This sermon looks at the perversion of the Christian message in contemporary America. 10/21/18
When I was in seminary, I lived next door to Riverside Church, the great Protestant Catherdral of America. It was on the corner of Columbia University and Harlem. One year, the Dalai Lama was touring the US and was stopping to speak at Riverside church. Many of us seminarians were invited into the worship service. For weeks we prepped art supplies for this gorgeous service. The Dalai Lama was preaching on interfaith solidarity and compassion. And we were crafting the large and long giant fishes – in designs and styles from every world religion. For you see, the fish is an image that is almost universally sacred to every world faith in some way. The service began with drumming, and dozens and dozens of us marching in with those giant fish on long poles with streamers behind – swimming into and through the giant catherdal. Ritually, we were trying to describe that that which is universal in faith, is essential to faith. What we all have in common, is what is central to the spirit. That which is universal is essential.Remember that image, and we’ll come back to it soon.
“And the people bowed and prayed. To the neon god they made. And the sign flashed out its warning. In the words that it was forming. And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. And tenement halls.” (Paul Simon)
I’m a child of the 70’s and 80’s. Neon was synonymous with excitement; it was also a good stand-in for vice, excess, danger. Sometimes it meant greed. I remember the first time I went to Las Vegas for a work conference, back when I was still in Info Tech, there was a point when I was strolling around that I had to leave one of the major street intersections; the neon and flashing lights were so much more extreme than even Times Square, my vision couldn’t handle all the dazzle, and I was worried I was going to pass out. Now that Times Square is all giant LED screens, I’m not sure if the generations after me will see “Neon” that way. It might just come across as “cheap,” in the sense of the cheaper alternative to LED. But for “The Sound of Silence” and Simon and Garfunkle, and for this kid of the 70s and 80s, the man-made gods were Neon.
“The Sound of Silence” is the modern retelling of the Golden Calf story; where gold was melted into a false god that was worshipped. The commandments were tossed aside, And the people bowed and prayed… The oldest stories are new again, and again. And the prophets of old, and the prophets of today, are found in the margins, among the underserved; the carpenters, the orphans, the graffiti artists, and in public housing. They probably won’t have flashy signs drawing attention to them; the bright lights often are trying to dazzle us to look the other way – away from the prophets that are forging a new, and healthier path.
Religion is often divided, and despite all the interfaith work of recent decades, it continues to be a tremendous source for divisiveness. It’s that fact, that pushes so many spiritual people away from organized religion. Add to that, the very reality of golden calves, and neon gods, there is a real threat we need to come to account with, and figure out how to manage – as religious people. I’ll begin with my own home, and move out from there. Today we will look at the painful tension, or the disconnect between our expressed values, and how our national religious and civic actions often play out. The mixed messages between what we say and what we do; what we believe and how we practice.
My household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on, that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as a too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianity doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He legitimately sees the bad, and the stark, and has had enough. And I see all that stuff too, and I react differently; I say that’s not real Christianity. Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. I’ll remind us again, that Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s. …Neon gods….
“And in the naked light I saw. Ten thousand people, maybe more. People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. People writing songs that voices never share. And no one dared. Disturb the sound of silence.”(Paul Simon)
I want to look back to the beginning of Christian teachings, and we’ll move our way forward to the events of this past week; I’m especially horrified over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government. Aside from the nightmare, that is our current administration’s unwillingness to do anything about an American Permenant Resident, and a journalist with the Washington Post, being murdered on foreign soil, we have also heard from Christian evangelists doubling now as murder apologists. Pat Robertson, the prominent televangelist, to paraphrase, ‘said that it wasn’t worth jeopardizing our alliance with Saudi Arabia over one life; it wasn’t worth billions of dollars, over one life.’ If you haven’t read about the details, I will not traumatize anyone now. And all the pundits are busy talking without speaking, as they try to spin this other than what it clearly is. I’ll leave it to you to read more about it if you so feel called. But today, we’ll try to sort out how we’ve gotten to the point where such a perverse perspective could be considered Christian. And maybe along the way, for those of us who are scarred by false religiosity, we might find a way back to reclaiming religion for ourselves. I’m increasingly believing that religious people have this internal work to do. For many of us, we’ve allowed American cultural Christianity to be understood as realChristianity. American cultural Christianity is a neon god; that’s all, and that’s dangerous.
It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite is leading us toward neon gods.
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare. And we remember, That which is universal is essential.Every world faith shares those five basic teachings of Jesus; that which is essential can notbe called class warfare.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found – that community should transcend ego. That we are better together, than apart. That the kingdom of heaven is found in our midst – and Jesus meant – inall our midst.Bowing to our ego, bowing to neon gods is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. And as the…People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening… continue on, whole swaths of us are fed false teachings of scarcity, of fearing the stranger, of hating our neighbor. We can do better; we are graced with the original blessing of life, and that is magnificant. We can be magnificent to one another. It is our work, all our work, to undo the false teachings of scarcity, of fear, of hate. That’s the religious call. Shatter the golden calf, turn toward the graffiti artists, and tenement halls, and hear the needs of the people, all the people.
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. As the powers and principalities would see us unnervered, distraught, in despair, and disorganized – I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? I’ve asked this before, and I’ll ask us again, would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. This feels like a central part of our collective life here, and we should be proud of what we do. Who are our leaders in this work here – raise your hand. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 15 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming upon us, there are opportunities to still volunteer. Joan P. and Mary S. are leads in this effort and it does take all of us. If you are one of our monthly managers, raise your hand – If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. We have a vibrant Pastoral Care team that helps me in visiting those who are sick, and helping along the way. Will our pastoral care associates who are present please raise your hands. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. I think where we most closely succeed here is our work starting the Rapid Response Network in this part of Long Island, where folks accompany detained immigrants going to court; to strive to witness what they face, and to help honor their humanity during a difficult time in their life – a time that our nation makes unnecessarily difficult. If you would like to join in that work – reach out to our Social Justice committee, and they can connect you. Who here is involved with the Rapid Response Network, please raise your hands. If you would like to learn more, seek them out in coffee hour. We are not powerless.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In the push and pull of the mixed messages of consumerism versus spirituality, we get to choose to what we will bow our heads and pray. And in these days of increasing bends toward the harsh realities of fascism, do not allow yourself to succumb to feeling powerless. Remember that that which is universal is essential.Stay true to the common sense spiritual teachings we all know to be true. Do not believe the lie that compassion is on the fringe, and fear and scarcity are in the center. Progressive faith, diverse faith, compassionate faith, is essential and true. Let us diligently lead by relentlessly fostering the ties and connections we can that are before us, and find strength, and find power, in that solidarity.