Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Books of Moses

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” writes the author of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and the LORD brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

This is one of the greatest stories every told.

Now, I didn’t grow up in church, so the first time this story dawned on my consciousness was not in a pew and not in a Sunday school class. It was in the basement of my Baba’s house, close to Christmastime, back when I was something like eight years old. I was in my jammies, and Baba had put on her pink polyester nightgown, and I sat down in her lap, and her face was shiny with Oil of Olay, and I could smell that sweet smell as I nestled into her softness. Lawrence Welk was just finishing up in an explosion of tiny bubbles, and at that point Dido got up to go to bed—he was an early to sleep, early to rise kind of guy—but we stayed put in the TV room because Baba wanted to watch something called The Ten Commandments. Something about Charlton Heston (and whenever she talked about Charlton Heston there was a strange sound in her voice my eight year old mind could never decode, but I got it now, she loooved Charlton Heston…) OK, so The Ten Commandments is on, it’s unfolding before me scene by scene—the baby Moses found in a basket on the Nile river by Pharoah’s daughter; the adult Moses as a Prince of Egypt; the time he kills a guard abusing one of the Israelite slaves; when he discovers who he really is; when he’s brought before his Pharoah father in chains; when he’s banished to the wilderness by Rameses (played by the awesome Yul Brynner); when he encounters God in the burning bush and is called to liberate his people … on and on and on … all these scenes unfolding before the eyes of this eight year old … and let’s not forget the soundtrack: duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! Heady stuff! And then that scene, after the ten plagues, after the flight from Egypt, when the Israelites find themselves at the shore of the Red Sea, jammed right up against the edge, and the Egyptian army is hot on their heels, and they are between a rock and a hard place, but Moses holds out his arms and lifts up his staff (duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!!) and the waters part and the Hebrews surge forward and the day is saved and I thought to myself O MY GOD what IS this? This is COOL! THIS is a story.

One of the greatest stories ever told.

And not just in my eight-year-old self’s opinion, or that of Judaism and Jews worldwide. It’s religion writer Bruce Feiler’s argument too in his book America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. A fascinating read, tracing the history of the impact of the biblical narrative of the Israelites on twenty generations of Americans and their leaders. The Pilgrims who left England in 1620 bound for the freedom of America, describing themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. “On the Atlantic, they proclaimed their journey to be as vital as ‘Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.’ And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea” (Bruce Feiler). The Biblical narrative gave the Pilgrims not only language for what they were doing, but logic, justification. “The only reason they could have done that,” says historian Tim Safford—one of many of Bruce Feiler’s interviewees—“The only reason they could have done that is because they had a narrative larger than their own lives. A narrative of God delivers me through the Red Sea. A narrative that if you’re lost in exile, you can still remain holy. A narrative of life is stronger than death, love is more powerful than hate. If you do not have a narrative larger than the world gives you, you’re just going to get sucked up by the world.” That’s Tim Safford. The Pilgrims were just not going to allow themselves to get sucked up by the world. The Founding Fathers of this nation weren’t going to allow that either. Or Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Or leaders of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. They had a narrative larger than their own lives, given to them by the Bible, and though the story was thousands of years old, about people long dead and gone, it was nevertheless absolutely new, exactly what they were going through in their own day, it spoke straight to their lives. Oppression in Egypt; liberation from all that through Exodus; the newly freed slaves, despite all the murmuring and complaining, becoming a united people and a new nation at the foot of Mt. Sinai; the new nation entering into the Promised Land. All of it—America’s story too.

“The universe,” says poet Murial Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not atoms.” The universe, nations, and people like you and me. Made of stories.

In our remaining time together, I want to go deeper into this greatest story ever told. Apply the three Bible reading principles that scholar Marcus Borg talks about in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, the companion book to this year-long sermon series.

Principle #1: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say.” You just can’t open your Bible and go, “Let’s see what God says about that.” No. The Bible is a record of humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. We take what the Bible says very seriously but not slavishly—don’t want to make it yet another Pharaoh in our lives!

Second principle: Look to the past. As Bible readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of historical context. As Marcus Borg likes to say: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Gotta know the history to truly understand.

Finally the third principle: Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now. It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.

These are the principles: and now let’s get to work.

We begin with what history and scholarship and science have to say. Frankly it’s not pretty.

Something happened in the thirteenth century BCE. The book of Exodus tells us that six hundred thousand Israelite men plus women and children left Egypt—presumably a total of two to three million people. That’s not a small thing. Leaves a HUGE footprint. Yet to this date, no archaeological evidence has ever been found. No contemporaneous writings from the ancient Near East—nothing outside the Bible—makes even a passing mention of it. Definitely nothing from Egypt, which is really strange. As Jonathan Kirsch in his book Moses: A Life puts it, quite ironically, “The ancient Egyptians, who were compulsive chroniclers of their own rich history, somehow failed to notice the presence or the absence of a couple of million Israelite slaves, the afflictions of the Ten Plagues, the plague that took the life of every firstborn child on a single night, of the miraculous events of the Red Sea.” That is just strange. It is no wonder that even the most pious scholar who chooses to honestly grapple with this fact can come away with a most unpleasant feeling of uncertainty. What really happened three thousand plus years ago?

And then there are the miracles. Did those really happen? Just think of the list of plagues Moses unleashed upon Egypt: the Nile water turns to blood, frogs fill the land, gnat attack, fly attack, all Egyptian livestock die, everyone gets boils, the mother of all hail storms wreaks havoc, locust attack, thick darkness covers the land for three days, and then all the firstborn die. Now I know and we know that there are earnest people who have a scientific explanation for every one of these things. The Nile water, for example, did not really turn to blood; it was just a profusion of some microorganism that made the water intensely red. But this misses the point. So much of the Israelite story is premised on God acting in a way that upsets the natural order of things. God’s mighty hand acting supernaturally. And here is where the problem lies. Not just in terms of science, but also in terms of theology. The problem is one of consistency. Lack of consistency says something bad about God and bad about the Exodus story as a whole. Take God first. If God used to act in the world like the Bible tells us, but no longer, despite situations of intense suffering in the centuries ever since (including the Holocaust), then God clearly plays favorites, God is abusive in God’s absence, God is a jerk. As for the story itself: if the liberation of the Israelites was possible only because of genuine bend-the-laws-of-nature miracles, then how can this possibly speak to us today, when we don’t have the luxury of some Moses wielding God-power as he strides through the halls of Congress and demands that the nonsense end, that our rich-getting-richer and poor-getting-poorer system cease. Back then, it was all duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! But it’s not like that anymore. All of this is good reason for doubting that the miracles ever happened. Again, not just because science doesn’t like supernatural stuff. But also because the theological conclusions about God we end up with are truly ugly. And this greatest story ever told—Egypt, Exodus, Sinai, Promised Land—falls flat.

So we’re not dealing with a story that is to be taken as literally true. Two to three million Israelites were not a part of the picture; Egypt was not devastated as part of the Israelite withdrawal; there were no miracles. This is the judgment of history and science and scholarship. It’s just not “God says,” it’s “people say.”

So why did the people say it? Why did the ancient Israelites tell the story as they did?

Maybe we can’t take the story literally in all its details, but you know, something must really have happened three thousand plus years ago to those Israelites. “Why,” asks religion writer Jonathan Kirsch, “would the chroniclers of ancient Israel make up something as ignoble as four hundred years of servitude in a foreign land unless it was a fact of their history?” And not just the fact of four hundred years of servitude. Also all the murmuring of the Israelites, there in the desert. Time and again, they are saved from death, and still they complain. They KVETCH. Or they create a Golden Calf that spits in the eye of the one saving them. These are not moments to be proud of. Yet they make their way into the narrative, and that says something. A classic rule of Biblical interpretation puts it this way: where there’s honest disclosure of something embarrassing, you’re probably in touch with the truth.

Something must have happened. Surely, when you consider the spiritual and political vision of the ancient Israelites. The moment God hears his people moaning under slavery, the entire moral focus of the story becomes protesting exploitation of any and all kinds and building a society that nurtures everyone. Thirty-six times, in the Exodus narrative, the Israelites are urged to befriend the stranger, for they were themselves strangers in Egypt. The vision of social justice is paramount. The laws that Moses is purported to hand down from on high: some of them represent the most radical socioeconomic legislation of all time. For example: every forty-nine years, during what is called the Jubilee year, “all debts are to be forgiven, all debtors freed, all workers are to return to their ancestral lands, and all families split by economic hardship reunited. The messages is that the land belongs to God, not humans, and nobody should benefit too greatly or suffer too greatly for their work with God’s bounty.” (Bruce Feiler) Can you imagine a law like that here in America? What would happen if we observed it here and now? No need for the Occupy movement for sure….

Something must have happened—something transformative—to those ancient Israelites. If not duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! of the supernatural kind, then of a kind more natural but still amazing. Still life-changing.

And that’s what we’re looking for—the potentials for life-change—as we practice the Bible-reading principle that says, Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Go deeper instead. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. Let the Bible speak straight to your heart. like it did to that eight-year-old boy curled up in his Baba’s lap, smelling her smell of Oil of Olay, watching the scenes of The Ten Commandments unfold and getting it, getting the amazing message that belongs to no one time in history and to no one nation—the message that whatever form of slavery we are oppressed by, it can still be otherwise, there can still be change, there can still be a Promised Land.

