Five Pauls

Preached at St. Paul Unitarian-Universalist Church in Palmer, Mass. on 12/28/14

It might surprise you that this is not the first St. Paul’s Unitarian-Universalist church I’ve spoken at. If you got on the Mass Turnpike, aka Interstate 90 and took into New York State where it turns into the Thruway and went some 170 miles in total, you would come to a town called Little Falls, New York. There in that town of about 5,000 people, there is a church called St. Paul’s Universalist. It too is a UU church with its beginnings in Univeralism that when merged maintained the St. Paul’s name.

And a quick FYI, Chicago's first UU church was St. Paul's Universalist which is now part of the University of Chicago.

Now, for some UU’s, the notion of a UU church with St. Paul in its title sounds paradoxical, an oxymoron. For UU, a liberal denomination which renowned UU minister and author Forrest Church deemed “more than Christian” – keeping the namesake of the man deemed responsible for making the church into his own conservative image, so it is believed, instead of Jesus’ may seem questionable. Maybe you've heard this kind of sentiment before, I am not sure.

For my time with you today, I want to look at this a bit. I want to first look at St. Paul as well as some other Christian Pauls that tweak this view that St. Paul and UU are a contradiction.

First let’s look at St. Paul. I think this view comes from a flawed understanding of Paul, an understanding that I surely had in the wake of my departure from the Evangelical world. However, my journey has led me to see Paul anew. 

In reality, Paul would have seemed a religious liberal in his day. Looking at the context of the early church, we see this.

In the early days of the church, there developed a rift between early Jewish-Christians and the growing number of non-Jewish Christians. The Jewish-Christians, based in Jerusalem, were those who wanted to maintain its Jewishness, the Torah-following and adhering to Mitzvot, the kosher laws and mandates. The non-Jewish Christians, based in Antioch, were those who did not want to convert to Judaism and namely get circumcised to become a part of the burgeoning Christ-following tradition. Paul was the leader of this latter movement. He wanted to expand the Jesus-tradition and include non-Jews without the criteria of circumcision and strict adherence to Mitzvot. He was seeking to expand things not replace, however.

The traditional view is that Paul was universally stating that Jews and non-Jews alike should leave the law behind and simply accept Jesus’ grace which is greater than the law. But a closer reading, one that more and more scholars of Paul are proffering [see Pauline scholars John C. Gager, Lloyd Gaston, Krister Stendahl, Stanley Stower], shows that Paul was actually calling for a more pluralistic view. 

For Paul, a practicing Jew, the Jewish people were still God’s chosen people. In the Epistle to Rome he makes this clear, “has God rejected his people [Israel], by no means!” God did not renege on Israel being the chosen people with the arrival of Jesus. With Jesus, according to Paul, there was simply a different path to becoming part of the community of God. Whereas Jews had the Law given directly by God, non-Jews were given the path of Jesus, a Jew who paved the way for non-Jews to be included. 

When you add a third path into the community of God, Jewish followers of Jesus, you have a full-fledged pluralistic community. There were non-Jesus-following Jews, Jesus-following Jews, and Jesus-following Gentile harmonized in God’s community. What was shared was belief in One God and an ethical approach to life that followed the spirit of the God’s law if not the letter of the law. For Jews, following the Law as Paul did was an acceptable, salvific path – Paul did not mandate all Jews accept Jesus as Messiah, just that they not forbid others who do. For Jewish followers of Jesus, as Paul was, Paul suggested the Law continue to be followed. For non-Jewish followers of Jesus, Jesus was the bridge to be a part of the community of God and a close following of the law was not necessary. Yet Paul did assert that ethical living, specifically ethical eating, be a part of non-Jewish persons’ life in community with Jews.  The common denominator, as I stated, was belief in One God and the living of an ethical life.

So Paul was calling for a more expansive, inclusive view of the community of God than the one he saw all around him, not a narrower, more exclusive one.

This is to say, St. Paul UU, you can be proud of your namesake.
There are other famous Pauls in the liberal religiondom that can be a source of pride too. Let’s look at 4.

The next Paul for religious liberals also comes from early Christianity. His name is Paul of Samosata and he lived from 200 to 275 AD. He is a famous heretic. Not infamous, but famous for religious liberals. And not heretic as in wrong, but heretic as in pointing to a new way.

