Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Anti-Semitism and the Gospel

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

John 5:15-18

I can still see Mr. Abbott, my high school principal, standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at me, demanding an explanation for something I had done or not done. “I want a reason,” he shouted, “Not an excuse!” And I can remember pausing as I thought to myself, “Actually, what you want is an excuse. I’ve got a reason, but you won’t think it’s an excuse.” Wisely, I did not try to correct him. I mumbled something and he threatened dire consequences if it happened again.

There are reasons for the anti-Semitism in the fourth Gospel, but they are not an excuse.

John frequently uses “the Jews” the same way that Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is talking about the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. (We pause briefly to note first that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the same people. Second, the Pharisees were reformers. Third, that Jesus was almost certainly a Pharisee. And Fourth, that the Pharisaic reform movement gave birth to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.) The reference to Pharisees as a synonym for self-righteous hypocrites is historically inaccurate and implicitly anti-Semitic.

John was writing at a time when the church and the synagogue were separating. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The synoptic Gospels portray an internal conflict within the synagogue between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. John characterizes the conflict as one between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews” who remain loyal to Judaism. Of course, the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. It was a sibling rivalry.

As a potential source of anti-Semitism, the verses from the fifth chapter are far from the worst passage in John’s Gospel, but they are bad enough. John says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” for breaking the Sabbath and for blasphemy.

I was in college when I first met someone who had been called a “Christ killer,” by the (so called) “Christians” in his Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was appalled, but also perplexed.

The very simple version of atonement theology I grew up with said that Jesus had died for my sins. He had also died for the sins of the world. But the personal part was where we put the emphasis. The historical roles of Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the crowds, were all incidental accidents. The only theologically valid answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” was, “I did.”

Over the years I have grown into a very different theological understanding. Jesus died because his absolute faithfulness collided with the sinful violence of the empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a just and non-violent alternative to the Roman Empire and to every empire. The Romans didn’t crucify people for religious crimes.

Holy Week is always an appropriate time to reflect on the issues of anti-Semitism, and Christians should choose their texts wisely for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The Passion story is John’s Gospel should not be used without careful explanation of its historical context. But on this particular Holy Week, those reflections take on a special urgency because of the killings this past weekend in a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, by a white supremacist.

As it turns out, the three people killed were all Christians. One Roman Catholic and two United Methodists. You can read more about this by clicking here.

The FBI keeps statistics on hate crimes. In his column in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote that in 2012 there were 6,573 incidents reported. Most of the hate crimes were racially motivated. About twenty percent were motivated by the supposed religion of the victim, approximately equal to the percentage motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation.

Within the category of hate crimes related to religion, I would have expected that the majority would have been perpetrated against Muslims, but that would be wrong. Anti-Semitism is still the big winner. Sixty-five percent of all religious hate crimes were directed against Jews. Eleven percent were aimed at Muslims.

In this Holy Week and Passover, we need to unite in opposition to all forms of hate crime. And we need to remember the things that bind us together.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 1.16-20

“Come, let us reason together,” was one of President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite Bible verses. He quoted it often and it was indicative of how he thought government was supposed to work.

Fifty years ago today, congress passed the Civil Rights Act. It stands as testimony to the greatness of his political skill and moral leadership.

As a young person living through Johnson’s presidency, I gave him little credit for the Civil Rights Act, or the War on Poverty, or the Voting Rights Act, or Medicare, or Medicaid. And I gave him almost all of the blame for the war in Vietnam. Looking back, I am amazed by his accomplishments.

For many people today, the Civil Rights Act seems like ancient history. And for a significant number of people, it seems like something that has outlived its usefulness. We no longer have segregated businesses, there are no laws about who sits at the back of the bus, we don’t have “colored” bathrooms or water fountains, our schools are integrated, and there are no (legally) segregated neighborhoods. Listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR yesterday morning, I heard a caller delineate his own impeccable personal history of Civil Rights awareness, explaining that he had been brought up with an integrated circle of family friends and acquaintances, so that he never thought about race. Then he asked earnestly if perhaps the pendulum had swung too far. One of the panelists thanked him for his profession of racial acceptance and then gently recounted the racial disparities in employment, income, wealth, education, and incarceration.

We have come a long way.

But we have a long way to go. One of the benefits of being white is that we don’t have to think about race. That is a significant part of the meaning of “white privilege.” The inability to recognize white privilege is one of the major reasons that further progress in combating racism is so difficult.

Fifty years ago, the issues were more black and white.

But that should not blind us to the enormous courage required for President Johnson and others to support the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago. And without taking away from Johnson’s heroism, we should also remember that he didn’t do it alone. He was supported by an army of civil rights works, congressional staffers, and government bureaucrats who worked tirelessly and selflessly to do the right thing.

