This sermon was originally presented on 2016 February 14 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellijay GA.
Jesus and Me: A Journey of Discovery
by Kasey Castleberry
Forever I will sing of his great love for me.
Forever I will tell it on land and on sea.
I'll stay by his side, contented I'll be.
For all of my life, it's Jesus and Me. 1
Well... not for all of my life after all. Religion can be a tricky business, and I lost my faith.
Because you are in a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, it is a good bet that somewhere along the way you lost your faith, as well. Like many of you, I could not help but question the dogma of the Christianity of my youth, and the more I questioned, the more I found it lacking. So, I lumped all those old beliefs together and summarily discarded them.
Now, as a symbolic interactionist, I believe that if Truth exists, then it must be understood in a personal context to have meaning. This sociological perspective is reflected in our Fourth Principle, which states: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That is, we encourage individuals to make their own personal journeys of discovery.
Doing so responsibly means that we examine not only the wondrous new ideas we encounter but those old ones we hold near and dear to our breasts, including those we may have adopted against Christianity.
Searching with an open mind revealed that some of the beliefs that I so readily abandoned deserved fresh examination? I discovered that Christianity could be more than mindless devotion OR a vile weapon wielded by bigots. Instead, once I removed the embellishments that some denominations had added, I rediscovered a familiar Jesus, a messenger of Peace and Love.
In truth, all Christians embellish the narrative of Jesus. They create a God in their image and a personal savior that behaves as they prefer. For example:
A Catholic Priest and Baptist minister decided to meet for lunch. They met at a restaurant, chatted a bit, and were both a little surprised at how jovial their encounter turned out to be. In fact, they were so engrossed in conversation that the server startled them when he approached to get their drink orders.
The minister ordered an iced tea and the priest ordered wine. Suddenly, the priest realized that the mood had changed from warm to cold. He asked the minister if he had done anything wrong.
The minister replied that he was disappointed that the priest had ordered alcohol.
Pondering this for a moment, the priest asked: "You do understand that Jesus drank wine, do you not?"
To which the minister replied: "Of course, but I would have liked him better had he not."
The point is that all religious belief is complicated. First, there is the narrative itself, often set within a time and a place with significant cultural differences from those of the modern world. Then, there is the assimilation of doctrine, wherein we adapt the narrative to fit the moral imperatives of our community.
Unfortunately, that too often means bending spiritual belief into a religious dogma designed to control the behavior of others. So it was with my spiritual journey, which began with "country" Baptists
As I grew into adolescence, I began to observe the inconsistencies. On the one hand, I was told that Jesus loves me. On the other, God hates me... or so the self-righteous would have me believe whenever I strayed from conformity.
Mind, I rather liked the love part, but when the promise of eternal damnation was given, I had enough of the hypocrisy. In defense of self, I rebelled against that hate and lost the love inadvertently, but at least I was free. However, it was not a responsible search for truth and meaning, for rebellion often dismisses whole philosophies with extreme prejudice.
Then there is the other side of irresponsible searching, accepting beliefs without question. Whether it is because we are mentally lazy or just preoccupied with mundane matters, we tend not to examine much of what we are told. That is especially true, if it comes from someone we trust.
A case in point:
I have repeatedly told people that they were mistaken about email addresses being case-sensitive. This "truth" came to me from several knowledgeable and geekish friends. I even tried to be skeptical and tested their claim. I went into a typographical frenzy, mixing and matching minuscules and majuscules, sending myself "crytographic experiments", and they all worked just fine. I had proof that my friends were right... or so it seemed.
I had cause to share this knowledge recently, but this time I realized that the "responsible" part in our search for truth and meaning (not just in the religious context) would require me to suspend my prejudgments. I searched online and discovered, much to my surprise, that the official standard for email addresses is that the local part (everything left of the "at" symbol) is actually supposed to be case sensitive. While none of my accounts enforce that, apparently some services do.
That proved to be a timely reminder as I was writing this sermon. That is, personal truth is ever-changing.
What we think of as "true" or "factual" is simply ideation upon which we have removed the burden of further examination. Of course, some facts are more vetted than others, but in an infinite universe, nothing is without exception, not even for those who pretend that space is three-dimensional and that time is linear. [He says with a wink and a nudge.]
