Friday, July 15, 2011

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.

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