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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Purim for Unitarians?


At Westgate Chapel in Lewes we have been looking at the Gospels in the light of the Jewish year. Bishop John Shelby Spong has recently published another of his books this one entitled “Re-Claiming the Bible for the non religious world.” It seems quite a good title for Unitarians to consider!   Here one of his claims is that probably the Gospels were liturgy to reflect the Jewish year and fit Jesus into those seasonal celebrations, hence his year of ministry is linked to the Jewish year. Much of our heritage comes from the Judo Christian background, so I have been trying to see what still applies to us in a post enlightenment context by looking at concepts of Jewish celebrations.

The Gospels are all a bit different and one in particular is written in a way that is so different it has been seen separately from the others. Johns Gospel. The other three Gospels are no doubt earlier and they reflect the time when “followers of the way” were a sect of Judaism. They then became a separate faith and later became known as Christians. It is to the post Judaist “followers of the way” that Johns Gospel is addressed but also tries to show the continuation of the Jewish year in the light of the life of Jesus.
It is then not surprising to find then that John makes an event happen at the time of Purim that the other gospels don’t. John also has another lesser feast event included in his gospel that of Hanukah again missed in the other Gospels.
In his book Bishop John Shelby Spong makes this statement. “Religion always evolves by transcending the limits of the past and giving birth to a new consciousness.”

This is exactly what we have occurring in Johns Gospel in his message about the life of Jesus.  The reason for our brief reading from John Chapter 5 is this is John placing Jesus at Purim and fulfilling the transcendent message of Purim. None were poorer than the lame that sat around the pool we hear of; the gift to the poor in this picture is that of health given back. The only feast day to fall on a Sabbath between AD 25 and AD 35 was Purim of AD 28 (Faulstich 1986).
It is also about the providence of Jesus happening to pass that way, again showing that gods’ providence works though Jesus. But not only Jesus but also those who follow in his way, as his early followers and all those who have been moved by his life story. In many ways John is also transcending the Sermon on the Mount message, of Mathews Gospel.
Perhaps the hidden message of these gospels is like Purim seeing things in retrospect as part of what the Jews believe was Gods plan.

I seem to hear a lot about Unitarianism being a religion and in many ways this is true as we have transcended past Christian and Jewish ways and you could say have given birth to a new consciousness. But looking to our root religious past can still give us a fresh perspective on key things not to lose. Seeing how perhaps the Jews celebrate things in today’s world can help us to find meaning ourselves. I was quite taken with the Jewish custom of writing the name of Haman (the bad guy in the Esther story) on the soles of your shoes and then stamping to show his annihilation as the bad person. I was severely tempted to write the name David Cameron on my own shoe soles today. Personally I am not a fan of his recent legislation and changes to welfare and the disabled.  Purim is about giving to the poor and that is something David Cameron it seems is determined not to do.  I apologize to anyone who is a fan here, but my politics are integral to my belief in giving to the poor not robbing them of alms. If it was good enough for Jesus to give the gift of health to the poor man at the poolside its good enough for me to do my bit too.  I expect my government to do this not allow bankers huge bonuses and pay 100 million to a medical company to stop disability benefits. Perhaps we should all write his name on our shoe soles and stamp our feet? Well it’s just a suggestion…

Religion always evolves by transcending the limits of the past and giving birth to a new consciousness.”  If Unitarianism is an evolved religion then we need to evolve and find further ways to give to the poor. Is just one message to find from looking at Purim. 

The second one is that of Providence behind events, celebrated by Jews in wearing a mask to symbolize the hidden workings of God. Well we may say Johns gospel s a bit like that too. But can we use this concept ourselves?
I grew up in a Strict Baptist family and the name of many a Strict Baptist Chapel is that of Providence Chapel. Such a concept fits firmly within the Calvinist theology schools that believe in a god that intervenes. I am not all that sure I a supporter of such a school of thinking these days when I have moved theologically into at times an almost atheist school of thinking. Equally I have long felt it was so unfair that one set of people should win over another set of people as depicted if we take literally the accounts of the Old Testament such as the book of Esther upon which the festival of Purim is based. If there is a God how does it work that one nation was or is more favored than another.

