Monday, January 20, 2020

Keep Marching!

If you have heard me preach before I hope one thing always comes across.
I am not interested in the theories about God, I am interested in how God is lived out in our everyday life.
How do we as people of faith experience God?
How do we know God?
How do we live out our faith as parents, children, workers, bosses, friends, political participants?
As I was preparing to preach this week I was thinking about how Jesus "takes away the sins of the world."
And I started with lots of theories and then realized that none of them matter.
What matters is how we experience both sin and how we experience Jesus taking it away.

Let us start this morning with sin.
I wonder if you have ever been sworn at while at a prayer vigil?
On the second and fourth Tuesday of every month there is an interfaith prayer vigil in front of the federal Norris Cotton building in Manchester.
This prayer vigil is to support immigrants that are coming to check in at the ICE office.
As part of that prayer vigil we do what is called a Jericho walk.
We walk around the building seven times to pray that the walls that divide us will come down, just as Israel did when they came to the promise land.
Anyway, most of the time this is a fairly uneventful event.
However, there have been a handful of times when we have been sworn at.
Either by someone driving by.
Or in one case by a person looking from their apartment window.
We might disagree about immigration policy, but what comes out of the mouths of people yelling at us is not something I can repeat in church.
It is rude, ugly, cruel, and hateful.
It is one way I experience the sins of the world.
That we have constructed a hateful attitude towards someone because of their immigration status, or because they are not "one of us", is a sin.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached about the importance of seeing our connection to each other.
In his last Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968 from the National Cathedral he said, "We must all learn to live together as brothers (and sisters).
Or we will all perish together as fools.
We are tied together  in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
Our sin is to divide our world up into sections, into us vs. them.
To make it seem as if the person in Iran, Iraq, or brazil is our enemy, instead of our fellow traveler on this third rock from the sun.
This is what leads us to wars, to injustice, to hatred of others.
Is that we don't see in each other our common humanity.
Or that we somehow want to believe that we are better than someone else, because of superficial things like what country we live in, or what our skin color is, or who we love, or how much money we have.

We might disagree about the nature of sin, but there is no doubt that it exists in our world.
It is a powerful source of our suffering.
Not just as individuals, but as a whole people.
This is not a theory.
It is a reality we live with everyday.
Because every day we are confronted with the symptoms of sin.
Death, destruction, hatred, violence, self-righteousness, delusions of grandeur.
Anyone who has been picked on, left out, made to feel inferior knows personally the results of sin.
And we see this on a larger scale in our politics and our dealings with other countries and other people.
All of it can be overwhelming when we think about it.

So what does a person of faith do?
One option that many people take is to try to retreat from the world and its sins.
To make our faith about removing ourselves from the world and the complicated problems that are involved.
In its most extreme we see this in monks and religious mystics who ran off into the dessert to avoid the world.
But even in less extremes I hear it in religious people who want to divorce themselves and just think that it all comes down to God and me.
That I have nothing to do with the messiness of politics, or what is happening to my neighbor.
All I need is to go into my room and pray and all will be well.
I suppose that there might be a time and place for this.
That the world is overwhelming sometimes.
That the sin that is out there becomes too much, and we must retreat.
Surely, there are times when Jesus went off to be alone and pray.
But I can't believe that this is the answer all the time.

I believe that Jesus takes away the sins of the world.
I believe that Jesus does this through love and grace.
That it is the Holy Spirit that calls us through God's word to love the world.
To go out into the world and fight for what is good and right.
And do it knowing that the world is full of sin.

I don't believe that it this will take away the sins of the world.
I believe God takes away the sins of the world.
And my acts of resistance, my acts of participation are acts of faith in that truth.
That this world is worth involving myself in.
That this world is worth my love and care.
That this world is not without hope.
That this world can is redeemed by God.
So I will make little stands of resistance against cynicism, despair, and sin.

I will march around the Norris Cotton building.
Not because I believe it will fall down, but because I believe in God's power to help us see the humanity in someone else.
I will march not because it stops our sin, but because I believe Jesus Christ takes away the sins of the world.
I will preach about love and unity.
Not because it will stop hatred and division, but because I believe that the word of God is more powerful than sin.

I don't know what it was like back in 1960's during the Civil Rights movement.
But I am sure that there were times when it seemed like nothing would change.
That it seemed like sin had won.
But people kept marching.
People kept speaking.
People kept believing.
For Dr. King and others what kept them going was their faith in Jesus Christ.
Today I want to honor that faith.
Not one of theories, but one that is lived in this real world.
The world with all of its ugliness and sin.
And a faith that preserves us and gives us hope in a better tomorrow.

So you can use all the profanity you want.
You can call me any name you want, but I will keep marching.
Because I believe in Jesus Christ who takes away the sins of the world.

This morning I hope you keep marching too.
Keep loving despite people's hatred.
Be kind, even though people can be cruel.
Keep hoping even though everything seems lost.
As Dr. King said about our hymn of the day, "When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our night become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows."
That is what keeps me going is that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

It Undermines Humane Standards of Conduct

Something I have learned from doing interfaith work over my life.
All people think their religion is better than others.
I don't care if you are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever.
And the reason is that people's religion is usually the best one for that person.
I am no exception Christianity, and more specifically Lutheran Christianity, I have found is best for me.
It is the religion that makes the most sense to me, and for me.
There should be no problem with this.
It is fine to believe that the religion you practice is the best one for you.
The problem is that we don't always let that be the end of it.
We tend to want other people to also believe that our religion is the best.
I have had to learn this over a long period of time.
I have had to learn this by having discussions with other people about their religions.
I had to learn this through reading books about other religions and about my own.
I learned that Christianity has its own prejudices.