Paul of Samosata argued a version of the Trinity that is now little known, but then was popular and spreading. It is known as Monarchianism – of One Rule. God is One whose Logos, like the breath in a body, pervades the heavens and the earth. So we have God and Logos, God and the movement and activity of God, these are equivalent to Father and Holy Spirit.

What about the Son? Well, Jesus Christ is the third member of the Trinity but in a completely different way. This brings us to another fancy word – Adoptionism. Paul of Samosata believed that Jesus was born a male human being in the way human beings are conceived and born. Jesus simply matured and developed into divinity. He realized Buddhahood, in Buddhist terms. The climax of this maturation and development occurs in the dessert when Jesus is tempted by Satan. In a story with big parallels in Buddhism, Jesus, going to the desert for prayer and meditation, is tempted by Satan and resists these temptations. Jesus passes the test, in other words. The story ends with the Holy Dove of God anointing Jesus. This anointing amounts to Jesus being adopted as the divine Son of God, the third part of the Trinity. So Jesus realized a kind of enlightenment and becomes divine though not born that way.  

Paul of Samosata was brilliant as a theologian and philosopher. He had quite a following as a teacher and was a significant threat to the orthodoxy. He was deemed heretical and ex-communicated in 269. However, in many ways, he is a proto-UU, a UU prototype. He might be deemed a St. Paul in our context.

For the last three of our Pauls, we jump ahead some 1700 years to our era.

I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of the ghosts that walk the hallways and the classrooms of Union is that of Paul Tillich, born 1886 and died 1965. He is a giant of theology who gave us a whole new way of looking at God. God according to Tillich is not the Big Man Upstairs pulling the strings of the world as if a supreme puppeteer. God is Being Itself, or the Ground of Being, or the Power of Being, or even as the Abyss which is paradoxically the source of all that is. Tillich calls this the God above God. The best way to understand this is to think of polytheism. In polytheism, we have many gods. These gods are supreme beings who control various aspects of earthly life – the sun god, the rain god, the ocean god, etc. Tillich says that our conception of God as the Supreme Being in heaven is merely one that does all the work of the polytheistic gods. God as a Supreme Being is akin to a supercomputer doing the work of all the gods before it. However, Tillich says this is a faulty understanding of God, one that leads to simplistic views of God and of the atheist argument against and rejection of those simplistic views. No, God is beyond the human conceptions of being and non-being, heaven and earth, God as subject and we as object. God is not conditioned by this world of polar opposites – good vs. evil, black vs. white, being vs. non-being, heaven and earth, supernatural vs. natural, male vs. female. God is simply the power behind what is, the fuel and energy that moves all that exists. God is Being-itself. “God is not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the ground upon which all beings exist.”

What’s more, Paul Tillich was one of the first Christian theologians to dialogue with Buddhism. His view of God actually offered a Buddhist-friendly way to understand ultimate reality. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh, the deeply influential teacher of Buddhism to the West, loves to quote Tillich. Here is an example from Hanh’s book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers: 

“Paul Tillich said that 'God is the ground of being.' The ground of being is the noumenal aspect of reality. God is not a being in the phenomenal world. He or She is the ground of all being. It would not be difficult for Christians and Buddhists to agree on this.”

Thich Nhat Hanh also gives us a wonderful metaphor for Tillich’s understanding of God. God is akin to the ocean’s water. God is the foundation of the ocean’s existence as the ocean – water. Yes, there are waves in the ocean, water has waves. The waves change, come and go, the water in its way of being does not. There is a foundation to our being. There is also our being built on that foundation, our being as earthly beings encountering a life of change, impermanence, and flux. The waves come and go, ebb and flow, but the source of the waves is water, the groundless ground of our being is God. God is the Water to our earthly existence filled with wave after wave. Beautiful to think about.

The next Paul is one that is not as well known. He is sort of the John the Baptist of a movement that changed the Christian church, Liberation Theology. His name is Paul Gauthier. Gauthier was a French Catholic theologian who lived from 1914 to 2002. His 1965 book Christ, the church and the poor was a powerful look at the reality of institutionalized poverty and power structures that maintained it. It was also one of the first books in our era that pointed to the poor as not just a problem to be solved but as a guide for the church. Because God as seen in the biblical text always sides with the poor and the oppressed, we the church are to side with the poor. Paul Gauthier took absolutely seriously the claim of Jesus – blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. He saw Jesus’ words as the benchmark for the church.

