Sunday, May 24, 2009

Return to the Source (5/24/09 Qur'an Sunday)

Today was Qur'an Sunday. We are reading the Qur'an cover to cover in 2009. The reading for June is Surahs 14-18.

Return to the Source
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 24th, 2009
Qur’an: Surahs 14-18

We are about half-way through the Qur’an. The readings for June are Surahs 14-18. The Qur’an is not very long. It is about the length of the New Testament. So if you haven’t started yet, now would be a good time. You could read it during the summer.

I like the translation by Tarif Khalidi. It doesn’t have any notes or explanations. It is like reading a book. I highly recommend Lex Hixon’s, The Heart of the Qur’an: An Introduction to Islamic Spirituality. Also, Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations is a helpful guide.

Lex Hixon’s book is particularly helpful in understanding the tone of the Qur’an. In the English translations, God comes across as harsh. But Hixon and Sells bring out the compassion and the sadness of the Qur’an. Sadness in that God sees humanity refusing to return to the Source of Life. Compassion in that God never ceases to give up on humanity.

I noticed in reading that the Qur’an seems to repeat itself. It says the same thing in different ways, sometimes in the same way. At first it was annoying. I wanted a plot or if not that, at least a thesis statement with an orderly argument. But that is not what you get. It swirls and spirals, going back and forth from contemporary events in the time of Muhammad to stories of the earlier prophets to reflections on nature and pronouncements on the human condition.

It is more like a long conversation. If you have ever stayed up all night with your partner in order to clear the air you will know what I mean. Those conversations are not orderly. They move in terms of emotion. You repeat yourself. You tell a part of a story from the past, then argue about something, then tell part of another story, then back to the first. On and on, a dance throughout the night.

The Qur’an then, is a conversation with the Source of Life. I hesitate to use the word, “God” as it is bigger than God, if we think of God narrowly as a supernatural being. It is the Universe, Life itself, the Source of All, speaking in human terms. The conversation is from the Source of Life to us, through the prophet Muhammad.

The Qur’an as book is only a piece of the Qur’an. The Qur’an is really the Source of Life itself. Hixon uses the term, Cosmic Qur’an. Everything is the Qur’an. Everywhere is the voice of God, the voice of the Source of Life, if we will listen.

From Surah 16:
“He it is Who made water descend from the sky, of which some is for you to drink and some for trees from which you eat. With it He causes vegetation to sprout for your benefit: olives, palms and vines, an all types of fruit. In this is a sign for a people who reflect.

He made the night to serve you as also the day, the sun, the moon and the stars—all are made to serve by His command. In these are signs for people who understand.

Behold what He created for you on earth, diverse in colour. In this is a sign for a people who remember.” 16:9-13
As I read through these revelations it came to me why they seem so repetitive. That is because the Source of Life is trying to penetrate my veil of ignorance. From various angles, with numerous parables, with repetition, the Source of Life, like my conversation partner with whom I converse all night, is trying to get something through my thick skull.

The compassion is reflected in that the Source of Life never gives up. The Qur’an whether it be the Cosmic Qur’an or the words on the page of a poor English translation, is the ongoing attempt by the Source of Life to wake me up so I will return to Life.

A church member gave me a cd this past week by folk singer, Susan Werner. The cd is entitled, “Gospel Truth” and it contains a number of songs about spirituality. She is delightfully irreverent. She jokes that she is an evangelical agnostic—passionate yet ambivalent.

I am going to play a song from that cd. This one is not irreverent, however. I found it to be deeply meaningful. It is about conscience. I don’t know if she had the Qur’an in mind when she wrote it, but it seems to me to reflect the wisdom at the heart of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is the invitation to return to the Source. This is not a return to religion, but to the Source beyond all religion, beyond all science, beyond all knowing. It isn’t about believing in things. It is about transformation.

Susan Werner expresses that in this beautiful song about the Divine Troubler.

