Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Meditation for December 20, 2015 / Advent 4

When I first came to CCC about 4 ½ years ago, the church gave me a gift – a fir tree. I planted it in our yard. This time of year, it is the one of the few reminders of life. When skies grow dark, and leafy trees stand barren, that fir tree insists that light and life will return. I’m reminded of a story from the Cherokee tradition called Why Some Trees are Ever Green. When the plants and trees were first created, the Great Mystery decided to give a gift to each different species. But first, there was a contest to see which gift would be the most useful to whom. "I want all of you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights," the Great Mystery told the plants and trees. The young plants and trees were so excited to be trusted with watching over the earth that they had no trouble staying awake the first night. The second night was not so easy and a few of them fell asleep as dawn approached. On the third night, they tried to whisper to each other in order to stay awake but many fell asleep. On the fourth night, even more slept. By the seventh night, even the beautiful larch had fallen asleep. The only plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel. The Great Mystery exclaimed to them, "What wonderful endurance you have!" "You shall have the very special gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the dead of winter, your brother and sister creatures will find that life is protected in your branches."

So it is, down to this day. In the dead of this season, when all the other trees lose their leaves, the evergreens stay verdant and awake. While other trees sleep, evergreens give us a sense of life. The evergreens are defiant.

I think Christian should be more like evergreens. Because there is a lot darkness, emptiness, and inhospitality in our lives, and at Christmas time, we have a chance to defy them. We have plenty to resist. Perhaps our health is not good. Maybe the ones you love and care for are failing. Perhaps you are waiting for test results over the holidays. Perhaps our finances are not where they should be. Maybe some of our relationships are difficult and needing repair. Perhaps a job is not secure. Perhaps you panic when the news comes on and you face the fact that fear and hatred seem to claim more authority than compassion and peacebuilding.

This year, I want a defiant Christmas. In the midst of the shadows, I want to be an evergreen, offering a perpetual reminder that life can return to the fallow areas of our world. As much as I want to wait until all light, and fertile, and promising once again, Christmas invites us to celebrate in the midst of the darkness, bleakness, and lack of hospitality in our world. How about you? What might you do to defy fear? What might you do to defy hopelessness? What might you do to defy hatred? What can we do to defy all that tries to tear us down and destroy us when our lives are not completely where we want them to be?

I leave you with a blessing this Christmas -- one that was written in 1513 by Fra Giovanni. “I salute you and there is nothing I can give which you have not, but there is much while I cannot give it, you may take it. No heaven can come to us unless we find it in our hearts today. So take heaven. No joy can come to us, unless it comes to us in this present moment. Take joy. No peace can come to us, unless we find it right now. Take peace.”

As we await the return of the light, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, your spirit is evergreen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Sermon for December 13, 2015

When Men Dance and Women Sing

Mary got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,

You’re so blessed among women,
    and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
    the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
    greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
    skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
    believed every word would come true!

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now. Luke 1:39-55
I saw a video on Facebook that was the best thing I had seen all week. In a green field, standing in an open semi, circle stand 5 older Greek men – perhaps in their 70s and 80s. A drum and accordion begin to play, and, one at a time, the men step into the circle and begin to dance. Like an ancient riddle, every step seems to have meaning and purpose. Each man has a fire in his eyes, and even if their limbs are tired or frail, the dance renews them. I love watching that video. I made my kids watch it –twice. The caption had these words – part of a song by Maria Broom:

When the men dance ... the wolves stop howling.
When the men dance ... the dogs stop barking.
When the men dance ... the ladies start screaming.
When the men dance ... people stop fighting, stop fussing, stop killing, stop cussing!




I love it! What a great message for these time of violence, fear, and division. Imagine a world where instead of using public hate speech as a way to garner votes, people like Donald Trump danced with Nihad Awad, the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – no cameras or reporters allowed. If we danced some more, maybe we would not have as much time to fear each other and get caught up in our divisions. When the men dance, people stop fighting.

I saw another video that reminded me of the difference between good and bad policing in our communities. In the video, a white, female Washington D.C. police officer arrives on the scene of a fight to break it up.  When she gets to K St SW, the officer sees a 17-year-old, African-American student dancing to the popular song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”. The officer reportedly told the girl she could dance better, and one of the teens challenged the cop to a dance-off, which the officer accepted.  The officer brings her A-game. Slightly hindered by her police gear, she keeps up with the teen, who gyrates effortlessly to the Nae Nae dance. The officer seems to be doing a little bit more of a freestyle dance, but she keeps pace with the teen. In the end, the students walk off without a fight and the officer leaves without escalating the violence.




