1 John 4:18
This week, in my sermon, I’m answering a question about God from our very own Craig Wood. Craig asks:
“We read in the Bible ‘trust God’ and ‘love God’ while also reading ‘fear God.’ I understand how trusting God and loving God work in our faith, but how does fear work in our faith? How does one trust God and love God while at the same time fearing God?” Craig, that’s a great question.
We’ve all experienced fear. When I think of my own life, I remember the experience of being separated from my mom in a department store when I was very young and not being able to find her and running through the aisles terrified.
And I remember (a little older, but still way too young to be watching an R-rated movie) seeing just a few minutes of the movie Aliens and having bad dreams for months that one of those alien sucker things was going to clamp onto my face and lay an alien egg in my stomach.
When I was 15-years-old I was lying on an operating table about to have major back surgery after a terrible injury and I was so, so scared that I wouldn’t wake up again or that if I did that I wouldn’t walk again.
I remember hiking through the woods one night without a flashlight and a bat hit me in the face and got stuck there fluttering it’s leathery bat wings all over my head and (I am not ashamed to say) I screamed louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life.
I remember my wife, Bonnie Mohan, being rushed to the emergency room after giving birth because her bleeding wouldn’t stop. And for one hour I was never more mortally afraid.
And I remember learning about my mom’s stage-four cancer diagnosis a little more than a year ago. And I remember the sort of low-grade fear that stuck with me in the background for these last thirteen months before she died.
We’ve all experienced fear. And we all have things that we’re afraid of. But is this the way we’re supposed to feel about God? Aren’t we supposed to love and trust God?
Our final reading this morning from 1 John makes it pretty clear that fear and love just don’t mix. John says that if you’re leading a good life out of fear that God is going to punish you in this life or send you off to hell in the next life, then you haven’t yet found perfection in love. Lead your best, most beautiful life because you love God and because God loves you. Leave the fear behind. Don’t be afraid!
And when we read our second piece of scripture this morning from Exodus, we see there that often repeated exhortation from scripture, “Do not be afraid.” But it’s a little strange because Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has only come to put the fear of God upon you.” That seems a little contradictory. How can you simultaneously tell someone not to be afraid and to feel the fear of God?
So, we’re starting to get a picture here that maybe the fear that we’re most used to—bats, trips to the ER, ghost stories, pandemics—that fear is not the same kind of fear we’re supposed to feel about God. But what kind of fear isn’t fear? That doesn’t really make sense, does it?
Well, language is a complicated thing and translation from one language to another is extremely complicated and translation from an ancient language (like Hebrew) to a modern language (like English) is very extremely complicated. Just imagine a few thousand years from now someone who speaks a language that is a descendant of Mandarin Chinese tries to translate this phrase from English that we’re all probably writing down in our diaries lately: “I was hoping that 2020 was going to be an awesome year. Instead, it turned out to be really awful.” Now, if you’re translating that, what do you do with the fact that the words “awe-some” and “aw-ful” look like they should mean pretty much the same thing. They’re both adjectives derived from the word “awe,” but one means something that’s really great and one means something that’s really bad. And maybe that’s because an experience of awe can sometimes be magical and wonderful and revelatory and empowering. And it can sometimes be overwhelming, overpowering, earth-shattering, and even a little scary.
Ancient Hebrew didn’t really have a separate word for awe like we do in English. Instead, the words in Hebrew that we translate into English as fear and afraid had a broader definition and did more work than the word “fear” does in English. So, maybe instead of looking for a fear that isn’t fear we need to be looking for a fear that is more than just plain old fear. Remember, the ancient Hebrews didn’t leave behind dictionaries, right? So, we have to figure out the meanings of words from their context. So, what is this broader definition of fear like?
Well, let’s look at our other scripture selections from this morning. Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And the poetry of the two lines together tells us that the fear of God is related to knowledge and to understanding.
Our reading from Isaiah makes a prophecy about a leader who will arise whose “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” So, this fear can feel delightful, which means we’re really going to have to stretch our imaginations on this one. What kind of fear could feel good?
And finally from our Psalm we hear that God is with those who fear God, God is with those who hope in God’s steadfast love. The way ancient Hebrew poetry worked, it didn’t have line breaks, or rhymes, or meter like we have. Instead, a typical feature of ancient Hebrew poetry is one line following another. The first line makes a statement and then the second line repeats that statement in different words or expands upon or comments upon it some way. So, the poetry from this Psalm is telling us that the fear of God and hope in God are not two different things. The part of God that makes us feel the fear of God and God’s unfailing love are not two separate things.
So, the fear of God is a “fear” that expands your mind, deepens your soul in wisdom, and raises your understanding. If you’re doing it right, the fear of God can be a positive—even a delightful—experience. And the fear of God and the love of God are not contradictory things the way that regular fear and God’s perfect love are contradictory.
So, I wonder: Have you ever had an experience similar to that—an experience that could have been mistaken for fear, that was maybe living across the street from fear as it arrived in your life, but was ultimately something much greater?
On March 31, 2004 I was hiking the Appalachian Trail near the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina when a late-season snowstorm hit. I was hiking by myself up and over a mountain called Max Patch which is known as a “bald mountain” because for reasons no one is really sure about there are no trees on the top of this mountain. For about a mile you hike through an open meadow at the summit of Max Patch. The snow was really heavy and wet, even under the cover of the trees, but when I reached the tree line near the top at over 4,500 feet of elevation the snowstorm became a blizzard.
But something was compelling me to keep going. But with knee-deep snow and fifteen feet of visibility at best and no trees to mark the trail, I got lost in the blizzard on the top of this mountain by myself miles and miles from civilization. As I looked around me and saw nothing but blowing snow and fading light, I felt a little afraid up there all by myself. But then I got a hold of myself and I reminded myself, I had plenty of warm, dry clothes with me, I had water, I had food, I had a flashlight, I had a gas stove, I had a tent, I had a dry sleeping bag, I wasn’t going to die or even be particularly chilly or uncomfortable no matter how momentarily lost I was.
So, what was I feeling standing out there lost in the snow? I was feeling my own smallness and vulnerability. I was feeling my place in the world. I was feeling gratitude that despite my vulnerability, I was going to be safe. I was feeling a sort of awe at the ability of nature to transform the world and overpower me. And I was feeling exhilarated that I had made my way to this place to witness it all.
Maybe all that I was feeling up on the mountain was something like the kind of “fear” we’re supposed to feel about God. When I have allowed myself to feel the presence of God like I felt that snowstorm on top of Max Patch, when I have blocked out the distractions and focused my attention on God’s presence as fully as I was focused on that isolating snowstorm, I have felt the “fear” of God. It hasn’t been a cringing, or a crying, or a shaking-with-horror kind of fear. It hasn’t been a fear that is afraid of danger or punishment. On the contrary, it is a fear that knows I am completely safe.
The fear of God is the feeling of coming into God’s Presence, into the Presence of Mystery, into the Presence of something so much greater than ourselves, into the Presence of the Creator of the Universe and the Creator of our own selves, into the Presence of pure and perfect love given to us freely no matter what failings or sins we carry with us.
Fearing God is about acknowledging and feeling God’s Presence with awe and reverence that might lead you to fall down on your knees, meeting in your own heart the perfection of love that fills you and surrounds you.
So, Beloved, don’t be afraid to fear God.
(and Cosmos: Possible Worlds)
This summer I’ve been preaching to you on my summer reading. I picked four sciencey books and this week I’m preaching on the last one: “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” by Ann Druyan.
Druyan is the widow and writing partner to the world-famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan and Druyan were cowriters of the original Cosmos, which was a PBS television series and book. The series premiered in 1980. I remember watching some of it as an 80’s kid and being absolutely transfixed by it. It was this potent brew of science, imagination, awe, wonder, storytelling, and a compelling synthesizer-infused theme song by the same guy who did Chariots of Fire.
So, I was really excited to see what this latest installment of the series would hold. Because right now with everything we’ve got going on I need a little inspiration for the future and to believe that another world is possible. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a time of extremely low self-esteem on the part of humanity, when almost every vision of our future in popular culture is dystopian, Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a soaring achievement of both urgency and optimism.
The book squarely faces our disenchantment with the 21st century. In the 80s when I watched the original Cosmos many of us thought that we’d all have flying cars, robot butlers, and a colony on Mars by now. Instead, we face tremendous problems over basic human rights and equality, healthcare and public health, political discourse and enfranchisement, and (to top it all off) a global warming climate catastrophe. But Druyan reminds us that these problems will be solved (as they have been solved in the past) by people who have awakened to the beauty, mystery, and sacredness of the universe and who are moved by that awakening to act in the best interests of humanity and the world we live in.