It is called, “Did Trouble Me”

When I closed my eyes so I would not see
My Lord did trouble me
When I let things stand that should not be
My Lord did trouble me
When I held my head too high too proud
My Lord did trouble me
When I raised my voice too little too loud
My Lord did trouble me

Did trouble me
With a word or a sign
With the ringing of the bell in the back of my mind
Did trouble me
Did stir my soul
For to make me human, to make me whole

When I slept too long, slept too deep
My Lord did trouble me
Put a worrisome vision into my sleep
My Lord did trouble me
When I held myself away and apart
My Lord did trouble me
And the tears of my brother didn’t move my heart
My Lord did trouble me

And of this I’m sure, of this I know
My Lord will trouble me
Whatever I do and wherever I go

My Lord will trouble me
In the whisper of the wind, in the rhythm of a song
My Lord will trouble me
To keep me on the path where I belong
My Lord will trouble me

We forget who we are. We don’t see the Divine imprint on everything we see. We are too busy, too clouded, too sleepy, too desirous of our own agendas and goals. We aren’t even sure why we have these agendas and goals. They keep us busy I suppose. They give us the illusion that we are doing something important.

Amidst all of this, whether we are conscious of it or not, the Divine Troubler is at work. The Divine Troubler messes up our plans on a daily basis. She puts holes in our carefully constructed theories and does all kinds of mischief. She does this not to be mean or cruel, but to remind us to return. She does this from compassion.

At the Source is Divine Peace. We will be troubled until we return. We will be troubled by beauty, troubled by suffering, troubled by someone in need, troubled by success, troubled by failure.

In chapter 18 there is a parable of two men. God gives to one of them a fruitful garden, surrounded with palms and a gushing river. The harvest is bountiful. The man who enjoys this harvest says to his neighbor: “I am greater in wealth than you are and more powerful.” He enters his garden and says to himself: “I imagine that this will never become desolate. I doubt that the Hour shall come. And if I am ever returned to my Lord, I shall find something even better that it as a final destination.”

The neighbor tells him to be careful for what he is saying. He tells him, “Are you blaspheming against Him Who created you from clay, then from a sperm, then fashioned you into a man? Assuredly, it is God my Lord, and I associate none with Him. If only you had entered your garden and said: “This is the will of God! There is no strength save in God!”

Sure enough. The arrogant man’s fruit was withered and his orchards became barren. The point of the parable, as all parables, is to cause us to reflect. They are designed to trouble us.   In what sense are we like the arrogant man?

When we refuse to recognize the Source of Life and to recognize our interdependence with all of creation, we become arrogant. That arrogance manifests itself in contempt for others and for creation. We think we own something or deserve something or have a right to something.

When that happens, the Qur’an, because of Divine Compassion, will trouble us.

I am discovering that there is not a great deal of speculation in the Qur’an. There is not a list of things we are supposed to believe. It is an invitation to be aware of life and to be conscious of our surroundings. It is a call to walk lightly and to take time to notice this incredible mystery of creation.

Everything is a sign. Every created thing is a parable for the Source.

This Source is Divine Love and Peace. This Source embraces us as we are, as beloved.

I will close with this quote from The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis:
What the world needs now is not more religion and dogmas but a stream—a torrent of warm heartmelt that cuts through the ice cap of our mental hardness. God surely reveals Himself to all who can prostrate themselves before His unknowable reality. Can we give ourselves over to the possibility that we, too, are something so marvelous that no one has ever been able to say it? Something so outrageous that knees could actually give way. We could drop to the ground, fall prostrate, fall within the center of the word humility, and disappearing, live with in it. P. 96.
That is what it means to return to the Source.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Daring Not to Belong (5/17/09)

Daring Not To Belong
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 17th, 2009

John 15:9-19
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.

This passage in the Gospel of John starts off so nice. Jesus says he loves us. He gives us his most important commandment to love one another as he loves us. He says we are not servants or slaves to him but friends. He is not our master. We are friends. We lay down our lives for friends. We bear fruit; fruit that will last.

