1-4-15 Taboo 1: Evolution - thrive UMC Official Blog

1-4-15 Taboo 1: Evolution


We’re opening up a new message series this month called: ‘Taboo: things you’re not supposed to talk about at church.’

And, of course, since we’re trying to do the church thing right now, we’re simply going to list them all, just so everyone knows what they are; and then we’ll all be clear about all the things we’re never supposed to talk about again. Those are the rules, because we all know that as long as everyone is on the same page about the exact details of what we’re not supposed to do, then absolutely no one will ever do the stuff on the ‘no-no’ list. However, we’ll also have to very quickly glaze over the fact that we’ll be talking about the things we’re not supposed to talk about …in order to ensure that everyone knows they’re not supposed to talk about them. Therefore, once we’re done talking about the things we’re not supposed to talk about, we’ll simply move on, pretending we never talked about them, okay? So if anyone asks, we spent the day sharing about Jesus and the appropriate ways to hug children.

Is everyone on the same page with me so far? Okay then: let’s move on.

Now, perhaps a few of you aren’t too familiar with the word ‘taboo.’ After all, you shouldn’t be, because it isn’t a ‘Christian’ word that Jesus ever used. In fact, it’s a word that was only added to English vocabulary about three hundred years ago, when a British explorer made a visit to the island nation of Tonga. And then the word was later picked up by some notable Western thinkers, like Sigmund Freud, to express moral and culturally-specific prohibitions. In short, ‘taboo’ is a word that expresses what is ‘forbidden,’ or to be so forcefully rejected, by a given community, that even speaking of the thing or practice is seen as offensive. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.

I, on the other hand, was first introduced to ‘Taboo’ as a game, which in our family tends to go downhill very quickly. For those of you who have never played it before, the game works like this: the group is divided into two teams. Each team takes turns where one person sees a card and tries to get his or her teammates to guess the word printed at the top of the card. But the reader can’t say the word itself, or any of the other five words listed on the card below. For example, the ‘taboo’ word that the reader wants her team to say might be “Amnesia” but she can’t say “Forget,” “Memory,” “Remember,” “Head,” or “Bump.” So the person with the card might use the clue: ‘What made Drew Barrymore date Adam Sandler more than once? And frequent excuse for missing church.’ Once the team guesses a word, or the reader makes a mistake, they then move on to the next card, trying to get as many as positive points as they can before the timer runs out. But the real fun comes from hearing the crazy things that pop out of peoples’ mouths as they try to piece abstract clues, images, and references together in order to hit on a very specific concept. Usually the results are pretty hilarious.

However, after I had taken a few psychology classes in college, and learned more about what real-life taboos are, I started to feel a little mislead by the game that carried that label. While the game Taboo teaches you how to talk around things that are ordinary and harmless, actual social taboos tend to be less laughable. Actual taboos are often scary and socially revolting –which is kind of what makes them ‘taboo’ in the first place. But then again, the game’s company, Hasbro, was probably worried that their product might bum people out and not sell as well if it featured cards with legitimate taboos like ‘infanticide,’ ‘cannibalism’, and ‘incest.’ (But incidentally this was something they were clearly wrong about; just ask the people who made the game ‘Cards Against Humanity’.)

Anyway, I want us to spend some time thinking and talking about the general topic of taboos, including a few specific examples, over the next six weeks, particularly as they relate to the Church. And I want to talk about them explicitly because these taboos tell us something powerful about who we are, what we value, and how to live and participate within the given community. This is different from a simple conversation about right and wrong: because social taboos threaten the very heart of the community that fences them off. More than just being a few more ‘thou-shalt-not’s, the most serious taboos hint at a community’s deepest sense of fear. Typically, a community is so afraid of these forbidden objects or activities that they’re not even willing to let the thoughts inhabit their minds for too long, lest even the idea or the image damage them –and their life together- in such a fundamental way that a return to life-before-that-thought becomes impossible. And this fear means that these taboos hold a secret power over the communities that hold them, often without even being conscious of it. Taboos represent the kind of bad that usually you’re not even allowed to question.