When the women dance... the earth stops trembling.
When the women dance... the babies stop crying.
When the women dance... the men start listening.
When the women dance... the angels and ancestors sing!

When the children dance... the winds stop blowing.
When the children dance... the oceans stop rolling.
When the children dance... the people start smiling.
When the children dance... we all sing together!
 What a world we would live in with more dancing and less shooting!

The same goes for singing. Today’s scripture reading is all about listening to women sing. It starts off with us listening in as Elizabeth croons to Mary about the blessings of women who hear and respond to God’s activity in the world. She sings, “Blessed woman who believes what God said…” Blessed woman?

When God announces this most important moment in history, the message comes to the world through … two women!?  Women were considered to be inferior to men, and under the authority of men. In the eyes of the world, Elizabeth and Mary are of little to no consequence. Elizabeth is too old to be pregnant. Mary is young and not married enough to be pregnant. And the first to receive God’s message of the coming kingdom are these two pregnant women. God doesn’t give the news to the Roman Emperor. God doesn’t give the news to a governor, or to one of the temple’s high priests. God doesn’t put up billboards or go on CNN. God goes to two ordinary, women on the margins of society. Elizabeth carries the messenger, and Mary carries the Message. They are not forgotten, anonymous pawns. They are women and they are blessed!

After Elizabeth sings, Mary also bursts into song. We begin to get the idea that Mary and Elizabeth aren’t just singing songs of praise but songs of subversion.  Mary sings about God who scatters the proud, who lowers powerful rulers, who raises up the lowly, who feeds the hungry, and who turns away those who allow their fellow human beings to go hungry when they have plenty. Mary sings a song with the power to turn the world upside down. The high are brought low and the low are brought high, the first will be last and the last will be first.

If I’m remembering right, I think her son said something very similar.

Mary’s song is the cry of a young, pregnant, unwed mother living among a people oppressed by an occupying force. Her song is so dangerous, the Guatemalan president banned the reading of it in the 1980s because it was seen as encouraging rebellion against his genocidal military junta. The song of a young, pregnant, unwed mother was a danger to the state!  Mary’s song was also banned in Argentina when mothers rose up to cry for justice for their missing children in the 1970’s. During the British rule of India, Mary’s song was banned from being sung in churches. In Nicaragua, Mary’s song was often kept as an amulet, worn by poor peasants.

Mary’s song is a song of subversion. Mary’s song insists that oppression of the poor is not the will of God and that when God’s kingdom arrives fully, the tyrant will have no power.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the minister who plotted to overthrow Hitler and was executed by the Nazis, said this:  “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Can you imagine what might happen if, instead of schmaltzy and cloying hymns, our Christmas carols were songs of subversion?

Imagine if, when we sing, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” it’s not just an opening hymn on Christmas Eve, but a summons to gather in courage and faith, beckoning us to revolt against the pains and upheavals of the world! Imagine when we sing, “Joy to the World,” which, by the way was originally an Easter hymn, our greatest joy is found in working with Christ to knock tyrants off their high horses, pull victims out of the mud, and invite the starving poor to sit at our banquets! When we sing “What child is this” about the baby sleeping on Mary’s lap, imagine what happens when we remember a child who was:
Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid
Wrapped in the chill of midwinter;
Comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace,
new life for the world.
 When we sing about the baby, tucked safely away in the manger, imagine we also remember that humility is put in service to the least of God’s people …
To lowliest manger, where animals feed,
Comes Jesus, redeemer of all human need.
May we bear the Christ Child to all whom we meet
By living God's justice and washing their feet.
Imagine when we sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we could also sing …
When lives of humble service preach
The Good News to the poor,
When troubled minds or bodies find
A welcome at our door,
When healing hearts and hands lift
The lowly from the dust,
Then ring the bells and sing Noels:
For Christ is born in us.
Imagine our most peaceful Christmas song, “Silent Night,” as our cry for hope in life’s shadows …
Silent night, holy night!
When will peace conquer might?
Pray that justice will set victims free,
Those who are shackled to bleak poverty.
Christ be born in each heart,
Christ be born in each heart.
May our songs call for justice, and resistance, and trust in God who uses the most unlikely of us to turn the world upside down.
When the men sing and dance... the wolves stop howling.
When the men sing and dance... the dogs stop barking.
When the men sing and dance... the ladies start screaming.
When the men sing and dance... people stop fighting, stop fussing, stop killing, stop cussing!

