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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Of Deities and Deeds: A Sermon

Of Deities and Deeds
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 18, 2010

Acts 9:1-6
John 21:1-19


Was Saul riding a horse on the way to Damascus? Or was he on foot?

How many of you picture the story of Saul falling off of his horse when he is confronted by the light of the Risen Christ?

How many of you picture the story as Saul walking and falling down when blinded by the light?

You can use that little test to see if someone was raised Roman Catholic or Protestant. The story in Acts doesn't mention a horse. It doesn't mention Paul's mode of travel at all. Yet a number of paintings particularly from the 15th and 16th centuries portray Saul falling from his horse.

Those who learned the story in churches that have these icons and artwork generally have in their mind's eye Saul falling off of a horse. Those who learned the story from just hearing or reading it from the Bible picture Saul walking.





I had never heard of the horse option until seminary. On Fridays our church history professor showed us iconography. Growing up a Protestant iconography was not part of my experience. I have to say I felt a bit deprived. Why don't we get the cool stuff like paintings?



Today's stories from scripture invite us to think about religious experience.

Last week at the Presbyterian Student Fellowship at the campus house at ETSU, the students invited Mormon missionaries to talk about their church. Four young adults, two men and two women whose ages were between 18-21 talked to us. At one point each of them felt compelled to give us his or her testimony. Each of them told what was to them very real experiences. Each told of a time he or she prayed to "Father." The result of this prayer and this experience was a reassurance that the
Book of the Mormon and the teachings of the church were true.

I heard testimonies in my Southern Baptist Church. The person giving the testimony told of an experience that was real to them. Each experience had common elements, usually an experience of forgiveness from sin upon acceptance of Christ.

We use the language, symbols, images, story forms, and rituals that are familiar to us when we speak of life-changing experiences. How could we do otherwise? We are human beings shaped by language.

If I have heard stories of people being comforted by the Virgin Mary and if I go to church and see statues of the Virgin Mary and if I pray to the Virgin Mary in worship or privately, it is likely that when the time comes to have a life-changing experience it will have something to do with the Virgin Mary.

These religious experiences feel real. They are real. They are often life-changing. Through these experiences the Story comes alive. We internalize what we have practiced.

These experiences can take different forms. The Saul to Paul story has Saul being confronted by the god of the people he is persecuting. That story itself has been the meme for the dramatic conversion.

A form of this is the intellectual who is out to disprove God and something happens to cause him to believe in the God he is trying to disprove. That is a common conversion experience in evangelical circles.

I am not saying these experiences are not real. They are very real. They can be real in positive and in negative ways. You don't gather a bunch of guns and prepare to fight the anti-Christ and his socialist minions unless you have had a religious experience. You don't strap a bomb to yourself and walk into a café filled with infidels without religion.

On the other hand, you don't risk your livelihood or your health engaging in potentially dangerous human rights activities without some kind of experience that defines you.

Do these experiences require "God" or gods? Perhaps they used to. Daniel Dennett in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon hypothesizes that gods developed from the unique human capacity to give agency to inanimate things. Human infants can do this. Higher primates cannot. We have this carryover when we try to coax our car into starting or get angry at the car for not starting.

This ability to give agency to things or animals or the sun or to spirits of the dead or to gods and eventually to complex theological systems has had a role in human evolution. I think there is exciting work regarding studying the evolution of religion. How has the concept of God evolved and how does religious experience fit into that?

The purpose from my perspective is not to get rid of religion or to show that religious experiences are not real. The purpose from my perspective is to understand religion and its role and to make religion become a conscious force for good.

The religious feeling of warmth, comfort, joy, belonging, purpose, and meaning can come to us without a belief in God or in gods. Lloyd Geering calls these folks secular mystics. Geering is a Presbyterian clergyperson and professor from New Zealand. His latest book is Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia. He writes:

Humans show themselves to be religious whenever and wherever they take the questions of human existence seriously, and then create a common response to whatever they find to be of ultimate value to them. The only truly non-religious person is one who treats human existence as trivial or meaningless, for ultimately the religious phenomenon arises out of human experience as we reflect on the fundamental nature of human existence. With but rare exceptions, people everywhere and at all times have made some kind of response to the demands of human existence. They have tried to make something of life. They have looked for meaning and purpose. They have hoped for some kind of fulfillment. For such reasons humankind has in the past been universally religious, and there is no good reason to suspect that in the future people will cease to be religious. And this is true even though an increasing number have grown dissatisfied with the religious forms of the past, having found them to be irrelevant in the new cultural age we have entered. pp. 151-2

Many of us are not satisfied with the religious language we have inherited. My guess is that is why many folks are in this congregation. Yet at the same time, we are looking for a way to express our longings for meaning, for community, and for those things that religion has provided. Whatever mojo was given to Saul on the road to Damascus and to Peter who was told by Jesus to feed his sheep and to Arjuna who was encouraged by Krishna to do his duty, we want. We want the mojo.

We don't want it in that old way. We cannot give up our minds for it. We cannot become pre-modern people. We are not interested in being saved from or saving others from hell in the afterlife. We are not interested in converting people to our religion or to proving that our book is of divine origin. When I say "we" I don't mean everyone in this room. I am just saying many of us. Perhaps you resonate.

Many of us are looking for a religion that is Earthy. This is how Lloyd Geering talks about spirituality. It includes:

* An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.
* An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.
* An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.
* The value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.
* An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.
* Responsibility for the care of one another.
* Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.

He goes on to say:

Such a spirituality could be called secular mysticism. It is not entirely new, for it is reflected in many insights from the past....In developing a spirituality for today's secular world we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves, with self-improvement, with introspection, and least of all with any form of navel-gazing. Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet. pp. 200-1

Is it possible to develop the fervor of a Mormon missionary in service to the "welfare of one another, future of the human species, and the health of the planet?"

I think the answer is yes.

What is exciting is that this is happening. There is an explosion of creativity from all over. We are learning the story of what it means to be human. Science is teaching us our evolutionary story and our cosmic story. We are starting to tell this story in a religious setting.
  • Our evolutionary and cosmic history is slowly has become our new scripture.
  • Earth is our sanctuary.
  • Rivers, streams, oceans, and rainwater are the waters of baptism.
  • All music that comes from the heart is worthy of being called a sacred hymn.
  • Every meal shared is Holy Communion.
  • Listening to and embracing one another is prayer.
All that is missing is a testimony.

We can testify by telling one another our religious experiences, how we discovered the Sacred...

...from a walk in the woods or cleaning the stream for Earth Day
...from serving a meal at Food for the Multitude
...from connecting with a family at the Appalachia Service Project
...from hearing, playing, and singing songs that make us smile and cry,
...from dancing to prescribed movements or free form like no one is watching,
...from standing with those who struggle for freedom and dignity,
...from the permission granted by yourself to let go of a punitive and angry god.

Saul becomes Paul. Peter eats fish with Jesus. Arjuna converses with Krishna. They have nothing on us. Whatever their mojo, we have it as well. There is no more religious experience there than anything we can experience every day. Those stories are symbols and pointers to the Sacred that is available to each of us. Life is sacred. Life is precious. Life is here and real.

One of my new favorite songs is “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer. I will close with this stanza.

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
Cause everything’s a miracle

Amen.
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