A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, January 19, 2015

For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Those Who Serve In Unlikely Places

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wanted to share the sermon I preached this Sunday.  I was reminded yesterday that there are places in this world where people do difficult work amongst sometimes difficult people and manage to love their neighbors and work for justice.  Sometimes this happens within the church some times without.  Wherever such love in action happens, most often unnoticed and in unlikely places,  it is amazing. I would also like to dedicate these words to such as these.  

(The following sermon references scriptures from 1 Samuel 3 wherein Samuel hears the voice of God but does not recognize who is speaking, and John 1:43-51 where Nathanael meets Jesus for the first time.)

The Creator of all, the ground of all being, God of all that has been and all that is and all that is to come, likes to come to us in most unimpressive packages.  We read of Samuel, a touch slow on the uptake, an inexperienced boy of little faith, uttering his first prophecy.   We read of Jesus growing up in the small rural village of Nazareth.  And we read of God coming to Nathanael, who could be the patron saint of snark and blunt honesty, and whose most auspicious moment at this point was being seen under a fig tree.  Furthermore, Samuel might have missed God entirely had it not been for his mentor, Eli, who gives his sage guidance in the midst of being called on the carpet for getting fat off benefits gained through the corrupt practices of his sons.  Nathanael is brought to Jesus by the evangelist, Phillip, whose evangelical treatise consisted of “Oh, just come and see for yourself.”  Somewhat unimpressive vessels for God’s wondrous power. 

This week we celebrate the life of a man whose words seem more fitting for a revelation of God.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s words have rung majestically and inspiringly through the years. Words like: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  and  “When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’"  These words ring forth with glory and truth which causes us to forget the speaker was just a young preacher and from an era in which his skin color would have made him an unlikely prophet to many.  And while honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is appropriate, it is important to remember God often shows up in even more surprising places.  When we hear the stories of the blood of black youth spilled on our streets and analyze the character of those youth before we take the story seriously we forget God has not chosen only the pure and lofty for the work of prophecy.  When we hear of horrors in far away places with difficult to pronounce names, like the school massacre in Peshawar, girls kidnapped in Boko Haram, child refugees from Honduras,  and dismiss them as things that happen in places like that amongst people of those other religions, we forget the story of the Good Samaritan, the Syrophoenician woman, the magi, the Nazarene and all those beloved by God of unlikely faiths or from unlikely places.  If we are looking for glitz and glory, purity and perfection, or only people who look and believe just like we do, we will fail to see God.  

Phillip says to Nathanael, “come and see.”  If we say these words to others what will they “come and see?”  Will they see the love of God made manifest through feeding, healing, clothing, and caring for all people?  Or will they see much fodder for snarky Nathanaels who might say, “What good could come from the church: a place of hatred and segregation, anti-homosexual, consumed by capitalism and self-justification, a place where attendance numbers trump justice.”    
Such Nathanaels might ask: “What should I come and see?   Come and see a bunch of people singing?  Come and see some person talk about a book more than a thousand years old?  Come and see how many hypocrites I can spot?  Come and see people do nothing but pray while children are dying?”  There is truth in these harsh words.  The church has too often well earned such snarky skepticism.  Nathanaels are notorious truth bearers.  

And yet God comes in unlikely places.  Perhaps amidst the rubble of a church gone far astray, in a place of insignificant attendance, in the middle of nowhere, amongst a people of little wealth, doing work of little glamor, who pause just long enough to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Religious Identity Crisis

I have been feeling uncertain lately when it comes to religion/spirituality/church.  In my preaching, in my writing, in conversations should I speak what I believe or what people need to hear?  Should I bluntly describe what I believe to be truth or should I couch it all in terms which make it more palatable so folks will listen?  Do I label myself a Christian with all the associated baggage and misunderstanding?  Or do I throw in the towel and call myself an "atheist " because while such a label does not describe my beliefs it often seems the only way to avoid the endless assumptions about Christian = conservative fundamentalist?  Is calling myself atheist the only way to make clear my disbelief in God as dude in the sky, wish granter, and cosmic creed cop? Is this the only way to clearly delineate my commitment to freedom of thought, rational public discourse, and disdain for religious privilege?  How do I identify myself honestly while dodging ad nauseam assumptions?  

For years I have been preaching about the importance of identity.  I have talked repeatedly about our identity as children of God.  As I question my own identity, then, I question also this message.  
What I have intended to convey is our preciousness, our value aside from any particular personality quirks, mistakes, behaviors, triumphs or failures.  I have intended to suggest rooting ourselves in something deeper than gender, physical appearance or skills by rooting ourselves in valuing and loving our neighbors around the world.  

