“My Jesus” by Mark W. Harris
December 15, 2013 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from The Gospel of Thomas
The disciples said to him, “Tell us who you are, so that we can trust you.” Jesus said, “You search for me through heaven and earth, but you don’t know the one who is right before your eyes, because you don’t know how to search into this very moment.”
Reading – from The Testament of Mary – Colm Toibin
My father loved the old television show “All in the Family.” Sometimes called one of the groundbreaking shows in the history of television, the show featured an older married couple, Archie and Edith Bunker. Archie was that benign bigot who, despite his prejudices, was somehow understandable and loveable as he struggled to adjust to changing times and issues such as homophobia and racism. Edith, was Archie’s wife, whom he often called a dingbat who needed to stifle herself. She was a naïve but ultimately wise person, who loves her irascible husband. What my father especially enjoyed was Archie’s treatment of his son-in-law, who was married to their daughter Gloria. Often depicted as a hippie freeloader, the son-in-law earned the nickname “meathead,” which my father conveniently adopted for his own long haired youngest son. Of course he identified with Archie, too. The two television representatives of the generations, clashed over the issues of the times, just as society was stricken with social, religious and political issues that my family, and perhaps yours, responded to in its own way.
The holiday season is a time when many of us reflect upon our own family configurations, and the conflicts we confront, negotiate, endure, resolve in some manner and mostly survive. It is also a time when we think about religion. Once when Archie had gone to church one Sunday, and was feeling smug, the normally demure Edith sarcastically referred to him as “Mr. Religion.” It was sweet revenge for his regular snipes at her. It may seem like “religion” time around this church. Just as the magazine rack at the local stores have issues of Time and Newsweek that are often about Jesus at Christmas and Easter, so the local UU minister seems to decide that this must be an appropriate time for us to reflect upon this mysterious religious figure.
Yet speaking about Jesus or Christianity is always fraught with considerable consternation. Many of our members find their way to our doors because of negative experiences with Christian childhood upbringings. When Frederick May Eliot was president of the American Unitarian Association there were a series of debates at annual meetings to change the name of the denominational paper from the Christian Register to the Unitarian Register, with one of the loudest commentators saying, “The less there is of Christianity, the better.” This journal changeover occurred in 1957, perhaps not so coincidently the year that Eliot died of a heart attack while in office.
Yet despite this trepidation about Christianity, UUs embrace the celebration of Christmas. This is typically done with a rational, historical approach. Sophia Fahs, our great religious educator reminded us that the birth of this child Jesus is much like that of any child, whose birth is cause for celebration because all such nights are holy nights. While recognizing the birth stories of Jesus are created to fulfill theological truths and mythic stories affirmed by early Christians, we are usually quick to discern the historical details often concluding that we really don’t know much of anything about where or when Jesus was born, but we’ll sing Silent Night anyway. Even for a day, many of us put down our inclination to sneer at miracles or unnatural births while emphasizing the possibility of new life even in times of darkest winter. This is a positive direction for liberals who often proclaim their religious freedom above all, but sadly sometimes understand freedom to mean freedom to reject everything religious as silly stories for simple people, translated as we don’t believe any of that Jesus Christ stuff. Yet freedom is not merely freedom to reject, but it is also freedom to embrace new ways to be inspired, new ways to understand, and new ways to be with each other in the world.
Christmas brings us back to that experience of family relationships. It is expectant mother and father making their way to Bethlehem on the donkey. It is the holy night in the stable, giving way to birth. It is the shepherds watching by starlit sky. It is the three kings bringing gifts to celebrate this great event. It is fleeing from evil King Herod. We think of relationships within the family, where and how to live, and how does the world impact this family? How do families survive in times of economic and political oppression?
This is a pertinent question not merely in reflecting upon Jesus life 2000 years ago, but also with Nelson Mandela, whose life has been remembered and celebrated this past week. Serving a life sentence for conspiring to overthrow the government by force, he was kept in a 8 X 7 foot cell for eighteen years by the white supremacist regime in South Africa. He could send and receive one letter every six months. In 1969 after his wife Winnie was arrested, he wrote to his daughters, whom he had not seen in five years. He told them they might have to live like orphans without home or parents, without love or affection, without birthday parties or Christmas presents, without clean beds and good food. Perhaps, he said, we will never join you again at home.
