webadmin@spfccc.orgCommunity Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 





Sermon

Faith in the 21st Century

Easter 6    May 10, 2015
Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO
Roger Ray, Pastor

 
Psalm 1                   
1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgement,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.
In my recently published book, Progressive Faith and Practice, I explain the initial invention of religion as the attempt of early civilizations to cope with two things:  the capricious nature of the universe, and their awareness of their own inevitable death.  When humans became self-aware, they attempted to project a personality onto the earth, weather, agriculture, the seas and the skies in order to account for why they did what they did.  The earliest of religions did not include a belief in an afterlife but for many, especially in western culture where individualism seemed to be increasingly important, a belief in eternal life was added to western religions and to varying degrees, it has also pollinated some eastern faiths.

For most people, it seems, the function of religion has never really progressed from just that level.  From the time when ancient Palestinians believed that God sat on a throne in the heavens right above their temple on Mt Moriah in Jerusalem, to the announcement of Mike Huckabee last week in Hope, Arkansas in which he reflected on his childhood experiences in school, saying, "We prayed at the start of each day, and we prayed again before lunch, and I learned that this exceptional country could only be explained by the providence of almighty God," religion has not evolved.  Jews thought that God had chosen them to rule the world and that God hated all of their neighboring nations.  Mike Huckabee would say that God created all of the world and all of the people in it, but God only seems to really like the white folks in America. God is funny that way.

At this most simple and self-serving level, religion in most churches is basically what it was when the first cave man stood in the morning light and silently prayed that the gods would give him success in the day's hunt.  But, and today I would like to say a profound, "Yes - But" even to myself and my own published summation of the genesis of all religions.  Yes, it is true that human self-consciousness led to the creation of religions based on a personification of aspects of nature and a lust for some assurance that we will not all die in the way that cows, chicken and pigs seem to die, never to rise again.

Yes, religion was initially a psychological balm to comfort the anxiety of primitive self-awareness but that is not all that it was and not all that it is and most certainly not all that it must be in the 21st century.

I could point to many earlier historical quotes but in light of Gov. Huckabee's theological interpretation of what make America great, I will assert that it was a unique and powerful blossoming of the American Enlightenment in the mid 1700's.  The American Enlightenment was certainly sparked by the European Enlightenment but ours carried some unique markers and amazing insights in turning sectarian religious thought into moral deliberation.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having taken his knife to the New Testament, cutting out every reference to the miraculous, to claims of divinity and immortality, and preserving the moral teachings he found there.  The primitive magical thinking and superstition, along with the wishful thinking in hopes of invisible friends who help you out of tight spots, were seen as the packaging that real religion came in.... packaging that was best discarded so that you could get at the real point of it.

Unlike many in our day who, once they give up on the packaging of religion, are willing to toss the virtues in the garbage as well, the leaders of the American Enlightenment not only didn't reject religion, they doubled down on its core message.  Because, alongside of the more visceral motivation to create myths to help you to cope with a capricious universe and a short personal lifespan, there has always been the dual purpose of trying to define what it means to be a good person.

You have often heard me reference the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, that gave birth to post-exilic Judaism, early Christianity and Islam, that taught that the good life is lived by achieving three things:  right thoughts, right words, and right actions.

Professor Mark Berkson of Hamline University has distilled what he believes the core virtues of classic Greek thought, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity... I've printed them in your bulletin and for those of you who are joining us online, if you want to see it written out, you can find the entire text of this sermon on our website.  Berkson's list is this:


Classical Greek thought:  Wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance
Confucianism: Benevolence, propriety, righteousness, and wisdom
Buddhism:  Compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity
Christianity:  Faith, hope, and charity

A reasonable person might argue with aspects of Berkson's summary but in general what we see here is a broad outline of what it means to be a good person.  In Greek society, it might have been described as the good citizen.  Confucius spoke of being a gentleman though clearly what he meant is more of what we mean by saying that someone is a gentleman and a scholar. Buddhism cannot be meaningfully discussed, in my opinion, without also mentioning detachment, but the ideal Buddhist is someone who lives without greed or competition and is at harmony with others and at peace with her or himself.

Christianity is a bit harder.  Clearly, he is drawing on Paul's letter to the Roman church but if you can translate "faith" to mean a courageous commitment to principle, and "charity" to mean both compassion and unjudging love, then I can say a hearty "amen" to his list.

What I would ask you to notice about this list, even the beginning with Zoroastrianism, is that there is no need for a supernatural theistic person in the heavens to make this true.  Virtue is true in an existential way.  Virtue becomes its own evidence.  That leading a good life, improves the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.  Virtue in the individual is lent to the community, infusing society with is compassion, love, empathy, with its willingness to sacrifice courageously for the greater good.

But none of this is necessarily natural.  Theft, violence, self-serving appetites.... Those are natural.  Virtue is a choice.  Virtue is a matter of practice, of discipline, of determination.

To reference our American Enlightenment once more, in a memoir written for his son, Ben Franklin described how he methodically identified 13 virtues and took on one at a time to try to make them each a part of what it meant to be Ben Franklin.  You would not be surprised to know that "thrift" was one of Franklin's chosen virtues, but so was moderation, the ability to be silent, humility, courage of convictions, temperance, productivity, orderliness and cleanliness, and he even mentioned chastity which he no more achieved than most of our modern politicians.

The point is that religion, the good part of it, the virtues that we need to bring to the 21st century, are not accidents of our occasional association with any faith system.  Practicing a faith is not about sacraments, rituals, liturgies and hymns.  Practicing a faith is about carefully identifying who you want to become, about choosing virtues that address the broken places in your life, in your character, that may inspire you to be healed, to be more whole, to be a better person.

The claim is that this is best done in community.  We don't read texts in our gatherings to satisfy God.... We read them because they are supposed to instruct our character, to inspire us to try again.  We do not pray to ask God to perform magic in our lives or anyone elses.... We pray as reflective meditation in the hope that we might be changed for the better.

We don't sing to placate the ego of a Divine entity that expects praise.  We sing because the poetry of music is more powerful in its inspiration than is the spoken word.... Except of course for the lyrics of most Country Music and, for that matter, Italian opera, but we don't need to discuss that now.

If there is to continue to be a church in the later part of the 21st century, certainly it must be a place that is free of the packaging of Iron Age myths and superstitious thinking.  I believe that every educated member of clergy already knows this and would be saying it if they were not afraid of unemployment.  But unemployment is coming if we continue to try to bolster belief in absurdities and remain loyal to creeds rooted in truth claims that have no substance other than that they feel somewhat familiar and might take the edge off of fear and grief.

If the church has a reason to exist, surely it is to raise a prophetic voice to challenge the evils of our society in the big picture, and to individually draw that down to the teaching, encouraging, and maybe even confronting of the same in ourselves.  You will not become a saint by following the path of least resistance.  Everyone is naturally the hero of their own novel in which we always make ourselves the main character crying out only to be sympathetically understood.

We will become the good people we want to be, we will help to bring about the good society we know should exist, only by making a courageous and fearless commitment to self-examination, by being determined to work and sacrifice to be better people and by being willing to encourage others to do the same.

I don't know if the church will survive the death of superstition but I hope it will.  I'm staying because I know that even in my advanced years, I am nowhere near being the person I hope to be and I hope that you will help me to become more like that person every week when we gather to do whatever it is that people like us do in church.

Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Pastor
Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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