Posts Tagged ‘community’

On Beyond Zebra

Monday, May 30th, 2011

A Sermon for May 29, 1011
Scripture: John 14:7-21

A long time ago, when I was still a volunteer Director of Christian Education, I took training in an unusual form of adult Christian education called Lifetext. Its core belief was that “the student is the curriculum” and a growth in faith could come about simply by the leader asking simple questions that spiraled down deep, until a person’s thoughts and feelings surfaced.

Since “the student was the curriculum,” the trainer claimed that a Dr. Seuss book would work for a study text just about as well as the Bible! He proceeded to show us by teaching a class using The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental book. Surprisingly, it was a meaningful, faith-filled session!

Don’t you love Dr. Seuss? I read his books as a child and then read them to my own boys. The best things about Dr. Seuss books are his rhythmic use of language and his wonderful made up words, like “Grickle-grass” and “Truffula trees.”

The Seuss book that is apropos to today’s gospel passage is On Beyond Zebra. (Leonard Sweet was the first to link this book with this text) Conrad Cornelius O’Donald O’Dell, who is learning his alphabet, tells his friend, “So now I know everything anyone knows. From beginning to end. From the start to the close. Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”

But no! Conrad’s friend never “stops with Z:”
“So, on beyond Z! It’s high time you were shown
That you really don’t know all there is to be known.”

He takes him on a guided tour of all the weird creatures that begin with the letters on beyond Z, such as Yuzz, Wumbus, and Glikk.  Here’s one I especially like: “And Nuh is the letter I use to spell Nutches, Who live in small caves, known as Nitches, for hutches.”

Although this book was written in 1955, it’s very relevant to today’s crazy pace:
“And way, way past Z is a letter called ITCH
And the ITCH is for Itch-a-pods, animals which
Race around back and forth, forth and back, through the air
On a very high sidewalk between HERE and THERE.”

The message is pretty simple, but profound: the traditional alphabet pins down boring old “reality,” but if you explore further afield there are more interesting worlds to discover, new words and beings limited only by the imagination.

You might say that Jesus was an “on beyond zebra” person. He gave his disciples new words to learn and even new identities. In an ancient culture where slavery was the norm, Jesus considered his disciples friends and not servants, devotees or even rabbinical students!

Instead of buying into Roman addictions to wealth, power and knowing the right person, Jesus favored the poor and the marginalized; and the sick and the differently-abled.

Roman faith was held in a large number of gods and goddesses who possessed human frailties, and who were angered if just the right rituals were not performed. Devotees often had to pay to be initiated, and buy special clothes. But Jesus said to his disciples, “You know what I know.” There is no need for arcane knowledge or secret rituals, or as Jesus said in today’s reading, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.”

Romans also worshiped the Emperor, but Jesus referred to God as his Father-Mother. In fact, early Christians were persecuted, not because they believed in Jesus or the God of Israel, but because they were considered atheists because they would not worship the Emperor.

Christianity is an “on beyond zebra” kind of faith. For instance, in Thessalonika, according to the Book of Acts, an angry mob tried to capture the Apostles Paul and Silas, calling them the people who had “turned the world upside down!” (Acts 17:6.)

Jesus lived, and taught, and died for, a religion of loving kindness which was unique in the ancient world. Unlike members of pagan Roman religious societies, who collected money for their own feasts, Christians contributed to a common fund for the support of widows and orphans. They also brought food and medicines when they visited prisoners in the mines or in jail. Tertullian, an African Christian apologist of the second century, wrote, “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, 2003, pp. 7-10)

“Love one another, as I have loved you. Abide in my love.” Love, not fear is the center of Christianity; love is our deepest, most fundamental core value. It is the measuring stick of all Christian behavior.

Christian love is not just an emotion—a welling up of affection like we often experience when thinking of our families or close friends. The love we share for each other in Christian community is different. Frederick Buechner reminds us that rather than merely a warm feeling, the love we share in community is an act of will; it is intentional. Sometimes we have to deliberately form that intention of the heart every day, or we can lose it. Love in community must be practiced and kept limber and flexible by the kindness with which we speak and act towards each other; otherwise it can be stretched too thin, become brittle, and even break. That is how we abide in his love like Jesus asked us to. And that intentional, practiced love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Love begins with God…circulating from Father-Mother to Child to Holy Spirit and back again. Never-ending. Love so abundant, so full, so abiding that it spills over into the world, in a creative flood that generates new life. Love so complete, that God would enter human life, to live and die as one of us, to show us how to be fully human and fully divine.

Love so deep, that we can rest in it, and let it permeate our very cells; love so strengthening, so challenging, that we are propelled out into the world with courage and grace to share that love with one another.

Christian love, particularly sacrificial love, is very on-beyond zebra in this splintered modern world of violence and divisiveness, just as it was in the Roman world.

The United Church of Christ is very “on beyond zebra”—we were the very first to ordain women, African Americans, and GLBTQ folks. Sojourners was created and named to be an on beyond zebra church in the city of Charlottesville, which is untraditional in some ways and hidebound in others. All people, no matter who they are and where they are on life’s journey, are welcome at Sojourners United Church of Christ. May all who come here, and all who interact with you and those who just hear about you say, “’Only look—see how they love one another.’ See how they love and care for the world like Jesus taught. See how they abide in God’s love.” Amen.