Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sermon for May 17, 2009

Christians on the Margins
Matthew 28:18-20
May 17, 2009

Marybeth Hicks once wrote a great piece in the Washington Times. Listen to her description of a meal at her house:
The mashed potatoes sit in stiff, icy peaks on the plates, thin moats of beef gravy surrounding their starchy edges. A while ago, the combination of boiled potatoes, butter, sour cream and milk spun on the whirring whisks of the electric mixer, promising the tasty comfort of carbohydrates. But now, the steam long dissipated, dinner mostly consumed, there remain two lumpy mounds of glop — as appetizing as papier-mache, or perhaps wet lint from the dryer. After 15 years of parenting, the dinnertime battle rages on. Besides the mashed potatoes, tonight’s menu is pot roast and a medley of frozen peas and carrots -- a reliable meal, nothing fancy. Earlier, the lingering scent from the crockpot had everybody salivating like Pavlov’s dog, subliminally suggesting a tasty dinner — except that two of my children won’t eat mashed potatoes. This is simply ridiculous. Who doesn't eat mashed potatoes? . . . Tonight I decide to ignore both my pediatrician and conventional wisdom. Tonight I’m force-feeding. “Nobody gets up from this table until all the food on your plate is eaten. Period.” Two heads snap toward me in horror. “All of it?” they ask in unison. “Every bite,” I declare, drawing a line in the mashed potatoes. “But I'm allergic,” my daughter cries as she scratches her arms and fakes a sneeze. “I don't like potatoes,” my son protests, stating the obvious. “Too bad,” I reply in a tone of voice that conveys I’m serious. They pick up their forks and push the spuds around on the plate . . . My picky eaters reluctantly shovel some mashed potatoes onto their utensils and slowly bring the pasty food to their lips, their youthful faces contorting in anguish. Their eyes water. The color drains from their cheeks. They subdue the gag reflex — an obvious effort to gross me out.
Sometimes, we in the church treat the Bible like a great meal that’s spoiled by a cold glob of mashed potatoes. We read the Bible and listen to preachers, or family, or friends talk about their spiritual journeys and we pick and choose which teachings are appetizing and which ones are indigestible. For many people, faith is a little mix of this, and a dash of that. Throw in a little of God’s love, stir in a belief that all people are good to the core and will become angels when they go to heaven, fold in the belief that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you belong to because they all teach the same moral lessons. But leave out the stuff that doesn’t taste good. Don’t even allow thoughts about God’s judgment or human sin to enter the recipe. Maybe foreign missions leave a bad taste in your mouth. And tithing one’s income to God’s work is definitely out. It’s human nature to want pleasure without having to experience sacrifice.

For some, the most tasteless aspect of church life is that dirty little “E” word – evangelism. Evangelism isn’t only a dirty word, it’s confusing. We are not clear on why we should even share our faith with others. Some people ask, “What gives is the right to force our faith on others?” Others insist that all must believe the Christian message or risk eternal punishment without God.

We call the words of Matthew 28 the Great Commission. Christians over the centuries have interpreted these words to mean that God expects us to go out and make converts to Christianity. In 313 C.E., when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, our faith changed from an illegal minority to the established religion of the Roman Empire. Convinced that Christendom owned the right answers to the world’s problems, the Church and the Empire used the Great Commission as marching orders to expand their territory. Conversion of the masses justified any necessary means of persuasion to make it happen. Charlemagne typified the thinking at the time. Before he became the Holy Roman Emperor, he was warring with the Saxons. The goal was conversion of the pagan Saxons to the Christian faith. Because the goal was so worthwhile, Charlemagne approved of any means necessary to make them convert. In the year 755, the Saxons were defeated, and they submitted to mass baptisms over the next two years. Charlemagne wrote, “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and he wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, then let him die.”

This attitude is called triumphalism. Triumphalism refers to the tendency to present our faith as the full and complete account of reality, leaving little room for debate or difference of opinion. Triumphalism expects unflinching loyalty from its subjects. It says, “You can survive and even thrive if you become like us. You can keep your life by giving up your identity. Until you do that, we will call you inferior.” Triumphalism wants to keep one group at the center, single-handedly controlling who’s in and who’s out of the circle, even if it takes violence to keep that control. I'm reminded of a Peanuts cartoon in which Sally tells Linus, "I would have made a good evangelist." Linus asks, "Oh, yeah? How come?" Sally says, "You know that boy who sits behind me in the classroom? I convinced him that my religion was better than his." Linus asks, "How'd you do that?" And Sally says, "I hit him over the head with my lunchbox."

