Both the reading from Acts and the reading from the Gospel this morning speak to me about the universality of God’s call. I hear the early Christians struggling to understand that, unlike Judaism, this new thing is really supposed to be for everybody.
Peter explains his extraordinary experience in Joppa, when he saw the Holy Spirit come upon three Gentiles “as he had come on us at the beginning.” His conclusion: “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God!” And his Christian audience agreed, saying, “So then, God has even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Jesus’ message in John 13 is even simpler: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” He is speaking to the disciples, but we know that Jesus preached a message of universal love and kinship. Still, at least one of the disciples wanted to be absolutely clear about this. A little later in the same conversation, Judas (not Judas Iscariot) asks, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus does not answer him directly. Instead, he speaks of the Counselor or Holy Spirit who will shortly come and “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” I hear Jesus advising patience, and pointing to the Holy Spirit as the universal aspect of God’s love. Jesus is a man, born in a particular time and place; the Holy Spirit is born in all people, everywhere, always.
I recently read a novel called “The Cockroaches of Stay More.” Stay More is a tiny isolated town in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas, and it’s the location of about a dozen novels by the great American writer Donald Harington. Usually Harington writes about the many and varied human characters who populate, or sometimes depopulate, this memorable town. But in this novel, he decided to write about the town’s cockroaches.
It turns out the cockroaches of Stay More are a lot like the people, and a lot like us. They’ve developed a pretty complicated society, with its own laws and legends. And over the cockroach millennia, they’ve also founded a religion. It’s based on the worship of the Lord Man, whom the cockroaches venerate because their food and shelter is provided by Man. And they also fear Him, since Man doesn’t seem to like the cockroaches very much, and will often stomp on them for no reason, or else “rapture” them with His terrible swift revolver.
To make matters worse, at the time of this novel, Stay More has degenerated into virtually a ghost town, and there’s only one actual Man left. The cockroaches are starting to have some doubts about His divinity. As best they can tell, he spends all day nursing a hangover and then lies around drunk all night – that is, when he isn’t shooting cockroaches. This is especially bothersome for the cockroaches’ spiritual leader, Reverend Chid. “All his life Chid had devoted his time and his energy and his thoughts to the service of that Man; he had come to identify with that Man; he had believed that that Man had created him, Chid, if not in His own image, at least in the image of what He, Man, deemed the most intelligent and best-designed of all insects.”
Chid has preached the gospel all his long life – that’s about two years for humans – but now he’s having a crisis of faith. Is their Man really worth worshiping? Does he truly care about them, despite his often ugly behavior? When they die, will they really sit on His right hand? How come, when they accidentally crawl on his right hand now, he tries to kill them?
Reverend Chid is just a country preacher, unsophisticated and in fact rather venal. Yet all at once, he has an amazing insight. Could there, somehow, be a Lord beyond the Lord Man? A Lord who is, for a cockroach, pure mystery, unknown and unknowable, yet somehow the source of all that sustains life here in Stay More? Chid remembers hearing the Man shout out the word “God!” – usually when he’s drunk or in pain. Is the Man praying to this unknown divinity?
In short, Reverend Chid is starting to wonder whether he and the rest of the cockroaches have got it all wrong. Maybe the Lord – or call it God – isn’t any more partial to cockroaches than to any other creature. Maybe it’s just plain silly to expect God to side with the cockroaches and defeat their enemies and provide luscious morsels for them to eat. Okay, I’m now going to put this in more familiar, human theological terms: Chid now doubts the existence of a tribal God, an us-against-them God, a God who’s on somebody’s side. Because you know what? The facts just don’t support that idea.
In a sermon I preached a couple of years ago, I talked about an idea that Scott Peck wrote about. He suggested that “religion” might refer to two very different stages of maturity. One type of religion – fundamentalist, tribal, exclusionary, full of rights and wrongs and dos and don’ts – he considered a response to inner chaos, a way of finding structure through simple, clear rules of living. The other type of religion – speculative, skeptical, embracing uncertainty, based on trans-tribal values like love and duty – is for people who actually need a little more mystery in their lives. We look around and feel hemmed in by the “square world,” the world of boring little clichés and simple certitudes. Surely, we think, God can’t really be like that? And surely God doesn’t condemn some people for what they believe? or for what tribe they happen to belong to?
Let me turn from cockroaches to Sigmund Freud for a moment. I was surprised recently to discover a very similar idea in his great anti-religious work, Civilization and Its Discontents. I hadn’t read the book in several years, and when I opened it again, I found this, in the very first pages: Freud relates a letter he received from Romain Rolland in which Rolland takes him to task for not understanding the true source of religious feeling. “This, Rolland says, consists in a peculiar feeling . . . which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded – as it were, ‘oceanic.’. . . It is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, Rolland thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.”
And Freud goes on to say that, while he respects Rolland’s views and has no doubt of his honesty, he himself has never experienced such a feeling. When he speaks of “religion,” he does not mean the eternal, oceanic feeling. It may well exist, Freud admits. The religion which Freud hates and wishes to attack is a religion he believes to be wholly illusory, based on propitiation of imaginary father-figures who are thought to be partial to one tribe of humans over another.
I hope the parallels between Scott Peck, Freud, and The Cockroaches of Stay More are becoming clear. In each case, we are contrasting two world views, two philosophies. One is local, tribal, and extremely concerned with how to be right, how to survive. The other is universal, and much more concerned with right action, regardless of the beliefs associated with it.
