"Believe in Jesus!"
A sermon by Rev. Jonathan "Jack" Prykop
I welcome you in the name of St. Syadasti, whose name means, "All words are in some sense true, in some sense false, in some sense meaningless, in some sense true and false, in some sense true and meaningless, in some sense false and meaningless, and in some sense true and false and meaningless." In this spirit let us celebrate today.
Reading 1: From the novel "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman
I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen--I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone's ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we'll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind's destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it's aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there's a cat in a box somewhere who's alive and dead at the same time (although if they don't ever open the box to feed it it'll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn't even know that I'm alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn't done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what's going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman's right to choose, a baby's right to live, that while all human life is sacred there's nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.
Reading 2: from "The Book of the Subgenius" by J.R. "Bob" Dobbs
Man's word says, "Seeing is believing." This is perversion. "Bob's" word says, "Believing is seeing." If you believe in something first, you will then see it. But you must really believe.
To be a complete and religious SubGenius, you don't have to believe in the dogma. You don't have to believe in yourself. You don't have to believe in ANYTHING, but merely be CAPABLE of BELIEVING...which is much more closely related to seeing than thinking. If you can see the Path, it is yours, and it will lead you to the point at which you will believe everything..
"Learning" is not what you need. You need to "KNOW, INSTANTLY." Learned experiences, learned opinions, these can tie you up and keep you from piercing the veil. If you can "see," you will come to know what you really think and not what you pay to want to think you think.
Do not believe in success. Just succeed in believing.
"Believe in Jesus!"
Howdy, folks. My name is Jonathan Prykop, and I'm a baptized Catholic, born-again Discordian, ordained minister of the Universal Life Church, and recent zealous convert to Unitarian Universalism. I'm what you might call a freelance minister in this town, preaching in any church that will have me, and so I would like to thank Jesse Spencer-Smith and the Worship Committee for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today, and I thank you for coming to listen. I'd like to especially thank Maryly Crutcher, my partner in crime, without whose help I could have never pulled this service together. Before we begin, I'd also like to clarify that the opinions expressed in this sermon are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of this church or the Unitarian Universalist Association.
I am here today to ask you, encourage you, and perhaps maybe even plead with you to "Believe in Jesus!"
"Believe in Jesus!"
As if that wasn't the most overplayed message in the majority of churches in this nation.
"Believe in Jesus!"
Many of you probably thought this is the one church where you didn't have to hear that bothersome command.
"Believe in Jesus!"
For most of my life, I've known instinctually, in the part of the soul where real spiritual wisdom resides, that belief in Jesus was not necessary for either love or salvation. And yet here I stand before you this morning, using my first opportunity to speak from this pulpit to tell you, "Believe in Jesus!"
I suppose I should explain myself.
First, what do I mean by "Believe?" "Believe" is one of those fuzzy words, like "justice" or "holiness", that can mean a lot of different contradictory things to different people, so to help ease some of our defensive gut reactions, let me tell you what I don't mean. I am not asking you, nor would I ask anyone, to forsake their ability to disbelieve. Our skepticism is one of our most valuable faculties as human beings, the nurturing spouse of our faith, and without it we would not have science or medicine or reason at all; we would be slaves to every plausible lie that's ever been told. Thank God for skepticism.
But on the other hand, I also do not mean simply try to believe. We're an open-minded people, and nearly everybody I've met over the past year in the Champaign-Urbana Unitarian Universalist community has seemed very comfortable with beliefs that differ from their own, yet we remain a community bound together largely in defense of our rejection of what's currently being believed in churches less free than our own. We may work as a church and as a denomination to describe in covenant what we believe, but for most of us, it was our skepticism that brought us here in the first place.
Once again, I'm not knocking our fine and essential ability to disbelieve, but today I am calling us to take the diversity and wisdom we've cultivated from that disbelief and turn it towards the successful achievement of belief. As the great sage of our living tradition, Jedi Master Yoda, once said, "Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."
So what does it mean to successfully achieve belief? As was suggested in today's second reading from the Book of the Subgenius, "Believing is much more closely related to seeing than thinking." When we believe something, it is present in our senses, buffeting our minds with its inherent truth as if it sat there plain before us. It doesn't matter if the object of the belief exists in any given philosophical sense of existence; what is believed appears to us because it is believed, and in doing so takes on a reality of its own. When a small child's belief in Santa Claus turns an airplane in the sky into Rudolph's nose, when the entire universe seems deterministic because of an eighteenth century physicist's belief in the equations of Newton, or when an athlete's belief in her own abilities makes her feel strong and confident, belief takes on the reality of the other senses, impacting the believer every bit as much as, if not moreso than, the commonly accepted physical reality of presents and falling objects and muscles. Thus, the child leaves out cookies and milk before nestling snug in bed, the physicist retreats to the library to extrapolate the history of the cosmos from a handful of equations, and the athlete practices every day to break the world record. We believe in ghosts and we feel scared; we believe in angels and we feel safe. Belief creates sensual reality. My call to belief, then, is a call for us to see that reality--to regain full sight of the mythological reality of our times, and participate in its creation.
