Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Scripture of an Ever Changing Revelation — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on April 10th, 2011


I was fifteen years old when I encountered

a set of verses from the Bible

that caused me to leave the Southern Baptist Tradition.


Ok, that’s a bit of an overstatement.

It might be more accurate to say that at fifteen,

my encounter with this one set of Bible verses

changed the lens with which I viewed my religious faith.


A year after this shift of my lens I asked my parents

not to make me go to church anymore,

and a year later they relented and began to allow me

to stay home or go to work on Sunday morning.

It is complicated by the fact that my childhood pastor left,

and my parents found a new church…

but in my mind my shift from a Southern Baptist

to a Unitarian Universalist began with the day

Pastor John read Matthew chapter six

from the pulpit of my childhood church.


Matthew 6 is a part of what is known

as the “Sermon on the Mount”.

Most of us know the part about

“Blessed are the poor” and the like…

but this is from the part where Jesus is telling the people

how to practice religion without being a hypocrite.

He tells the people gathered to hear him

that they should not “practice their piety before others

in order to be seen by them”.

He tells those gathered to hear him that

they should not draw attention to themselves

when giving alms to the poor or to the church.

He tells them not to pray in public or in the synagogues,

but to rather pray in secret, shut away in your room

where no one will see you.


The point is that a pious person

does not seek worldly gain from their piety…

You should seek the relationship with God for its own rewards,

not for public praise or adoration.


I don’t know if my mouth fell open in church that morning,

or if I looked around like a little lost sheep, or what.

I know that was my internal reality…


Why?  Because praying in public,

practicing your piety before others,

giving tithes and alms in order to be seen

to be a good and righteous person…

that’s what I thought church was!

That’s why I thought we went to church,

to show what pious, good, god-fearing people we were.

It certainly seemed that was why

most of the members were there.

And oh look, Pastor John was going to close

with a public prayer…

after reading Jesus tell us not to engage in public prayer,

and we were all going to compete

for who could say Amen first and the loudest.


I thought about the bracelet I had on that read WWJD…

what would Jesus Do?

He’d probably have told us all off is what he would have done.

“Woe be it unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites”

Did seem to be one of his favorite phrases afterall…


It was that Sunday morning that not only began

my transformation from Southern Baptist to Unitarian Universalist,

but also began in me a transformation

in the meaning and purpose of what we humans call scripture…

a transformation that has hopelessly complicated the matter…

thank goodness!


At this time last year I was

a Clinical Pastoral Education Chaplain Resident,

at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital

and Rainbow Hospice in Park Ridge, IL.

Clinical Pastoral Education has been around a long time,

almost 86 years.


It is a program of practical education in clinical ministry,

which draws ministers and lay-members of many denominations

and faiths to participate in providing pastoral care

in hospitals and in nursing homes, in prisons

and in other institutional settings.

Students visit with and listen

to the stories of patients and families,

and then come together to share and explore

the experience of providing ministry…

to explore their feelings and their reactions

based in the stories of their own lives.


A mantra of Clinical Pastoral Education,

one I heard on the first day of my first CPE unit

at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in 2006,

is the phrase “the scripture of the living human document”.


The idea is that students should approach, engage,

and explore the stories and experiences

of those we care for as if they were holy scripture.

CPE Students are called to provide ministry

to people of all faith traditions,

of many different cultures and classes.


CPE trained chaplains are called

to be present with patients and families

in some of the worst and most painful moments of their lives.

And, we are called to bring those experiences back together,

to share and explore with one another,

to seek in them the meanings they held for our patients,

and more importantly, the meanings those experiences,

our reactions to their stories,

and our own life experiences hold for ourselves.


What is a good educational tool for Clinical Pastoral Education,

I would like to hold up as methodological commonality

among us of liberal faith…

that whether we use this language or not,

we treat the experiences of our lives that have most shaped us,

that have molded us into who we are,

and that challenge us to become who we want to be…

we treat these experiences as if they are holy scripture.

Each of us is a “living human document”

upon which is written the text of

an ever changing, ever growing revelation.


As a hospice chaplain, one of my regular tools

was what we call “Legacy Life Review”.

It is a process where, through conversation,

we engage hospice patients and their families

in telling the story of their lives.