Gustav Gutierrez, the co-parent of Liberation Theology, James Cone of Union being the other, was incredibly influenced by Paul Gauthier’s work, seeing it as the first stones in constructing his theology.

The last Paul we will mention is someone who takes St. Paul’s desire to expand the community of God, Paul of Samosota’s focus on a dynamic Trinity, Paul Tillich’s dynamic theism and interest in Buddhism, and Paul Gauthier’ liberation theology and combines them in his own work. I am talking about Paul Knitter. His book Without the Buddha, I Could Not be a Christian points to this combination.

Not to get too theological here, but Knitter suggests that Buddhism gives us a new way to talk about God. It helps us see the relationship under girding the family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What connects the three parts of the trinity is their relationship to one another, a relationship of interconnection and interrelatedness. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it inter-being, we existing together in an inescapable network of mutuality, as Dr. King put it. It is this inter-being, this network mutuality behind the Trinity that is the absolute to be seen and practiced.

Buddhism calls it shunyata, or dynamic emptiness. By applying this Buddhist understanding, we are able to see God anew. And by seeing the relational core within God’s self, in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we also see the crucial importance of relating to others, namely to the poor and the oppressed.

So St. Paul, Paul of Samosata, Paul Tillich, Paul Gauthier, and Paul Knitter – what do they offer UU?

Well, I am going to say something possibly anathema to some UUs, but I firmly believe it: Our look at this diverse group of Pauls shows us that we underestimate the innate diversity of the Jesus tradition. Beginning with St. Paul, and the burgeoning new look at the diversity within his letters and the early church, to Paul Knitter and his Buddhist-Christian way of faith, we see that within the liberal Christian universe there is an expansive, pluralistic, and open home-base that I dare say UU left too soon. By leaving too soon, a departure that by the 1920s was cemented within Unitarianism and which won the day with the 1961 merger, we removed ourselves from the rich theological work of engaging with Tillich, Gauthier, or Knitter, or with the new look at St. Paul, or with the kind of Christianity Paul of Samosata offered. It is possible to be both a church in the lineage of Jesus and open to and inclusive of diverse spiritual understanding, either Jesus-based or no.

I’d also dare to say: as you keeping St. Paul in your name suggests, it is good to have the kite of our religious freedom tied to the foundation of tradition so that we don’t fly away. Even birds know where home is, and innately go back home even amid the freedom of their skies.

So I end with a question. What would happen if a reconciliation with our Christian past happened? I don’t know the answer. But it’s worth a conversation.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, How I Wonder...

A Sermon by Don Erickson
Delivered at First Congregational Church, Bennington, VT
August 12, 2009

Patsy Cline’s song, Through the Eyes of a Child, comes to mind:

“If [we] could see the world
Through the eyes of a child
What a wonderful world this would be
There'd be no trouble and no strife
Just a big happy life
With a bluebird in every tree.”

It seems sometimes that in our hectic, frenzied world, a child’s essential simplicity, a child’s continual creations of a brand new world, could make all the difference.

Mark 10 says, “unless you receive the kingdom of God like a child you will not enter it.” It’s safe to say that the 11 year old me would not have had to think about this verse so hard. But it seems ever since arriving at adulthood, I’ve been contemplating this scripture. It’s been only in the past couple years that I’ve made real headway. With the help from Corey and my life as a father, I am beginning to understand more clearly what Jesus was saying.

What does it mean to receive like a child? The best way I answer this question is observing the child closest to me, my child Corey in action.

Corey, who is now two years old, began singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” a few months ago. The only decipherable words in Corey’s initial renditions were the words that sound like stars appear – “Twinkle, twinkle.” The “little star” part was not as decipherable yet.

We’ve all known that song ever since we were 2 years of age, haven’t we? My wife and I personally had been singing it with renewed appreciation to Corey ever since he was born.

Corey received that song, internalized it only like a child could. He did so every time we sang it, more than we realized. For some reason, of all the songs we sang and played for him, it was “Twinkle, Twinkle” that resonated most. When one day he suddenly broke out in the song, his first song, and Twinkle, twinkle flew from his lips, we were simply astounded, dumbfounded, and as happy as adults can be in a moment.

Corey sensed with his ears the simple tune Twinkle, Twinkle, and welcomed it into his heart and mind, allowing it to percolate and resonate. Out of this came song. With a child’s heart, ancient songs are new ones. The old is born again.

