The Art of Losing
Southminster Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Reign of Christ Sunday
Lost and alone on some forgotten highway
Travelled by many remembered by few
Lookin’ for something that I can believe in
Lookin’ for something that I’d like to do with my life
There’s nothin’ behind me and nothin’ that ties me
To somethin’ that might have been true yesterday
Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more
Than enough to just be here today
And I don’t know what the future is holdin’ in store
I don’t know where I’m goin’, I’m not sure where I’ve been
There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me
My life is worth the livin’, I don’t need to see the end
Sweet, sweet surrender
Live, live without care
Like a fish in the water
Like a bird in the air
People who find and live into their calling rarely do so without getting lost first. Yet since there are no straight or clear paths in the Dark Wood of life, they do not cease to get lost after once being found. Rather, those who embrace life in the Dark Wood gradually learn that the regular experience of getting lost is one of the most important gifts we can receive.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
One Art -- Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’
For those keeping track of the church liturgical year you will know that today is the last Sunday of the church year. A new church year begins next week with the First Sunday of Advent. Advent literally means “coming” as in Jesus is coming again to return in the clouds and usher in the end times.
When this marvelous theory was created the earth was viewed as the center of the universe. Orbiting Earth in the first heaven was the Moon. Then outside of that, Mercury, Mars, and then the Sun was in fourth place. The Sun like the other heavenly bodies also orbited Earth.
In continuing concentric circles of orbit were Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The seven heavenly spheres. The music of the spheres. The musica universalis. Pythagorus proposed that each heavenly body, each planet, emitted its own special hum or resonance based on its orbital revolution. The quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of these celestial sounds which are imperceptible to the human ear. Everything in order. Everything in its place. Everything harmonious. No heavenly body lost in space.
Outside of the seventh heavenly sphere were the fixed stars and then at the top, whatever high god people believed started the whole thing and now administrates the system. In Christianity’s case, the king of heaven was Jesus the Christ, who according to the creed “sitteth at the right hand of the Father. “
But things aren’t totally harmonious on Earth. Children die. Ruffians rule the streets. Demons cause sickness. Sin still lurks like a lion at the door. The hope, the promise is that Christ on his throne will return to Earth in the clouds and establish the heavenly kingdom on Earth. Heaven will come down to Earth like a bridegroom. The music of the spheres will then sound in every believer’s heart.
Now we pray for this to come soon, “your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven, things are going fine. On Earth we still have death and taxes. But one day, when Christ returns all that will vanish, the wicked will be punished eternally and the righteous will sit on their own thrones forever and ever, Amen.
This is Christianity. At least it was Christianity for the past 1900 years and still is for the vast majority of Christians. It wasn’t until the moon landing when photos came back to Earth of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon did it begin to sink in our consciences that Earth is itself a heavenly body or that Moon was as earthy as Earth.
Now we teach our children that Earth is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of one galaxy among billions, and you know all that.
Nevertheless, vestiges of the old system of thought remain. And we teach our children that Christ and Christmas are coming and that Jesus reigns. We sing with or without irony, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” What do we mean by that now?
This last Sunday of the church year is called Christ the King. Or since we are sensitive to inclusive language, Reign of Christ. But it means the same thing. Jesus, the eternal Word enfleshed in the life of a lowly peasant has ascended into heaven and taken the place of the gods. In fact, there are no more gods but God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the holy mystery of the blessed Trinity.
When the trumpet sounds, like the Sun rising each morning in the East, God the Son, Jesus the long-awaited Messiah, will come from the East for Judgment Day.
It is beautiful and poetic and impossible.
When did we stop believing this? I think it was when we changed how we buried the dead. I realized this in my first church in upstate New York. I visited the cemetery where Daniel Nash was buried. Daniel Nash preached and prayed at my first congregation, The First Presbyterian Church of Lowville, New York back in the 1820s during the Second Great Awakening.
Charles Finney is the famous figure identified with that time period. He would preach and preach to the sinners on the sinners’ bench for their hearts to melt and receive the good news of their fallen state and the redemption at hand. There was an urgency to his preaching because Christ would be coming soon, any day.
Finney preached up and down and all around Western New York State, even making it up to northern New York. He called Western New York the burned over district because the area had been so heavily evangelized that there was no fuel that is no unconverted people left to burn or convert. Finney worked himself out of a job.
Charles Finney had a partner, Daniel Nash. They were a team. Finney would preach and Nash would pray. Nash would pray for a long time. He would pray the devil out of the hearts of sinners so there would be room for Jesus.
Daniel Nash is buried in the cemetery connected with that early Presbyterian community just up the road from the church. On his gravestone is written “Laborer with Finney: Mighty in Prayer.”
Nash’s gravestone, like all of the Christian ones in the 19th century, face East. When the trumpet sounds and that roll is called up yonder, the dead in Christ will rise first as the scriptures say and face the Lord as he comes from the East like the rising sun.
The gravestones often have scripture verses inscribed on them.