Mandela made no apologies to the girls. He said he and Winnie had convictions, and had to make sacrifices. The cost of freedom was not easy. At one point before his arrest, Mandela’s daughter Zeni was brought to a safe house where he was hiding. After hugging him, she grabbed all the clothing, and tugged at his hand to come with her. In retrospect he remembered, “You felt deserted.” He could have received the death penalty, but the government did not want to make a martyr of him. In all he spent 27 years in prison. It took its toll on the family. He was prepared to die for the ideal of a free and democratic society. Despite his reputation as a peacemaker, he never rejected armed struggle. Without violence, there never would have been negotiation. He took up the battle after 67 peaceful protestors against apartheid were gunned down. There will be no domination of white over black, or black over white, he believed all persons should live in harmony with equal opportunities. He once wrote, “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a point, one can only fight fire with fire”
Fighting fire with fire is crucial to two books I have recently read that are about Jesus. First, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, is a novel that was short listed as a potential winner of the Mann Booker prize. The other book is non-fiction, a best seller by Reza Aslan, called Zealot. One thing that is true of these two books is that they give us a Jesus who is not our Jesus. At first you might think that both books give us a more human figure than the Christ of Christianity that Unitarians have tried to either reject, discredit or downplay since the Renaissance scholar Erasmus first noticed that the passage from I John that was used by the Catholic church to prove the veracity of the Trinity was a later addition to the Gospel.
Since the very beginnings of the Christian church there were those Christians who wanted a God like savior, and others who wanted a very human inspirational teacher or friend. While Unitarians have consistently said he was not a God who died for our sins, we have also consistently said that he was the human peacemaker and healer, who counsels us to turn the other cheek, and love and forgive everybody. Aslan tells us that this love your enemies Jesus is pure fantasy. The simple fact, he says,. is that this man was crucified for sedition. This means he confronted the powers of his time, and the Romans killed him to set an example to all others who questioned their political authority. Aslan points out that Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, and his counsel to love your neighbor had to do with his fellow Jews. But as to Roman oppressors who held the Jews by the throat, he would have concurred with the Torah which said, do not make any covenant with them. The Zealots were a political party who fought for freedom. It is clear Aslan says that Jesus was no pacifist. Think of this passage from the Gospels: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” Think of how Mandela is now remembered as the peacemaker. Would it be so when he was advocating violence? He had to be the angry warrior against injustice before he could ultimately be the peacemaker.
Everybody has their own story of how events occur, and stories are often reinvented in order to prove something. Most of us know of evidence of this in our time. People frequently doctor their resumes so that they suddenly have degrees from Brown that never were conferred, or jobs in industries that are inflated and conflated to extravagant proportions. We forget stories that are too painful. We change stories to hide the truth. My wife tells a story about her cousin that is confirmed by her brother, and yet the cousin denies it ever occurred. He cut himself badly once while chopping wood. He apparently needed stitches, but his father decided he could take of the surgery himself. A little needle and fishing line later, and the sutures pulled together the wound. No anesthesia was used. Years have passed, and the cousin says it never occurred. Did he forget? Did it happen?
Aslan says that in the ancient world, people did not make sharp distinctions between myth and reality as we do. They wanted spiritual truths, but underlying facts did not really matter. This means Jesus’ family never went down into Egypt, but to fulfill Biblical prophecy, the new Moses had to come up out of Egypt, and so he did. A recent review of Aslan’s book in the UU World asks, “Who gets to tell Jesus story?” As with any story, there are multiple versions. Those Gospel writers each saw Jesus differently. In fact the authors were not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but books written by followers of those schools of thought, and the use of the names was honorific. Think of the different reports that surface after we all see a car accident differently. Who was at fault? What happened? Teaching history reminds me that winners get to tell the story, and this is precisely what we see when we read The Testament of Mary.
Colm Toibin gives us an historical figure, and not the eternal virgin, stone lawn statue, or even the blue robed dutiful mother, who, the Gospel says, wants to passively and obediently follow whatever God directs her to do. We meet Mary after Jesus’ death. She is a kept woman with two of her son’s disciples both feeding and guarding her.
