Sermon by Dwayne Eutsey
To the waters of the Willamette I come
in nearly perfect weather,
traffic backed up at the bridge
a bad sign.
Be on the job at eight,
boots crunching in gravel;
cinch up the tool belt, string out the cords
to where we left off on Friday—
that stack of old
form lumber, that bucket of rusty bolts
and those two beat-up sawhorses
wait patiently for us.
Gil is still drunk, red-eyed, pretending he’s not
and threatening to quit;
Gordon is studying the prints.
Slab on grade, tilt-up panels, Glu-lams
Boys, I’ve got an idea—
Instead of a supermarket
Why couldn’t this be a cathedral?
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Back when I was in first grade, my mother was a waitress at the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen, MD. It was a fitting name for the establishment because it really was the ideal of what those roadside diners from a bygone era used to be. It had a long counter where people could sit on backless stools and there were booths along the windows, each with its own little jukebox on the table.
Because my mom worked at the diner pretty much all day—from the breakfast shift on through to late afternoon—she would wake my sister and me well before dawn to get us ready to go to our babysitter’s house. I can still remember squinting and blinking my eyes as I got dressed, wondering why the light in my room seemed so much brighter in the morning. Somewhere out in the quiet, pre-dawn darkness, I could hear the occasional distant growl of a truck downshifting as it slowed to a stop at a red light, or sometimes there was the low, mournful wail and clanking of a freight train slowly rumbling by.
To this day whenever I hear sounds like these, I start to feel a little drowsy.
It was still before dawn when we got to the babysitter’s house, so after my mom went on to the diner, the babysitter, a middle-aged lady, would have me lay on the couch in the living room and go back to sleep before it was time to go to school. Or try to sleep. I was already fully awake by then and the babysitter had the lights and radio on, so I would lay there looking at the pictures hanging on the wall as the first violet signs of sunrise could be seen outside the window.
The only picture I remember is a painting of a young man standing at the helm of a ship, staring with determination out into the dark and stormy sea he was navigating. Towering close behind him with one hand resting reassuringly on his shoulder was a tall man in a bluish white robe with long hair and a beard and mustache. He was boldly looking ahead and pointing the way with his other hand.
That was supposed to be Jesus Christ, of course, guiding a young man through life’s stormy uncertainties. But I had no idea who he was. I really didn’t know anything about Jesus or Christianity at the time. For the first decade of my life, in fact, I never went to church and Christmas and Easter were all about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as far as I knew.
I did know the name Jesus, though. This was around 1970-71 and the rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar was a big hit. I remember hearing its theme song on the radio a lot. I may have had no clue what the song was about, but I definitely knew the name repeated over and over again in the song’s catchy refrain.
Jee-sus Christ. Jee-sus Christ.
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jee-sus Christ. Sooper Star.
Dooo you think yuuuur what they say you are?
That refrain was so engrained in my mind, in fact, that once when I was jumping all over the couch and my mom snapped at me in exasperation: “Will you stop bouncing around? Jesus!” I stopped jumping and exclaimed with a big, beaming smile: “Christ!”
I thought I was helping her out with what I thought was his last name; but based on the look my mom gave me, I don’t think she appreciated the help.
But as I say, beyond hearing that song on the radio, I knew nothing about Jesus. I’m pretty sure I didn’t realize that strange picture on my babysitter’s wall was supposed to be of him guiding a young boatman in stormy seas, and I certainly wasn’t aware that Christ was his title, not his last name.
These memories of my heathen childhood came to mind as I reflected on the topic of the today’s sermon, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. The topic name is taken from the title of a book by Marcus Borg, the late liberal Christian theologian and one of the better known members of the Jesus Seminar. You might have heard of this controversial group of New Testament scholars that sought to separate the historical, human Jesus in the Gospels from the faith tradition that grew around him after his death.
In his book, Borg relates his personal experience of growing up in a devout Lutheran home and how his comforting childhood faith in Jesus gave way to doubt during adolescence and eventually to unbelief after entering seminary. As a professional theologian, his understanding of Jesus became an academic exercise, not a matter of faith. However, he relates how in his mid-30s he “met Jesus again for the first time” after undergoing a series of mystical experiences that he says fundamentally changed his understanding of God, Jesus, religion, and Christianity.
Basically, through these experiences, Borg says he came to see that God wasn’t a Being “up there” somewhere in heaven, but was “the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us.” He went on to write that he also began to see Jesus as a man whose profound experience of that sacred mystery was the essential foundation of everything he was.
As my recollection of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” indicates, Borg and I grew up worlds apart from each other; his early childhood in the ‘40s was shaped by a post-war, middle-class upbringing steeped in Lutheran Christianity; my early years were shaped by working-class poverty rocked by the tumultuous late ‘60s with my only awareness of Jesus at the time coming from a rock song blaring on the radio.