Many people believe that spiritual awakenings and turning your life around are the realm of religion. Druyan believes that science is what will lead us out the darkness of the current moment and into the light of a better future. Are science and religion so different from one another (and they are different) that they have to be at odds in our lives and in our culture? Or can they coexist and maybe even cooperate?
The science writer Steven Jay Gould recounted a typical story about the feeling on behalf of some religious people (and now some of the “new atheists”) that science and religion are not compatible. An undergrad at Harvard came to him and said, “I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and particularly well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing Evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and evolution?" Gould, who’s an agnostic Jew, was put in the strange position of having to reassure this young man that there was no inherent contradiction between Christianity and science—that fundamentalist creationism is the exception, not the rule in Christianity.
Gould goes on to say that the supposed conflict between science and religion can be eliminated by understanding a term he invented: “nonoverlapping magisteria.” By which he means that both science and religion have their separate realms over which they have authority to teach. Facts and theories belong to science. Meaning, morality, and values belong to religion. And never the twain shall meet. They do not overlap.
But nonoverlapping magisteria is not the sense that you get from reading or watching any book or show in the Cosmos series. Is it possible for science to get spiritual? I think that Ann Druyan would say, yes, for lack of a better word, science is spiritual.
She quotes Albert Einstein as one of the inspirations for the book. At the 1939 World’s Fair Einstein said, “If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially, but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of people.” This isn’t just about facts and theories. This is about meaning. It’s a “spiritual” mission to empower science to affect people with the same profundity that art does. Or, you could say, with the same depth of meaning that religion does. If science can get spiritual in its goals, I wonder if it’s possible for spirituality to be more (for lack of a better word) “sciencey.”
Science didn’t exist at all at any time that any of the books of the Bible were written. So, it’s difficult to turn to the Bible for a defining statement on how we should relate to science as Christians. But the burning bush from our scripture reading this morning may be a way of exploring this idea. One way that some Christians dismiss thinkers like Druyan and Sagan is to say that the universe, all of Creation, is sinful and fallen and impermanent and will ultimately all be wiped away by God and the good Christians will be whisked off to heaven to live a purely spiritual existence.
But the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart emphasizes the Biblical ideas of incarnation, resurrection, and that God’s salvation will be a salvation of the whole world (all of Creation). He points to the image of the burning bush as the way that our spiritual ancestors understood the universe, how it was made, and how important it is. The image of the burning bush is a metaphor for God and God’s creation: ordinary matter, fully infused with the glory of God, lit up like a divine fire, but not at all consumed, not destroyed. Holy! Holy ground! All around us. Everywhere we look. No division between the sacred and the profane.
The idea is that God made the universe and will save all of it, so our understanding of God can’t be limited to pie-in-the-sky and it can’t be limited to “spiritual” concerns. Because God’s plan for all of creation is and has always been a physical and a “spiritual” plan. And so when we understand the physical facts of God’s creation, we understand more about God. And we are better enabled to think about meaning and values.
Science is simply another a way (to use James’ language from our second scripture reading) of looking into the mirror of God’s Word and seeing ourselves. And as James said, if we look into that reflection and then walk away and don’t let it affect how we live, don’t let it turn us around, turn us to action—we’re lost.
So, here’s the situation as I see it: Science is on a spiritual quest to save humanity, save the planet, and understand the deepest mysteries of God’s creation. Some Christians have rejected that project all together. They don’t believe it matters. But there is no contradiction between being a devout Christian and being inspired by the spirit of the mission of science. Not because of nonoverlapping magisteria, in my opinion, but precisely because science is spiritual and spirituality cannot be divorced from facts or from the great human project of creating a better tomorrow by using the best knowledge and tools available to us. Christianity that stands in the way of learning and facts, risks becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. Christianity that embraces the best of science as a partner says to the whole world: science brings us closer to understanding God and closer to a better future.
I took a long five-month hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2004 right before I started seminary. And I remember meeting a hiker at a shelter one evening and talking with her about religion. And she asked me what I thought of Buddhism. I don’t remember my answer exactly, but I remember to my embarrassment saying things like, “Well, Christianity as all about incarnation and passion and Buddhism is all about emptiness and disengagement.” Now, there might be some truth there, but my tone was dismissive and my attitude was superior and surprise, surprise, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I had barely studied Buddhism and I had never dialoged with a Buddhist.
When I arrived at seminary, one of my professors described herself as a Buddhist-Christian. I began studying Buddhism and interfaith dialogue. I started reading Buddhist texts, doing Buddhist meditation, and talking to real Buddhists. And that’s when I realized that these two religions—so different from one another—were not incapable of communicating. And as my understanding and experience of Buddhism grew, and the more deeply I engaged its values and worldviews, the more I felt my Christian faith expanding by the dialog, by the challenges, and by the very different but very valuable perspectives. For instance, I found my way to the ancient tradition of Christian contemplative prayer through the Buddhist practice of Zen meditation.
The same kind of dialogue and collaboration are possible between the religions and the sciences. Will science challenge what we think we know about faith, spirituality, values, and meaning? Of course it will. If the Perseverance rover, launched to Mars last month, discovers evidence that there was once early life on Mars (which is one of its objectives) that will radically change our worldview, our idea of life and our idea of ourselves, and our idea of God and what God is up to in this universe of ours. We will be challenged. But that’s OK. Our faith can handle it. And the rewards for thinking scientifically about our world will be a deeper understanding of God and God’s creation.
I believe in the biblical vision that God’s plan for salvation is a plan for all creation. I believe that the rocks, the trees, the animals, the planet, and the stars are all important and they’re all covered with God’s fingerprints. I believe that when we understand Creation—from the billions of lightyears of the observable universe to the four dimensions of spacetime, to the uncertainty of the quantum realm—we are better equipped to stand in the presence of the God who made and sustains and redeems them all, we are better equipped to worship that God, and we are better equipped to undertake the scientific and spiritual project of making a better future.
Who do you say that Jesus is? Who do you say that Jesus is? I want you to take your time with this question this morning. In fact, I hope you let this question stick with you way beyond this sermon and way beyond this worship service. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. Who do you say? You matter. Do you hear that? You’re an important part of the equation here! With this question YOU are being offered an invitation into grace and relationship.
It can be hard to hear this invitation and just what it’s offering us. Often, I think when we’re posed with questions like this, it’s easy to feel like we’re just being quizzed. Like there’s one right orthodox answer that is the one right answer for everybody and that the goal of Christianity is to be taught the right answer and then to spit the right answer back out at the right time. Sometimes, we think that that’s what church is about: Receiving and then giving the “correct” answers. Like a pop quiz in school: What’s the capital of Wyoming? How do you spell Mississippi? Who is Jesus?
Some of us get a little sweaty when we hear this question, “Who do you say that I am?” Some of us think, “Well, I didn’t grow up going to church so I never had Sunday School and I don’t really know the right answer.” Other people think, “Well, I know the answer I’m expected to give, but I’ve never really understood what it really means or how it’s supposed to relate to my life.” We can feel put on the spot by a question like this. We can feel like frauds for attending church but not knowing the answer. Or for knowing, but not really feeling it. We sometimes hear this question like a request for a secret password on the other side of a locked door we’ll never get through. If you do, I hope that you can begin to hear this question instead like a deep profession of love.
I remember the heady days falling in love with my wife, Bonnie Mohan. I remember the hours we spent alone together, snuggled up and staring into one another’s eyes. I remember dinners for two. Meeting one another’s friends and families. Learning about one another’s personalities, desires, and dreams. I remember the misunderstandings and the fights—oh boy—and the terrible vulnerability of true intimacy. I remember the ache of exposure the first time I said, “I love you,” to her and the physical thrill that ran through my body when she said, “I love you too.”
And what is all of that? What is falling in love if it’s not two people trying to mutually answer the question, “Who am I to you and who are you to me?” The answer wasn’t “I do” or even “I love you.” The answer is everything we share with those we love. Bonnie has shaped and defined me. And I have shaped and defined her. And our relationship will hopefully never become just an answer. Because once that’s all it is, it’s not alive, it’s not growing anymore. Hopefully, our relationship will always be a living, growing acknowledgement of one another full of love. Hopefully, I will always look to her and she will always look to me as one source of identity, meaning, and purpose—“Who do you say that I am?”
And now we’re parents to a squirmy 11-month-old son named Romey. And every day that that beautiful wild little man spends with us, I hear the question of my relationship to him and his to me. He can’t talk very much yet, but I hear the question echoing in my heart—in my father’s heart: my son is asking me, “Daddy, who am I becoming? How will you help me to figure it out? Will you give me the answer one day? Or will you live every day that you have with me with a love that will help me to love whoever I may be?” There is no answer to “Who is Romey?” There can only be relationship.