When the women sing and dance... the earth stops trembling.
When the women sing and dance... the babies stop crying.
When the women sing and dance... the men start listening.
When the women sing and dance... the angels and ancestors sing!

When the children sing and dance... the winds stop blowing.
When the children sing and dance... the oceans stop rolling.
When the children sing and dance... the people start smiling.
When the children sing and dance... we all sing together!

So let the women sing and dance!
And let the men sing and dance!
Let the children sing and dance!
Let's all dance together! 

Sources:
http://www.mariabroom.com/when-women-dance
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3295611/We-need-cops-like-Teen-challenges-police-officer-Nae-Nae-dance-shocked-accepts-epic-dance-ensues.html#ixzz3twEEIT2s
http://revchrisroth.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-dangerous-and-subversive-song-of.html
https://simpleliving.startlogic.com/indexoth.php?place=archives/Articles/Carols.php
https://sojo.net/articles/what-are-you-singing/what-are-you-singing-what-child-child-poor
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEkdr62eVMY

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sermon for November 29, 2015 / Advent 1



The Days are Coming

Christian Century magazine published a commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. The author asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing). As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”

Christian Century suggested that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," and the "Mercantile Messiah Motif."

Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away. He only gets mentioned once a year. Santa Christ a convenient excuse for celebration.

The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone. He just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back in the closet when the New Year begins.

The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about buying stuff. “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else,” say the advertisements.

The problem with Santa Christ, Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never change anyone. They don’t reveal anything about God. They don’t make demands. They never ask followers to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that masks true nature of God.

I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Luke. His followers ask him about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says:

“And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!” Then he gave them this illustration: “Notice the fig tree, or any other tree. When the leaves come out, you know without being told that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that the Kingdom of God is near. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. Watch out! … Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.”
Luke 21:25ff, New Living Translation

What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present? What do they mean when we are struggling to live one day at a time – when we are trying to be all things to all people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue in our world, in our nation – even in our own backyards; that crime, and starvation, and terrorism, and war, and earthquakes, and floods abound and seem to be increasing?

How dare we rejoice? How do we stand, watch and pray, when the world around us calls out for so much more?

I know myself well enough to be aware when I am focusing so much on what’s wrong in this world, I lose my sense of context. Sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by all the anger and fear. How about you? Are there one or two things that you tend to focus on that cause you to lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

If I’m being honest with myself, sometimes my global, apocalyptic worries are distractions that keep me from digging too deeply into my own personal areas of growth that need attention. It’s difficult to live every day believing that there may be no tomorrow.

“Be on guard,” says Jesus,  so you don’t get weighed down with constructing anxieties and the amusements we use to relieve them. Be on guard against that paralyzing self-absorption that holds us in place and keeps us from mending up the shredded fabric of our communities. Jesus says, “Take care! Stay alert! Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”

Jesus’ offers an antidote to our worldly cynicism. He offers a new perspective on our anxieties. His words are meant to raise the heads and lift the hopes of those who don’t get justice.

I want us to realize that this passage was not written for most of us. These scary texts – we call them apocalyptic texts – were written for those who had no hope. They were written for people who had been put down by the Roman Empire – people from whom all had been taken. People who lived in poverty. People who lived under oppressive military occupation. These words were written for those whose poverty-stricken lives were seen as nothing more than a tax revenue stream for greedy political elites.

These words were not written with a person like me in mind. I’m a person of privilege. I have the luxury to hope when times are hard, and rely on self-sufficiency when times are good. I can choose when to use my privilege to leverage social change and when to invoke my privilege for my own comfort.  In our country, people who are victimized, or persecuted; those who are treated as less because they are not white, or Christian, or heterosexual, or male, or able-bodied, or able-minded, or living below the poverty level; they don’t get a choice about how they will be treated today. I think of African American friends who tell me about the fear they have just walking out the door each day, wondering what types of aggressions or threats they may encounter and what the appearance the face of racism will take – and that’s here in Montgomery County.