And because these taboos can be so scary, we’re going to start off slow this morning, and address the Church’s secret taboo against: [dun-dun duuun!] Evolution. Now, already many of you probably think you know what I’m talking about, and you probably you can easily anticipate what you think I’ll say, but hold your eye-rolling for just a minute. I’m not talking primarily about the scientific argument for biological evolution –although it certainly works as a fitting example. But rather, what I actually mean is something a little deeper: what I want to talk about this morning is spiritual, and theological, evolution.

Since we’re a new church, and I know the vast majority of you are pretty open-minded, I’m going to go ahead and say it; but just in case we have a few old-school, traditional-church-type folk here today, we’re going to have to do a little ‘ear-muffs’ activity here, where you take your index fingers, and stick them securely in both of your ears if you want to protect yourself from the ‘C’ word I’m about to say. You may have to keep them there for a bit because I’m going to say it more than once.

Okay, ready?

Change. That’s right, I want to talk for a few minutes about change –and not just any kind of change, but evolutionary change. I want to talk about the Church moving from the past, in toward the future—in a gradual, but radical way. I’m talking about making room for God to do something brand-new in us, starting today. Again. I’m talking about God’s creativity coming alive in us in such a way that we start doing things, and allowing our lives to be formed and blown-up to such an extent that it looks like, and is, like nothing that’s never been up until this point –ever! I’m talking about not just becoming a new church, but becoming something of a new species of church. And that involves dreaming new dreams, and seeing new visions, and hearing the voice of God in what had been, up until now, foreign tones, unwritten melodies and unimagined languages. And most of all, it means letting go of, and be freed from, old fears, as well as old hopes.

Because God is doing a new thing in our world, again. This is one of the recurrent themes in the Holy Bible, one that seems to go overlooked in most Christian communities. Out of nothing, God speaks creation into being. And I think it’s safe to say that this is a huge innovation –one that the greatest minds in science still can’t even begin to approach! Then out of the dirt, for a first time, God forms humanity and inexplicably empowers them to become co-creators with Him! Then, for another first and only time, God brings a flood of justice, choosing salvation for the human race to come through a single family. Then, like never before, God speaks and forms a covenant with a lone human being, Abram, to create His chosen people. Then, in another new and solitary event, he saves those people from captivity in Egypt and gives them a land to call their own. Through Moses, God for the first time gives His people a law so they can become a nation, in order that the whole world could come to know of the One Creator of all things. And this people grows, changes, evolves as God works and reveals Himself within it. Like building an elaborate tower, God shifts and develops their political structure, moral code and religious practices. Then, in an unprecedented event, because of Israel and Judah’s idolatry, God uses a foreign empire to bring justice and dispossess them of their land, their national identity, and their hopes for their children.

And next, in a shocking, inexplicable movement, God becomes flesh, strips off power, to become a mortal human. Through a single, particular, first-century Galilean, in an unrepeatable historical event, God shows all of humanity what it looks like to live as God has always intended for us to live.

Let us hear again this once-in-the-entire-course-of-history event, as God makes Himself something new, for us and for all time: This is our Christmas text, the one we read on Christmas Eve from the Gospel of John, starting at the beginning. If you brought your Bible along, or have the app on your phone, please read along with me. This is John 1:1-8:

[Read John 1:1-18]

Now, for those of you who weren’t aware of this already, both God’s activity and the documentation of the event by human hands were revolutionary. In the first place, it was believed that God’s Holiness and human bodies were irreconcilable. Nobody could have imagined the immensity of God fitting into a single human physique –that was thought to be more impossible than having square circles. And furthermore, why would God ever want that for Himself? It was inconceivable, and would have been a blasphemous suggestion to make before God did it. In short, the incarnation was, and still is, a taboo topic among our Jewish ancestors and contemporaries, as well as our Muslim brothers and sisters.

