Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: "Jesus Was Not a Unitarian Universalist" (Delivered 9-29-13)

Call to Worship
I want you to imagine with me.  Imagine a particular corner of God’s green earth. The place is beautiful and fruitful.  Not necessarily more beautiful or more fruitful than other lands, but beautiful to those who call it home.

This place is sacred.  It is the place where faith is practiced.  The people who live there don’t always get it right.  There is a need for prophets to call them out, and also call them back to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

Things have not been easy lately.  A powerful empire is ruling over them.  The people are divided.  Many think that they should rise up against empire.  Others find the occupiers too brutal; the cost of resistance is too high.

This is the world that Jesus was born into, two thousand years ago.  His life was inspiring, tragic, and short.  He practiced care for those who had it hardest, the most vulnerable in his day and age.  He followed his faith passionately, even when it meant he would pay the ultimate price.  He challenged powers and principalities that caused suffering and humiliation.

Today, in our own little corner of God’s green earth, we live a place that is beautiful and fruitful.  There is considerably more freedom of faith today, but we don’t always live up to the demands of our faith.  The world is still very much in need of justice, mercy, and those who walk humbly.  Today we still live in the midst of empires, of powers and principalities that often do not have human well-being in mind.

This morning we look back, hoping to learn something for this day.

This morning we consider our place in the world of things.

Let us worship together.

I want to begin the sermon this morning by doing something a bit different.  I’d like to offer a retelling of what is probably Jesus’ most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  But, I’d like to call on you for your help in retelling this parable.  Let’s make this a collective retelling.

Let’s start with the characters. Who are the characters in the parable of the Good Samaritan?  The characters of the story include a man, several robbers, a priest, a Levite, the Good Samaritan, and an innkeeper.

Can you tell me about the narrative arc of this parable?  Can you describe the story?  The man is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is set upon by robbers who beat him, strip him naked, and leave him lying half dead by the roadside.  The priest walks by and does not stop.  The Levite walks by and does not stop.  Finally, the Good Samaritan stops to help, binds his wounds, places him on his animal, brings him to an inn, and pays the innkeeper to care for him.

Can you tell me about the moral of this story?  What lesson are we supposed to take from this story?  My guess is that you’ve always thought of this story as a lesson that teaches that the real practice of our faith is in how we care for those who are vulnerable and hurting.

And, finally, how do we feel about this story?  Do you agree with the moral of the story?

I invite you to take a moment and listen to what Reza Aslan says about the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Christians have long interpreted this parable as reflecting the importance of helping those in distress.  But for the audience gathered at Jesus’ feet, the parable would have had less to do with the goodness of the Samaritan than with the baseness of the two priests.

The Jews considered the Samaritans to be the lowliest, most impure people of Palestine for one chief reason: the Samaritans rejected the primacy of the Temple of Jerusalem as the sole legitimate place of worship.  Instead, they worshipped the God of Israel in their own temple on Mount Gerizim, on the western bank of the Jordan River.  For those among Jesus’ listeners who recognized themselves as the beaten, half-dead men left lying on the road, the lesson of the parable would have been self-evident: the Samaritan who denies the authority of the Temple, goes out of his way to fulfill the commandment of the Lord to “love your neighbor as yourself.’  The priests, who derive their wealth and authority from their connection to the Temple, ignore the commandment altogether for fear of defiling their ritual purity and thus endangering that connection.

Let me be completely clear about this:  Aslan is saying that the moral lesson that we should derive from the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem are corrupt.  They’ve been bought off by the Roman occupiers.  They’re indifferent to the suffering of the Jewish people.  They’ve sold out their people, their God, and their good name.  It’s time for new leadership.

How does this interpretation of the parable strike you? That it is not a universal teaching about service to humanity.  No, the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan is particular, partisan, and political.  The moral of the story is that it is a call for first century Jews to turn against the priests in Jerusalem.


This week and next week we’re going to be doing a short, two-part sermon mini-series on two religion books that came out this year that I think are important and that I think are challenging.  The two books are very, very different.  Next week I’m going to preach about the book When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough by Lillian Daniel.  Daniel is a liberal, mainline Protestant minister.  Her book is informal, edgy, and funny, and it is her testimony about the importance of religion, of the church and the church community, in an age of consumerism and narcissism.  Reza Aslan is not a white woman.  He is not a liberal Protestant, not a Christian, and not a member of the clergy.  He is not informal or funny.  He is a scholar of religion (and an American Muslim of Iranian descent) and this past summer he released his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Two really different books.  Next week is Lillian Daniel.  This morning is Reza Aslan.

My guess is that most of us don’t stay up to date on current trends in New Testament scholarship.  Heck, even I don’t stay up to date on current trends in New Testament scholarship.  But, I’m guessing that most of us heard about this book Zealot.  Reza Aslan had the good fortune of stumbling into some manufactured controversy about his book that made Zealot a sudden focus of the culture wars in our country and propelled the book to the very top of bestseller lists.  In late July he was interviewed on a cable news station.  The interview went viral.  And, the consequence of this interview was that if you were a person who likes pluralism, who likes religious tolerance, who likes intellectual freedom and academic history, you might feel inclined to pick up the book and throw a few dollars Aslan’s way, even if you didn’t plan on reading the book.  Therefore, this sermon.