If we believe Jesus is coming, then we affirm that Jesus is coming to be with those who need hope that their lives can be better.

I think Jesus comes to march with Black Lives Matter protesters in Chicago and Baltimore.

I think Jesus comes to walk along side Syrian Muslim refugees.

Jesus comes to stand with victims of gun violence and the families who cannot get the most basic safety regulations put in place.

Jesus feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and goes behind bars with prisoners who serve decades of jail sentences for petty crimes.

In fact, Jesus is not just coming. Jesus is already here. Jesus us here in you and me, in the hands, feet, and hearts of anyone who reaches out to offer even the faintest glimmer of hope with works of compassionate justice that can make our communities healthier.

Can justice really come to the earth? Can husbands quit beating up their wives, and can wives quit blaming themselves? Can Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Can some who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us, can we be liberated by God, and start to walk tall in the Kingdom of God? Can Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?

The answer is yes, because Christ is coming to us, and Christ is working through us. We pray for those who cannot pray anymore. We hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We work in the same direction as we hope, drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God.

A story is told -- Two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord. But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and faith. “We are all upset by the darkness,” he said, “and some of us are afraid. But, the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.” And those who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.

That’s how I want to be found – doing my duty as one who professes to follow Christ.

The world is filled with so many problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. But in all the waiting, I don’t want us to miss a chance to know the true nature of God. I don’t want us to miss seeing what God is doing. I don’t want us to miss out on participating in what God is doing. I don’t want us to be so distracted with the pain around us – and inside of us – that we fail to recognize the presence of Christ. And I don’t want us to be so distracted by the allure of the mercantile Messiah or lulled by the Sweet Baby in the Manger that we forget a Savior who fully immerses God’s self in all of the world’s pains through the coming of the Christ.

Today, we have an opportunity to think about how each of us is can shine the light of and can put our core faith values into practice. We have a chance to listen for God, in our times of grief and our moments of gratitude, to seek God’s highest aims for the world, to think about our connections and interconnections. And think about making some commitments.

  •  Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to destroy the life or spirit of     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to take what is not given.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to engage in abusive     relationships
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak falsely or deceptively.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harm self or others through     poisonous thoughts or deeds
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to dwell on past errors.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak of self separate from     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to possess any form of life selfishly.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harbor ill-will toward any human being.

When we can work on these things, we will begin to understand the true nature of God, always coming to us, always at work in us, around us, and through us this season.

Sermon for November 22, 2015 / Thanksgiving Sunday

Remember the Past, Trust the Future

Click HERE to listen. Sermon begins at 24:30

So, this was supposed to be a Thanksgiving message, but I’m still riled up about terrorist attacks, the mounting fear of Syrian refugees, and what I think are some nasty reactions by some of our leaders. So, go on my blog and type in “Thanksgiving” in the search box, and read one of the sermons that pop up. I checked them out – they are still good.

Today, as I end my sermon series on Deuteronomy, I want us to wrestle with the parts of Deuteronomy that I’ve been avoiding – the parts that many of you have asked me about. I’ve mentioned that Deuteronomy is the beginning of a sweeping history of Israel, written by Jewish sages who face exile and conquest by invading armies. The history begins by telling the story of Moses, who reviews the law with the Israelites who stand with their toes on the border of the Promised Land. After 40 years of wilderness wanderings, they are about to claim God’s promise. Many of you have asked, “Weren’t there already people living in the Promised Land?” The answer is yes, and here is one of the texts we’ve been worried about. It has everything we hate to see in scripture: genocide, wrath, insult, anger, and punishment. Let’s listen…

Moses went on and addressed these words to all Israel. He said, “I’m 120 years old today. I can’t get about as I used to. And God told me, ‘You’re not going to cross this Jordan River.’

