Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Sermon: Jesus, What is He Good For?

Below is the sermon I gave a couple of weeks ago.  Following it are the readings and meditation included in the service.  Husband provided the music in the form of two Woodie Guthrie songs played on the ukulele.  This is just the basic wording of the sermon.  I added a lot more when I was actually in front of the congregation.  There was also a children's moment in which I gave a brief outline of Jesus' life. 

Jesus: What is He Good For?

Jesus.  Jesus! JEEEEESSSSSUUSSS.  JesusJesusJesusJesus. Is there any other name that conjures up so many emotions?  Is there any other name that has so much baggage attached to it?  I would like everyone to join me in saying his name out loud.  J E S U S. Now take a quiet moment and reflect on how that felt.  Did it bring you joy? Anguish? Fear? Resentment? Peace? Anger? Fulfillment?  Maybe it was a combination of many of these. The point is, almost everyone has some sort of feeling towards Jesus. 

When I was growing up, Jesus was in every room of our Catholic house.  In my grandmother’s house, there was at least two Jesus’ in every room.  There was the gory crucified Jesus on the cross and usually a framed picture of the benevolent Jesus with the *heart on fire* watching and judging your every move.  Or, that is how I viewed it.  I believe my grandma saw them as a constant reminder of his dying for our sins and his eternal love.  Eventually, to me, they just became background noise. After marrying into a Lutheran family and attending a Lutheran church, I was shocked to see a very different Jesus.  This Jesus was fully clothed in robes on the cross!  He looked like he walked out of his dressing room and stepped right on up there.  He was clean and handsome! Where were the wounds, where was the blood?  Where was the sad, disappointed expression? This couldn’t be the real Jesus.  He was too pretty.  Even crazier, Lutheran’s often hung crosses in their house that didn’t even HAVE Jesus on them!  What was the point of that?

In my sheltered life in northern Iowa, I had also heard rumors of people who did not believe in Jesus.  They were called Jewish.  I should rephrase that.  They did believe in a prophet named Jesus, but he was not considered to be their Savior. WHAT?! How is that even possible?  It seemed like a huge form of blasphemy and was perhaps a rumor somebody just made up.  It would take me going to college in another state before I met an actual Jewish person. 

By this time in my life, I was older and wiser and was already starting to doubt the Jesus story. I had read Damien by Hermann Hesse and Barabas by Par Lagerkvist.  Two books that completely altered my world.  I was beginning to see the world in a much broader way.  I was feeling more comfortable challenging long held beliefs.  While it still felt a little blasphemous to doubt the Bible, I was growing in confidence that critical analysis did not mean outright disbelief.  God was not going to smite me down for questioning what human’s had put down on paper. While this seems obvious to us grown-ups, it was quite a revelation on my teenage mind.  It was a little scary, too.  My worldview was beginning to change and I wasn’t sure if was up to the challenge of re-shaping it.  It was so much easier to stay the course and keep the family happy.  In my heart, though, I knew I could never go back.  I would always be a Universalist.  If there was a benevolent God, I could never believe that he would condemn humans to an eternal hell based on their belief (or disbelief) in Jesus as their Savior.

I had to ask myself, what, if any role, would Jesus have in my life?  All these years later, I still haven’t figured it out.  Yet, I am still drawn to him.  I find I still want to know more about this Son of Man.
Jesus did exist.  Author Bart Ehrman, in his book, aptly titled, “Did Jesus Exist” does a wonderfully thorough analysis of this questions and comes to the conclusion that he emphatically did.  There was a Jew, named Jesus, preaching and teaching, and was crucified during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.  These are truths. Ehrman goes on to identify numerous sources to back these up.  After reading his book, I am not sure anyone could prove he DIDN’T exist.  But, it is important to note, that these are the only facts.  Everything else said about him is hearsay.  It is up to each of us to discern which we feel is truth or fiction. 

As Unitarian Universalist, we have a complicated history with Jesus.  Jesus is very much part of our heritage.  Our founders were proudly and lovingly Christian.  Unitarians saw Jesus as a moral authority, maybe even supernatural, but not necessarily God himself.  He was considered a great teacher and prophet.  Christian Universalists felt that salvation would be given to all.  Jesus was viewed as a force for positive change.  He was not used as a divisive pawn, but as a sign of universal love. 