Our prejudice about Christianity shows up in all sorts of ways.
It certainly is shown in how we read and understand the Bible.
We tend to read into the text the idea that the original writers of the New Testament wanted Christians to understand that Christianity was far superior to other religions.
In particular, it was superior to Judaism.
And from this has sprung anti-semitism within the Christian church.
I won't this morning go through our history of the horrible things we have done in the name of Jesus to our Jewish siblings.
All I will say this morning is that there is a lot there.
And it is horrible, and we as the Church need to confess our sin of being part of this prejudice.

This morning I want us to see not just this idea that we messed up and should feel bad for it, but I want us to re-frame the way we understand the Bible and our faith is Jesus Christ.
I want to use as our test case our reading from the Gospel of John.
When we read this passage we read into it the idea that before Jesus came into the world there was something wrong with religion.
What I believed as a kid (I am assuming because I was taught it at some point) was that Christianity was based on grace and Judaism was based on the law.
And through Jesus God has given us grace.
That is what makes Christianity better than Judaism.
And the Gospel from John seems to support that idea.
That "God came to his own people and they did not accept him."
But to "those who believe in him  he gave the power to become children of God."
This is to misunderstand John and to misunderstand Jesus and God.
God's own people are us.
As John tells us God created the world.
Not some of the world but the whole thing.
Through God's word the world with the plants, animals, and humans came into being.
So the people that are God's own is all of us.
And it is not that they didn't accept Jesus it is that they didn't accept what Jesus had to tell them about the nature of God.
God is about love and grace.
And for some that is really hard to understand and even harder to accept.
And let me tell you that I have met in my life people of every faith that is about love and grace.
People that live that out, and people that understand it better than some people who call themselves Christians.

The cosmic scene in John is not meant to tell us that Christianity is better than Judaism, but that God's love was given to the world, and the world couldn't accept it.
The world in John is a code word for anything that is against God.
And hatred, bigotry, meanness, is against God.
Love and grace are God.
And when we love our neighbors with generous grace and service we do the works of Jesus.

There is no doubt that within the Gospel of John there is tension with what John refers to as "the Jews".
This comes from John's own experience within his community of being expelled from the Jewish synagogue.
As my New Testament professor once told me that we see in the New Testament a family fight.
It is a fight between Jewish-Christians and Jews who didn't believe Jesus to be the Messiah.
That tension is played out not just in John but in most of the New Testament.
It is human in those cases to paint your enemy in the most unflattering light.
We can't take what was a human fight over religion and make it into a codified hatred of other people based on God.
I don't care what religion someone is, I care about what it is that they do because of that religion.
If you are a Christian that spews hatred towards Jews then I can't believe that you know the Jesus that is talked about in holy scripture.
It is through love that people know that we are Christian.
It is through service that we show them Jesus Christ.
It is through grace that we live in God.
And that is true of any true religion.

Like I said I learned this through my years of doing interfaith work.
And I have always had a curiosity about my faith, and the faith of others.
But I really didn't get to know people of other faiths until college.
One of the people who meant a lot to me at that time was women named Patti Mittleman.
She was the director of the Hillel house on campus.
This was the Jewish student group.
This made her the Jewish college chaplain.
Over my time in college we did lots of interfaith things together.
And I got to know her pretty well.
She was actually a convert to Judaism.
Patti used to say, "they don't recommend it."
But she converted when she married her husband Alan.
Her husband Alan taught religion at Muhlenberg.
One summer I actually spent some of it at their house, and some of it at the Hillel house.
I kept kosher that summer while staying there.
Using separate plates for meat and dairy.
Learning about why that spiritual discipline was important to them.
The thing about Patti was that she was filled with love and grace.
She was always really kind to me, more than I deserved.
Often when she talked about me I wondered who she might be talking about.
She was one of my cheerleaders, and someone who I looked up to.
She was Jewish, but what did that really matter.
She practiced her love of God in a way that was different from me.
But She showed the world God's love all the time.
She died about a year ago, and I realized that she showed that love to lots and lots of students just like me.
I carry a piece of her all the time in my heart.

I knew this morning that I was going to be preaching about anti-Semitism, because of the stabbings that happened over Hanukkah.
Our Rabbi here in Concord posted on Facebook an article about how afraid and angry our Jewish siblings are right now.
This issue is not about something happening somewhere else.
Our Rabbi here in Concord has had death threats against her.
That is why it is so important for me to speak out about it.
I reached out to Alan (Patty's husband) to ask him what he would like Christians to know about anti-semitism.
He responded, "I think that anti-semitism never stops with the Jews.
It degrades all who endorse it and undermines humane standards of conduct.
It’s not really about the Jews either.
It’s about the hateful fantasies and delusions of people who project their disordered imaginations onto the Jews."
I agree with Dr. Alan Mittlemen.
When we hate someone for their religion, or race, or sexual orientation, or what country they come from it undermines humane standards of conduct.

We Christians know the greatest love "that of a Father's only Son".
How can we not give that to the world?
How can we not love others as we ourselves have been loved.
That is the message of the Gospels, and anything else is simply a projection of our own prejudices.
God loves the world.
God loves us.
We love others.
It is really that simple and also really hard to live out.
In God's grace and love let us today live it out.