I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Advent Sermon II

It really felt like Advent last Sunday. It was snowing as we started church. All our decorations were out. It was very nice all around. I hope that the rest of the season is a lovely as that.

Here is the sermon from Sunday. I try from time to time to preach about Jesus. This may sound strange considering my previous post. However, what I mean is that, while I preach regularly on his teachings and other Biblical themes. It is rarer to actually talk about Jesus, himself. This is a "Historical Jesus" sermon as I deal with the resurrection closer to Easter. I read two interesting books in preparation for the sermon. One was "Rabbi Jesus" by Bruce Chilton (actually a re-read) and "Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time" by Marcus Borg.

Incidentally, I found an interesting web page today entitled "A Portrait of Jesus" which is based on Borg's work...

December 4, 2005
The Eliot Church
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

Every once in a while
During the course of my ministry
I have met someone who,
(Much like many of us here today)
Has found him or her self in a rough spot in life
And while seeking out some comfort and guidance
From the pain and confusion they feel
Has found a need to meet Jesus again

It is the “again” that we are talking about today
For some of these seekers,
Their formerly secure beliefs about Jesus are shaken
Others rejected the traditional Jesus story previously
Or never really gave him much thought
And then were struck in their time of need
By the message of the gospels

It isn’t surprising that they would be
The theologian and philosopher J. Ernest Renan wrote in 1863
The whole of history is incomprehensible without [Jesus]
And while he may have overstated the case a bit
Certainly his life and teachings
Though often dimly understood today
And the subsequent ideals and actions
Of the Christian movement
Have affected the world for better and for worse
For over two thousand years

This is an important point
The Jesus that many people remember and wrestle with
And that many of us have in our heads
Comes not so much from history
But from many layers of tradition
And when many of us strive to meet Jesus again
We are also trying to peel back the curtain a bit
Look past the angels and the shepherds
To see that human being who live so long ago

Liberal Christians, both Trinitarians and Unitarians
Have made this a part of their tradition
Striving to practice the religion of Jesus
Not the religion about him
It is a catchy slogan, but hard to do
Because to do so, one must be willing
To look at this man in his context
To put aside the Easter story for a moment
And concentrate on
That individual who was born and lived and died
In the first Century in the area
We call Israel and Palestine
He was a human being
Who existed well before any doctrinal debates
Councils of priests and bishops
Before any institution called church or Christianity

It is hard to know a lot about this man
But we can try and certainly we can draw
Some few conclusions about him
Today, with the remainder of our time
I would like to briefly consider Jesus
In his roles as Teacher, prophet or politician, and as a healer

But the first thing we must realize in our quest
For the faith and life of Jesus
Is that he was and considered himself to be
100% Jewish
I remember in my senior year of high school
A classmate of mine who reacted in complete and utter shock
When she was told that Jesus was Jewish
She went to church, she celebrated Christmas
But she didn’t know
The one most basic and fundamental fact
Of his life

Yes, Jesus was Jewish, he was a rabbi
A teacher of wisdom
In a tradition well known then as now
For its philosophical and theological explorations
The 8th Chapter of Proverbs reads
I, Wisdom, live with prudence and I attain knowledge and discretion. I have good advice. By me rulers decree what is just. I love those who love me and those who seek me diligently find me.
Jesus was a diligent seeker of wisdom
This quest for wisdom/An understanding of divine order
Was what dominated his life

But, of course, there is more to Jesus that that
There are many sages
Many teachers and clergy people
Who we do not remember today
No, Jesus was a teacher of a wisdom that subverted
What was then perceived as the natural order
He based his relationship with God
Not on ritual sacrifice and the obeying of laws
A view common not just in Judaism at the time
But all faiths in that part of the world
But, instead he based his relationship with God
Onlove and compassion
He taught the untouchables, after all
And was often criticized for healing people
When it was against the rules to do so

God, he believed, wasn’t an arbitrary ruler
Demanding tribute
But a loving parent, friend or relative
To Jesus God is someone who cares
Our reading from Luke today started out with Jesus saying
Be compassionate just as God is compassionate

Some Bibles say Be Merciful instead
But compassionate
Gets closer to the heart of the matter
In our modern usage Mercy implies a distance and a power imbalance
That is not what Jesus was talking about
The God that he described is a companion
A fellow sufferer, a friend when in need
Not a ruler to be feared
Those kinds of rulers exist in the human world
Not in The Commonwealth of Heaven
Do not judge and you will not be judged forgive and you will be forgiven
The God of compassion was a revolutionary idea
It went against the conventional wisdom of the day
To some extent, it still does