Let the Bible speak. There will always be times we find ourselves at the shore of some Red Sea in life. Know what I mean? You were a slave, and somehow you fought your way out. You got away. But the Egyptian army is hot on your heels—your escape is not gonna be automatic or easy. So you are standing at the shoreline, and you are in a desperate, impossible place, and it’s just like poet Audre Lorde says: you are

seeking a now that can breed
futures

like bread in our children’s mouths…


That’s what you are seeking in the face of fear and pain and chaos

a now that can breed
futures

like bread in our children’s mouths.


So what are you going to do NOW?

Maybe there is no Charlton Heston Moses spreading his handsome arms out wide….
No supernatural guarantees to what you are doing
You don’t know what the end of this story is gonna look like

You know how the story of the Pilgrims ended,
or that of our Founding Fathers
or of the Civil War
or of the Civil Rights movement

You know those stories
all those desperate impossible times
when there were people who, against all odds,
stepped right into the Red Sea,
went right in up to their chests
up to their noses
up to their eyeballs
and THAT’S when the waters parted…

You know how their stories ended
just not your own…

What you DO know is you have to do this
you have to find a new life
you have to find your Promised Land

So step in
live a story in your life
larger than the one the world gives you.
Don’t allow yourself to be sucked up by the world….

Step in

The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice

Story before the sermon

Our reading this morning comes from authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. Their book is entitled The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.

Once upon a time, but not very long ago, in a kingdom both near and far away, there lived a canny scientist who longed for the love of a beautiful woman. Because his first love was not even science but his own knowledge, wise women were wary of the man, and so he lived a very lonely life.

One day, the man decided to use his science to win love, and he set about to concoct a chemical that would cause the object of his affection to fall madly in love with him. Soon his research succeeded, he produced the chemical, and as luck would have it, at just that time he met a beautiful, talented and good woman—the ultimate woman of his dreams.

The scientist arranged for friends to introduce them, and at their first meeting, he poured his potion into her beverage. Lo and behold, his fantasy came true! The exquisite creature fell instantly and completely in love with him, and they soon married.

But was our hero happy? Alas, no. In a short time, he became gaunt from not eating, his work fell by the wayside, and eventually he could not even bring himself to touch his beloved, as he spent every waking moment torturing himself, trying to devise some kind of test to answer his agonized question: “Would she love me if it were not for the chemical?”

For our scientist did crave love, but love cannot be commanded.

Sermon

In their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham share a story about a time when a group of addiction experts from Russia visited the United States and attended several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, “hoping to find in those smoky rooms something that could be used to fight the serious alcohol problem in their homeland”:

They listened to the stories, they talked to the A.A. members, and they decided that, yes, there was something here that could help. But what was it, exactly? They couldn’t quite figure it out.

At the end of one meeting they approached their hosts, several of whom were recovering alcoholics. “We want to make alcoholics like that,” they said. “Teach us how.”

The hosts smiled in gentle understanding. “Well, that’s what we’ve been doing this evening,” came the answer. “You see, you learn how to be like THAT only by BEING like that.”

“But,” the Russians sputtered, “surely there must be something you could share with us, a technique, a certain kind of approach, some kind of trick that would make this all a little easier?”

“No,” came the reply. “What you see in this smoky room, what you want to take home with you, is spirituality; and if there is one thing that all alcoholics discover, it is that there are no shortcuts to spirituality, no techniques that can command it, and especially no ‘tricks.’ That’s what we tried to find in the bottle, in booze, in alcohol. It didn’t work. What we have learned is that the only ‘technique’ is what we call ‘a four-letter word’: it is spelled ‘T-I-M-E.’”

**

This morning, I want you to imagine that this space has become one of those smoky A.A. meeting rooms—although in all fairness, there’s lots of meetings these days which are non-smoking… But THIS room is smoky. And you’ve got a Styrofoam coffee cup in your hand. You’re sitting in a fold-up chair. Here we are. Now, you might be wondering why you are here, since you might not have an addiction to alcohol—or to another way of self-medicating like overeating, or gambling, or sex, or enabling someone who HAS an addiction—but maybe by the T-I-M-E our meeting is done you’ll see that there’s wisdom here for you too, whoever you are, in this room where people are working the Twelve Steps in their lives and sharing that with each other.

How many of you are familiar with the Twelve Steps? It’s a set of guiding principles first published in 1939, in the Big Book, more formally known as Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism.

Since then, the guiding principles have been adapted to become the foundation for all sorts of recovery programs: Adult Children of Alcoholics, Codependents Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Online Gamers Anonymous, and on and on. The American Medical Association summarizes the Twelve Steps as follows: admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion; recognizing a higher power that can give strength; examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member); making amends for these errors; learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior; helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.

There is a powerful form of spirituality here—that’s what gathers us together in this smoky room, in the T-I-M-E of this morning. That and lots of humor, lots of sayings and slogans. As in:

“How come if alcohol kills millions of brain cells, it never killed the ones that made me want to drink?”

“I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”

“The good news is you get your emotions back. The bad news is you get your emotions back”

“I would rather go through life sober, believing I am an alcoholic, than go through life drunk, trying to convince myself that I am not”

“Alcohol gave me wings and then slowly took away my sky”

“Resentments are like stray cats: if you don’t feed them, they’ll go away”

“I can’t do God’s will my way”

“The power behind me is greater than the problem in front of me.”

“I used to be a hopeless dope fiend, now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.”

“The shortest sentence in the Big Book is, “It works.”

**

One of the main things that happens in the smoky room of a Twelve Step meeting is storytelling. Rabbi Rami Shapiro speaks to this in his book, Recovery, where he says, “I am not drawn to Twelve Step meetings to listen to people who are perfect; I am drawn to listen to people who are broken and who have found the wisdom in that brokenness that allows them to live in a place of love. […] We don’t ignore the trauma of the past, and our story is still rooted in it, but it is no longer controlled by it. We don’t end up where we began. […] By learning to tell our story over and over, we learn to free ourselves from the emotions attached to it. We begin to tell the story in a detached manner. We own the story; the story no longer owns us.”

Here we are, in this smoky room, Styrofoam coffee cup in hand. And I’m gonna tell my story now, at least a part of it. TRUE story.

Hi, my name is Anthony. [Hi, Anthony]

I remember my Mom drugging as I was growing up—Dad ended up drugging too, but only after I left home for college, as far as I know. Before that, Dad was just Mom’s supplier—and since he was a medical doctor, the supply was endless.

I remember my Mom as either crazy high and rushing around the house, obsessively vacuuming the rugs, compulsively polishing windows and dusting and straightening; either this, or she’d be crashed on the couch, catatonic, dead to everything.

Either way, she was not available to me, and I felt the lack of connection in my body as an insecurity that ate into my child’s heart and made it hard to look into the eyes of my teachers; I felt it as an irritability that would not go away, a restlessness that made it hard to receive things like friendship and fun and peace and just spoiled everything and could only be soothed by busy-ness, activity, movement.

Also by snooping. I was an incurable snoop. What’s in this drawer? What’s in that desk? I marveled at how perfectly everything would be stacked and sorted. It got to be a game, although I learned, only too late, and much to my surprise, that Mom was playing the game too. One afternoon I snuck into the piano room. The rug had been carefully vacuumed in such a way that the tracings of the vacuum left cross-hatching marks. Didn’t pay much attention to that. Passed by the piano (yet another thing I was not allowed to touch) and longingly caressed the polished keys with a finger. Went straight to the cabinet and opened it, looked inside at my Dad’s classical LPs. One at a time, slipped out Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, the Red Army Choir. Looked at the albums, wondered about the music… Knew it was my heritage, since my family had come from that part of the world…. Didn’t linger too long, because my Spidey sense started to tingle… Mom was busy downstairs, but not for long… I slipped the LPs back, slunk out of the room, smiled to myself at my cleverness.

Until later, when Dad came home from work. “Bob, would you PLEASE tell your son not to go into the piano room? I work like a slave all day and I don’t need him going in there messing things up!” Mom found out because my small footprints had ruined the perfect symmetry of the rug’s crosshatching. I hadn’t thought of that.

Mom couldn’t bear my energy. I needed to sit down and shut up. I needed to be still. Being active in the house meant making a mess, and Mom hated messes. She was at war with messes. Mom couldn’t stand a house that wasn’t as sorted and clean as a museum. If I didn’t calm down, she’d put me outside and lock the door, that’s what she’d do. I’d be out there for hours. If I had to pee, it would be in a beer bottle.

One day, I tried a different strategy. Mom was drugging, so why not me? From previous times when I’d been sick with a cold, I’d noticed that the cough medicine Dad gave me made me feel REALLY good. Took me to a place where my body didn’t need to soothe itself through restlessness or snooping. Body felt groovy. Had no problem sitting down and shutting up then. In fact, all felt perfectly right with my world. This stuff was a straight shot to sweetness. I’d think of Mom, I’d think of Dad, and I’d tear up with the gooey feelings of love that I felt. Shortcut to love. The anger—the rage—was pushed aside, and it was a relief. Raging against the people who were your sole source of protection did not feel safe.

So my strategy was sneaking into the laundry room (where the medicines were stored) and stealing a few nips of that cough medicine. Did this early in the afternoon, so I’d have a couple hours to enjoy the kaleidoscope of the day.

Made me into a different kid. One way is this. I used to have this coin bank that looked like a barrel with a bunch of monkeys coming out of it. Smiling monkeys—and on the barrel, these words: “Quit monkeyin’ around and save money.” And I did. Ruthlessly. I was a greedy kid with my money. Didn’t like to spend it; wanted to keep it all because the fuller the bank was, the more I liked the sound when I shook it. Especially in my brother Rob’s presence, making him green with envy. Yeah! Rob was always wanting to borrow money, and I was always pitiless. Never gonna go there.