In your experience with Christianity, what "truths" were confirmed for you? Was there something that made it unworthy of your consideration?
Conceivably, as a Universalist, rampant condemnation espoused in the name of Christianity offended your belief in the unconditional love of the Divine.
Feasibly, as a humanist, the idea of any Divine Conscious is so ludicrous that any connection to it insults your intelligence.
Or, it may be, as a recovering Christian, you still are attracted to the message, but recall the pain of the addiction.
Jesting aside, addiction is defined as a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance. You can be addicted to gambling, to sex, to shopping, to chocolate, to relationships, and to beliefs.
If you do not think that religion can be an addiction, I highly recommend that you do not attempt to disprove my hypothesis by taking away the beliefs of a fundamentalist, not even a fundamentalist atheist. Just saying... [smile]
You can combat an addiction through avoidance or with behavioral modification. Recovering Christians, often opt for the former. I even tried avoidance myself, for a very long while. Education, however, addresses the root causes of the problem, it teaches us how to find a balance in a world full of temptation, that is, in a culture teeming with Christian symbolism.
However, the problem with main-stream Christianity is not the Jesus narrative itself. The problem is the co-opting of scripture, particularly Old-Testament passages, to promote a particular cultural agenda, one that is often contrary to what Jesus taught, and then mislabeling that as Christianity.
There was a time that I would cringe at the phrase: "What would Jesus Do?" I suspect that the right wing did not like the answers, and the phrase seems to have fallen out of favor. Now, I would love to bring it back with a twist: "What did Jesus Say?" If we are to have a responsible search for truth and meaning, that is a good question to ask.
First of all, Jesus taught in parables. The reason for this, is that words change, but the meaning of a story goes beyond words. The actions, therein, literally speak louder than words. They reverberate across time and space. This fact alone tells me that Jesus was interested in teaching figurative understanding, not in controlling with literal doctrine.
Jesus spoke of compassion in the parable of the Good Samaritan. [Luke 10:30-37] He spoke of forgiveness and acceptance in the parable of the Prodigal Son. [Luke 15:11-32]
He told us:
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. [Mark 12:31 KJV] 2
Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you. [Luke 6:27 KJV]
And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. [Luke 6:29 KJV]
While some so-called Christians talk of stoning sinners, such as homosexuals, Jesus said:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone... [John 8:7 KJV]
The crucifixion and resurrection stories, factual or not, teaches us the value of redemption from whatever sins we imagine ourselves to have committed.
What is truly amazing about the Christ saga is that it really does not matter whether or not a man called Jesus ever existed. It does not matter whether there was a virgin birth, curing of illnesses, or even a resurrection. It does not matter if he is the son of God or just the son of Mary. What matters is that the story is a good one, an inspiring one.
It becomes real simply because it exists within the human psyche. As such, it belongs to each of us to do with as we will. For, we each create our own personal realities and our own truth and meaning that defines them.
My favorite old "spook", Seth (as channeled through Jane Roberts), said:
In your time, you may smile indulgently at the Gods of Olympus and see clearly that they were mythical characters. There are natural Gods, come and gone, whose names do not even remain, buried fantasies. You might say precious folklore lost.
Yet, those Gods were no more real or no more false... or no more facts or no less facts... and no more powerful or less powerful than your own. They, also, reigned and molded civilizations. Men and women prayed to them at dusk and dawn. And, their prayers were answered, as yours are, when you believe that they will be.
All of these Gods are the result of earthly interpretations of deeper truths, interpreted according to man's beliefs at the time, changing their faces and names and forms but always reflecting man's relationship with the source of his own being. For, that being, while physical, springs from sources that can not be completely expressed in physical terms. So, the Gods have had earthly faces. And, the legends have always been larger than the lives upon which they were based.
The Buddha and the Christ Spirit have the same source, then, interpreted through different cultures and different times. To some extent, each man and woman alive is involved in God making. And, it is one of your natural characteristics and a mark of your species. 3
Therefore, evoke your own god-making. Do not let others ruin a perfectly good tradition that could become an integral part of your own search for truth and meaning.
Furthermore, before you forever give up on Jesus, you should understand that he was a liberal... but that is another sermon.
