About Our Church

 Sunday Services

 Mission

 Education

 Youth Fellowship

 Music Programs

 Join a Group

 Interfaith Ministries

 Sermons
  Current Year
  Prior Years
  Other Writings

 Pastor's Page

 

 

In Light of Mystery

Sermon - 6/03/07
Eliza Drummond
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 14:6-17

Reading from the Hebrew Bible:

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Pro 8:1  Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?

Pro 8:2 On the heights along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;

Pro 8:3 beside the gates leading into the city,
at the entrances, she cries aloud:

Pro 8:4 "To you, O men, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.

Pro 8:22 "The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works
before his deeds of old;

Pro 8:23 I was appointed from eternity,
from the beginning, before the world began.

Pro 8:24 When there were no oceans, I was given birth,
when there were no springs abounding with water;

Pro 8:25 before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,

Pro 8:26 before he made the earth or its fields
or any of the dust of the world.

Pro 8:27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

Pro 8:28 when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

Pro 8:29 when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

Pro 8:30 Then I was the craftsman at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,

Pro 8:31 rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

New International Version.

Reading from the New Testament:

Revelations 4:1-11
Rev 4:1 After these things I looked, and behold, a door {standing} open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like {the sound} of a trumpet speaking with me, said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things."

Rev 4:2 Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne.

Rev 4:3 And He who was sitting {was} like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and {there was} a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance.

Rev 4:4 Around the throne {were} twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones {I saw} twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.

Rev 4:5 Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And {there were} seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;

Rev 4:6 and before the throne {there was something} like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.

Rev 4:7 The first creature {was} like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the fourth creature {was} like a flying eagle.

Rev 4:8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, "HOLY, HOLY, HOLY {is} THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME."

Rev 4:9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever,

Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

Rev 4:11 "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created."

New International Version.

I've just finished reading this book "Speaking of Faith," and it has opened to me the story of one person's journey of faith. I don't use that word in the manner it seems to be used these days, to talk about a religious tradition without naming it, as in the term "faith tradition," but as the action of the encounter of God, as a verb.

Krista Tippett's book is the story of her encounters with God, through the people she has interviewed over many years, and reflection on her own experiences. Central to her book are themes that she has recognized in the religions she has studied: the presence of mystery, the struggle to define good and evil, as well as the struggle to keep hold of faith in times of crisis. She makes a claim in her introduction, one with which I heartily agree and which is the subject for today, that our "sacred traditions could help us live more thoughtfully, generously, and hopefully with the tensions of our age" if we are willing to accept their mystery.

When humans deny ourselves the experience of mystery, we stand on shaky ground. Instead of approaching our tradition and sacred texts as sources of wisdom, instead of teasing out the mystery of each passage, we read into the scripture what we believe to be true. Instead of reading the passages of our texts with an open mind and looking for meaning, a process of discernment called exegesis, we seek only to justify our cause. It is difficult to be human and not do this. It is what some brains do best. Like in the game Jeopardy, we seek questions for our answers. If our answer is war, we find the justification for it in our books: if our answer is misogyny, we find justification for it as well, if our answer is love, well there is lots of love in there also…

And if it seems that we can find justifications for our beliefs by artfully choosing passages to reinforce our point, then it shouldn't surprise you that some of the lectionary suggestions for today fit just perfectly with what I wanted to say anyway J. But joking aside, both readings do make reference to my favorite story in the bible, from which I will draw my argument, and that story is very beginning, the creation story of Genesis. In the reading in Proverbs we find Wisdom, who was poured forth at the first, before the earth, and in Revelations we read of the Lord our God, who created all things. Both passages reinforce the power of the Genesis story as a beginning that is not forgotten. The writers of each of these passages know deeply that they are part of that creation.

It may be that the first chapters of Genesis are my favorites because I never got much farther than Leviticus when I tried to read the Bible from start to finish. I kept on starting and never finishing, so I have read Genesis more than any book in there. But it is probably more so because the story awakens in me a place that is made of pure faith, of spirit willing to set aside my analytical human brain for a moment, and exist only in mystery.

Krista Tippett claims that to exist in this place of only mystery is to acknowledge the distinctive nature of scientia sacra, the nature and content of sacred knowledge. Scientia sacra is a term used by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a Muslim scholar, to "speak about the poetic, embodied, intuitive way in which sacred traditions point at truth that gives coherence to all of life" (p. 56), not just to yours or my cause or point of view, but to truth that wraps itself around us all and dwells within all of us. In Proverbs, we find this sacred knowledge in the form of Wisdom, the wisdom that was with God from the beginning, which hovered nearby as the mountains were made and the seas created. This is the sacred knowledge that the ancient peoples understood very well when they told their story of how they came to be.

To illustrate my point, I have brought one of my favorite new photographs:

I haven't seen the March of the Penguins, but I suspect that it touches something in people that this photo touches in me: that deep visceral understanding of faith that is instinctive. Do you all know what is happening in this photo? Can you imagine that you are one of those penguins, huddled together for warmth, during months of darkness?