And what a reality it is! As vast as the human imagination, filled with aliens and demons and politicians and heroic firemen and cold, empty voids. No human being can see it all at once, and often seeing it from one point of view means that, for the time being, we can't see it from another. Seeing our mythological reality is often like viewing a stereograph, those "Magic Eye" pictures that look like static, nothing but black and white dots, until you unfocus your vision and the random dots suddenly become a three-dimensional sailboat.
As I speak, up in Chicago, hundreds of Catholics are flocking to the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary that has appeared on the wall of an expressway underpass. Look at it from one angle with one attitude, and it looks like nothing more than a common salt stain left by the runoff of melting slush on the road above. But look from another angle, and with another attitude, and it's the image of the Mother of God as known worldwide. I suggest to you that mythological reality contains both perspectives, and that a person who truly desires to engage with our present mythological reality will see both.
Given the reality created by what human beings can and do believe, we are at our most radically skeptic when we are constantly trying to see the static, always looking to prove to ourselves and others that it is possible not to see the 3-D sailboat, insisting that a salt stain is simply a salt stain, as if that means neither the 3-D sailboat nor the Blessed Mother are present in that place.
But I am a radical believer, forever shifting my vision so that I not only see the static and the sailboat, but also the old lady, and the monster and the unicorn and the protruding freudian slip--every image that can be imagined from the input of the senses. Radical skepticism has its place, which I once again gratefully acknowledge, but if you ask me, it's through radical belief that we move beyond merely rejecting the beliefs of others and gain the power to transform them.
There's an adage I picked up, one I've repeated to myself many times through the years when I've been presented with perspectives I don't understand--"I cannot doubt what I do not first believe." By this, I mean that if I do not first see an idea through the eyes of the faithful, I won't actually know what it is I'm rejecting. If I do not first believe, my only recourse, when I encounter the reality of that belief in the form of a believer, is to convince the believer that they don't have to view the world that way and hope that they only believed because they didn't know it was reasonable to doubt. If the majority of the world persists in believing simply because they want to, I can only insist that they respect my disbelief; I can maybe mock their choice of belief or otherwise pressure them into disbelieving, but I remain viscerally ignorant of their reasons for believing, and hence cannot engage them reasonably about their beliefs.
The first step towards full participation in the religious reality of the world must be sight of that mythology, sensation of that mythology, belief in that mythology. Only after we've seen reality from the believer's perspective can we make any claim to understand what that belief is all about. But once we've seen reality from that perspective, we gain the ability to relate with that perspective, to refine that perspective, and ultimately to transform that perspective. We would be cruel if we shattered a small child's belief in Santa Claus, but we encourage them to believe because we remember the delight and mystery of believing in Santa Claus ourselves. Having believed in Santa ourselves is what allows us to help that child transform their belief in Santa Claus into a belief in the spirit of giving and charity that idealizes the holiday season for us grownups.
As it is with Santa, so it is for religion. No religion in this world is born from nothingness; every new belief system is but a transformation of the beliefs that came before. The truly transformative movements in human thought do not rely on rejecting what was believed before, but rather teach us how to believe what was believed before even better, such that we see all the truth that we saw before, and even more. This, finally, is what brings me to Jesus.
"Believe in Jesus!" Over 85% of Americans already do. The mythological reality of Jesus is to me undeniable. Millions of people in this country make political and personal decisions based on what they think Jesus would do; millions speak with him and pray to him on a daily basis. Right now, as I stand here and fumble through an intellectualized accounting of what happens in churches, there are people in churches in this area actually feeling Jesus deep inside them.
When I ask fellow Unitarian Universalists what they think of Jesus, I often hear things like, "I believe he was an important prophet and wise person, but I don't think he was divine. He had some good ideas, but he wasn't the Son of God. Believing in Jesus might help people get through some tough times, but he doesn't actually exist." I'd like to propose to you today that Jesus does actually exist. Jesus is as real a presence today as any rock or cabbage, and if he is only a figment of our imaginations, he is no mere figment of our imaginations. He is a more influential personality in our nation than any of one of us gathered here in our fleshly bodies.