And this is one of the bizarre and miraculous truths that hits many of us when we become parents—we were living full, productive, good lives before we had kids. But when Romey arrived I realized that I had not fully known myself until I knew myself in relationship to him. Every moment I spend in relationship to Romey, especially when I let those moments resonate with real attention and intimacy, is a moment of asking Romey, “Who do you say that I am?” and hearing his response.
I can imagine that there might be some people listening this morning who say, “Well, that’s nice, Pastor Jeff, but this isn’t one of your ‘living the questions,’ ‘it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,’ hippie-dippie, wishy-washy, swirly questions. The question of who Jesus is is central to our whole faith. This is about creed! This is about a proclamation! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God! Isn’t that the heart of what we believe? Isn’t that what holds us together as a Church?”
And, of course, you’re right. The answer that Peter gave to Jesus’ question is at the very heart of who we are as Christians: You are the Christ, the Son of God. And yet. If I’m not 100% sure that Peter’s answer is my answer, does that close the door on the invitation to figure out an answer to, “Who do you say that I am?” on my own? I think Peter’s answer is central to who we are as Christians. But Jesus’ question and his invitation to us are foundational to who we are as Christians.
When I arrived here last summer many of you asked me, “What do we call you?” And I said, “Well, you can call me whatever you want, but I invite you to call me, ‘Pastor Jeff.’” Now, it is true that I am a pastor. And it is true that I am the minister here at your church. So, yes, it is true that I am your pastor. But I don’t invite you to call me “Pastor Jeff” to provide you with some sort of knowledge about my position. I do it to invite you into the pastoral relationship with me. Pastor Jeff is my name around here, but the reality of what it means can only be discovered in relationship to one another. No two people are going to have the same relationship to Pastor Jeff. And Pastor Jeff is going to respond a little differently and grow with each new relationship. But the name Pastor Jeff highlights the very best of what I can offer in my calling here with you.
So, Peter’s answer (You are the Christ, the Son of God) shouldn’t close the door on our invitation to discover our relationship to Jesus. Instead, it’s meant to make the invite shine brighter. To draw us in to the way, the truth, and the life, like lights along a runway at night that a pilot sees from way, way, way off so she knows which direction to head in.
Another way to say it is that we receive Peter’s answer not to regurgitate it, but to actually digest it in the journey of our own relationship with God. The problem with simply falling back on the received answer to the question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” is that it could lead us to make Jesus an object of the past rather than a relationship of the present. After all, Jesus didn’t say to the disciples in our scripture reading this morning, “Today we’re having a lesson on who I am and tomorrow there will be a quiz. I hope everyone gets 100%!” The “lesson” wasn’t a lesson at all, it wasn’t an answer in the traditional sense. It was just Jesus living with the disciples in relationship, working, and doing ministry together. It wasn’t about an answer given in the past, frozen in time. It was about a relationship right there in the present moment actively unfolding all around them. Who do you say that I am? What do I mean to you? What is it that you think we’re doing together? The answer, “The Christ, the Son of God” points at that relationship. It directs us to that relationship. But it cannot replace a relationship. And we have to remember that the relationship came first, and then came the proclamation of faith, the words to describe it.
A hundred years ago, the great philosopher Martin Buber published his most influential work, I & Thou. In it he defines two classes of relationships: the I-it relationship and the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship. I-it is the way we relate to objects and machines and things without souls. I-Thou is the way we relate (hopefully) to other people.
But Buber is not just a philosopher, he’s a poetic prophet. And he sees an increasing tendency in modern culture to treat other people as “its” rather than as “thous.” Buber believes that the only way that we can truly grow, transform, or better understand ourselves is in relationship. It can’t be done alone. It can’t be done with objects. “Its” cannot reflect you, they cannot challenge you. Growth can only happen in connection to someone we treat with full humanity. Buber says that the I-Thou relationship can be achieved when we live with respect, attention, and love to other people, to the natural world, and to animals. And that all of these I-Thou relationships are what define our relationship to what Buber calls “the Eternal Thou,” God.
Buber warns us that we can even treat God like an “it.” Like a means to an end. Like an answer we know that distracts us from the relationship we need. Buber says that there are some atheists who have a better relationship with God than some theists because they more fully live their lives in I-Thou relationships rather than in smaller, more manipulative, objectifying I-it relationships.
When Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s inviting us to experience him and to know him and to live with him as more than an It. His question is not a demand for the right answer. It’s an open door into a relationship that will define us and that God promises to respond to. So, Beloved, who do you say that Jesus is?
(and The Soul of an Octopus)
Every two weeks this summer I’ve been preaching on a book from my summer reading list. You’re all invited to read along and to join me in a discussion group before I preach on the book. This summer I’ve picked four sciencey books and the book I’m preaching on this week is “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery.
Sy Montgomery is a literary naturalist who has written about all kinds of animals—tigers, and moon bears, and a pig named Christopher Hogwood, O my! Her books aren’t dry biology texts, they’re zoology mixed with memoir. The Soul of an Octopus isn’t about octopuses in general, it’s about four specific octopuses—Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. It’s about Montgomery’s relationships with them. And it’s about the aquarists, the marine biologists, the divers, the student volunteers, and the aquarium janitorial staff who also bond with these octopuses. It’s a book about how human lives and work and hearts intersect with octopuses.
There’s Bill, who’s the main aquarist at the New England aquarium and he can smell fish stress through glass and he carries great personal stress worrying about the welfare of his beloved octopuses. There’s Wilson, a retired engineer who builds the octopuses challenging toys and who visits with them even while his wife is in hospice. There’s Anna, a high school junior with Asperger’s who’s kept fish tanks since she was two-years old and who’s processing the suicide of her best friend in the company of the octopuses. And there’s Danny, who has a developmental disorder and wants nothing more than to meet a real, live octopus—and he gets his chance!
On the surface, it may seem incredible that human beings can bond with these eight-armed, underwater aliens. Human beings diverged from octopuses on the tree of life more than half a billion years ago. Instead of fingers, an octopus’ eight arms are each covered in hundreds of suckers that can exert thousands of pounds of force. If an arm gets bitten off, it can grow back. To swim they don’t use their arms. Instead they suck water up into their head and squirt it out a little funnel to propel them through the ocean on a jet of water. They taste and smell through every inch of their skin—even their eyelids. They have a beak for a mouth like a parrot’s beak inside their armpit and their bite is poisonous. Their brain is distributed through their body and they have more neurons in their arms than they have in their heads. They have three hearts and blue blood. They can squeeze themselves through a hole just a few inches wide. They can change colors and often do to express their mood. But they can also camouflage their skin by changing its color and texture to perfectly match their surroundings. If they’re threatened, they can squirt out a cloud of dark ink. They are solitary. They are cannibalistic. And they only live a few years.
As Montgomery writes, “Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.” It’s hard to imagine creatures more different than us. But octopuses are also smart, curious, and playful. They enjoy solving problems and puzzles and are renowned escape artists. Octopuses appear to be self-aware and to understand that other creatures have minds and motivations separate from their own. Each octopus has its own unique and varied personality. Their complex behaviors are more than instinctual and suggest that they have something like thoughts and feelings. When you look them in the eye, it feels like someone is in there looking back at you. And the people who care for octopuses in aquariums or meet them in the wild can feel deeply emotionally connected to them.
Montgomery learns to scuba dive in the book so she can meet octopuses in the wild on coral reefs. On one diving trip to Tahiti she goes to worship one Sunday morning at an eight-sided church. It has eight sides for a reason—it was built on the site of a much older temple to the local octopus god. And this is what she writes about the experience:
“The service is conducted in Tahitian, a language I don't understand. But I understand the power of worship, and the importance of contemplating mystery—whether in a church or diving a coral reef. The mystery that congregants seek here is no different, really, from the one I have sought in my interactions with Athena and Kali, Karma and Octavia. It is no different from the mystery we pursue in all our relationships, in all our deepest wonderings. We seek to fathom the soul.
“But what is the soul? Some say it is the self, the ‘I’ that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.
“Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality, and identity. One calls soul ‘the indwelling consciousness that watches the mind come and go, that watches the world pass.’ Perhaps none of these definitions is true. Perhaps all of them are. But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul—and I think I do—an octopus has a soul, too.”
The traditional Christian view of things is that, yes, God created all living things, but God created humans to be different and we’re the only living things who were given souls. Obviously, we are different from other animals—we have science, technology, language, culture, literature, art, and religion. But our growing understanding of evolution, genetics, and animal behavior forces us to ask if the difference between human beings and animals is one of kind or one of degree. Are humans and animals two different kinds of things on totally different trajectories? Or are humans with our incredible brains capable of reshaping the planet just one interesting branch on a tree of life full of complex, interesting creatures—and sometimes maybe even thinking, feeling creatures.