“God, your God, will cross the river ahead of you and destroy the nations in your path so that you may dispossess them … God will destroy them. God will hand the nations over to you, and you’ll treat them exactly as I have commanded you …

God spoke to Moses: “You’re about to die and be buried with your ancestors. You’ll no sooner be in the grave than this people will be chasing after the foreign gods of this country that they are entering.  … Copy down this song and teach the People of Israel to sing it by heart. They’ll have it then as my witness against them. When I bring them into the land that I promised to their ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they eat and become full and get fat and then begin fooling around with other gods and worshiping them, and then things start falling apart, many terrible things happening, this song will be there with them as a witness to who they are and what went wrong. Their children won’t forget this song; they’ll be singing it. Don’t think I don’t know what they are already scheming to do, and they’re not even in the land yet, this land I promised them.” … So Moses wrote down this song that very day and taught it to the People of Israel … After Moses had finished writing down the words of this Revelation in a book, right down to the last word, he ordered the Levites who were responsible for carrying the Chest of the Covenant of God, saying, “Take this Book of Revelation and place it alongside the Chest of the Covenant of God, your God. Keep it there as a witness” … So with everyone in Israel gathered and listening, Moses taught them the words of this song, from start to finish.

What a hard passage. The song Moses teaches in the next chapter is difficult, too.  In our scriptures, we hear a command to commit genocide. And it’s not the only terrifying text. Read the Bible closely and you will see stories that sanction punishing the children and grandchildren of a sinner (Exodus 20:5-6), torturing captives (2 Samuel 12:26-31), legal rape of female prisoners of war (Numbers 31:1-18; Deuteronomy 21:11-14), slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Colossians 4:1), religious intolerance, and transferring punishment of sin from the guilty to the innocent (Gen. 3:5-6, Gen. 6:5-13; Leviticus 16:8-34). I’m going to call these “texts of terror” ¬-- profoundly violent, immoral and unethical passages in our canon of Scripture. In a world where there are those who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we must be explicit about how we interpret passages of scripture like the one we read today. How does one argue with a divine command to wipe out a nation?

The fact is some people don’t argue at all. They think their religious texts give them permission to do evil and call it good. Many Americans have come to believe Islam is this kind of religion, especially after 9/11. The most distressing feature of terrorism by Islamic extremists is that that the perpetrators believe that they have the right to murder people in order to achieve religious and political goals. In the wake of the latest killings in Egypt, Beirut, and Paris; Kenya, Nigeria and Mali; religion-sanctioned bombings and attacks by terrorists who are Muslim are too numerous to be listed.

Americans’ perceptions of Islam have actually turned more negative over the past few years. Today, a majority of Americans, 56%, agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. Right after 9/11, the number was 47% of Americans who agreed with that statement.

Some people think that violent Islam represents the entire religion. One survey, polled 1000 American Christian Senior Ministers about their attitudes toward Islam. Nearly half of senior Protestant pastors said the Islamic State terrorist group offers a true representation of Islamic society. 76 % of those pastors said airstrikes against the Islamic State are needed to protect Christians in Iraq and Syria. On one news site, a commentator suggested that destroying the Islamic terrorist group ISIS isn’t enough, and that Mecca, the center of the Islamic world, needs to be destroyed in order to let, “the [world’s 1.6 billion] Muslims know once and for all that our God is far more powerful and, yes, vengeful than their own puny deity.”

So, perhaps Islam is not the only religion in which some adherents use religious bellicosity to promote violence. Christians do it, too. While religion-motivated terrorist actions by Christians are rare in the West, blustery expressions of intolerance are far more widespread. Look no further than recent statements from some current presidential candidates.

Maybe we need to edit our Bibles and eliminate texts of terror. Or, maybe we just decide that God is not speaking through those texts. Maybe religion itself is dangerous. Here’s where I’m at … Religion itself is not bad. Religion is not evil. Religion is not dangerous. However, humans can be bad, evil and dangerous. We can use religion as a way to justify what we want to do. Any Muslim who cites the Qur’an or Hadith to support a view that Islam should forcibly convert the world to Islam, stands in direct opposition to every scholarly tradition of Islam. Most Muslim scholars say that violent jihad is confined to the defense of Islam against unjust attack.

Any Jew who calls for the conquest and destruction Egypt, Syria and Iraq by Israel would be regarded as irrational by most Rabbis. The biblical command to take care of foreigners and refugees who live in the Holy Land far outweighs any texts about holy war or conquest.

The vast majority of Christian churches regret Crusades and pogroms. Most of us interpret these as misunderstandings of Jesus’ command to love enemies and seek reconciliation instead of vengeance.

