Faith: Three Rival Versions

The Merry Mystic Resorts to Preaching and Teaching

It’s been a long time since The Merry Mystic brought you any outright preaching or teaching. Usually, I prefer something more casual, like music or humor. But I just couldn’t help myself this week. (I had a former career as a professor of computer science, so every now and then, I just have to bust out with a PowerPoint.)

My subject comes from an open-ended question I received this week: what is faith all about? My answer is from my own Christian perspective, of course. But I’d love to hear what you think about that question too, so please scroll down when you’ve seen the video and leave a response.

The Treasure and the Poison

The Merry Mystic Goes to Church

Here’s a big bowl of pills. Some of them are miracle cures. Some of them are poison…

Please leave a comment: are you thinking of a particular “poison pill” in the Christian tradition?

Incidentally, I’m a big fan of the animated television series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” When I made this video, I kept thinking of this scene from the “Cave of Two Lovers” episode:

Iroh: You're looking at the rare white dragon bush. 
      Its leaves make a tea so delicious, it's heartbreaking. 
      That, or it's the white jade, which is poisonous.

Zuko: We need food, not tea. I'm going fishing.

Iroh: Hmm ... delectable tea? Or deadly poison?


Iroh: Zuko, remember that plant I thought might be tea?

Zuko: You didn't ...

Iroh: I did ... and it wasn't. 

Zuko: Ahh!

Iroh: When the rash spreads to my throat, I will stop breathing. 
      But, look what I found: 
      these are bacui berries, known to cure the poison of the white jade.  
      That, or maka'ole berries that cause blindness...

The Ten Commandments (For Kids)

Every week I post a recording of my sermon over on the church web site: I don’t usually post the children’s message there, but this week it was too much fun to leave off. It’s a quick introduction to the Ten Commandments, with a little song to help people remember what they are. There’s a first great commandment, inscribed in solid stone…

Stenazo: A Sermon

Last September, many of our UCC churches  followed a special lectionary called “The Season of Creation”.  This set of scripture readings reflects concern for the environment, and is being used by other denominations around the world, including denominations in Canada, South Africa, England, continental Europe, and Australia.  The following reading from the Epistle of Paul to the Romans was part of this green lectionary, and my sermon on that text follows.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  (Romans 8:18-27)

Outside of my home town there’s a little family farm where my wife and I buy eggs.  I like to buy eggs from this farm because I know the family.  They’re good people: Mennonites who live and farm simply.   They don’t advertise that their produce is “organic”, because they don’t care to have the government involved in checking up on their farming practices.  But I know them, and I know that they’re careful and skillful farmers.   I know the eggs taste good.  I know the price is fair.  And I know above all that they farm without any unnecessary stenazo.   What, you may ask, is stenazo?  Is this yet another hazardous chemical we all need to worry about?  Well, hold on to that question for a few minutes, and I’ll explain.

Today’s reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In that letter Paul portrays Jesus as a critical part of the history of the world.  It’s a complicated letter, so I’m going to give you an executive summary.  Here’s the condensed history of the world according to Paul.  It has four major acts.  Act One, Eden: it all starts with a perfect creation, free from all suffering and death.  Act Two, The Fall: Adam and Eve disobey God at the instigation of a talking snake, bringing suffering and death into the world.  Act Three, The Christ: the remedy for the damage wrought by Adam and Eve is the redemptive suffering of Jesus.  Act Four, The Apocalypse: Christ is about to return to judge the world, and the faithful will again be completely free from suffering and death.

Today’s reading is the part where Paul explains how this story applies, not just to humans, but to all of creation.  Act One, Eden, wasn’t just paradise for humanity—all of creation was, originally, free from suffering and death.  Act Two, The Fall, wasn’t just the fall of humanity—Adam and Eve took all of creation down with them, bringing suffering and death into the whole natural world, animals and plants included, so that ever since then, all of the natural world has been “subject to futility”, as Paul puts it.  Act Three, The Christ, wasn’t just Jesus’ rescue of Adam and Eve’s descendants—Jesus’ redemptive suffering paid the price for the restoration of all of creation to its perfect state before the fall.  From Paul’s vantage point, writing just before the curtain rises on Act Four, all of creation is groaning in anticipation; not just humanity, but all of creation knows that the telling blow has been struck, breaking suffering and death.  All of creation is waiting on the verge of the moment when suffering and death, having been struck, will shatter, and fall away, and be no more.