As the weeks have gone by, Corey has added more decipherable words to his rendition. He sings all the way through, with many words being rather clear. Like “Star” “Wonder” “Are” “World” “Diamond” “Sky” “Wonder”

As followers of Jesus’ way, which is the Way of the Child in more ways than one, we are to receive likewise. But how?

The easy answer is “practice.” You might practice for a day experiencing the world as if you were seeing it for the first time. Take on the mind and heart of a beginner, as every child is. Look again at nature as if it was completely new to you. Look deeply once more at the way the wind blows through the trees. Contemplate a second time the meaning of first snowflakes. Breathe in this season the scent of pine trees amid a forest. Partake of the twinkle, the wonder, the diamond-like brilliance of each moment. Look up at the stars shining bright for no ulterior motive at all, but simply to be and do likewise. These stars mirror the children around us.

An immediate thing we can do is simply sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with renewed appreciation. In fact, Corey would love it if we sang it together…

In addition to practicing mindfulness in looking at the world anew, we receive the kingdom of God through the practice of humility. Matthew 18:3 says, “whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom.” An interesting observation, I think, is that children are not purposely humble. In a kid being a kid, there are no grand schemes or agendas. In them, we see no airs put on, no arrogance, no pride, no prejudice. There is no shame to their simplicity. They are content to aimlessly experience the simple gifts. They do not demand riches or fame…at least until they are teenagers. They simply demand our presence, our attention, our love.

Now, a child’s humility also involves their complete honesty. You know how children are. They naturally state the truth as they see it and do not hesitate to express what they need.

My son can be very adamant when he sees that his Dad is not really there with him or even when my play is not really playful but distracted appeasement. He lets me know with a whine, with a stomp of the foot, or eventually with finding something else to do, usually negative, sometimes destructive.

A child’s honesty comes out of the needs for attention, care and security. This sometimes appears selfish, doesn’t it? And indeed children can sometimes be selfish. But a point can be made that is to me revelatory.

We are often urged as Christians to be selfless and resist selfishness. Selflessness can certainly be positive, but it can also be dangerous, and children teach us this. They teach us a healthy selfishness. It is good to be adamant about fairness and justice. It is good to be adamant about everyone’s need for food, shelter, and clothing. It is often good to be personally adamant about what we need.

We should not be so selfless as to forget their needs in the pursuit of pleasing others – this is especially true for women who have been taught and conditioned to always be self-sacrificial. I’ve always appreciated the safety protocol introduced at the beginning of flights. The flight attendant says that in the case of the oxygen mask dropping, parents should place the mask on themselves first before doing it for their children. If we do not take care of ourselves, we sooner or later become useless to those who need us most. In other words, self-care and other-care are interdependent.

This healthy selfishness that children teach us about in the end is not selfish at all. It is a cry for the help of others, a cry that says I cannot make it alone, a cry that says I need you.

How is this related to humility, you may ask? Well, I think about another verb that best gets at what it means to humble oneself as a child. It is the verb “to be vulnerable.” I think Jesus is really saying to us, “be vulnerable like a child.”

On a recent occasion, Corey was playing around his swing, a baby swing that he was too big for. Despite frequent commands not to, Corey insisted on getting on the swing. On one occasion, he placed his stomach on the seat, his legs hanging, and he started swinging. The physics of weight distribution meant the swing kept going and he didn’t know how to stop it. Never experiencing swinging in this way, he felt vulnerable and scared. He began to cry. Of course, I was there to help.

See, there is nothing more humble or humbling than needing another’s help. This is especially true for us men who find it hard simply to ask for directions when we are lost. Voicing our vulnerabilities is extremely hard. Submitting to the fact that we all need and depend on each other is not so easy. But an essential part of humility is exactly that, vulnerability. They go together. And children embody both humility and vulnerability in action. Their natural humility derives from their vulnerability and their inclination to express it.

Now we come to Isaiah 11:6, which says, “And a little child shall lead them.” Traditionally, the child in Isaiah is interpreted as a prophecy of Jesus leading God’s kingdom.

I love Linus’ monologue in the Charlie Brown Christmas show. It always gets me. “You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” As Linus relayed to Charlie Brown, the babe Jesus’ mere presence led the shepherds to come and see the good news.

Jesus was leading even in the manger. He was simply present in the moment, taking the world in, and being a newborn –keenly observing his surroundings, namely those closest to him, voicing himself when needs arose, and allowing rest when weary. This is leadership at its best.