Then the passage turns. The world hates you. Who is this world? Why does it hate us? Why don’t we belong to the world? Why have we been chosen out of the world?

It may be that the last section is unrelated to the first section. Maybe we should stop the reading after the nice part. But I think these sections are connected. The word "chosen" is in both sections.

“You did not choose me but I chose you.” And

“I have chosen you out of the world.”

I think we are supposed to read these passages together.

We are chosen as friends commanded to love and chosen out of the world.

We need to wrestle a bit with what John means by “world.”

The Greek word translated as world is kosmos. That is a word we have taken into the English language. Cosmos. When I hear cosmos I think of Carl Sagan. Billions and billions of stars. Kosmos could be translated as universe. The known universe or perhaps Earth. We might think of the world as our physical existence.

Is that what the passage means? We are called out of Earth or the Universe? That our existence, our life on Earth hates us? That has been a common interpretation throughout the centuries. We are really spiritual beings trapped in this physical shell. Our real home is outside the Universe, so goes this interpretation.

The Gospel of John likes the word, world. He uses it, by my count, 76 times.
  • Jesus is the light of the world, but people love darkness rather than light. The world came to being through him, but it did not know him. He takes away the sin of the world.
  • ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
  • ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
  • He is the bread who gives life to the world. The life is his flesh. He testifies that the works of the world are evil. He says to his opponents: ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.
  • ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
  • Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
  • Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
  • Before his arrest he tells his disciples, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.”
  • I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’
  • Jesus prays:
But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
  • After he was arrested he says to his opponents: ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple…. I have said nothing in secret.
  • In response to a question from Pilate, Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over….But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’
I didn’t even read all of them. But you get the idea:

The world is an important theological concept for John.

It is the symbol of the opposition to the message of Jesus.

It is something that needs to be spoken to, conquered, and redeemed.

The world has a personality. It does evil things. It controls people. It persecutes those who speak against it. It is the cause of his arrest and death. It is blind yet powerful. Yet is not more powerful than the Word of Truth or Jesus.

And it has the potential to be redeemed.

It is not the created order. It isn’t Earth or the Universe or our physical existence. That interpretation misses the mark.

The world is a power that controls and causes us to perish. We are caught up in it and we don’t even know it.

The Gospel of John is very careful to use symbolic language and allow the reader to make the connections.

In the time of Jesus and his disciples, the world would have been the Roman Imperial State that executed him. It would have been a system of domination and control, of masters and slaves, of absentee landlords, military occupation, and the cooperation of his own religious leaders. All of that would be the world, but even that wouldn’t describe it fully.

The timeless quality of John’s gospel is that the world is not spelled out. This allows us to read it as a symbol for life-denying forces and systems in our time.

The world is patriarchy and racism. The world is domination and exploitation.

Thomas Berry offered a good description:

“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”
That is the world.

The world chews people up. It uses them and discards them. It favors ideology over justice. It claims that peace only comes through violent control.

And it all appears so normal, so inevitable. “That’s the way the world works,” we are told.

And the world isn’t going to like you much if you speak out against it.

Walter Wink wrote a book, Engaging the Powers, that changed my thinking and gave me a new appreciation for the New Testament. At its core the Bible is a critique of the world. Not the created order or the universe, but the system of domination that appears in many different forms. Sin is one such word for it. But isn’t sin in the way we commonly think of our little peccadilloes.

Sin is more like a system--an economic system perhaps, or a military-industrial system, even a system of government. It is a system that has stopped working for people or for Earth, but exists for itself. It John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, it is the Bank that has become the Monster.

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
The point is not to pick on banks or those who work in banks. We all use banks. I do and so do you. The Monster has grown much larger than the Bank of Steinbeck’s time.

