Sunday, March 8, 2015
First Congregational United Church of Christ – Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
I’m a native Kansan. Born and raised in Leavenworth. I lived in the state until I graduated from K-State. I moved away a few months before my 22nd birthday and spent over a decade living in Texas and Indiana before returning to Kansas last summer.
Now, one would think that it’s hard to be exposed to much diversity when you grow up in Kansas. But that’s not always true. I went to a middle school and high school that were considerably more racially diverse than K-State. There were kids from all over the world at my school, thanks to the officer training programs at Fort Leavenworth. Lots of economic diversity, too. I even had several openly gay and lesbian friends by the time I graduated in the late 90s.
But one area of diversity that was sorely lacking in my world was religious diversity. Oh, my.
Religious diversity in my world consisted of Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, a smattering of Episcopalians, quite a few Mormons, and a few folks who didn’t go to church. To my knowledge, there was no synagogue in my town. In all my growing up years, I knew one person who was quasi-Jewish. She had one parent that was Jewish, but not practicing. Hard to practice when there’s nowhere to do it, after all. I am embarrassed to admit that I’m not sure I had even heard of Islam until I was out of high school. Buddhism? Not on my radar, though I’m sure it made an appearance in a delightful paperback I owned on various “cults.” (I went through a pretty hard-core Christian fundamentalist phase in high school, but that’s a story for another day).
So when we made the decision to move back to Kansas (one year ago this weekend, by the way!), it did occur to me that we would sorely miss the religious diversity we were used to in our town. Our kids both went to a Jewish preschool. I sometimes went for Zen meditation at the Buddhist center right next to my house. I regularly had coffee with the local rabbi and looked in on his cat when he was on vacation.
Religious pluralism is important to me. Vital, really, because there are so many different ways to experience the Holy. So many paths to figuring out how to be a kind, good, useful human being. So many valid ways to understand what our purpose is and how we fit into the whole wide world around us. Spending time with people from other religious traditions (or no tradition at all!) has only ever strengthened my own faith.
This is not something I would have heard from the pulpit as a child.
We didn’t talk about other religions in my church, and so I was left to mostly tease apart what might be true by reading the Bible. And, wow, that can get dangerous pretty quickly. Our sacred texts regularly lift up the particularity of Jesus. You know, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Seems pretty clear cut, right? You have to believe in Jesus if you want to get to God. At least, that’s how I read it when I was a teenager.
But years of learning about other religions and interacting with people of other faiths has convinced me that there is more to the story. I simply can’t say, “My religion is better than yours,” to the wonderful and faithful people I’ve known who don’t access God through Jesus.
I have delighted in the words of Jewish sages. I have spent many hours curled up with the words of Sufi mystics like Rumi and Hafiz. I have found that Buddhist meditative practice is an easier way for me to pray than folding my hands and “just talking” to God, like I learned as a child. And yet….I don’t live fully into those faiths. They aren’t mine. Christianity calls me back…as my home. That doesn’t mean it’s better than the others. It just means that it happens to be mine. Marcus Borg wisely said that he was Christian, essentially, because it’s what he was born into. It was his home. Sure, he could have been Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, but that’s not what was familiar and easiest for him. Christianity was in the air he breathed and became his religious home. I feel pretty much the same way.
It turns out that the difficult texts in the Bible about other religions go far beyond that brief “the truth, the way, and the life” bit from the 14th chapter of John. Whole giant sections of the Bible are quite problematic if you’re trying to sort out how faithful Christians might regard other faiths.
Take, for example, today’s passage from 1 Corinthians. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles….” You can almost hear Paul say, “Nanny nanny boo boo,” in the margins, right?
This whole idea of Jesus being a stumbling block to Jews is prevalent through the Second Testament. The thought being that God sent Jesus, essentially, to thwart the Jews. As if God had somehow changed his mind and was no longer interested in continuing that everlasting covenant we learned about last week. Of course, this doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense to me because Jesus was, in fact, Jewish. So I have a hard time imagining God sending a Messiah in distinctly Jewish form if she had no interest in being in relationship with the Jews any more.
And then we’ve got today’s other passage from the Second Testament. By the way, I often refer to the “New Testament” as the “Second Testament.” One of the ongoing offenses we Christians have committed against our Jewish kindred is the crime of “supersessionism” which is just a fancy word that means, “Our religion replaces yours.” It’s this wonky idea that Judaism was okay – for a time – but now that Christ has come with the New Covenant, all that old stuff doesn’t matter any more. You can see how the language of Old and New Testament is a bit problematic, right? As if the new replaces the old? A lot of scholars have switched to Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures…but, that seems strange to me, because the Hebrew Scriptures (the First Testament) are also Christian. They are a part of our sacred texts – no less so than those in the Second Testament.
