The God of Jesus
a sermon preached by the Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V
at the First Unitarian Church of Alton, Illinois on April 9, 2006
Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.† Thy kingdom come.† Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.† Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us.† And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. // For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.† Amen.
Most of us know these words as the Lordís Prayer, or the Our Father, but Iím not sure how many of us are aware of their exact origin.† They come generally from the two sections of the gospels (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4) that are said to recount Jesusí answer when the disciples asked him how they should pray.† You may know that Catholics end the prayer before the last line, the part about kingdom, power, and glory because that is the way many of the ancient manuscripts end the quotation.† Most Protestants add that last line because itís found in many of the other old copies we have of the Gospels - no one has any original documents at their disposal to decide what the original authors intended to say.† Iím not sure what difference it makes - the original authors didnít know Jesus, anyway, and were simply working from the oral traditions floating about in the culture at the time they were writing some 35 to 40 years after Jesusí death.
What I didnít know about this specific wording of the prayer is that it comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or more precisely, the American Episcopal version of the Book of Common Prayer, revised in 1928.† This exact version was what I grew up hearing in my little Protestant church.† Maybe some of you did, too, or maybe you grew up hearing other versions that use the words ďforgive us our debtsĒ or ďour sinsĒ instead of ďour trespasses.Ē
Whatever your background with this quotation, I would like for you to notice what happened, not so much to the group but to you personally, when I read these words and you heard them.†
--† Some of you began to say them with me.† Perhaps you did that because those words move you so much and you love repeating them.† On the other hand, maybe you repeated them because theyíre just so ingrained in the depths of your consciousness that you find yourself repeating them even though you donít want to.†
--† Another thing that could have happened to you is that you had no reaction - you donít know these words, you never heard these words, they mean little to you, they just donít resonate at all.
--† Yet one more thing that might have happened to you is that you had one of these reactions (folded arms, head down in disgust);† I assume in that case that youíve heard these words somewhere before and you think you have no use for them and you donít ever want to hear them again.
Whichever sort of reaction you had, Iíd like to challenge you to do something this morning that is fairly difficult if not totally impossible, and that is to put aside whatever reaction you may have had to these words, whether ďYippee!Ē or ďho-humĒ or ďoh, no!Ē† And hereís why:
I want to say something today thatís a little bit history, a little bit theology about the way Jesus of Nazareth may have thought about his place in the universe, about his particular brand of connection to that which is larger than us all.† I want to try to talk about the God of Jesus, and that may be difficult to hear if youíre clutching some baggage from the past.† This topic can be so heavy-laden with emotion - fear, love, pain - that we just canít hear if we canít set our religious baggage aside for a few minutes.† So, if you would, take all of that baggage out and stow it away or put it on the pew next to you;† when you leave today, you can pick up whatís still useful and drag it away with you.
I want to look at three things:† The new relationship Jesus claimed to have with the universe, the new rules he seemed to live by, and the new values that came out of that shift in consciousness.† So here we go: a new relationship -
Letís use plain-old history first.† Letís look back in time, long before the tribe that became the Hebrews appeared on the plains of the Ancient Near East.† The whole world at that time - at least the Mediterranean world, practiced religions based on many gods and goddesses.† People could see the powers of the universe being exercised by the forces of nature, so they decided that there must be something - gods, perhaps - controlling these forces from afar.† Most cultures in the area worshipped multiple gods that existed on some other plane and were not accessible from down here on earth.† Their gods were active in the world, but were so far away that humans couldnít interact with them - they could be worshipped, but not directly contacted.
Then came the Hebrews, later to become the Jews.† The Hebrews dispensed with the multitude of gods in favor of one God.† And the Hebrew scriptures, which are roughly what Christians know as the Old Testament, tell the story of a God who was very active in the world, at least for awhile.† The Hebrew Bible suggests that, in the beginning, God had been active and available - God had created Adam and Eve, had argued with Moses, had blessed Abraham, and had heard Sarah laugh.† But, looking at the whole trajectory of the Hebrew Bible, you get the impression that God had become more distant at some point, and then later had actually gone so far away that there was no longer any contact between humans and God.†
(As an aside, I must say that early Christians rearranged the Old Testament portion of their scriptures to make it seem as though God was near, then God went away, then God was on Godís way back again.† That is so that when you attach the New Testament after the Old Testament, it can appear that Jesus is Godís gift or is somehow God coming back into the world.)