Haven’t we had enough clubbing each other in the name of religion? Can we avoid hitting each other over the head with our cultural, political and religious lunch boxes or calling judgment down on those who are different?

Triumphalism was effective when Christians were on top of the religious dog pile. But we find ourselves in different times. As I have shared over the past weeks, the era of Christendom is fading. In the USA, organized Christian religious practices are shrinking and Christianity has a decreasing social impact. Christian churches, once founded and established to make a difference in the lives of others, now face a time of change and confusion, a time of diminished purpose and vision. In this new religious context, we are becoming one religious tradition among many — a faith on the margins instead of the center.

When it comes to sharing our faith, we face new challenges. On one hand, our Scriptures tell us to go into the world and make disciples. We are called to speak about our faith in compelling and convincing ways. On the other hand, our models of evangelism don’t work for us anymore. Must we find ourselves "telling the old, old story of Jesus" by insisting that others must believe in Jesus as the only son of God and Savior, else they are surely going to hell? Must we thump others over the head with our lunch boxes? We aren't practiced in doing evangelism other than the way our ancestors did. For much of Christian history, believers affirmed that apart from Christ there is no salvation, and they understood this to mean that those who did not have faith in Christ were condemned to eternal torments. This provided powerful incentive to share the gospel with people all around the world. It also led to failure to appreciate the positive contributions of other religious communities.

David Barrett identified 10,000 religions in the 2001 edition of the World Christianity Encyclopedia — 10,000 separate religions that humanity has turned to in its attempt to understand and get closer to the divine. Of those 10,000, 150 of them have one million members or more. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus is the only way to the only God, and that the other 9,999 religions are false? How do we, as a faith of weakening majority, talk about Jesus Christ in a pluralistic world? How do we approach interfaith situations apart from triumphalism? Where do we draw those lines about some of those other 9,999 religions? What gives us the right to claim that our truth is truer than someone else’s? Who gives us the authority?

One of my majors in college was English. I ended up taking many classes with Dr. Peters — a pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into most of his students. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare us. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters bellowed, “Braddock! What, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He scowled at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters shook his head and looked at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.

I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to Dr. Paul, shaking my head in disdain. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, he simply quoted an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.

I think the same should be true with Christians. If we want to have the authority to speak about our faith, then our words and actions need to be rooted in how we show mercy, not in how we cause others to avoid us. Our message is not about scaring followers into obedience. We follow and believe because we’ve been marked by love. It’s time for the church to jettison ends-justifies-the-means evangelism. It’s time for us to embrace the kind of humility and suffering love that marked the ministry of Jesus.

About a dozen years ago, news outlets reported on an amendment to KY state law that allowed ministers to carry concealed weapons in church buildings. On the Today Show, Maria Shriver interviewed a pastor who played a pivotal role in the new law. The preacher reported that down-and-outers looking for money often visit churches and he suggested that having a gun might provide protection from those who might desire to steal church contributions or hurt employees. Bewildered, Maria Shriver asked the preacher if he understood that his reliance upon a handgun stood at odds with the Christian proclamation of peace and reconciliation. Imagine having the wife of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the poster boy for violent entertainment, reminding the church that the gospel bids believers to resolve conflict with methods that are different from those that rely upon physical force.

The gun-toting preacher stands in stark contrast to another news account from the University of Southern California Medical School. In August of 1993, a young woman named Sophia White picked up a .38 handgun and went looking for a nurse named Elizabeth Staten. Staten was allegedly cheating with White’s husband. Firing six shots, White hit Staten in the stomach and wrist. When Staten ran into the emergency room, White followed her, firing again. In the ER, with blood on her clothes and a hit pistol in her hand, another nurse, Joan Black, met the attacker. Joan did the unthinkable. She walked calmly to the gun-toting woman – and hugged her. Joan spoke comforting words. The assailant said she didn’t have anything to live for, that Staten had stolen her family. Joan said, “You’re in pain. I’m sorry, but everybody has pain in their life . . . I understand and we can work it out.” As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finder on the trigger. Once she began to lift the gun as if she would shoot herself. Joan just pushed her arm down and continued to hold her. At last, White gave the gun to the nurse. She was disarmed by a hug, by understanding, by compassion. Joan later told an AP reporter, “I saw a sick person and had to take care of her.” Joan loved God by being courageous, friendly and gentle to a dangerous stranger.

