Blood & Guts

Notes from
Mothers Day Sunday May 13, 2018   
Trinity on Church UC Kitchener
Texts: Acts 1, 1 John 5

We all have one. Some of us, if we are lucky, get more than one. Mothers.

We don’t choose our birth mother. Despite Origen, the early Christian father who spoke of pre-existent souls choosing birth, our tradition doesn’t say we choose our mother.  Rather, we are members of a ‘lucky sperm club’.  What are the chances of being born in our place and time, in this culture and economy? We enjoy unprecedented privileges of life expectancy and capacity to choose.

We sit here feeling anxious, or judged, scared, or mad. We know we don’t deserve all this, no matter how hard we work to justify material advantages.  That’s WEIRD.  Weird, in this case, is an acronym, coined by Jonathan Haidt, ‘moral psychologist’: Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic.  I 

Our morality is falsely focused on individual autonomy, freedom, as if we came into the world as atomized tabula rasa, rights-bearing individuals.  We think we are self-made, acting with utilitarian cost/benefit calculations. That WEIRD worldview ignore emotion and intuition, loyalty and betrayal, authority and subversion, sanctity and degradation, liberty and oppression. 

Haidt’s book is called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”  You may prefer Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow”, about behavioural economics, or Sapolsky’s “Behave”, across the spectrum from biochemistry through anthropology and sociology.  In the end, as my mother used to say, ‘consider the barnyard’ – give your mother credit!

We all have one. Some of us, if we are lucky, get more than one. Mothers.

Much of the time our birth mother is also our primary caregiver in childhood - but not always. Some children are chosen, and adopted or fostered, and some children enjoy other caregivers, extended family, nannies  As the culturally appropriated African saying puts it, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’

Probably most of us in the room would have to say we had one. Our mothers have died. My own mother died a decade ago. They may die, but they are not gone. They can still push our buttons – after all, they installed them! She occupies space behind your forehead – after all, she paid rent up front for a life lease. God knows how much space you took up behind her forehead!

Mothers: we don’t use the word lightly. We don’t assume that we all mean the same thing by the word.  Imagine what was being remembered in the room today. It’s not all Hallmark cards, eh? These relationships can be fraught: of mothers and daughters, or of mothers and sons, in complex family systems. 

Most of us don’t get to be mothers. Start with the men, biologically unfit to try.  Then add all the women who do not give birth or choose to adopt or foster. But we might, at our best, learn from the models of motherhood and imitate them, 
to be more fully human. 

 We all have one. We could use another – or a few. And we all share one – God.

John Dominic Crossan routinely asked four questions for Christians back at the turn of the century:

1. What is the character of your God?
2. What is the content of your faith?
3. What is the function of your church?
4. What is the purpose of your worship?

1 John is written to oppose a faction that spiritualizes Jesus too much.  John can be read that way: ‘sent to earth’. But Jesus is no alien visitor, space invader, touchdown Jesus with no sweat on the cross.  John’s Jesus is big – in the beginning with God, and in the end with God. But 1 John won’t let factions make Jesus superhuman, above it all. What kind of Christians would buy that?

Jesus is incarnate, suffering, passionate. That full humanity can’t be lost, grounding the high Christology, the wide and high view of the person and work of Christ in John. This Jesus came ‘by water and by blood’, by baptism, and by birth and death. Mothers are carnal too. Birth can be bloody, and lethal.  ‘Silent Night’? As if! Mothers can bury their kids. It’s a lot of risk to be a mother!

Maternal models of God and of humanity can re-present complementary, balancing, completing elements, roles and characteristics. ‘God the Father’ can become hierarch, tyrant, distant, angry, or disengaged.  A maternal God, a carnal suffering sacrificing God, is greater.  She, loving her children, can be passionate – which is the origin of compassion, ‘passion with’.

This revelation of a model of God and model of humanity, motherhood, says Jesus comes by water and the blood and the spirit. Not just the spirit, above and beyond it all. Not just the water of changed mind and heart in the baptism of water, but also the blood of flesh and blood carnality in life and, ultimately and ineluctably, in death.

God is more than a good idea, inviting our own vague good intentions in response.  Humanity is more than a vehicle to be occupied by a spark of divinity, like an alien taking over a zombie carcass.  The hymns we sang today explored the implications of being birthed and embodied, participating in natural cycles of material and biological creatures.   Life is brief, fragile, and valuable.