And second, the writing of the Gospel of John was a part of a new, revelationary movement, because it brought together Hebrew faith and Greek and understanding. Here’s a bit of information about the Gospel of John that you wouldn’t be aware of just from reading an English translation of it by itself: John was written in Greek. That wasn’t a terribly crazy thing by itself. But what made it truly innovative is the way it used the Greek word ‘logos.’ You see, in Greek philosophy, the concept of the ‘logos’ signified the universal essence which gave everything order and meaning. For the pagan Greeks, the logos was the divine power which ran in and through all things, and gave humanity its sense of right and wrong. It is also what allows humanity to know the world and apprehend it as being reasonable and accessible in a broader sense.

But in our English translations of the Bible, the Greek work ‘logos’ is simply translated as “Word” with a capital ‘W.’ So when the Gospel of John says: “in the beginning was the Word,” it really means, ‘in the beginning was the ‘logos.’’ ‘And the logos was with God, and the logos was God.’ And then later it goes on to say, ‘and the logos became flesh.’ This is really radical, because the writer of John is saying that the divinity the Greeks have been talking about for centuries is actually the same as the God of the ancient Israelites. While, at the same time, the writer has discovered Jesus in the creation story in Genesis, saying Jesus was the Holy Word God spoke that brings all things into being. In short, John is saying that Jesus is both a dramatic continuation of story of the Hebrew Bible, and the literal embodiment of abstract Greek ideology. He’s trying to tell everyone that God, through Jesus, is bringing opposed worlds and cultures together in a new and exciting way. He’s saying God is now expanding and redefining who count as His chosen people. A new grace, and a new truth, have actually come into being for the first time through Jesus Christ.

The Incarnation, and continued Jesus-movement, illustrate the simple and undying truth that God is constantly doing things that have never been done before. That is God’s story! And the story continues to move forward, in us. Even after the life, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus, God keeps doing new things. The logos of Christ is still powerful, and alive –in us! God hasn’t stopped acting, revealing, and being present in our world today. God still dreams new dreams, opens new spaces, writes new songs in unheard of styles. God still works in us to create radically new communities of previously irreconcilable peoples. It means, again, that absolutely nothing and nobody is off limits for God. The reach of salvation isn’t limited by past barriers, or prior historical stagnations. It means that God might be ready to do anything, without condition: including what we’d previously thought to be impossible. And not only that but we’re invited, even called, to join in on this new work of re-creation. In Jesus, God has set the precedent that miracles, from that point on, will happen through the bodies of His people –us.

‘You know, while all of that sounds really cute Jeremy, I thought we were talking about stuff that was supposed to be taboo today? And all of that sounds nice and kind of biblical, and maybe even a little exciting! Where’s the taboo in all of that?’

Well the taboo in that, brothers and sisters, is that that’s not where the church, nor the vast majority of people who call themselves Christian, are headed. It’s not even where they’re looking. Christians, perhaps more than anyone else, are the people with the heads down, pushing against the winds of time. We’re the ones who, when Darwin raised the objection that his new theory of evolution challenged the creation story in the Bible, without thought or hesitation said ‘the Bible’s right! You’re wrong!’ And then we went on to build elaborate museums to reinforce the proofs we constructed, to safeguard the secret of the immaturity of our faith and cover our ignorance of our own sacred scriptures.

Just imagine: how would the world be different now if there had been someone there to teach Darwin to read and understand the Bible better? What if he had someone to open his eyes to the possibility that God’s experience of time is different from our own –that Chuck only needed to read a little further to see that an eon is but a blink in God’s eye? What if the possibility had been raised to him that God’s story is always open to being made new as God continues to reveal himself and his ways to us in a perpetual state of discover and rediscovery? What if his contemporaries in the Church had simply had the courage to listen, learn, and translate the meaning of the scriptures into the language of biology?

But of course they didn’t. They were too worried Darwin would expose questions they couldn’t answer or corruptions in our dogmatic systems; and in turn, lay bare the frailty of their belief. So they made for war, because they couldn’t imagine peace, and this sham conflict has waged on for over a hundred years. So that, today, we’ve inherited a legacy of Christian defensiveness, feeling ourselves always on trial out in the world, kind of ashamed of our faith and savior in public because we never dared to learn our own stories well enough to be able to explain them to others. And in turn, the breath of the Holy Spirit has all but left us, as we huddle in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings, as refuges from a world that’s passed us by.