And then there was the bipartisan support, which is almost unimaginable today. When the bill was filibustered by Senate Democrats Richard Russell and Robert Byrd, Republican leader Everett Dirksen led 27 northern Republicans to vote with 45 northern Democrats and one southern Democrat (Ralph Yarborough of Texas) to end the filibuster and pass the bill.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now: Good News and Bob Dylan

Then Jesus said to those who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
John 8:31-32

“’So let us not talk falsely now for the hour is getting late.’ That line was written by Bob Dylan in the late 60’s. But it is appropriate for The United Methodist Church in 2014. The hour is getting late. And it’s time to speak the truth.”

Those sentences comprise the opening paragraph for an editorial by Good News president Rob Renfroe. The Dylan quotation fits well with Renfroe’s appearance. With his (relatively) long hair and a beard, he looks like a refugee from the late 60’s. But appearances can be deceiving.

Good News describes itself as a reform movement. They say they are “a voice for repentance, an agent for reform, and a catalyst for change within the United Methodist Church. They say that they are Christ centered, faithful to the scriptures, and committed to the Kingdom. In fact, they are committed to a judgmental and legalistic interpretation of the scriptures that is at odds with the teachings of Jesus. They are, sadly, bad news. And they have been bad news for a long time.

The truth, according to Renfroe, is that unless our bishops act swiftly and decisively to punish the clergy who are defying church law and violating their ordination vows by performing “homosexual marriages,” our church will face schism.

Renfroe says that a bishop once told him that there was nothing that a bishop could do about pastors celebrating gay marriages. It was, the bishop claimed, an issue for the Board of Ministry and for a jury of the pastor’s peers. Renfroe then asked, “Bishop, if you were to discover that I was cheating on my wife and I told you I had no intention of stopping, would I be leading worship in my church next Sunday?” When the bishop said that he would remove such a pastor, Renfroe responded, “Then, Bishop, you can do something about pastors who perform gay marriages.”

Of course, that would be a very good point if cheating on one’s spouse had anything in common with officiating at a same sex wedding, other than the fact that both are forbidden by the Book of Discipline.

Our church is declining, Renfroe says, because “many of our people cannot abide to stay in a local church or an Annual Conference where the Gospel is not preached, the Bible is not respected, and the Book of Discipline is disregarded.”

This, too, would be an excellent point, except that we are talking about less than one tenth of one percent of what is in the Bible and the Book of Discipline and zero percent of what is in the Gospel. This assumes that we ignore the fact that there are legitimate arguments to be made over those small fractions, and one can make the case that the Gospel and the Bible taken as a whole are on the opposite side from the Discipline.

The issue is not that complicated. The basic problem is that the Book of Discipline is simply wrong. It is wrong in calling “the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching,” wrong in prohibiting equal marriage, and wrong in calling for sanctions against clergy who perform such marriages. This should not be surprising. One of the reasons we amend the Discipline every four years is that we expect to have things that need to be changed. We expect it to be an evolving document.

The question is, what do we do in the meantime? What do we do in the time when we know that the Discipline is wrong, but before it is amended? The answer is that when the Discipline is in conflict with the Gospel, we obey the Gospel.

The truth is that the few passages condemning same sex relationships are no more valid for us today than the passages telling us that women should not speak in church, or those that assume it is alright to have slaves as long as we treat our slaves according to the rules.

For Good News and for Rob Renfroe it is all about following the rules and punishing those who stray. The times are not changing. Moreover, our task is to keep things from changing.

And he says all of this in the name of Bob Dylan. He starts the editorial with Dylan and he comes back to Dylan at the end. The Alpha and the Omega.

He concludes, “The hour is getting late. So, let us not talk falsely. The truth is our bishops can act. The truth is our church needs them to act. The truth is, if they do, there is hope for the UM Church. If they do not, we are standing at the beginning of the end. I pray such is not the case.”

For forty years Good News has been trying to claim Jesus as their own personal property. Now they want to steal Bob Dylan.

It's easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

                It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleedin’

Monday, March 31, 2014

World Vision and the Great Reversal

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
John 9:39-41

Last week, Rich Stearns, the president of World Vision, announced a new policy which showed vision. Stearns announced that the agency was changing its personnel policy to allow gay Christians in same sex marriages to serve as World Vision employees. The change, he said, would make their policy “more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.” While denominations and individual churches might be divided over the issue of marriage equality, World Vision would look beyond the sectarian battles to a unity built on the common goal of feeding hungry children. Under the new policy, the sexual standards for gay and straight employees would be the same: abstinence for those who were single and faithfulness for those who were married.

