Life in a Judean Village in the year 29

Readings

The first reading is from the essay “The Aims of Religious Education” by Gabriel Moran:

Teaching is what every human being and some non-humans do. Teaching is one of the most important and regular acts that we perform in life. Humans have to learn nearly everything they know; humans learn by being taught. We are shown how to do something, and we respond. In modern educational theory, teaching has been reduced to explaining, giving reasons, or providing information. In most of the rest of history, including today’s actual practice, teaching means to show someone how to do something, a process that may or may not include explanations, reasons, and information. In its most comprehensive meaning, to teach is to show someone how to live….

The second reading is a poem by Everett Hoagland [not reproduced here in order to respect copyright].

Hymn — In 1916, in the midst of the First World War, the English poet Clifford Bax wrote a poem about the insanity of war which began “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways.” Then, in the middle of the Vietnam War, Stephen Swartz used a version of Clifford Bax’s poem in his rock musical Godspell. We Unitarian Universalists have updated the poem with gender-neutral language — but we are still waiting for an earth made fair, with all her people free. Please rise as you are willing and able and sing hymn 120, “Turn Back.”

Sermon — “Life in a Judean Village in the Year 29”

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Harper.

“Turn back… forswear thy foolish ways….” It seems as though every generation finds itself asking: When will we have an earth made fair, and all her people free? — when will the era of justice and righteousness finally begin? And it seems as though every generation finds the same answer: Not just yet. Not just yet. Yet every generation must find something to believe in, some ethical guide for action….

And what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? The poem by Everett Hoagland that Brian led is my favorite Unitarian Universalist poem, because it captures an essential truth about us: We try to get beyond belief. Getting beyond belief does not mean that we have to be cynical and critical; getting beyond belief means getting to the realization that belief is not enough.

For most people in the United States today, “religion” means the same thing as “belief in God.” But that’s not true for us Unitarian Universalists. Our religion requires neither belief in God, nor disbelief in God. What is important is what you do with your life, and how you make meaning as you live.

This creates some very interesting side effects for us — as, for example, when we start teaching our kids about Jesus. For most of United States society, Jesus is a being that you either believe in or don’t believe in. But rather than telling kids to believe or to disbelieve in Jesus, we have them travel back in time to the year 29, to a village in the land of Judea, which was a province of the Roman Empire.

That is what our Sunday school is doing this spring — traveling in time to the year 29 in the land of Judea. And this year, for the first time, I am able to take all you people in the adult worship service back to the year 29. You see, it takes far more energy to send adults back in time, but with the solar panels on our roof and over our parking lot, we now have enough energy for our time machine to accommodate you.

Here’s our official UUCPA time machine; let’s all step inside. I’m going to set the space-time coordinates for the year 29, Roman Empire, Province of Judea. (I really wish I could cue up some eerie music right now — time machines work better if you have some eerie music.)

Ah! The time machine has stopped! Let’s open the door and step outside. We’re near the marketplace of a small village. It’s dusty and hot. Everyone we see is wearing what looks like a dress or long robe, and a cloth head covering. As we start walking around the marketplace, I’m glad that I have a ponytail, because all the men and women have long hair. However, my lily-white skin really stands out when everyone else has brown skin.

The marketplace is fascinating. Look at all the craftsmen — and most of them do seem to be men — selling all kinds of goods, from pottery to metal ware; the craftspeople are even making some of their wares as they wait for customers. Everything is so different from twenty-first century Palo Alto: nothing has been imported from China; everything is made with human or animal power, without any fossil fuel; it smells completely different; oh, and I notice that people are scratching at body lice, so I know there are no showers and no washing machines.

As we walk around the marketplace, notice how children are fully integrated into the life of the community. Children don’t go to school, they help their parents make a living. Here come some shepherds bringing their sheep to market, and sure enough there are children helping herd the sheep. There’s a potter working at his trade, with a child nearby wedging clay.

While most of the people in this marketplace seem to get along with each other, one person is obviously hated by everyone — the Tax Collector. A Tax Collector in the Roman Empire gives a new perspective on the Internal Revenue Service; the IRS, while sometimes annoying, is mostly governed by the rule of law. But in the ancient Roman Empire, there was no such thing as the rule of law; a Tax Collector could extort as much money from the people as he thought he could get away with, and that way he made a nice personal profit for himself.

