Saturday, January 14, 2012

January 15, Epiphany 2, Passionate Spirituality: Up and Down the Staircase

1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
“Truly, truly I tell you, you will see the heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

If this were a megachurch I'd be cueing the praise band to start playing Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. A rock and roll version of We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. In Jacob’s dream it was not really a ladder but a staircase, like on this picture of a Chaldean ziggurat from the world of Jacob. The top of the ziggurat was the house of a god, and the priests of the god would ascend and descend on the staircase. In Jacob’s dream the priests were angels, and then God came down the staircase and actually stood next to him. So Jesus is telling Nathaniel that he himself is the staircase between God and humanity, and that God comes down in him.

Let me tell you about two interviews I heard on the radio, two weeks ago, on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. They were reruns from 2011. The first interview was with the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Liberia, a woman named Leymah Gbowee. She is featured in a documentary called Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which our deacons screened here two years ago. Ms. Gbowee is a Christian peace activist who helped to end the Liberian civil war by gathering both Christian women and Muslim women in vigils of prayer. She said that their spirituality was critical to their campaign. Not just their non-violence and their interfaith approach, but the action of their prayer.

The second interview was with the British biologist Richard Dawkins, who is a campaigning atheist. He argued that belief in God is not just irrational but bad for the world. He said that religion is nonsense because it is not confirmed by science. And then he made an incidental remark which I found telling. He was reviewing how species diverge within the evolutionary process, on islands, for example. And then he said, “Or in lakes, which are just islands of water.” What? “Just islands of water”? No they’re not. Not if you think about it. (Lakes are not "isolated": they have streams in and streams out. The rare exception of crater lakes just proves the rule.) But Dawkins tends to argue by reduction. He reduces his definitions to fit his preconceptions and then he rules out whatever does not fit his definitions. That enables him to rule out spirituality as supernatural and therefore nonsensical, because what is natural is only that which can be verified by science.

Some people are impressed by his arguments and others are dismayed. You need not be either. His arguments are circular and they “beg the question”. He doesn’t speak for science proper but for the ideology of scientism. Now it is true that spirituality cannot be proven scientifically, but that does not make it nonsensical. Spirituality helps to make sense of certain natural phenomena which science cannot measure, like the power of the women of Liberia. Those women are wiser than Dawkins in not dismissing spirituality as supernatural, and their knowledge of nature is richer and more complex. By them you can be impressed, and encouraged in your faith. They show you the richness of spirituality, and the power of its engagement with the world, with the real world, the natural world, including politics.

The combination of politics and spirituality is implicit in the gospel lesson for today. We are at the Jordan River, where John the Baptist has been holding a long-term revival, a camp meeting, awaiting the Messiah, the descendent of the dynasty of David, who has the royal title of the Son of God, a priestly king, both spiritual and political, a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King. The Messiah was identified by John the Baptist, to the crowd, just the day before our lesson. And now the partisans of John the Baptist must consider moving their allegiance on to Jesus.

Jesus has been observing the crowd in order to recruit some followers. He calls out Philip, and then Philip goes to get his brother Nathaniel, who is skeptical. He knows about Nazareth, which he thinks is a dump, and which is never mentioned in the prophecies. But he comes along. When Jesus sees him he compliments him. Nathaniel wants to know how Jesus knows him, and Jesus says that he’s been watching him. Then Nathaniel blurts out, “I recognize you as the Son of God – that is – the king of Israel.” He does not mean by those words that Jesus is God — that recognition will come much later. But he does recognize that, in this Jesus, God has returned to Israel.

Jesus answers Nathaniel by calling himself not the Son of God but the Son of Man. That sounds like less, but to Nathaniel it will mean more. It’s from the prophecy of Daniel, from the vision of a human being getting elevated up to a place in heaven before the throne of God, in order to share in God’s government of all the world. Not just Israel, but all the kingdoms of the world.

That raises the stakes. It also lessens the relative importance of the politics of Israel. Jesus is saying that he’ll be beyond all that. That will present problem to test the interest of Nathaniel.

Are you passionate about politics? Is your passion for a particular candidate, or more for the issues, like justice, or freedom, or the economy and ecology? What are you passionate about? To what do you give your time and your energy, for what are you willing to sacrifice and for what do you freely pay the cost? What do you want to tell your friends about?

This series of sermons is on “passionate spirituality”. Passionate spirituality is a vital sign in which our congregation is relatively weak. Well, no wonder, we’re easy-going, we want to be non-judgmental and welcoming to everyone. With such a bias we risk passivity instead of passion. So what shall our congregation be passionate about?

The purpose of human spirituality is not just for the well-being of ourselves but for beyond ourselves. Its purpose is to connect us to God and to the things of God. Our species is distinct among other animals in this natural capacity. Call it a gift of God, call it a result of evolution, call it both. We call our bodies temples because we believe that our bodies are naturally spiritual as well as physical, and that the spirituality of our bodies is the medium by which we connect to God. Not just to connect to God, but to love God. That’s a core belief we share with Judaism — that the purpose of our spirituality is to love God, to love God more than anything else. That’s the passion in passionate spirituality.

How do we access this God? Jesus call himself the stairway, for going up and down. His person, his story, his gospel, his teaching, his healing, his suffering, his sacrifice, his resurrection, his spirit poured out on us. He is telling his followers that it’s on him that we can lift up to God the world and the things of the world. And also that God comes down to us, to be with us and among us and to love us. It’s not a stairway of escape from the real world, but a stairway of God with us for the salvation of this world.

In a few moments we will have our congregational meeting, and it might not feel very spiritual. We will talk about business and money, how much we spend and how much we need. We will talk about our programs and our challenges. We will talk about the down-to-earth matters of our mission and how we address the real resources that we have. Like our sanctuary ceiling. How much is this really spiritual? Good question. And the answer is in the spirituality of Jesus, and in the connection that he has made between our love of God and the real life of the world.

So my take home today is for the congregation as a whole. We shall find our way into the future if we always start with Jesus Christ, the son of God and son of man. Classic Christianity. Focused, but not narrow. Faithful, but not fundamentalist. Confident but not judgmental. Humble and embracing, centered and inclusive, passionate and rational, spiritual and natural, loving and realistic, ancient and modern, Christ-centered and progressive. We may face with confidence our challenges and uncertainties by remembering to be a community of Jesus who welcomes persons of every ethnicity, race, and orientation to worship, serve, and love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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