Now let me ask, who has the greater authority, the emperor who forces baptisms on pain of death, the minister with the gun, or the nurse who hugs attackers? Before you answer, remember the cross. There hangs Jesus -- unjustly abused, tried and murdered. His dying words are a prayer of forgiveness for those who kill him. Imagine what might have happened if Jesus had lived in KY, and just before they nailed him to the cross he claimed his right as a citizen and pulled out a .38. Jesus Christ gained all authority by stretching out his arms, and disarming the world with the embrace of compassion.

So, how do we share our good news in a multi-faith, pluralistic world. Let me suggest three ways we can begin to do missions and evangelism from the margins:

1. Faith, not sight. Christians do not know, they only trust. We do not own the truth. We bear witness to the living Truth. We must be open to the possibility that another, any other human being, has something to bring to our meeting — the other is not just a mere receptacle for our message. In fact, the other might have positive or corrective insight to bring to me. Faith is about modesty. To have faith in Christ is to be open to wisdom and reality wherever they may be found. It does not involve the claim that we already know all that needs to be known.

2. Hope, not finality. Christians claim to have glimpsed something of the reality of God. We do not present ourselves as a community for which all is finished. We are not a community that has arrived, but one that is under way.

3. Love, not power. How might history have been altered if missions had been done in the spirit of love? Mission from the margins includes humility, contrition, repentance, and honest acknowledgement that the church has not consistently incarnated the gospel.

How can we tell the story of Jesus honestly and sensitively, respecting the spiritual wisdom of people outside the Christian faith? Some Christians say that we can't — we can't accept the possibility that anybody besides us has spiritual truth. But, I have found that if I think of Jesus as a person filled to the brim with God's spirit, then I can hold up Jesus as the hope of the world without disrespecting the faith of others who relate to God by another way. We must keep re-examining and re-expressing our belief that Jesus is alive through the Spirit. We must find ways to explain to modern, skeptical people that Jesus shows the nature of God better than anyone whom the world has ever known; and that following in his way is indeed the hope of the world.


Sources:
· http://www.marybethhicks.com/washtimes.potatoes.html
· Brent Walker, “American Pluralism and Lunchbox Evangelism” (July 9, 2006).
· http://chalicechristian.blogspot.com/2009/05/sermon-sunday-3-may-2009.html
· Douglass John Hall, The Cross in Our Context.
· Stuart Murray, Church After Christendom.
· John B. Cobb, Jr., “The Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1487
· Edward H. Schroeder, “Pluralism’s Question to Christian Missions: Why Jesus at All? “http://www.crossings.org/archive/ed/Pluralism.pdf
· http://www.bible.ca/global-religion-statistics-world-christian-encyclopedia.htm

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sermon for May 10, 2009

The Watchers
May 10, 2009

“I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what God will say to me.” Habbakuk 2:1

People watching is fun. It just is. At least I think it is. My wife gets embarrassed when I watch people, probably because I lack discretion. She was taught to watch people by giving quick, diplomatic glances that won’t embarrass others or draw attention to yourself. Not me. I full on stare at people, like I’m watching TV. Chris will say, “Matt, stop staring at those people.” I’ll say, “What?! I’m not staring. I’m just watching someone else without turning my head or blinking.” There is probably some kind of rule about how long you can look at someone before it becomes staring. I’m sure that I’m straddling the border of propriety, but I learn a lot.

I like to make up stories about people Io watch and then categorize them. For instance, there was the elderly woman I saw who carried a shopping bad of white gloves, riding the T in Boston. Every time she touched something, she removed a glove from her hand, put it in a dirty glove bag, and then put on a clean glove. At the time, I worked at a boat propeller repair shop, and I was the dirtiest man in Boston. And I was smushed right next to this woman at rush hour. This falls into the category I call, “Better than a sitcom.” There are actually a bunch of handwear stories, like the one about a woman pushing a stroller. Instead of a cherubic child, she was pushing a stroller full of mittens through Central Park. Was she practicing for an impending birth? Doing a social experiment? Delivering mittens to her knitting group?

