Of Tide Pools and the Ocean

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates, she speaks:

‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’” (Proverbs 1:20-22)

We come here this morning in mourning, seeking light in the midst of a great darkness created by religious hatred.

Listening to and watching the news from the Middle East and the viral videos that call the founder of Islam “Mo” is deeply disturbing. Once again, religious fanaticism betrays its claim to bear witness to the One who remains shrouded in mystery. The fires that were set by a flame-throwing video raise the question “Will religious fanaticism prevail?

“There are only kinds of religion: one burns, the other learns.”

Those words were spoken from this pulpit two years ago. They came not from the preacher. They came from Ghafar Lackanwal, a Muslim Afghani-American, who came at our invitation after the Christian pastor in Florida threatened to burn the Quran. Ghafar accepted our invitation. He opened his Quran, read from his Book, and brought greetings peace to this congregation.

The two kinds of religion are not Christianity and Islam, or Islam and Judaism. The two kinds of religion are intransigent fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the humble search for wisdom’s guidance, on the other.

Ninety years ago a great preacher lost his pulpit for asking the question “Shall the fundamentalist win?” Harry Emerson Fosdick asked the question in 1922. He was subsequently removed from his pulpit, but he John D. Rockefeller built a church called “Riverside” where Fosdick would become one of America’s best known and most loved preachers. Some called him “America’s counselor” because of the radio broadcasts of his sermon across the country. “Shall the fundamentalists win?” By fundamentalists he meant those who claim absolute truth, denying all other claims to truth or wisdom.

Ninety years later I’m asking myself the same question.

Like Fosdick, I spent my boyhood summers on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean became my teacher. It became, you might say, my enduring metaphor for God.

As a boy I would spend hours lost in the magnificence of the tide pools that dotted the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts.  Wading in the tide pools is still my favorite thing to do. I did it again last month with my grandchildren at Coquille Point on the Pacific Coast of Oregon.

The tide pools are filled with fresh sea water. They are the temporary homes that give shelter to the starfish, crabs, periwinkles, sea anemones left there for a few hours at low tide. They are not the ocean itself.

Perhaps religion is like a tide pool, a small pool of ocean water that tastes the Ocean while pointing to the vast mystery of the Ocean on which its life depends. The tide pools hold a few drops of a vast sea. They are filled with the Ocean, but they are not the Ocean. Their health depends on the eternal rolling of the tides to refresh them.

Wading in a tide pools, it’s easy to lose track of time.

But there are other tide pools far back from the water’s edge, created by the unusually high waves of a storm. Unreachable by the normal daily tides that would refresh them, they are cut off from the Ocean that gave them life. They are without oxygen, yellow, and covered by green-yellow slime. Their original beauty has left them to the flies.

Perhaps the human soul or, a religious tradition, is like a tide pool.

“Since when has the Pacific Ocean been poured into a pint cup,” asked Fosdick, “that the God of this vast universe should be fully comprehended in human words?” One tea-cup will reveal the quality of the whole ocean. Yet it will not reveal all the truth about the ocean.

“When one considers the reach of the sea over the rim of the world; thinks of the depths that no eye can pierce…, one dare not try to put these into a tea-cup. So God sweeps out beyond the reach of human symbols. At once so true and so inadequate are all our words….”

As a Christian pastor, I can only take responsibility from within the tide pool of my Christian faith tradition.  Muslim Imams like Minneapolis Imam Makram El-Amin, are doing the same in theirs.  “We will stand,” he said, “in unity against these attacks and the appalling killing of the diplomat who was there on a peaceful mission” (“State Muslims denounce attacks,” Star Tribune, Sept. 13). Every Christian pastor is called to do the same in the wake of the viral film that poisoned the Ocean from a yellow tide pool in Florida.

This morning I ask you to listen to three prayers. Ask yourself who spoke them. A rabbi, an imam, or a Christian pastor.

1) O God Source of Life, Creator of Peace. . .
Help Your children, anguished and confused,
To understand the futility of hatred and violence
And grant them the ability to stretch across
Political, religious and national boundaries
So they may confront horror and fear
By continuing together
In the search for justice, peace and truth. . . .
With every fiber of our being
We beg You, O God,
To help us not to fail nor falter. Amen

2) In the Name of God, The Everlasting Merciful, The Cherisher
Of the Worlds and Worthy of all Praise,
Our Lord: You have created us from a single (pair) of a male
And a female and made us into Nations and Tribes that we may
Know one another (not that we may despise each other) so
Help us to love each other and take the hatred and anger from our
Hearts so that the People of The Book (Christians, Jews and Muslims)
In the Middle East may live in Peace and Justice. Amen

3)Two peoples, one land,
Three faiths, one root,
One earth, one mother,
One sky, one beginning, one future, one destiny,
One broken heart,
One God.
We pray to You:
Grant us a vision of unity.
May we see the many in the one and the one in the many.
May you, Life of All the Worlds, Source of All Amazing Differences
Help us to see clearly.
Guide us gently and firmly toward each other,
Toward peace. Amen.

The first prayer comes from the lips of Rabbi H. Rolando Matalon from Congregation B’nai Jeshurunin  New York, NY. The second comes from Dawud Ahmad Assad of the Council of Mosques here in the USA. The third comes from the National Council of Churches of Christ.

Each of them is humble. Each of them looks to the larger Ocean to refresh us. Each begs for wisdom to guide us. Each honors the God and Creator of all.

There are only two kinds of religion. One burns; the other learns. “How long will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

When any religious tradition mistakes its pool for the Ocean itself, denying the existence of neighboring tide pools along the edges of Eternity, fundamentalism wins. Things turn yellow and nasty. For those of us who are disciples of Jesus, there is only one enduring question by which our tide pool can remain open and fresh: “How shall we love the Lord our God with all our mind, hearts, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves?”

Only the daily refreshment of the tides can keep the tide pools fresh. Otherwise we watch the news, asking Fosdick’s old question, and hope and pray that fundamentalism and fanaticism will not win.

– Sermon preached by Gordon C. Stewart at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, Chaska, MN Sunday, September 16, 2012.

Alaskan tide pool photo by Susan Linz

You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus

Gordon C. Stewart     Feb. 14, 2012

“Who was Jesus?” I asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had rung the doorbell. Through the upstairs window where I do my writing, I had seen the van pull over across the street and empty out. I thought perhaps there was a family gathering next door until two of them walked up the drive way.

An email response to “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and You” (posted below) reminded me of the conversation that ensued. Here’s the email from Ann in Texas:

“So nice to hear from you and feel your energy out there flushing out injustice and ranging around in the ‘big ideas,’ and formative experiences. Bravo!  Passion writes action… and here’s mine… an odd reaction, I’m sure, but to the leper story, and the overturning of the tables and all the examples we use to cast aspersions on ancient Judaism that help perpetuate in my mind a subtle continuing contemporary anti-Judaism and the continuing need for an Israel that has morphed into “pants” to small to hold it.  Now there’s a view from the edge!”

I share Ann’s concern. I hold my breath every time I preach or write on texts like this, painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that continues in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.

When the Jehovah’s Witness rang the doorbell, I was deep into writing a sermon on planetary stewardship and sustainability in the wake of the B.P. oil “spill” – Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The dogs were barking up a storm at the two men standing on their porch. I went down, answered the door, and stepped outside to meet them.

They were kind and gentle people. They wanted me to know that the world was coming to an end. “Yes, I know,” I said, “what do you fellas think about the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico?” They preferred to talk about Jehovah, the Book of Revelation, the end of the world… and Jesus.

“Okay, let’s talk about that. “Who was Jesus?”

“He was the Son of God.”

“And who was the Son of God?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“And who was Jesus Christ?  Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. So who was Jesus?”

“The Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

“Let me ask it differently. Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Who were his people and what was Jesus’ religion?

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Jesus was a real man, in real time. He lived in a particular time and place. Jesus didn’t suddenly plop down out of the sky. So who was Jesus of Nazareth?

“He was the Messiah, the Christ. He came to bring the new Covenant.”

“And what about the first covenant? What was Jesus’ religion?

“He was a Christian,” they said.

“Jesus was a Christian?! You can’t follow yourself. A Christian is someone who follows the Christ.  Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And he’ll always be a Jew. You don’t get to make him up like that. We can’t create Jesus in our own image. You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus!”

We talked then about Jesus and the Book of Revelation. We discussed the fact that the Book of Revelation is a literary genre of the first century called “apocalyptic” that was peculiar to that time; that it was written by a disciple of Jesus held prisoner by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos, who was denouncing the imperial claims of the Roman Empire, and proclaiming its end in bizaare images of Jewish Scripture (in Danile and Ezekiel). The Book of Revelation wasn’t, as so many think today, a book of predictions about the future or the end of the world.

“You’ve thought about this a lot,” said one of the men. “You really seem to have spent a lot of time studying this.”

I thanked him for the compliment and responded that although I’ve been thinking about these matters all my life, I still know very little.

At the end of the 45-minute conversation, I told them how much I respected their commitment to their beliefs and their sacrifices of time and money. I took their literature and invited them to think about what Jesus would have us do about the crabs, the oysters, and the oil-soaked birds drowning in oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we were all as committed to the healing of the planet and to the care of the poor as my visitors were that day to spreading their message with urgency, the world would be a better place.

Those of us who carry the name “Christian” don’t get to have a Jesus who is a Christian. The only Jesus we get to have was and always will be the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, whose people have been crucified many times by the anti-Semitic pogroms of those who claim to follow him.

The Jesus who heals the leper also tells the leper to “go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing….” Jesus is telling the man to practice his Jewish tradition, but Christian interpreters typically fail to notice the startling clarity of Jesus’ Jewishness. Likewise, any reading that begins with the assumption that Jesus was a Christian mistakes Jesus’  turning over of the money-changers’ tables in the temple as his rejection of Jewish faith and practices rather than the deepest affirmation of the Jewish covenant by which he lived. In faithfulness to the covenant, he protested the abuse of the covenant by the religious leaders of his time who had forsaken their high calling by collaborating with and cozying up to the Roman economic and military powers that occupied Jerusalem – just like today.

Thank you, Ann, for the email that reminded me.