Saturday, December 05, 2009

Who Was Jesus?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 6, 2009

The dreadful tragedy a week ago of the four Lakewood police officers gunned down in cold blood, on top of another heartless killing of a Seattle officer a month earlier, on top of the many other incidences over the years of men and women whose jobs or ideals or commitments have led them into dangerous places---all these have resulted in our calling these men and women heroes. And they are.

The hero figure in our culture may emerge from a variety of circumstances: Shane, for example, who came to a prairie homestead in the movie High Noon to fight bad guys and then ride off into the sunset; the warrior who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades; the President-elect who seems to fulfill all the dreams of his constituents; the prophet who speaks a new language of resistance without violence; the woman who starts a new kind of agency---nursing, social work, environmental awareness; the woman who breaks social barriers to make her way in space exploration, music and art, labor relations.

But the primary characteristic of hero figures, I’ve noticed, is their courage, a courage that sometimes appears to come out of nowhere but is instead the result of an inner resolve to put others’ wellbeing ahead of ones’ own.

This past week, I met with the North Olympic Ministers Cluster, a group of UU ministers representing Bremerton, Port Townsend, Port Angeles, Bainbridge Island, and Whidbey Island. We get together every few months to spend the day in talking about ministry issues, considering some theological or pastoral concern, worshiping together, and having some fun at the same time.

It was my turn to bring the worship service to my colleagues and as I have been wrestling with issues of courage myself, thinking about how courage is a facet of spiritual maturity, and linking all this thinking to today’s message about spiritual and religious heroes, I decided that the theme of my worship would be “courage”, moral and spiritual courage.

Let me read you the story that was the foundation of our worship time together. It’s by Kaaren Solveig Anderson and is entitled “The Kindness of Lo Mein”.

My friend Marcy and her boyfriend Brian recently ate dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. As they enjoyed a plate of lo mein, engrossed in conversation, a hand reached down and ushered away their platter of noodles. A voice quick and agitated mumbled “Sorry!” and a thin, poorly dressed woman left the restaurant with their plate of lo mein.

In astonishment, they watched her walk down the street, holding the plate with the flat of her hand as she stuffed noodles into her mouth, slapping sharply against her face. The owner realized what had happened and darted out the front door, chasing after the noodle thief. He stood firmly in front of her, blocking her way and grabbing a side of the plate. A struggle ensued, noodles slid uneasily from one side to the other, slopping over the edge. He surged forward and pulled with a heroic strongarm attempt to retrieve his plate. The woman’s fingers slid from the plate. Noodles flew, then flopped pathetically on the sidewalk.

Left empty-handed, with soggy, contaminated noodles at her feet, the woman stood with arms hung dejectedly at her side. The owner walked victoriously back to the restaurant with the soiled plate in hand. My friends were given a new heaping plate of lo mein, although they had already consumed half of the stolen plate. A stream of apology in Chinese came from the proprietor. Unable to eat anymore, they asked to have the noodles wrapped up and set off to see their movie.

A block later, they happened upon the lo mein thief. The woman was hypercharged. She simultaneously cried, convulsed, and shouted at a man, who rapidly retreated from her side. My friend, unsure about what to do, listened to her boyfriend’s plea to just walk away. But she didn’t. Instead, she walked over to the thief and said, “Ah, we haven’t formally met, but about ten minutes ago, you were interested in our noodles. They gave us some new ones, are you still hungry?” The woman nodded and extended her bony arms. She took the styrofoam container in her hands, bowed ever so slightly, and murmured, “Thank you, you’re very kind.”

What makes us walk away from discomfort? Or stay? You could say a lot about my friend’s story—a lot about generosity, kindness, attention, and thievery. I’m more interested in what motivates us to confront that which makes us uncomfortable and makes us look at the guts and grit of decisions, the choices to… address things that are uncomfortable, uneasy, unbalanced, unnatural, unbelievable. When our foundations start to shake, we can feel the tremors move up our legs and into our torsos. And we want more than anything to make it stop. Any how. Any way.

My friend Marcy could feel herself shake. I know because she told me so. But she chose not to walk away, she dealt with (her discomfort). She held firm in the muck. Sometimes, that’s all we need or can do to get to the other side—the side where generosity, comfort, and kindness reside, the side where foundations are firm and stable. Where one’s shaking walks back to the other side.

I asked my colleagues, after the story, to take a few moments in silence to think about their own experiences of courage---what makes them shake in their boots, as ministers?