But leaving the theology aside I expect you like I have had times when things coincide in such a way that you wonder if there is more to providence or fate than meets the eye? As we heard in our Purim story sometimes it can seem our needs are answered in ways that seem beyond rational thinking. Reason some times takes away the joy of the things that happen in life. Many years ago now we set off on holiday late one Friday evening from my then home in Kent. We had a caravan and late night traffic was less problematic than in the daytime. We had a red Datsun estate just back from its service at the main dealers and 2 years old. Driving along the M20, M25 and the M4 we made our way west, destination Cornwall and a much beloved holiday spot at Trebarwith Strand. When we were approaching the Bridgewater junction I noticed the temperature gauge go high, so pulled off and stopping at the roundabout off the motorway, the car burst into flames under the bonnet. Getting out quick I grabbed the fire extinguisher, put out the fire successfully and then opened the bonnet. By this time it is 2am. To cut a long story short we ended up in a lay by sleeping in the caravan and next morning unhitched the car and discovered it had a cracked piston, pulling the caravan this had pumped the oil into the air filter and when we stopped this had run out the air filter onto the hot exhaust outlet and caught fire.
Anyway looking at the map the nearest caravan site was at Watchet, we ended up there and the car went in for major repairs and we hired one from the garage to get about in. It was an awful old Ford blowing blue smoke out and these days would not be allowed on the road.
At this time I was looking for a pastorate having been working as an assistant minister of a London church. On the Sunday we looked at what Watchet had in the way of churches to attend, and went to the local Baptist Church. Ironically the service was a good bye to their then minister and a special service to mark his retirement.
Now you could say Moses had a burning bush and I had a burning Datsun, I was then also followed by a pillar of blue smoke, not a pillar of cloud in the desert… because the outcome of all this was I became the next Minister of Watchet Baptist Church.

Incidentally following this the red car was always called “The fire engine”…

Now this at the time was all seen as providence, and in those days something I guess I firmly believed in.  These days I am less sure; rationally you can make all manner of things fit if you want to. Horoscopes are perhaps a less religious way of doing this, fortune telling also. At the end of the day it depends how much significance you want to give to things, certainly when Unitarians started to question the validity of the Catholic Creeds they used a rational approach and dismissed miracles, an intervening god  and so on.
Religion always evolves by transcending the limits of the past and giving birth to a new consciousness.”  Did the new consciousness then as an offshoot of Christianity perhaps dismiss too much? Perhaps some were very keen to dismiss the miracles a little to quickly as Hocus Pokus, akin to something out of Harry Potter.  A lot of total make believe, well away from reality. Is our modern day Unitarian religion a product of total rationality? Some would say it is but miss out on the joy of seeing things as what was once known as providence. If we are a transcending new way of doing religion then perhaps we need to be giving new birth to the concept of providence rather than dismissing it as Hocus Pokus! The one big thing about the Jewish festival of Purim is that it is a time for celebration, in fact the only time of the Jewish year that sanctions a bit more alcoholic beverage to the point of less rationality and being open to the point of less narrow interpretations.  Now here is a little Jewish tradition we could excel at in our modern world.  Whose up for a pub-crawl then?  Is it time to have a few too many and be less closed to rational explanations? Well yes as long as you’re not going to drive afterwards! Perhaps those of us who went to FUSE (Festival of Unitarians in the South East) missed out on trying this one out for size, a drink or two more was needed!
Now please don’t be one of those congregations, who take me out of context, I am not advocating having more than one more than you should.. I remember as a Child my Father preaching to a Strict Baptist chapel (and those of you unfamiliar with them need to know they were very very strictly teetotal) and getting his words mixed up and instead of saying you need the “strong meat” of the word, said you need “strong drink” my brethren. Only my family saw the funny side of this and he never preached there again!

Back to providence in our new evolving religion of Unitarians, from Purim we can perhaps take some rituals and reuse them. Maybe we do not need a drink, just a more open to possibilities mindset. Instead of dismissing the irrational, fate and providence perhaps we need to see it as a way of enjoying our religion. I hope the little stories in my sermon have at least made you smile.   Things do happen in life at times that seem to make us feel they were expected, and that’s the joy Purim can bring to those who observe the Jewish calendar. 
One of the great strengths of a religious calendar is the festivals all have a meaning, one of the weaknesses is they only seem to remember them once a year religiously. If we as an evolution of old ways of doing things are to be effective then it calls on us to stand for more than token gestures. I think we need to be challenged to regularly think of the poor and needy in the world. As members of this so-called Unitarian religion we perhaps need to look at ways to also celebrate providence. The Jews did it and still do yearly; the gospels give us pictures of Jesus doing it.  Our predecessors also did it. We are still called today to find ways of making these things relevant to our lives.. I leave you with a quote..

Religion is not something separate and apart from ordinary life. It is life—life of every kind viewed from the standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance.
Arthur Powell Davies a notable American Unitarian Minister.

I hope each one of us is able to find meaning and purpose in our lives today, from ancient festivals we can still find meaning and purpose today if we let ourselves..
Let it be so..