As a faith, though, we have left Jesus behind as we have opened our hearts and minds to the teachings of prophets from many other faith traditions.  While this has enriched our spiritual growth, it has led us away from our roots.  In some cases, it has led us so far that we are uncomfortable even mentioning Jesus’ name.  We are quick to point out that we are NOT Christian, that Jesus was just a teacher and NOT our personal Savior.  While it is perfectly fine to feel that way, I feel we have done a great disservice to ourselves in not fully understanding this man and the amazing example he set for humanity.

I would like to come out as a Christian Unitarian Universalist.  As the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, Minister at First Church in Boston so elequontly spoke,
Am I a classic Christian? Of course not. But Unitarian Universalists can and should have an expansive view of the nature of Jesus and his teachings. Labels are notourisously misleading and unforgiving things, but I will take the consequences of being a labeled in proclaiming that UU Christianity should still be a part of who we are as a religious movement.”  
Does this mean that I profess that Jesus died for my sins to grant my soul eternal salvation?  Sure, he might have felt he was dying for the sins of humanity, but I believe in the universal love of God.  I am with our Universalist fore-fathers that God would never condemn humanity to unending suffering. 

Instead, I choose to take that expansive view and see Jesus as an example of what humanity could be.  Like us modern day UUs, Jesus was an inclusive, religious rebel.  He wanted people to come together in community to meet each others needs.  He wanted us to be present with each other.  He reached out to those most in need, those that had been cast aside, to those who were perhaps living life not how society felt they “should”.  He broke free from the rules cast upon him by restrictive Rabbi’s and taught a new way.  He was a liberal, a justice seeker and a troublemaker.  He did not care what others thought of him and stayed true to what he felt was right and he acted upon it.  I suspect many of us could relate to this. 

He taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is now.  It is inside of us.  We all have a spark of the divine.  Thus, all of humanity has worth and value.  He showed a third way of life.  It isn’t about me vs. you.  My right vs. your right.  Instead he said to walk with our enemies.  Learn to understand each other and meet each other with love.  He recognized that change takes patience and perseverance.  It does not always happen when we feel it should.  This is something I particularly struggle with.  While Jesus was a justice seeker he led by example. Confrontations were met with a degree of love that very few of us could easily manage, yet is something I strive for.  Just imagine how amazing this world could be if we all worked from a place of trying to really understand each other.
Jesus believed in our human capacity for good.  This was not the prevailing thought of the time.  In a world where people were suffering immense hardships and oppression due to the human capacity for bad, he was a living example of all that we could be.  He believed in us and that scared the bleep out of the people in power.   How would they remain in control if their subjects/followers realized that they had inherent value?  Jesus preached the divine was already within us.  He are all holy and we are all worthy.  Jesus gave people hope and the freedom from religious oppression.  He did not ask people to trade one form of religious oppression for another. He did not ask that we believe in his resurrection, he asked us to believe in God and in love.

Whether or not he rose from the dead, is not the deciding factor for me.  I choose to focus on all that he was and all that he taught.  His radical hospitality, universal love, and justice for all people are what make me his follower.  He was a living example of what I what I want the world to be; of the person I strive to be. Wherever you are on your religious journey, I hope you do not discount this man with all the baggage.  Take the time to work through all that clutter and study his real message.  I think you will find it worth your time and uplifting for your soul.  Jesus is not someone to run from, but someone to run to.


“The demands of Jesus are difficult because they require us to do something extraordinary. At the same time He asks us to regard these [acts of goodness] as something usual, ordinary.”
--Albert Schweitzer

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

O God, we thank you for life, and for all it holds of happiness and work and play and risk and courage and beauty.
We thank you for all the adventures of the mind, whereby we pursue what is true, grapple with difficult problems, and share a little in the vast heritage of human knowledge.
We thank you for the firmness of reasonable people in refusing to follow extremists; but we also thank you for the pioneers of advancing thought in science, art and religion.
We thank you for all heroic souls who shame our cowardice; for all sympathetic souls who communicate encouragement; for all saintly souls, seldom wearing haloes, who kindle our desire to be really good.
We thank you for friendship and the faces of those who look kindly upon us, even when we fail, and who greatly help to bring us back to our bravest selves again.
We thank you for the exchange of gifts, for letters to and from those we love, for the sparkle of a pleasant wit, for the refreshment of unforced laughter, and for the song remembered for the singer’s sake.
We thank you for the freedom which growing older gives us from the troubles of being very young, so that we have more big things to care about and fewer little things to cry about.
Above all, we thank you for your call to be ourselves at our best, without miserably trying to be somebody else. So may we grow in the strength to make the best of things, trusting you that they will make the best of us. --- Vivian Pomeroy


Love is the Spirit of this Church and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
to seek the truth in love and to help one another.

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