Until I started drugging. That’s what turned this 1% into a 99%er. Rob, you want some money? Sure! Want some more? Charge you interest? Are you kidding? What’s the matter with me? Nothing! I feel fiiiiine.

Dad eventually found out. Maybe Rob got seriously weirded out at my about-face generosity and complained to Dad. I don’t know. All I know is that when Dad found out, he bent me over his knee, spanked me good. Ordered me never to drink the stuff again. I limped away from the scene wondering why he never drew the line with Mom….

And I never did drink the stuff again. Ironically, I would end up developing a deadly allergy to the codeine that was the active substance in that cough syrup. And while my path since the days of my childhood has not led me into a problem with alcohol, it has taken me into being a super high-achiever, a workaholic, a caretaker … Not that wanting to excel is intrinsically bad, or working hard, or wanting to be a caring person. But since drugs as a way of playing God in my life were out of the question, I took to codependency instead. That’s what worked in my family; that’s what worked to ease the restlessness and irritability and lack of peace that I never stopped feeling. My way of playing God, my way of lying to myself that through carefully honed technique I can command the love that I so craved and still crave. My technique. My insanity.

And that’s my story.

**

If this were a real a real Twelve Step meeting, this would be the time for me to sit down. As another Twelve Step slogan says, to people who are sharing their story, “Be interesting, be brief, be seated.” But seeing that I’m the preacher today, let me tell you another story:

Comes from the tradition of Buddhism. One day, a woman approached the Buddha in tears. She presented him with her dead child and said, “Lord Buddha, I have heard that you can bring the dead back to life. This is my beloved son who died only this morning. I beg you, Lord Buddha, restore him to me.”

The Buddha agreed, provided that the woman bring him a single mustard seed from a home in the village that had not experienced death. The woman ran to the village and went door to door to find even one household that had not been touched by death. But every single one had been touched by death. There would be no mustard seed to bring back to the Buddha. Finally, when she returned to him, her grief was no less but her attitude towards it had changed. She knew the inevitability of suffering and the futility of seeking to make things other than they are. She could now mourn her child and move on.

I share this story because it gets to the heart of the matter. Everybody hurts. Life can hurt us terribly, if not disappoint us deeply. If it’s not a dysfunctional family with a drugging Mom and dealing Dad, it’s something else. Your child dies. Or a shy brown puppy comes into your life (that’s for those of you who were here last Sunday). Whatever it is—it’s always something.

And this so very easily takes us to the reflex response that is at the bottom of every kind of addiction: to refuse to move on, to refuse accepting reality—and this refusal energy morphs into paranoia that reality is out to get you! The essence of every kind of addiction is making war on reality, so that one can live in a world that is perfectly ordered to one’s design, as my Mom wanted to order her house. Seeking out the Buddha so he can bring your child back to life. Trying to be the Buddha yourself, to work a miracle. Playing God. God miracle of codeine-laced cough syrup—shortcut to love. God miracle of perfectionism and workaholism and every other kind of –ism you can think of, in order to force into being states of heart and mind like self-confidence, contentment, peace. “We sought,” says Rabbi Rami Shapiro, “to create for ourselves a world of light alone, and when that failed, we sought to shield ourselves from the dark through acts of self-medication.”

But Twelve Step spirituality says that there’s hope. There’s T-I-M-E. “I used to be a hopeless dope fiend, now I’m a dopeless hope fiend.” “The power behind me is greater than the problem in front of me.”

One of the ways I practice Twelve Step spirituality is through a prayer of my own. I created it in the context of yet another circumstance in which I felt the itch to play God in my life. Being judge, jury, and executioner all rolled up into one. It was years ago. I was sitting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, watching the fascinating world go by with all its exotic and exciting sights and scenes, but feeling like I was on the outside, looking in. Not able to take it all in, not able to be in the moment and feel joy. Feeling wretched and alone, “other,” left out, ill-prepared for life because I’d grown up in a screwed up family….

Out of this turmoil came the words of a prayer that I continue to pray to this very day, some days more than others…. Something like this:

I forgive all the ways in which my life appears to fall short.
I trust that whatever I truly need will find its way into my life.
I am grateful for what I have.

My holy trinity: forgiveness, trust, gratitude.

My way of doing what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says: “ceasing from fighting anything and everyone.” Stopping the war and letting go, letting go of all my pride that says I am entitled to whatever I want. Letting go of pride, letting go of greed for MORE, letting go of the itch to order my world as my Mom tried to order her house … and relaxing. Relaxing into the sea of my life. THIS is the only power I really do have … not hard power to command the world to be as I want it to be, not hard power to command love, but soft power to let go and relax, soft power to let the sea hold and carry me along its currents. Let go and let God.

Forgiveness, trust, gratitude. Trusting that if I take one step at a time, with every step life is going to meet me with what I need. The daily bread will come. “Alcoholism is a disease of faith,” says the writers of The Spirituality of Imperfection. “Alcoholics often develop a cynical attitude toward life, not seeing anything to believe in. When you persistently feel the need to change your consciousness through drugs or booze, you are expressing a lack of trust in yourself, in your ability to tolerate life undiluted, to find value in your own, unadulterated experience.” That’s what I saw Mom and Dad doing all the time. I did it too. I knew and know this kind of self-mistrust intimately. But there is another way. It’s like my man Emerson says, in one of my all-time favorite quotes: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”

Forgiveness, trust, gratitude. The power behind me which is greater than the problem in front of me. The Higher Power I have to turn my will and life over to again and again, lest resentment be the poison I keep on drinking in the insane hope that it’s gonna kill anything and everyone that’s hurt me. Praying that prayer again and again, to open up my heart. It’s just like washing the dishes. Never happens just once. It’s just part of the human condition to slip into the mania of wanting to play God. But as Bill Wilson, creator of the Twelve Step program, says, “First of all, we had to quit playing God.” “I can’t do God’s will my way” “Let go and let God.”

The shortest sentence in the Big Book is, “It works.”

Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Getting Started

Reading the Bible again for the first time. Isn’t that an interesting idea? Suggests some kind of initial acquaintance, and then a return, a seeing-again with new eyes.

It’s certainly my story. I grew up singing songs like this

The B-I-B-L-E
Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the Word of God
The B-I-B-L-E

You all know that song?

But then I got a little older, and I started to struggle with how my teachers were interpreting the B-I-B-L-E, as well as with the kinds of hurtful things people were doing in the Bible’s name. I had to let the B-I-B-L-E go for a long time actually, until Unitarian Universalism helped me read it again for the first time.

Another story of this comes from writer A. J. Jacobs in his both hilarious and insightful book, The Year of Living Biblically:

“I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: Not very. […] It’s not that my parents badmouthed religion. It’s just that religion wasn’t for us. We lived in the 20th century, for crying out loud. In our house, spirituality was almost a taboo subject, much like my father’s salary or my sister’s clove cigarette habit.

“My only brushes with the Bible were brief and superficial. […] I attended a handful of bar mitzvahs where I zoned out during services and spent the time trying to guess who had bald spots under their yarmulkes. […] And as far as childhood religion, that was about it.

“College didn’t help my spiritual development. I went to a secular university where you were more likely to study the semiotics of Wicca rituals than the Judeo-Christian tradition. And when we did read the Bible, it was as literature, as a fusty ancient book with the same truth quotient as The Faerie Queene.

“For a long time, I thought that religion, for all the good it does, seemed too risky for our modern world. The potential for abuse too high. I figured it would slowly fade away like other archaic things.” But then A. J. Jacobs goes on to say, “I was spectacularly mistaken. The influence of the Bible — and religion as a whole – remains a mighty force, perhaps even stronger than it was when I was a kid. So in the last few years, religion has become my fixation. Is half of the world suffering from a massive delusion? Or is my blindness to spirituality a huge defect in my personality? What if I’m missing out on part of being human, like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? And most important, I now have a young son – if my lack of religion is a flaw, I don’t want to pass it onto him. So I knew I wanted to explore religion. I just needed to figure out how.” Thus began A. J. Jacobs’ year-long adventure in trying to live the Bible in complete literal fashion. The book is a scream. Gotta read it!

Point is, people are reading the Bible again for the first time, and there’s lots of reasons why. I did it simply because I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and Judaism and Christianity are one of our six main sources of truth and wisdom; but I also did it because the Bible reflects a significant part of my history, struggles and all, and I don’t want to have to shut that out of my life, I don’t want to let unresolved issues about the Bible limit my spiritual growth or my relationships.

As for A. J. Jacobs, he might have grown up with only fragmentary impressions of the Bible; he might have read it in college and been bored to tears; but now that he’s older, and sees the permanent and all-pervasive nature of its influence, he wants to go deeper. It’s about being fully alive. “What if I’m missing out on part of being human,” he asks, “like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love?” He doesn’t want to miss out on being fully alive—and doesn’t want his son to miss out on that, either.

Reading the Bible again for the first time. So many reasons for why we might do this. Yet another is to improve our cultural intelligence. From classics like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and Bach, all the way to contemporary movies like Dead Man Walking, Pulp Fiction, the Matrix, and Hannibal: Bible themes are everywhere. Know your Bible, you can grasp better what’s going on. Don’t know your Bible, you’re missing out, you’re in the dark.