Interestingly, however, the basic questions raised about Jesus in that song—Who was he? What did he sacrifice? Did he believe he was what his church now preaches he is?—these were questions that would deeply influence both of our lives in similar ways. I didn’t go on to become a theologian as Prof. Borg did, but in many ways through my eventual experience with Christianity, I ended up sharing a faith journey very similar to the one that Borg describes in his book.
It’s a journey that has brought me to a point now in my life where I find myself wanting to, as Borg describes it, meet Jesus again for the first time. And part of that yearning has been enhanced by the UUFE Christianity Inner Circle I have facilitated for about a year, more or less.
The group, which is currently on hiatus, consists mostly of UUFE members and a couple of curious friends who met once a month for lively discussions on a lot of things, including books we chose to read about Jesus and the origins of Christianity; books that delved deeply into the questions posed in the refrain of “Jesus Christ, Superstar”: Who was Jesus? What did he sacrifice? Can we know if the historical Jesus saw himself differently than the divine Christ being worshipped in a number of churches within a 10-mile radius of this fellowship?
And while I don’t think most of the Inner Circle members seemed much concerned about this next question, I personally began the group as a way to discern for myself whether this 2,000 year old religion still has relevance today. Was it even worth meeting Jesus for the first time, let alone for a second or third time? Did it matter anymore, especially these days when the religious right has so completely co-opted Jesus and the religion around him and branded them as their own?
We have come a long way, after all, from the days when Protestant ministers like Martin Luther King and Catholic priests like the Berrigan brothers embodied a form of Progressive Christianity that seems in short supply these days. We’ve not only come a long way from when hippies sang and danced around in popular musicals like Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell, but we’re even light years away from the mid-‘90s when Marcus Borg first published Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and for a brief moment re-ignited interest in Progressive Christianity.
This question of Christianity’s relevance, though, remained important to me because although I am a Unitarian Universalist, I do come from a Christian background (despite my heathen first decade). When I was around 10 years old, my family began attending a non-denominational Christian church during a difficult time for us. When we moved to rural Dorchester County, we attended Beckwith United Methodist Church, my grandparents’ place of worship, which overall was a good experience for a pre-teen like me.
The stories I learned about Jesus in Sunday school or during a summer’s week spent at the UMC’s rustic Camp Pecometh alongside the placid Chester River gave me a reassuring sense of stability during some rocky seas in my family life…and I began to appreciate what that picture I had seen hanging on my babysitter’s wall was all about.
As with Borg, however, my adolescence and early adulthood brought with them increasingly complex questions and serious doubts that undermined the well-intentioned but simplistic faith I had learned in Sunday school. I was growing up, but my childhood faith wasn’t; by the time I was out of college, I was something close to being an atheist.
But, again like Marcus Borg, I met Jesus again for the first time when, out of curiosity more than anything, I enrolled in a continuing education program in theological studies at Georgetown University. I went into it hoping to learn the latest academic scholarship on such topics as the origins of the New Testament (something I had always wondered about but was never taught in church), but through the Jesuits’ enlightened and contemplative approach to Christianity, I ended up having what I can only describe as a transformative mystical experience similar to what Borg had.
At the heart of this profound experience was the insight that beyond the stale old traditions and dead dogmas and empty rituals I had rejected, Christianity is really about love. Not pop culture’s warm and fuzzy kind of love, but the experiential and ethical love Jesus spoke of in Mark’s Gospel that I read for today’s meditation, part of which is also known as the Jewish Shema: The greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
As a result of this experience (and these words really don’t do it justice), I became active in the United Methodist Church again, but obviously, since I’m standing here in a UU fellowship, I ended up leaving again, mainly because I felt the UMC, like a lot of mainline denominations in the late ‘90s, was gradually becoming more theologically orthodox and conservative.
In the meantime as a UU, I’ve explored Buddhism and Zen meditation, Taoism, and humanism (and they’ve all helped me in my spiritual journey); however, through it all, none of them has affected me as profoundly and as genuinely as that unexpectedlife-changing experience I had through Christianity over 20 years ago while going to Georgetown.
Which brings me back to why I formed UUFE’s Christianity Inner Circle. On one level, I thought such a group could provide an opportunity for anyone here interested in learning what contemporary scholarship has to say about the religion’s origins. Even if you aren’t interested in converting to Christianity, which I’d say most of the group members weren’t, with the religion’s influence over our society, it’s worth knowing the answers to those basic questions posed in the refrain of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” so long ago: Who was Jesus? What did he sacrifice? Did he believe he was on a divine mission of salvation?