The Bible says that God created human beings in God’s own image. But it doesn’t say exactly what that means. And it doesn’t say that other animals or other parts of Creation don’t also reflect God’s image in some way. I believe we were created in God’s image, but I also think that God’s image is way bigger than us. Could the octopus be another reflection off another piece of God’s great big mirror?
If science is telling us that animals are more like us than we’ve previously wanted to admit, is it possible this similarity could extend beyond the boundaries of what science can tell us and go all the way to the soul? Is it possible that the belief that we’re the only ones with souls is just another example of misguided human exceptionalism—like thinking that the Earth is the center of the solar system?
Our scripture reading this morning says that on the sixth day God breathed the breath of life into the dust of the ground and the man, Adam, became a living soul. The word being translated as “soul” is the Hebrew word nephesh.
And our scripture reading says that on the fifth day God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm... And the word translated into English twice here as “creature” is the Hebrew word nephesh, the very same word translated as “soul” when it was referring to Adam. So, even when we translate the Bible, we sometimes like to separate ourselves from the animals.
Of course, we still haven’t defined what a soul is. Is it a supernatural part of you that is eternal and flies off somewhere when you’ve died? Is it your conscious experience living inside the phenomena of your material brain? Is it the great struggles and questions of your life? Or is it the simple enjoyment of a sunny day or the simple satisfaction of offering kindness to a stranger? Or is it a little bit of all these things?
I think sometimes words like “soul” and “spirit” can be too big to define. You could talk about them all day, you could write whole books about them, and the more you talk, the more you write, the bigger they grow. Sometimes, soul is just something you need to feel—feel without words: know, experience.
Sometimes, I just want to pray silently. And in my silent prayers I sometimes feel God more fully, more accessibly than I do when I’m preaching a sermon. All of God can be present in silence. But a sermon can only contain the tiniest little reflection of God. I think it may be the same for soul—for our own souls and the souls of other people and any other souls there may be in the other living creatures. Sometimes we need to stop thinking, quiet down, and just be present. If there is such a thing as soul somewhere, it won’t be defined by words or discovered by science. It happens within and between us.
As Montgomery writes, “While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege. It’s a shared sweetness, a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness.”
Perhaps we have been reluctant to assign souls to animals, especially squishy, slimy animals like octopuses, because we haven’t spent enough time with them—quality time, building meaningful relationships. It was only in the 1960s when Jane Goodall began studying our closest relatives, chimpanzees, in the wild by living with them that she learned that chimps made simple tools, and communicated, and (she asserted) were conscious beings more like us than different from us. Until she went to live with the chimps, we had no idea what or who they really were.
One of the things we have to consider when evaluating our beliefs is the consequence of those beliefs. The consequence of thinking of animals as soulless I believe has led to a reluctance to think morally about how we treat the animals in our care and how we treat animals in the wild. We often don’t think about the needs of animals at all because as soulless creatures we don’t imagine that they can be truly harmed, or if they can be harmed, then that harm doesn’t really matter morally because being soulless, animals don’t rise to a level of human or divine concern. We can mistreat them. We can wipe them out. Their suffering isn’t true suffering.
What would be the consequence of granting animals the benefit of the doubt? How might the world look if the birds and the fish and the wolves and the pigs were creatures with at least a little soul or the possibility of a little soul? Would we be kinder to the environment that animals need to survive? Would we work harder to protect endangered species? Would we stop animal testing? Would we raise the welfare standards for animals in factory farms?
Could animals with souls make the world a little better? I think they might. And I could even imagine a walk through the woods with your dog could become an even more beautiful, more spiritual, more God-filled experience. Imagine if a walk in the woods was not just an opportunity to spot living creatures, but an opportunity to meet and to get to know living souls.
Listen to how Montgomery describes one of her scuba dives:
“At last, in the warm embrace of the sea, breathing underwater, surrounded by the octopus’s liquid world, my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.
“There follows a parade of wonders: A splendid toadfish hides beneath a rock… It’s pancake flat, with thin, wavy, horizontal blue and white stripes, Day-Glo yellow fins, and whiskery barbels. A four-foot nurse shark sleeps beneath a coral shelf, peaceful as a prayer. A trumpet fish, yellow with dark stripes, floats with its long, tubular snout down, trying to blend in with some branching coral… A school of iridescent pink and yellow fish slide by inches from our masks, then wheel in unison like birds in the sky.
“I have known no natural state more like a dream than this. I feel elation cresting into ecstasy and experience bizarre sensations: my own breath resonates in my skull, faraway sounds thump in my chest, objects appear closer and larger than they really are. Like in a dream, the impossible unfolds before me, and yet I accept it unquestioningly. Beneath the water, I find myself in an altered state of consciousness, where the focus, range, and clarity of perception are dramatically changed.”
What if we altered our perceptions the way that Montgomery has? Because I think her description of that scuba dive is a description of a world filled will soul as diverse as life. Maybe that’s a world we’d all like to live in.
Before he died last month, John Lewis was (at least in my heart) the greatest living American. Born into poverty to a sharecropper family in rural Alabama during the time of segregation, he became a young leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was one of the 13 original freedom riders, an integrated group who traveled by bus through the South to protest segregation. He was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which used civil disobedience as a tool in the fight for justice. He was the youngest member of the “Big Six,” the six Black leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He stood at the front of the line at the first Selma-to-Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what has become known as Bloody Sunday. He had his skull fractured by a police baton that day and was beaten and bloodied by white police and white mobs more times than can be counted, not to mention that he was arrested 40 times for civil disobedience in the fight for civil rights. Later he served as a representative in Congress for more than 30 years (an office he held until his death) and in 2011 he was awarded our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barak Obama.
John Lewis was a believer in the American dream, and he worked all his life to make sure that America lived up to her ideals for everybody. By all measures he was a tremendous patriot who was absolutely willing to lay down his life for his country, a country that he loved but that (because of the color of his skin) didn’t always love him. And, as he deserved, over the last few weeks, much has been said about his patriotism and his accomplishments for his country and I’m sure that you all have followed his memorials and remembrances in the news and that you’ve mourned for the loss of this great American.
John Lewis was a great American, but as the Church, we also need to remember him as a great Christian and a disciple of Jesus. John Lewis was not just incidentally a Christian. He didn’t just happen to be a Christian. John Lewis is an example of a person who lives out the fullness of their Christian faith and identity in their life.
John Lewis was born into a little boat on rough seas. And when God called, he jumped out of the boat and right into the storm. It was a big ask. But he did it and he stayed out in that storm because he had a faith that told him it was the right thing to do and that God would be with him no matter what.
When he was once asked about the spirituality of the Civil Rights Movement Lewis said, “The early foundation, the early teaching of the movement was based on the Scripture, the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of Gandhi and others. You have to remind people over and over again that some of us saw our involvement in the civil rights movement as an extension of our faith.”
One way to be a Christian is to be a Christian on Sunday only. Or to be a Christian in church only. Or to be a Christian for heaven only. This kind of Christianity can easily get disconnected from the rest of our lives—our work and our relationships and our life goals. We don’t turn away from God exactly, but we don’t give ourselves all the way over either. What we do in our lives and how we do it doesn’t necessarily coincide with our faith, with the needs of our neighbors, or with the deepest longings of our own hearts.
The other way to be a Christian is to work every day to fulfill your Christian identity—the promises of our faith, the world’s deep needs, and the deepest longings of your heart—fulfill your Christian identity in the fulfillment of your life’s mission. And it was exactly John Lewis’ Christian faith that motivated him to live a life fighting for justice and serving his country. And it was precisely his Christian faith that informed him about the best way to conduct that struggle—through nonviolent (but aggressive) Christian action—what Lewis frequently and famously called “good trouble.”
Three weeks ago, I was preaching to you on my summer reading (The Righteous Mind) and Jesus’ morality. I told you that Jesus wants us to be free from oppression, but the challenge of Jesus’ liberty is that as we fight for our humanity, we are not allowed to dehumanize ourselves by dehumanizing others because God also cares for those others. And that is a Christian principle that John Lewis brilliantly enacted in his life’s work.
In that sermon three weeks ago, I also told you that we’d need to come back to this “turn the other cheek” scripture. I told you that its often been interpreted to mean that good Christians are just supposed to take any old abuse that comes our way and be nice about it, and we were going to need more than one sermon for me to explain why this isn’t a good interpretation for what Jesus is saying.
So, this Sunday it turns out is the perfect time to return to this piece of scripture. Because what Jesus is actually asking us to do (when he asks us to turn the other cheek, to give our cloak, and to go the second mile), Jesus is asking us to get into “good trouble.” And this piece of scripture inspired John Lewis’ nonviolent (but aggressive) action. Listen to what he said in an interview from 2004.
