I posted this on the “Sermons, etc.” page, but have received a gratifying number of “Where do I comment?” queries. Comments are the most fun aspect of blogging, and although there is a comments form at the bottom of that page, it’s cumbersome. So here is a re-post.
“How Gods Are Created”
Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
With our centering words each week, we draw on one of the sources of our living tradition. Today’s words come from a late member of this congregation, John Beverley Butcher, a Unitarian Universalist, writer, activist, and Episcopal priest:
Whatever absorbs most of our mental energies reveals our greatest concerns and values. What do we think about most? Is this really our greatest treasure? Might there be something more valuable on which to focus our thinking? (Telling the Untold Stories, 41)
Story The Story of Easter (link coming soon) Dan Harper
Our first reading is from How Jesus Became God, by the historian of religion Bart D. Ehrman:
Jesus was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state. Yet not long after his death, his followers were claiming that he was a divine being. Eventually they went further, declaring that he was none other than God, Lord of heaven and earth. And so the question: how did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God? (1)
Our second reading is from the novel Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett:
Where do gods come from? Where do they go? . . . . Koomi’s theory was that gods come into being and grow and flourish because they are believed in. Belief itself is the food of the gods. Initially, when mankind lived in small primitive tribes, there were probably millions of gods. Now there tended to be only a few very important ones . . . But any god could join. Any god could start small. Any god could grow in stature as its believers increased. And dwindle as they decreased. (104-5) [Gods] also needed a shape. [They] became what people believed they ought to be. You gave a god its shape, like jelly fills a mold.(223)
Sermon How Gods Are Created
So Bart Ehrman has just published this book, How Jesus Became God, because he wants to know how, and why, a peasant teacher from Galilee—the cultural equivalent is “from Kentucky”—began to be regarded as God Himself.
Ehrman irritates religious conservatives so much that even before his book was published, they had prepared their rebuttal, How God Became Jesus. But his project isn’t new. Not 20 years ago, Richard Rubinstein wrote When Jesus Became God (my emphasis), which is particularly fascinating for Unitarian Universalists because it’s all about the Arian heresy, the belief of Arius and his followers in the early centuries after Jesus’s death that Jesus was just a man and a follower of the Jewish God, not God Himself. We Unitarians have believed that ever since.
Well, I think the project of these two scholars, and others like Paula Fredriksen, who wrote From Jesus to Christ, is very interesting, but none of them can quite answer the question. See, I think they’ve missed something because they don’t believe Jesus is God.
But Jesus is God.
Jesus is God!
Before you decide you must have come to a different church than you meant to, I’ll prove it to you.
Because of Jesus, people are willing to die. They go off to war and kill other people. They devote their entire lives to the service of the very poorest, without any hope of compensation. They take on impossible tasks of overthrowing oppression. People do terrible things to each other in Jesus’s name, and amazing, noble things. Anyone or anything that has that kind of power in people’s lives has become a god. Jesus isn’t the only one, but he is one.
And it’s very simple, how he got to be a god. You don’t have to write a whole long scholarly book about it. Terry Pratchett explains it perfectly in his wonderful satirical novel: the way someone becomes a god is that people believe he is (or she is, or it is). Gods grow in power as we believe in them and allow them to shape our lives. Their own shape is whatever form we need them to take: like jello in a mold, as Pratchett says (except he says “jelly,” because he’s British). And then this form affects us in turn.
It’s a very old idea, this idea that people create gods and that gods get their power from having people who believe in them. Heretics like Unitarians and Universalists have said it for centuries. Modern novelists like Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman in his marvelous book American Gods, ran with it and looked at what that would actually mean for the people, how it would affect our lives. How the gods we create, and give form and power, shape us in turn.
Now, this god people call Jesus might not be much like the man Jesus. The peasant, radical rabbi and teacher, who overturned the authority of the religious leadership and political leadership, who challenged the wealthy and powerful, who taught love—if that’s what the actual man was like who lived briefly in what we now call Palestine and Israel two thousand years ago, he’s been changed. We change whatever we believe in and give power to with the food of our belief. We see it through the eyes of our own needs, or what we think we need.
So my question for you on this Easter morning is: What gods do you create? This is how to spot them: look for what rules you.
It’s a tender and difficult question, so I’ll go first. I would like to be ruled by love; a passion for justice; the search for truth; harmony with the earth and all that is . . . I want those to be my gods. But I have other gods too. Why else would I feel too busy to play with my daughter because I need to spend just one more hour on a report for work that I’ve already pretty much written? I think I worship a god of Perfection—and I have made it so powerful, it rules me. It overrules some of the gods I wish I worshiped instead.
That’s one of mine. What are some of yours?
Maybe Influence—the desire to have power, oh, power for good, to do good things, sure, but still, a drive for power, to make things go the way you think they should.
For many people, Alcohol and other Drugs are gods—or maybe the real god is something that the drug gives them, a temporary feeling of Well-being or Confidence or Peace.
I look around my culture and see a fervent worship of the god Financial Security. That god started small, I think. It’s easy to get people to worship you when their situation is so insecure that if anything goes wrong this month, they will be evicted from their homes and living on the street. They are bound to pay you a lot of attention, Security, when they are constantly having to choose between taking their children to the doctor or providing them with enough meals for the day. But this god has become so powerful, feeding on our belief, that even those of us who have a virtual lifetime guarantee of plenty to eat, a college education, the health care we need, and a safe place to live, plus luxuries like the choice of exactly what town to live in and a new car now and then, worry constantly that we don’t have enough.
There are gods of Knowledge, Success, Busyness, Popularity, Distraction, Expertise . . . oh, they’re all over the place. When we give them power and form, they shape our lives in turn.
If you want to know what gods you worship, which ones you give power by your belief in them, watch the pattern of your days for what you give your time, your attention, your concern. Those are your gods.
These gods we worship can serve us and the spirit of life well, or they can be destructive. Look at Jesus. Jesus had power in the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, causing him to lay down his life for the poor of El Salvador and around the world, and Jesus also had power in the life of Fred Phelps, causing him to devote his life to trying to make people miserable on account of their being gay.
So it is for all of our gods. Alcohol may be a god for one person, a pleasant drink for another, a nasty taste for a third. Money may be a simple means to useful ends for one person and, for another, an all-powerful god who is tyrannical and ever-demanding. It’s not the thing itself, but the worship of it that makes it a god: the shaping our lives around it, the fervent belief that it can give us what we long for.
In honor of the man Jesus, who became a god without asking to or wanting to, but who tried to teach people to love each other and love the source of life, may we celebrate Easter in this way: by trying to become aware of what gods we worship. May we give the power of our belief only to those things that we truly wish to rule us, because when we believe in them, they will have power over us. May we make gods only of the things that are worthy of the sacrifices of our time, our abilities, our attention, and our love. May we choose to revere only what is truly holy and receive its blessings with joy.
So may it be.
(c) 2014 Amy Zucker Morgenstern