Archive for July 9th, 2012

Lacunas #2

Monday, July 9th, 2012

“Lacunas”

(C) The Reverend Patricia Donohoe

The fastest growing religious status is “none.” Is that because we are not being honest in our God talk? The following sermon points to some “lacunas” we might want to consider in our conversations about religion. The sermon was delivered at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, July 8, 2012. The sermon texts are Mark 6:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:9b-10.

The lectionary reading for today from the Gospel of Mark begins like this:

[Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands? Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

The lesson goes on explaining how Jesus was rejected among his own kin, by his own hometown. But I’m going to stop with “are not his sisters here with us?” Because that is where I run into a brick wall every time I read this passage. I keep seeing a big hole in the story and wonder how to fill it in. Before addressing the missing pieces in this story, however, I’d like tell you another story.

One day a few years ago, when I went to visit my daughter Lora and her family, I came into their house through the laundry room, as usual. But that day I was immediately struck by something different. Usually there was a big pile of shoes of all shapes and sizes in the middle of the floor. Every morning my daughter Lora would rummage through the pile swearing and cursing as she tried to find two shoes that matched and were in the right size for each of the three kids—all in time to get them to wherever they needed to be that day.

But this morning was different. Instead of a big jumble in the middle of the floor, ALL the shoes were carefully matched and laid out in a perfectly straight line from one wall to the next.

WOW! I said to Lora as I walked into the kitchen. You’ve been extra busy!

No, Mom, she said. It wasn’t me.

WHO, then? I asked.

She pointed to my little granddaughter Laney, who was barely four years old at the time.

Laney?

Yes! The other day, Lora said, when Laney disappeared and things got real quiet, I went looking for her. There she was, in the laundry room, on her knees. She was lining up the shoes, and over each pair, she was saying, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.”

You may laugh—or not. Frankly, I hope you did. Little Laney was just doing what she had heard her mom do—if not exactly in the same spirit. Little Laney, of course, did not know the whole story of just who this Jesus Christ guy was. In that, she was like all of us. There’s a lot we don’t know about Jesus—or his family—as our lesson for today illustrates.

Are not his sisters here, with us?

We know next to nothing about his sisters. How many sisters did he have? How old were they at the time of this story? Who were they? With the possible exception of Salome, who is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Mark 15:40 and 16:1), we don’t even know the names of the sisters. Yet they were a crucial part of the story. Not only did they help to provision him on his travels, at least one of them, Salome, stayed with him to the bitter end at the cross and brought spices to anoint his body the next day.

The brothers—James and Joses and Judas and Simon—are not only mentioned by name but by designation. They are disciples. The sisters are essentially disregarded.

Jesus preached a new family order, but even he apparently saw women primarily in the old, conventional, subservient roles. When he healed the bleeding woman, for example, he designated her new status by saying, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” (Mark 5:34) Notice, he did not say “sister,” a designation that might have put her on a plane that was a little more equal in relationship to him.

But I’m sorry to say that even “sisters” get short shrift in our scriptures. According to my concordance, the word “brother” and its cognates are used some 787 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The word “sister” and its cognates are used 247 times. That’s more than three times as many references to “brothers” as “sisters.”

There’s a lot we don’t know about Jesus or the Bible, and what we do know is often full of holes, or lacunas. A “lacuna,” you may recall, is a gap or missing part, a hiatus. In anatomy it’s one of the numerous minute cavities in bone tissue. In botany it’s the air space in plant cells. I once saw it used to describe the tiny indentations in a plaster ceiling.

The first time I remember encountering the word was in a graduate English course thirty years ago when the rage in literary criticism was deconstruction and reader response theory. Now you’ll find the word everywhere, from popular novels to rock bands to theological inquiry. It seems that more and more people are finding more and more holes in Christian theology.

A recent article in “Psychology Today” on atheists and agnostics states that “nonbelievers are growing in number, but you might not know it because they may be in the next pew with their kids.” That seems to be more and more the case with people I know and run into, and the numbers confirm it—at least, for mainline churches. According to our PCUSA website, our denomination saw a net loss of 20 percent of its membership from 2000 to 2010. Eight in ten PCUSA churches have fewer than 250 members; seventy-five percent have fewer than 200. We are not alone in this trend.

At a party for Laney’s sixth birthday recently, I sat at a picnic table across from the fathers of two of her friends. One is a police detective; the other, a public school administrator. Both are dedicated to serving the common good, and both had left the churches of their upbringing many years ago and not looked back. But both were searching. They wanted to be part of a community that welcomed all people into its heart and hierarchy, affirmed the sacredness of life, avoided doctrinaire pronouncements, encouraged questioning, and recognized the fallibility of liturgy and belief systems based on ancient myth and outdated world views.

“I just can’t say those things anymore. I don’t believe them,” one of them said to me, in reference to “confessions” like the Apostle’s Creed. For them, saying that Jesus is “the only Son of God” reeks of an arrogant insensitivity to other people’s faith traditions.

A recent CNN article on “unbelieving” clergy profiled a former Pentecostal preacher who “came out” as an atheist at the age of forty-two and now ministers to the growing numbers of other atheists, agnostics, humanists, and those not wanting to identify with any religion.

For several years now I have been struggling with trying to define what, if any, religious terminology describes where I am with my faith. The closest I can come is to borrow Karen Armstrong’s self-described designation and say that I am a “freelance monotheist.” I usually add, however, that I am also a Presbyterian Neo-Pagan. It would take too long to unpack what all of that means, and my reflections today are not about my journey. But let’s just say that, like the Transcendental and Romantic poets of yesteryear, I, too, have felt “A presence that disturbs me with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused/, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns/, And the round ocean and the living air.”

As a Presbyterian, I trust in a loving God who has good intentions for us in life and in death. As an adherent of the Reformed Tradition, I value representative governing structures, an orientation that sees God’s goodness at work in the world, and an approach to life grounded in grace and gratitude. In my affiliation with this congregation, I feel blessed to be part of a community that emphasizes the importance of asking questions.

So I am asking: Is this the time and place for those of us who are not “traditional Christians” to come out of the closet, examine what we say we believe, and have some honest-to-God discussions about the questions we have?

When Dave and I go to Annapolis to visit grandkids, we pass a church with a large sign that says, “Jesus Christ is the answer.” But I want to know, “WHAT is the question?” According to Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, religion has always recognized its basis in interpretation and the need for deconstruction of sacred texts. Vattimo advocates something he calls “weak thought” to counter the dead certainty in modern religion and atheism. The ideal community, he believes, is based on charity rather than truth and emerges from people engaged with each other and the world, people not afraid to ask questions, to look for the lacunas in the way they worship and live.

Such communities, Karen Armstrong believes, will not disappear. Their numbers may be small, but their small numbers may, in fact, position them for ushering in a new awakening. After all, small boats can turn a lot faster than large ships.

Lacunas can be life-savers as well as deadly holes. Remember, one definition for “lacuna” means air-space. In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Lacuna” the main character finds an underwater cave or lacuna that leads to unexpected discovery and delight—but only after he has developed the courage and air capacity in his lungs to get there.

Are we ready to take some deep breaths and look for the lacunas in our religion?

When, for instance, will our daughters and granddaughters no longer need to search for the voices of women in all the world’s major religions?

What do we really mean when we say that Jesus is the Son of God?

And how can we go about practicing the Golden Rule in our discourse about religion?