founding organization of the movement, you’ll see a platform with eight foundational points. They’re printed on the last page of this sermon document. Read them; you can follow along and see how well you think they synch with Gethsemane. These were read out in church…
We could do—and I have done—a whole 8 week adult study on these principles, and they’re all well worth exploring, but I’m just going to touch on two of them today, and that lightly, given our time. I think they are highly relevant in light of your current charge to discover the true nature, the character, of this faith community and then to call a priest who will complement and enrich that character.
The first principle I want to highlight is #5: “We find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes.” The second one I want to pull out is #2: “We affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.” Just reflect on those statements for a moment. Do they fit? Do they ring true for you? For Gethsemane as a whole?
In case you’re thinking, “Well, Theo, I need a little more explanation,” good. Because by way of experiment I want to take and apply these two principles to our gospel story for today, Jesus’ purported claim to be the only way, the only truth, the only life, the only access to God. Remember the progressive bottom line: seeking and questioning are values, and Jesus is only one pathway to the divine— maybe the right one for you, but still only one among many. With that in mind, how might we begin a little exegesis, a little Bible study on this passage?
First of all I think we have to decide what the Bible means to us. For many religious folks, the Bible is seen as the absolute, literal, inerrant Word of God and the firm foundation for what to believe and how to be “faithful.” Progressives obviously aren't as quick to take this view. They don't believe simply because the Bible tells them so; there are other factors, other sources of knowledge that weigh in here, such as science, history, personal experience. So what is the role of the Bible in progressive theology? Personally I think it’s much like I understand it to be in Anglicanism, at least the strain of Anglicanism that has nurtured me: we do not see scripture as the words of God but rather as the word of God. Meaning that the Bible is not so much a fixed "divine revelation" as it is an ever-unfolding "divine realization." There is a wonderful story about this that features Paul Tillich, one of the great-grandfathers of progressive theology, working in the first half of the last century. Tillich was teaching a class and had an insistent student who believed that Tillich didn't have a high enough view of the Bible as being the Word of God. In each class he would raise his hand and ask all sorts of questions. He was never happy with the answers because Tillich would always give some abstract, subtle explanation of the Bible as the word of God. One day it was just too much for the student. He grabbed his Bible, rolled it up in his hand, ran down to the front of the room and began waving it in Tillich's face, saying, "Tell us once and for all! Is this the word of God or not?" Tillich very calmly answered, "The Bible is the word of God if instead of gripping it, you let it grip you."
The Bible is the word of God if you let it grip you. If you allow it to be a tool in which you realize the Inexpressible. Once you have liberated the Bible from needing to offer absolute divine authority for all time (which is to an inclusive, liberal theologian such a trap, such a dead end of literalism), the Bible suddenly opens up as a wonderful tool and resource for human living. It becomes a life-affirming document. It enables you to live more deeply, to love more fully, to feel more compassion, to consider more perspectives. That’s the progressive viewpoint any way.
Thus we come to this morning’s story. Is Jesus really God? Is that what this means to say? Or is it something else? Well…once again, that depends on your starting premise, doesn’t it, as well as on your expectations? So the next decision, after “What is the Bible to you,” has to be: “And who is Jesus to you?” Or really, who is God and how does God behave?
So who is God in progressive theology? I’ll start by telling you another classroom story. A teacher is in a room with a group of kindergarten students, and she asks them to do a drawing. As she walks around, looking over the shoulders of the children, she comes to one child and asks, "What are you drawing?" The child answers, "I'm drawing God." The teacher responds, "We don't really know what God looks like, do we?" The child says, "We will in a minute."
It’s a simple story, but very profound when you stop and think about it. There are as many names for God as there are tongues to speak them. There are as many faces for God as there are eyes to behold them. There are as many paths to God as there are feet to walk them. There are as many portraits for God as there are crayons to draw them.
Who is God? You tell me. You manifest God. You are God's body in the world. You are God's way of living life. You are God's way of having a relationship. You are God's way of being a parent or a child or a grandparent. You are God's way of going to work in the morning. You are God's way of skiing down a slope, or throwing a football. You are God's way of manifesting life in abundance, as I said last week.
To come back to today’s reading, my tendency, as a progressive, as a modernist Biblical student, is to understand this passage not as historical fact, not as anything one can prove, but as theology, as talk about God (which is what that word means). So, once I have liberated the story from its 1st Century us-versus-them paranoia, teasing that particular thread out of the woof of the whole, I read it as the author’s creative use of narrative to make a point: about God, and about Jesus, about us. There’s a wonderful phrase used by American Indian story-tellers that I always want to apply when opening the gospels. It goes like this: "Now I don't know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true." What would happen if every Sunday the priest or deacon introduced the gospel in that way? Okay, so if this is talk about God, what is it saying? Well, there’s a lot of other context at play, because this fourth gospel is very complex, but basically the author talks in metaphor, from the opening prologue right on through. And so I would suggest that we can borrow from that approach and say that Jesus himself is best understood as a metaphor for God. Not that there aren’t other ways of seeing and understanding Jesus, but this is the best one—certainly for progressives— because it is the most open-ended one. And progressives, remember, both value the non-absolute answer and recognize that there is more to the wisdom of God than the teachings of Jesus. Having established the progressive view that the Bible is a resource for holy living, not a blueprint, and that Jesus is a metaphor for God, revealing more clearly but not limiting what is already pulling at our hearts, what do we finally have to say about this story? Where do we discover the “truth” in it? Well, as an inclusive, liberal theologian, a progressive, I might say that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. History has taught us well that no single person, no single Christian denomination, and no single religious tradition has an absolute monopoly on “the truth.”
What I know to be true about this story is found not in the details, not in the argument over whether this is factual or not, but in the big picture. If we consider the bulk of the collected memories that have been passed down to us, Jesus is never portrayed as accepting the prevailing “no room at the inn” theology. He never allows excuses to be made for unmet needs. Always he gives… and gives… and then gives some more. And Jesus is able to do this because he understands, he embodies the full depth of God’s grace and generosity. As the Johannine editor put it in his prologue, in Jesus we have seen the glory of God and from that fullness we have all received. Or as Irenaeus put it a few years later, he became human that we might become divine…all of us.
In the end, for me, as a progressive Christian doing inclusive theology, this is a story in which radical hospitality is used as a metaphoric truth about the nature of God and as instruction for the way we should live as God’s children and followers of Jesus. Which interpretation could lead us to a discussion of the progressive tenet that “the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe” or even to one about the degree to which God is embodied, incarnated in each of us. It also opens the door to a conversation around how we mesh progressive thought with our predominantly conservative liturgical tradition and language.
All of these are issues relevant to your discovery process and your congregational future, but only if you decide to go there and only on another day.
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean that we are Christians who:
Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to: conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all classes and abilities;
Know the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
Strive for peace and justice among all people;
Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth; and
Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
Links to explore:
From Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don't Like Christianity Roger Wolsey, 2011)
...Progressive Christianity is an approach to the Christian faith that is influenced by post-liberalism and postmodernism and: proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Savior, and Lord; emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely his person; emphasizes God's immanence not merely God's transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism; emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later; emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from hell; emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal; stresses social justice as integral to Christian discipleship; takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding; emphasizes orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs); embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery — instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas; and does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God.