Augustine tried to connect this water and blood with the story of the spear stuck in Jesus’ side in John’s version of crucifixion. Calvin and Luther tried to connect the sacraments of baptism and communion to it. Tertullian before any of it, and John Wesley after all of them, led our branch of the movement, Methodists, to read water as baptism, blood as crucifixion, grounding Jesus in life and in death.

We are beloved – chosen – mothered. Only that God, in and through that Jesus, 
could make this claim: ‘This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.’  If we pay attention to models of motherhood, we will name God better. If we aspire to those models of motherhood, we will aspire to become a better kind of Christian. 

We don’t simply choose the faith – nor are we chosen by our merit.  It’s more like Matthias – by lot.  Have you ever been on a hiring committee at a church? How about a ‘discernment committee’ for people feeling called to ministry?  Wouldn’t it be better, easier, and perhaps more effective, to draw from a deck of cards, or roll dice or draw straws?  

It’s WEIRD – and prideful – to claim to be worthy.  We don’t choose our mothers, and mothers are wise to qualify their claims of credit or blame for their children, who were entrusted to them for awhile.  ‘In our zeal to be blameless, we destroy our kids’, Jack Shaver often said.  Let’s give 99% credit to providence, and claim only 1% of our outcomes for prudence.  

Grace means we get far more providential blessing than we deserve, and mercy means that we get far less providential chastisement than we deserve.  I acknowledged that my reliance on this Calvinist wisdom, which Marilynne Robinson calls ‘The Givenness of Things’, makes me sound strange to people in our 21st century first-world subculture.  

Yes, I veered close to a Calvinist predestinarian position today, and one of you claimed confusion, given my enthusiasm for Methodism and it’s Arminian emphasis on the importance of our choice in response to God’s grace or mercy.  Yet the Wesleys were far more Calvinist than most who claim their name now.  Our choices matter, and make a difference – like children’s Mothers’ Day gifts!

We all have one.
We could use another – or a few.
And we all share one – God.

For that, today, we gave thanks.  Amen.

Casting Aspersions or All Wet?

Notes from
5th Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2018
Trinity on Church UC, Kitchener
Text: 1 John 4:7-21

Give me that old time religion… It’s good enough for me…
Let us worship like the Druids, running naked through the woo-ids
Drinking strange fermented fluids, and that's good enough for me.
Let us worship Aphrodite, in her silky see-through nightie
Though she's mean and somewhat flighty, she's good enough for me.
Let us sacrifice to Isis, she will help us in a crisis
And she hasn't raised her prices, and that's good enough for me.
Let us all bow down to Buddha, there's no other God who's cuter
Comes in copper, brass, and pewter, and that's good enough for me.
Let us worship Zarathustra, let us worship like we used to
I'm a Zarathustra booster, and that's good enough for me.
Let us worship like the Quakers  (silence)
(silence)  And that's good enough for me.
Let us now form up a caucus, so that we may worship Bacchus
For his followers are raucous, and that's good enough for me.
There's a graven image of Ba'al, that I bought for my front ha'al
At the graven image ma'al, and that's good enough for me.

Give me that old time religion… It’s good enough for me…
I began the service with a bishop’s miter on my head, spraying water with a cedar sprig from the baptismal font.  That’s how most of our people, the early Germanic, Norse, and Celtic tribes, were baptized.  Our tribal chief signed up, and his people got sprayed, regardless of their personal thoughts, feelings, or actions. Now that’s old time religion, from the first millennium CE!

That’s called ‘casting aspersions’ – spraying baptismal water, imposing identity unilaterally, assaulting and inflicting the name of Jesus on people.  Any other previous names may or may not fit the new one of Christian.  We might call it projection, transference or counter-transference.  Who gets to name me?  If I claim a name, others must validate it – ask Joseph Boyden, non-native writer!

We’re working our way through the First Letter of John in this Easter season.  Last week, I introduced C.S.Lewis’ summary of ‘Four Loves’, differing Greek words for ’love’ in Christian scriptures: storge, philia, eros, agape.  Bluff shared citizenship, closer friendship, and erotic feelings are trumped by ‘charity’, as the King James version translated the open unconditional sharing of agapic love.

