Friday, July 29, 2011

CCC Update

I am back in Silver Spring after a three-week vacation. I had a chance to watch my children's end-of-school-year events, reunite with my family after being apart for four months, travel to Tuscany to perform a wedding for some dear friends, and finally move the Braddocks into our new home in Silver Spring. I am eager to be back at CCC -- to settle in here even as my family adjusts into new lives and routines in the community.

Upon my return, I noticed our rainbow banner was no longer next to the church sign on Colesville Road. In June, Outreach and Engagement planted the rainbow banner as a sign of hope and invitation for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people in our church and larger community. The banner recently came down and is awaiting some repairs and will hopefully return in August.

Why would we put this banner up in the first place? Why do we need to single out any particular minority communities for special attention? Haven't we at CCC always offered a spirit of welcome to all? I think we need something like a rainbow banner to wake us up to the reality that those of us in mainstream society often enjoy a false sense of superiority. It is easy to go about our daily routines, blandly unconcerned or unaware about the pain others go through. We need reminders that there are those in our communities who experience exclusion, hatred, and religion-sanctioned abuse. We don't always want to face the role we have played in discrimination against others. We don't always want to own up to the ways that mainstream cultures benefit from injustice.

The rainbow banner reminds me that the church has a strong moral and biblical obligation to engage in activities that change society in more just, humane, compassionate, and intelligent ways. These ideas echo the words of our Just Peace, Open & Affirming, and Anti-Racism covenants. I know not everyone at CCC thinks the same way about these covenantal commitments we have made. For some, our Three Covenants are marching orders for a better world. Others are uncomfortable with the church becoming a public advocacy group. For now, I think we all need to ask some deeper questions:

* If we feel discomfort about inclusion, where does that come from? When we share our opinions about these issues, do they come from reasoned thought or are they unconscious repetitions of messages we learned as we grew up?
* If we evaluate our language, do we use terms or phrases that reinforce unequal status between God's people? Can we ask those who use discriminatory language and behavior to refrain from doing so, and give reasons why?
* Do we allow stereotypes and generalizations about people?
* Can we comfortably explore and discuss issues of tolerance and diversity?
* Are we willing to become active in our communities to achieve inclusive environments?
* Are we satisfied with our current level of fulfilling our Three Covenants?

My desire is for all of us to know that we are unconditionally loved and fully accepted by God. If God feels that way about us, then it's our job to make the church and the world that way for one another. Indeed, no matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome at CCC!


Pastor Matt

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sermon for July 24, 2011

Six Sacred Stories
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52

I don’t threaten God too often. I try not to make a habit to tell God what to do, or how to run the universe. I very rarely scribble down a wish, offer it in a prayer and then give God an ultimatum if it doesn’t come true. Recently though, I caught myself doing that as my family moved into our new home.

We live in a quiet, small neighborhood, filled with 1960’s split-level ranches and sidewalks, and people walking their dogs and trimming their grass with old-fashioned mowers. It’s like Norman Rockwell and Mayberry had a baby. (I don’t know how that would work, but looking at this neighborhood it must have.) Baby fawns roam freely through the neighborhood, grazing on the salad bar of hostas in people’s gardens and basking in the sunny meadow otherwise known as my neighbor’s back yard. Some call the deer a nuisance. To my kids, these white-dappled babies are cuties. The fireflies come out at night, inviting children to dance and do cartwheels during the lazy part of the day where dusk meets dark. Our kids can walk to school, if they want. The park is nearby, providing swimming, sports, or simple walks in the woods with our bug-eyed dog. Speaking of the dog, even she is excited to move. She looks out the window, barking at everything that twitches outside, announcing to the neighborhood, “We’re here! We’re here!”

Secretly, a thought has been brewing, but I haven’t known how to say it. Here my best stab at it: What if I’m wrong. What if we made a mistake moving into that neighborhood and that particular house? What if everything isn’t as it appears? What if it all gets taken away? Please God, don’t let this happen. I’ll mow my grass every four days and make a lasagna for the neighbors if you just keep us all safe and happy.