We might think of the world as a growth-based economy that doesn’t know when to stop. Any of these systems of domination is the world.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann in his book on Christian Eschatology, The Coming of God writes:
Like a huge idol, like the Beast of the Apocalypse (Rev. 13), the present economic system covers the earth with its open sewer of unemployment and homelessness, hunger and nakedness, despair and death. It destroys different ways of living and working, which are in antithesis to its own. In its hostility to the environment, it sullies nature. It enforces an alien culture on the peoples which it has conquered. In its insatiable greed for prosperity, it offers people themselves as sacrifice in a bloody holocaust, pre-eminently in the Third World but increasingly in the First World too. The Beast has become a ravening monster, armed to the teeth with tanks and guns, atomic bombs, warships with computer-guided missiles, radar systems and satellites, and it is bringing humanity to the verge of total and sudden annihilation. But in the world-wide struggles for he poor and oppressed against all forms of dehumanization, there is a sign of life and of victory. There is the believing trust in the God of life, in the Lamb who in the midst of this divided world builds up a new Jerusalem which will come down from heaven (Rev. 21:10), and who gives hope for a liberation from oppression, sin and death. P. 216
Jurgen Moltmann provided a good description of the world. Yet he made the larger point, the larger hope in Mystery that while best described in poetic language, is nevertheless a hope that is real and offers life.

Let’s go back to the passage from John and substitute system for world:

If the system hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the system, the system would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the system, but I have chosen you out of the system—therefore the system hates you.
So if we run afoul of the various systems that dehumanize and destroy, we might be on the right track. There is no illusion in John’s gospel that we will ultimately change all systems. They will be with us as far as we can see. Yet it is possible to make the system a little more humane. It is possible for us as individuals to identify not with our systems, but to become human.

The task of the human being is to love. It is a love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. In Jesus’ kingdom which is really a non-kingdom, we live as friends—equals--not masters or slaves.

That power to love, that courage to dare not to belong, comes from a hope stronger and more powerful than the world. It is the Divine Mystery that chooses us to become human.

We may not change the world. But we might be able to become a little more human.

One of my favorite images comes from a story about activist A.J. Muste with which I will close:

During the Vietnam War, A.J. Muste stood night after night holding a candle in front of the White House. One night a reporter asked him, "Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle?" Muste replied, "Oh, I don’t do it to change the country, I do it so the country won’t change me."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Divine Mother (5/10/09 Mother's Day)

Cultural and national holidays make a special challenge to those constructing worship services. Mothers' Day is one of those challenging days. Mother's Day is not a day of celebration for everyone. Uncomfortable with the pressure to turn worship into a Hallmark celebration, I tended to ignore it altogether or I managed to take a vacation when Mother's Day came around.

I suppose that is avoiding the issue. Lately, I have taken a different approach. Mother's Day can be a day to honor the Divine Mother as well as offer rituals that acknowledge the range of emotions we can feel on this day.

So I read this prayer, found some interesting readings, and for the children's sermon gave them each a dollop of hand sanitizer and told them I was their mother concerned about germs.

Now the sermon:

The Divine Mother
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 10th, 2009
Mother’s Day

Non Credo by Lucy Reid

I want to say No.
I want to stand up and proclaim
as boldly
as any believer
the creed of my unbelief.

I do not believe
in God as an Almighty Father,
the King of kings, and Lord of lords.

I do not trust in that God of power and might
for there is too much blood
on his hands.

He is the god of genocide,
the god of savage crusades
and holy wars.

He is the god who commands
perfect obedience.
Punishment, death and hell
Are his weapons.

He is the Godfather God,
watching us from a distance
and judging all our deeds.

He allows immeasurable pain,
permits undeserved suffering
for reasons beyond our knowing.

His ways are inscrutable
as far beyond us as heaven
from earth.

We are not worthy
to gather up the crumbs
under his table.

But I do not want those crumbs.
I decline the invitation to that table.
I do not believe in that God
so I have to say No.

I will shout it and sing it.
I will weep it and pray it.
I will paint it on my walls
and wear it on my clothing.

And after a thousand years of saying No to him,

I will be ready

to say Yes

to you.

This is how Anglican Priest, Lucy Reid, begins her book, She Changes Everything: Seeking the Divine on a Feminist Path. It is her Non Credo.

