Horizontal Hold...or Jesus on the Ground

January 30, 2011
Stuart Twite, Pulpit Guest

THE SERMON

Flannery O'Connor, the great and powerful writer, once wrote that "Jesus is the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of one's mind." I find that a deep and profound truth. Each year it is my pleasure to lead groups of Norwell elementary school students on a tour of our wonderful church. Almost every year at least one student will ask me "What is behind that curtain? [behind the pulpit]"  I usually furtively sneak a look and gasp in amazement, all to reveal the secret that there is... nothing at all behind the curtain.

This was, of course, not always the case. Old photographs of our pulpit show that at one time, a large cross graced this wall, testifying to the congregational Christian heritage of this and all New England Unitarian and Universalist Churches.  I thought of our cross the other day when I heard a description of the Biblical portrayal of the life and teachings of Jesus put in a way I had not considered before. The cross, according to this idea, is a reflection or symbol of the Christian church year. That year began four weeks before Christmas with the season of Advent and included the immaculate conception and the events leading to the birth of Jesus. The present season is the Epiphany, the guiding star and the presentation and announcement of the birth. In a little more than a month will be Lent followed by Easter, the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. These events are represented by the vertical post of the cross.  In between the birth and the crucifixion, is the season we celebrate now. It is the real and actual life of Jesus. His actions, his teachings and his impact on those whom he came into contact with. This is represented by the horizontal plank of the cross. It is, so to speak, Jesus on the ground.

Now you would think that the church would equally hold up the vertical and horizontal Jesus but that is rarely the case. The historical Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, divides his thinking about Jesus into two parts. There is, he says, the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus. It is the post-Easter Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and then conquered death by rising again.  The pre-Easter Jesus, our Horizontal Jesus on the ground is admired but his actual teachings and life are little listened to or lived by. And there is good reason for that. It is a part of our nature to evaluate and re-evaluate historical figures according to our own times and our own beliefs. Look at the changing fortunes of our Presidents. If your favorite is out of favor today-no worries-he will probably rise again in the minds of scholars and the public. This of course happens because experience changes both us and our views. New information is revealed. Think of Massachusetts' own John Kennedy. This past week saw the 50th anniversary of his inauguration as President. One or two words have been written about JFK since, and his fortunes and reputation rise and fall constantly. So too (and Kennedy probably would not have minded the comparison) with Jesus. 

In the past 2,000 years or so, Jesus has been depicted in tens of thousands of ways, and this is truly startling when you remember that he was born an obscure carpenter's son in an obscure, and occupied part of a great empire.  Hundreds of books have been written purporting to reveal to us the true Jesus. Getting a handle, or a true vision of this Jesus on the ground, and finding what, amidst all the differing and often conflicting idea, abides, is my subject this morning. And that process has put me in mind this week of watching television when I was young...

Do you remember, and it was not long ago, when television screens weren't flat, you only got two or three channels, and the picture quality had to be manually adjusted? My favorite was the Horizontal Hold button. If the horizontal hold was just a bit off, the images on the screen would all look as if they were reflected in a fun house circus mirror. If it was really off, all that you could see would be many fuzzy and distorted lines going across the screen. And some televisions required fairly constant adjusting. (We had one that I swear went out during crucial moments of every Minnesota Vikings football game only to back on again during the commercial.) 

My own search for Jesus has been much like this. What I felt to be a clear picture would waver and maybe disappear amidst the lines of distortion only to be adjusted.  Only by that time, the picture had changed. The first picture in my search was, of course, the Sunday School Jesus. This was the Jesus that loved all of us. The dominant image that I recall is of a gentle (albeit long haired) man in soft colors holding a lamb and surrounded by smiling and laughing children.  By the end of high school and through most of college, I had become very interested in politics and my politics were, as many of you know, very conservative.  These were the years of the heyday of the Moral Majority and I used to boast that I was just to the right of Jerry Falwell. The Jesus of those days was a moral authority and the author of a system that would rescue America from its many ills. The man Jesus, I must admit, was farthest from me during those years and the image that stands out in my mind is a video of Ronald Reagan, prepared by the Republican National Committee, with Lee Greenwood singing "I'm proud to be an American" in the background, that my college Republican group showed to many people during Reagan's reelection campaign.  By graduate school, experience and some disillusionment had dramatically changed my politics and my view of Jesus. Granted, Brookings, South Dakota was not exactly a hotbed of political ferment and intrigue. But somehow, I was exposed to Liberation Theology which started in Latin America in the 60's and 70's and interpreted Jesus as a liberator of the poor and oppressed from political and economic repression. In its purest form, liberation theology led to many "base communities" in which people met to discuss the Bible together- something that had never happened before. Its most extreme manifestations led to priests picking up guns and fighting in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. Pictures of very poor villagers sitting in circles talking about the Bible and seeking to replicate the early church are most vivid in my mind along with posters that depicted the same Jesus from my childhood, only now holding a machine gun.

My engagement with Liberation Theology was, of course, almost entirely academic and after graduate school, I became a teacher, eventually ending up at an Episcopal school in Phoenix, Arizona.  Jesus became, for me, during those years, a model teacher. It was during this time, that I was exposed to Historical Jesus research and the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars, who, for a brief time in the late 80's gained some attention and notoriety by meeting as a group and voting with colored beads on which sayings and actions attributed to Jesus in the Bible had actually happened. The voting beads aside, the effort to get to the essentials of what Jesus was and taught has informed much of my subsequent journey. Their research, incidentally, is the basis of our 5th and 6th grade curriculum here at our First Parish Church school.