My favorite people to watch are the ones who have those “parent of the year” moments. We’ve all had them: those times when the kids are screaming in public and you hear words coming out of your mouth that sound just like the words your parents said to you and you promised you would never say them to your own kids. Here are some of my favorites, in honor of Mother’s Day:
From the “It must be hard to raise the Buddha” category: A crazed mother slapped her five-year old child and screamed, “Don’t you ever do that again!” The child looked serenely at the mother and said, “Well, are you happy with yourself?”
The “Mommy Dearest” award goes to a mother who pushed her small child in stroller in New York. The child said, “Mommy, why did you wake me up? Don’t wake me up when I’m sleeping!” The Mom answered back, “Fine. I’ll leave you on the train and you can miss your stop and then the rats will get you.”

Airports are great places to watch people. I once heard a kid say “Mom, am I fat?” The mother said, “Yes. Now get in the airplane.” The kid said, “Dad says I’m husky.” Pushing the child along, the mom replied, “ That means fat.”
To be fair, it’s not always the Moms who are mean. Like the mom at a diner who begged her son, “Please eat your dinner.” Her bratty child replied, “Mommy, you’re meaner than God.”
We know about people watchers. But how about culture watchers. Who looks for trends and movements around us and helps us navigate these new times? The church has not always done a good job at this. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been preaching about how churches find themselves in a strange new time. I’m comparing this to the experience of the biblical exile, when the Israelites were taken to Babylon.
  • Like the biblical exiles we are being forced to live in a land and a culture that is quite foreign to what we knew years ago. You could call this land post-modern, post-Christian, secular, consumerist, or profane. But it is generally hostile to our faith and our spiritual community. It can be uncomfortable to be a devoted Christian.
  • One of our primary feelings is loss. Church memberships are down, worship attendance is down. Churches have lost influence. We have less unity. We just aren’t what we used to be.
  • As the biblical exiles were scattered and divided over the ancient Near East, so are we becoming divided and separated from one another. Our theologies, our politics, our language, our worship music … all seem to drive wedges between us.
  • Like it was for the exiles this experience is long, and hard, and discouraging. It feels like God has abandoned the church. But, God is not done with us, and as it was in the Bible, we are returning to God and God is returning us to vitality by bringing us to something new a little here and a little there. Signs of growth and the new church are emerging.
Today I want us to think about what it means to be watchers during the exile, like Habbakuk. The people of Habakkuk’s time lived in an age of political uncertainty. The power and prestige of Southern Israel wanes, and in a short time the nation will disappear altogether. Injustice is rampant, the righteous are surrounded by the wicked, the law is powerless, and God doesn’t seem to care about the plight of the chosen people. A prophet named Habakkuk speaks to this situation. Listen again to what he says: “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what God will say to me.”

The church needs watchers. During exile, we must look for what God is doing, and how God is using this experience to do something new.

There is another word we use to describe watchers. The word is martyr. It’s not a popular word anymore. When I hear the word martyr, I think of three things. First, I think of prayers to the Holy Martyrs, those Christian women and men who died because of their faith in Christ. You might see a Roman Catholic Church called Holy Martyr. Today, we also hear the word martyr connected to terrorism and religious fundamentalism. I also heard the word when I was growing up. In those moments of teen-aged self-righteousness, when I knew I was right and the whole world was persecuting me for my knowledge of the truth, I would rant about how cosmically unfair I was being treated. My mother would just smile and say, “Life is tough. You’re such a good martyr.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I knew she was being sarcastic.

The English word martyr comes from a Greek word that word means, “witness” — a person who testifies about the faith. A witness does two things. First, a witness looks for God. I witness the fact that God is everywhere and in every situation and so my life has nothing to do with my ego, my individual efforts, and my melodramas. Watchers, witnesses, are people watchers, culture watchers, and God watchers.

This is a difficult task today. A few decades ago, when Christianity was the unofficial religion of North America, and when half a dozen mainline denominations were the religious establishment of the country, our faith might have been described as “civic faith.” Churches provided a religious ethos for American culture and society. Supported by the culture, churches returned the favor by playing a useful role in society. Churches were the conscience of the community, standing on the forefront of change and calling the culture to accountability. Churches were the primary instruments of aid to the least fortunate in society. Churches were also the center for community life. This is no longer the case. In our secular and pluralistic society, there are many voices claiming to be the exclusive voice of God. Many organizations are into charity work: banks, schools, sports teams, non-profits. Families and communities no longer have one center. Life is now multi-centered, and the church fits in with people’s multiple loyalties. The church is one center, malls and shopping areas are another, the coffee shop or bookstore another, the sports field yet another. People now reject churches that claim godly character but seldom embody it. Petty squabbles among members, conflicts between clergy and laity, sexual and financial scandals convey that the church is no different than other human institutions