Funny isn’t it? Something’s going good, and I’m already wondering when it will go bad. My family has found something that works for us, and I’m thinking about ways that it will get ruined. I’ve always had this negative streak. I have to keep an eye it. In my Junior High days, I remember finding a book on my parent’s shelves entitled, How to Make Yourself Miserable by Dan Greenburg. It was written as satire, but I took it seriously and literally. I began to worry about everything. For instance, Greenburg suggest that his readers try this: while you’re sitting there, think about your home. Picture the faucet you probably forgot to turn off and the water as it cascades over the sides of the sink or tub, seeping out into the rest of the house, drowning your carpets, then your furniture, then your clothes, and finally bursting out of your windows and onto the street. Isn’t this fun? Now picture the lights or the stove you probably forgot to turn off, the overheating of the electrical circuits or the build-up of gas, and the inevitable flaming explosion. As a 12 year old, I would sit and worry, vexed about when life was going to crash. I sabotaged my happiness.

People do this all the time. We know that which leads to health and happiness and then we do things to actively ensure that it will not happen. Procrastination. Overindulgence. Speaking or acting without considering the consequences. Taking on too many responsibilities. Ignoring or minimizing problems in personal relationships. Needing help and never asking for it. Rushing through things. Taking comments too personally. These are self-sabotaging behaviors.

Organizations will behave in ways to actively work against their goals. Churches do it all the time. Churches will have meetings about how to have a meeting. Churches talk a lot about what is wrong and what needs to be made right. Pastors give sermons about the necessary changes. A year later, many are still doing the same activities they did before. As it turns out, it’s easier to sustain unhealthy behaviors than it is to challenge ourselves into new vibrancy.

I do it in my own spiritual life. I resonate with blogger Jon Acuff who writes about hearing the voice of God in his head. Like Jon, sometimes I struggle with defeating thoughts about my relationship with God. To be honest, sometimes I think I hear the voice of God in my head. And that voice is kind of a grump. When I bump into something good, I have a suspicion that god is going seize it. Even though I’ve been told that god wants me to be happy, I’m secretly afraid god is going to take everything and everyone I love away from me and I’ll die lonely and useless. This god is going to find something I love to do and then ask me to do the opposite. This god knows I am in love with literature and writing and that I hate the heat, so god’s going to make me learn calculus and open up a math-based summer camp in the Mojave Desert. When I find myself in the middle of something good, my instinct is to wrap my arms around it and protect it from the god in my head.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But how many people do you know who are convinced that god’s out to get them? Maybe you’ve felt it yourself. This god wants to take away everything that is fun, everything that is beautiful, everything that brings you pleasure.

The God of Jesus doesn’t call people to things they’re not created for. God calls us to situations that awaken deep seated purpose and desires in us. God calls us to experience extravagant love. God calls us to offer that extravagant love to others who doubt that it’s real.

Just consider these six sacred stories we are listening to today. These are not about a stingy, manipulative, vengeful God. These stories are about almost reckless abundance. These six sacred stories are about God’s growing and sustaining presence. God’s presence is like a mustard seed, a common weed that grows into something that is ridiculously big and beautiful. Jesus invites us to imagine all the nations of the world living under the shade of single tree. Imagine the peace.

Jesus talks about something as small as yeast working its way through 100 pounds of dough. Usually, when Jesus talks about yeast, it symbolizes corrupt behavior that works its way through religious and political systems. Today, the yeast of corruption transforms flat living into abundance that can be shared in our daily bread. Imagine the nourishment.

Jesus talks about buried treasure and pearls of great price, from something hidden to something unearthed; items so valuable, people give everything up in order to have them. Imagine the richness.

Jesus talks about fishing nets bursting with fish of every kind. In his world, the fish, like people, are separated and held accountable for what they did and didn’t do. Imagine the justice.
Jesus talks about a person who cleans a storeroom, sorting out the contents, giving things away, throwing out both old and new to make room for the newness of God’s reign. Imagine the extravagance. Imagine the daring. Imagine what delights can fill an empty storehouse ready to receive what God has to offer.