The Roman soldiers who strut through the marketplace are an uncomfortable reminder that Judea is ruled by Rome. Judea had been independent for about a century under the rule of Judah Maccabbee and his successors, but the Romans first installed client kings over Judea, and then in the year 6 took direct control of the once independent land.

The current Jewish leaders, centered in the great Temple of Jerusalem, have been happy to cooperate with the Romans. The Romans gave them a major renovation of the Temple. And the Jews are the only people in the Roman Empire who do not have to publicly worship the Roman gods and goddesses. But in the village, it seems people are not entirely happy with their Roman overlords. As we walk around, we hear some people talking quietly about their dislike of Rome — but they talk very quietly, because if you’re not a full citizen of Rome, you have legal no rights. And we hear strange rumors going around, like the rumors that there are bands of rebels living in the hills, waiting to sweep down and drive Rome out of Judea.

The strangest rumors we hear concern a man from Nazareth named Jesus. He’s supposed to be a son of a carpenter, which means he should be a carpenter himself, but people are saying that he’s now a rabbi (although it is not clear that he actually knows how to read, so he’s not an official rabbi). Some of the rumors say that Jesus performs healing miracles — remember that in a world where only the most wealthy people can afford a doctor, people depend on faith healers. The rumors have it that Jesus is a holy man, a sort of Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama for the first century. People in the marketplace repeat wisdom sayings attributed to Jesus.

And then there are the parables told by Jesus. These short pithy stories, well-suited to oral transmission, get repeated and passed along, and some of these stories we’re hearing make it seem Jesus criticizes Roman rule. The parables make it sound like Jesus treats everyone as an equal. Imagine that! He supposedly says you should treat everyone else the way you yourself would like to be treated.

I’m sure we’d all like to see more of this Judean village, but the power levels in our time machine have dropped, and we need to leave now. Let’s get into the time machine and return to our own time — and let’s hope we don’t bring any body lice back.

Now you’ve heard the story behind our Judean Village program. In part, this program is our way of teaching kids about Jesus, and we make it clear that there are many different possible opinions about Jesus. We acknowledge that some people in the year 29 probably believed that Jesus was divine — but the main arc of our story also makes it clear that Jesus was fully human, and very much a product of his time and place. (I should add an important point: in the Judean Village program, Jesus is always off stage; that way, we don’t impose one limited image of what Jesus might have looked like.)

The remarkable thing about the Judean Village program, from my point of view as an educator, is how much the kids like it. We were supposed to offer Judean Village last spring, but the Children and Youth Religious Education Committee and I decided to pilot an ecology program instead. I thought we were going to face an armed insurrection by children and middle schoolers; we had to promise them that we would definitely have Judean Village this year.

Why do the kids like Judean Village so much? I don’t think Jesus is the big draw. More important, I think, is that this is education that has NOT been reduced to explaining, giving reasons, or providing information. Instead, the kids get to serve as “apprentices” to various “shopkeepers,” and they get shown how to do things like simple weaving, small-scale pottery, brick-making, making a simple musical instrument, writing with a quill pen made out of a feather, and so on. They love choosing which shopkeeper they get to learn from THIS week.

And while they’re making these simple things, there’s time to talk, to socialize with one’s peers and with other age groups — because we include all ages in the program from kindergarten to grade 8. The middle schoolers are the senior apprentices who help show the little kids how to make things, something they love to do, and something the little kids like, too. They love to try to fool the Tax Collector who comes around shaking down the various shopkeepers (please note that we try to make clear the difference between the corrupt ancient Roman Tax Collector and the IRS).

Embedded in all this fun are stories and thoughts that intrigue our kids. Our kids are confused by the many myths and stories and beliefs they hear about Jesus. To our skeptical, thoughtful Unitarian Universalist kids, the conflicting stories about Jesus in the Judean Village program help them make sense out of the cultural phenomenon of Jesus. They learn that even in his own day, people had different opinions about Jesus. They learn that Jesus was a human being, which makes sense to them. They learn that Jesus was Jewish, not Christian (because, after all, that’s true). And they learn that Jesus cared about people who were poor or homeless, that Jesus was willing to stand up to a corrupt regime.

