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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/

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