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Message for May 3, 2009

Scripture reading: John 10: 11 – 18

      After worship last week, George Brannon handed me a clipping of a column that was printed in the Chronicle’s headline is “Vitamin G for Wellness: Add faith to your diet.” ..... (read the column)
There is definitely some truth in that article...but is “wellness” the only reason for participating in a faith community? In his book, “Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief,” Huston Smith champions a society in which religion is once again treasured and authentically practiced as the vital source of human wisdom. 
Today there are many books that hurl caustic criticism at religion – particularly the Christian religion.  In a recent interview, Christopher Hitchens, author of “God is Not Great” said, “The position I take is, that all religion is equally stupid and an expression of contempt for reason and an exaltation of the idea of faith, of believing things without evidence.”
Huston Smith takes exception to the secularists such as Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who base their lives and beliefs on reason and scientific method.  He reserves his harshest condemnation, however, for the basis of much of our current culture, which has stemmed from the misreading of science—the mistake of assuming that "absence of evidence" of a scientific nature is "evidence of absence." These mistakes have all but banished faith in transcendence and the Divine from mainstream culture and pushed it to the margins,” he writes.
    Today we are in that space and time which can be compared to the bottom of an arc traced by a pendulum.  Religious thought and practice of faith seem to be at a stand-off between people who are atheists and people who are committed to a faith - glaring at one another over a chasm of misunderstanding and dismissal.
    At the top of the arc on either side are the fundamentalists: religious on one side, and anti-religious on the other.  Make no mistake, atheism is also a belief – and those who are the most strident and militant are also fundamentalists as are fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.   I would suggest that the space in between is where we will all find room to honour and understand each other.
    I believe strongly, however, that a belief in something greater than ourselves is, in fact, a major need for healthy and meaningful life.  For those of us who are Christians, the “something greater” is God: Holy One, Love, Spirit Eternal, Creator, Father, ...however you need to name God in order to be on a path that is in sacred relationship with God.  Other religions have other paths.  But ours, as followers of Christ, is to establish in our lives, somehow, a kinship, a relationship, a knowledge of the Sacred  through the knowledge we have received in our Sacred writings: scripture; and through the actions of Jesus in those writings and the closeness we feel through the actions of the Risen Christ in our own lives that we experience from day to day. 
    And so, we now look at our gospel reading for today: Jesus the Good Shepherd, who puts the sheep ahead of himself, sacrifices himself, if necessary for the lives of his sheep, as the scriptures say.  It’s somewhat odd that the scripture writer used this image of Jesus as shepherd, because, in the society of Jesus’ time, Shepherds were not exactly revered people.  They were seen as uneducated, dirty, and a little weird...because they liked being out on the hills alone with their sheep.  But the image of sacrificing ones self for others – THAT is the image the writer needs to put forth...and he does so by using the imagery that Jesus often used...from nature...from the lived experience of his audience.
    Nowadays, shepherds are rare – at least in North America.  Particularly in Canada.  But we know intimately the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from Palm Sunday.  We know that Jesus stood alone against those who were trying to deny life to his followers and to Jesus himself.  We know that his foes ultimately did kill Jesus leaving his flock of followers vulnerable and afraid.  So we can ponder the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection through this powerful image of the caring shepherd sacrificing himself for his flock.  And so, the powerful image of the Risen Christ as shepherd carries meaning to us as well.  We can imagine his leadership, we can imagine his voice calling us forth onto the paths where we will find abundance to sustain us.  We can imagine him seeking us when we are lost and returning us to safety.  It is rich, evocative, and helpful imagining whether we are hungry for meaning, or lost in a crowd that is wandering aimlessly, or simply needing to hear the voice of caring and concern in our lives.
    Huston Smith tells us that human beings possess a “religious sense” – that this sense is what makes us human.  Signs of this sense include the way we instinctively ask the ultimate questions: What is the meaning of existence?  Why are there pain and death? Why, in the end, is life worth living?  At the very end of his book, Huston Smith tells a story about his own struggles to write about what he calls the “religious sense”...
    “ mind goes back to a night when I felt it working in me with exceptional force. My wife and I were spending a week in the dead of winter in Death Valley, California, and on the full-moon night that we were there I awoke to a call that seemed to come from the night itself, a call so compelling that it was almost audible.  Hurrying into some clothes, I answered it.  Stepping out of doors, I found that not a breath of air was stirring. The sky held no clouds to conceal the panoply of stars ascending from the circling horizon. It was one of those totally magical nights and moments.  For half an hour or so I walked the road without a thought in my heard. It may have been as close as I have ever come to the empty mind that Buddhists work toward for years.  There my powers of description shut down...but sometime later I can upon a poem by Giacomo Leopardi that gives words to that night.  It is a poem about a nomadic shepherd in Asia – he is posing questions to a moon that seems to dominate the heavens: questions whose horizons are themselves infinite:

    And when I gaze upon you,
    Who mutely stand above the desert plains
    Which heaven with its far circle but confines,
    Or often, when I see you [moon]
    Following step by step my flock and me,
    Or watch the stars that shine there in the sky,
    Musing, I say within me:
    “Wherefore those many lights,
    That boundless atmosphere,
    And infinite calm sky?”  And what the meaning
    Of this vast solitude?  And, what am I?

    Fundamentalist atheists rage against this quest for meaning beyond what can be explained by science.  The meaning of existence?  There is no meaning just existence.
Why is there pain and death?  Science explains the body and its reaction to injury and disease.  Death comes as a natural result of injury, disease or old age.  There is no “why” – pain and death are just there.  Why is life worth living?  Life offers us a short time of community, learning, and striving for a good life, but life itself does not have meaning other than to be alive, to procreate, and to die...fundamental basics with no frills added.

    To me, imagery, imagination, beauty, the artistry of creation, all work together to provide our lives with meaning.  Our struggles provide meaning.  Our loves provide meaning. Our faith and the relationships it builds provide meaning.  Poetry and story tell us about meaning.  Our minds crave meaning – minds that cannot be explained by science – and our religious sense helps us fulfill our needs for the quest – the answers will likely never be found in our lifetimes – but the search itself is sustenance for our souls.  We hear the call -  and we respond to it. 

Let us pray:
Loving Shepherd, hold us close and care for us each day. Lead us, guide us, challenge us, that we might form a more faithful community that journeys in your way.  Amen.