This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.
This reading is from a small book titled Unfoldings, lectures by Bernard Loomer.
“The Synoptic Gospels [that is, the Bible books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke] should be the possession of the Unitarian Universalists as much as any other group. What I perceive may be “old-hat” to Biblical scholars, but if so, they have failed to make it clear to us peasants….
“In the Synoptic [Gospels] we have the situation of a man born out of [or] within a covenantal tradition, a tradition in which the laws and statues of God were important. This God was the god of the people who were to follow these laws, and they were to be his people. This is the tradition out of which Jesus came, and out of this tradition arose the historical notion of the Messiah — the one who was to redeem Israel.
“Jesus has been accorded many titles. He has been called Savior, Leader, Shepherd, Counselor, son of god, Messiah. But his intellectual gifts have not been recognized (even when the term “intellectual” has been more carefully defined). It was he who discovered what he called the “Kingdom of God” — what I call the Web of Life — surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the Western world.
“As I define it, the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality. This includes the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of existence.
“Jesus discovered the reality of the Web. He began his public ministry by announcing its presence and its fuller exemplification [which he called], the “coming kingdom.”…
“…In the Synoptic [Gospels], Jesus is not the central reality. The Kingdom is the central reality. He describes this reality, but the Kingdom does not exist for his sake. He serves the Kingdom and draws his power from it. The Kingdom was not created because Jesus was of supernatural origin. The Kingdom was never created. The discovery was that the Kingdom is a given of life itself. It was not created by Jesus. It was not created at all. It is simply inherent in life itself.”
According to the retailers, Christmas started right after Hallowe’en. According to the traditional Christian calendar, the Advent season, the lead-up to Christmas, began last Sunday. However you figure it, the Christmas season is full upon us. You can’t walk into a store at this time of year without hearing sugary-sweet renditions of various Christmas songs, you can’t drive down the street without being assaulted by over-the-top Christmas decorations, you can’t listen to the radio without hearing Christmas songs written and performed by fading rock stars.
I realize that I’m letting my cynicism show through. I admit it, I’m a Scrooge. I’ll spend the next few weeks going around saying, “Bah! Humbug! Christmas humbug!” every chance I get. I know that there are plenty of people, probably many of you in this room, who love Christmas — who love the songs, who love the over-the-top decorations, who love to shop — and if you love Christmas, well then (as my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother used to say), bless your heart. We all get our joy in different ways at this time of year — some people like to shop, some people like to wear reindeer antlers on their head, and people like me enjoy saying, “Bah! Humbug!”
Yet all of us, the whole range of people from Scrooges and Grinches, all the way to Santas and Christmas elves — all of us usually stop at some point in the frenetic Christmas season and say something like this: “But you know, it’s important to remember that Christmas is really about the birth of Jesus.” I do that about once a week — for example, I’ll see some particularly egregious Christmas display in a store window, and I’ll stop and say to myself, “But you know, Christmas isn’t about consumerism, it’s really about the birth of Jesus.” That’s about as far as I get before I burst out with “Bah! Humbug!” and all thoughts of Jesus leave my brain. If you are a lover of Christmas, perhaps it happens to you when you’re singing along with the car radio, “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane,” and you’ll pause in your singing and think, “But you know, this isn’t about Santa Claus, it’s really about the birth of Jesus” — and then the chorus will come around again, and you’ll start singing, and all thoughts of Jesus leave your brain.
When I do actually find the time to think about Jesus during the Christmas season, about all I think about is that well-worn, familiar story that we tell about the birth-night of Jesus: you know the story, with angels and shepherds and the three wise men, and the stable with the animals who can talk and mean old King Herod and the star that shone above Bethelehem. None of which actually has anything to do with Jesus, when you come right down to it, and much of which isn’t even in the Bible. Baby gets born, miraculous things happen — these are myths about Jesus, but they really don’t say much about who Jesus actually was. I guess if you’re a traditional Christian, at Christmas time you can think about how Jesus was the son of God, but as a Unitarian that has very little emotional resonance with me. Even then, I’ll bet most traditional Christians are like me and spend very little actual time thinking about Jesus.
So this year, I wanted to take one Sunday during the Christmas season when I didn’t talk about the usual Christmas story, and when I didn’t just completely ignore Christmas. I wanted to take one Sunday this year to talk about the really amazing accomplishments of the adult Jesus.
I’ve decided that what really impresses me about Jesus of Nazareth is not his spiritual accomplishments, admirable as those might be; not his concern for the poor and marginalized people of the world, as much as I find that worthy of emulating; definitely not the myths about being a son of God nor the myths about supposed miracles nor the story of his miraculous birth. These are all wonderful stories, but I’ve decided that what really impresses me is Jesus’s intellectual accomplishments.