This story arc of fall and redemption was tremendously important to our faith ancestors.  They built it into many of the foundations of our Christianity.  It’s worked into the writings and sermons and hymns and artwork and prayers of many centuries.  In these latter days, unfortunately, it has become a significant burden for us.  The problem is that, taken as a history of the world, Paul’s story is quite wrong.

I’m sorry to be so crassly contradictory of our beloved faith ancestor, the Apostle Paul, but I’m a scientist by training and inclination, and I just can’t pretend not to know what we all do know about the history of our planet.  I accept the scientific understanding of how we evolved here.  I accept that our ancestral condition gradually developed through the pain and joy, and holiness and savagery, common to all life on earth.  So Act One is not historically accurate: we know that death and suffering have been with us as long as there has been life on this planet.  Act Two is also, therefore, not historically accurate: the suffering and death in the world can’t be blamed on the disobedience of some particular pair of our ancestors.  And therefore Act Three is—not inaccurate, but inadequate: the amazing gift of Jesus’ life and teaching is misjudged and undervalued if we see it primarily as a remedy for a fall that never happened from a state of earthly perfection that never was.

So am I saying that the Epistle to the Romans is just false, wrong-headed, misguided?  Am I saying that we should tear those pages out of our Bibles?  I am not.  I admire historical accuracy, but after all: it’s only the barest kind of truth.  The story that Paul tells us about the world is not historically true, but it has great truth nevertheless.

I propose that we read those first three acts of Paul’s story, not as descriptions of the past, but as a descriptions of the present.  I propose that we consider how all three acts are happening at once, right now, in the world and in our hearts.  Here in the present we have Act One, the gift of Eden: because God is always showing us a vision of Eden, always singing us the song of Eden, and always calling us into harmony in ways which, if we could truly discern and faithfully follow, would transform the world wonderfully.  But Act Two is also happening right now: because we are always Adam-and-Eve-ing it, always ignoring God’s call, and thus always increasing the suffering and death in the world.  And mercifully, Act Three is also happening right now, because Jesus didn’t just come once long ago.  He comes again right now, wherever two or three are gathered in his name; Christ is come to teach us himself, to teach us by example and precept how to live into the harmony God intends.  And now, right now, the Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words.

And, as Paul observes in today’s reading, this isn’t restricted to humankind: all of creation participates.  The Eden harmony to which God calls us is a harmony that includes the whole world and all of its creatures; the Adam-and-Eve transgressions we commit bring the whole world down with us; and the life of Christ is a gift for the relief of the whole world.

How amazing it is that Paul saw all this!  In Paul’s day there were perhaps only two hundred million of us on this planet, living in comparatively low-tech, low-impact ways.  Since that time our numbers have vastly increased and, in wealthy countries, technology has vastly increased the environmental impact of each one of us.  Now there are thirty-five times as many humans here as in Paul’s day, over seven billion of us, busily polluting the air and water, destroying habitats, changing the climate, and causing extinctions on a massive scale, and all the while denying that this is happening, or that it is a matter for concern, or that there is anything we can do about it.  Paul was right, all too right, that creation is groaning in labor pains, in bondage to decay, and he was right that it is largely our fault.

Paul wrote that all of creation is groaning.  That word in the original Greek is stenazo, and Paul emphasized it by repeating it three times in today’s passage.  Stenazo is sometimes translated as groan, and sometimes as sigh; it means whatever sound we make when we express ourselves involuntarily and wordlessly in the face of an undesirable circumstance.