So…today’s passage from the Gospel of John. John, more than any other gospel writer, has been criticized for being anti-Semitic. We have “the Jews” this and “the Jews” that. “The Jews” are the ones in the temple that Jesus is so mad at. “The Jews” are the ones always asking the dumb and frustrating questions. And we know, of course, that it will be “the Jews” there in the end shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Some argue, “Well, isn’t that how it happened? That’s not anti-Semitism, it’s just a report of what happened. Plus, surely people can differentiate between Jews then and Jews now. Does this really cause problems?”
For starters, it’s probably not what really happened. Jesus was convicted and murdered by a Roman system of oppression. His real enemies were the occupiers. Were there also inter-Jewish conflicts between different factions of Jewish folks? Sure. But did any of them have much power over Jesus? Not really. Why, then, John’s insistence on “the Jews” this and “the Jews” that? Let’s remember that the Gospel of John was written quite a long time after Jesus died. John’s negative attitudes towards “the Jews” is probably much more reflective of the evolving conflicts between his own community and the Jewish structure at the time.
And to the question, “Does it really matter?” Yes. Yes it does. We as Christians come from a long, long line of anti-Semitism, sadly. It’s no coincidence that horrible pogroms and attacks on Jews in Europe in the Middle Ages happened during Holy Week. Some of you may even remember growing up and learning that “the Jews killed Jesus” and maybe even heard Jewish people referred to as “Christ killers.” When you tell a story, over and over again, of “the Jews” killing Christ….it matters. It’s harmful.
Some of the most important thinkers in Christian history were wildly anti-Semitic. I’m not going to stand here and read all of the horrible things St. Augustine, Origen, and St. Ignatius said, but a quick Google search will give you more hateful words than you know what to do with. One of the worst offenders was Martin Luther, who wrote an entire book called “On the Jews and Their Lies.”
So, yes. It matters. Atrocities against our Jewish kindred have been committed in the name of Christ for millennia now. Committed in the name of a man who was Jewish, whose followers called him Rabbi, Teacher. Surely, God weeps.
It’s vital to me that we do better for our children than my childhood church did. I didn’t have anyone talking to me about other religions and so I was left to decipher what I could from the Bible. When I read that book about other religions as “cults” as a 16 year old….I believed what I read because no one was helping me learn about our complicated history as Christians or telling me it was okay to actively disagree with some of the things I read in the Bible. I am thankful to be raising my children in a faith community where we’re doing things differently.
All of this, of course, is beyond relevant for today. It’s not like religious competition or warfare is a thing of the past. We’ve all been following the headlines about ISIS and the corresponding backlash against our Muslim kindred all over the world. Last month, a headline in the New York Times caught my eye, “Fear on the Rise: Jews in France Weigh an Exit.” France is home to more Jews than any other country in Europe. Third in the world after the U.S. and Israel. And the recent attacks against Jewish people in Paris and other places has them feeling very unsafe. The article stated that at least 15,000 Jewish people are expected to leave France and emigrate to Israel in this year alone.
In addition to speaking out for religious freedom, doing our best to educate ourselves about other religions, and form relationships with people of other faiths, I think we are called to work on something as it relates to our own identity as Christians. Have you noticed that people often have a tendency to define themselves as what they’re not?
Paul is doing it in his letter to the church at Corinth, “Jews do this and Gentiles do this, but we Christians aren’t like that.” And, gosh, progressive Christians are some of the worst offenders. How many times have I said to a friend, “You should come to my church sometime. We’re not like those other Christians that preach hell and damnation. We don’t think being gay is a sin. We don’t tell women to stay silent. We don’t do this…or that…We’re not like THEM.” And, of course, underneath my words….”we’re better than them.”
Why this desire to define ourselves over and against others? Why does loving and wanting to follow Jesus mean you have to throw out everything in the First Testament? It doesn’t, of course. Christianity can be a valid religious home for many without having to be the one true path for everyone.
A few months ago, I had a great back-and-forth correspondence with a dear friend who lives in the Middle East. She’s from the U.S. – we met when we were both living in Dallas. She identifies as an atheist and humanist and prides herself on teaching her kids to be good people without religion. I think she’s doing a fine job of it. She reads my sermons pretty often, which I think is just sweet. And we have good conversations about them.
So, anyway, a few months ago I got a message from her. She said that she was realizing that we had never really had a conversation about why I’m a Christian. She knew a lot about what I didn’t believe – she respected that I could be a person of deep faith without being hateful or bigoted. But she wondered what exactly my core beliefs were, after all. “Why are you a Christian?” she asked.
If you’ve never had someone who actually wanted to know the answer ask you, “Why are you a Christian?” you’re missing out. Through my conversation with her, I discovered some new things about my faith and about God. It was a gift.
And so, in the coming week, I invite you to give that gift to someone else. Sit down with a close friend or family member who identifies as some particular religion. Ask them “Why are you Christian? (Or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Hindu)?” And when they answer, try not to compare yourself. Don’t think about the ways your own faith is better or worse or even different. Religion is not a competition. And it’s not a bumper sticker, despite this sermon’s title. We can do better, after all, than just coexisting.
Let us all work with God’s blessing to do more than just coexist….but truly live in a world where all ways of experiencing the Holy are valued and affirmed.