There’s one more reason to consider, before we move on. The political reason. I’m talking culture wars over homosexuality and same-sex marriage, culture wars over the teaching of evolution in public schools, culture wars over women’s reproductive rights. The Bible is at the heart of things here too. Specifically: the issue of how to see it and read it—this issue that our wisdom story today addressed so well. Interpretation. The fundamentalist-conservative side sees the Bible as a flawless transcription of words coming straight from God’s mouth, to be applied literally everywhere and at all times. But strongly opposed to this is the other side: people convinced that this approach is wrong, that the Bible is not to be taken literally. But then how is it to be taken? People on the other side (and I’m talking about US) often do not offer a compelling vision for how to read the Bible in a better way. So ultimately, in the end, what happens is that the Religious Right steals the Bible and transforms it into a set of conservative talking points. Because we no longer read the thing ourselves with any degree of sophistication, we take their interpretations to represent what the Bible actually says, and we miss out on all the ways the Bible stands for something better. As religion writer Bruce Feiler points out, “on a wide range of topics, including respecting the value of other faiths, shielding religion from politics, serving the poor and protecting the environment, the Bible offers powerful arguments in support of moderate and liberal causes.” This is a wonderful thing, and it’s time that this best kept secret about the Bible be spread far and wide. People need to know. Just can’t let the Religious Right steal the power of the Bible to be used for ends that are unloving and unjust!

So here we are: reading the Bible again for the first time. This is actually the title of a book written by religion scholar Marcus Borg, and we’re going to be using it as our primary source text for our year-long sermon series. Today, we’re looking at ideas covered in the first three chapters; next month, it’s chapter 4: “Reading the Creation Stories Again.” Very very cool stuff.

You’ll also need a Bible. Perhaps that goes without saying—or does it go without saying? Gotta have a Bible—read it side by side with Borg—and my recommendation is that you use the New Revised Standard Version, because it has one of the best reputations for the use of correct original texts and accuracy of translation. Other good possibilities include the Revised Standard Version, The Revised English Bible, and the New International Version. I do suggest that you look away from that old warhorse, the King James Version, despite the archaic beauty of its language—because the language IS archaic and hard to relate to, and also because it incorporates lots of errors and mistranslations. I’d also avoid Bible paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Good News Bible, because they gloss over difficulties, they leave things out, and they do all this in order to convey a decidedly conservative religious viewpoint.

OK, so by now we know why we’re reading the Bible again for the first time, and we’ve got some of the housekeeping, some of the logistics taken care of. Now—it’s time to jump in. And let’s do this by looking at three basic principles for reading the Bible in a way that enables us to take it, not literally, but seriously and profoundly. Not slavish adherence to the surface, but faithfulness to the deeper spirit.

Here’s the first principle: to very carefully distinguish mystical experiences of the Sacred from interpretations of the experiences. On the one hand you have true Wonder and Mystery, and on the other you have people trying to make sense of what they felt and saw and heard. The two—God and humanity—simply cannot be confused, because when that happens, you have people opening up their Bibles saying, “Let’s see what God says about that.” You have people taking absolutist moral positions on the basis of 3000 year-old laws which they see as God’s laws. You have people saying all that, totally ignoring how the Bible writers said what they said in great part on the basis of the culture they lived in, the specific concerns of their communities, their personal hopes and fears.

Which means we CAN talk about the sins of scripture without dismissing the Bible altogether. The Bible writers produced so much that is usable and inspiring, but they, like all humans, bear the scars and the biases of their time. The Bible writers were not immune to the injustices of their world, and we see this in atrocious passages—toxic passages—that literalists invoke to harm women, homosexuals, children, Jews, and all of us.

But if we no longer see scripture as “God says” but “people say,” then we are free to use our ethical and spiritual judgment to separate the good from the bad, the noble from the base. “The Bible says so” must never be used to silence doubts, to put a stop to honest conversation, or to justify hurtful actions. Ultimately nothing and no one can take away the personal responsibility each of us has to do the right thing in life. People try to hand it off to one kind of religious authority or another all the time; they just want to be given orders to carry out with a clean conscience. Bob Jones, of Bob Jones University, likes to say, “The Bible itself is intolerant, and true followers of God should be as well.” THAT IS NOT GOING TO CUT IT. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. It’s NEVER “God says.” ALWAYS, it’s “people say.” We always have a choice.

This first principle—distinguishing the Sacred from interpretations of the Sacred—also helps us to understand something else: the clear fact that different books of the Bible talk about different kinds of God, so in the beginning you face a bloodthirsty Yahweh who creates the world but ends up destroying it through a flood, and then later on He urges the Israelites to slaughter their enemies; but in other places you have the God of the prophets who longs for a time when there shall be no more war, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb; and then you have the God of Jesus, whom he called Abba, which means “daddy,”—Jesus, who at times even characterized God in feminine terms as an all-embracing womb. To all this we can say: Of course. It’s because Bible stories convey the voices and visions of people changing over time, moving from perspectives that are firmly tribal to those that are more open and universal. The Bible writers are people grappling in the deepest ways with the challenges and possibilities of life. I pray to God that we might be people like this too. This is what it means to be fully, humanly alive. This is what we’re missing out on, as A. J. Jacobs suggested earlier, if we don’t read the Bible.

The first principle of Bible reading: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say” –humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. That’s the first principle of Bible reading.

Which leads immediately to the second: to stress a historical, contextual understanding of the Scriptures. Marcus Borg likes to say that “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And this cannot ever be underestimated. It is undeniable that the Bible stories continue to inspire and inform people because they are just fine literature, powerful narratives. But as readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of the ancient world from which these stories came.

For example, consider a parable that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Christian scriptures. Jesus is comparing what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. From small beginnings, it grows into something big: that’s pretty much what we get from the parable—kind of ho-hum, honestly, and you can get far richer wisdom from the self-help section of your local bookstore—unless we go deeper, unless we understand more of Jesus’ historical context. Fact is, in Jesus’ day, his parable would have made the jaws of his hearers drop. His hearers, first of all, were oppressed peasants, and they wanted Jesus to compare the kingdom to something more bold, something more triumphant, something that would represent the destruction of the Romans and the advent of their long-awaited social and political freedom. But Jesus doesn’t give them that. He gives them a mustard plant, low-lying, scrubby, weedy. Jaws dropped when he said it, also because Jewish religious law dictated that the mustard plant was unclean. Jewish gardens of the time followed the religious injunction that different kinds of plants should never mix and needed to stay separate from each other. But you know what would happen if a mustard plant got in there? It would grow and spread like a wild weed, mixing things up like crazy, uniting things that were supposed to stay separate and apart. But this is how the Kingdom of Heaven works, said Jesus. It’s a love which overcomes all differences, a love which reconciles all who are separated, a love which is always already here and now among us, a power just waiting to be recognized in this very moment! If that’s what unclean looks like, then the Kingdom of Heaven is unclean.

Know your Bible history—know the context out of which the speakers speak—and what emerges is a book that is radical and profound and utterly unique among all the world’s religious literature.

And now the third and last Bible-reading principle. It says, don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now. It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.

Just allow that Bible parable from a moment ago sink in. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. It starts out small, grows and spreads like a wild weed, and mixes things up, connects things are separate and apart. To allow the Bible to read you in this instance is to ask, What are the rigid polarities or dichotomies of my life? Woman vs. man? Gay vs. straight? Rich vs. poor? Head vs. heart? Work vs. play? Safe and bored vs. risky and energized? Think about it. Are there places where you WANT things to remain all polarized like this? All ordered like this?

But then comes a tiny seed, from somewhere… It comes, and what does it look like? Is it an idea? A person? Something that, in its apparent smallness, seems insignificant, but you let it go, and BAM, it grows like crazy, it mixes things up like crazy. What does this look like, for you? Is it happening in your life right now? Does it scare you, make you anxious?

Does it even make sense to think that the Kingdom of Heaven might be a place or a state that creates fear and anxiety? Isn’t heaven supposed to be angels sitting on downy clouds strumming lutes? What is Heaven, truly? What does it mean to be abundantly alive?

And THAT’S reading the Bible! That’s the Bible reading you! That’s how the Bible truly becomes sacred scripture, when it opens your heart up, gets the deepest possible questions and conversations going, puts you in a place where you can feel the Spirit of Life speaking, you can hear it speaking, and guess what? It’s speaking right to you.

Spirituality of Atheism

William Zellner is a sociology professor at East Central University in Oklahoma, and his story began in the fall of 1991, when a local newspaper asked students, “Who is the worst professor on campus?” One girl, a member of a fundamentalist Christian church, answered, “Dr. Zellner. I don’t take his classes because he’s an atheist.” Now when Dr. Zellner found out, he merely thought, Okay, don’t take my classes. Nothing to worry about. I’ve never had a problem filling classrooms. But then horrible things started to happen. He started receiving anonymous notes from students under his door, damning him to hell. A fellow professor sent him a seven page letter, accusing him of being in league with Satan. Threatening phone calls were made to his home, insisting that he and his family get out of town. One church made up campaign-style buttons which read “I am praying for Dr. Zellner,” and they sold for a dollar each. His car was vandalized to the tune of $543. Worst of all, his daughter, six years old at the time, lost playmates. And his nine-year-old son was physically attacked during a little-league baseball game, all because his Dad was an atheist.

That’s Dr. Zellner’s story. Story of shameful prejudice and bigotry. How many of you have friends to which this sort thing has actually happened? Or it’s happened to you?

What we have in America is a knee-jerk dislike of atheists. We Unitarian Universalists know this much to our dismay and regret. A recent Washington Post article spells out the details: “Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked, and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently ‘spiritual’ in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for nontheists.” And on and on.