“I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the [civil rights] movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith—faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love—the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. There’s not anything in any Constitution that says anything about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.”
John Lewis’ life is proof that when Jesus tells us not to hit back, it doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to just resign ourselves to being beaten. And when Jesus asks us to forgive, he’s not asking us to accept injustice, he’s asking us to act up for a repaired and reconciled world. And, in fact, what the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s believed and demonstrated is that there was a moral force in not hitting back that was powerful—powerful enough to be able to transform the consciousness of a nation and to lead to major victories for Black people in America.
So, let’s look a little more closely at the ways Jesus is pointing out this power in our first scripture reading. My understanding here was informed by the great Biblical Scholar and theologian Walter Wink. He points out the cultural contexts of Jesus’ teachings.
First, notice Jesus’ says if you are struck on the right cheek. In Jesus’ day there were two kinds of strikes—the fist and the backhand. The fist was a punch for social equals. The backhand was an especially insulting slap used by a social superior to hit a social inferior. A single blow would have been dealt with the right hand because the left hand was the hand you used in the toilet and so there were rules about not using the left hand to touch things like food or people. So, if you follow all that in your imagination, you see that Jesus’ audience knew that a single slap across your right cheek was a backhanded slap. And when you rise up from that backhanded slap and turn the other cheek, you turn your left cheek which can then only be struck with the open palm (or fist) of the right hand—but that’s a respectable way to fight with your equals, it’s not how you slap down your inferiors.
So, yes, Jesus is teaching us nonviolence, but he’s not asking us to cringe in the corner and to accept abuse. Baked into the command to turn the other cheek is a subversive, nonviolent, aggressive resistance to unjust power—a rising up in a self-affirmation of equality that affirms an oppressed person’s humanity without dehumanizing anyone.
In Jesus’ day a poor person would have owned two pieces of clothing. An undergarment and an overgarment. Let’s call them a shirt and a coat just to make it easier for us. At that time a poor person could literally be sued for the shirt off their back by a creditor or landlord, but the creditor or landlord couldn’t take their coat because that would have left this person naked and in danger of freezing.
In Jesus’ culture they felt a little differently than we do about nakedness. In our culture, if I were standing up here naked in front of you, I’d be mortified and ashamed and you all would be a little embarrassed but also maybe laughing and making fun of me. In Jesus’ culture it was flipped around. If I were standing here naked in front of you I would probably be a little embarrassed, but you all would be mortified and ashamed and you would feel like the transgression was yours for seeing me naked, rather than mine for being naked.
So, when Jesus asks a poor person to strip off their coat in court after their shirt has been taken away, he’s asking them to stand there naked. He’s asking them to remind the rich and the powerful of God’s law which forbids taking everything from the poor. And if the powerful are unable to feel shame for their actions, then perhaps they will be confronted with their own shame when they are forced to see the human being that they sued naked in front of them. This was nakedness as a disruptive protest against injustice—revealing to the world your own human vulnerability and confronting the powers that be with their sins.
If you’re having trouble imagining nakedness as a protest, consider the naked Quaker. In 17th century Massachusetts, our Puritan ancestors made it illegal to be Quaker. Some Quakers were even put to death by our spiritual forebears for not conforming. Quakers were expected to attend a Puritan church. We know that at least one Quaker woman, Lydia Wardell, would come into a church on Sunday morning, take off all her clothes, and sit down in the front pew for the Sunday service. You can imagine just how much our stodgy, puritanical, Puritan forebears didn’t appreciate this. And you can begin to imagine what an effective disruption nakedness can be given the proper context.
In Jesus’ day Roman troops were legally entitled to gang press local peasants into carrying their packs for them. But military discipline was strict, and troops were only allowed to force someone to carry their equipment for one mile—no more. A friendly Judean or Galilean peasant marching a second mile would have put the Roman soldier who forced him to carry his pack in the first place at risk of punishment from his commander. Again, we see that even going the second mile was a way of taking control and subversively resisting injustice.
John Lewis never hit back. Much was taken from him by his country and by white people, but he kept giving the best he had, even when it laid him out. John Lewis went the second mile. He accepted Jesus’ way as his way, as the guiding principle of his life’s work. We know that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. It wasn’t easy to put life and limb on the line over and over again for freedom and for justice. It wasn’t easy to turn the other cheek again and again when it would have seemed like justice demanded punishing those who were so cruel and so wrong. But John Lewis was a believer.
Believing in Jesus’ way and believing in justice and non-violence in an intellectual way are one thing. True belief, real faith, requires something more than intellectual assent. It requires us to jump from the boat into the storm. It requires courageous action. John Lewis lived a life of courageous Christian action. I wonder, what would courageous action look like in your life? What would courageous action look like in our life together as a church?
This is what Lewis said about courageous action:
“When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I really believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us, ’cause sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say, you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or through the night. But somehow and some way, you believed—you had faith—that it all was going to be all right.”
What would it look like if we all believed like John Lewis believed? And what would it look like if we all lived like John Lewis lived?
The Stations of the Cross are a series of fourteen images or statues (along with accompanying prayers) that recreates the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa is believed to be Jesus' processional route from his trial to his crucifixion. You can find an example of what the Stations typically look like here.
The Stations, which have been around in some form since at least the 400s, have provided faithful, home-bound pilgrims with an opportunity to visit Jerusalem and Jesus' Passion in their imaginations for centuries. The Stations can be visited anytime, but Good Friday provides us with a special opportunity to be with Jesus (and to not look away).
Good Friday, crucifixion, and death are not unique to Jesus. They are universal and can be found in many times and places. So, in the Stations as they've been laid out below, instead of reflecting on traditional images of Jesus, we'll be reflecting on "Good Friday" images from the news over the last year or on images that relate to some crisis, some tragedy, some death that has been with us and on our hearts in this past year.
As you scroll through the stations below, I suggest you take your time. Linger on the images. If you click on them, they'll open in a popup that fills the screen. Really see them. Feel them. Let the images and the emotions they contain draw you closer to the one who suffers with us. Pray the prayers. If you're not a pray-er, read them with as much conviction and hope as you can muster and see what happens.
Good Friday is the most difficult Christian Holy Day. But observing it, being with Jesus, and feeling the pain of the world is important spiritual work. I pray that the images, reflections, and prayers below draw you closer to the world's aching places and that they embolden you to find the voice that will let you declare Good News to the world.
Special thanks to Jim O'Brien who wrote many of the prayers below.
This post-election sermon was a difficult one to write in the midst of a big week. It ended up probably being too long. If I had had 24 more hours, I think I could have tightened it up quite a bit (the irony is that shorter sermons take longer to write). At the same time, there was a lot that needed to be said and a lot that needed to be worked through in this sermon. I got requests ranging from "I think there needs to be yelling," to "Go easy on us." Some folks needed a call to Christian action right away. Others needed to mourn. Some people wanted to call out the sin. Others wanted an assurance of grace. The big week also served the sermon with Megan and Nicole's wedding becoming just about the best possible sermon illustration a preacher could hope for. Other acknowledgments must go to Hal Taussig for introducing me to the Letter of Peter to Phillip at the Tanho Center, to Walter Wink and all his work on "Jesus' third way," and, of course, the congregation of First Church Somerville who are wonderfully supportive to their pastors when their pastors preach hard sermons.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Divine Parent is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Will you please pray with me?
Lord, I will stand at this watch post. And we will all watch together from this rampart. We will keep watch and we will await what you will say to us. What will you answer, O God, concerning our complaint? Help us, the speakers and the listeners and the watchers, to glimpse your vision for the appointed time. May we who see it, write it. May we who hear it, shout it out. May we who know it, make it known. And in your wrath, remember mercy. Amen.
How many of you remember that last Sunday we read this same piece of Scripture (Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also)? What a difference a week makes. Do these words sound different this week? The words themselves might feel like a slap across the face this morning. These are hard words to hear right now for many of us.
But this morning God has pushed me to speak about the other cheek, and to recommend to you that Christ’s command is a command for COMPASSION towards those intent on harming us without COMPROMISING on our most important values. COMPASSION without COMPROMISE.
If you’ve ever been slapped or struck across the face or upside the head, you may remember the slightly surreal and disorienting experience of a momentary shocked deafness on the side of your head that received the blow and then this rising, insistent, alarmed ringing in that ear. Well, this week, these words of Jesus have been ringing in my ears. It’s not a pleasant sound - it’s an alarm. And alarms, once they’ve been set off, offer us no easy comfort, no easy way out. They’re a painful reminder of the stinging blow we’ve been dealt.