After the silence we swapped experiences for a few moments; it turned out that most of us felt fearful about times when we were in conflict with someone. None of us had gone into the ministry to fight battles, yet we often dealt with conflict---our own conflict with someone who disagreed with us or the conflict between others within our congregations or even in our families. We’re lovers, not fighters. Yet in order to be effective leaders, we have to have the courage to face conflict and deal with it.

Some mentioned the courage of taking a prophetic stand on an unpopular issue; others spoke of leaving a familiar career behind in order to enter the challenging field of ministry. Someone mentioned the wellknown question of leaders in every field: “is this a hill I’m willing to die on?”, meaning “is this issue and my stand on it something I’m willing to risk my career for?”

Another mentioned the loneliness and strain of being the confidential ear for the many struggles of beloved congregants and the daily courage required to be pastoral when we have few solutions to those problems except for our presence.

So where does that courage come from, I asked them. Where do we find it when we need it? Where did we learn it? From what depths does it arise? Why do we do the courageous things we do? As ministers, yes, but also as human beings?

More silence and then, slowly, came the thoughts: I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I do it because the consequences of NOT doing it are too great. I do it because the issue is too important to ignore. I do it because I watched my dad or my mom or my grandparent or my friend, my mentor do it.

Others said: my courage comes from a lifetime of observing others’ courage and wondering what I would do under the same circumstances; or, my courage comes from a foundation of past experiences and my commitment to act in compassionate and loving ways.

At the end of the worship service, I closed with a quick benediction and then it was time for lunch. But the conversation stuck with me and when I sat down at the computer to write, it was still there.

I tell you all this today because our theme for this holiday month of December is related to religious and spiritual heroism. Jesus was and is the hero of Christianity; Moses, of Judaism; Siddhartha Gautama, of Buddhism; Mohammed, of Islam.

These ancient heroes had the courage to follow their own convictions and consciences and founded new religious paths, in the face of danger and banishment by the traditional religious authorities of their time.

Moses left the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace as his adopted son and joined forces with his people, the Hebrews, who were slaves. He made this decision when he saw a slave-master beating a man; he killed the slave master and fled for his life, back to his people. He was the leader who brought the Hebrew peoples together and led them out of Egypt.

Siddhartha Gautama left behind his old life as a prince in the ancient kingdom of Kapilvastu, now Nepal, living as an ascetic, in poverty, to discover the true meaning of life. Buddhism, founded on an ethic of compassion for human suffering and eradication of that suffering by a path of Four Noble Truths, was a reform movement of Hinduism and consequently would have put Gautama, in conflict with the traditional path of his countrymen. Little is written about the consequences to this spiritual hero of his radical transformation. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, for the most part, though the Buddha is sometimes worshipped as a god; but Hinduism is a poly-theistic religion. And I don’t suppose people were any more open to huge religious changes then than they are now!

Mohammed is seen to be a reformer as well, reforming the traditional monotheistic path of Judaism with its purity laws and traditional views of the Divine. His radical call to complete surrender to Allah met with hostility from his countrymen, initially, and the persecution that followed caused Mohammed and his few followers to flee. Utter surrender to Allah and the wishes of Allah as revealed in the Koran engender another kind of conflict within Islam even today.

And Jesus, whose birth we celebrate this month (even though he was probably born in the springtime), was a revolutionary hero, steeped in both the laws of the Torah and in the wisdom he had gained through contemplation and study and experience probably gained outside of traditional Judaism. As a revolutionary, Jesus encountered turmoil and opposition to his teachings from the entrenched religious and political leaders of his day, both Jewish and Roman.

But Jesus was not a revolutionary in the mold of Lenin or Stalin or Che; he was different. Though religion and politics share many issues, Jesus was a religious revolutionary. Who was he, in the eyes of a non-Christian historian of the first century? Here’s a quote from Josephus, written about the year 90, of the common era, otherwise known as Anno. Domini., the year of our lord:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who received the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin (that is, Gentile). And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day, the tribe of Christians (named after him) has not died out.

These are the comments of a man who was not a follower of Jesus yet admired him for his personal strength and the strength of the love of his followers.

Marcus Borg, a scholar who participates in the controversial “Jesus Seminar”, which attempts to sort out Jesus’s life as a historical figure, as a prophet and as the founder of a new religion, has summarized Josephus’s opinion this way:

Jesus was a “wise man”, a teacher of wisdom. He did “startling deeds”, a reference to his reputation as a healer. He gained a following among both Jews and Gentiles. He was crucified by order of the Roman governor after he was accused by “leading men” among the Jews. His followers continued to love him after his death. His followers became known as Christians and continued to exist when Josephus wrote this passage near the end of the first century.