Religious scriptures can be misused. When we do that, we ignore the bigger matters of our Holy Books –love of God and care of one another; the search for compassion and mercy; the call to be peacebuilders. Yes, there are violent texts that can be found and used by those who are filled with rage, hatred, and revenge. By choosing selective texts that support their aims, evil people choose hatred and intolerance over debate and dialogue. Religion does not cause intolerance. I think it’s quite the opposite. Intolerance uses religion to give alleged “moral support” to hatred.

Religion-sanctioned terror is almost bound up with other causes (social, historical, economic, cultural, political, etc). But at the end of the day, we must admit that there is far too much violence in the world that is justified with a specifically religious rationale. We must commit ourselves to do whatever we can to stop it. Here are some ideas …

#1: We need to learn the warning signs of when religion has become evil and evil has become religious.
  • Look out for fixated claims of absolute truth, including:Blind obedience to autocratic, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders who undermine personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Scaring people with “end times” scenarios in the name of religion.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy to suggestions about rounding up feared groups of people, like Muslims (or Jews, or the Japanese) and making them carry ID cards.
  •  Those who set up “us versus them” scenarios; those who demonize people who differ from us; those who construct our neighbor as “Other” while claiming God is on our side alone.

#2: We begin to remove our protective armor — ego, self-deception, rationalization, external and internal “makeup,” posturing—anything that keeps us from seeing ourselves and others as we really are. At their best, our scriptures call us to embrace human vulnerability as the true source of human strength.

I love the story in the news last week about 7-year-old Jack Swanson from a town near Austin, Texas. He heard that a local mosque had been splattered with feces and desecrated with torn pages of the Quran after the Paris attacks. Jack went home, emptied $20 he had saved from his piggy bank, and donated it to the Mosque. One of the Board members of the Mosque said, “It's 20 bucks, but coming from Jack collecting his pennies it's worth 20 million bucks to me and to our community.” Texas, by the way, is one of states whose governors declared their desire to reject the resettling of Syrian refugees within their borders (and so we’re not just picking on Texas, Maryland’s executive is among the same group of governors).

A little child shall lead them.

Our sacred traditions call us to locate a place of generosity and tenderness. Removing our armor is frightening and painful; we put it on for a reason—to avoid getting hurt. Peeling it off it is like pulling off a scab from a fight or an injury and baring the tender skin underneath. But that skin is both our vulnerability and the true source of our strength. Just watch what happens when we open ourselves to grace and kindness.

#3: We hold each other accountable. We speak up when members of our own religions dehumanize and marginalize others. We act up when leaders of our own religions target people for exclusion. We journey for justice when governments suppress religious activity through harassment or detention. We pray for religions to follow the generous spirits of their founders.

#4: We dialogue and explore our differences, respectfully and courageously. We dialogue about how we can form a loving, compassionate, just and generous world in which religion brings out the best of who we are, not the worst.

A Prayer:
God, we pray for our world, a world in need of paths to peace. We pray for a world in which we might learn that differences of faith, of race, of nation, need not separate us. We pray that this world, divided by war and terror, can become one where there is less hatred and more understanding. There is only one destiny on this small blue planet, and there are no other hands but ours. So let us, as one people, seek the courage and the wisdom to find a path that leads to both peace and justice.

Sources:
http://www.fvuuf.org/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=380&Itemid=127
http://www.religioustolerance.org/relhateex.htm
Is Religion Dangerous, 36-38.
http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/vayeilech/hiding-ourselves#sthash.NnH8djiL.dpuf
www.religionnews.com/2015/02/12/poll-1-4-americans-say-islamic-state-represents-true-islam/
https://muslimstatistics.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/the-tiny-minority-of-extremists-argument-muslim-opinion-polls/
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thomson. WJP:2014
http://publicreligion.org/research/2015/11/survey-anxiety-nostalgia-and-mistrust-findings-from-the-2015-american-values-survey/#.VlG0ab_QP12
http://www.rawstory.com/2015/11/columnist-us-should-bomb-mecca-off-the-face-of-the-earth-to-show-muslims-our-god-is-more-powerful/#.Vk99KzRSu8g.facebook
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/texas-mosque-piggy-bank_564d0407e4b00b7997f92dca
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/11/16/would-jesus-take-in-syrian-refugees/

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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