I am tired of visions and voices that shrug off the world and people God made with self-sabotaging, self-defeating lies. We need visions and voices of God’s presence that inspire us to work as healers and reconcilers in creation and among all God's people.

I don’t know what the god in your head sounds like. But, I bet sometimes there is a voice that wants you to believe that the reign of God is cheap, stingy, vengeful and small. I bet that voice wants you to be miserable. I bet it’s got a suitcase full of scorpions with your name on it. That’s not the Voice Jesus wants us to listen to. God loves you. God loves goodness. God loves mercy. God loves gift giving. God loves the sick. God loves the mess-ups. And though it may feel hard to believe, even if you’ve spent years with a different idea in your head, God loves you. What if you are the mustard seed that, with the right nurture, can grow to shelter others with delight? What if you are the yeast that can feed others? What if you are the hidden treasure that’s more valuable than anything else? What if you are the pearl of great price? What if God wants to turn the world upside down and it begins here and now, with each of us believing that God loves us?


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon for July 17, 2011

Don’t Pull the Weeds
July 17, 2011

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. The farmer’s workers went to him and said, “Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?”

“An enemy has done this!” the farmer exclaimed.

“Should we pull out the weeds?” they asked.

“No,” he replied, “you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.”

Then, leaving the crowds outside, Jesus went into the house. His disciples said, “Please explain to us the story of the weeds in the field.” Jesus replied, “The Son of Man is the farmer who plants the good seed. The field is the world, and the good seed represents the people of the Kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the evil one. The enemy who planted the weeds among the wheat is the devil. The harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Weeds. We are surrounded by them. There is this vine growing in the yard of my new house that is impossible to eliminate. It must grow about 15 feet a week. I am convinced that when humans are no longer around to manicure the earth, this evil, weedy vine alone will take over the planet. Ever since humans began planting and cultivating plants, weeds have been a problem. Weeds. Despised and rejected. In the garden or in the lawn, there is nothing in their appearance that we should desire them. Pull those things up and get rid of them.

The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a weed and a more desirable plant. A story came out last May about weed misidentification. Triumph quickly turned to embarrassment for some police officers in Corpus Christi, Texas. The police received a call from a teenager who thought he had seen hundreds of marijuana plants while biking through a city park. Officers arrived on the scene believing they were dealing with a not-so-secret pot farm. They spent about an hour pulling up, bagging and tagging around 400 plants. But when they took their haul back to the station, tests revealed that it was a common weed called horsemint. Police were so excited about making a major drug bust, they forgot to check to see if the plants were actually drugs. Although the estimated street value of the horsemint is $0, the officers’ effort wasn’t entirely in vain. Since horsemint has a tendency to spread quickly, the cops at least helped spare the park from a troublesome invader. All to say, sometimes it’s hard to tell an imposter from the real thing. Or, as Jesus might say, it’s hard to tell weeds from wheat.

It’s true for plants, and it’s true for people. I once read a story about an incident at a traffic light. A man was stopped, waiting for the light to turn green. When the light changed, he was distracted and he didn’t budge. The woman in the car behind him honked her horn. The driver still didn’t move. She honked again. By this time, she was pounding on the steering wheel and blowing her horn non-stop. Finally, just as the light turned yellow, the fellow in the first car woke up and drove through the light. The woman in the second car was beside herself, now stopped at the red light. Still mid-rant, she heard a tap on her car window. She looked up to see the face of a police officer. “Lady, you’re under arrest,” he said. “Get out of the car. Put your hands up.” He took her to the police station, had her finger printed, photographed, and then put her in a holding cell. Hours passed. The officer returned and unlocked the cell door. He escorted her back to the booking desk. “Sorry for the mistake, Lady,” he said. “But I pulled up behind you as you were blowing your horn and cursing out the fellow in front of you. I noticed the stickers on your bumper. One read “Follow me to Sunday School.” The other, “What Would Jesus Do?” So, naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.