And it’s gotten so bad, brothers and sisters, that the world imagines us to be kind of a zombie club: it’s dead but we’re the only one who haven’t figured this out yet. Thus, we just keep going to through motions that used to mean something, though our consciousness and conscience have long since dried up. More quickly now, once vibrant churches are turning to mausoleums and relics for the past, because we caught hold of one last good time, and we’ve been trying frantically to circle back to it ever since. Remember when Christianity used to do world-changing things, like create hospitals for the poor, and spark educational movements, by founding cutting edge colleges and universities? Remember the fiery inspiration of those old-time revivals that used to gather crowds by the thousands? Remember when church was the center of the community and the venue where morals were formed and kingdoms and industries alike were halted and reformed? Have we forgotten how the Church was the engine driving the Civil Rights movement, and serving as the resident visionaries for how the Kingdom of God was coming alive in our very midst? But now look at us: what happened? Where are our innovations and bellies swelling with new creations? Where are our prophets sharing God’s word of justice for the nations, or our leaders drumming up momentum for the next Holy-Spirit movement? Where are our shepherds gathering the worlds’ flocks together, or teachers breathing renewed wisdom? Where are our healers mending old wounds, or our artists painting portraits of new possibilities? Where are our great compassionate hearts making room for the least, and the lost under the reign of God’s abundance? What happened to our people of great love and faith?

I’ll tell you what’s happened: they’ve become immobilized by fear and indifference. They’ve settled. Somewhere along the line, the people God has called decided ‘hey, this seems like a good spot, let’s stop and build houses and a church building, and try to preserve it like this forever.’ The Church never moved on from trying to comfort people after the global terror of World War II, and degraded themselves to an institution of smoothing things over and trying to put out all the fires and maintaining the status quo. To put it bluntly, our guts dried up. Our balls fell off, and wombs closed up. We lost our inspiration because the Holy Spirit was moving forward, calling us into the future, and we took up the roll of becoming prophets from the past. Through disengagement and passive irresponsibility, we let our guiding mantras become: ‘is that really Christian? Uh, excuse me, was that in the Bible? Hey now, that’s not how we’ve always done things before. Hmmm –I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that…’

To talk about the evolution of our faith and the church today is taboo because we’ve used tradition as an excuse to ignore our active and immediate calling. The secret we’re trying to keep from ourselves is that we’ve made an idol of our sentimentality and God’s accomplishments in the past; and in turn, we keep trying to serve, and protect, and chase after what’s happened before… instead of letting the Holy Spirit move Christ’s body into the future. And in that simple, passive move, we’ve stopped being Christ’s body and made ourselves into a lifeless, self-consuming corpse. We know this by our fruit: rather than producing the fragrant blossoms of redemption and renewal, we’re reaping a harvest of criticism and complaint, by the bushel –both from within, and without. Somehow the world’s going to hell is always someone else’s fault, and so few people are willing to stake their lives on God’s kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, what’s needed to breathe life back into the church is an acceptance of courage, which is the barometer of faith. And this is a gift God is ready and waiting to empower us with. We don’t need to be afraid of the criticisms or judgments of the world, or even the people of the church, for only the verdict of our Lord Jesus Christ matters. It’s by his example that we’ll be measured. And his life did not waver or hesitate even against death. We need to have courage to let new things happen, and to follow the Holy Spirit into new territories. And we need to do the hard work of learning new languages, so that we can translate the good news of God-with-us into a new era, and a new context. And that demands that we leave the past behind us. That doesn’t mean we forget it, or that it doesn’t have lessons to teach us –it only means it’s no place for us to live anymore. God our creator is doing a new thing. The signs are already in the ground, and in the wind, pointing the way. We need only to stand. And turn around.