Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 24, 2002
Last Sunday, of course, was St. Patrick’s Day. But we were too busy talking about Katharine Lee Bates and the story of “America the Beautiful” to talk too much about St. Patrick. So here, a week late, is a St. Patrick’s Day story I’d like to share. (It also has a little something to do with this morning’s topic, which is always convenient):
The religious group to which we belong affects our thinking. And how we think affects how we will act in the world.
The religious group to which we belong will affect the way we look at the matter (and the man) of Jesus—and how we answer the questions:
God save the soul of any religious prophet from the actions taken in their names by their later followers. How badly used and abused that name can be. This is especially true, I think, when it comes to Jesus.
I have never been prouder of one of my parishioners than I was, one day back in Vermont, probably 18 or 19 years ago now, when I heard about something that dear old Mildred Hoisington had done. Mildred was a dear old woman; she was 95 or 96 years old when I was her minister at the Universalist Society in Hartland Four Corners. (She lived to be 102 or 103, I believe.) I visited her regularly at the long-term nursing facility where she spent her later years. She was not in the best of health, obviously: she couldn’t walk any longer, and was completely confined to her wheelchair; she was almost totally blind; her hearing, too, was fading quickly. But in all the years I knew her, her mind was sharp as ever, her wit was biting, and her memory (long term and short term) was just phenomenal.
Well one day, one of the nurses on duty told me, she had shown just how sharp she was. A visiting missionary was making his rounds at the hospital, it seems, stopping in and visiting with the patients. He stopped in on Mildred, and they chatted a little. Then, he asked the inevitable (for him) question: “Have you found Jesus, Mrs. Hoisington?”
According to the nurse, without missing a beat, Mildred, good Universalist that she was, replied: “I didn’t know he was lost, young man.”
That was one Bible-toting, do-gooder, holy-roller, out to save souls that didn’t need saving, who probably fled from the room in panic, thinking he had seen the image of Satan in the face of that angelic old lady!
“Jesus saves,” the bumper stickers and the billboards and the t-shirts remind us, over and over. And I am not here to question the workings of God’s grace in the lives of individual believers. I would never argue that the shining example of Jesus—the deep wellsprings of Christian faith—had not saved the lives of countless men and women over the centuries.
But all too often, the cross of Jesus has been turned on its side to become a sword of conquest; and all too often, the Bible has been used as a cudgel to force free spirits into obedience, or as a battering ram to force acceptance of a particular narrow view of what it means to be a Christian.
Certainly, we could all use all the salvation we can get: salvation from the toils and snares, and addictions and afflictions, and petty spites and prejudices of this world. We need to grasp our salvation where we find it, and glimpse grace wherever we see it, and continue down our unending journey toward wholeness, our limitless pathway toward at-one-ment.
But maybe Jesus could use a little saving, too—saving from those who have co-opted his name, who have hijacked the title “Christian” for their own all-too-small vision of the kingdom.
Don’t you think that when most people hear the word “Christian” these days, they think of people like the “Christian Coalition”, men like Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell? Even our popular media has come to accept that this particular right wing view of being “Christian” is what “Christian” really means. News stories that refer to “the Christian movement” or “Christian music” or the “Christian influence” on school boards or textbook publishers always seem to have this ilk in mind.
When someone goes out of his way to introduce himself (or herself) to you as a “Christian” at a social or civic event, the words that go through our mind are all-too apt to be things like “judgmental”, “narrow-minded”, “arrogant”, “bigoted”, “intolerant” and “rigid”.
Those words might describe Christian fundamentalism. They don’t describe the faith of most Christians the world over. They certainly don’t describe the life and practice of that good and prophetic man, “Jesus of Nazareth”.
We’ve come to know that those who have bumper stickers on their cars that read: “Jesus loves you” are also saying, “Jesus love you-- as long as you’re not a liberal. Or homosexual. Or a feminist. Or pro-choice. Jesus loves you-- as long as you think the same way I do.”
Nothing could be further from that simple man Jesus of Nazareth, who was perhaps the least judgmental, the most radically inclusive, exemplar that history has given us—the man who shocked the establishment of his own day by dining with prostitutes and the outcasts of the society in which he lived. The man who befriended women in a society that said that women were unclean, who called for compassion for the much-loathed Samaritans, whom many in his society considered living abominations.
What would Jesus do if he came upon the like of Falwell and Robertson blaming feminists and gays for God’s allowing the tragedy and terror of September 11th? He would treat them as he did the Pharisees of his own day—by overturning their tables, and pulling the chords on their damnable broadcasts, lest they spew out more venom and idiocy in his holy name!
As the Secretary General of the Anglican Council in Great Britain said in a speech not too long ago:
Why is it important that we join in the movement to save Jesus from the clutches of the religious right? Why, in this postmodern world, should Jesus even matter to us any more?
I’ll tell you why: Consider what would be lost were we simply to hand over the shining example of this great brother-teacher-friend whom history and myth have given us. In our reading this morning, David McFarland reminds us: “What matters [about Jesus] is the deep truths put in the telling of his life… It is the Jesus who stood up to authority, who challenged he status quo, who wouldn’t let anyone claim spiritual authority or material superiority or political superiority…”
We can not afford simply to hand over such an important part of our religious lineage, of our spiritual family. Jesus is our religious brother, as much as he is Falwell’s or Robertson’s. We cannot afford to let them kidnap him. But if we continue to ignore him, they will.
The character of Jesus was so strong, wrote our great Unitarian forbear Theodore Parker, that “it made [us] believe he wrought miracles. It is this,” Parker went on, “which makes his memory so precious to the world.” Or, as Judy Meyer puts it: “…from his story we receive a sense of eternity in the human capacity to make a profound difference in others’ lives and to live forever through the difference we have made.”
Jesus is “precious to the world” because he “dare[d] to live fully and love deeply.”
In spite of all that the centuries have wrought—the warfare and strife and bitterness and enmity (as much with us now, in our own time, as ever)—the example of that Galilean carpenter-prophet has never ceased to dance in our hearts and minds. The vision he inspired—the possibilities which his life presents—the possibility of loving our neighbors as ourselves—of doing the will of God in our own daily lives—of understanding all the people of the Earth as children of God—that vision continues to haunt us, entice us, and inspire us. Jesus presented to us a vision of humanity at its best, at its most godlike, of humanity drawn just as close as it could be to our divine Creator.
Jesus presented to us a vision of humanity at its best. Not of life at its easiest. It is not a vision of an eternal life which avoids this earthly, human life. Rather, it is a vision which lives this life to its full, which feels its pain, its rejection, its bitterness and scourging, even unto Gethsemane and to Calvary. It is a spirit which survives the crucifixion of the body to live again—to love again—to rise and smile again over the face of the Earth, in spite of the despair and disorder, which powers and principalities, and terror-mad souls and our own addled, narrow, bigoted minds might wrought.
It is time to join once again with men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to save Jesus, before it is too late. It is time to join with our truly-Christian brothers and sisters, and our Jewish and pagan brothers and sisters, and those who are Buddhist, and Muslim, and of every faith, and who claim no faith, to carry the light of love in these dark times, and to continue the struggle against all that would separate and divide and diminish and destroy the indivisible unity of our great human family.
When that happens, then Jesus will be found—then Jesus will be saved. Then, we all will be able gently to bow, and to say to one another: “The Jesus in me, I see in thee.” Then the Reign of God truly will be among us.