It’s often hard to tell who is wheat and who is a weed.

The meaning of Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds becomes clearer when we look at the specific kind of weed he talks about. The Greek word for weeds refers to particular type of weed that looks just like wheat. You can hardly tell the difference. Today we call it bearded darnel. As it matures, it looks like wheat, it acts like wheat, but it is not wheat. It fools you. It bears the closest resemblance to wheat till the ear appears, and only then the difference is discovered. The problem with taking our hoe to the evil weeds of the world is that good and evil sometimes look so much alike.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am wheat and sometimes I am a weed, and I usually don’t know when I’m being either. Some of the things I do that I think are so good and holy have turned out to be more about me than about Christ. Sometimes I do things or say things I’m not really paying attention to, and they end up making a positive difference.

Wheat and weeds. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. That’s why Jesus suggests that Christians are not qualified to distinguish between the two. We are not good at telling the difference between true and false believers. Most times that the Christendom has presumed to do that it has produced an ungodly bloodbath. For instance, when the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine required every person to make a profession of faith in Christ on pain of death, he succeeded in killing many true Christians who refused to submit to his violent brand of Christianity. During the
Crusades of the Middle Ages, unbelievable brutality was committed against non-Christians, especially Muslims and Jews, in the name of the Prince of Peace. During the Protestant Reformation, countless thousands of Christians who did not submit to the dogma and authority of Roman Catholicism were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Even in Reformed branch of our congregational history, the great Reformer John Calvin was at least peripherally involved in the burning of heretics in his hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. We have the Salem witch trials to our shame, as well as the settlers’ horrendous treatment of native American populations–often using religious justification. How many beautiful, decent, moral, and spirit-filled people have been killed in the name of Christ by Christians who claimed to know who God favored and who God was going to punish? Even today, how many wise and wonderful people are alienated or discriminated against by Christians who claim to know the difference between wheat and weeds How many would never step foot in a Christian church because of the ways people have been treated by Christians?

Jesus knows we are not good at telling the difference between wheat and weeds. So just leave the plants alone and let God take care of the gardening. Our job is not to be God’s Weed Killers. We are supposed to be God’s ambassadors and witnesses, nurturers and caretakers.

Jesus says, “Let the wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest.” That’s a hard one. It sounds like he wants us to let evil go unnoticed -- to ignore that which is horrible and destructive in our lives and in our world. That point is not that we ignore evil. Evil is destructive. Do you know what’s more destructive? Assuming we alone are the judge and jury.

Jesus says, “Let the weeds grow.” Something is lost in the translation here. The word Matthew uses to describe what is to be done to the weeds that we translate “let” is the same word that he uses in the Lord’s prayer, where we translate it, “forgive.” In our translations, we hear Jesus say, “Let the weeds grow.” People hearing the original words might as easily have heard Jesus say, “Forgive the weeds that are growing.”

Our criteria for judgment can be so superficial and trivial – we accept people similar to ourselves and we find it easy to write-off people who are different. God is not like that. God doesn’t want us to be like that. For now, leave the final judgment to God. Forgive the weeds.

We are being asked to tend the garden, to nourish the plants. To focus our energies on growth and life, rather than waste our energy weeding. Instead of judging others, pay attention to God’s criteria of good and evil. It’s not about fulfilling ritual observance or adhering to some religious authority’s definition of purity. God’s criteria of good and evil is about paying attention to the least of those among us. From Christ’s perspective, I don’t get credit for being a pious if I leave a victim on the side of the road to suffer or die. Nobody, no matter how respectable one looks, gets a pass for accumulating riches at the expense of the poor. There is no excuse for those who have been willing to look at those who are hungry or thirsty, naked or captives, and then turn the other way.

The sober truth in my own life is I have a sketchy track record. Sometimes I help those in need and sometimes I turn away. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m a fruitful, beautiful stalk of wheat. And sometime I’m a weed. We can’t always tell the potentially fruitful from the potentially destructive. So try not to judge. Forgive the weeds. Sometimes, you and I might be one of them.