Her non credo is the beginning of her search. It is not the end. In order to say yes, we may need to say no. She doesn’t say no and then say I am finished with all of this business. She says no and then her search begins--a search to find to what she can say yes.

Catherine Keller, author of On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process wrote this helpful piece about losing faith in God:
Of course, some can catch subtler meanings behind the popular cliches of a God-man who "comes down," presumably from Heaven Up There, dons a birthday suit, and after gamely sacrificing himself "for our sins" soon gets beamed up again....But far too many thoughtful people, through too much early exposure to the Big Guy in the Sky, develop life-long God allergies.

Allergic reactions, I hear, can only be treated with a bit of the original allergen. In other words, the literalisms of God-talk can be cured not by atheism but by an alternative theology.
My point in quoting Catherine Keller is not to criticize or mock someone’s theology. Nor is my desire to change anyone’s theology. I am suggesting that we can continue the quest even when the theology we inherited breaks down. What we might think of as a ‘loss of faith” can be the beginning of a quest.

Theology is a way of asking what it means to be human. Theology has to do with the way we will negotiate life individually and in community. It is the quest to discover who we are and our place. It is a pretty tall order. The best we can hope for is to find a series of provisional truths rather an absolute truth.

It isn’t just a matter of playing with symbols. It is not a game of academic abstraction. It is a matter of heart. It is asking or being willing to ask at the deepest level,
  • “Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • To what should I commit myself?
  • What is my relationship to all of these other people asking the same questions?
  • Where is my home?”
It may seem odd that I have chosen Mother’s Day to ask those big questions. It reflects where I have been struggling with my own faith and theology. This struggle is my personal quest to find my place. More than that, it comes from a concern (at times downright fear and grief) for our future on Earth.

The theology that has been in the driver’s seat for our so-called first world nations has been one of dominance, control, and exploitation. It is a masculine oriented theology of conquest. It is a theology that regards Earth as a commodity to be exploited. It regards our real home as an imaginary heaven above. Its co-conspirators have been patriarchy, racism, and empire-building. Its legacy has been ecological catastrophe.

Kurt Vonnegut, one of our modern day prophets wrote in the final book before his death the following:

The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
"Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do."

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.

That was Kurt Vonnegut from his last book, A Man Without a Country.

It appears that if humanity is going to make it through the 21st century we are going to need help from Mom.

The Divine Mother, personified as Gaia, represents a return to an ancient way of being on Earth. Earth is our home. We are Earthlings. We belong to Earth. We are Earth. Not separate nor superior, but intimately connected with all living things. Our fate is the same as Earth’s fate. The oceans, the trees, animals, insects, streams, mountains and rivers live in us and we in them.

It is appropriate on this Mother’s Day, to acknowledge that Earth is our mother. The mothering God is within each of us as well. To honor the Divine Mother, to honor Gaia, we make a commitment to love fiercely that which our Mother loves, including ourselves.

Where do we begin? In her article, Ecofeminism: The Spiral of Life, Lucy Reid writes:
Beginning with ourselves, but in small groups of those who share the global concerns, we must start the process of metanoia, of deep turning around and away from destructive life-styles, politics, theologies. We must challenge the thinking and practice which make human poverty and war seem inevitable, and earth’s degradation a necessary evil. From base communities we can create a mental and spiritual climate which makes it possible to dream, create, invent, lobby, organize, activate for a better world. Together, in local and global partnerships, we can co-create the kingdom of heaven (or kin-ship of God) on earth.
I think this community is one of those base communities. As we struggle together making commitments to be a green congregation, to discover the beauty and the fragility and the sacred power of nature, to raise our awareness regarding injustice in any form, to nurture each other, celebrate with, grieve with and embrace one another, we discover the Divine Mother within.

