Children’s Story—Blind Men and the Elephant

January 31, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalms 66:1-9;16-20. Acts 2: 1-12

Sung: “Sixteen Counties of our State are Cumberland and Franklin, Piscataquis and Somerset, Aroostook, Androscoggin,  Sagadahoc and Kennebec, Lincoln, Knox and Hancock, Waldo, Washington and York, Oxford and Penobscot.”

Now, I invite you to close your eyes.  I promise you that you will be safe.  Close your eyes and imagine yourself, if you can, on a warm summer’s day, walking alone on the beach.  You trip along quickly, your feet first sinking into the searing grains and then reaching the hard flat wet sand that cools and soothes.  “How cold is the water today?” you wonder. You gingerly approach the serf, letting it ripple over your feet.  “Not too bad”.  You go in a little further.  Of course it’s cold. You’re on the Maine coast. But today the water doesn’t make your ankles ache.  It’s a good day.  You look up and take in the marvelous expanse of sea and sky before you.

Scene two:  It’s autumn and you’re tramping through the woods. The sun is shining and there’s a crisp clear breeze caressing your face.  At every bend you are surprised by splashes of vivid color. You enjoy the shuffle of leaves beneath your feet and their wonderful smell as they begin their journey returning to earth. It’s a good day.

Scene three; not so hard to imagine now: It’s winter.  The sun is shining as you slowly plod through a pristine field of gleaming snow.  With each step there’s a hesitation as your foot first cracks and then breaks through a half-inch crust of ice and then sinks into a foot of frigid powder before steadying itself. It’s so cold that your nostrils stick together as you breathe.  It’s a good day.

Walking in Maine (You can open your eyes now.)

These two ways of presenting Maine reflect for me the distinction between theology and spirituality.

The little ditty that I sang is factual.  It tells you that Maine is divided into sixteen counties, some of them having Native American names, while others refer to Maine and U.S history. Theology is the study of God.  It’s what philosophers and theologians have come to understand about how God is and how God does.  For example, theologians of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam describe God as “immanent” and “transcendent”.  Theology has lots of twenty-five cent words. By “immanent”  they mean, God is present and accessible, here in our world and “transcendent” is the word  use to explain that God is beyond all physical laws and independent of the material universe. Knowing about God is very interesting to some, like knowing that Maine is divided into sixteen counties.

The other description I gave of Maine, the guided imagery, is experiential.  Spirituality can be defined as our experience of the divine and our response to that experience. It’s much more personal, and for most of us, more meaningful than theology.

But both Theology and Spirituality inform our faith; affect what we believe.  Though spirituality in some ways feels more intimate, many of us attended Sunday school and religion classes from a very young age.  Much of what we were taught was theology- stuff about God; what God is like. Those early and learnings are deep-seated, cementing some of our longest held beliefs.

Let me put those thoughts on hold for a moment and share with you what I plan to do.

When we use the word “Church” we sometimes are using a shortcut for saying “Church building”.  “We have a beautiful church”, is short for saying that we have a beautiful church building.  But Church, as you know, is really an assembly of people.  We are church.  And that assembly is organized around three things: Creed, Code and Cult.  Churches establish themselves based on what they believe and don’t believe -Creed, what they expect of themselves and fellow members based on those beliefs- Code, and how they choose to worship -Cult.  Cult has in recent times taken on a sinister definition, but the primary meaning of the word is about ritual; what happens when we gather together to celebrate our beliefs.

I plan to dedicate three Sundays speaking on each of these aspects of church.  But, they will not be sermons in which I simply share my thoughts, or read passages from published authors.  A profound moment when I fell in love with this church – when I fell in love with all of you was when Jen Comeau structured an activity for us to reflect on and share what we identified as most special to us as church.  That was as you recall in preparation to select an interim pastor and a settled pastor.  You all showed passionate ownership of this worshiping and serving community, identifying what was important to you, what you wanted to preserve and protect.  Jen then organized those thoughts and presented them back to us as our church profile.  That profile speaks volumes about our creed, code and cult.  And in this and two following sermons, I will use what you have all shared so that we can consider that input and reflect together on the implications for our future.

So today I focus on creed. What we believe:

We present ourselves publicly as being “an independent church – not affiliated with any denomination.” Interdenominational- That word denotes the existence of diversity. Some of the comments given at our brainstorming session about church and being an interdenominational Christian church were:

“We are long on love and gratitude, and short on dogma.”

“We are focused on good, positive things, not guilt and sin.”

“We focus on the teachings of Jesus – in how he lived.”

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of diversity and suggest that there are varying degrees of being amenable to it. There’s what I call, “the American way”; “Live and let live.  Our founding fathers wanted to protect individuals from religious persecution and so created a government that officially separated church and state. That launched an American culture for tolerating  diversity.  I see this as the bottom rung of being interdenominational.  I want to be free to celebrate my beliefs and so I will let you be free to celebrate yours. But there’s some anxiety related to this form of tolerance.  “Will our new pastor be more in line with my beliefs or theirs?”  “With a change in pastor can we have more of this now? Or can we have less of that?”