Stenazo is the cry of the human heart under oppression; it might be, for example, both the cry and the sigh in William Blake’s poem “London”:

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

Stenazo is the cry that rises to heaven from the millions of victims of our wars and our genocides.  But stenazo is also the cry of animals, rising up to God from all the places of their confinement—it rises to heaven from our laboratories, from our high-density farming operations, from the places where millions of unwanted dogs and cats are euthanized each year.  If they had words and could speak, these animals, perhaps they would sigh their own versions of the psalms; perhaps they would pray Psalm 83, saying:

How long will you be silent, O God,
while your people weep?
Who will glorify your name, O God,
when all your children are broken and silent?

But having no words, they groan and sigh their prayers: stenazo, each according to the fashion of its kind, and too deep for words, even if they had any.

And this is why I buy eggs from my Mennonite friends—because I know that they inflict no unnecessary suffering on their animals.  Nothing in this world is free of suffering, of course; no bird, farmed or wild, lives a life of unalleviated bliss.  But I know that when I open a carton of eggs from my friends’ farm, no unnecessary groan or sigh, no stenazo, flies up to heaven on my account.

But this is only a little thing, and I know that there is much more I should be doing.  I have left undone those things which I ought to have done, for the suffering of all creation, and I have done those things which I ought not to have done.  Alas, in this world, we humans are responsible for a great deal of unnecessary suffering and death, among our own kind, and also among our animal cousins.  And our culpability extends beyond the animal kingdom.  From the world’s rainforests a groan and sigh now rises constantly to heaven, stenazo, as the great trees burn and fall, and as the intricate webs of life beneath them vanish forever, remembered and mourned only by their creator.  We humans, we may not have introduced suffering and death into the world—but oh, how much we have increased it!

Into this great stenazo in every moment comes the Christ: a gift not only for the relief of human suffering, but for the relief of the whole world.  Jesus taught, in Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”  For God so loves the sparrow that her stenazo is heard in heaven.  As William Blake wrote:

A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage. …
A Skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.

The sparrow, the robin, the skylark, and, yes, the chicken: Jesus would have us show kindness to all those whom God loves.  And Jesus, the healer of the world, taught pointedly against greed, against the idolatry of wealth, which lies behind so much of our exploitation of each other and of the whole world.  Jesus taught us—sorry, teaches us, teaches us in every moment—to be good stewards rather than prodigals, to be good shepherds rather than wolves, and to be servants of each other rather than masters.

The details are up to us: Jesus does not give explicit instructions on how to farm, or what to eat, or where to shop, or when to stop.  But Jesus does teach us, in every moment, to love God—and this must include treating God’s beloved creation with kindness and respect.  And Jesus does teach us, in every moment, to love our neighbor—which, I suspect, does not only mean our neighbor of the same species.

My wife and I sometimes used to take our children out to our Mennonite friends’ farm.  A few years ago, on one of these trips, my daughter Fern told me that she had been thinking about Jesus.  She said that she didn’t see how Jesus could have been the son of God.  I thought, aha! now I’ll be able to use some of that seminary education!  But Fern’s objection was, of course, something for which I was completely unprepared.  She said, “If Jesus was the son of God, he would have had fur, and all these animal parts—because there’s more on earth than just people.”  Well, I don’t think that Jesus’ apparent lack of animal parts is a convincing argument against his being God’s son, but I do think Fern had a point—and not just Fern, but many of our children and young people, who sometimes understand these things better than their elders.  Our religious tradition too often smuggles in the anthropocentric view that humankind is all God really cares about.  The truth we can learn from our own children, and from Paul’s writing today, is that God’s intended harmony includes all of creation; that all of creation suffers for our sins; and that Jesus’ life and teachings are a gift to all of creation—fur or no fur.

A Sermon on Psalm 90: “The Window Opens”

Here’s a video recording of a sermon I delivered in the First Congregational Church of DeKalb, IL on Sunday, November 13, 2011. The text was Psalm 90:1-12, and as part of the sermon I sang two songs: “Dies Irae” and “I Think”. The “Dies Irae” is some 800 years old, with a Latin text said to have been written by Thomas of Celano, the friend and disciple (and official biographer) of Francis of Assisi. I sang a subset of the verses, using the 1848 English translation by William Irons. The second song, “I Think”, is one I wrote myself.