When did we stop believing this? We stopped believing this when we stopped facing gravestones to the east and writing scripture verses on them. Now gravestones for those who even bother to have them anymore face whatever direction the cemetery architects find aesthetically pleasing. Instead of scripture verses we find inscribed etchings of boats or golf clubs or other things that were of interest to the deceased. Instead of funeral services that preach of the urgency of Christ’s return and the need to get right with the Lord, we have celebration of life services.
When I say “we” I mean modern secular society. Christian fundamentalists are part of this society as well. They resist it. They think this is a bad thing. We are losing faith according to them. I often hear the phrase “theological drift” to describe this secularizing trend. Even those of us still religious, who attend worship and hear the stories and mull over them and celebrate Advent and Christmas do so in a metaphorical way. On Southminster’s website under the link called theology is written:
“We do not espouse a literal interpretation of the stories of the Bible…”
In other words, we don’t espouse the theory that Jesus Christ is literally in heaven and will literally return to Earth. Questions might arise such as what do we espouse? And is there anything regarding Christianity about which we are literal? Is it all metaphor? What then does that mean for us? When we bring these questions that are within us to the surface and admit them we may feel a sense of loss and of being lost. What do I believe? What do I hold onto? What holds us together? We also may feel a sense of liberation. More on that later.
I am speaking in the Christian context, but a similar thing is going on with Islam and Judaism and of course, all religious traditions formed in a pre-modern era. They all have run into an overwhelming force, modernism. Modernism or the scientific method has over the centuries changed the way we see how things work.
While the response for many has been to reflect, accommodate, and change pre-modern religious doctrines to fit the modern world, for many others the response has been resistance. We are witnessing now, in my view violent resistance to this crash of worlds. This is for both Christianity and Islam. There are many other factors that are fueling violence in the name of Islam to name an example, but the crash of worldviews is one, and it is a big one. And I think it is something we, that is we religious secularists, if you will allow me to say that, can address.
I think we address it by looking at our own tradition critically without flinching. If we can’t handle it how can we expect ISIS to handle it? If we are afraid or uncomfortable about examining our religious tradition critically how can ever hope to say anything to a world that is dominated by religious extremism? The popular face of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism is fundamentalism. The only way we can legitimately say, “You should take your religion less literally,” is for us to do it ourselves.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. How do you think Christ the King sounds to a Jew? How does Christ the King sound to a Muslim? Now add the phrase Christ the King to a nation that is predominantly and historically culturally Christian that uses 25% of the world’s resources and makes up only 5% of the world’s population, that has 10,000 nuclear weapons and has used them in war and has military bases in virtually every country on Earth including countries with overwhelming Muslim populations?
Christ the King has meant both for Americans and non-Americans dominance. It is simple logic. Christ is King. We are Christians. We are King. For Muslims it goes like this. There is one God. Abraham, Jesus and Mohammad were his prophets and were Muslims. We Muslims are thus chosen. The faithful of both traditions think they are chosen, destined, and for good measure persecuted and they believe all this literally. What greater reward than to be a soldier for your faith and be martyred on the battlefield?
Christ the King is an idea whose time has come to end.
It isn’t true literally and it is dangerous socially.
How do we revisit our stories? How do we, like the sages from the East, search for the one born king of the Jews, when kings are really bad ideas? Who will we find in that stable? What is the heart and soul of our religious tradition that needs liberation from centuries of superstition and violence?
A simple way to begin is to look at our stories from an historical perspective. The earliest followers of Jesus gave titles to Jesus that were grandiose. They were in a sense spoofing the dominant religious system of the day. By calling Jesus son of god, messiah, king, and attributing to him miracle stories, rising from the dead, ascending to heaven, they were spoofing Caesar, who called himself son of god.
The scandal of these early followers of Jesus is not that Jesus is son of god in some metaphysical sense, but that Jesus, the non-violent, justice-seeking peasant with an attitude was son of god in an honorific sense. This particular Jesus was Caesar’s replacement. They were advocating a society based on peace through justice not peace through violence. How should the world work? Through dominance and power or through justice?
What has happened over the centuries is that we forgot it was a spoof. And we literalized all these terms. And we turned Jesus into a Caesar figure.
The same for Mohammad. Mohammad was a prophet of social justice. Again the tradition literalized all the superstitious parts like the Qur’an magically coming from God.
If we really want to follow Jesus and Mohammad, we need to lose our religion. Our religions have become toxic and they need an upgrade.
That feels like a loss. And it is. Loss is an art. We get better at it as we do it. As we lose all metaphysics we make room for what is life-giving. Jesus, Amos, Moses, Mohammad, Buddha, Krishna were about peace within and without. Whether these figures were fictional or real they represented the miracle and hope, if you will, of transformed lives and societies.
If there is a place for Advent or Christ the King in our religious lives, we Christians must be willing to say Mohammad the King and the Advent of Buddha. It isn’t about the figure, but the spirit of that figure. The spirit of all the great ones was pretty much the same. How do we live in peace with ourselves and with justice with our neighbor? As we honestly search for that we search for a liberating and flourishing faith.