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I often notice how the presence of a child changes everything. I actually experienced this firsthand a few years ago. When my grandmother died, the family was naturally heartbroken and lost. We just lost the matriarch, the bedrock, the foundation of our family. At that time, my niece Gabrielle was around 2. She came to the hospital with her parents the day Grandma died. As we all sat in the waiting room, in the darkest of moments, Gabrielle, in her unaware way, was a light in that darkness. She did nothing special. She just acted as children do. She twirled around in her little white dress. She embraced her mother and father when she felt the need. She gave in to her whimsical world. In other words, she led as a child. She helped us to perceive the sad yet hopeful reality that even in death life still flourishes. Comings and goings, what’s new and what’s fading, what departs and what remains, go together. Gabrielle’s mere presence in that moment, clear proof that new life continues, led us through that difficult time, helping us to heal.

Gabriel, Gabrielle’s namesake, announced Jesus’ presence in Mary’s womb. Childlikeness, receptivity, humility and vulnerability – these things never left Jesus. The newborn in the manger continued into adulthood.

As Jesus contemplated the Father’s work in the world and in his heart, he was continuously born anew. I imagine the carpenter Jesus working with wood. To use William Blake’s words, I imagine Jesus seeing a world in each grain of wood he sanded. I imagine he experienced eternity in each of those sweat soaked hours. I imagine he saw heaven in the wild flowers he passed on his way home. I imagine him smiling as he held a neighbor’s baby in his arms, knowing he held Infinity. He pondered these things in his heart, like his mother did when he was in her womb.

Jesus lived and perfected the perfection of a newborn, the humility of a child, the accepting nature of a little one. In turn, he teaches us, urges us, to do the same. To sing Twinkle, twinkle, little star as if for the first time. To ask for help knowing making it alone is not possible. To cry at the sight of disparity and another’s pain. To see the world anew in every moment. To be “young at heart.” To imagine “the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, the cow feeding with the bear, their young lying down together, and the lion eating straw like the ox.” This is our hope and prayer.

Philosophy of Community

My work constantly shows me what is essential to the spiritual life. As people face their own frailty, the essence of the good news they most need and want to internalize is that they are not alone, that even when humanly alone, God, in whatever language you put "it," is with them and will not let them go. My role as a minister is to remind them of God’s presence in their midst and of the peace and comfort that comes with that presence. I do this by being present myself with them. In being present together, Jesus’ presence is made manifest. “Whenever two or three are gathered…”

Can a church replicate the transformative intimacy of pastoral care? Absolutely.

How? By being going back to a more relational, intimate level, replicating the beloved community-building of the earliest church. I am like many of my and the coming generations that find in traditional God-language an innate distance and disconnect when it is imminence and connection we most need and desire.

What if we took 1 John 4:8’s proclamation that God is Love literally and apply it all pervasively? What if we demythologized anthropomorphic metaphors of God and point to more universal and expansive metaphors, pointing to the God inherent in all? What if we pointed to Jesus as a master-teacher whose life and whose life teaching, even in death, lives and transforms us? What if we focused on the Holy Spirit as the Breath of God that knows no limitations or bifurcations, including religious ones, and thus explains non-Christian examples of “transformativeness”? What if we explicate that in the Trinity we see a working model of e pluribus unum?

So the growing church is theologically creative yet grounded in the operative principle that God is Love.

As for methodology, creating a natural community of relationships is the soil from which spiritual transformation and growth arise.

Everything else arises out of this.

Worship services and community service arise out of this. Sunday services that are relational are natural and intimate, and include meaningful quiet, evocative music, meaningful conversation and deep listening, and contemplative ritual.

Far more than anything else in our multitasking, hyperactive world, people need to learn the art of stopping the rat-race, listening with more than just our ears, and being, without distraction and noise, present with people, leaving other life demands to another time. That’s what the services and the community as a whole would seek to create. The same would apply to community service as well.

Religious education arises out of this. Seminars, discussion groups, and educational opportunities related to theology would be part of the community. This religious education component would be focused on the broad, expansive traditions of Christianity but also look at non-Christian traditions and philosophies as well. Regular Centering Prayer sessions throughout the week would be another component to this approach.

Lastly, thinking about the growing problem of nature-deficit, the perfect church would incorporate regular outings to and even worship in nature.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on how to cultivate and grow the beloved community.