No wonder there are some atheists who are angry, who fight back in “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” fashion—“end of faith” atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens who espouse rigid, rampant intolerance against anything that’s NOT atheism, whose “one way, one truth, one life” mentality is just as narrow and fundamentalist as the bigots who attacked Dr. Zellner, except they’re going in the exact opposite direction. And many fellow atheists vehemently oppose this, including the great Carl Sagan. He writes, “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement,” he says, “is its polarization: Us vs. Them—the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This,” says Carl Sagan, “is nonconstructive.”

Definitely it’s nonconstructive for us in this congregation; in fact it blatantly contradicts our purpose as Unitarian Universalists, which is to create beloved community in which people don’t have to be alike or think alike to come alive. That’s a new way in this world full of polarizations of one kind or another—“one way, one truth, one life” ideologies constantly clashing, giving each other hell. But not here. We’re building a new way. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!”

The world needs more of it. Especially our atheist brothers and sisters. For in this world, at least in the American world, there are as many as 60 million people who are nonbelievers. That’s the finding from one recent survey. A fifth of the population! And they, like everyone else, are just trying to get an honest handle on life, trying to come alive in a way that has integrity for them. Which is so hard to do in the face of widespread bigotry and prejudice, or when your profoundest sense of life—that there is no God who’s gonna take care of us, so we need to take care of each other—is co-opted and made into a rationale for yet more religious warfare.

What I want to accomplish today is to push aside the prejudice and push aside the reverse fundamentalism and get to a place that is far more quiet, far more profound—the heart and spirituality of atheism (or “humanism,” but I stick with the word atheism because that’s the word best understood outside these walls). And to go even one step further—to show that the atheist form of spirituality is one we can all learn from, no matter where we happen to stand on God and the supernatural.

Are you ready?

Here we go!

First thing to look at is language. “Spirituality.” Gotta come clean right off the bat about how that’s a word many atheists might struggle with. Say the word, and what springs instantly to mind are beings and forces from other mysterious realms: gods, spirits, angels, cherubs, angry father gods, suffocating mother gods, ascended masters, and on and on, perhaps even a flying spaghetti monster or two…. So when I say, “spirituality of atheism,” some of you out there might be sitting back going, “Yes, Rev. David, do tell….” “Really want to hear THIS.”

But listen to what atheist philosopher Robert Solomon, in his wonderful book Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life, does with that word. Clear away all the supernaturalistic connotations, and look at what’s left. “Team spirit” or “spirit of the times,” for one thing, suggesting that spirituality is inherently social, the undeniable yearning in us for a sense of connection with others and with the larger world. Then there’s “spirits,” as in high-alcoholic beverages—the image here is drinking in life to the full, reveling in it, being set free from whatever inhibitions prevent us from joining in. Spirituality is about feeling connected to something larger than one’s ego—feeling opened up, rooted in richness, being set free, enjoying life to the full. We feel this—we yearn for this—whether or not we’ve ever had a sense that there’s a Higher Power, a directing uber-force to the universe, or invisible presences that companion us.

Even if God goes, this does not mean that spirituality goes.

Perhaps that’s why, historically, we encounter full-blown religions that espouse versions of atheism. Therevada Buddhism is one of them. Here’s a story from that tradition to consider: “One day a man named Malunkyaputta questioned the Buddha about the need to have certain answers to the big religious questions of life. Shouldn’t ultimate happiness depend upon having certain answers to important questions like, Does God exist? Or, Do we survive bodily death? In response, all the Buddha said was this: “It is as if … a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his relatives and kinsfolk, were to procure for him a physician … and the sick man were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learned the name of the man who wounded me.’ Or again if he were to say, `I will not have this arrow taken out of me until I have learned whether the man who wounded me was tall, or short, or of middle height.’” That’s what the Buddha said. Life is urgent, and the spiritual quest for healing and wholeness doesn’t have to be held hostage to beliefs. For 2500 years, Therevadan Buddhism has produced communities of spiritual seekers coming alive to love and compassion, and belief in God has never played a part in that.

This, I think, is the first gift to all of us out of the spirituality of atheism: a broader definition of spirituality that can create common ground between what appear to be insurmountable differences. Theists, on the one hand, and atheists and agnostics and humanists on the other, can all be growing into a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, and in that sense, they are equally spiritual, despite the different ways they might go about it. What divides them, in fact, is far less than what divides the person who seeks more love and justice in life from the person who is apathetic, who is self-centered, who just doesn’t care. Seen from this perspective, theists and atheists are on the same side, they are on the same team. But it’s atheism that helps us to this insight.

Atheism has things to teach everyone. It is a spiritual way of coming alive.

But now let’s get deeper into this “way.” Beyond a rejection of God and the supernatural, beyond a broader definition of spirituality, what does atheism affirm in a positive sense?

For one thing: the free-mind principle. Reason. It’s about counteracting ignorance and superstition keeping people in bondage in one form or fashion. From the free-mind principle so much follows: the separation of church and state; the advance of science; the support and preservation of a free marketplace of ideas; the nurture of a quality educational system that teaches people of all ages how to think critically and well—to tell the difference between truth and “truthiness.”

That’s one thing atheism positively affirms, and here’s another: reverence. Philosopher Paul Woodruff describes reverence as a basic human capacity (found in all cultures and all times) to appreciate and be in awe of things larger than oneself, like one’s family and community, or ideals like justice and mutual respect. Which means that reverence is also a capacity for feeling shame, when arrogance and pride have caused us to think that we are the center of the universe, or that other people are accountable to ideals like justice and mutual respect, but not me! And when someone else comes across all high and mighty, all puffed-up? Reverence can express itself in the form of irony and humor. It can lead us to mock pretentiousness, like Voltaire did, or like Stephen Colbert does in our day (thank God!) ;-)

Atheism affirms reverence. It invites awe at the greatness of the world in which we live. It’s our responsive reading from earlier:

Ponder this thing in your heart,
life up from sea,
Eyes to behold, throats to sing,
mates to love

Life from the sea, warmed by
sun, washed by rain,
life from within, giving birth,
rose to love.

What a mystery we live within! And how awe-inspiring to think that, through hundreds of millions of years, the world went on unheard, unseen, silently eating, giving birth, dying, until human consciousness was born, and now, we are the ones, we are the ones who give voice to all this, we are the precious eyes and ears, we are the witnesses!

Don’t tell me that “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” Don’t tell me that! (I say this even though I’m a theist, I believe in reincarnation, I believe all that stuff! But atheism teaches me a better attitude towards the here and now.) Just don’t tell me “this world is not my home.” The thought lacks reverence!

And now the third of atheism’s affirmations: ethics. “My fate and your fate,” says Unitarian Universalist atheist Mark Hertzog, “are to a great extent bound together. It may be enlightened self-interest after all—the next person in trouble could be me—but I think it is more than that. As an atheist who believes there is no god who is going to take care of us, I am far more conscious of our need to take care of each other and this fragile environment in which we make our home—and far more conscious that, if I don’t do something that something is not going to be done.” I mean, you listen to a voice like this, and set it side by side with the widespread stereotype that atheists are somehow immoral, and it makes your head explode. Fact is, atheists tend to be more ethical than their God-professing counterparts. If you want to find the states with the highest murder rates, for example, just look at church attendance. The higher they are, the more murders.

(ok waitaminute… Now I’m suddenly realizing that what I just said might take us down a rabbit hole…. I’m not saying stop coming to church, OK?)

But you get my point. Ethics—making the world a better place—is a burning passion for atheism. Consider all our human potentials for love, for reason, for compassion and ethics, for creativity and the appreciation of beauty, for self-transcendence and service: but how are they going to become real if a person has no home to sleep in, no food to eat, no family situation that is secure? How is it going to happen when poverty and racism cripple people’s freedom—when consumerism and affluenza wither the soul? How’s it going to happen?

That’s why an atheist’s true prayer is this-worldly service. Why, for example, the atheist might be driven crazy by the remarkable indifference of so-called right-to-lifers to family services, educational facilities, and child welfare laws—to all that would ensure the health and well-being of children in THIS world. They do everything to prevent abortions from taking place, but when the new life is born, that’s it. Hands off. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through!” But that’s not reverential, to the atheist. It’s not ethical.

There’s a fourth thing that atheism affirms—we can’t finish without acknowledging it: community. Theologian Anthony Pinn puts it this way, “There is nothing behind the symbol God. In its place, I affirm the idea of community. It is in community that we are encouraged to develop our full human potential and overcome oppression.” I am because WE are. You and I get to be here, atheists and theists and all sorts of whats-its in-between, because WE are. Community. It’s where we feel the music of life most intensely, and we dance. We are carried out of ourselves, connected to something larger. If the Spirit of Life is truly anywhere, it is in our relationships, in our friendships, in our loves.

This world IS our home, says atheism. We aren’t just passin’ through. This is IT! So carpe diem-—seize the day! Open ourselves to every moment with reverence, because we trust that every stage of life has its unique inherent worth and dignity, and we can expect something meaningful to come our way even if it’s full of pain and sorrow, even if it spells our end. Life is like wine, so drink it in deeply. Life is like a dance, so let the music move you, let it harmonize you to the movements of another, get lost in the revel.

[T]he dancers go round (says a poem by William Carlos Williams)
they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the

tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles

tipping their bellies (round as the thick-

sided glasses whose wash they impound)

their hips and their bellies off balance

to turn them. Kicking and rolling

about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those

shanks must be sound to bear up under such

rollicking measures, prance as they dance…

That’s what atheism can teach all of us: rollicking passion for THIS world (whether or not there’s another), unstinting intensity for THIS world, love of THIS world, courage for THIS world, THIS precious life.