By asking guiding questions, they not only tell the story,

but together we seek the meanings

that the person has found through living their life.

We seek how they have passed these lessons on to others.

We look at how the world has changed

because of their presence in it.

We engage family in the telling of this story,

so that they can claim what they have inherited

from their loved-one who is dying…

not in money but in wisdom and character.


As I have listened to these stories,

it has struck me how sacred the experience is for these families.

It has struck me how profound it is

for the person who is dying to claim their wisdom.

Listening, I have become convinced that I am in the presence

of the holy, as much as I have ever been

reciting Buddhist Sutras or reading aloud from the Bible.


Perhaps moreso.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book “The Preaching Life”,

describes the Bible as an Encyclopedia

of human life in relationship to God.

What is amazing to me about that characterization of the Bible

is that it is not God that is at the center of its meaning,

but the very human experiences of people, real people,

who walked on two legs upon this earth like you and I.

People who loved and lost, people to had joys and sorrows,

people who fought and died.

Seen through this lens, the Bible contains the legacy

of human experience, struggling with issues of war and peace,

with morality and community, with faith, hope, and love.

It is human life seen through the lens of the existence

of both good and evil.

It is human life seen through the lens of the idea

that there is something beyond humanity.


At the center of the Bible though, is not God…

but human life.  Human experience.


I have a Buddhist Sutra that I love,

one I’ve preached about before from this pulpit.

This sutra is holy for me.

It is the story of the Buddha

confronting a terrorist and a serial killer.

Through an offer of friendship,

and through a willingness to risk,

the Buddha helped this fearsome terrorist and killer

re-connect with his own humanity, and find peace.


He then helped this killer, Anguilimala,

find forgiveness from the communities he had harmed,

and helped those communities find peace.


What makes it holy scripture for me is not that it is ancient…

it is not that it is revered by thousands of other people.

What makes it holy scripture for me is that

it connects with my own experience in this life.

There was a time that I felt that I had done horrible things

(though nothing like Anguilimala).

I felt that I could never be forgiven.

I felt disconnected from my own humanity.

In this amazing story from a Buddhist sutra,

I see the scripture of my own human experience reflected,

and I have gained a deeper understanding

of myself and of life through its lens.


I want to thank Kim for joining me this morning

in our scene from Shakespeare’s play, the Merchant of Venice.

There is much of Shakespeare

that seems like scripture to me.

My wife Sandy gets upset at me

when I go on a “Henry V” kick,

and watch all of the recorded versions of it that I have

straight through in one night.

She has the patience of a saint, to put up with me.


Like the bible, what I think makes Shakespeare

so relevant to our human lives, even through the centuries,

is that it captures so much of the experience of being human,

and reflects it back to us so that we can better see

our own lives, our own experiences,

and the meanings we have made of them.

Like Jessica and Lorenzo in Shakespeare’s play,

who among us has not flirted with someone…

I know I used to try to wax poetic and deep

to impress a young lady…

although my teenage poetry was

not nearly as wonderful as Lorenzo’s!


I believe these are two kinds of scripture that I have identified

that I, as a religious liberal can accept,

and that I believe comprises the active understanding of scripture

for our liberal religious faith.

First, the experiences of my own life that have shaped me,

that have made me who I am today

and have challenged me to become who I want to be.

Second, the experiences of others,

be they alive now and told to me in person,

or encountered through recordings and texts

both modern and ancient,

that provide a deeper understanding

of the experiences of my own life.


The guidance for how to live a pious life

found in Matthew, Chapter 6 are holy scripture for me,

not because Jesus said it

(which we could never prove, even if it mattered)

but because encountering that guidance sparked a moment

in which my understanding of what the purpose and place

of religious community meant to me.

The experience of that moment,

of sitting in the pew aghast at the realization

that Jesus would have stood up and yelled at all of us,

the experience of that realization is, for me,

a moment of holy scripture,

written upon the living document of my human life.


The second kind of scripture is the wisdom of someone else’s life,

encapsulated in writing or in some other medium,

such as art or dance,

which connects me in to my own experiences

in new and different ways.

My encounter with the recordings

of the Buddha’s encounter with a serial killer

shifted my focus on some of the important events of my life.