The next level is what I label as acceptance of diversity; that is, tolerance with grace. We feel good about the fact that we have a richness of belief in our church.  There were several comments on the flip chart sheets that reflected this pride:

“We are accepting of a diverse set of ideas and approaches, building upon the strong foundation of Jesus’s teachings and His loving actions.”

“Our perspective is both/and, rather than either/or.”

“Our viewpoint is Wide Christianity – not narrow.”

“We show respect for, and appreciate individual differences.”

“Both curiosity and questioning are welcome.”

And then, there is I believe, a third level; one in which we truly celebrate our differences in such a way that we acknowledge that whether it be our theology or even our spirituality –it is only one of a multitude of God’s self-expression and that I can learn more about God and experience God more fully by watching, listening, and learning.

Comments on our sheets that reveal this perspective included:

“We remain open to mystery and the creative spirit.”

“We believe the Sacred is broadly defined: There are many pathways to the Divine, and all faiths have equal access.”

“We are open to prophetic voices (i.e. wisdom keepers) and ideas from all faiths and from science.”

One month ago we celebrated the birth of the historical Jesus and we praised him as Emmanuel; God-with –us.  This was not only a feast where we delighted in the event of God being incarnated, taking human form, becoming like us. Though this in itself is worth singing “Glory to God in the Highest”, and “Joy to the World”, in celebrating Emmanuel we rejoice in something even greater. We delight in the knowledge that God has revealed God’s self throughout all time and continues to do so over and over again with each of us.

The Pentecost story that Katie read this morning was a replay of God’s self-revelation throughout history.  The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speaking in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.  “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. . . and at the  sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in their native language.  And they asked one another what it all meant.”  I propose that this event was one of gazillions in which God shared God’s self, proclaimed the good news, and invited individuals into unique personal relationships. “Each one heard them speaking in their native language”, may have actually happened but it is also a metaphor for God breaking through and engaging with us in whatever way we will recognize the encounter.  In a Burning Bush to Moses, through a gentle breeze to Elijah, as an angel to Mary, in a riding accident to Paul, in a dream to Martin Luther King Jr., and through various individuals and experiences to you and to me.  God continues to reveal God’s self.

We can welcome diversity. We can be like one of the blind men touching the elephant, but wise; recognizing that we don’t have all of the truth.  What we have learned about God and our experience of the sacred is not the whole picture.

Perhaps this is what the psalmist in today’s first reading was calling for when  he sang, “Acclaim God, all the earth” and “Come and see what marvels God has done”, and “You nations, bless our God and make his praise resound, who brings our soul to life and keeps our feet from faltering.”

We are blessed that we are part of this rich interdenominational Christian community, but we will reap the fulness of that blessing to the extent that we are truly open to the diversity that is us; to the extent that we celebrate our pluralism; pluralism that can be defined as “the energetic engagement with diversity” or “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.”

How do we do that? There are many ways formal and informal. We do it in church when we are open to appreciating the various genres of music and the variety of Bible translations that we use in our worship. We do it by participating in the Lenten book discussion or Bible study and listen openly to each participant’s ideas. Thich Nhat Hanh, in Living Buddha, Living Christ states, “When participants are willing to learn from each other, dialogue takes place just by their being together.  When those who represent a spiritual tradition embody the essence of their tradition, just the way they walk, sit, and smile speaks volumes about the tradition.”

So simply spending time with each other, socializing after church, particularly with individuals whom we don’t know, or who seem less “like us” is a simple yet meaningful way to celebrate our diversity.

We could have a show and tell about religious diversity the way that they did in one private school. A kindergarten teacher gave her class a “show and tell” assignment of bringing something to represent their religion.

The first child got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is the Star of David.” The second child got in front of her class and said, “My name is Mary, I am Catholic and this is the Crucifix.” The third child got up in front of his class and said, “My name is Tommy and I am Baptist and this is a casserole.”

I think that the theology, and the spirituality of Union Church members is often very evident.  For some it’s the music you share with us, or how you talk about nature, for others, it’s how you treat animals or your warmth and welcoming ways, for others it’s how you give so generously of your time, or how you model kindness.

One comment on the flip chart struck me in particular.  We need to remember that most of the statements were made by individuals. They are not a consensus of how we all see ourselves as church. But nevertheless it was heartening for me to read that at least one person viewed us in the following way.  I think that it’s an ideal towards which we would all do well to strive. Here is the statement, “We are Spirit-led; open to changing and improving our lives; we are flexible as a community, and embrace the challenge of growing in consciousness.”

In Romans 8:14  we read, “All those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” As children of God we all have something to share about our experience of the Sacred, and we all have the opportunity to be enriched by each other.  The Pentecost story read this morning is our story.  The disciples received the Holy Spirit and the Spirit gave them the gift of speech. I think that the miracle was that the disciples were able to overcome their fear and their shyness, and self-consciousness, and speak from their hearts about how they had experienced Jesus so that wherever the listeners were from, and regardless of their native tongue, they were moved by the good news. Language was not a barrier.

I’m not promoting proselytizing.  I’m simply stating that as an interdenominational church we have a great diversity of faith experiences among us.  By being vulnerable to the sacred in each of us we may discover aspects of the divine up until now unknown to us. We have so much more of God to experience.  How blessed we are!

I’d like to end with the original poem of The Blind Men and the Elephant by American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887).

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee.

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he;

” ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!