If you understand that the problem is not really with Jesus but with the way some Christians try to mold him into someone that they like better, then how do you interact with them in good faith whilst still honoring your own beliefs?
Curiously, you will be able to deal with these so-called Christians, by exemplifying the teachings of Jesus that they themselves often overlook. That is, you should forgive them, for they know not what they have done. [wink]
Whilst it is easy to forgive from afar, it is a bit more difficult when it is in your face, so to speak. The way that I do this is through equivocation. I use the term a bit differently, however, not as ambiguous language to conceal the truth, not as pre-varication.
Instead, allow me to "post-varicate"... My version of "equivocation" means "equal voice", related to its Latin origin, meaning "of identical sound". [aequivocare]
Instead of using similar sounds to mislead, I offer similar voices to find common ground. What goes into my ear is translated to an acceptable variation of their word into my philosophy, and what comes out of my mouth should be acceptable to whom I am speaking. Remember, it is the story that is important, not the words.
More importantly, this is not an attempt to "educate" the other person. My opinion is only valid to others insofar as they are open to it. What this does, is educate me. It allows me to look at my own ideas in a different light, to test my personal truth against that of the wider world.
Synchronicity led me to the United Intentions Foundation newsletter where I found this passage:
Many of the biggest misunderstandings in life could be avoided if we would simply take the time to ask: "Is this true?" "What else could this mean?" Or: "Does this feel good in my heart?"
Have you ever changed your mind about one of your learned beliefs? Have you ever questioned the fundamentals of your opinions?
All too often we don’t actively seek new knowledge in this world on a daily basis. We get comfortable with what we know, and we stop questioning things. Then, we try to generate the answers we have already shaped in our own minds – judgments, explanations, validations, forms of comfort.
Although life will always be filled with unanswered questions, its the courage to seek the answers that counts – this journey of discovery is what gives life meaning. 4
Jacob Lucerne said: "We praise and honor those to whom we speak by using the terminology that they hold sacred, but, at the same time, we must translate that meaning into our own hearts, if we are to praise and honor our own Truth." 5
That is why equivocation works for me. I may not praise the concepts of Heaven and Hell, of Christ and Satan, of Salvation and Sin the same way as others do, but attempting to "feel" their story, behind their words, helps me to question my own narrative. It is the "responsible" aspect in my personal search for truth and meaning.
We like our definitions. Though they are not so clearly delineated as we might think. For instance, when is our mood-altering behavior an addiction or an obsession or just a hobby? Maybe that depends on which of those words make us feel the best? [grin]
Regardless, there are almost certainly some behaviors with which we are unwilling to casually cast aside. Me, I really like breathing. I do it religiously, every day... Several times a day, if I am to be honest.
Furthermore, I would not permit anyone to talk me out of doing it, even though I usually do it without even thinking about it and even though it clearly takes a lot of my time.
That is the way I look at my relationship with the Divine. It makes me feel good. Unlike some "addictions", this one allows me to get my "fix" from various philosophical injections. Of course, some are real downers, and I have learnt to graciously decline them. No need to get strung out on the mindless, the hateful, when the uppers come in so many joyful varieties.
Yes, please, may I have some of that scientific method, with a bit of deductive reasoning, and maybe a little skepticism, to take the edge off.
If you have an extra dose of spiritual ambiguity, I will take some, please. If it feels good, why not?
Mostly, I like the high I get from that old-time religion, but the aftereffects are sometimes hard to bear. Nonetheless, yes, I will take a hit of that refined Jesus. Regardless of how he is marketed, as heavenly or ordinary, that lasting feeling of love is just too good to let go.
In summary: We UUs owe it to ourselves not to ignore that which is good in any of our faith traditions, regardless of how some adherents distort them. We owe it to ourselves to consider that truth and meaning can be found in many places, even in places where we previously gave up looking, even in Christianity.
1. "Jesus and Me" By Ira F. Stanphill, 1946.
2. KJV = King James Version of the Holy Bible.
3. From the session for 1975.05.07 (746), numbered as 744 in Robert Butts's notes.
4. United Intentions Foundation newsletter 2016 January 22.
5. Jacob Lucerne is the name of Kasey's inner guide who is helping him translation batok mondusaif into English.