As a historian, Josephus chronicled the turbulence of the first century under Roman rule. He was a devout, observant Jew, with priestly and royal blood, who survived and recorded the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era.

Josephus’s reference to Jesus is the only non-Christian reference to him from the first century. Everything else written about him in the first century and later comes from his followers, whose lives had been changed by following him. They saw Jesus as the revelation of God, of what can be seen of God in a human life and of what a life filled with God looks like.

Our Unitarian Universalist roots are deeply embedded in Christianity and many of us consider ourselves Christian Unitarian Universalists, just as others consider themselves Buddhist UUs or Sufi UUs or Jewish UUs or Pagan UUs.

But we diverged as a spiritual path when we began to disagree with the institutional church which developed out of the Apostle Paul’s teachings, perhaps most decisively when the institutional church declared that Jesus was indeed God, even though he did not himself claim that distinction.

Many early dissenters from traditional theological positions were persecuted and even martyred for their beliefs, including our forefather the Spanish doctor Michael Servetus who died at the direction of John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland in the 16th century.

And there are many ways that we diverge from institutional Christianity today, yet honor the teachings of Jesus as prophet, teacher, and radical revolutionary.

As I made the journey from traditional Christianity to a more radical religious view, one in which I honor and attempt to follow Jesus’ teachings, I realized that there are at least two varieties of the religion Jesus inspired. There is the religion “about Jesus”, focused on his supposedly perfect life, his membership in the Trinity, and the startling deeds of which Josephus speaks. A religion “about Jesus” takes the Gospel stories as history, as fact, and denies validity to those who do not.

Another variety is the religion “of Jesus”, focused on his teachings of compassion, of justice, and of a metaphorical Kingdom of Heaven which is within each person’s heart.

All of Jesus’ teachings can be taken either literally or metaphorically. The Gospels can be read as history or as legend. If we take these ancient writings literally, we will find ourselves boxed in by the revelations of science and rationality, with a limited ability to grow spiritually. In addition, scholarly work which examines the implications of ancient language and culture often deconstructs traditional assumptions about the meaning and validity of an historical view.

If we take the writings metaphorically, we have much more room to grow spiritually, as we find the meaning of the stories in the Gospels to be applicable to our own lives today.

Was Jesus born on Dec. 25 in Bethlehem? Probably not, for shepherds would likely not have been in the fields on a cold winter’s night. Did angels appear? Was there a star? Astronomers are divided on the issue of a star or a blazing nova in the east at that moment in time. Angels? The skeptic in me says no.

But the birth of a baby, a boy child whose life and moral example gave the ancient world, and us today, a new look at how we might become close to God, close to one another, close to a sense that our lives too can be meaningful----this is a story I can relate to.

Jesus, no matter who he was historically, courageously offered humankind a new way to be in the world, a way that transcended oppression, injustice, poverty, and fear. Though his disciples didn’t get it, nor do many of us today “get it”, Jesus offered a radically inclusive, egalitarian vision of how life could be, in direct opposition to the hidebound and corrupt religions of the day.

As Gloria and I talked about this service and how we wanted to shape it, she suggested I consider the book by Deepak Chopra entitled “The Third Jesus, the Christ We Cannot Ignore”---and she loaned it to me.

I’d like to close with this thought inspired by Chopra’s work: Jesus tried to teach his followers how to reach a state of God-consciousness, a state in which a human being feels so much a part of the universe, so much a part of God’s love, so connected to his or her fellow creatures, both human and non-human, that lives would be changed, transcending the ugliness of undisciplined human nature and the depredations of a life in which others controlled every act, instilled fear of punishment and humiliation, and offered no hope for tomorrow.

For me, this is the blessing of the spiritual hero named Jesus, that he taught that we can be happier than we are, we can feel more at home in this universe, we have more to give than we can imagine, and that in giving, we receive hope.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering our own courage and how we reach out in uncomfortable moments to others who need us. May we see the prophet and teacher Jesus as a role model for moral courage and may we act upon our convictions to make this world a more just and loving place. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Miss Kitty said...

WOW. Thank you, Ms. K. This brought tears to my eyes.

Funny how that holding firm in discomfort scares so many of us...but things seem to turn out all right when we CAN do it.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your kind words, Miss K!