A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, August 28, 2016
Job 15:1-10 GNT; “Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver
Are your beliefs, convictions, and attitude toward life and faith the same that they were 35, 25, or even 5 years ago? Or have your beliefs, convictions, and attitudes changed over time?
It might surprise some members of our United Church to learn that my own personal beliefs, convictions, and attitude toward life and faith have changed dramatically from what they were some 40 years ago when I took my first steps toward preparing to become a minister. I began my spiritual journey on the extreme right end of the theological spectrum, because that was the climate in the part of the country I grew up in, and that is really all I had ever known. It was a climate that said you need to know what you believe, and you need to be sure you believe all the right things. I was influenced both by certain individuals and churches who insisted that if you didn’t believe certain tenants and verbally confess those tenants in just the right way, you were doomed to hell.
Part of being sure that you knew and believed all the right things was closely studying the Bible so that you knew what the Bible says and then applied that to your daily life (and there is nothing at all wrong with that). But at least one congregation I served in those early years of ministry had a practice of not only keeping a weekly tally of Sunday school class attendance, but also keeping a weekly tally of how many chapters in the Bible that were read each week. So the Sunday school superintendent went around to every Sunday school class—children and adults alike—and everyone present had to report how many Bible chapters they had read the previous week. Such meant that if you didn’t want to be embarrassed on Sunday morning, then you read a lot of Bible chapters each week. A weekly total was reported to the congregation at the close of Sunday school.
Then when I went to seminary, one of the classes required for graduation was Systematic Theology. This year-long (or two semesters) class sought to put all the pieces of Christian theology together in an orderly, systematic fashion so that it all fit neatly together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. As you might imagine, I looked forward to my second year of seminary when I could take Systematic Theology and the prospect of fitting all of “the truth” and what I believed into a neat, unquestionable package. But what I would eventually discover was that the interpretation of the Bible and the pieces of Systematic Theology changed depending upon who you were reading and the theological framework they were working from.
Yet, a couple of decades later, when I was considering changing denominational affiliation, I again felt the need to clarify in my own mind, as well as convey to those I was appealing to in order to make the transition to a new denomination, what I believed. Now, all of this is to say that there was a time when for me religion was tied to rightness—right beliefs, right practice, and having all the pieces of Christian doctrine and theology rightly fit together in one complete puzzle.
Well, my focus has changed over the decades. Though I still have beliefs and hold to certain convictions that help dictate the way I approach and live my life, religion for me is no longer so much about rightness and having everything cut and dried and spelled out on paper. The older I get, the more religion for me is about reverence rather than rightness.
Thus, I love the passage in Job 15 where Eliphaz questions the idea that anyone could claim certainty or absolute rightness when it comes to questions about life and faith. In beautiful poetic fashion, Eliphaz cross examines Job:
Do you think that you were the first person born?
Were you there when God made the mountains?
Did you overhear the plans God made?
Does human wisdom belong to you alone?
One of the common themes throughout the Book of Job is that neither Job nor anyone else should think that he has an ultimate grasp on the truth. The ways of God and the mysteries of God are beyond human understanding or finding out. I have always loved the Book of Job because of the way that it puts its finger on so many aspects of the human predicament, including exposing the folly of thinking we can claim a hold on the truth, or religious rightness, if you will.
And then I remembered the poem “Mysteries, Yes,” by Mary Oliver in which she says,
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.” (And, I would add, “in reverence.”)
As I resonate with the Book of Job, I also resonate with many of the poems of Mary Oliver, because she, too, celebrates life, the natural world, and faith as an arena for experiencing sacred mystery and evoking an attitude of reverence. Oliver realizes, I believe, that we don’t have to have all the answers to the marvels and mysteries of life in our universe or of faith. But what is called for as we consider life, the natural world, and faith are curiosity, amazement, respect, and reverence.
You see, in my estimation it is the insistence on religious rightness that gives religion a bad name among many who claim to be non-religious. And such is also the cause of so much fighting and violence in the world today. An insistence on religious rightness can foster conformity, prejudice, exclusivity, disrespect, and violence. An attitude of “rightness” can breed a sense of superiority, contempt, arrogance, and a holier-than-thou air that tends to look down upon, belittle, and sit in judgment upon others who don’t believe the “right way;” that is, the way that I do.
I don’t need to tell you that so much of the problems we see in the world today—and have always seen in the world—result from disagreements over rightness—right religious beliefs and right religious practice. The attitude of many is that the things I believe about God and religious faith and religious practice must be the right way, so if your beliefs about God and religious faith and religious practice are different from mine, then you must be wrong. And if you are wrong, then it is my religious duty to change you, and if I can’t change you, then it is my duty to persecute or even get rid of you. Such is the attitude of much of the world today.
Permit me to digress with a personal illustration. A couple of weeks ago, Mary Lou and I enjoyed an overnight trip to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. As we walked down the main street in Gatlinburg on a Friday evening, we saw something we had never seen in Gatlinburg before—an evangelical, fiery street preacher who was preaching his lungs out right there on the curb in the middle of town in an attempt to save souls. Having to pass by him and his comrades made both of us quite uncomfortable. That is one of the by-products of religious extremism and the certainty of religious rightness—it can lead to an imbalance in society and the world at large—if not something worse.
Religious reverence, on the other hand, tends to foster openness, acceptance, inclusivity, respect, and peace. If I approach life with a spirit of reverence, in the way that someone like Albert Schweitzer did, for example, then I am open to and respect all forms of life, as well as all walks of people, and seek to live and work in harmony rather than hatred and conflict.
You see, religious reverence leads us to respect the natural world around us, and it keeps us from misusing, abusing, and using for our own selfish benefits without thinking about the wider and long-term consequences of our actions.
Religious reverence leads us to respect all forms of life and all walks of life, and we want the best for all people, and we can’t forget the plight of the disabled, disadvantaged, oppressed, and all the least of these that Jesus cared about.
Religious reverence leads us to be respectful of and learn from all worthy religious traditions and keeps us from believing that the narrow religious tradition that we were raised in is the only worthy religious tradition. We can be progressive or liberal Christians, but still respect, appreciate, and learn from other Christian traditions, as well as other world religious traditions.
This has been a personal testimony of sorts. But I am so grateful for all those people I have known, and all those writers I have been privileged to read, from so many different religious traditions and perspectives who have helped open my mind, thinking, and my heart to different religious interpretations and different perspectives on spirituality. And I am grateful to all those who helped me to see that religious beliefs and religious practice are more about a life of reverence than certainty and inflexible rightness. That is the way I see it. I appreciate the opportunity to share it. May it be so. Amen.