Introducing Unitarian Universalism

If ever there was a story that captures the religious predicament of humankind throughout time, it’s that of the blind men and the elephant. There is a great mystery called an “elephant” six people have heard a lot about, but because of the human condition (which the story symbolizes as blindness), they are incapable of ever seeing it completely and as a whole. One day this great mystery elephant comes near where they are, and each has the opportunity to put their hands directly upon it. They do that, and each comes away with a piece of the truth which is more like poetry than anything else. Metaphor. The great mystery elephant is like a wall or a spear or a snake or a tree or a fan or a rope. All true—but none capturing the whole truth.

At this point the story shifts to the issue of human relationships—what people do with their separate pieces of the truth. And here the story is less optimistic. Humans are simply built for community, but we also know that pieces of truth have a nasty tendency to make people quarrel. For my piece to be true, yours must be false. Six blind men who have somehow forgotten they are blind, and there is no indication in the story that the quarreling ever stops.

Not a happy ending. But if there is anything that Unitarian Universalism has faith in, it is that the story need not end like this. “We are here dedicated,” says the Rev. David Bumbaugh, “to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” That’s what I want to talk about today: this unity which binds Unitarian Universalists together. A unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality; and a unity of spiritual practice. Unity, in spite of all.

Start with the unity of understanding about the nature of sacred reality. Three main things to say here.

The first is this: our Unitarian Universalist conviction that the spiritual meaning of the universe is open. Part of this is due to the sheer BIGNESS of God. We put our hands upon God, in our blindness, and come away with images of walls or spears or snakes or trees or fans or ropes. More to the point, some people address a cosmic conscious personality in prayer and feel responded to; others meditate and experience nothing personal but rather a simple sheer unity of all things; still others experience a world in which there are many, not one, sacred forces with conscious intent. And on and on. Different people experience all sorts of different things—and this may very well owe to the fact that the great mystery elephant has lots of different places where we can grab ahold of it. A side, a tusk, a trunk, a leg, an ear, a tail. Where sacred reality is concerned, it’s both/and, not either/or. We must not underestimate its subtlety, its complexity, its paradoxicality.

Sacred reality is not one way—it’s open, ambiguous. And contributing to this is of course our own human diversity. We don’t all observe the world from the same place, or with identlcal understandings. Some of us can be up on the balcony; others of us can be on the floor. Unitarian Universalist author Kurt Vonnegut makes this plain in his book Breakfast of Champions, when he says of the main character, Kilgore Trout: “Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Now I have a feeling that the conversation between the pieces of yeast was fairly grim. But does this grimness lose its validity in the face of the ultimate champagne result? I say no—it faithfully reflects where the pieces of yeast were. Have to honor that. But the champagne result is important too, and lifts up the significance of it all, gives it a direction. On difficult days when we are feeling too much like the pieces of yeast, it’s healing and hope-inspiring to remember that there’s some kind of champagne in the making, though we may have no idea at the time what it might be!

We’re talking openness of spiritual meaning in the world, because of the sheer SIZE of God, together with the diversity of human perspective. And Unitarian Universalists celebrate this. People who are theistic, people who are atheistic, people who are agnostic—all kinds of people—are welcome in our congregations. This fact about us is nothing less then scandalous to some, to others confusing and perplexing, but for us, it flows out of our integrity. What is sacred is too big to be captured by any one creed or way. And one-size-fits-all religion makes for some mighty uncomfortable spiritual clothing for everybody.

This leads very naturally to the second Unitarian Universalist conviction about the nature of sacred reality. That sources of truth are many. We believe it. Even though no single religion or way captures the whole truth about sacred reality, still, each one has a piece of it. It’s just like a jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces we have, the more of the whole we can experience. “We receive,” says the Rev. Sara York, “fragments of holiness, glimpses of eternity, brief moments of insight. Let us gather them up for the precious gifts they are and, renewed by their grace, move boldly into the unknown.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we formally acknowledge the manyness of truth sources with our statement called, very simply, “The Six Sources.” Goes like this: “The living tradition which we share draws from many sources: (1) Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; (2) Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love; (3) Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; (4) Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves; (5) Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; and (6) Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” I love it! We absolutely stand within a tradition of abundance. Ours is a spirituality of adventure!

And what’s especially cool about this listing of sources is how in it we can read our growth over time as a religion. It all starts with the fourth source, Judaism and Christianity. Originally Unitarianism and Universalism were beliefs that some of the earliest Jesus followers had and held dear. Unitarianism said that God is one; Jesus is not God but rather a man who lived a truly God-inspired life; Jesus saves not by virtue of his death but by the example of his life, if we live as he lived. Universalism, on the other hand, said that God is like the father of the Prodigal Son in the scriptures, and it does not matter what our sins are—God in the end will never turn a soul away. There is no such thing as eternal hell.

2000 years ago, this is what our religion was: two precious beliefs held by people who were in the end declared heretics. It was only with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and beyond that these beliefs started to take institutional form, and people called themselves Unitarians or Universalists. In America, the first Universalist church was founded in 1780, and soon after that, in 1794, was the founding of the first Unitarian church.

For these religious communities and the ones that followed, the overarching mandate was connecting with God’s truth which, for most of our history, took the form of applying reason towards the interpretation of the Scriptures. That’s where spiritual wisdom resided. Yet our communities were also connected to the larger world and to developments in scholarship, social conditions, and international relations. All these would eventually lead a Unitarian pastor named Ralph Waldo Emerson in the mid-1800s to go way beyond the sensibilities of most people in his time and say, “Live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all lovely forms.” Essentially, Emerson was saying that revelation can’t possibly be contained just within the Hebrew or Christian Bible. The wellspring is fundamentally within each of our souls; revelation bubbles up out of the spark of the Divine in our depths. Add to this the revelation of nature, as well as the revelation embodied by the Bibles of many times and lands, such as Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita. This is what Emerson said, as well as his circle of friends and colleagues whom history calls the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism would come to infuse many of our congregations in the later 1800s, such that it became regular practice for Unitarians and Universalists to aspire to direct experience of the Mystery, to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature, and to read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures side by side with the Bibles of many lands and times.

Beyond all this, add Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: publication of this in 1859 hit our congregations like a meteor; and subsequent progress in science and technology taught us that we could not in all good conscience say we were a truth-seeking people unless we added science as one of our formal sources of knowledge and wisdom.

Finally, the early 20th century saw the rise of humanism, which envisioned the healthy and responsible spiritual life as one without conceptions of God or an afterlife or anything smacking of the supernatural—one that relied upon humanity and human efforts and our usual five senses alone.

All our Six Sources are evident in this whirlwind tour of our history of growth over time; and whereas from the 1950s to the mid-1980s humanism was our central and main source, today we are a fully pluralistic people and aspire to draw from all sources in robust ways. Individual Unitarian Universalists will have their favorite Sources, for sure (you know who you are!); but as a community, our proper and right commitment is to welcome them all.

Now let’s pause for a moment and see how far we’ve come. What started us off was that lovely quote from the Rev. David Bumbaugh: “behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” So far we’ve been exploring part of what makes up this unity—a unity of understanding about sacred reality. The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. The sources of truth about the sacred are many. Now we turn to a third conviction, that the test of an idea’s truth is how it changes lives. Also very much a shared Unitarian Universalist conviction. We’ll look at this, and then finish up by exploring some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists put all this into personal and communal practice. Are we blind men fated to never get to champagne? Fated to get stuck in that miserable phase that comes right before? Let’s see!

But first: the test of an idea’s truth: how it changes lives. Doesn’t matter who says it, where it comes from, how respected or rarified the pedigree. Not origin, but consequence. Not roots, but fruits. Sometimes we are talking theoretical consequences, as in, does the idea or practice extend existing knowledge? Does it help us connect the dots more simply, or more comprehensively? But all the time, we are talking practical consequences, lifestyle consequences. Truth allows life to flourish and brings people and planet together in harmony; whereas falsehood denigrates life, violates our relationships, destroys our world. “In the end,” says the Rev. John Morgan, “it won’t matter how much we have, but how generously we have given. It won’t matter how much we know, but rather how well we live. And it won’t matter how much we believe, but how deeply we love.” That’s it! Truth takes us into the Spirit of Life, which is a Spirit of richness and creativity and love and forgiveness and compassion and activism. That’s where we want to go!

And this is the context within which another major statement of our faith tradition needs to be understood: our “Seven Principles.” We use the Seven Principles as a yardstick with which to measure the degree of truth in us. Here’s what it sounds like:

Unitarian Universalist congregations seek to affirm and promote (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; (4) a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
(5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
(6) the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
and (7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To the extent that we do this, and empower individuals to do this wherever they happen to go, our faith has power and validity and TRUTH. This is what we believe. Individual Unitarian Universalists will disagree on the question of whether an actual afterlife exists, or an actual, literal heaven. But as for whether we want to bring heaven to earth, and make this world a better place now—we believe!

But how exactly does that happen? What does a Unitarian Universalist’s personal practice look like? And how do we come together as community, pull together and not apart?

