This was a sermon that I delivered at the First Congregational Church in Ithaca, NY on July 7, 2019.
We’re coming to the end of the July 4thcelebrations. Hopefully, we enjoyed fireworks of beauty and joy as we gave thanks for the many blessings that come to us in this time and place. For all the challenges facing our country and the world, the gift of freedom is perhaps the greatest that humankind has ever enjoyed.
But many of us are free in name only. We can vote and congregate and speak as we like, but we’re torn apart by inner conflict. And I’m sorry to say that the institutional church is one of the worst tyrants in terms of creating prisons of fear and spiritual, intellectual, and emotional torture. If we believe the tenets of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, then God loves us and we’ll go to heaven. If we don’t, then all hell is likely to break loose. The curse of orthodoxy, i.e., “right thinking” has too many Christians in its vicious grip, as it has for almost 2,000 years.
But spiritual freedom is possible, and it’s a gift for each of us as individuals and for the world as a whole. Before I go there, however, you might be curious about the affliction of TB that I have found a cure for. Be assured that I have many challenges, but I’ve never been diagnosed with tuberculosis. So what might the “TB” stand for? An Internet search provided: text back [Internet slang]; textbook; teeny bopper [that’s from the Urban Dictionary]; Tampa Bay, tailback [in football] and dozens of others. At first, I was thinking TB White, the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little– and a graduate of Cornell University – but then I remembered it was EB White, not TB… [That’s part of the reason you can’t take me too seriously…]
My affliction has nothing to do with any of these, so let me share a bit of my background and see if you can figure out the problem – and whether any of you might also suffer from it. My guess is that I’m not alone…
- My grandparents were all Episcopalians and active churchgoers – progressive and involved in justice and charitable causes. My father’s side was more conservative; mother’s side more liberal (both theologically and politically), but they all represented the best that church might offer
- My parents were secular humanists. The idea of God just didn’t make sense. They were active in politics and community issues, but not church. So, since I grew up in Washington, DC, instead of church, we went for a Sunday picnic up the Potomac River – snow or shine.
- I discovered the National Cathedral when I was 7 and loved the music, poetry, and architecture. I also loved being with my grandparents, but the idea of God didn’t make sense. Yet I could feel something, inexplicable but lovely. So Sunday picnics up the Potomac and occasional worship at the Cathedral filled my spirit.
This continued until I served a year as a VISTA Volunteer in Appalachia and went with friends to a Baptist church. As the preacher spoke about the wages of sin and the torments of hell, he quite literally, scared the you-know-what out of me. So I started going to an Episcopal church, mostly for companionship, although the fact that they served wine for communion – in a dry country – was added incentive. But, even though I didn’t agree literally with the creeds and other tenets of faith, church reminded me of my grandparents and being loved for who I was rather than being damned for who I wasn’t.
In my 20’s and 30’s, I went to church mostly to sing in the choir. God didn’t have a lot of influence one way or the other until several cousins on my father’s side became caught up with the religious right at the same time that my sister realized she was a lesbian. Suffice it to say that the resulting split was vicious. As the only churchgoer in my immediate family, I was expected to save my sister and parents or I too would end up in hell while my cousins enjoyed being cheek-to-jowl with Jesus and our beloved grandparents for all eternity.
This is when I realized that I was suffering from TB – in my case, being theologically bipolar. My head believed in the power and message of Jesus but dismissed the supernatural folderol of Christianity, while my heart was calmed and comforted in worship and other church activities. Everywhere I looked, I saw people who either believed or didn’t believe and they were comfortable with their choice. But I wasn’t. I lived on a seesaw that was careening up and down with the demand that I make a decision for or against God.
In my mid-forties, after one-too-many life crises, I felt called to explore ordained ministry even though I knew it didn’t make much sense. God and Jesus spoke to me regularly in dreams, through music and poetry, and the outdoors. But… as a minister, I would be expected to preach the company line – and I knew I couldn’t. It seemed all so binary. In or out. Believer or heathen. Either one accepts the doctrines of the church or one doesn’t. I could celebrate mystery but not magic. There was no room for my both-and spirituality. So I continued to take classes but didn’t see ministry as a life path. I could recognize the Potomac River as my first altar and great blue herons as my first priests – but the church wouldn’t accept me with that kind of nonsense. New Age Spirituality might have much to offer, but it wouldn’t pass muster if you wanted to be ordained.
And then, a year in, I discovered Celtic spirituality. The first treasure was Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, published in 1983, when Fox was a Roman Catholic priest in the Dominican Order. The book was revolutionary in that it looked as creation as we discussed in the children’s message and it then explained how the Christian church had gotten off course with its focus on original sin. Fox drew inspiration from the mystical philosophies of such medieval Catholic visionaries as Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis, Julian of Norwich, Dante, and Meister Eckhart as well as the wisdom and prophetic traditions of Jewish scriptures. “Creation Spirituality,” as it became known, is also strongly aligned with ecological and environmental movements and embraces numerous spiritual traditions around the world, including Buddhism, Judaism, and Native American spirituality. It was so effective that Fox was expelled from the Dominicans.