The good news is that the good seed of God’s bounteous love will grow no matter what weeds may take root. We can trust that God has planted good seed in our lives even when some days all we see looks like weeds. So, live in humility, with mercy, with forbearance and forgiveness. In these ways, we continue to make God’s love known, and help God’s presence grow in our lives and in our communities.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Sermon for June 5, 2011

Living at Light Speed

Then Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He said to them, "It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations, starting at Jerusalem.You are witnesses of these things. I will send you what my Father has promised, but you must stay in Jerusalem until you have received that power from heaven." Jesus led his followers as far as Bethany, and he raised his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he was separated from them and carried into heaven. They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem very happy. They stayed in the Temple all the time, praising God. Luke 24:44-53

The Ascension of Jesus is a great story. You can see the action in your mind; like an old Cecil B. DeMille Epic. In my film adaptation of the Ascension, Johnny Depp plays Jesus. He is strong. Dashing. Edgy. Soulful eyes. Roguish yet strangely wise. You can use your imagination and fill in the details. Jesus would give the apostles some final instructions and then say with just the right touch of divine pathos and coolness, "It is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that a change of hearts and lives and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations.” Johnny Depp Jesus would take the next cloud to heaven in a proper cinematic denouement. I picture it as an escalator-into-the-clouds effect, slow and lingering. And don’t forget the soundtrack. I’m hearing “Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong” -- not the original but the Reba McIntyre version, because for some reason I think Jesus would like country music. Or maybe Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Finally, the camera looks down upon the apostles -- dazed, mouths gaping wide, like Gomer Pyle looking up at a skyscraper for the first time. Then . . . Shazzam, Jesus is gone. "Now what?" we can almost hear them all say. "He’s gone. Now what?"

Rembrandt's painting of the Ascension is a 1636 classic. The disciples cower in the shadows looking like they want to grab Jesus' feet and hold him down to earth, like they’re wondering how to tether an escaping hot air balloon. Jesus stands on a cloud. Little diaperless child angels push Jesus up and away towards the light. Jesus wears a billowing white robe, raising his nail-marked hands to the sky. There's a devilish little angel over in the corner who's looking directly into the gaze of the viewer of the canvas as if to say, "He’s ours, now. Now what are you going do?"

It's easy to imagine the Ascension in your mind. Pick an impressive cumulus cloud some fine afternoon and you're halfway there. This is dramatic, spine-tingling scripture. A great story. Less clear, though, is the actual meaning of this event.

In most of my early Christian education, I was taught the “party line” concerning the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus disappeared visibly to end his earthly fellowship with the disciples and to take up his heavenly dominion over all creation. This was done so that he could use his body’s new resurrection powers to be present anywhere and everywhere he chooses. He ascends to sit at the right hand of the throne of God and waits for his orders to return to earth.

Today, some of us might have a problem with this interpretation. What do we do with Jesus violating the laws of gravity and floating into the stratosphere? The Bible is written from a point of view of the earth being the center of a three-tiered universe, with an all-seeing, all knowing God living just above the sky, always looking down. Jesus floats into the upper tier of this universe to be reunited with God, who lives in the heavens. But the biblical writers had no idea of the distances of the universe. In his lectures, iconoclastic christian teacher John Shelby Spong talks about a conversation with his friend, the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan told Jack Spong his theory about the ascension. He said, “Jack, have you ever thought about what the ascension might look like to an astrophysicist?” Sagan shook his hands as he talked and said, “Do you know if Jesus literally ascended in to the sky, and if he travelled at the speed of light, at 186,000 mps, give or take a mile or two, then he hasn’t yet escaped our galaxy? And our galaxy is one of billions and billions of galaxies.” He is correct. From the perspective of a three-tiered universe, it made sense to talk about Jesus being lifted up on a cloud, the apostles looking up toward heaven. But today we live with different knowledge. In 1543, when Nicolaus Copernicus published a book entitled On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, he proved that we live in a heliocentric solar system, not a geocentric one. The earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around. Heaven is not on the other side of the sky.