Unitarian Universalism envisions the spiritual life as a lifelong journey in which people never stop learning. We have permission to make mistakes. We have permission to believe things that later turn out to be false. This too is progress. There is never a point where we can say, “I’ve arrived!” June Bell, a Unitarian Universalist activist in Scotland puts it like this: “I believe not just what I like, nor what I am told is true, but what I can. That truth I see is not necessarily the same today as yesterday, nor tomorrow, but part of my spiritual journey through life.” I love this quote, especially because it illuminates how Unitarian Universalists come to their personal beliefs. Our religion itself holds back from dictating specific theological conclusions (about God’s existence and the like) because it knows that all such specific beliefs are way too important to be answered for us by someone else or something else. We must come to our own detailed answers, in our own good time, for them to be truly meaningful. And the genuine answers we come to, which are truly ours: hard won. It’s a true spiritual discipline, not for the faint hearted. For some people who are not Unitarian Universalist, the hard part about religion is believing stuff you know ain’t true. For us, in our religion, the hard part is listening to our lives and getting unstuck from hardened attitudes and prejudices; the hard part is dwelling in ambiguity without being overwhelmed or paralyzed by it; the hard part is maintaining deep commitments which are also open-ended. Not for the faint-hearted! But we believe that this makes for a healthier spiritual life for people who are ready for it. It’s the journey. It’s the process, says the Rev. Timothy Haley, “of becoming more whole—of living more fully, of giving and forgiving more freely, of understanding more completely the meaning of our lives here on this earth.”

And we journey together. That’s something else to take special note of. We journey together, but in a way that we believe is best for supporting the individual’s growth in community. That way is called covenantalism, in contrast to creedalism. Now creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity. Covenentalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around shared values and purposes and practices, and leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Through covenentalism, we learn that we need not think alike to love alike. Through covenentalism, the six blind men can find a way to talk about their separate pieces of the truth and to do it in a way that leads not to quarreling but further learning and growth. Building more and more of the cosmic puzzle. Champagne! “The religious community is essential,” says the Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, “for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”

One aspect of our Unitarian Universalist covenantal way is called “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew,” and a key quote on this comes from a remarkable man known as King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first and only Unitarian king in history. In 1568 he said, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” It means that if you saw my statement in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week decrying House Bill 87, which was co-signed by practically every Unitarian Universalist pastor in the entire state of Georgia; which pulls no punches and describes the bill (which Governor Deal is probably going to sign) as racist, neither workable nor fair, as bad for business, as reflecting Georgia politicians acting far beyond the bounds of their proper jurisdiction, as potentially costing millions of dollars in litigation fees, as reflecting fundamental spiritual blight—is you saw all this—how I am calling that bill straight out a WALL—and you said to yourself, Nuh-uh, I don’t agree—guess what? You get to. To be in this place, you don’t have to agree with the preacher. You are on a spiritual journey, and so am I, and as I speak out of the integrity of my experience and understanding, I can only hope that there will be many points of meeting. But sometimes we won’t meet. And that’s OK. I’m still your pastor, and we are united by a larger spirit of love. I say wall, and you say spear, and Rev. Keller here says snake, and Don over there says tree, and on and on. But our covenantal way makes it all work. We can go straight to champagne.

There is just so much beauty in this world. There is so much pain and sorrow. Unitarian Universalism wants to create a Love and Justice people, a Spirit of Life people, who can witness it all faithfully, and live courageously and creatively. So we say, The spiritual meaning of the universe is open. We say, There are many sources of truth. We say, Truth is known by how it changes lives. We say, The spiritual life is a journey. We say, The best way to support a person’s growth over time in community is through covenant, not creed. We say all these things. This unites us, in spite of all. In spite of time and death and the space between the stars. It gathers us every Sunday, and all through the week, and we love it. We want it. It energizes us. Fires us up. “Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.” This is what we say, with the Rev. Theodore Parker. “Be ours a religion which … goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.” We are a Spirit of Life people!

The UU Top Ten: Number 6!

What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.

This month, we’re looking at item number 6, which is the title of not only one of the best loved pieces of liturgy in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the world, but also is a popular name among Unitarian Universalists for the Sacred. Number 6 is “Spirit of Life.”

Listen to what Kimberly French, writing in the UU World, has to say about “Spirit of Life” the hymn: “No other song, no other prayer, no other piece of liturgy is so well known and loved in Unitarian Universalism…. It is our Doxology, or perhaps our ‘Amazing Grace.’ Many congregations sing it every Sunday, or at least enough to know the words by heart. Sermons have been devoted to this one song. A new adult religious education curriculum being field-tested this fall is based on the song. It is sung at weddings and memorial services, around campfires and at demonstrations, at cradles and hospital bedsides. In six short lines “Spirit of Life” touches so much that is central to our faith—compassion, justice, community, freedom, reverence for nature, and the mystery of life.”

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Kimberly French is right. For me, there is something about this song that sends shivers up and down my spine. The kind of Unitarian Universalism that matters is the kind that does exactly this sort of thing—gets under your skin, becomes a part of you. “Spirit of Life” does this for us.

In her UU World article, Kimberly French also said this: “[‘Spirit of Life’] finds the common ground held by humanists and theists, pagans and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, gay and straight among us.” I think she’s right about this as well—not just about the song, but also the language in itself. “Spirit of Life” is language that is rich enough to speak to people whatever their personal theology happens to be. It’s theological common ground. For most everyone, if not all, “Spirit of Life” can name those things that bring hope and renewal to us, as well things that inspire wonder, awe, and reverence.

It certainly worked out that way for the writer of the hymn, Carolyn McDade. Kimberly French tells the story of how the song was originally written. “Late one night in the early 1980s, [Carolyn McDade] was driving her close friend Pat Simon home from … a meeting for Central American solidarity, probably at a college. What she remembers most clearly was the feeling she had. ‘When I got to Pat’s house, I told her, ‘I feel like a piece of dried cardboard that has lain in the attic for years. Just open wide the door, and I’ll be dust.’ I was tired, not with my community but with the world. She just sat with me, and I loved her for sitting with me.’ McDade then drove to her own home in Newtonville. ‘I walked through my house in the dark, found my piano, and that was my prayer: May I not drop out. It was not written, but prayed. I knew more than anything that I wanted to continue in faith with the movement.”

For Unitarian Universalists, “Spirit of Life” has become our name for whatever brings hope and renewal to us, whatever inspires wonder, awe, and reverence. Whatever keeps us from dropping out. Whatever keeps us keeping on.

That’s number 6 in our Unitarian Universalist Top Ten countdown!

Blessings,

Anthony

Rev. Anthony David

Christianity Our Parent (With Pictures!)

I begin with a quote from writer Oscar Wilde: “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

I begin with this because Christianity is the direct spiritual parent of Unitarian Universalism, and as such, we bring to it the same kind of “stuff” we might bring to understanding our own parents. Even if, as individuals, we have good stories about our experience of Christianity, we are still influenced by the collective status of our faith tradition, which is this: just 50 years old. From the perspective of other world religions, 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. We’re more like a teenager whose very real dependence upon his elders can at times feel utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” The reason is developmentally appropriate and understandable: we are trying to stand on our own two feet, as the independent post-Christian, more-than-Christian religion we are becoming. We are busy establishing our own traditions and rituals and stories and symbols and on and on. But we can go overboard in our quest for independence. We can think everyone else has wisdom for us, but not Mom. Not Dad. No way!

So we’re trying to do something very difficult this morning: to see our parent with an open heart and a clear mind, despite our collective teenage tendencies. And doing so is urgent. Every other world religion is of course important to us; and Judaism is our grandfather and grandmother. But Christianity is our parent; its specific DNA is ours. We just won’t grow as a people until we find ways of being ourselves even as we accept how our parent has gotten underneath our skin and we say some of the same things it says and we do some of the same things it does. We just won’t thrive as a religion until we honor our parent’s hard-earned wisdom despite all its other shortcomings which we’ve seen up close and know only too well.

So we start with the Jesus story we heard a moment ago. Goes like this: Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.”

So Levi left everything, and rose and followed him. Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

That’s the story, and I have to say, it reminds me of one of those old pictures in my Mom and Dad’s photo album that’s odd and needs explanation. Why did you care so much, that you kept the picture?

One reason is this: It gives us an authentic glimpse of rabbi Jesus. Fact is, Jesus did not say everything or do everything that the Christian Bible says he did. That’s why today’s biblical scholars are hard at work discerning who Jesus the rabbi really was and what he really said, as opposed to what was put into his mouth, for one reason or another. But there is consensus on Jesus’ practice of table fellowship. Jesus eating with the “wrong” people is considered to be one of the most historically reliable actions recorded in the Gospels. It is utterly and uniquely Jesus.

But what made the tax collector and others sinners “wrong”? Why was it so radical to share a meal with the “wrong” people? In Jesus’ day, being a sinner meant that you were not following Jewish ritual law (or “halakha”) and so were forgetting God in your life. Break a religious rule (like taking too long a walk on the Sabbath, or not observing the ritual washings before eating) and you became impure. Belong to a certain kind of social group (as in, you are a tax collector or a shepherd or a gentile) and you were, by definition, impure. Didn’t matter if you were, ethically speaking, a really good person. Didn’t matter what was in your heart, or the kindness of your actions. Right mindfulness of God—purity—was all about following religious law. Now, couple this with the additional insight that, in the Middle East, to eat with another person is to signify acceptance on a very deep level, and we have our answer: rabbi Jesus eating with the wrong people telegraphed the radical message that God doesn’t care about the purity system. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do. Love wins.

Now I don’t want you to go away thinking that the Pharisees were heartless. Phariseeism was a first century religious movement in Judaism that contained within it a lot of diversity, and the story portrays Jesus confronted by some hard-liners. What made them hard-liners was the larger culture war they were fighting with Rome. Jew after Jew was giving up the traditional Jewish way of life in favor of taking up Roman habits, Roman patterns of thought and dress and relaxation. So the Pharisees looked to Jewish law as a way of fighting back. Jews would save their way of life if they resisted the temptations of Rome and practiced Jewish religious law faithfully. That’s how God’s chosen people would survive. In short, the hardliner Pharisees believed that Jesus was betraying his own culture and helping to erode the entire Jewish way of life.