Again speaking historically, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew.† A Palestinian - not the blond-haired, blue-eyed, Caucasian American you might see portrayed on Sunday morning television these days.† And a Jew - not a Catholic, not a Protestant, not even a Christian.† Jesus came out of a Jewish and Palestinian tradition that was heavily influenced by both the pagan religions of the area and his own Jewish heritage.† Therefore, to most of the people Jesus came in contact with, God - or the gods -† were distant and inaccessible, maybe in control of the forces of the universe, or maybe so distant as to not be accessible at all.† Worship was important, but it was worship of such distant powers that there was never direct contact between humans and gods.
The innovation that Jesus brought to the religious discussion was astounding in its simplicity, and shocking to those in power at the time.† Jesus taught that a new relationship, a direct relationship, with the unseen forces of the universe was not only possible but already available.† And not just to priests, not just to the pious, but to anyone who would look and listen and shift their focus from the values of the worldly culture to the values of the universe, the values of what he called God.† He even called this God ďFather,Ē indicating that this new relationship of which he spoke could be as close as that of a child to a parent.
Now thereís more to this story, of course.† In the trajectory of the canonical Gospels, Jesus begins by knowing God intimately.† By the later Gospels, he has become God somehow, and I think that may be where many Unitarian Universalists part ways with more conservative Christians, even though more liberal writers like M. Scott Peck say that that is indeed what we are all called to do, to become God.
Now the new rules Jesus lived by.† Jewish Law in the Hebrew Bible lists 613 commandments that God gave the Hebrew people to follow.† But then Jesus came along and said thatís nice, you can follow those 613, but really thereís only two rules - 1. Love God and 2. love your neighbor.† Again, shocking.† New rules, based on love?† New relationships, already available?† Who does this guy think he is?† Where is he getting all this stuff?
Hereís where - new values.
Letís face it:† Jesus was a failure.† (Remember, youíre still listening without baggageÖ)
By the measures you and I use, even by the measures the ancients employed, Jesus was a failure.† He had no home, he had no job, he had no family, he had no bank account.† He was a convicted criminal, hunted by the military and religious authorities.† He was captured and beaten and mocked and spit on.† He was tortured and hung in shame and forgotten by anyone who mattered.† Why?
It was because Jesus experienced a transcendent quality of life that was more hopeful, more fruitful, more real than anything else available through the cultural norms of his day.† And that was dangerous to the status quo, then and now.† Jesusí connection with the powers of the universe left him wanting to share the gifts heíd found with everyone he came in contact with. He found that the values of the world were finally empty and meaningless, that the values of culture and consumerism, of materialism and political power held no hope, that to have hope we must look to that which is already available in abundance:† a new relationship with the universe, with new rules based solely on love.
This is Palm Sunday, remembered traditionally as the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem to a heroís welcome.† Within five days, as the story goes, the mob had turned against him and wanted him dead.† Now maybe you feel like youíve had weeks like that, where Sunday you were on top of the world, but by Friday youíd lost your house or your job or your self-esteem.† Iíve had those weeks myself.
But Jesus didnít worry about whether he was gonna keep his house or his job or his self-esteem.† Those were things of value to the worldly culture, not to the transcendent power of the universe.† Those were things esteemed by the Empire of Rome, not by the Empire of God.
The values of this Empire of God are difficult to articulate and must be found by working on oneís own, by following oneís own path.† But as Jesus said, that Empire is already there:† itís within you and outside you;† itís laid out† on the earth and most people just donít see it.
That Empire was found by Emerson and Thoreau in nature, by Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa in the faces of the underprivileged, by Thich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama in constructive engagement with the world.
Jesus found that Empire with its new relationships, its new rules, and its new values, and it changed his life and the lives of millions.† He taught his followers a simple prayer, one that honors the universe and asks for only three things: a little food, a little forgiveness, and a little protection from the elements,† Iíll end with that prayer - itís the one we started with:
Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.† Thy kingdom come.† Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.† Give us this day our daily bread, And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us.† And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.† For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.† Amen.
Now please gather up all the baggage you set aside earlier thatís still useful to you.† Remember to check under your seats, and be careful with those overhead compartments: things have a tendency to shift while youíre not looking.
So may it be.
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