Imagine Jesus travelling at the speed of light. Sometimes I feel as if we on earth are living at the speed of light. We are made to shine. Jesus says that this new life is about changing hearts and lives by finding forgiveness. But many of us spend our days rushing back and forth, always being in a hurry. It’s like we are blurry photons, zooming around, always bouncing, constantly reflected and refracted and on the move. We are so busy. So distracted. So tired. I’m not convinced that this is what the Divine Spirit wants from us. The story of the ascension may remind us of another way. Jesus did not die and rise again so we can busy our lives. So, now what?

As Jesus rises to the heavens, he seems to be leaving the whole show to a group of guys who frankly do not have an impressive track record for theological insight or understanding of his teachings. What was Jesus thinking? Why did he leave them there so alone in some field outside of Bethany? Why did he leave us?

What if he leaves because if he stayed around, his followers would never be able to grow in their understanding of God and their understanding of what God wants for the world? If Jesus had stayed, we would always be looking up looking up for a miracle, looking up for the right words, looking up for someone to come and rescue us from mistakes. We would want someone to do the spiritual stuff for us so we could maintain our light-speed lifestyles. If you remember the Gospels, Jesus’ concern was for the disciple’s spiritual growth. For that to happen, Jesus has to remove himself. He loves his disciples, but he wants them to grow up.

We all know families where we see over-controlling parents micro-managing their children’s lives -- even into adulthood. Over-controlling parents do not allow their children to assume responsibilities appropriate for their age. The parents are often driven by a fear of becoming irrelevant or unnecessary to their children. They lay on heavy guilt trips by saying things like, "After all I've done for you, the least you could do is ..." The children of these parents frequently feel resentful, inadequate, and powerless. As adults, they struggle with guilt, as if growing up were a serious act of disloyalty. It is good to be close. But each family member also needs room to fly and let God's spirit fill their wings.

Jesus knew this about his disciples. It was time for the disciples to be out on their own. Out of Jesus' control. Luke has a longer version of the Ascension in first chapter of the book of Acts. After Jesus floats away, the disciples just stand there, straining their eyes heavenward as if visiting Cape Canaveral for an space shuttle lift off. Suddenly, two white-robed men appear and they say, “Why are you standing here staring into heaven?” What a beautiful question. It’s not time to look up anymore. It’s time to look around. It’s time to look within. That's why Jesus got out of the way -- to help disciples, like them and like us, discover that God’s world is now in our hands. We might beg, "Please, Jesus, don’t go. Stay with us. Do a few more of those miracles. Comfort us when we're confused. Take all of our tears away." No. Don’t just stand there, waiting and wondering. Now is the time for us to shine.

Jesus loves us enough, and has enough faith in us, to let us be the ones who make his vision for this world into a shining reality. There will be plenty of times when we shake our heads, look up in the sky, and ask, "Now what, Lord? How are we going to do this without you?” The temptation is to ignore the opportunity -- to busy ourselves and go back to our hectic, over-productive lives.

“What now, Lord?” On this day, I suggest we take time to be glad. Be glad that we are not left without the promise of the Spirit to help us out. Be glad that we now have the opportunity to even ask the question. Be glad that Jesus gives us room to answer it.


Sermon for May 29, 2011

The J-Bomb

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’* Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me* for anything, I will do it. John 14:1-14

Conversation Stoppers are remarks to which there is no polite conversational reply:
Can I show you my rash?
I’m not being racist, but…
No offense, but . . .
You’re only 30? You look much older.

Here’s a conversation stopper I use all the time. When someone asks, “What do you do for a living?” say, “I’m an ordained minister.”