And please note this: Peck, Freud, and Reverend Chid all see these two views as not equally compelling. There is a ranking, an order. For Peck, “religion” of the first sort is a way of keeping chaos at bay, not a genuine outreaching toward God. For Freud, “religion” of the first sort is a hateful illusion. And for Reverend Chid, “religion” of the first sort just hasn’t worked out. He can no longer believe that the Lord Man really cares about the cockroaches of Stay More. Chid has only dimly glimpsed the possibility of religion of the second sort, “some Absolute Mover and Shaker more Infinite and Omnipotent than Man, some Everlasting Eternal Being who did not drink bourbon or coffee, smoke cigarettes, pass out, fire pistols, write love letters, and urinate.” Yet this mysterious possibility comes to mean more to Chid than all the pious certainties of cockroach religion.
When I preached about this before, I talked about how confused I felt, trying to stay faithful to my own mysterious, flexible, non-exclusionary sense of who God is, while at the same time not denying that other Christians who don’t see it that way still have the right to call themselves Christians, and for me to consider them my brothers and sisters.
I’m still confused about who gets to use what words or what names for what beliefs. But I no longer feel as uncertain about my own position in all this. Religious tribalists of whatever sort – and I mean broadly anybody who thinks God prefers his religion to another’s, and wants the other fellow to suffer as a result – are doing too much damage in the world, and it’s only getting worse. In yesterday’s Washington Post, an article on the religion page described how two Muslim clerics, a rabbi, and Christian leaders Pat Robertson and John Hagee all declared that natural disasters are God’s punishment for those of us who don’t agree with their religious views. Up until fairly recently in human history, that was a mainstream, standard belief, amply reflected and justified in the Old Testament. I don’t want any part of it, I don’t want to make common cause with it, and I’m now happy to agree with Freud that beliefs of this sort are dangerous illusions.
I believe that we can understand Christ’s teachings as making the case for a truly trans-tribal religion. Consider the Gospel message for today: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” Jesus doesn’t make belief in his divinity the new command. He doesn’t narrow the gate, he broadens it. “Love one another.” Anyone can do that! And I guess it goes without saying that, if Jesus loves you, he’s not going to make you suffer because you don’t believe in him.
In churches across America this morning, a very different message is being preached. And in synagogues and mosques you will also hear a version of that bloody, brutal story: Our way is the right way, God loves us more than he loves others, there are certain things you must believe if you expect to stay part of our tribe, and worthy of our God’s love.
You can call that whatever you want – you can even call it religion for all I care – but I plan on staying as far away from it as possible.
My goodness how I wish I could just stop right here, say Amen, and walk away from the pulpit feeling extremely righteous. That’s the trouble with preaching a sermon: You’re really on the spot to be honest.
Jesus said: Love one another. And my whole point, here this morning, has been that he meant everybody. Not just the members of my tribe – not just the Seekers community – but everybody. Including tribal religionists. So I have to ask myself: Can I take this attitude toward fundamentalist believers and still be loving them?
Well, I hope so, but as usual, Jesus is making me think, and examine my own conscience, and not be so quick to draw firm lines between “us” and “them.” How about this analogy: Everyone’s got their own particular group they have difficulty with. It might be Spanish-speaking immigrants; it might be homeless people; it might be rich people who wear fur. In my case, it’s tribal religionists who think they can carve up God’s love according to who believes what. In Jesus’ time, it was tax collectors and prostitutes. And for Jesus himself, it was pretty clearly the Pharisees, who cheated widows and orphans while claiming to follow God’s law. Those people really pissed him off! But we read that he always offered himself for conversation with the Pharisees, and was (usually) patient in trying to answer their pointed questions.
So I have to think that’s the model for me too. If I’m going to separate myself from a particular sect or belief, I have to be willing not to separate myself from the actual people. In fact, maybe I have to actively look for opportunities to connect, to confront my own limits. Jesus made it plain that he had nothing in common with the actions of the Pharisees, but he never shunned them as individuals.
It’s also important for me to ask myself hard questions about just why this issue pushes my buttons. Is it because I hate narrow-mindedness and intolerance, and genuinely fear the results in our world of sectarian attitudes? Sure. But Jesus, as usual, was way ahead of me – he understood what psychologists call “projection” long before there were any psychologists. “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” If something is really bothering me about you, it’s almost certainly because I’ve got it too.
So I look inside myself and sure enough, I discover that I can indeed be narrow-minded, intolerant, and that I fear the results of these attitudes in my relations with others. If I could forgive myself, and humbly ask God to remove my shortcomings . . . maybe it would help me understand, and feel compassion for, my brother who wants to kill me for not accepting his God.
All I know is that God gave him the same gift as he gave me, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and who am I to think that I could oppose God!
You might be wondering what happens to Reverend Chid and his cockroach congregation back there in Stay More. I don’t want to spoil the book for you by revealing too much, but I will tell you that a key scene involves a confrontation with Satan himself, or, as he is known, the Mockroach. And I’ll also tell you that the cockroaches of Stay More do not easily find another religion to replace their simple veneration of Man. But then, neither do the humans of Stay More easily find a God of their understanding. As for us, we too live in uncertainty as we embrace the mystery that is God and the universal love that is Christ. “Love one another.” It sounds so simple . . . until you try to do it.