I take for granted that the sun rises and sets because scientists have discovered the answer to that mystery. But what about our earliest ancestors, who didn't have science, but mystery was very real to them. Out of mystery was born faith. And that faith was transformed into story, and that story into wisdom, and that wisdom was passed down from generation to generation as knowledge, scientia sacra.

So I would like to read to you those first few chapters of the Bible with emphasis on their oral impact. Imagine hearing this recited, over and over, as a soothing balm to reassure that the sun would indeed rise again tomorrow to make day, because God, who created all things, had willed it so.

At the beginning of God's creating
of the heaven and the earth
when the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of Ocean,
Rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters-
God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light; Day! And the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day. 

(Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

As our ancestors formed this and the other great ancient creation stories, they began to create community. I can envision them sitting in a circle, gathering together. And coming to understand the immanent presence of something greater than themselves: a living God with whom they were in relationship. A God of all things.

We are in the process of writing our own story, a process with which Dick Hamm is assisting us. During one of his recent visits he shared how often he hears that going to church has become dry and lost its meaning. Many people feel that they are just going through the motions or that there is no connection between church and their faith. I suggest that we look at "church" in the light of mystery. And that perhaps if we take a step to the side, and approach things from a different perspective, that we can find new meaning and new life in the traditions of the church.

Krista Tippett agrees, but wonders whether we can reconcile mystery in a time when "our cultural debates about the New Testament by way of movies, books, and popular scholarship are focused almost exclusively on the historicity and factuality of aspects of the biblical story" (p. 54).

She illustrates her point by sharing the story of Luke Timothy Johnson, author of The Writings of the New Testament. In his story he describes his early years as a Benedictine monk:

"As a monk, we sang the psalms and read scripture out loud, five hours a day. So when I went to Yale to get a Ph.D. in New Testament, I was stunned by the academization of all of this and especially by the privileging of history-as somehow, if we could get the history right, then everything would be okay…And that was quite a contrast from living within, in fact, a living tradition in which scripture was almost kinetically inhabited. You bowed and scraped and genuflected and sang scripture. The notion of scripture as being a cadaver that one performs an autopsy on-as opposed to a living body with which one danced-was stunning to me. And I never have completely bought it. I have never bought the premise of modernity that history is the only way of knowing." (p. 55)

I have to admit that I am from the smells and bells alumnae club, having been raised a catholic. About seven years ago, when I was returning to a religious practice, and the paths that God and I were on overlapped for just a moment, I went to St. Mary's Catholic church one day at lunch. And man, I tell you, I had a visceral response. I sat in the back of the chapel, breathing in the incense, listening to the echoes of footsteps on the marble and just cried and cried and cried. It was as if God was welcoming me home and I was apologizing for being away for so long.

What prompted that response was not the ritual, but the imagery. Imagery such as is found in the passage we heard from Revelations. John does not create a picture of a sparsely decorated heaven like we often see, but a full blown cacophony of experiences: a bejeweled being, a trumpetlike voice, torches burning over a sea of crystal, many-winged animals, and beings that exclaim without stopping of the Glory of the Lord. Images of mystery much like the opulent interiors of the churches in which I worshiped as a child. Images fit for the God who created all things.

But it was harder to accept as an adult some of the beliefs expressed in ritual that had not bothered me as a child. How could I justify in my mind that the body and blood of Christ exists in a slip of bread or a sip of juice when I knew scientifically that this is an impossibility. I was having a hard time letting mystery reenter my life, having a hard time admitting that as a human I exist in dualism, that I have both a brain for reasoning and a soul for feeling. Krista Tippett explains it like this If we are to build our churches "we must be willing to hold our notions of earthly certainties and transcendant mystery-what we believe we know, and what we can never know for sure in time and space-in an exacting creative tension" (p. 186). We have to let our brains and our souls have equal time. She concludes that "if mystery is real, even more real than what we can touch with our fives senses, uncertainty and ambiguity are blessed" (p. 186). We have to live with that, and struggle with its implications together in community. "Mystery acknowledged is, paradoxically, humanizing" (p. 187). Only by acknowledging our struggle with mystery can we be led to a deeper understanding of our own faith, our churches traditions, and our role in creating a community of God.

There is a latin term for a ritual or doctrine which defies man's ability to grasp. The term is mysterium fidei which means mystery of faith. This term can also refer to a belief which, while it can be understood, reveals even deeper meaning the more we meditate upon it. We have mysteries of faith in the Disciples of Christ tradition, as in most Christian traditions: baptism comes to mind, our declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that we encounter Him in communion. When we meditate upon these things, alone, and with others, we can begin to tell our story, like our ancestors before us, that God created us, and brought a new light to us in the form of his Son, his greatest mystery, to teach us the ways of faith, love and compassion. 

And the light is good and we are a part of it.

 

Fox, Everett. The Five Books of Moses. Schocken Books, 1995
Tippett, Krista. Speaking of Faith. Viking Books, 2007.

 


Home | About Our Church | Services | Mission | Education | Youth Fellowship
Music Programs | Join a Group | Interfaith Ministry | Sermons | Pastor's Page
Questions or comments about this web site?  Contact the WebMasters