The point is, the church, once founded and established to make a difference in the lives of others, faces a time of change and confusion. It is a time of exile — a time of diminished purpose and vision. Our earlier roles — conscience of the community, instrument of aid, and center of the community — no longer define us. We lost track of where God is and what God wants us to do. No longer sure of our purpose, buffeted by social change, we have circled the wagons and tried to exist just for the sake of survival. Who will be the watchers? Who will be the witnesses? Who will be the new martyrs?

Watchers have a second job. The first is to observe. The second is to let our actions display what we see. With all my gloom and doom talk, it’s actually a great time to be part of the church. When we realize our new context, we realize that our purpose is not to support the state. Our purpose is not to teach good citizenship. Our purpose is not to form a social club or humanitarian aid group. Our purpose is to change lives. In the era of civic faith, people came to church because that’s what one was supposed to do. Today, I find that people come to church because they have questions. “How can I live a spiritual life? How can I get God in my life? How can I be different?” People long for depth, for meaning, for worship and spiritual practices that put them in touch with the sacred. A new kind of living is demanded of exiles. Today is our opportunity to live out our purpose and show others how God transforms us.

Here’s something I’ve noticed about people watching. Every once in a while, you get caught. Or, you realize that someone has been watching you. It’s true about us as well. In fact, we want to get to a place where we are caught. We actually invite people to watch us — to come and see. Come and see if faith can make a difference in your life. Come and see a church family who loves and cares. Come and see people who are committed to the work of change and healing. Come and see a congregation where worship is alive. Come and see people who don’t have all the answers but who search together for God.

The church needs watchers. So be ready to see the world in a new way, and get ready to live your faith in a way that shows others that God changes lives.

Sermon for May 3, 2009

Singing in a Strange Land
May 3, 2009

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.


Last week, I presented the case that the Christian church is entering exile. Many of us grew up in this world of American Christendom, a world where church and culture were interwoven in ways that we were mostly unaware of. For example, many of you can remember times when stores were closed on Sunday. No youth sports, no college sports, no shopping at the Mall. Public schools opened each day with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer – sometimes even a reading from the Bible. These were central ways in which the culture supported the church. These days, the Christian story is much less known and Christians find themselves on the margins of society and competing for the public square. Here is an example of our new America’s relationship with Christianity: According to Professor Stephen Prothero, about 75 percent of adults mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” More than 10 percent think that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels. The American public knows even less about Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism than it does about Christianity and Judaism.

Like the psalmist of old, we find ourselves asking, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Americans are changing religious affiliations at a rising rate. We Protestants are no longer the majority religion in the country, and the Roman Catholic Church has experienced the greatest net losses due to affiliation changes. CT ranks fourth in Catholic Church losses, with a 12% decline in 18 years. The Pew survey indicates that the group with the greatest net gain was “unaffiliated.” More than 16 % of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth largest “religious group.”

While traditional churches hemorrhage, we see other faiths growing. CT is the number one state in growth of non-Christian religions. The Islamic Society of North America claims there are between 6 and 8 million Muslims in the United States today. The New York Times placed the number between 2 and 4 million. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, believes the correct figure is somewhere in between. Islam is one of the country’s top ten largest religious groups, not to mention the second largest religion in the world. And guess who the fastest growing faith group is, in terms of percentage of growth? Wicca, a Neopagan religion sometimes referred to as Witchcraft. Wicca adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of believers are doubling about every 30 months.

Like it or not, it is well documented that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. In this new ecology of faith, dealing with religious pluralism is not just a politically correct nicety. Religious diversity is now a fact of our existence, whether we fully recognize it or not. And as Christians, we will have to deal with it. Our compelling task is to figure out how we can sing the Lord’s song in this new land. We need to think about what it means to follow the Living God in a culture shares less and less of our religious language and metaphors.

Christendom made the church lazy. When we were on top of the religious dog pile, we did not have to offer compelling reasons for our existence. We did not have to convince the world that we were relevant. We were taught that our citizenship as Americans and as Christians were one in the same. But this has never been the message of the gospel. If you are among those who follow Jesus, your citizenship is in the realm of God. We lost that perspective along the way, and now find ourselves surprised by the reminder that we were always meant to be foreigners and aliens as well as residents of our world.