The second, and even more important gift was to learn about the 4th century Celtic theologian Pelagius, who believed that newborns come from God, blending the goodness of creation with humanity’s blessedness. This put him in conflict with St. Augustine who taught that children are born depraved and humanity’s sinful nature is transmitted from one generation to the next, beginning with Adam to the present – in other words, original sin. Augustine argued that our lives are beset with constant fights between our human, sinful nature and God’s will for us. He also believed that infants who die before baptism are doomed to life eternal in hell.
This contrast between Pelagius’ original blessing and Augustine’s original sin was played out on the papal stage. Augustine won and Pelagius was declared a heretic and expelled from Jerusalem. The doctrine of original sin became orthodoxy and the consequences have rippled through the centuries, typically leaving women and children at the bottom of the moral order.
Sin: it thrives on fear – the fear of being judged unworthy. Fear of the eternal torture of hell. Those who argue for original sin allow church leaders to have undue power over others. One must rely on the priest (in the sacrament of baptism) to be put right with God. Original sin – the bailiwick of the institutional church – emphasizes domination. It is an invention of flawed human beings who inflict spiritual bondage on others as a way of building up their own power. Humans are on top of the food chain and priests and bishops are on top of the human chain. Ugh.
But that hierarchy of horror is alien to the thinking of the Hebrew writers, the Celts, native Americans, and most other religions. The uniquely Christian version of original sin is what sets us apart from everyone and everything else, and to argue that it is what God wants of us just makes no sense whatsoever. We need to take a walk in the woods, enjoy the beautiful songs of the birds flying overhead, and treasure the gift of a newborn child – or puppy or calf or whatever – to experience the gifts of God in an intimate and visceral way.
How wonderful it was to be liberated from my TB (theological bipolarity) affliction and to write my own Declaration of Independence from that old construct called original sin!
Then, while learning more about Celtic spirituality, I discovered key aspects of ancient Christian principles that blended with very modern ideas, including:
- Everything is sacred because God is interwoven in the physical and spirit worlds. Celtic thinking is both/and rather than either/or.
- The Celts believed in panentheism. Pantheism sees nature as God, but panentheism recognizes God in but not limited to the natural world. The natural and supernatural worlds are interwoven, without boundaries between sacred and secular.
- “Matter matters” (George MacLeod, founder of Iona Community)
- Pilgrimage is not a trip or a vacation but a way of life – we’re always on a journey to God
- “Soul friends” help us be honest with ourselves and each other and bring God’s love into our daily lives
- There is equality between sexes and between lay/clergy
- Focus on mysticism and experience of God, not dogma about God.
Those of us who speak of original blessing do not deny the reality of sin. We know the brokenness of bad decisions and the realities of systemic patterns that perpetuate injustice and sorrow. However, we trust in the original blessing as the gift of life and call on leaders to empower others to recognize the image of God inside, outside, and all around them – like the Affirmation of Faith that we spoke earlier. Isn’t this a liberating way to honor our faith, our world, and our lives?
So look around. Look at the faces of your family and friends here. Look at the stones and waters and plants and flowers. Everything is sacred. Everything carries a message of the love of God, asking only that we tear down institutions of false domination and celebrate the interwovenness of the divine with humanity and all creation.
Note: Here is the Affirmation of Faith from the Iona Community. You might want to compare it with the Apostles’ Creed to understand why Celtic spirituality has so much to offer the world:
WE BELIEVE IN GOD ABOVE US,
MAKER AND SUSTAINER OF ALL LIFE,
OF SUN AND MOON,
OF WATER AND EARTH,
OF MALE AND FEMALE
WE BELIEVE IN GOD ABOVE US,
MAKER AND SUSTAINER OF ALL LIFE,
OF SUN AND MOON,
OF WATER AND EARTH,
OF MALE AND FEMALE.
WE BELIEVE IN GOD BESIDE US,
JESUS CHRIST, THE WORD MADE FLESH,
BORN OF A WOMAN, SERVANT OF THE POOR,
TORTURED AND NAILED TO A TREE.
A MAN OF SORROWS, HE DIED FORSAKEN.
HE DESCENDED INTO THE EARTH
TO THE PLACE OF DEATH.
ON THE THIRD DAY HE ROSE FROM THE TOMB.
HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN
TO BE EVERYWHERE PRESENT,
AND HIS KINGDOM WILL COME ON EARTH.
WE BELIEVE IN GOD WITHIN US,
THE HOLY SPIRIT OF PENTECOSTAL FIRE,
LIFE-GIVING BREATH OF THE CHURCH,
SPIRIT OF HEALING AND FORGIVENESS,
SOURCE OF RESURRECTION AND OF ETERNAL LIFE. AMEN