The Pharisees had their reasons. But so did Jesus. For Jesus, it all had to do with his experience of God. That experience trumped every other consideration. “Go and learn what this means,” he says to the Pharisees: “I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” We just don’t get the radical quality of this statement until we know that the word “compassion” in Aramaic—the actual language Jesus spoke—meant “womblike”: God is like a mother’s womb, God is life-giving, God is all-encompassing, all embracing, all inclusive.

So when Jesus sees the tax collector Levi who by virtue of his social class is impure, Jesus says, “Come follow me.” How could he not? Jesus will happily eat with this man, he will happily eat with the “wrong kind of people” because that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, the Kingdom that unites all that the world in its cruelty divides, the Kingdom that shakes up all our understandings of right and wrong, the Kingdom in which the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. “Whatever you do for one of the least of these,” says Jesus, “you do for God.”

This is why the story of Jesus eating with Levi the tax collector is a keeper. Christianity our parent shows us this page of its photo album proudly. Absolutely nothing separates us from the love of God. Doesn’t matter if you are the “wrong” kind of person. Love wins.

And now we, Christianity’s child, turn the page. The snapshot here is of the Apostle Paul, who was instrumental in the growth of the Christian faith and whose influence on Christian thought has been arguably greater than any other New Testament author. In the picture we see Paul teaching a group of people who are not Jewish, with his hand upraised and his mouth open. A caption underneath the picture says, “There is one Lord … Jesus Christ.” That’s all the caption says. But what does it mean?

Today, we are very familiar with this Christian language of Jesus as Lord, Son of God, Savior of the world, whose story comes as a Gospel, or Good News. But most of us have forgotten the context out which Paul spoke. In Paul’s time, the only other person ever described in such terms was the Roman Emperor Augustus. Augustus as a Roman emperor was considered divine and called Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, Savior of the world, Lord of history, cosmic Savior, God of God. Everywhere you looked—coins, cups, statues, altars, temples, and forums—you saw it. It was the Roman imperial theology, and, as scholar Keith Hopkins points out, it’s how Rome unified all its conquered lands: “The stories told about emperors,” he says, “were the currency of the political system, just a coins were the currency of the fiscal system. […] The unity of a political system rests not only in shared institutions, taxes, and military defenses, but in shared symbols, in the minds of men. Emperor cults, and all that they involved … provided the context in which inhabitants of towns spread for hundreds of miles throughout the empire could celebrate their membership of a single political order and their own place within it.”

It’s Roman imperial theology. Peace comes only through the Roman way of life, which was rigidly hierarchical, with the Emperor at the top of the pyramid, then wealthy men right below. Only these people had inherent worth and dignity, and everyone else was used to serve them. The people at the base: women, poor men, slaves, the conquered. People at the base controlled, subjugated, humiliated. No compassion. Women in particular relegated to home, silence, and childbearing. Nothing egalitarian about this at all. But it was the way of Rome, the way (said Imperial theology) to a unified empire, the way to true peace. Fight Rome on this, and it’s go-time, it’s war.

Imperial theology also said that “no one shall have gods to himself, either new gods or alien gods, unless recognized by the state.” That’s Cicero talking. Follow any God you want, in other words, unless that God starts disagreeing with Rome. Believe as you like, until you start believing that it’s OK to share a meal with the wrong kind of people, that God actually cares for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. Follow a God like that, and, says Rome, you’ve fallen into superstition. Romans did not understand that word like we might today. For them, superstition wasn’t so much about irrationality as it was about beliefs and actions that undermined the power that the Emperor and wealthy men had over everybody else.

So you can imagine what Rome felt about Paul and his proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Paul’s non-hierarchical egalitarian teaching, inspired by his Lord, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Everyone has inherent worth and dignity, not just some. Teachings like this made Paul and every person who received them criminals. Calling Jesus Lord—following a different vision of peace—was treason. And we already know how Rome responded—with bloodshed.

But Christianity spread anyhow. Jesus’ Kingdom message of radical hospitality—his Kingdom message of peace through Justice—would not die. People at the base of the social pyramid, suffering the greatest miseries under the thumb of Rome and its imperial theology, found their lives transformed. Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, testified, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” Today, two thousand years later, most forms of Christianity seem totally defined by right belief—if you don’t believe the right things you don’t belong. But back when the religion was young, and finding itself, what attracted convert after convert wasn’t right belief. It was the Christian community’s vision of justice and radical hospitality. “Wrong” kind of people, all over the world, under the thumb of Rome, wanting to be accepted for who they were. Churches knew what their true purpose was back then. To recreate that experience in Levi’s home, where Jesus is sharing a meal with anyone who’s hungry. Where love wins.

This is our parent at its finest. Christianity our parent. Behind and beneath our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles is the inspiration of Jesus’ welcome table, the memory of those ancient churches which were more about love to God and love to humankind than dogma and doctrine. This is our parent’s undying gift to us, the child.

But now the page turns, to this picture.

What we are seeing is from the 6th century, about 450 years after Paul was murdered by Rome. Paul is here joined by a women named Thecla. Both are of the same size, and according to the logic of iconography, it means that they are of equal importance. Both have their right hands raised in a teaching gesture, meaning that both are of equal authority. But do you notice how the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, while Thecla’s eyes and upraised hand have been scratched out? The message is clear: Paul’s and Thecla’s equality is unacceptable. Only the man gets to be an apostle. The authority women used to have should be taken away.

Just listen to what scholar John Dominic Crossan says about all this: “The authentic and historical Paul, author of the seven New Testament letters he actually wrote (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), held that within Christian communities it made no difference whether one entered as a Christian Jew or a Christian Pagan, as a Christian man or a Christian women, as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. All were absolutely equal with each other. But in 1 Timothy, a letter attributed to Paul by later Christians though not actually written by him, women are told to be silent in church and pregnant at home. And a later follower of Paul inserted in 1 Corinthians that it is shameful for women to speak in church, but correct to ask their husbands for explanations at home.” John Dominic Crossan concludes: “Those pseudo-Pauline, post-Pauline, and anti-Pauline obliterations of female authority are the verbal and canonical equivalent of that visual and iconographic obliteration of Thecla’s eyes and hand…. But both defacements also bear witness to what was there before the attack. Pauline equality was negated by post-Pauline inequality.”

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s pause for a moment. We are hearing several things: that the original Kingdom message of radical equality and hospitality in Christ was over time sanitized by Christians themselves. We are hearing that lots of words were put in Paul’s mouth, after he died, words that are directly counter to what he said in his authentic letters. We are hearing that the Christian church, which is supposed to enact Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, started to limit who was welcome.

It’s very rare when we see a picture of shame like this in a parent’s photo album. We don’t usually keep pictures like this. But here it is. Christianity, at some point in its growth, wanted to become respectable. Jesus is Lord, yes … but Rome’s not so bad after all. The conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312CE proved to be a big factor in this. One of his main acts was to impose uniformity of Christian belief across his empire, which he did through the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. But if this isn’t Rome all over again, together with its sensibility of social control and rigid hierarchy, then I don’t know what is.

Fact is, neither people nor religions are undamaged by the circumstances of their upbringing. Christianity our parent recreated, over time, the very same oppressive dynamics that the religion originally aimed to transform and transcend. Imperial Roman theology is there every time we hear that salvation is only through the right kind of Christianity, never through the wrong kind of Christianity and definitely never through any other world religion or belief system. Rome’s logic of control is there whenever we hear the message that’s it’s not OK to have your own ideas and to believe as reason and conscience lead. Rome is behind the scenes when so-called Christians in our state legislature refuse to make room at the welcome table for the wrong kind of people, people like illegal immigrants (whose only hope is to create a better life for themselves, and if we can find ways of supporting them, the result can only add to our prosperity as a nation). But no! Rome says no. Rome is right there when so-called Christians in Congress make cuts to the national budget that punish women and their reproductive rights and punish the poor and punish the middle class (who are the least able to pay) because tax-cuts for the rich are hands-off, corporate welfare is hands-off, the people at the top of the pyramid (who are the most able to pay) are hands-off. The governor of Wisconsin blaming state employees and unions for the budget crisis, when the blame actually rests with Wall Street. State employees seeing salaries and benefits slashed and jobs cut, while Wall Street titans paid out more than $20 billion in bonuses last year, and Wall Street profits totaled more than $27 billion, the second highest total on record. In Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven, the King himself comes to us in the form of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. But in today’s America, too often we slam the door on the King. Right in his face.

This is the mixed legacy of our parent, Christianity. And over the years it’s given birth to many children who objected, who said, This is wrong. Lots of followers of Christ today, objecting. If ever there’s a religion that is well schooled in self-criticism, it’s Christianity. That’s where we come from. When our parent gave birth to us, one word was on our lips: REFORM. Go back, said our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, to the vision of love wins. Go back to Jesus sharing a meal with the “wrong” kind of people, because nothing can separate us from the love of God, ever, in this life or the afterlife. No hell! Go back to Paul when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female”—and then add to this: “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist, there is neither atheist nor theist.” For all are one in the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, which bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things, is greater than faith, greater than hope, never ends. Love wins. Going forward, as a religion formed from the combination of Universalism and Unitarianism just 50 years ago, that’s what we say, and we say it because our power to say it is in our blood, in our DNA.

We flip one more page in our parent’s photo album, and look: there we are.