When asked, we speak of Jesus as a historical figure because we do not see him in the here and now, because we do not believe. But ask a devout Christian about Jesus, and they are likely to speak of him in the present more often than the past. "Jesus is my rock. He comforts me in times of affliction. He watches over us, and he judges us from his throne in heaven." Other than the occasional academic or fundamentalist, most practicing Christians don't seem to care one way or the other about the historical truth regarding Jesus; they're talking about an active, living presence among us today.
Most of the time, then, when we focus our attention and criticisms on the historical reality of Jesus, we're not even talking about the same thing as Christians. We can claim all we want that he doesn't exist, but we'll only look foolish to the people who sense his existence all around us. He exists because they believe. They change the focus of their eyes and the black and white dots become a 3-D messiah. If we are to have anything to say to Christians, we must address the Jesus that lives today, rather than the Jesus that died two thousand years ago. And if we're to see and understand the Jesus we're speaking of, we must believe he is there in the first place.
Upon believing in Jesus, though, I must admit that Jesus is not always a being I care to follow. I can believe in the fire and brimstone Jesus preached by men like Fred Phelps, the Jesus that pickets the funerals of gay men and plants bombs in abortion clinics, but I would rather burn in hell for eternity than submit to a god as hateful that. I can believe in the fervent nationalism of the Republican Jesus, but I'll do everything I can to stop him from denying civil rights to foreigners and bombing innocents. When I encounter people who believe in such a Jesus, I can believe in him as well, and then I promptly reject him. If my desire is to convey my opinion of how these Christians practice their religion, it's far more powerful and accurate for me to say "Your god is despicable" than it is for me to say, "Your god doesn't exist," anyway.
Furthermore, "Your god doesn't exist" will in and of itself be a turnoff to the loving people whose Jesus does so many good works in this world. Why would I insist Jesus doesn't exist when he's feeding the poor, fighting for civil rights and an end to war, visiting the imprisoned, tending to the sick and placing the welfare of others before himself? This is the kind of god I want to see, the kind of god I want to believe in. Even if my sense of personal authority and responsibility prevents me from following him per se, as I am not a follower by nature, this is the kind of Jesus I'd like to at least work closely with.
This is the spirit in which I call you today to "Believe in Jesus!" Not because any divine authority says we have to, not because you'll go to hell if you don't, but simply because he is there. Jesus moves from believer to believer doing his works, and whether he's healing the sick, forgiving our sins, condemning homosexuals, feeding the poor, or privatizing Social Security, Jesus is real and among us today.
All that said, I have a confession to make. The title of this sermon is "Believe in Jesus!", and I think it's important for us who seek a voice in the religious economy to do just that. Yet Jesus was something of a red herring. The real call I wish to make today, the message I hope to leave you with, is simply the call to believe. Believe in Jesus! Believe in Moses! Believe in Buddha! Believe in the scientific method! Believe in Allah! Believe in Gaia! Believe in every character in every story that guides human action.
I came to Unitarian Universalism because it was a denomination that would not make me believe anything I didn't want to believe, but I remain Unitarian Universalist because I think this denomination, moreso than any other, has the power and intelligence to become leaders in the achievement of belief; leaders in faith. Christian churches only believe in Jesus, and will only ever be able to lead Christians; we have the opportunity to believe in Jesus and everything else as well, to be true pioneers and co-creators of the mythological reality in which most people are but followers. Jesus is an important figure in that reality, and I don't think he's going away anytime soon, but if you find yourself closer to and more influenced by other mythological traditions, start there instead. Our covenant as a denomination claims that our living tradition is drawn from many sources; let us then draw from those sources, so that our tradition truly lives.
Within the great story being woven by all religions right now, there is a strong presence rising to power, a controlling god, a fundamentalist god, a judgmental god who seeks to dominate the world rather than serving it. Yet there is also a god of love, of justice, of mercy, of freedom and compassion. Neither god is limited to a single religious institution, and there are Christians right here in our community whose Jesus fights for the same values we do. We already have strong ties with these churches; I attend their services and I recognize many faces from the Unitarian Universalist community. Let's strengthen those ties. Let's believe in their Jesus. Let's let the power of our belief strengthen his reality and diminish the reality of the hatemongering Jesus. Rather than working to diminish the faith of Christians, let us be examples for them of a greater faith, a faith that embraces all that is right and good. Let us believe in every Jesus, every god, every ghost and every alien that will join us in affirming "the inherent worth and dignity of all people, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence," with the goal of a mythological reality that offers peace, liberty and justice for all.
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