As Lucy Reid put it in her spiritual autobiography:
But when God is she, there is more than a shift in vocabulary; the very air that we breathe is changed. I recognize something of myself in God, and I see something of God in me. The hesitancy lifts; I no longer need to justify my vocation or apologize for my difference. There is a new norm, a new starting point, the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth. P. 21.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

One River, Many Wells (5/3/09 Pluralism Sunday)

One River, Many Wells
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 3rd, 2009
Pluralism Sunday

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
John 10:14-16

The first Sunday in May is designated as Pluralism Sunday by The Center for Progressive Christianity. On its website is written:
Progressive Christians thank God for religious diversity! We don’t claim that our religion is superior to all others. We recognize that other religions can be as good for others as ours is for us. We can grow closer to God and deeper in compassion—and we can understand our own traditions better—through a more intimate awareness of the world’s religions.
In our own mission statement we affirm that one of our tasks as a community is to

Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
Pluralism Sunday is right up our alley.

Celebrating and honoring religious diversity is one of the most important tasks we face as a species. I am going to offer two reasons for that statement. One is a negative reason (what happens if we do not honor religious pluralism) and the other is a positive reason (what can happen when we do honor religious pluralism).

I will begin with the negative.

In 2005 Catholic Theologian Hans Kung delivered a speech at the opening of the Exhibit on the World’s Religions at Santa Clara University. He said:
"There can be no peace between the nations until there is peace between the religions. There can be no peace between the religions until there is dialogue between the religions.”
In a time in which religious convictions can lead people to do violence, and in a time in which humanity has the technology that allows violence to be catastrophic, we have an important task in front of us.

Professor of Religion at Wake Forest, Charles Kimball, wrote a book a few years ago, When Religion Becomes Evil. I recommend it. He writes:

Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed. When religion becomes evil, these corruptions are always present. P. 39
Kimball lists five warning signs that a religion has been corrupted. When one or more of these signs are present, religion has the potential to become evil. Here are the five warning signs:

1) Absolute Truth Claims
2) Blind Obedience
3) The Establishment of an “Ideal” Time
4) The Ends Justify Any Means
5) Declaring Holy War

The common thread of these five warning signs is paranoia. It is us against them or us against the world. “We” as opposed to “them” become the chosen vs. the unchosen or the believers vs. the unbelievers or the righteous vs. the unrighteous.

The fruit of inter-religious dialogue is the recognition that the corruptions of religion are corruptions not their essence. We recognize our common humanity. We are one human family sharing one planet. We also recognize that people are more complex and ambiguous and frankly a lot more fun and interesting than what we think are the beliefs of their respective religions. Finally we recognize that the heart of another’s religious tradition is remarkably similar to our own in its most basic ways. These corruptions are exactly that—corruptions.

For instance, all of our religions teach that

1) As opposed to absolute truth claims, we are to be humble in regards to truth rather than think we possess it.
2) As opposed to blind obedience, we are to use discernment and respect our own and others’ freedom of conscience.
3) As opposed to the establishment of an ideal time, we recognize that the times and seasons are known by G-d. If there is such a thing as a divine blueprint none of us has access to it.
4) As opposed to the ends justify any means, we recognize that the ends and the means must be congruous and reciprocal. If we want forgiveness we must forgive. If we want peace we must be peaceful.
5) As opposed to declaring holy war, we recognize that war is a failure and a tragedy, and is never holy, beautiful, or sacred.

All of our religions teach these things. Only when they are corrupted by fear, paranoia, or greed do they teach these other things. The celebration of religious diversity and the practice of inter-religious dialogue can help us disarm the violence of religious corruption in all religion.

If the first reason for religious pluralism is to disarm non-violently religious corruption, the second reason is to draw out that which is beautiful, true, and empowering from all of our various religions and create something new.

For this I turn to another book, One River, Many Wells by Matthew Fox. In this metaphor, the wells are the individual religions or wisdom traditions. The River is the Source into which the various religions dip. Different wells, same river. To quote the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart:
God is a great underground river that no one can dam up and no one can stop.
Matthew Fox invites us to practice Deep Ecumenism. He invites us also to remythologize our species by creating new myths. His book, One River, Many Wells, draws from the mystics, prophets, sages, and poets of all of the wisdom traditions.