Two weeks ago I was in Colorado at a conference where I was studying extracanonical Christian texts - those early Christian texts that didn’t make it in Bible, frequently because they lifted up the radical leadership, the preaching and teaching of women. As I wrestled with the idea of turning the other cheek this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of one particular text called the Letter of Peter to Philip. It tells the story of the Apostles after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. And they’re all doing their best to spread the Good News. So they’re healing, and preaching, and teaching, and baptizing, and they’re doing it in Jerusalem, in the Temple, in front of the Roman powers and the Temple authorities, and they’re getting in trouble, and they’re doing their best to turn the other cheek, but at some point it dawns on them. Hey, wait a minute, you know this is exactly what got Jesus crucified. We’re gonna get ourselves killed. This peace and love stuff is a one-way ticket to suffering. Why are we doing this? We need a new plan! And so they gather on the Mount of Olives, lock themselves away in a room, and they pray to Jesus and Jesus appears to them in a great light from heaven. And they talk for a good long while, the disciples explaining the situation as they see it to Jesus and asking, "What’s gonna happen to us? You’ve got our backs right? We’re going to be peaceful and loving and SAFE right?" And Jesus says listen, “I don’t know what's going to happen. But here’s what I know. The world needs peace and love and justice. The people need healing. And that’s what I’ve called you to teach and preach. I don’t know what is going to happen. But I’ll be with you.” And so the disciples head back out to the Temple and they perform healings and they preach and teach the good news and do their best to offer the world Jesus’ Way. And the letter ends there, without letting us know what happens next.
People all over social media and in person this week – some of you among them – have been talking about Clinton’s loss and Trump’s election feeling like a death. Many of you posted on Facebook early Wednesday morning words to the effect of: “What do I tell my girls when they wake up? How do I make this OK?” It’s felt like more than one death - like a tragedy that takes away so many cherished lives and much hope in one swift blow. The death of a hope for the first woman president, of a hope in the greater decency of people, of a hope in certain democratic ideals, of a hope that our families would be safer over the next few years than in the past. And – wait a minute – as the shock wears off many of us hear in the rising ringing alarm sounding in our ears, this very real note of fear.
This wasn’t a death within the natural order of things – oh no, it was an attack. And the people who pulled the lever for that attack, and the unequipped narcissist with the soul of a tyrant that they elected, and the fundamentalist Christian hatemonger who rode into power on his coattails are not going to become suddenly magnanimous or reasonable or measured in their victory. Which institutions, which morals, which people will this rising movement of hate towards women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, the poor, immigrants, the sick, people with disabilities, and the imprisoned turn on next?
When the KKK and the American Nazi party and White Christian Evangelicals take to the streets in celebration of the election of their candidate we must realize that this election signals an attack bigger than any one person, something bigger than Trump, more powerful than him as a moral individual, certainly, and more powerful than he could be as president. There are larger forces at work here. We stand on the edge of an epic moment. Over the next few years we will see tremendous changes and setbacks. 50 years of progress since the voting rights act are now under attack. The push to undo decency will be waged in the white House, in Congress, in the complicit media, in the courts, in fundamentalist churches, and in our schools, our hospitals, and on our streets. Tuesday’s election changed our country and our democracy, and much like 9/11, we have only just begun to imagine what we will face.
Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” stings in the face of so much grief and reasonable fear. But alarms pierce our ears and our souls for a reason – for a purpose. Warning. Danger. Smoke means Fire! Wake up! For those who would say you to you this week, “get over it, it’s not that big of a deal, you’re being a sore loser, quit whining,” we have Jesus Christ’s words cutting to the white meat of our reality: “We HAVE been hit. We HAVE been stripped. We HAVE been hated, and cursed, and abused. Women, LQBTQ folks, Mexicans, Muslims – It’s real!” says Jesus, “I see the marks on your face. This is terrifying. The world needs you to respond - by offering up your vulnerability and fighting like hell. The world needs all of you: the cheek that has been struck and the cheek they’re aiming for next - all of you. And I will be with you.”
Yesterday Rev. Megan S. showed me what “turning the other cheek” might look like. Many of you know Rev. Megan because she was our Student Minister here two years ago. Well, yesterday, in the midst of all this horror, Rev. Megan married the love of her life: Army 2nd Lt. Nicole B. And so on Veteran’s Day Weekend, soldiers in uniform, and clergy colleagues, and friends and family gathered together to watch Megan and Nicole make their vows to one another. There was booming organ music, a bagpiper, and a traditional saber arch. Eight army officers held their swords up and as the two brides recessed down the aisle, each pair of soldiers dropped their swords in front of them and refused to let them pass - until they kissed. And there in one of the biggest and most beautiful and historic churches in Boston we made our promises to Megan and Nicole - that we would be there for them, that we would support them, that we would love them - come what may.
And out on the dance floor, partying our butts off, all of us felt in our dancing bodies who we are and what it is that we’re willing to fight for. A lesbian military church wedding is a risky thing, a beautiful thing, and a thing that must be celebrated and defended. And I thought, looking around the reception hall at everyone drinking wine that tasted like Jesus himself had had a miraculous hand in its production, this is a celebration of “turning the other cheek.”
Throughout Christian history “turning the other cheek” been frequently interpreted as a call to UNITY & SUBMISSION with those intent on doing us harm. Nonsense. We have not committed ourselves to Jesus’ Way and teachings in the hopes of UNITY with this world, in order to ACCEPT or TOLERATE this world’s violence or injustice. We follow Jesus, and take Jesus’ words seriously, to be unified with God through Christ. To be unified to our neighbors through love.
To God we offer submission, acceptance, and gratitude, even in the face of life’s inherent pains. But to demagogues, to pharaohs and to caesars, to patriarchs, to abusers, and to hatemongers, and to all other false idols and powers we Christians are commanded to offer the DISOBEDIENCE of our dancing bodies – to lift our faces up in sacred defiance, to look sin square in the eyes, and to declare ourselves Christ’s disciples and God’s beloved children.
A slap in the face is not an invitation to COME TOGETHER. In the same way the admonition to turn the other cheek is not a demand for UNITY. It’s the opposite. Turning the other cheek is Christ’s demand on us to express bodily differentiation, self-assertion, and dissent. Offering those who have struck us the other cheek is an offer of human DEFIANCE and civil DISOBEDIENCE that says you may have the power to hit us, you may have the power to strip us, you may have the power to oppress and imprison us, you may have the power to take away our status, our healthcare, our civil rights, but you DO NOT have the power to make us submit.
We will not be quiet. We will be ALL UP IN YOUR FACE. If you take away our clothes, we’ll be naked all up in your face - a mob of naked dancing nasty women, bad hombres, queer clergy, and active duty army officers. Let’s see how you respond to that. And so out of love - yes, love - for those who curse us, we will compassionately refuse to compromise with the violence of their agenda. We will passionately refuse to hide away who we are. We’ll flaunt who we are knowing that those who hate us will try to strike at the celebration of our love.
If Mike Pence gets his way, he will land a vicious blow on the cheek of our clergy-military lesbian wedding celebration. He’s going to do his worst to strike at our best. That is sure. And while we’re getting slapped on that cheek, Donald Trump will slapping at every Mexican and every Muslim from the other side.
Now, if you’re privileged, like I am, maybe you’ll be unfettered enough to dodge the blow that is coming. But if you’re not privileged, if the chains of oppression or vulnerability are too restricting, if your life depends on Obamacare, if your legal marriage depends on the supreme court, if your family depends on immigration reform, if you are literally imprisoned, if your hijab makes you a target, if your dark skin makes you a target, if your woman’s body has been turned into a target, then dodging might not be an option for you. It simply wasn’t an option for the disenfranchised poor peasants who gathered on the side of the mountain to listen to Jesus preach the words we heard this morning.
When despotism strikes at America the blow will land on the cheek of some far harder than others. If you’re a privileged Christian, you have a responsibility and a decision to make. Will you rush out of the burning building through the private escape hatch that Jesus himself refused to take or will you risk taking the long way through the fire with all those who have been burned and crucified?
Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me and there won’t be any more slapping.” Jesus says, “I’m here to make disciples first out of the people who have been slapped hardest.” If nobody has ever tried to crush you beneath their boot, you might not have the kind of ears you need to hear what Jesus is saying in this morning’s reading. But if you’ve been hated, abused, and reviled, you have the ears to hear. You’ve been slapped before and you know the sound of the ringing in your ears.
If you haven’t heard that ringing in your ears, if you haven’t been hit that hard, Jesus has some advice for learning to become a disciple. “Listen to ones with the ears to hear. Then put your cheek in the way of the next blow. Take everything you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me.”
