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Of Elephants and Theology

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jun 21 2015

Passages of Light


In an ancient Buddhist text, Buddha tells this story:

Once upon a time, a man gathered together in one place all the men of a single village who were born blind and he brought to them an elephant.

One blind man was presented the side. When asked what an elephant was like, he exclaimed with conviction, Why, an elephant is like a wall!

Another, feeling the tusk disagreed. He shouted his truth: An elephant is round and hard and smooth and sharp. An elephant is, therefore, like a spear.

Another, trying to get hold of a writhing trunk, averred that an elephant is like a snake.

Another, feeling a leg and knee, was convinced that elephants are like trees.

No, no, no, said another who was enjoying the breeze from a flapping ear: An elephant is like a fan.

A modern American cartoonist, Sam Gross, pictures a blind man feeling a pile of elephant dung, with the caption, “an elephant is soft and mushy”.

You know the story and its parabolic intent: no one of us, from our limited vantage can grasp the whole.

Let us try retelling the story by replacing the elephant with a Confederate flag and replacing blind men with sighted men.

One man sees in the flag—in the stars and bars—proud Southern values and heritage, and the graves of Confederate soldiers. Another man, looking at the same flag, sees in it the wretched misery of the Middle Passage, and fingers bloodied and raw from picking cotton, and the selling of one’s own darling child on the auction block.

And, as with the story of the blind men and the elephant, we have a problem. It is a different kind of problem than that of the elephant and the blind men, but it is a very real and very serious problem.

Now, since we are in a church and since it is Sunday, the elephant in this room is none other than the living God. God is in our midst.

Like the blind men gathered round the elephant, and like the sighted men gathered round the Confederate flag, we can catch glimpses of God … each of us from our vantages. We can cite or posit evidence of God’s handiwork and read what the prophets and apostles tell us. We can study the words and the life of Jesus. We can see a bit of God in each other’s faces. We can listen for God in organ, anthem and hymnody, in wind and rain and the call of the loon … in the words of our prayers and in the silences between.

Yet, we know what Buddha’s blind men didn’t know: that each of us possesses only a sliver of the truth of God.

In the words of St. Paul, we see through a glass darkly … our sight is impaired, limited.

I invite you to imagine a really large map of the world. Imagine that a really large elephant straddles this map … straddles the world.

Of its hind feet, one is in Siberia and the other is in Australia. Its tail swishes over the Bering Sea while its great trunk slurps from the Gulf of Alaska.

Its front feet are planted, one in Canada and the other in Brazil. And its ears ... well, one fans Greenland and the other fans Antarctica.

What if we, who are strewn across the continents—refrained from shouting our own truths to each and, instead—endeavored to communicate to each other what we each experience of God? What if we set about to learn each other’s languages, visit in each other’s home, meet each other’s children, hear each other’s stories?

What if, instead of proclaiming our own small piece of truth as the truth, we pooled our information, held global conferences and workshops, and read each other’s books about God?

That image, in essence, is the living promise of the United Church of Christ. The UCC was born fifty-eight years ago in the midst of the modern ecumenical movement … in the midst of a global conversation about who God is.

The UCC’s biannual General Synod begins next weekend and at least eleven members of Old South Church will partake. John Edgerton is already en route and has been planning his unique General Synod Twitter feed. Kate Rogers, who will offer the prayers this morning, departs on Wednesday for General Synod with five Old South youth. Megan Snell and Tracy Keene, our readers this morning, will both be there. Tracy is serving as a delegate. Carrie Swayne and Katie Gerrish are going.

Old South Church will be well represented … which is as it should be, as two ministers of our church, Dr. Meek and Dr. Stafford, were instrumental in the formation of the UCC. Dr. Stafford, Old South’s 17th Senior Minister served on the committee called the Basis for Union which enabled the merger of the Congregational and Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches, resulting in 1957 in the United Church of Christ.

Dr. Meek, our 18th Senior Minister argued for and won, the single most unique characteristic of the United Church of Christ: local church autonomy.

The ecumenical conversation that eventually gave birth to the UCC—a conversation in which Doctors Meek and Stafford participated and shaped—emerged in the wake of and in response to Hitler’s Germany. In the wake of the Holocaust, our forebears agreed never again to allow one group of people to define God or the nature of reality without challenge and correction from others.

The UCC, therefore, is gathered around a conversation—not a creed, not a pope, not a bishop, not a book of order or a book of worship—but an ongoing, ever-evolving conversation about God. The UCC was born with a yearning and a commitment to listen to and to learn from each other.

For us, this is not a demographic project. It is not diversity for diversity’s sake. It is not filling quotas. It is a theological necessity. For the followers of Jesus, in whom there is to be neither male nor female, enslaved nor free, Jew nor Greek, such an undertaking is imperative.

We are committed to it … we yearn for it, because we yearn to better understand the nature of God.

In the UCC we believe we need a lot of light, different lights, all of our lights to dispel the darkness that besets us all.