How many of you have been in this conversation before . . .Someone brings up the topic of religion and another person feels compelled to pronounce how Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. End of story. The response is generally unanimous among those who aren’t Christians -- a chorus of disagreement that Jesus being the ‘only way’ is so narrow and closed-minded, and how such a statement has led to so much religious strife in the world. I have noticed this in times I’ve engaged in intentional interfaith dialogue. Bring up the name of Jesus in an exclusive, judging way in a room of intellectuals and watch what happens. It’s more than a conversation stopper. Friends in the interfaith family used to call this move “Dropping the J-Bomb.” Lob the name of Jesus like a stick of dynamite with a lighted fuse, and watch the disruption, pain, and reactivity that follows. Bombing others with Jesus certainly does not bring peace between Christians and Non-Christians. Why? Because many of us probably haven’t earned the right. Instead of promoting compassion and relationship, Jesus gets used to project Christian intolerance.

I am becoming one of those Christians whose faith has been uncomfortably challenged by a new reality. There are many religions and there are many ways to be religious. Some research has identified 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? What gives us the right to claim that our truth is truer than someone else’s?

A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that Americans are changing religious affiliations at a rising rate. We Protestants are no longer the majority religion in the country. The Roman Catholic Church has experienced the greatest net losses due to affiliation changes. The Pew surveys showed 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 faith groups growing in America. The Islamic Society of North America claims there are between 6 and 8 million Muslims in the United States today. The New York Times places 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, an earth-centered, Neopagan religion. 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. When we were on top of the religious dog pile, we did not have to offer compelling reasons for our existence. Now that we are one of many religions, how we talk about Jesus? Can we make exclusivist claims?

I find that I am growing dissatisfied with the usual answers that I had been given. Throughout my life, some teachers have told me that the other religions are of no value whatsoever and are meant to be replaced by Christianity. Others told me that other religions are of great value but they only contain partial revelation. Without Jesus, the other religions are false religions, or at least not totally true. However, I have studied with Jews and Muslims. I have friends who are Hindus and Buddhists. I have a hard time believing that my faith is meant to either replace or absorb theirs. To me, it is disrespectful to my friends and damaging to our relationships.

So what do we do with a conversation stopper like John 14:6? Jesus says: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. That is about as exclusive sounding as it gets. No wiggle room here. Christians claim that if you want to experience God, you do it though Jesus. He Jesus is the Keystone that holds the arch of all human existence together. If we do not worship him exclusively, everything crumbles into ethical and personal relativity. At least, this is what I have been taught.

But what if all that’s not actually correct? What if Jesus did not intend to be so exclusive and absolute? What does it mean to know God through Christ when there are so many other seemingly valid ways to know God?

I like how theologian John Cobb says it. Jesus is the way that is open to other ways. Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, or demeans other ways. Jesus is the way that opens us to other ways. Jesus is the way that connects us with other ways. Jesus is the way that calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as “dialogue.”

Maybe this is the real meaning of today’s reading of John 14:6. It is important to remember, these words were written for a persecuted minority cult, struggling for survival in the first century. These words were mean to give hope to people who wondered whether their faith claims were worth following. Following Jesus meant putting your life on the line. We don’t live like that in the USA. We come from a long history of government-sanctioned Christianity that used John 14:6, and other quotations from the Gospel of John, as a source of power and control through their exclusive claims. Leaders used these texts to convince us that Christianity and “correct belief” were the only way that one could find salvation. The church became the exclusive broker for tickets to heaven. It is becoming very difficult for me to believe that any one religion could have the whole picture or the correct understanding of God, let alone have an exclusive path to that God. To suggest anything else would be at best, arrogant. And I’m learning that arrogance is not the same thing as faith. Passive-aggressiveness is not the same as faith. Faith is about modesty. The “other” is not just a receptacle for my message. In fact, others have positive or corrective insights to bring to me. 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.

How can we tell the story of Jesus, the way the truth and the life? Can we talk about what we believe without it being a conversation stopper, or a bomb lobbed to explode? Can we have more and better conversations? Can we speak 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. Jesus is the way, but he is the way that must learn about other ways. Jesus is the truth that must engage other truths. Jesus is the life that must be lived with other lives.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...