In times like this, we must take refuge in our faith and in our faith community. In a time when the nation has become less safe, we’ll need to rely on this local faith community more. First Church, we’re already working on this. But we’ll need to make this spiritual home more robust, more open, more affirming. We’ll need a powerful religious education program for our kids to battle the messages they’re going to be receiving from Trump, Pence, and their administration. We’ll need a family ministry program that is going to be able to respond to families under serious duress – attacked and demeaned for who they are and who they love. We need to attend the antiracism and white privilege trainings being organized by some of our Deacons and Mission & Justice Committee members for 2017. We have to talk to one another now more than ever, and get to know and to LOVE one another now more than ever, and examine our own privilege and prejudice more than ever.
We need to care for one another in the difficulties ahead. Because the God we have come here to serve is not a God who promises us safety. She is a God who demands we love even those who hate us. With all my privilege, not even I can do that by myself. I can’t do that without you. We can’t risk the defiance and the discomfort of the other cheek without knowing that we will be there for each other and that we will be committed to being self-aware, repentant, faithful, and safe for one another. We can’t celebrate a defiant wedding and dance our hearts out by ourselves. We can really only turn the other cheek in community. No one should be left alone.
In the end, this is what Jesus offers us. Because the future is uncertain and difficult we are therefore called to heal, to teach, and to preach the Good News. We will defiantly, passionately stand in the face of what is to come together. We don’t know what will happen. But as Christ has promised to be with us, we promise to be with each other and all those primary disciples who are under attack. Amen.
Last week, the United Church of Christ’s New Sacred blog posted Jon Berren Propper’s “A Kingdom of Nonbelievers? Maybe.” The blog post takes as a starting point the recent controversy over a United Church of Canada minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has become an atheist but who wants to remain a minister serving a congregation in the UCCanada. From there Propper goes on to ask just how essential having the “right” beliefs should be to building the kingdom of Heaven, and he offers a vision of an inclusive Church that values diversity, love, and action over dogma.
I completely agree with Propper that right belief is often less important than we make it out to be and that churches should be open to all kinds of people who want to explore the common “touchpoints” of the Christian tradition. At First Church Somerville, we are a Christian church where everyone is welcome with whatever beliefs or doubts they may have. I think Propper would feel right at home at here. Our folks come from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds - completely unchurched, Catholic, Orthodox, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, New Age, Spiritual But Not Religious, interfaith, Jewish, Santería, and even (occasionally) cradle UCC. And, yes, we have a number of non-theists, atheists, and atheist Christians who are official members of the church or who are deeply connected attendees and friends of the congregation.
Why would an atheist come to a Christian church? The answers to that question are as diverse as the people themselves. Some come just to be with their families on Sunday morning. Others come because even though they can’t conceive of “God the Father,” they love them some Jesus all the same. Some are “Jeffersonian” Christians who don’t go in for anything supernatural or miraculous at all, but find great value in Jesus’ teachings. Others do “believe” in some sort of God, but just not the anthropomorphized old man in the sky. Others feel their lack of faith in a personal, loving God as an absence or loss in their life, and they show up every week to explore honestly what they can and can’t believe. Others show up for the music. Others show up for the community. The list goes on. But what is true of all of them is that they know that they have options - there are plenty of non-Christian spiritual communities or humanist groups they could join where they could still hear sermons, sing sacred music, celebrate holidays, be in community, and explore their belief systems outside of the Christian context. But for some reason, they have chosen to be a part of this explicitly Christian church.
And this is where I differ greatly from Propper’s take on Rev. Gretta Vosper. I agree that there is nothing “wrong” with not being a Christian, with belonging to another faith tradition, or with being an atheist. But if we are Christians, we must also at the same time affirm that there is something valuable (for everyone) about maintaining explicitly Christian churches and denominations. The identity we claim and are able to offer to people as the Church of Jesus Christ - the identity of Christian, disciple, apostle, Jesus follower - is also good and true and beautiful. Rev. Gretta Vosper, by her own admission and affirmation, is no longer a Christian. In other words, it’s not that the UCCanada has said that because Vosper claims atheistic beliefs, she can no longer call herself a Christian. She has explicitly identified herself as being a non-Christian. Could she be a part of the kingdom of Heaven? Sure. Is she, as a self-identified non-Christian, a suitable person to lead a Christian church or to hold ministerial standing in a Christian denomination? Absolutely not.
Propper writes about how Judaism makes room for participants and leaders of various beliefs and non-beliefs. True. So do many Christian churches. But does Judaism make room for leaders in the Jewish faith who are not Jewish in their identity? Propper writes that Vosper’s congregants must think “she’s as Christian as can be” because, despite her beliefs, she leads a good life. But because Vosper is not a Christian, even if her congregants did say, “She’s as Christian as can be,” Vosper would likely correct them. Christian identity isn't handed out to (or forced upon) every good person. Christian identity and faith in Jesus Christ are claimed and committed to. Vosper is not a Christian, nor does she want to be Christian. She understands herself as "growing out of the Christian tradition," but if you were to attend her church, you would not find the most common “touchpoints” of the that tradition. The word “God” is rarely used. Common creeds and prayers have been secularized, removing explicitly Christian language. Jesus Christ is not a focus. There is no Holy Spirit. Sacred music has been rewritten and secularized. The Bible is read rarely. There are no Sacraments.
There’s nothing “wrong” with Rev. Gretta Vosper’s spiritual journey or her beliefs. There is nothing wrong with the congregants who remain at her church who support and desire such a community and leader. And there is also nothing wrong with the United Church of Canada being honest about the fact that Rev. Vosper and her church have stepped almost entirely outside of Christian tradition and fully outside of Christian identity.
Liberal, progressive Christians need to think seriously about what the Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ is. Are all welcome here? Absolutely! And if that were the end of our Mission and calling as Evangelists of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be absolutely appropriate for a non-Christian to be a “Christian” minister. But hospitality is only the first step, the base line, the context in which we go on to offer Good News to all people. A non-Christian leader can welcome people into community and take them on a rich spiritual journey! But they cannot offer the Christian Gospel, an invitation into a life dedicated to and transformed by Christ. This is our unique Mission, the sacred gift we, as the Christian Church, have been entrusted with and which no one else can offer.
In First Church Somerville’s fabled “Baby Boom” year we had 13 babies born into the congregation. Even more babies were finding us on Yelp or Facebook and showing up as visitors. Over the course of that year and the following year, we baptized bushels of babies.
An infant baptism is an incredible joy. Absolutely, a new life deserves the most sacred and the most holy welcome we can muster from our deepest faith and greatest hopes! As a church, that means offering a Sacrament, a Sacred Mystery, quite literally (but even more mysteriously), an Act of God. In spiritual and religious terms, there is nothing greater and nothing more fundamental we could do as Christians to welcome a baby into life and into faith. What could be more beautiful than the splash that happens when God and a baby miraculously intersect in the waters of baptism? And such holiness brings everybody out - the parents, the grandparents, the godparents, the whole family, the whole community of faith - all to make promises to one another and the babe. In the midst of this holy interaction between God and us, we vow that we will all care for this human life, the greatest gift and responsibility that could be entrusted to us, thanks be to God. An infant baptism is so full of joy and Spirit that I would say it's an unforgettable experience - for everyone except the baby.
Many of the newbies who show up at First Church as adults and not babies fall into the category of the “unchurched.” The strictly unchurched have no religious background. Some have never been inside a church before! And that unchurchedness extends along a spectrum out toward people who got some church when they were young, but it’s been years or decades since a church was a part of their lives. So some of our unchurched newbies are unbaptized. And some of our unchurched newbies were baptized as infants. While we wouldn't expect them to remember their baptism, sometimes it seems that there is NO memory of the event whatsoever. A not uncommon conversation on baptism with newbies at First Church goes something like this:
“Can I be baptized when I join the church?”
“Have you ever been baptized in a church before?”
“Hmmm. I think so. Maybe? I’d have to check…”
When they find out that they were indeed baptized as infants under the strict orders of some grandparent or another, they’re often disappointed to discover that in the UCC (and most other Christian denominations) no “rebaptism” is required (or for that matter possible) for them to officially join the church. As baptism is a singular and salvific Sacrament, most Churches recognize - even if they feel that the human form of the ritual of baptism was somehow unorthodox - that God, mysteriously and graciously, still acts. But I understand their disappointment completely, and I have a deep compassion for their feeling that a Sacramental opportunity has been taken from them. “All is not lost,” I say, “we can remember your baptism.”
“But I don’t remember.”
At one level, a lack of remembering, for the infant, is unavoidable. Baby brains just don’t operate that way. Probably to ensure our sanity in later life, our brains don’t start laying down typical memories until we’ve figured a few key things out. At another level, for the person of faith, it’s important to remember that memory is more than the materialist phenomenon that happens on the gray matter inside our skulls.