Fast forward a few years- our oldest daughter was just 6 months old. My wife Carrie received a job offer in New York state so we packed up and moved to a house in the woods for what I thought would be one year off from teaching. During this time, I became deeply interested in Buddhism, began a meditation practice and attended retreats and, on occasion, Sunday services at a nearby Buddhist Monastery. I also started reading Gnostic gospel texts that presented an esoteric and very different view of Jesus and one that often sounded remarkably similar to the Buddha. Some years later, I was still a stay at home father. Molly was now 7, and had been joined by Anna, then 5, and Henry, about 3. We moved again and I was deeply blessed to find First Parish Church, Unitarian in Norwell, MA. Oh my goodness...what can I say?  For during many of the years I have already discussed, I had been reading the founding generation of American Unitarian ministers and absorbing their view of Jesus. There I had found my intellectual home and now, in this great place, I had found a church home right in the middle of that tradition.

Mind and heart united...William Phillips Tilden, the first Superintendent of our Sunday School, and later a longtime Unitarian minister had his heart and head united by another minister of this congregation, Caleb Stetson, many years ago. It is, indeed, a great gift.  After all the apparent differences in my views of Jesus over the years, and amidst all the political, ethical, and institutional changes, a great truth came to me and it is one I have to remind myself of periodically. All of these manifestations of Jesus are true -and every one is false. Like the old television with a faulty horizontal hold, we may see the faintest outlines of the picture but certain features are distorted almost beyond recognition. And yet amidst the contorted, fuzzy views, we know that a true picture abides.

Where do I find myself now? Feeling old mostly, but maybe, just maybe, a little wiser (though therein lies the root of deception.) Because it seems fairly clear that just when we try to put Jesus in a neat category, a category that fits our present worldview and experience, a category of our own devising, he smacks us down and changes everything.  We need look only to the passage from the Gospel of Matthew read by Sue Keady this morning. The Beatitudes have become through sheer repetition platitudinous. So much the shame for they radically upend all that seems to be true. And that is what Jesus does. Quoted more than all other New Testament scripture combined from the time of the church fathers on, loved by non-Christians like Gandhi, the Sermon on the Mount has often been called the true standard of the Christian life. Any yet, who among us can even approach the life it calls for.  Imagine the scene... Jesus has begun his public ministry, called his disciples and attracted some large crowds, many of whom came to him for healing and teaching. One day, he climbs a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee, sits down and prepares to speak to the crowd that has gathered in great anticipation. The Gospel of Matthew reports that he "opened his mouth and taught them ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, he begins, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those that mourn, blessed are the meek'". Can you imagine the astonishment of the crowd? Remember that he was speaking to a subject people with little control over their own lives. Every experience of their lives had taught them the direct opposite of what he was saying. "Every way of thinking is overturned," says the scholar Donald Spoto, "every expectation shattered, all the established and acceptable norms of conduct reversed.  It may not sound like good news." he continues, "this reminder that I am completely dependent, that indeed I cannot achieve anything on my own-whether I rely on talent, intuition, stamina, intelligence, strength of will, or genetic encodement. I am, in the core of my being, contingent. There is nothing passive or abject about this humility; to know that one is dependent, that one is not in complete control, is to live each day clinging in trust, dependent on God, who acts only in love."  And then, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."  We don't much use the word righteousness any more-it seems a powerful standard and intimidating. But, in truth, who among us at many points in our lives don't long to be a better person, to live up to the better angels of our own nature. Who among us cannot agree with the Apostle Paul when he laments, "Why do I do the things I don't want to do, and why don't I do the things that I do want to do?"
And then, just when you thought it couldn't get any more difficult, he said "Blessed are the merciful, the pure and the peacemakers". Try to live up to that even for a few minutes.

It is by now obvious that Jesus is the ragged figure that, in the words of Flannery O'Connor, moves from tree to tree in the back of my mind. I have spent much of my religious life, with all too little success, trying to be a disciple of Jesus. But in one, somewhat pitiful way I have been successful. Some of my favorite parts of the Gospels occur when Jesus has to take his disciples aside and say, "You just don't get it! How long have you been following me, and you still don't understand anything." Jesus confounded everything that his disciples thought he was and it is just in this way that I am just like them. The images change, the picture becomes distorted until it is unrecognizable.  And yet, and yet, for me, Jesus abides. And that is what I really want to talk about this morning. What, with you abides? Maybe it is Jesus or the Buddha or another religious figure. Maybe it is a philosophy of life, a long ago learned way of being, maybe it is a community- perhaps even this community.  What with you abides through the springtime of life when all seems possibility and promise and yet a lingering doubt or fear lurks just outside the margins? I read this past week that an annual study of incoming college freshmen revealed record low levels of mental and emotional well-being... a truly sad thing.  What with you abides in the summer of life when the busyness, joy and stress of career and family and living can so easily obscure the vision you had for your life?  What with you abides in the autumn and winter of life when rest and peace are so often mixed with pain, fear, and regret?  What with you abides through the times in your life of great joy? And what abides during those "bleak midwinter days of the soul" that come to all of us.  It is so easy in this life to lose sight of what guides us. So much obscures the picture, distorting it like our fun house mirror or erasing it completely. For me, the great beauty and joy of a beloved religious community lies right here. The Church community, this wonderful church community, is, in a profound way, a big horizontal hold button, helping us keep our view of what abides clear no matter how distorted it may become. And the glory of our Unitarian Universalist faith is the joy we take in the many pictures, or channels that make up our rich and complex lives. It may be the Jesus channel, or the Buddha channel, or the humanist channel, or a channel of your own devising. The beauty of our faith is that, though we may not tell you what channel to watch, together we can clarify the picture. And that is a lot.