Our way of teaching about Jesus helps our kids confront the confusing reality that some of their friends think Jesus was a god, and some of their friends think Jesus is humbug. We offer a third alternative: Jesus was a radical, rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth. I have used that phrase when I telling stories about Jesus, and I’ve heard back from parents that when their conventionally Christian relatives come over, and corner their seven year old child, and ask that child who Jesus was, some children reply: “Jesus was the radical rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth!”

We have to repeat our messages about Jesus frequently and memorably, because the wider culture around us tells our children over and over again that Jesus is a god; even atheists who say, “I don’t believe in Jesus,” are still affirming that Jesus is a god whom they don’t believe in. Our response to this societal pressure is to try to move beyond belief. Rather than focusing on the historical facts about Jesus, or the Christian dogma about Jesus, we simply tell stories about Jesus that convey important truths: Take care of people who are poor or homeless. Treat everybody the way you’d like to be treated yourself. Stand up to injustice.

Indeed, why bother children and middle schoolers with all the historical arguments for and against the historical Jesus? It makes more sense to focus on the ethical content of the Jesus stories: Jesus cared for homeless people, he stood up to injustice, he treated everyone as equals. Tell powerful and ambiguous stories, and let those stories start the process of ethical reflection.

And one way we make the Jesus stories especially powerful is by assuming that Jesus was fully human. If you’re a god, it must be pretty easy to care for poor and homeless people, stand up against injustice, and treat all humans as being equal to one another. But if you are a human, then it is NOT easy to stand up to the oppressive forces in society; it is NOT easy to care for people who were poor and homeless; it is NOT easy to treat other people the way we want to be treated. When you tell the Jesus stories with Jesus as fully human, that makes the stories far more ethically interesting.

By now, you will have noticed that this is not like the STEM education taught under a Common Core curriculum. Providing information, giving reasons, and explaining do not take center stage. We weave stories that help kids make meaning in their lives. We hope to prompt them to ask themselves: What would I do if I were faced with the massive injustice of the ancient Roman empire? — would I openly follow someone who stood up to that injustice, or would I try to live my own life and stand up to injustice quietly when I could do so without fear of reprisal against me and my family? How will I treat people who are poor or homeless? — will I ignore them so I can focus on my own needs, or will I do what I can to help out other people? More generally, how will I treat other people? — will I be able to treat all other people as true equals, as the stories say Jesus did, regardless of economic status, incarceration record, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on?

A kindergartner probably won’t get to this level of moral reflection. But last week, when we were talking with the middle schoolers about Judean Village, we explained that they are going to become characters in the story, which means they will help talk about the rumors about Jesus. They have to decide, as characters in the story, what opinions they would hold. Would their character support Jesus against the Romans? Would their character be pro-Roman instead? One of the middle schoolers said that their character wouldn’t be someone who would stand up to Roman oppression OPENLY, that would be too dangerous, and that their character also would be someone who’s skeptical of any rumors about miraculous people. Thinking about what their Judean Village character would do allows the middle schoolers to think about what they themselves might do in real-life situations.

So it is that the Judean Village program uses the old Jesus stories to help young people begin to think about some big ethical questions. And every time I teach in the Judean Village program, and hear again those old stories, I find that I ask myself these same big questions:

— What would I have done to stand up to Roman oppression? And how much am I willing to risk to stand up to oppression and injustice today?
— Had I lived in Judea in the year 29, would I have treated everyone as an equal? And in today’s world, how do I treat people who have a different economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation?
— How do I help people who are homeless or poor? Is there ever going to be a solution to homelessness and poverty?

Perhaps as you hear about this Judean Village program, you have started thinking about these ethical questions yourself. This is what we Unitarian Universalists do: we listen carefully those old amazing religious stories, and regardless of whether we believe them or not, we use them to make meaning out of our own lives. We listen to those old, ambiguous, rich and complex stories — and what always catches our attention are the moral questions raised by those old stories.

Questions like:
What will I do about homelessness and poverty?
How will I stand up to injustice?
Am I able to treat all others as true equals?

There is no final answer to any of these questions — there is only the never-ending effort to make meaning out of our lives.