He discovers 18 themes of deep ecumenism and weaves them into four chapters and a conclusion.

1) Relating to Creation
2) Relating to Divinity
3) Relating to Ourselves: Paths to Encounter and Enlightenment
4) Relating to the Future: What the Divine is Asking of Us
5) Conclusion: Where Do We Go From Here? How Deep Ecumenism Explodes our Imaginations with Eighteen New Myths and Visions

Myth-making is about engaging our imagination. He writes:
Remember that myths are not stories that are not true; myths are stories that are too true and too large for facts alone, for the left hemisphere of the brain alone. A myth is not primarily about analysis but about seizing imagination. (p. 436)
For instance, take this familiar phrase that begins the Bible:

When God began creating the heavens and the earth…

That is a myth. It is True not at the factual level but at the mythical level. All wisdom traditions have creation mythologies. They tell us who we are and how we might navigate our way. Fox discovered that the 18 themes he had woven throughout his book could be expressed as modern myths. I won’t list all 18 that he mentions, but a few, such as

The myth that all our spiritual traditions can learn from each other and offer something fresh from their experiences and teachings. That is, the myth of Deep Ecumenism. (All are enumerated pp. 436-438)
That is a myth that is true and it wants expression. It is as true as ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ Here is another:
The myth that all Creation is sacred and we humans are part of it, integral to it, though late on the scene. Ecological care and concern is part of being here.
What might it mean for us to live that true myth? Here is another:

The myth that whatever name we give the Source of sources, the Artist of artists, the Creator of Creation, all are accurate and none are sufficient.
Let us write stories and paint pictures and sing songs of that myth as we engage with all of our sisters and brothers in their name naming.

As we have inherited a religion in which G-d has been spoken of mostly in male language, here is a myth for our time:
The myth that the Divine has a feminine as well as a masculine side. And so do we, made in her image.
There we have a few of modern myths for Creation and for Divinity. How about myths regarding personal transformation? Here is my favorite:

The myth that joy is possible even daily—and that we have a right to it as well as a responsibility to search it out, prepare for it, and pass it on.
On the flip side…

The myth that suffering, while it is everywhere, is real yet endurable. That suffering comes as a teacher of wisdom and compassion and rather than fleeing it, we ought to sit at is feet and learn what it wants to teach us.
How do we do that? Here is another myth:

The myth that we experience mindfulness, a state of being more and more fully present to the “I Am” and to our deepest self through meditations of various kinds.
How about myths for relating to each other?

The myth that compassion is the imitation of the Divine and compassion includes celebration and relief of pain and suffering and the active struggle against injustice. That service is something we can commit ourselves to that is worthy of full commitment.
What of our future? What myth do we need to face the tasks ahead of us?
The myth that we are all spiritual warriors (prophets) as well as lovers (mystics). And this means that we struggle with self and not just with outside enemies when we struggle for social transformation; it also means that we work from the heart not just from reaction.
Pluralism Sunday is remythologizing Sunday. It is myth-making Sunday. It is the invitation to creatively engage our wisdom traditions and all that is available to us. I really cannot say it better than how it has been put in the mission statement of our community:
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
My sermon had two points:
1) We need inter-religious dialogue so we don’t kill each other, literally.
2) We need inter-religious dialogue so we can gather what wisdom we can to create mythologies that the 21st century demands of us.

And now a final point:

Our traditional religions have carried us like ships on the sea for millennia. But they can’t get us to where we need to go as a species. These ships when they are not crashing into each other are sinking under their own weight. Yet, we aren’t sure how to get where we are going without them. We need to take what is valuable from all of them. We also need to discover the poet within each of us and among all of us and create some new verses.

I’ll leave you with this bit of provocation from the great poet and Sufi Mystic, Hafiz. Those who have ears, let them hear:

The great religions are ships,
Poets the life boats.
Every sane person I know
Has jumped overboard!
That is good for business,
Isn’t it,