In a letter to employees announcing the change, Stearns wrote, "I want to reassure you that we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work. We have always affirmed traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution. Nothing in our work around the world with children and families will change. We are the same World Vision you have always believed in." The decision, he said, was made without external pressure and was overwhelmingly supported by the World Vision board.

In terms of what we generally term Evangelical Christianity, it was a light shining in the darkness. But sadly, in this instance the darkness did overcome it.

Reactions were swift and even more judgmental and self-righteous than one might have feared. And there was no shortage of hyperbole. Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared, “This isn’t, as the World Vision statement (incredibly!) puts it, the equivalent of a big tent on baptism, church polity, and so forth. At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Michael Brown, who writes a blog called “In the Line of Fire,” and hosts a “Christian” radio program, posted his commentary under the title, “The Apostasy of World Vision.” In it he wrote, “Let it be stated plainly to the leadership and board of directors of World Vision U.S.: The Lord Jesus is no longer central in the corporate life of your organization. You have denied His lordship by your actions.”

Never mind what Jesus actually said. Apparently what he meant to say was that the key test of discipleship is whether or not we offer sufficient condemnation of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

Before I had time to write a blog affirming what World Vision had done, they reversed themselves. They apologized for the heartbreak they had caused in the evangelical community. They repented of their inclusive vision and compassion.

In an interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey, published in the Huffington Post, Stearns was asked whether any of the World Vision employees had resigned as a result of either their initial decision or their reversal. He said that a few had resigned because of the stress. “You can imagine some of the folks in our call center that are answering our 800 line. They’re receiving an earful of anger. I think we had a few people who couldn’t handle the stress and the anxiety created by the incoming calls.” He went on to say that, “Within an hour of the reversal, the call volume dropped. The angry calls stopped and dropped to a much lower level. Some of the sponsors called back to reinstate their sponsorships.”

World Vision initially lost nearly 5,000 sponsorships, totaling over $2 million in annual revenue. But Stearns reported that after the reversal, many called back to reinstate their sponsorships. “They’re forgiving, they’re saying, ‘Hey we stand with you.’”

As a Christian, it is hard not to feel both shame and anger at this episode.

For the past several years our youth group has participated in the “30 Hour Famine” to support World Vision. All day Saturday and part of Sunday they fast together. They do service projects (yes, on an empty stomach), they do Bible study, they pray together, and they learn about world hunger. They also raise money for World Vision. Each year our group raises a few thousand dollars.

If you go to the 30 Hour Famine page on the World Vision website you will see a tab for the “Famine Study Tour,” a special study opportunity that those who participate in the famine can apply for. One of our kids, Adam Sticca, was chosen from among thousands of applicants to participate in last year’s tour. In the group picture, he’s right in the center, wearing a T-Shirt with the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when they asked him what to do about the hungry crowd following them, “You Feed Them.”

We will be participating in the famine again this year.

We have never been fully on board with the theology of World Vision, but we are in one hundred percent agreement with their mission.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Are the Millenials Leaving Church?

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye."
Luke 6:39-42
In an online article for Washington (CBS DC) Benjamin Fearnow reported on a new survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute showing that almost a third of Millenials (ages 18 to 33) who have abandoned their childhood religion said that the anti-gay teachings of their church played a significant role in their decision making. And 70 percent of Millenials believe that these teachings are driving away their generation.

Over the last decade, support for equal marriage has increased by more than 20 percent according to most polls. Some record total support across the nation at nearly 60 percent, others see support only slightly above 50 percent. Within those numbers, the support goes up as the age goes down. Among Millenials, almost 70 percent support equal marriage. Among those 68 and older, the support is only 37 percent.

Fearnow reports PRRI CEO Dr. Robert P. Jones’ statement that, “While many churches and people in the pews have been moving away from their opposition to LGBT rights over the last decade, this new research provides further evidence that negative teachings on this issue have hurt churches’ ability to attract and retain young people. And Jones went on to say that “Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit.”

In other words, the damage has been done.

Thank you to the Fundamentalists, the Literalists, and all the other judgmental so-called “Christians” who have worked so hard to convince the world that being a Christian means condemning gay people and rejecting scientific reason. Heaven only knows the hurt you have inflicted on generations of LBGTQ youth and adults. But beyond that, you have hurt the church you claim to love.

Jesus weeps.

People ask why some of us in the church are so focused on this issue. They wonder why here at the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich we have spent the past two and a half months working out a statement of inclusion and becoming a Reconciling Congregation. There are, after all, lots of other things in the world that should demand our attention. Keith Sanzen, our Church Council Chair puts it simply and eloquently. “Yes,” he says, “there are lots of social justice issues out there and we are concerned about all of them, but this is one issue where the church has really hurt people.”