Some remembering is wider than us, and some deeper. The wide remembrance of a baptism is held in the individual and communal memories of all those who gathered together to perform and witness it. Everyone present made promises. Taking those promises seriously and fulfilling them is one kind remembrance. When we act toward a child, or an adult, in accordance with the promises Christians make at baptism, we enact a remembrance of that person’s baptism. But indifference toward God or prejudice toward the person God has created can cause a wide memory to narrow down to insignificance, leaving a spiritual amnesia in the lived experience of the neglected or rejected baptizee.
But the remembrance of baptism is also held more deeply than us. Unfortunately when personal and communal memory fails us, it can be hard to know that such a deep memory exists. The newbie longing for baptism has awakened to a feeling within them that God loves them. That love is more than a feeling! There is a totality and fullness within that love that is more complete than the partiality of even our most vivid memories. This love is an experience of what the New Testament Greek calls God’s agape. Agape is a love distinct from other kinds of love - erotic, romantic, familial, or otherwise. C.S. Lewis wrote that agape love is the love that is absolutely and unconditionally dedicated to the well-being of others. Our baptisms are an act of this deep, unbreakable, fully knowing agape. In God’s love, we and our baptisms are contained and remembered.
“But I don’t remember.”
“Don’t worry,” I say, “If we baptized you today, it would take some Imagination to fully grasp the Mystery of what was happening. And it will take the same amount of Imagination to fully grasp the Mystery of what has already happened to you in baptism.” Of course by Imagination, I don’t mean “imaginary” or “fantastical.” What I mean is that to “comprehend” a Sacred Mystery, one must open oneself up to a Sacred Imagination. The empowered Christian Imagination is itself, in some ways, Sacramental. It is a means by which we can experience a dim, partial reflection of a Truth and a Reality that is total and complete, but beyond our limited ability to grasp.
The place and date of your baptism may not be within your control, but the reality is that the place and date of your baptism are incomplete reflections of your Baptism which is truly contained in the infinite eternity of God. That is where your Baptism is - infant or adult. The spiritual exercise of Remembering begins with a faithful Imagination that can hope for such a limitless love.
On the first Saturday of Fall, I drove from Somerville down to Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod. Sandy Neck Beach is miles long and, besides the beach and the sea, it contains thousands of acres of marshes, dunes, and tidal pools. On this bright, brisk, breezy afternoon, there were a few other scattered souls walking along the beach and looking out on the surprisingly rough surf. But I wasn’t here just to watch. I was here to get into the water. And not for your typical dip either. I was here to baptize a newbie in the faith - Adam.
I had never done an ocean baptism before, and I arrived early to get my bearings and get good with the Spirit. Standing there at the edge of the ocean felt wonderfully holy. I had done outdoor, public baptisms before - in quaint, calm, iconic New England ponds. But this was something else entirely. The truth is, the waves didn’t look particularly inviting. They looked wild! A little dangerous even. They were rolling in fast and hard, one on top of another, as if to say, “Are you really foolish enough to tangle with me? I’m relentless and vast, deep and cold, crushing and stinging - I will wear you out, drag you down, and spit you up.” And, yes, standing at the edge of that resisting power with the intention of fighting the very sea and calling down the blessing that God has promised felt deeply holy.
In the past, when we’ve done baptisms at Walden Pond, I’ve always thought that Jesus would’ve fit right in with us and the thronging crowds by the edge of that gentle lake. But I’ve also felt that John the Baptist would have been pretty disappointed. I know the Jordan River is hardly a whitewater, although there was a time when it was wild and unpredictable and flowing - in the time before dams and heavy water diversions. But certainly, just in terms of personality, the wildman of the desert, the camel-fur-wearing prophet who was the wilderness itself, the rebel priest who baptized with water but longed for fire, the bug-eating survivalist who screamed for your repentance and held your head underwater, that guy would’ve approved of the rough seas, of my feelings of nervousness, and of the sense that a deep spiritual struggle would be accomplished in what we were about to do.
I didn’t really want to get in that water. You know the feeling. There are times when you need a swim. And there are times that the thought of jumping in makes you feel all cold and nervous. After all, this wasn’t going to be one of them newfangled sprinklings. This was going to be a full-on, old-fashioned dunking. Have you ever been unsure about whether you wanted to swim or not? But you go ahead and dip your toes in... slowly you’re up to your thighs and your bathing suit starts to soak up the cold water faster than you’re ready for it... eventually you get chest deep... but when you’re not quite feeling it, if you’re not 100% sure, the last thing you want to do is to go all the way under. The last thing you want to do is dunk your head. But that’s what we were here for - for that uncomfortable experience in these unwelcoming waters. And that felt holy.
I was sprinkle-baptized as an infant, as were many of the lifelong Christians at my church. We have a few people who come from Baptist traditions and got dunked as teenagers. There are some who came to Christ later in life and were baptized as adults. But most of us were sprinkled without having to make any decision for ourselves and without any ability to recall memories of the event. Sure, there’s confirmation to cover that - a time when we can affirm our baptism and become adult members of the church. I was confirmed in middle school. So I guess I affirmed my baptism, but it must not have made that much of an impression on me because I don’t remember that either. I remember watching confirmation videos in the church basement - the content of which I don’t recall.
Narragansett Bay was a stone’s throw from the church. Sometimes during coffee hour I would sneak down to the beach. It was pretty polluted and when the light hit the water just right you could see all sorts of things down in the bay - old cars, appliances, you name it. They were all rusted out and monstrous, covered in barnacles and brown seaweed - strange shapes, disintegrating in one direction and growing in another. What if they had taken the confirmation class down there and asked us to look under the water for those frightening shapes? And asked us to begin to really REMEMBER our baptisms. How can we claim our baptisms, and the blessings of our baptisms, if we are afraid or unwilling to go down under the surface of the water and confront what lurks there?
What lurks there? Well, perhaps the Apostle Paul put the finest point on it in the letter to the Romans, chapter 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” A baby doesn’t need to worry about this. Babies don’t have much of a past to die to. But for the newbie adults discerning whether or not they are called to baptism, I think this is always a concern. Yes, they want to walk in newness of life, and they understand that there’s more to it than that. They understand, often before ever reading Romans, that baptism will be a spiritual change in their lives, a real change in their lives, that there will be things that have to be left behind, mourned. Even if leaving those things behind is a good and healthy thing, it’s still a change. It’s freedom, but it’s hard.
For those of us who were baptized as infants, claiming our baptism means much more than just saying, “Yeah, I was baptized as a baby.” Ok. Great. How has your baptism changed and disrupted your life? How do you try to live into your baptismal promises on your faith journey? What does it really mean to be baptized? It’s fine if the beginning of the answer is, “Well, it means I’m a Christian, and I’m saved, and I’m a member of this church.” That’s a good start. But eventually, you’re going to need to make the trip down beneath the waves, where you’ll finally open your eyes and really look around and struggle. Sadly, John the Baptist is not here in the flesh to throw us in and hold us down. But we have the next best thing. We have people in our churches who are struggling right now with whether or not they should be baptized. Do you understand what their struggles are? If you understood a little more of their struggles, it would help you peak beneath the surface of the meaning of your own baptism. We have, in our churches, adults who have made the decision for themselves to be baptized. Why did they choose it? If you could name one reason that one person got themselves baptized, you could begin to imagine and remember your own baptism.
A few moments before the ceremony of Adam’s baptism was to begin, we stood in a small group on the beach looking down at the waves. Adam turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to swim?”
“Ha!” Adam has a good sense of humor. “Of course!” Another series of waves rolled in frothing and crashing and we watched in a moment of growing silence-- “Do you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but I’ll be fine.”
Sometimes I have heard from people, baptized as infants, that they just don’t understand what the big deal is about baptism for those adults trying to navigate its contours. Just get baptized! We’ve all done it! For me, this attitude of ours comes from a desire to be gatekeepers, not baptizers. But this is what the big deal is. Adam chose his baptism very carefully. Baptism is a moment of change in your life that can feel like being dunked in a rough ocean when you don’t even know how to swim. But you walk out into the waves anyway because you know that this is your way forward into God. Baptism is not just a symbol or a ritual. It is real - as real as not knowing how to swim and being dunked into rough seas. It is a sacrament - an action in which we assert by faith that God ACTS.
When Adam and I walked out into the ocean hand-in-hand for his baptism, the nervousness I had felt was fast flowing away into openness. And the feeling of holiness was growing into an experience of holiness. The waves did their worst to throw Adam back to shore, but he pushed forward until we were in up to our chests. “This is it,” he said. And he went down beneath the surface and came back up. There was nothing at all but the waves slapping against us, the submerging and the rising, and God everywhere around us.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations