Monday, November 23, 2009

Sermon for Sunday Nov. 22, Reign of Christ

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:4-8

Here’s how I know I’ve been having a low week. I yelled at a telemarketer. They always call at a bad time. On the day in question, it was around 8 AM. In between my coughing, trying to figure out what we can make for breakfast that will take the least amount of human effort, dealing with the kid’s fevers, getting the healthy kids ready for school, not to mention the dogs deciding it was time to go berserk over phantoms, the phone rang. It was a guy selling directory assistance Internet ads. “Hello, can I speak to the Trumbull Congressional Church Office?”
“It’s Congregational. And no, this is a residence. Please call the church office after 9:00 AM.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your business?”
“Actually, I do mind. Please call the church office.”
“Do you have the number? I gave the number. He said he would call the office later. Then he asked, “Is this a United Church of Christ?”
"Please call the church office after 9 AM. Good Bye.” I hung up.
No problem so far . . . only mild annoyance . . . until the phone rang again about one minute later. Same company. Same script. Different voice.
“Hello, can I speak to the Trumbull Congressional Church Office?” My sudden anger could have poached an egg. I like to think I’m a patient person. I can put up with a lot of abuse before I lose my cool. But not today.
“Listen,” I said, in that fake, strained, I’m-not-smiling-on-the-inside-OR-the-outside kind of voice. “Someone from your company just called here. This is a residence. The church office opens at 9 AM. Please call the office.”
“I’m very sorry sir. But can you tell me, is this church a United Church of Christ?”
My eyes got all twitchy, and in a terrifying flash I did something I told myself I would never do. I turned into my father on the phone. “I already told you to stop calling here. Now I’m getting REALLY aggravated. Please stop calling here IMMEDIATELY! Good Bye.”

I slammed down the phone. The kids looked at me in surprise. The dogs stopped barking, sat on the floor, and started whimpering. From the other room Chris asked, “Who was that?”
“Telemarketers,” I grumbled.
“You were kind of grumpy with them. I liked it.” She said.

Sometimes life becomes more difficult than we expect it to be. Forget about telemarketers. How many of you are coming into the holidays facing health problems? How many worry about money and jobs? How many are sad because you will be celebrating holidays alone as the kids go to be with the ex-spouse? How many have difficult confrontations to make this season? How many have hard choices? How many seek wisdom and don’t get any answers? In the past two weeks, I’ve talked to people who worry about each of these scenarios. For many, it is a low time of year. We come here with heavy burdens, with anxieties and fears, maybe even panic.

For others, this may be a bright season. Life is good. Do you know people who are always happy? I mean, WAY happy? The Devil himself could rise out of the ground and they would be shake his hand and tell him how happy they are to see him. Once I sat next to one of those happy dads who kept asking me if I was amazed by my children's brain and how wonderful it is to watch kids grow and develop. While I do think they are amazing, I felt like saying “Right now I think it would be amazing and wonderful to not watch my children pick their noses.”

Enough about me. How about you? Is today a low Sunday or a bright Sunday for you? Have you come here carrying heavy burdens, or have you come ready to celebrate the victory of Christ? At one time or another, we feel like we are sinking in the troubles of life. We can use all kinds of bloated rhetoric about resurrection victory and new life in Christ, but that’s not always how we feel. Author Brennan Manning points out that sometimes the church creates the impression that once we confess Jesus as Lord, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn. Marriage blossoms into conjugal bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is declared to be a winner. An attractive 20-year old accepts Jesus and becomes Miss America, a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips Alan Dershowitz on court TV, a tenth-round draft choice for the Patriots goes to the Pro Bowl. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing.

For many of us, though, life is more like a victorious limp. More realistically, the story sounds more like this: At some point in our lives many of us were deeply touched by a profound spiritual encounter. We were swept up in joy, we finally felt peace, and love. We no longer became unraveled as we went about the daily routines and occupations of life. But soon enough, we got snagged in the netting of school, or family, or career and all the other important distractions that the busy world offers. We began to treat Jesus like an old high school buddy whom we dearly loved but gradually lost track of. It was unintentional. We simply allowed circumstances to drive us apart. Eventually, heightened by inattention, the presence of Jesus grows more and more remote. So our days become more and more trivial. Our concentration is interspersed by meetings and small crises. Eventually we settle in to well-defined lives of comfortable piety and well-fed virtue. We lead practical lives. Our feeble attempts at prayer are filled with overformal phrases to an impassive God.

I guess I won’t speak for you — this is the victorious limp of my life. It is up and down, peaks and valleys. At different times on the journey, I try to fill spiritual hunger with a variety of substitutes: work, reading, travel, ice cream, TV, music, day dreaming, making lists. Some how, I allow myself to be hardened to God, and therefore I don’t to pay attention to the love Jesus offers.

Today’s reading from Revelation helps me to remember that life doesn’t have to be this way. To begin with, I’m reminded that Jesus is the Alpha. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Jesus is the beginning. I hear Jesus say, “I am the Alpha. Your life begins in me. You are God’s child, and from the beginning of time, I created you to be at home in me.”

Remembering that Jesus is the Alpha reminds me that behind all the Christian clich├ęs, I will fall flat on my face. And at those times I have choice. I can creep away, feeling like a shamed loser, or I can remember that I am God’s child. My life begins in Christ. My existence has purpose and meaning. Because Jesus is my beginning point, I can summon the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout all of life. With all of our scars, with all our sins and insecurities, we stand with Jesus, the Alpha, the First. He marks the beginning of our long journey from death to life.

We also remember that Jesus is the Omega. Omega is the last letter in the Greek Alphabet. In other words, we begin in Jesus, but Jesus is also our finish. Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. In Christ we have received life, and to Christ we must give life back.

We hold back so much on life, don’t we? I mean, isn’t it easier to know that everything is going to be safe? Low risks–or no risks involved? I’ve told this story before, but I like it, so you get to hear it again.

A town gathered in the courthouse for a trial. The prosecuting attorney called his first witness, an elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. And, frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, and you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a rising big shot, but you haven’t the brains to realize you will never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney?” She replied, “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to babysit him. And he has been a real disappointment to me, too. He’s lazy, bigoted, and has a drinking problem. The man can’t build a normal relationship with anyone, and his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.” At this point, the judge rapped the courtroom to silence and called both counselors to the bench. In a very quiet voice, he said with menace, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, I’ll hold you both in contempt of court!”

Many of us go to great lengths to hide the truth about ourselves. We live behind all kinds of masks that conceal who we really are. Why do you hold back from a life fully yielded to Christ? What are you afraid of?
Are you afraid Jesus will ask too much? Afraid you might have to actually love some enemies along the way, or even harder, you might have to love yourself?
Are you afraid that Jesus is going to take away all the fun and joy out of life?
Are you afraid Jesus might dig around too deeply into your life along the way?
Afraid of being judged?
Afraid of being seen as a failure?
Are you holding back your love for Christ because you think Jesus won’t like you? You can’t see any good in your life–what if you draw closer to Jesus and he doesn’t see it either?

The question the gospel puts to us is simply this: What are you waiting for? Who shall separate you from the love of Christ? Jesus says, “I am the Omega. I am the End of your hard journey. Come to me.”

Are you afraid your weakness can separate you from the love of Christ?
It can’t.
Are you afraid that your inadequacies can separate you from the love of Christ?
They can’t.
Difficult marriage, loneliness, anxiety over the children’s future?
They can’t.
Negative self-image.
It can’t.
Economic hardship, hatred, rejection by loved ones, suffering and sickness, persecution, terrorism?
They can’t.
Mistakes, fears, and uncertainties? They can’t either.

The Bible says, “Nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.” Jesus loves you. His love is our bright hope during the low times. Everything else will pass away, but in the beginning, and the end, there is still Jesus, the Alpha and Omega. He’s the A and the Z, and everything else in between. From him we come and to him we must return.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sermon for Nov. 15, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? The Harm and Good of Religion
Nov. 15, 2009

For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible . . . So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:8-21

On Tuesday, I was attacked by moths. Moths rule the parsonage, especially the downstairs bathroom. As I walked into that bathroom, moths attacked me. OK, they fluttered at me. But I was really surprised. I’ve never known them to attack before. But here they were, flying around me like I was a new spotlight in an otherwise dreary neighborhood. I had to defend myself, right? I swatted them away -- all except for one persistent assailant that would not leave me alone. The more I swiped at it, the more it returned. At that moment, I had no sense of the strength and power of my left hand, up against a little moth on my right hand. I swatted away, expecting that the moth would fly away as other bugs had. This time, though, I swatted too hard. The moth fell to the ground, lifeless, before my feet. No big deal right? Even thought others in my family are accomplished moth killers, it’s not my thing. I’m more of a catch and release moth hunter. I saw the moth lying on the floor. “Maybe it just landed upside down,” I hoped. But no, I had killed it. I hadn’t meant to. I just was completely inattentive to my own strength and power.

This brief collision between man and beast got me thinking about some other predators, like predator drones — those pilotless weapons of death our government flies into the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Our strength and power, our mastery of the skies, must feel a lot like my hand on that little moth to the rural family celebrating a wedding in Pakistan or the laborer in the fields of Afghanistan, hearing that dreaded sound.

I thought about those who have left the church or lost their faith due to significant wounding in the church. The people who rejected them, marginalized them, judged them, or ignored them — those who failed to offer compassion in a moment of crisis — did they know the strength and power of love withheld? Did they have any idea that their actions could lead someone to leave a community of faith?

I also thought about the saints in my life, those who are still living and those who have gone before me. They were not intoxicated with their own strength and power. They used their power for good, for God, for reconciliation, redemption, and release. Our text from Ephesians describes them well: For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.

Religions live within this dual reality. The world’s religions are rich. They have known power and strength. They have had the authority to give and to take away. It has been said that religion is one of the most destructive forces in human life. Hatred, violence, intolerance, and bigotry are sustained and inflamed by religions. The reputation of Christianity was shattered long ago by crusades and inquisitions. The reputation of Islam has been shattered by terrorism around the globe. Even Hinduism, once thought to be universally tolerant, destroys mosques and murders non-Hindus in the name of its own religious culture. At the same time, religions are filled with various believers who work for peace. They offer hope of a better world. They strive to radiate the light. Is religion dangerous? Can religion do more good than harm?

We hear this question more and more. To get to the heart of the matter, let’s consider a parallel case. It could also be said that one of the most destructive forces in human life is politics. In Russian and Cambodia, millions of people have been killed in the name of socialist politics. In Latin America, millions of people disappeared in ruthless campaigns of violence. Deception, hypocrisy and deceit are common in political life. Would we be better off in a world without politics?

We might say, “No, of course, not.” We know that humans need some sort of social organization. We know politics are corruptible, but we reluctantly agree that politics and governments do more good than harm. We can think about religion in the same way. Some religious expressions are harmful, just as some political ideologies cause harm. But it seems pointless to condemn religion just because religion causes hatred and violence. Religion can be used to arouse hatred, but it can also be used to inspire love, and commitment. The world would be much poorer without Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa, without Bach or Michelangelo, without St. Francis, Siddhartha Gautama, or Jesus.

How about all the differences in world religions? Do our differences cause harm? Do religious differences lead to conflict? We need to remember that religions exist because humans are imperfect. We live in wicked days. People do evil routinely. Humans are trapped in cycles of hatred, greed and selfishness. Since religions are invented and practiced by imperfect people, religious beliefs will become corrupted. We will see intolerance and repression, irrationality and fear of outsiders. Many of the conflicts between religions are not caused by religious beliefs, but by imperfect believers.

Honestly, some degree of conflict will always exist between religions. Human beings find it hard to live with differences. There will be issues that we will not agree on. Our disagreements will be complicated by the fact that human ignorance, greed, and hatred are just part of the deal. However, religions also contribute to the common good.

When I walked into our old church building early this morning, the radiators were cooking — spreading heat into the sanctuary. The radiators provide a good reason to be an usher on Sunday morning. Pass out bulletins, greet people, and get the prime spot next to the heater on a cold day. It’s a great place to stand, believe me!

At their best, religions are radiators. They send out warmth, and comfort. They draw people in. They radiate God’s light. But we can do better. What would it take for religions to become efficient and beneficial radiators?

1. Religions need to focus on experience over intellect. Religion is not about agreeing to doctrines. Religions, at their best, transform human thought into compassionate action. I recently read about a group called The Compassionate Action Network. They unveiled a charter last Thursday. The Charter has been affirmed by the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, by religious thinkers and leaders from across the religious and secular spectrum. The Charter for Compassion calls people to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. They call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion and to insist that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate. They realize that if part of our human family suffers, we all suffer, even if it’s our enemy.

2. Another goal of religion should be a commitment to the flourishing of humanity, and the flourishing of all life. We need to ask our religion: Do you bring more goodness, compassion, and understanding into the world, or more prejudice, division, discord and hatred? Genuine respect means realizing that others have the right to make their own decisions about ultimate reality. Religions need to accept that their teachings represent one of many individual paths to a fulfilling relationship with God. Religions should never force people into thinking and behaving in certain ways. If we learn to value the different ways people see things, as well as the different values they celebrate, there can be the possibility of cooperation between faiths.

Following our religions should bring joy. The author of Ephesians gives readers a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” He tells Christians what to radiate, and what not to radiate. But it is all in the context of living a happy life. Do live in the light and develop a lifestyle befitting of the light. Do harvest goodness, truth, and justice. Do live in wisdom. Do make the most of your time and opportunities. Do seek to discover the will of God for your life. Do drink deeply of the Spirit. Do overflow with songs of praise in your hearts to the Lord.

Can religions take this step? There are some that already have. Those who hold religion back are those who think that their view is the only right, true, unchanging, unquestionable, and absolutely certain view, while everybody’s else’s beliefs and experiences are false. It is that lack of humility – that lack of awareness – that limits our understanding. When our goal is to be supreme, we are unable to see the good in others.

We cannot eliminate religions. They are here to stay. So, let’s make sure religion is a positive force for good in human life. Is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. At best, religion — the search for supreme goodness and a life lived for the sake of good alone — promotes the welfare of all life on this planet. We are radiators. Religion is the compassionate heart that might warm a cold and heartless world. If we live on this earth, our lives radiate something—and what we radiate becomes a teacher to those around us. In a world where anger, despair, and a loss of significance are all around, religion can give us a sense of hope, and peace, and well-being.

Sources:
• Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward, pp. 179-200
• http://charterforcompassion.org
• Mary Hammond, “The Measure of our Days” at http://pccoberlin.org/blog/ ?paged=2

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sermon for Nov. 8, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Faith and Morality
Matthew 22:23-40

Many religions make many strict requests of their members. This has always been the story for Christianity. For instance, consider the New Destiny Christian Center of the Assemblies of God located in Colorado. New Destiny Christian Center’s goal frightens people into believing in heaven and hell. In 1990, the church created an alternative to the traditional Halloween haunted house. They call it “Hell House” Every Halloween Season guides walk visitors through a building where youth actors depict disturbing scenes in hell. The purpose of Hell House is to save souls – to convert members of the community, specifically teens, into recommitting their lives to Jesus. What started as a small event is now produced around the world. At any given time, one may encounter a Hell House; they are no longer strictly reserved for Halloween. In fact, it can be purchased as an “outreach kit” so it can be performed anywhere at any time. The kit includes a variety of scripted scenes, which depict events as: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the ‘born gay’ lie and died of AIDS;” a “riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” and, a school shooting scene and a “satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice.” The church’s official website (godestiny.org) claims that Hell House, “average[s] a 33% salvation and rededication decision rate” by the end of the “tour.”

The idea is that living a life against Christianity’s ancient morality codes will earn you a personal frying pan in Hell. Accept Jesus, and your life will be turned around. Heaven will be your home. Fail to live your life according to a certain group’s specific morality code, and you are toast. What do you think? Is eternal punishment God’s plan for those who don’t follow the rules? Our question for today is this: Is religion dangerous because it leads people to follow irrational beliefs? Are we supposed to follow biblical laws blindly, or is it OK to realize that moral attitudes change, sometimes for the better? Can it be that morality develops over time, and that religions can develop more humane ways of following God?

Most of our religious moral codes came out of a time called “The Axial Age.” Axial is another word for pivotal, or transformative. The centuries before the life of Jesus were transformative in the ways people thought about religion. Confucianism and Taoism emerged in China. Hinduism and Buddhism were founded in India. Judaism and monotheism began in the Middle East. Philosophy emerged in Greece. Before this time, people thought about the world differently. The world was alive with forces that brought opportunities and threats. It is generally believed that our Stone Age ancestors viewed the powerful forces in their lives as being controlled by spirits or gods. They came to believe that a god, for instance, controlled the gusting wind; a spirit was in the rushing, swirling river; and a fairy swayed the mighty trees. This is called animism—the belief in nature spirits. It is probably the earliest, most universal, and longest lasting theological understanding humans have had.

Around 600-800 years before Christ, religious thinking began to change. It was the beginning of a fresh age of religion. Religious thinkers began to approach their relationship with spirituality differently. They began to ask questions. They began to teach that it is more important how you behave than what you believe. It’s more important to treat people right than to be right. In fact, the Golden Rule comes from the Axial Age. It was firest stated by Confucius in China: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” He said this five centuries before Jesus. The Axial Age began a new form of compassion that came from a very deep place within. People began to understand their connectedness to others. It was also a time of turmoil and social chaos. The message of the Axial Age was to find a place deep within of peace and steadfastness, even when everything around is in turmoil.

I’m giving you this little history lesson because I want us to understand that our religious moral codes are thousands of years old. They were invented during a time when people needed peace, stability, and new ideas. However, as time progresses and societies change, we now have new situations that were not covered in the original codes. Many passages in the Old Testament reflect a tribal mentality that portray God as hating everyone the people of Israel hated. For instance, God’s law justifies the institution of slavery (except for fellow Jews) and defines women as the property of men. Note that even the Ten Commandments tell us “not covet our neighbor’s house, his wife, his slaves, his ox, his donkey, etc.” The neighbor is clearly a male, and the things that we are forbidden to covet are all male possessions. These Hebrew Scriptures, however, also define God as love, justice and as a universal being.

So, there is a lot of current debate about how we should apply these laws for today. Are ancient morality codes supposed to be the basis for all of society’s laws? Are these codes set in stone, or can they be altered to fit our current times? The idea of unchanging, eternal law actually comes from Greek Philosophy. Greeks in the Axial Age believed that perfect truth was eternal. Truth never changes. If you ever took a college psychology course, you might remember the name of Lawrence Kohlberg. He came up with something called the Stages of Moral Development. He wanted to know how children develop a sense of right and wrong. Kohlberg looked to the Greeks to demonstrate how boys and men developed moral standards as they got older. Men, like the ancient Greeks, develop their morality based on unchanging, unbending standards.

Along came another psychologist named Carol Gilligan. She looked at Kohlberg’s research and said, “Hey, he only tested males. Why are the women left out of the research?” She did her own research on the moral development of girls and women and she discovered something very different. While men looked for unchanging standards, women’s moral lives were governed by relationships. Women weighed the cost of their decisions based on how they affected others. For Gilligan’s female subjects, morality was situational and relative.

Maybe this should be true for religion, too. Rather than referring to some unchanging rule, instead of mandating ethics that are unchanging and absolute, perhaps God’s outlook on morality is changing and flexible.

I think Jesus had this kind of change in mind. In today’s reading, Jesus has two conversations with his own religious leaders and law experts. They are trying to trap him. They ask him intricate questions, expecting Jesus to answer according to the strict, eternal code of Jewish Law. Jesus sees the trap. He knows that following the Law is supposed to bring joy and freedom, not oppression. He says to the leaders, “God is for the living, not for the dead. Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” I hear Jesus saying, “Look everyone, following these rules alone does not please God. This life is supposed to be a gift. God is love. If you want to follow God’s lead, then let your lives be defined by love, not law.”

We stand at a moment of great opportunity. Some religious thinkers say that we are in the middle of a second Axial Age. It probably began at the Enlightenment, when society was liberated to use common sense and to question everything. If the first Axial Age was about owning individual beliefs and behavior, this Axial Age that we are now a part of is about global consciousness. It’s about understanding ourselves as part of a global network of people and things, and the earth. It’s about a growing awareness that God is present in us, in others, and in life itself. This second Axial Age is a bringing together of the east and the west. It is a stage for us to draw the best from our tradition but to understand that the moral center of Christian tradition is really no different than the moral center of other religions. Religion is not about judgment, death, and punishment. The core of religious morality is relationship and understanding. The central message of our morality is love.

When American writer Langston Hughes was 12 years old, he was taken to an evangelical revival tent meeting by his auntie, who had prepared him for several weeks before it by saying, “When we go to this meeting you will see Jesus, and when you see Jesus, you will receive him into your heart.” Langston was very excited, waiting for this day when he would finally see Jesus. The night came. He heard an impassioned sermon. The story for that night was the 100 sheep: 99 were saved and there was one who was lost. The preacher came to the end of his talk and shouted out “Do you see the light! Do you see Jesus?” Children scurried to the front of the tent, and received Jesus in their heart -- all except for two young boys, Langston and another boy named Wesley. The two of them huddled together at the back of the tent, Langston upset because he did not see Jesus anywhere. , Meanwhile, Wesley was saying, “Come on, we have to go down in front, this is getting embarrassing.” All the adults gathered around them and prayed for their souls.

Eventually, Wesley said, “I’m out of here!” He went to the front, turned around, and grinned at Langston. Langston thought, “How ironic, this boy is just pretending to be saved, and there is no Jesus here.” Langston sat and withstood the pressure, but eventually ran up to the front and said “Okay, I’m here.” He went home that night and wept in his bed. He thought for sure that Jesus did not exist. He had not seen Jesus. He had just gone down to the front and pretended. Langston Hughes went on to live an inspirational life as a wonderful writer, an activist on issues of racism, someone who knew the heart of the story of Jesus so well. One who had already been saved, and went about liberating others.

Religious morality is dangerous when it is about putting weighty and unreachable expectations on people’s behavior. Religious morality is dangerous when it asks people to be fake in order to please others. Religious morality is dangerous when it creates saved insiders versus unsaved outsiders. Morality should be about liberation. This is all about living authentically, and knowing yourself, and being true to your own perspectives. Of course, we need laws. We need morals. But there should be some guiding principles.

1. Question everything, including everything I say to you. Test everything you hear against your own common sense, your own integrity.

2. It is more important how you behave than what you believe. It is more important to treat people right than to be right.

3. Find that place deep within you that senses its connection with all other things, and practice compassion out of that place.

4. When we are surrounded by chaos, and everything seems to be in turmoil, find a place deep within you that is peaceful and steadfast. When you find that place, you have glimpsed the God within.

Here is the core of our morals: God is every action that you take, every word that you speak. In your actions of compassion toward people, you are no more and no less than showing the presence of God. How marvelous!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sermon for November 1, 2009

Is Religion Dangerous? Faith and Reason

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen. -- Hebrews 11:1-3

Faith can fix anything, right? We hear it all the time. Just have faith, and everything will be all right. Or will it? In his book, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christian Believe, Pastor Larry Osborne says that this belief tops the list. I know, it sounds weird, doesn’t it. We’ve been taught from our earliest days that faith can move mountains. Faith will keep us going on the tough times. Without faith, what is left to Christianity?

Faith believes in something beyond what can be known by our senses. Sometimes we call it “blind faith” – we don’t see, we just know. We don’t ask questions. We don’t entertain doubts. We just believe what we are told to believe, follow whom we are told to follow, and imagine that having faith will make all of life’s pain go away.

When I think of blind faith, I remember Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” Each year in a rigid and isolated small town, a lottery is held. Everyone gathers in the town square, a big box is brought out, and each person, young and old, draws a slip of paper. As you read the story, you think that the winner of the lottery will gain riches and notoriety. The person who draws the paper with the black spot on it becomes the villages’ sacrificial victim. As soon as the black spot is drawn, the whole village picks up rocks and stones the lottery winner to death. Even family members took part in the stoning. Then everyone goes back to his or her business until the next year and the next lottery. No one ever suggests that the murderous lottery is immoral. For the most part, they accept their tradition without voicing any questions or misgivings, for fear of retribution. It has been passed on for so long that the majority does not think twice about it. “The Lottery” tells the horrendous and repetitive story of how mob violence forms the foundation of religion. The victim’s death justifies the mob's behavior. Most religions have stories about sacrificial victims who atone for the sins of the people. The death of the victim is justified by the guilt of the victim.

Or, maybe you have heard this story about blind faith: A woman is out hiking when she stumbles and falls over a 500-foot cliff to the ocean below. A few feet down, she catches a shrub and clings on for dear life. Dangling precariously, her palms begin to sweat. Realizing she has only seconds to spare, she calls out, “Is there anybody up there?” A deep, booming voice answers: “Let go of the branch. Have faith. This is God speaking. I will catch you and set you down safely. Trust me.” The woman looks down at the sea far below crashing against the jagged rocks and then looks up to the lip of the cliff just out of reach. She then looks at the shrub. She looks down and up several times, then calls out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

As we go through life, we realize that blind faith does not fix everything. Blind Faith does not fix a broken car. Blind Faith does not make acne go away. Blind Faith does not make an alcoholic stop drinking. Blind Faith doesn’t bring loved ones back from the dead. And this is why some people claim religion is dangerous. It makes smart people believe in dumb things. It’s unreasonable. Faith is dangerous when it becomes an excuse to check your mind at the door, to believe the unbelievable, to stop thinking for yourself and to allow someone else to do the work for you. Faith is dangerous when it promotes wishful thinking against the truth. Faith is dangerous when it creates scapegoats, when it victimizes innocent people and creates class systems based on those who have the right kind of faith and those who don’t. What do you think? Is faith dangerous?

What would you do if I were to tell you that I think the Christian Gospel is sheer fantasy? Would you change the channel you’re watching? Hit the mute button? Well, hear me out: I do believe the Gospel is fantasy, but I also believe it is true. That is, I think the Gospel is beyond our experience. It is beyond our senses. It is beyond our time. Sometimes it is like a dream. We know it speaks some truth, but we don’t know what it means. In that sense, it is a fantasy. And because of that, it calls me to have faith in what it says. To put it another way, the Bible describes a reality that stretches beyond the limits of my finite, mortal existence. Believing what it’s trying to teach us has the capacity to change our lives and the world we share.

Near the beginning of poem, “For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden makes the following confession: “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.” When you are on the brink of death -- from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or catastrophe or oppression or depression or whatever -- when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of something beyond your limitations. That which is merely possible cannot save. And that is what the Gospel offers: an impossible possibility, a reality that goes beyond the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.

Some would call this an escape, a flight from reality. And make no mistake: this is the great risk of the Christian life. Christianity is a gamble that there is a Reality and Truth that lives just behind and beyond our everyday experience. And what a gamble it is! Think about it: week in and week out, in churches all across the world, preachers declare not only that there is a God who created and sustains the universe, but that this God cares deeply and passionately about your hopes and dreams, successes and failures. This God cares enough to send God’s only Son into the world to grant you new and abundant life. This is precisely the gamble that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is talking about when he says that Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Let’s face it, there isn’t much hard evidence for a loving, self-sacrificing God. Just read the newspaper or watch the evening news. Almost everywhere we look it seems that we humans delight in violence and destruction while failing so spectacularly and regularly at loving each other. How, can we begin to imagine a God of love behind it all? In the face of CNN and Fox news, it would seem that the good news of the Gospel is just a little too good to be true.

Sharon Salzberg has a nice way of describing the maturing of faith. Sharon is one of the leading teachers of eastern meditation in the world today. She differentiates between bright faith, verified faith and abiding faith.

Bright faith beams at the possibilities of life. It is pure optimism. Many children have bright faith. It is beyond their comprehension that life will not bend to their will. We get jaded and lose it at some point. Bright faith is appropriate for children. For adults, bright faith can come close to blind faith. The problem with blind faith is that even though faith can move mountains, you need to see which mountain needs to be moved.

Verified faith includes a memory of past survival and achievement. It is learned wisdom. Verified faith works closely with doubt. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. They are two sides of one coin. Doubt sharpens faith, and faith affirms doubt. The Buddha told a story that showed the movement from bright faith to verified faith. He compared faith to a blind giant who meets up with a very sharp-eyed crippled person, called wisdom. The blind giant, called faith, says to the sharp-eyed cripple, “I am very strong, but I can’t see; you are very weak, but you have sharp eyes. Come and ride on my shoulders. Together we will go far.”

Abiding faith is unwavering in the face of change. Abiding faith doesn’t expect life to remain stagnant. It is in tune with a purpose that doesn’t depend on circumstances. It is one with the flow of life.

Of course, if you are anything like me, abiding faith is hard. I move in and out of abiding faith. Just do the best you can, take time to honor yourself for the moments of great faith in your life, and keep moving towards the light.

The amazing thing the Bible is that it not only tells us the stories of the people of faith. It actually invites us into that same fantastic story. At this very moment you are being called to live out the expressions of mature, abiding faith. You are being called to enact your part of God’s story for the world; to struggle to believe in a world of doubts, to love in a world of hate, to make peace in a world of violence, to offer hope in a world of despair. And whether you succeed or fail, I promise you that God will not give up on you. God never has, and God never will. And if you have the faith to believe that, then you will understand the power of abiding faith. Faith gives the courage to face the powers of sin and death and the hope to engage them. We watch those who have gone before us, and in faith, we know that we too can become channels of God’s love.

Sources:
Ian Lawton, “You Gotta Have Faith.” http://www.christ-community.net/sermons/sermon01_11_09.htm
David Lose, “The Faith Journey.” http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/lose_5017.htm
William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Lousiville: WJK, 2004), 5-8.
Keith Ward. Is Religion Dangerous? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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