1. The first time I seriously considered Jesus’s intellectual accomplishments was when I read a short lecture titled “The Synoptic Gospels” by Dr. Bernard Loomer; and we heard an excerpt from that lecture in the second reading this morning. Bernard Loomer was a professor of theology at the University of Chicago, and later professor of theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. While he lived in California he started attending the Unitarian Universalist church in Berkeley, under the influence of his second wife, and shortly he was invited to give a series of informal talks to members of the Berkeley church; the second reading this morning is an excerpt from one of those informal talks.
In this lecture, Bernard Loomer tells us that “It was [Jesus] who discovered what he called the ‘Kingdom of God’ — what I call the Web of Life — [and this is] surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the Western world.” Loomer tells us that once you understand Jesus’s concept of the Web of Life, you will be transformed by a realization of how everything is interconnected — humans are interconnected with humans, with other life forms, even with the rocks and soil — and as you understand more and more about the Web of Life, as you trace out all these interrelationships and connections, you will continue to be transformed.
Furthermore, in another one of these informal talks, Loomer tells us that to understand the Web of Life in this way forces us to think about morality and ethics in new ways. Loomer says, “Holding the notion of the Web that I do, I do believe that what I do makes a difference…. Once I have done something, there is a sense in which that act becomes public property….” So you see, understanding the Web of Life isn’t some dry, meaningless intellectual activity — understanding the Web of Life doesn’t just change the way you understand the world, it changes the way you live your life.
When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was talking about the Web of Life. Forget what the orthodox Christians and the fundamentalists tell you about the kingdom of God — they have missed the main point. The Kingdom of God isn’t some place you go to after you die — it is a state of being that is available to you here and now. The Kingdom of God is the Web of relationships that requires you to understand how you are linked to a Web of existence that includes all other people and all other beings; the Kingdom of God is a way of understanding that what you do with your life matters a great deal.
2. Once we start to take Jesus seriously as a great thinker, once we peel away layer upon layer of ritual and creed and dogma and orthodoxy with which the church has plastered Jesus for hundreds of years — once we consider Jesus as a great thinker, suddenly some of the things he says begin to make more sense. Like the parables of Jesus, those short, pithy stories that he told to his followers — some of those parables of Jesus don’t seem to make much sense when you first hear them. Oh, you know what you’re supposed to believe they mean, because the traditional Christian churches have told us what we’re supposed to believe — but often the things the churches tell us don’t make sense. Take, for example, this misinterpreted parable:
Jesus told this story. He said: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in the shade.” [Mt. 13.31-32] Now I don’t know much about traditional orthodox Christian interpretations of the Bible, but I think most churches interpret this parable to mean something like this: have faith in God, believe in God, and your faith will grow, and you’ll get to go to heaven after you die — or something like that. To my way of thinking, that’s a narrow and even wrong-headed interpretation of this parable.
Bernard Loomer tells use that the Kingdom of God means the same thing as Web of Life, and with that in mind let’s reconsider this old familiar parable. This parable is not about what happens after you die, this is a parable that uses a vivid and convincing image to tell us what is happening all around us in the world. When you plant a seed — and I mean literally plant a literal seed in actual dirt — a plant will grow from that seed, and that plant will be a heck of a lot bigger than the original seed. And when a plant grows, it does not grow in isolation from other living beings — when a person plants a seed, the plant grows out of the soil under the influence of sun and heat and rain, and other living beings live in and under and around that plant; and all these things are connected in the Web of Life — the human being who plants, the seed which grows, the soil and sun and rain, the birds which nest, all these interrelationships are revealed in the simple act of planting a seed. Which brings us to the moral or ethical point: someone sows a seed; some human being takes action; and like every human action, this act of sowing the seed has effects that ripple throughout the entire Web of Life. This is the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus — the complex interrelationships that connect us with all other human beings and all other living beings and all non-living things. This is why harming the ecosystem is evil. All this is revealed in a simple parable about a mustard seed.
This is a different way of thinking about Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was more than some guy wandering around in the desert dressed in a bathrobe, getting born in a stable with frankincense and myrrh, and growing up to perform supernatural miracles. Jesus was a profound religious and ethical and moral thinker. And when you start to consider Jesus as a powerful religious thinker, even some of the so-called miracles begin to make sense. Take, for example, the story of the feeding of five thousand [Mk. 6.32-44]:
3. Jesus and his disciples are trying to get away from the crowds that follow him everywhere, so they take a boat and go out to this lonely place, far from any village. But the people figure out where they’re going, and by the time Jesus and his friends land, there are five thousand people waiting for him. So Jesus starts to teach them, and this goes on for hours. By now, it’s getting late, and the followers of Jesus pull him aside and say, Hey, send these people away to all the nearby villages to get some food. Jesus replies, No, you get them something to eat. His followers say, What, you want us to take a thousand bucks and go buy some bread and bring it back to them? No no, says Jesus, how many loaves of bread we got right here? His followers say, We got five loaves of bread, and a couple fried fish.
So Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the grass, and all five thousand people sit down. Being a good Jew, Jesus blesses the bread, using the traditional Jewish blessing: Blessed are you, O Holy One, Creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Then, so everyone can see, Jesus breaks the bread, and cuts up the fish, to be handed around. Miracle of miracles, there’s plenty of food to go around, and indeed there’s twelve baskets full of food left over when everyone has eaten enough.
Traditional Christians believe that Jesus did something magical to the bread so that it somehow multiplies. If you want to believe that old traditional interpretation, feel free to do so. But instead of some supernatural miracle, I believe what happened was an even bigger miracle, and it went like this:
Jesus had spent the whole day teaching people about the Kingdom of God (what we call the Web of Life), teaching them about how every person and every thing is interrelated. And while he’s teaching them, he’s looking out at the crowd, and he sees that some of the people have brought food with them, and they’re surreptitiously nibbling away on their food, ignoring the fact that many other people have no food at all. Jesus also knows that his followers brought along five loaves of bread and two fried fish, enough food for the thirteen of them, as long as they don’t have to share it with anyone. So what does Jesus do? He gets all five thousand people to sit down, and he says to them: OK, now we’re gonna eat — here, we got five loaves bread and two fish; being a good Jew I’m going to bless them, then I’m gonna break them up and share them with all five thousand of you — and you know what? if you’ve been listening to what I’ve been saying all day, we’ll have plenty of food for everyone here.
As Jesus says this, I’ll bet you could see the truth dawning in people’s eyes. They had been listening to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and now he’s telling them to follow what he taught. So everyone who has food shares it around; the followers of Jesus help distribute everything. In the end, everyone has enough to eat, every single person there, with plenty of food left over.
As I say, if you want to believe in some supernatural miracle, please do so. To me, that’s a good way to let yourself off the hook — if some all-powerful daddy God is going to solve all your problems, then you don’t have to take personal responsibility. I believe Jesus is teaching us to take personal responsibility for all our relationships within the Web of Life.
And in fact, the early Christian church lived out this kind of teaching. You all know about the Christian ritual of communion, right? If you go to a Catholic church and take communion, it’s all symbolic, right? — I’ve never done it, but I’m told you get a little wafer of bread, and it’s all a symbol. Same thing in most Protestant Christian churches — you get a sip of wine or maybe grape juice, and a little crumb of bread, and it’s all a symbol. But in the early Christian church, records show that communion was a real meal — they talk about bringing olives and cheese and bread and wine and lots of other good things to eat. It was a symbolic meal, but it was also a real meal, because some of those early Christians didn’t get enough to eat all week, and they really needed that big meal on Sunday that was communion. So it was that those early Christians truly lived out the teachings of Jesus — they truly lived out their understanding of the Web of Life by sharing their food with each other.
Our church is definitely not a traditional Christian church. We stopped doing traditional Christian communion more than a century ago. Yet if you want to see a Jesus-type social-justice-oriented communion, come to our social hour after the worship service. Maybe we don’t have communion, but if you come to social hour after church you will discover that someone has made soup, and you can get a hot meal after church. And on some Sundays, we’ll have pizza of some other food out for a nominal cost, but if you don’t have any money, we don’t mind if you take some anyway. (We do ask people to come to the worship service first, to be a part of the religious community.) In other words, we live out the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand right here in our church. This is why I don’t need a supernatural explanation for that story of feeding the five thousand, because I’ve actually seen with my own two eyes how a community of people can share food among themselves, and have plenty to go around. By the way, any time you want to bring food to church, you can sign up to make soup, or just bring some good food to share.
I should add one last thing about the story of feeding the five thousand: if you really think about, which is harder to believe:– the supernatural explanation, that God made food appear? — or the other explanation, that if you give them a chance, people will be amazingly generous? Contemporary American society would rather believe the supernatural explanation than believe that we are all are capable of being amazingly generous. No wonder the traditional Christian churches emphasize supernatural miracles. But I’d rather believe people are capable of amazing generosity. And the funny thing is that each year at Christmas time, it seems to me that I see acts of generosity that equal to the story of the feeding of the five thousand. So maybe we do live out the teachings of Jesus at Christmas time, even if we don’t think much about it.
I started out by saying that each Christmas season, most of us try to stop and remember that Christmas is actually about Jesus. Now we’ve taken our obligatory time to reflect on Jesus. We’ve done it a little differently this year: we have taken the time to think about Jesus as a great intellectual leader, someone who discovered what he called the Kingdom of God, which we may prefer to call the Web of Life.
Now you’ve spent your time reflecting on Jesus. Now you can go out an indulge yourself in however you like to celebrate this holiday — shopping, decorations, saying “Bah humbug,” giving gifts, being generous to charities — whatever it is you do. And don’t forget to indulge yourself in the constantly growing knowledge that you, too, are an essential part of the whole Web of Life, that you are essentially connected with all that is.