How many weddings in recent decades have echoed the opening verses of this week’s reading, 1 John 4:7-11?   Perhaps fewer than 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, but in either case, we read ‘love’ in English with the erotic meaning in the centre of our minds and hearts, when the bible was talking about the greater demands of love.  Many couples discover the full meaning of their wedding text much later.

Last week I emphasized the instruction to agapé the adelphoi.  Today the more frequent object of agape is allelou, ‘each other’ or ‘one another’.  I pointed out that Cree has an entire extra grammar category for the first person plural, from a tribal worldview: ‘we’ can mean ‘us but not you whom we address’, or ‘us including you whom we address’.   They don’t assume everybody is a ‘we’.

Some people don’t want to be named ‘just one of us’, or worse ‘just like us’.  Ask any teenager, or any minority receiving the condescension of privilege dismissing their difference.  Cultural appropriation, ‘I’m really better at mindfulness than most Buddhist monks’, or Boyden’s claim to know the soul of First Nations people better than they do, like Archie Belaney’s ‘Grey Owl’, or Rachel Dolezal’s NAACP leadership and African Studies professorship, is worse.

Today, we renewed and reaffirmed our membership, saying ‘I do’ to 3 questions and then confirming that each other one was welcome.  Currently, there are 204 adults who say they belong, believe, and behave as if it were so, and are recognized by the leadership at Trinity.  Which ‘I do’ is hardest for you to say these days, without qualification?  We ask members to confirm that:

Do you want to be a Member
of Trinity United Church
within the one church?  (I do.)

Do you believe in God your Creator,
in Jesus Christ your Redeemer, and
in the Holy Spirit your Teacher & Guide? (I do.)

Do you promise to grow in this faith,
part of this community of faith,
sharing the church’s celebration and service? (I do.)

After worship today, we debriefed a couple of Sundays in March spent with staff of the Toronto United Church Council (TUCC).  We have left our building, and rented a chapel.  Our minister has left, with a temporary itinerant while we reconsider what Trinity’s mission, and thus our next staff job, is becoming.   God forbid we become a glee club without glee, a service club without service!

In formal Greek rhetoric, there were 3 approaches to make an argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. ‘Ethos’ is argument from character and authority: listen to me because my character is reliable and my opinion deserves weight.  ‘Pathos’ is an appeal to feeling, evoking sympathy or empathy. ‘Logos’ is argument from logic and reason: so names of academic disciplines often end in ‘-ology’.  

We try to ‘show and tell’ our faith tradition with all 3 approaches.  Sometimes we say ‘Trinity is the kind of church where Ken Mott leads in service to ex-cons and humble help to others’: ethos.  Sometimes we say ‘Trinity’s music lifts our hearts, and bereaved people find compassion and care from ministers’: pathos.  Sometimes we say ‘Trinity’s Jesus came to take the burden of our sin, not the burden of having a brain’.  Ours is a credible, passionate, and reasonable faith!

When others ‘cast aspersions’ on us, we can be named as far less than God knows us to be, and loves us into becoming.   People caricature religious people as pietistic, pathetic and pedantic, and often the names stick.  We in turn go ‘down the rabbit hole’ of specific petty squabbles, and the names fit.

Pietistic rule-bound morality is a far smaller thing than ethical character and credibility.  Pathetic focus on pity, accepting the reduction of ‘charity’ to the disinterested relief of others’ pain and poverty only after we attain wealth, loses our early balance of inspiring joy as well to feed compassion.  Pedantic proofs of empirical explanations for spiritual phenomena simply defer to technocrats and utilitarian maximizers in moral discernment far beyond any expert’s ‘-ology’.

Give me that old time religion… It’s good enough for me…
We began the hour with casting aspersions, as I sprayed you with water from the baptismal font, and told you that you were Christians.   We ended the hour with a lunch and discussion about our specific opportunities to claim Trinity’s name, despite the dismissive aspersions cast upon religion by glib liberals in the academy and the bureaucracy.  What do we have to show and tell?

We are part of something bigger, deeper, older than any and than all of us.  It’s part of who we are and what we are becoming, in right relations to a God who knows us and loves us better than we know and love ourselves.  Name it – proclaim it – not to impose it upon others, but because God knows we need it!