John Wesley’s first rule was, “Do no harm.” That seems like a good place to start.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What Pope Francis (Should Have) Said

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Mark 9:42-4

Late on Saturday night, as I was going over my sermon for Sunday.

Okay. I should be honest. It wasn’t really late. It was barely 9 o’clock. But it was late for me, and “late on Saturday night” seems like the time I should have been going over my sermon. And the idea that it was late would make what happened next seem less stupid.

Yesterday was “Transfiguration Sunday,” and I was thinking about “mountain top experiences.” I was thinking about the real “mountain top” behind the house where I grew up in Sagamore. It was really just a hill, but we called it “Mount Tom,” and from the top we could look out across the Scusset marshes to Cape Cod Bay. It was spectacular. I was also remembering a wonderful memorial service that morning, which was wonderful celebration of a life well lived. And I was looking forward to what I anticipated would be some very creative and inspiring themes that our worship team had been working on for Lent.

And then I looked at Facebook, and I saw this wonderful quotation from Pope Francis:

“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a Literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

It made me happy. Giddy, even.

Not exactly groundbreaking theology. When I was in seminary I did not know a single student or professor who would not have endorsed the general meaning of that statement. No serious theologian or biblical scholar would have argued for the notion of “a literal hell where people suffer.” Most mainline Christian thinkers, then and now, are Christian universalists. They believe that we come from God and we go to God.

But for the Pope to say it clearly and directly was like a breath of fresh air.

And yesterday morning, at the last minute, I decided to include it in my sermon. And it went very well. Until a friend came up to me after the late service and said that he had seen the quotation and looked for the source and discovered that it was a hoax. The Pope never said it.

Normally, I am deeply skeptical of almost everything I see on the Internet. And most of the time I can smell a hoax before I finish reading it. But in this case I was completely gullible and it did not occur to me that I should verify the source before using it in a sermon.

I just wanted to believe it. And for what it’s worth, the Pope SHOULD have said it.

Rob Bell, once proudly claimed by Evangelical Christians as a rising star, stirred fierce opposition among that group when he published a book called, “Love Wins.” In it, he shared his belief that no one is consigned to eternal torment. For many Christians, apparently, the only thing more precious than the blessed assurance that they are saved is the comfort they get from believing that others are damned.

Bell was accused of the heretical teaching that hell is not a real place. Actually, what he said in the book is that in the time of Jesus, hell was a very specific place. The Greek word most often translated as hell is “Gehenna.” In biblical times, that was the name of a ravine outside of Jerusalem. Originally the site of pagan child sacrifice, in Jesus’ time it was a garbage dump. In Gehenna, the fires literally never went out. And wild dogs gnashed their teeth as they went through the garbage. There were some actions, said Jesus, for which one deserved to be treated like garbage.

In other words, Jesus used “hell” as a literary device, just like Pope Francis “said” in the bogus quotation. Lest anyone think that is a groundbreaking insight, we can also find it in William Barclay’s New Testament commentary, published in 1954.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jesus Called It an Abomination

A servant cannot serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
Luke 16:13-15

The 85 richest people in the world have about the same amount of money as the poorest 3.5 billion people. Jon Stewart listened intently as a news clip played, explaining that the total wealth of half the world’s population was barely as much as the richest 85 people.

“JESUS CHRIST!” he exclaimed, sounding as if he could not help himself. And then he paused before finishing the sentence, “. . . would be very unhappy.”

Yes, Jesus would be very unhappy.

According to the Gospel record, Jesus used the word “abomination” exactly once. Wealth, he said, is “prized by human beings,” but it is “an abomination in the sight of God.” After that exchange he went on to tell the parable of the rich man and the poor man (Luke 16:19-31) and he made it clear in the parable that the real problem was the dramatic inequality between the two. As far as we know, the rich man did not get his money dishonestly. The problem was simply that he had so much and the poor man had so little.

The poor man “longed to satisfy his hunger with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table,” but he got nothing.

Pope Francis expressed a similar sentiment when he commented on the failure of “trickle down” economics. “The promise,” he said, “was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor.”

Luke says that when Jesus talked about wealth and poverty, the wealthy people “ridiculed him.” The same thing happened to Pope Francis. The same pundits and commentators who were totally on board with Roman Catholic teachings on gay rights and abortion were quick to say that the pope should stick to spiritual matters. One can only assume that they have never read the Gospels.

In one sense, the pope’s critics are right. The economic problem is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual problem. It isn’t about economics as much as it is about theology. Jesus said that we cannot worship wealth if we want to worship God. The worship of wealth is idolatrous. In our time the worship of wealth is buttressed by the conviction that a free market will provide a fair and just distribution of wealth and income. We believe that the distribution is fair because it is determined by the market. And we know that the market is fair. We “know” this even though the numbers tell us that it isn’t fair at all.