Psalm 137 was written by foreigners. They were prisoners — Jewish exiles now living and working in Babylon. They remembered how it felt to be masters of their own destinies. they lived far away from the familiarity of home. The warmth of community had all but disappeared. Their harps, probably Levite harps used in the worship of God, were set aside. In their sorrow, they could no longer sing. In their loss, they did not know how to worship God away from the familiar surroundings of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their harps, so useful and so right, their music so well thought out and so fitting in the Temple, could not be sung this foreign environment. And so they asked a serious question of themselves? “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

In effect, this is the question today’s churches need to ask itself: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Because, as far as the church is concerned, we do live in a strange land. The religious, cultural, political, economical, sociological landscape has changed. What do we do? Let’s listen some more to the Psalmist.

1. Grieve

The Psalm opens with these words:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
We can’t just embrace the new world without grieving the loss of the old. Real grief is part of a process of transformation. Grief is hard. It takes us by surprise. In grief, we learn to let go and to move on and be changed. We grieve for the good old days, and those days weren’t so long ago. Only a generation ago, it was unusual for people not to go to church. Churches were built in neighborhoods for people in the neighborhood. Our church was built with that understanding. We grieve because aligning oneself with Christianity is no longer a popular stance. And if we do not grieve, we will not ask ourselves the tough questions that we need to ask. Maybe when we ask the right questions we will discover that the good old days weren’t very good after all. Maybe from God’s perspective, Christendom wasn’t so Christ-like as we thought it was.

2. Remember

The Psalmist also offers these words:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

As a church, we not only grieve. We remember. This last portion of this psalm speaks defiantly into the darkness that has enveloped the exiles. Taunted by enemies on all sides, seemingly helpless and hopeless, powerless to change their fate, laughed at, ridiculed, rejected, their country devastated, their temple in ruins, the exiles express a passionate, stubborn and resistant faith. Our celebration of communion reminds us to relive and remember our story: that forgiveness and new life is open to all who would embrace it. The simple elements remind us of what kind of life we are called to live: lives of generosity and sacrifice, lives of love and grace, lives of faith and hope, not of power, not of self-centeredness, not of popularity.

3. Engage

What will it mean to practice our faith in a country of religious diversity? I think it means that we will have to learn humility, and invite open dialogue with other faiths, and those who are “unaffiliated.” We will have to resist the temptation to make absolute faith claims. We will have to stand firm against the enticement to make negative judgments on other faith practices. We need to make the effort to get to know others — to learn what they think, what they believe, and what is at the heart of their understanding and commitment to God. Let’s call this stance “pluralism literacy” — becoming knowledgeable about other faiths. The culture is beginning to taking care of this for us. For example, Modesto is known as the Bible belt of California. It has deep conservative roots in farmland and a vocal Evangelical community. Modesto is becoming more religiously diverse. But unlike any other place, religion is a required course in high school here. Modesto is the only public school district in America where students have to study all major religions to graduate. The goal is to create one community where everyone is accepted. It will be essential for us to know how other types of believers and nonbelievers feel and think — the kind of knowledge that requires imagination, empathy or, what college often provides, real encounters.

As Christians, we do not know. We only trust. We do not own the truth, but we bear witness to the living Truth. We engage ourselves with those who belong to other faith traditions with the expectation that the other — another human being — has something vital to bring to our meeting. We want to know what God is doing in the lives of people within other faiths. Christian witness in a pluralistic world means opening our lives to others so that they may understand how we attend to our ultimate concerns, and so that we might listen to how God helps others address their ultimate concerns.

When we can do that, we might be surprised at what we learn. We might be shocked to hear God speaking to us. We might learn to talk intelligently about our own faith instead of assuming that people already know about Christianity. As we share and listen, as we do God’s work, hand-in-hand with people of faith who seek to make the world a better place, we might just become the church God intended us to be in the first place.

Sources:
W. Eugene March, God’s Tapestry (Philadelphia: WMJK, 2008).
http://www.bbchurch.ca/Sermons/272/2006-01-08%20-%20What%20happened%20to%20my%20comfortable%20life.pdf
http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-03-09-ARIS-faith-survey_N.htm
http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2.htm
http://religions.pewforum.org/
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/06/24/eveningnews/main4206426.shtml
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/01/AR2007030102073.html

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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