This could be the sacred writings of a religious tradition,

such as the Anguilimala Sutra or Matthew 6,

or the many stories of the antics of Mullah Nasruddin,

but it does not have to be.

I believe it is that moment of connection

between our own experience

and the experience of another that contains the holy.

When that connection is present in a way

that transforms our understanding,

it is then when we are encountering the experience of another

that can become scripture for us.


I cannot define what this will be for you,

just as you can not define what such scripture will be for me.

The “holy books” of a person of Liberal Faith

depend upon the individual experiences of our lives,

and how and why we encounter the lives

and recorded experiences of others.

We Unitarian Universalists sometimes say that

“The canon is never sealed”, or “Revelation is continuous”

and our United Church of Christ cousins say

“Don’t put a period where God put a comma”.


We of liberal faith spend our lives developing

these two testaments of scripture…

the experiences of our own lives that have shaped us,

and the experiences of others

that have moved and connected us.


Perhaps you could frame these as “Our Own Testament”

and “Another’s Testament”.


There is a danger in this understanding of scripture,

and that is the temptation to engage in interpretation alone…

to develop meanings that are tested against nothing

but our own preconceptions and prejudices.

The answer to this danger is, I believe,

liberal religious community.


In my ordination sermon a year ago,

Rev. Cynthia Kane, our denomination’s only Chaplain

serving in the Coast Guard,

made fun of me for choosing scripture readings

from a bunch of dead men, Paul, Jesus, Peter…

but then she gave me some credit

in that I asked a living, breathing woman

to interpret the writings of those dead men for me.

The interpretations she came to were not ones

that would have occurred to me… and that was the point.


Alone, our attempts to find the meanings from our experiences

and from the experiences of others

remains subject to our own subjectivity,

remains limited by our own limitedness.

The same connection with those experiences

that give their meaning and power

make it difficult for us to see their meanings for us clearly.


The same is true if we only share our stories, our experiences,

our feelings, among those who already agree with us

a phenomenon in politics called an “Echo-Chamber”

demonstrated clearly in much of our media and news.


We come into community to share our stories,

our experiences, our scriptures,

not only so that others can learn from us,

but so that our experiences can be seen through the lenses,

preconceptions, and prejudices of lives other than our own.

We share our stories, our experiences in religious community

so that we can encounter them anew.

We share our experiences in religious community

so that the meanings we have constructed for ourselves

can be tested and challenged by those who care for us,

who support us, and who want us to be

the fullest and most authentic human beings

we have the capacity to be.

We come together in such communal dialogue

not only when we agree,

but far more importantly when we disagree.


I find it interesting that the phenomenon of reading the bible

alone and silently is a new phenomenon only of the last

couple of hundred years in the Christian Tradition.

For almost 1800 years the Bible was read aloud,

in community, and the meanings that were derived from it

were shared and tested in religious community.

In every Buddhist community I have encountered

the Sutra’s are still read primarily aloud and in community.


In Synagogues and in Mosques around the world

the scriptures are read aloud,

and in the company of religious companions.


I also find it curious that over the history of the Christian tradition,

many congregations have come to have

less and less diversity among them

about the meanings those scriptures might hold,

allowing for even less useful challenge, conflict,

and dialogue about those meanings.


This is why we bring our stories together, to one another.

This is why we participate in covenant groups,

why we share what is happening in our lives

during a time of check in before many of our meetings,

and why we tell stories to one another at coffee hour.

This is why engaging in dialogue with one another

when we disagree is so vital to who we are as a religious tradition.

This is why our sermons are almost always based in human story,

in the events of our lives

and the meanings we have made from them…

because it is in community that we create and test our meanings,

where we explore new meanings,

and where we learn which meanings serve us,

and which ones harm us.


The meanings of the scripture of our lives changes

not only every time we encounter

and re-encounter those experiences,

but each time we share them among those who walk

this path of liberal faith with us.

In sharing our stories together,

we create in each of us an ever-changing revelation.


Together, a covenanted liberal religious community

engages in a practice of meaning making.

Together, we share this sacred responsibility toward one another.  Together, we explore the living scriptures

that make up our lives…


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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