But I wonder if I have been clear enough explaining “children of God” does not mean of a particular denomination, particular faith or even any faith at all.  Have I made clear my belief all people are children of God?  Does claiming a particular identity automatically mean excluding others?  

The thing is, all faiths are an attempt to describe something which is beyond words.  No religion has a monopoly on truth and neither does atheism.  The story of Jesus speaks truth to me in a way I can understand.  I also resist giving up on church because participating deeply in a faith tradition forces me to challenge myself and my assumptions.  Taking the bible and religious traditions seriously often forces me to work through traditions and ideas with which I am uncomfortable.  The more troubling passages force me to consider why I believe what I believe and what difference it would make if I believed differently. Learning wisdom from many different sources is of tremendous value, don’t get me wrong.  But experiencing the depths of one tradition is valuable as well.  

So, I continue to call myself a follower of Jesus...except this can sound almost cultish.  And I am not sure about defining myself as a follower as it sounds way too passive and mindless.  
Maybe “Jesus grounded” is what I mean: grounded in love as shown through the life and death of Jesus.  Perhaps I can identify myself as one who attempts to ground her life in love which sees brothers and sisters in all people of the world.  I try to ground myself in love which in its purest form is willing to sacrifice for the sake of others.   

But maybe I wouldn't need to have an identity crisis over labels of my faith if we all could practice making fewer assumptions about others.  Not all people who practice a faith in Jesus rejoice over every time someone sneaks in a Christian prayer or a Christian symbol or a Christian bias in a public space, for example.  And that's just for starters.  

So, this is the plea of one Christian/Atheist/Follower of Jesus/Jesus Grounded One: let's set aside the assumptions so we can all be heard.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Illogical Evangelism Contributes To Death

A focus on evangelism makes no sense.  I have written before about evangelism killing the church (here for example) but it is more than just a bad idea, it also strikes me as illogical.  Either a person believes in something or they don’t.  Belief (as in belief in the existence of God) is something based on evidence or lack of evidence.  It is not a moral choice.  This blog explains in greater detail the point I am trying to make.  Here is a quote which summarizes some of what the author has to say: 
My disbelief is not a choice.
It is a conclusion.
I could not choose to believe in Christianity again because nobody actually chooses to believe anything. Belief springs forth; it cannot be compelled either way.
If I had a good reason to believe in any religion’s claims, then I’d believe.
But I don’t have a good reason to believe.
Instead of giving me a good reason to believe, way too many Christians denigrate my disbelief as some kind of petulant choice I made, like some recalcitrant toddler who didn’t want to wear anything but her Batman costume to daycare that morning.
In so doing, these Christians show their true colors and make me feel more certain of my conclusion.

An argument could be made evangelism is an attempt to give non-believers compelling evidence which would cause belief to spring forth.  But usually a compelling argument involves speaking, listening, sharing information, listening to counter-arguments, responding and so on.   In regards to other topics besides religion this is called a conversation.  But when it comes to religion we call it evangelism and things like passion and strategy seem to be the focus rather than information and we get to blame a flaw in the other person if our arguments fail.  

Perhaps this seems harsh, and perhaps it is, but I am trying to drive home what I think is an important point.   Think of how much emphasis the Christian church puts upon evangelism.  It is seen as the church’s purpose and the basis by which we are all either saved or damned.  This is problematic theologically as it describes a god who condemns people based on something which is not a choice and is reliant on the quality of arguments given by others.  But of even more concern is the impact this has on the world.  The Christian church is full of good people trying very hard to do the right things.  When the epitome of what is right is evangelism, good people judge others based upon a choice which isn’t a choice and spend their time, energy and money on evangelism.  Think of all the good which could be done if all this energy was invested in feeding people, working for justice, finding solutions to environmental, political and social problems, and so on. Instead conversations within the church often seem to imply helping others is not worth doing unless we can convert someone, increase church attendance or advertise for Jesus in the process.

Recently my heart has been aching for some local families who are grieving children.  Unfortunately these families are not unique.  Around the world, children, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers die from preventable diseases and poverty related afflictions.   In addition to unpreventable tragedies, people are literally dying of injustice.  The idea of the Christian church turning its back on even one such person in favor of evangelism is unacceptable.  The reality of the church turning its back on millions ought to shake us to our core.  

Belief is not a choice.  The beliefs on which we choose to base our actions are a choice.  I choose to  attempt to live my life based upon the belief each child, mother, father, brother and sister matters.  If someone thinks this is not following Jesus and evangelism is...well I'll have to be shown a great deal of evidence before I’ll believe it.