What they are mostly doing is interrogating her, asking her to tell them about Jesus. They always take her back to the beginning. They get excited by the details, but then they become exasperated by the details, and then her refusal to add what they want her to add, or to hear her give an opinion that does not correspond with their view or what they want her to say. She observes that after she dies, “it will be as though what I saw and felt did not happen.” “I know,” she says, “ that he has written of things that neither he nor I saw.” They want what he said and did to live forever, but she only wants it to live in her heart. Not the Son of God, that is foolishness to her, but her son, the one who began associating with this bunch of misfits. They want to explain his conception. They want to take away her happiness as she heard his heart beating inside of her. She was assaulted by their message of redemption for the world, and being saved from death. Then comes the resurrection. They even reinvent that she was there at his side, and held his body, when in fact Toibin says the truth is she ran from the sight out of fear for her own life. Finally, she says alright, I can say I was a witness, but I will also say “it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Ultimately we feel for a mother who has lost her son. The crucifixion was a terrible tragedy. She feels rage, grief and fear. Even if it is true, it comes at too high a cost for him–and her–to pay. In the reading we hear how Mary recalls water being made into wine, but earlier she said no one inspected it first, and we hear of the dead brought back to life, but she reports Lazarus still does not look too good. Some of the familiar stories are here, but what she really wants in this story is for time to be pushed back. She wants the days when the family was together. She wants her life back when she watched her son and husband walk toward the house discussing the days events. She wants to hold that son again, to feel his breath upon her neck. The breath of some disembodied spirit means nothing to her.
The holiday season reminds us of the grief and sadness, of bygone times, of things that life once held for us, and have taken away or passed from us as time bears our loved ones away. Mary wants Jesus back. Even as the Mandela girls once wanted their Dad. They cannot regain what was lost. Most of us do not have to grieve an ultimate sacrifice, but we all suffer from what time and choice and chance have taken from us. Aging teaches us that time does not slow or stop for us. Yet those past memories whether painful or pleasant also give us the opportunity to live forward. Who can comprehend the pain of those parents from Newtown, who marked the one year anniversary of the shootings yesterday? But they live on with the pain, some testifying that the world can change. We are called to build a new world that will bring about freedom and justice. Mary thinks of the possibility of being spared, of going back, but then she also imagines going to a different time and place when the world is filled with plenty.
I think the most interesting thing for me in the book Zealot was about Jesus’ brother James. When we think of who led the early Christian church, we automatically say Peter and Paul. Yet Aslan is convinced that this is an instance of winners telling the story. The early church wanted to downplay James, a Jew from Jerusalem who represented a family dynasty in the succession of who should lead the church. Eventually the Catholic Church wanted James to disappear because his presence ruined their idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin.
The evidence from the book of Acts indicates James was the head of the church first centered in Jerusalem, but once he was killed and Jerusalem leveled, the power switched to Rome, and the story of leadership in the earliest days is forever changed. Historians note that the siege of Jerusalem followed James’ martyrdom. Even in Acts, James is often mentioned first as a pillar of the church. But perhaps most critical is the message of James. There is only one short book in the Christian scriptures that bears his name. It was Martin Luther’s least favorite Biblical book because it emphasized works rather than grace. James had a passionate concern for the poor. He taught that faith apart from works is dead. It was only a small part of the story, but it is a part that helped give Unitarianism its place in the Christian story, and is central to our faith today.
My Jesus is the one who implores us to live forward, working and living toward that world of justice that we may never see. Despite our losses, we see that our commitment of faith is like Jesus’ brother James: do justice. We can see from Jesus to James to Mandela that oppression can drive the human heart toward freedom. Some make the ultimate sacrifice in that battle. As Nelson Mandela said, “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.” That time does not stop becomes evident especially when we reflect upon those lives that have passed from us. Acts done to stop the pain of others, and the pain of the world may not bear immediate fruit. Mary knows the pain of a lost son and grieves what she has lost. We want those who are gone to come back because we felt comfort and security and love in their presence. But they can still give us the story, the inspiration, the power to live forward. As we suffer losses, it becomes clearer that times passes, and we do, too. We are only humble passengers on a voyage through. It is not about us, but about the world going on, and us making it spin with a dream of justice and freedom for all. That is what this church family dreams about, too, even as it passes on its faith to those who follow.
Closing Words – from Nelson Mandela
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”