Sunday, April 22, 2012

What's In A Name: A Sermon On The Error Of Christian Exclusivity

What’s in a Name? A Sermon On The Error Of Christian Exclusivity
Rev. Alison Longstaff
May 3rd, 2009
Church of the Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian), Kitchener, Ontario
Mark 9: 33 -40John 10: 11 - 18 

Our notion of God is deeply personal.  It starts forming when we are very little and resides in a deep place within our hearts. This inner concept of God is very sacred ground.  To mess with it in another person without their consent can be to commit spiritual violation.  This explains why we find religious recruiters so distasteful.  This can also explain why we might feel hesitant to talk about our own beliefs with others.

Today, I plan to push the boundaries of our God-image a little bit.  This is intended to be a kind of spiritual massage-therapy or yoga.  It is intended to soften and loosen what can be tightly held spiritual muscles, and it may feel a little uncomfortable.  Just breathe.  I promise to be gentle.

In the summer of 2001 I was up in Owen Sound, Ontario researching First Nations’ spirituality.  I was granted permission to sit with one of the tribal elders.  I was delighted and honoured.  I took a seat next to a lady with glasses and short curly grey hair, who was wearing a typical baggy “old lady” polyester dress.  Somehow I had expected braids and buckskin.  In any case, I said I was there to ask her about her spiritual beliefs.  She asked me earnestly if I had been saved by Jesus.  

I was heart-sick.  This was a tribal elder. It turns out that I knew more about her traditional tribal beliefs than she did.   European colonialism did this.  “Christian” colonialism, with its arrogant assumption that its religious beliefs trump those of all others, especially those of “savages,” had systematically dismantled, disbanded, and exiled her culture.  Many tribal traditions and languages in North America are lost forever.  Many more teeter on the brink of extinction, and are requiring deliberate governmental and tribal interventions to try to recover and restore what bits and pieces of what is left that they can.

Whatever gave Christians such arrogance?  History will tell us that the earliest Christians sought simply to survive, and to spread the good news, which was to tell the story of Jesus, and invite people to live a life of social justice and mutual service. But somewhere along the way, in fact, once Christianity became the dominant religion, Christians—we—switched from a mindset of service to an attitude of entitlement.  From there it was an easy step into certainty of our religious superiority.  We stopped being about living love, and started being about being right.  We started believing that forcing people to agree with us, and become like us, was our Christian obligation. 

Religious arrogance can do so much damage.  Now, now we know how sacred and precious aboriginal spirituality is.  We Christians nearly obliterated it in our arrogance. 

And it was that shift from heart to head, from love to ideology, from humble service to “possessing the right truth” that was the key to our arrogance.  It was this shift from love to “truth” that was so profoundly destructive of the health and well-being of the spiritual communities Christianity invaded.  It was truth without humility, truth without respect for God in the other, which isn’t truth at all.  Because truth, when separated from love, becomes false.  It has no internal integrity.  It loses its connection to the Source of all.  History has shown that any denomination that assumes it has a duty to impose its “superior” God-view on the cultures it encounters leaves spiritual violation in its wake.  Current events continue to tell the tale of the violence justified by religious attitudes that claim exclusive access to “Truth,” ultimate superiority, and the right to exterminate alternate spiritual views.  Such attitudes are only and ever destructive and divisive of the very things that bind us together.

Now, I’m going to ask you to go inside yourself.  Think, (and feel if possible) about times you have felt religiously arrogant, or ideologically arrogant, or simply powerfully self righteous.

Go inside and ask yourself, “What attitudes and emotions underlie those feelings of arrogance and certainty?

Let’s sit with that a bit.

As for me, I can say it feels really good to be sure I am right.  It creates in me an uprising energy that longs to spread itself.  I can feel excited and empowered, and I long to go on a crusade to fix someone else with my great insights. Fixing someone else feels good!  When I’m fixing someone else the attention isn’t on me and what I may have done wrong, but on the other, and how I might correct what they are doing wrong, or even simply how they are thinking wrong.  I have actually found myself urgently wanting to fix someone else’s idea of the trinity (because it was “wrong”), when, as to quality of life, that other was busy serving the neighbour humbly and kindly.  And I?  I couldn’t step over the bodies fast enough to go correct the Good Samaritan’s ideology. (---metaphorically speaking.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually stepped over a body in order to correct someone….)

But I’m sure you see the problem.  Whenever you or I are on a mission to fix someone else, we have lost our way.  Twelve steppers call it, “Taking someone else’s inventory” when we are cataloguing our neighbours’ faults and not our own.  Our job is to work on our own regeneration, not someone else’s.  That can be one of the hardest, hardest things for us to learn.  It can feel much more fun and interesting to take stock of how someone else should change.  It’s not nearly as fun, (not fun at all?) to take stock of how I should change.