As you can imagine, those of us in the Inner Circle had some pretty interesting discussions around the books we read on the subject. Not surprisingly, we all were not always in agreement. Which was ok, because as we learned from our readings, there’s never been a general consensus in Christianity either. Through all our good discussions and the informative books, though, I was still hoping to discern for myself whether Christianity remains relevant in today’s world.
As I come to a close here, I’ll end by briefly sharing some of the answers we learned as a group as well as my personal thoughts on that last question.
So, who was Jesus? Well, to begin with, the consensus among scholars is that the historical Jesus actually did exist and, for the most part, is generally studied by historians and scholars in his human context with questions of his divinity left to theologians to debate. In addition to reading Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, which provides a good overview of the Jesus Seminar’s understanding of the historical Jesus, we also read Reza Aslan’s somewhat controversial Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth as well as How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by one of today’s leading New Testament scholars, Bart Ehrman.
Although there are variations in their views and details of the historical Jesus remain sketchy, the three authors generally agree with most other scholars that Jesus was a Jewish peasant who was more than likely engaged in the tense revolutionary ferment of his time and place. In fact, he was probably among a number of Jewish resistance leaders rising up to end the Roman occupation and restore Jerusalem to its central and proper place as God’s earthly throne. Aslan’s book, in particular, paints a vivid picture of the economically and politically marginalized residents of Galilee, crushingly oppressed by both the Romans and the collaborating Jewish religious/political elites.
The essence of what Borg called the “Pre-Easter” Jesus is often overlooked in our general understanding of the Nazarene today. Borg points out: “There was a radical social and political edge to his message and activity. He challenged the social order of his day and indicted the elites who dominated it.” Which is ironic when you consider how modern conservative corporate elites co-opted Christianity after WWII and used it to help dismantle the New Deal, as detailed in another book we read entitled One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Princeton historian Kevin Kruse.
In all probability, after generating a popular resistance movement in Galilee, Jesus led a band of followers to Jerusalem during Passover with the messianic expectation of ousting the Romans with divine intervention and ushering in the kingdom of God. Instead, he was arrested and summarily executed by the Romans for sedition (a serious crime for which the Romans reserved the painful and humiliating punishment of public crucifixion).
So, how did this apparently failed messiah (one among many at the time) go from this shameful death as a criminal against the state to being revered within two decades as the resurrected Son of God? The answer to that daunting question isn’t easy to summarize here.
I would recommend Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God. Although he’s a former Christian, Ehrman doesn’t discount the resurrection experiences of the early church, but instead attempts to understand them through looking at how extraordinary individuals in the ancient world were often elevated by their followers to divine status after death. He also draws from what we know of bereavement visions in which people, even today, often have what seem to be vivid encounters with recently deceased loved ones.
Borg also gives a succinct overview of what he calls the “post-Easter” Christ: “Beginning with Easter, the early movement (Jesus began) continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death, but in a radically new way. After Easter, his followers experienced him as a spiritual reality, no longer as a person of flesh and blood, limited in time and space, as Jesus of Nazareth had been.”
So the answer to the question about whether Jesus saw himself, as most Christians continue to do today, as the incarnation of God is: probably not. There are numerous hints in the Gospels themselves that suggest Jesus did not see himself that way. This is one of the reasons, in fact, our Christian Unitarian forebears rejected any notions of the Trinity or of Jesus being one with God, while still revering the human Jesus as a divinely inspired man.
Finally, with all these insights into who Jesus probably was and how the religion around him began over 2,000 years ago, and knowing what I know of its often bloody and repressive history, do I still personally find Jesus worth meeting again for the first time?
I have to say, yes, I do.
I find inspiration from the martyred Pre-Easter Jesus and his struggle for justice against those who enrich themselves through oppressing and exploiting others, which is as rampant these days as it was in ancient Judea. And I have to say I find comfort in experiencing the spiritual reality of the Post-Easter Christ through recently takin up the practice of Lectio Divina, an old Benedictine contemplative practice involving scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer that helps to bring me into deeper communion with “the sacred at the center of existence, the holy mystery that is all around us and within us,” as Borg puts it.
Maybe it’s because I’m going through another challenging phase of life changes, with my oldest son graduating high school this month and his brother and sister not far behind him. And looking out at the kind of world they’re inheriting and the uncertainty I feel about my own future, let alone theirs, I can’t help but feel sometimes like I’m that guy in the picture that was hanging on my old babysitter’s wall doing the best I can to navigate my boat through threatening seas.
Like him, I find it reassuring to have the figure of Jesus pointing me toward the safe harbor of the sacred mystery at the center of existence that always seems to provide me with the shelter from the storm I need.
Catholic priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan, who died recently:
Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.