For the record, I did read Zealot.  My main takeaway from the book was that it would make for a great academic lecture but a poor sermon.  And, it would make for an especially bad sermon for Unitarian Universalists.  Sorry.  So here is what Reza Aslan does:  He separates the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history.  He looks at the best of contemporary scholarship about what we know about Jesus’ life and times, the historical reality in which Jesus lived and in which Jesus’ earliest followers lived.  He paints a picture of what the Jesus of history may have been like.

The Jesus of history, Aslan writes, was a “revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, [a] magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, [a] radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Jewish occupation and lost.”

Aslan makes a case for a Jesus who would have been defined by zeal.  “Zeal,” he writes, “implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master – to serve any human master at all – and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God.  To be zealous for the Lord was to walk in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and heroes of old, men and women who tolerated no partner to God, who would bow to no king save the King of the World, and who dealt ruthlessly with idolatry and with those who transgressed God’s law.”

Rather than get into the minutiae of his scholarship, I want to make a religious point about Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot.  The real challenge of this book is the way that Aslan presents Jesus in a way that makes him difficult to connect with.  This Jesus is not friendly, is not polite, is not all-loving or all-accepting.  This Jesus is more wild than domesticated.  He’s partisan, political, and nationalistic.  He’s strident.  He’s zealous.  If you’re a person who has ever felt a real kinship with Jesus, a real connection, this book is especially challenging because Jesus winds up more distant, more foreign.  That is both the challenge of Aslan’s book, but also the gift of it.

If you go on and type in the phrase “Jesus was not a” it will present you with several different options.  You can purchase a self-published book called Jesus was Not a Christian that is written by an author who has issues with the Christian religion.  You can purchase a book called Jesus was Not a Trinitarian written by someone who is not a Trinitarian.  And the book Jesus is not a Republican was written, of course, by someone who is not a Republican.  While I’m unclear whether the author of Jesus Was A Feminist is a feminist, I do know that the author of Jesus Was A Liberal is a liberal. This is not exactly shocking.

It should not be surprising that Unitarian Universalist statements about who Jesus was make Jesus sound like, well, like a Unitarian Universalist.  A UUA pamphlet about UU views of Jesus states,

The man called Jesus of Nazareth was the inheritor of the Hebrew prophetic tradition of bearing witness to justice, the primacy of ethical living in community, and the possibility of reformation for all. His life was an example of the supremacy of human agency, as well as the model of struggle for healing and recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of the poor and oppressed.

If Reza Aslan could dialogue with me this morning, I think I’d read him those quotes and ask him, “So, professor Aslan, do you think Jesus was a Unitarian Universalist?”  I can tell you what his answer would be.  “No, Reverend.  Jesus was not a Unitarian Universalist.”

It has been said, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you hate.”  You know you’ve created Jesus in your own image when Jesus teaches all the things you already believe.

Jane Rzepka writes the following about a story in the news from several years ago, “There was a news story a while back about a play in New Jersey, the Passion Play about Jesus’ last days, where, for the first time in the theater’s 82-year run, a black man had been cast as Jesus.  Five tour groups cancelled their reservations.  Others wanted to reschedule for performances when a white actor played Jesus.  After a couple of vague death threats were phoned into the theater, two church schools cancelled out of fear for the safety of their students… Why in the world do potential members of the audience think that Jesus, a resident of the Middle East, would look like white people in New Jersey?!”

While the racism and ignorance of that story is horrifying, it is also true that many of us think about Jesus, to the extent that we think about Jesus, as someone who would agree with the Seven Principles.  What I’m really interested in is how we respond to the notion that Jesus was a zealot.  For us here I’m guessing that recasting Jesus as a nationalistic zealot instead of a universalistic prince of peace isn’t such a big deal.  We also know that lots of other people freak out when you mess with their traditional understanding of Jesus.  But us, well, either we don’t have a horse in this race, or the stakes aren’t all that high for us.  We just don’t become zealous when it comes to different ways of picturing Jesus.

Let me ask another question, then.  How do we feel about zealots?  It is a term we use to describe people who make us uncomfortable.  It is almost a pejorative term, isn’t it?  How many of you would want to be seated next to a zealot on an airplane?  If you’ve ever thought that someone was a zealot, you probably weren’t thinking kind thoughts about that person.

Jesus has always been a challenging figure for Unitarian Universalists.  One reason that Jesus is challenging is that there has been so much myth, miracle, and mystical theology attached to him through the ages that his humanity has often been hidden.  A second reason that Jesus is challenging is that his commandments are demanding.  Who among us lives up to his moral code.  And now, Aslan has gone and given us a third reason to find Jesus challenging.  He gives us a Jesus who is particular, partisan, and nationalistic.  Jesus is zealous.  He is most truly himself when he is turning over tables, driving out moneychangers, cursing the priests, and rising up against the Romans.

Reza Aslan’s gift to us is a Jesus who is definitely not a Unitarian Universalist.  Well, duh.  But it begs the question of what we do with someone who doesn’t necessarily live up to our standards of perfection.  Or, in other words, someone who is human.

I think our human inclination when we encounter someone who is zealous is to push that person away.  But the spiritual lesson of Aslan’s book might be not to do that.  We’re dared to be in relationship with someone who is human, warts and all.  It isn’t necessarily an easy challenge, but one that makes us better.