But when you or I are focused on someone else’s foibles, we have left no room for respect.  No room for reverence of the sacred spiritual ground in the other.  Each person’s spirituality, no matter how different from yours or mine, is sacred ground.  Sacred ground!  And there is no humility when we are on a mission to fix someone else.  There is no awareness that we all live in glass houses.  We all have a massive rafter in our eye and have no business correcting someone else, especially when they haven’t asked for help.  Christians aren’t the only ones on a mission to fix the whole world, but we certainly are high in the running.

It is this righteous arrogance that has given religion a bad name.  But the thing is, religion isn’t the problem.  Having a spiritual, God-centered paradigm isn’t the problem.  Arrogance is the problem.  Certainty, entitlement, and the desire to dominate are the problems.
Having said all that, what do we do with the very common, very strong teachings that only through belief in Jesus Christ can a person be saved, and that Christians are to go and teach this throughout the whole world?

I have titled this talk “What’s in a Name?” for a reason.  I have especially tried to avoid too much “God-He” talk in this service and in our hymns today precisely so as to offer a little spiritual yoga for our minds.  Let’s stretch our God-concept a little. 

Ask yourself, what if God is more than “Jesus”?

It is easy to get stuck on what name to call the God of Love, and what face to give—Him? (Her?)  (You or I might like to reassure ourselves that our pronoun is the rightest one, but “rightest” doesn’t apply to an all-inclusive God.)  The bible tells us that God made all people, all humans, in the image of God.  That includes all colours and genders.  Swedenborg, if we want to believe him, tells us that God made all the religions too---ALL of them, each one uniquely suited to the people and region in which it is found.  And each one provides a path to “salvation” which means a path to true humanity, true humanity—which is to become a person full of wisdom and kindness.  Each religion in its original form and at its heart has this intention. But over time, people, you and I, clutter religion up with rules and exclusions, until the religion, which is supposed to be a path to God, becomes a stumbling block. 

In our Scripture reading from Mark we find the disciples arguing about who would be God’s favourite.  That’s us.  That’s you and me.  That’s the human race fighting over which religion is better, which perspective is better.  They are walking with Jesus right there with them and they are wasting time bickering over who is the best.

Isn’t that just like us?  Jesus, to wake them up, turned reality on its head.  He proposed that the one who would be greatest was one who wanted to be the servant of all.

I’m guessing this statement was a real stumper for the disciples.  Be the servant?  Be the lowest?  Human arrogance never wants to hear that!

It is never, never about the pecking order.  It is never about status, or right skin colour, or right family name, or right sexual orientation, or right religious club.  It is about what is in our hearts.

In this church, we are Swedenborgians.  We always look inside a thing.  We are about the spirit, the essence, the inner quality, not the external shape or size or colour.  The spirit of God.  The spirit of love and goodwill—this is our salvation. Swedenborg tells us that every name in the bible represents a spiritual quality.  The name of Jesus Christ, means the quality of great love—great love and great wisdom in service in the world.  Every religion that is true has some version of this at its heart. Whenever we remember that it is about compassion, not rules, Jesus is Lord.  Whenever we refuse to dominate or control our neighbour, Jesus is Lord.  When we focus on how to be of service, not how to be the best, we are acting in the name of Jesus Christ, in the spiritual quality of love and wisdom in service.

What kills “Jesus” or a life of loving, humble service is this very competing over whose God is best—whose God will rule—be we Catholic, Protestant, Swedenborgian, some other Christian or a non-Christian spirituality.  In this sense then, any religion that supports people in becoming more enlightened, compassionate, and useful is a religion with “Jesus Christ” at its heart regardless of what name they give God.  If the spiritual value that is love and wisdom is at the centre of any spiritual path, “Jesus Christ” by another name is at the centre, period. Let’s stop fretting about names and faces and different rituals.  Let us look to the heart and the life of any given spirituality, for that is where we will find “Jesus” or their “way of love.”  That is where we will find the Holy Spirit in a slightly different skin colour or garment, but the Holy Spirit, nonetheless. "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said, “for whoever is not against us is for us.”

“The Ancient Church, which was spread throughout many kingdoms of the earth, was of such a character that, though doctrinal teachings and religious practices differed, there was nevertheless one spiritual community.  This is because respect and kindness were the essential things. At that time one could say the Lord's kingdom did exist on earth as it did in heaven, for such is the character of heaven. If the same situation existed now all would be governed by Love as though they were one person; for they would be like the members and organs of one body which, though dissimilar in form and function, still depended on one heart.  Everyone would then say of another, No matter what form their doctrine and external worship take, this is my neighbour; I observe that he or she worships the God of Love and lives a good life.” - Emanuel Swedenborg Heavenly Secrets (paragraph #2385:5)

There is but one fold and one Shepherd.  Can we stop arguing about who is best and just serve each other? Amen