When we think of passages such as this one
Forgive and you will be forgiven
It is easy for us to see the revolution he wished to cause
In the hearts and minds of individuals
But Jesus was also a prophet
This was an idea that he wanted for society as a whole

Marcus Borg writes
Studies of our culture disclose that it is characterized by a pervasive individualism. Within this framework, compassion has become an individual rather than a political virtue. It is to be enacted by “a thousand points of light” rather than being a paradigm for public policy

The culture that Borg describes is where we live
Not what life was like for Jesus
Ties between people
Were much stronger for him
And the idea of salvation for the individual
Wouldn’t really make sense in the same way that we think of it
It was, in many respects all about the community

In this sense
Jesus was also a politician
Most prophets were and are
He had to be persuasive, a good speaker and story teller
Someone who could get his point across again and again
In fact it may be
That what we have in the synoptic gospels
(Matthew, Mark, and Luke)
Is, in many ways, the greatest hits if his “stump speeches”
Catch phrases and illustrations from his sermons
The things that stuck in people’s minds

Politicians will often say the same things
Make the same points,
Tell the same stories over and over again
In different ways to different people
So that they will not be forgotten
And instead become part of the communal identity and will
It is quite likely, for example
That the Sermon on the Mount was not so much a sermon
As the main points of a sermon series

So the Jesus we see, the human Jesus
Wasn’t a disconnected figure
A world-renouncer
But someone who came out of the wilderness
To sit in the public square
In fact, what he did in the square
Often generated more than a little controversy

Now, last communion Sunday
I made much of the open table that we celebrate here
The scriptural basis for open communion
Comes from Jesus’ parable of the great dinner
Where God is depicted as a wealthy man having a party
Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame…Go out and compel people to come in so my house shall be filled.
This is a radical hospitality
Unusual then in a way that
Is hard for us to understand now
It was a time where sinfulness was understood
As a kind of disease, an impurity that one could catch
To share food, to touch, even to speak to certain kinds of people
Was to infect yourself, to make yourself unholy

When Jesus invites people in to eat with him
Tax collectors,… people off the street, women
He isn’t just committing a social Faux Pas
Or demonstrating kindness by offering free food
If that was what it was,
It wouldn’t have been remembered and written down
He was attacking the purity laws of his faith and society
He was violating a literal caste system at the root of his culture

So Jesus was a prophet, a politician, a rabbi and teacher
But none of this would have been possible
If he wasn’t also a truly unique individual
A person connected to the divine
Someone with a special relationship with God
One thing that all the sources about Jesus agree on
Is that he was a healer

Whether what he did was miraculous
Is something open for debate
But there was something about him
That made people feel better
One could say that there is still something about him
That heals us, that helps to make us whole
This power to heal came from his own deep spirituality
He was a spirit person and holy man

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science wrote
Jesus of Nazareth was the most scientific man that ever trod the globe. He plunged beneath the material surface of things, and found the spiritual cause.

The Christian Scientists, of course,
Have taken this idea of spiritual healing
And opened a broad debate with much of modern medicine
While we may have differing views on this point
It does seem quite clear
That Jesus from his personal relationship with God
Found the strength
To provide a healing spirit to others
This relationship is something he invited others
To share and participate in

It is this invitation that causes people to wish to meet Jesus again
When we are weary, when we are sad,
When winter comes and we seek some light in the darkness
When we wish to work for justice and peace
Many of us turn to Jesus, the prophet of compassion and love
We remember his teachings and his works

And we do so when we just want to celebrate, too
To connect to the holy in each other
Like now, during the holiday season

Hugh Litchfield, the author of Preaching the Christmas Story
Points out that this time of year
We are warned “Don’t take Christ out of Christmas” But, [he goes on to say], that is not our danger …Our danger is that we can get so busy with preparations for it that unconsciously we might nudge him to the edges of our Christmas celebration and miss the true significance of what Christmas is about. It is about a love that’s for all seasons, a love that meets our needs forever.

Christmas is about a love for all seasons
This love is the message that Jesus taught and embodied
Regardless of whatever else he may or may not have been
So, let us remember to keep this Christmas season holy
By holding on to the love we have
And letting it grow by sharing it with others