Sermon: Bad Reception

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Bad Reception”

(Feb 3, 2013) God’s promise to the prophets– to be with them so they do not need to be afraid– seems on the surface to be an empty one, as prophet after prophet is harassed, degraded, threatened, and killed. Or maybe the promise of presence isn’t a guarantee of safety and ease, but a source of courage and strength. (Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:21-30)

Sermon: Be. Loved. Beloved.

peanuts 1“Be. Loved. Beloved.”

(January 13, 2013) Each one of us is unique, marked and known in our imperfections, scuffs, and rough places. And yet we are known and loved intimately by God, claimed and called God’s own. (Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

The exercise I use in this sermon is a simple one to try on your own with a bag of peanuts (still in their shells), and has the added bonus of coming with a snack as long as you don’t have allergies. I first learned this at a mother-daughter seminar in my teens, when it was used to illustrate a parent’s love for a child. I have never forgotten that lesson. The seminar was hosted by Planned Parenthood, St. Johnsbury VT.

Spirituality that speaks to the rest of us

I have bad days. Bad weeks, even.

Last week was one such example. I was feeling like “church” was an old, dead concept (I still think this, at least in the way most of us think about church), and that progressives/liberals like myself would have no space whatsoever in the spiritual culture of the future– I even uttered the phrase “Maybe Rick Santorum is right; there are no liberal Christians.” I contemplated entering my backup profession, tending bar, since I would still lend a listening ear, be around people, and have an excuse to mix a mean martini.

But yesterday, more than 3,700 people read a blog post of mine, more than tripling the previous record for most-active day on this blog. And this was not a post about some of the things I normally yammer on about that drum up controversy: homosexuality and abortion and racism and church metrics (hey it drums up *some* controversy).

This was a post about faith. It was a spiritual response to tragedy in my community, and I discussed evil and violence, hope and love, and the need to cling to something stronger and truer than the worst of ourselves: Love, which I name as a synonym for God. I didn’t tone down or hide what I believe and how I understand faith. These are my actual spiritual beliefs.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Like, in a big way not alone. People from my church and other churches, people from my community and other communities, self-professed atheists and agnostics and practitioners of all sorts of different spiritual beliefs read the post, shared the post, emailed and commented and said my words touched them, spoke to them.

And that touched *me.*

Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the only ones who thinks faith can be something other than adhering to a set of laws, and screaming those laws at other people until they adhere to them too, that faith is not so much about what we think, but who we are and how we live, and that the things we name as sacred: God, love, the human heart, the gift of the natural world around us, the power and vastness of the cosmos– that these are all really the same thing, and we call them by different names. But in drawing together around the tragedy of Melissa Jenkins’ death, you all have shown me that none of us are alone. In my extended circle of connection, there are more than 4,000 5,000 people (between yesterday and today) who believe in the power and sacredness of love to conquer over fear and pain, like little ripples of hope spreading out. We’re a megachurch without the churchy part, a living body of heart and soul, bound by compassion and tenderness and fragile hope in the face of terror. We represent a new spirituality, one that lifts up the ways we are connected, not the ways we are apart.

You may not dig on Jesus like I do. That’s okay. It’s never been my goal to convert others to what I believe. It is my goal to build connection between hearts and other hearts, and between those hearts and what is holy and sacred and life-giving and true. It is my belief that faith in anything should inspire us to be better versions of ourselves and to live together with more tenderness and compassion and justice. In this tragedy, and in all the tragedies and triumphs to come, you all have reminded me that we are stronger because we are together, and no one who holds on to the hope in Love does so alone.

That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion.

I’ve been pointed to a fantastic discussion on Newsweek’s website about disbelieving clergy, and a corresponding study from Tufts University about clergy who have “lost faith in their tradition.” Friend and fellow blogger Jeremy has a great exploration of this article in his blog post on the subject, playing on the questions of how clergy should respond to the doubt they experience, and how we might be honest and authentic in leading congregations from various places of lost faith. I was going to post a reply, but it became an entry in itself…

I find that I “lose faith” in my tradition in three ways:

1. The Dark Night of the Soul. This is temporary, but that temporariness has varied in length, the longest stretch for me being about ten months following 9/11. I didn’t know if I could believe in humanity, much less a loving God or a purpose for life. Fortunately, I was not leading a congregation at that point. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been. As Jeremy says, there needs to be a balance. A couple sermons about the angst and questioning might have been fine, but after a while, I’d have needed to find a way to preach faith in the midst of doubt or something. Still, having been through these periods I believe makes a pastor stronger and better able to minister with those who inevitably face their own dark night, without giving fast and hard answers that sound more like condemnation than help (“What do you mean you doubt you feel God’s presence? God is real and that’s it! You just have to believe a little harder!”). And I think of Mother Teresa, who it seems conducted most of her ministry from within a place of doubt. It doesn’t seem to have diminished the power and faithfulness of her witness, bless her.

2. Loss of faith in the denomination and its policies. I love Wesleyanism and I love the United Methodist Church. I was a denomination shopper, coming out of the Catholic church and seeking a place where I could be in ministry, and I explored a lot of traditions. I think the UMC, of all the specific traditions I tried, is the closest and best expression of the Christian faith for me. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Sometimes our polity, our way of forcing there to be a majority vote when there is a strongly divided body, and the way some of those decisions shake out (mostly I’m talking about positions on human sexuality, yes), frustrate the hell out of me. I begin to wonder if we as a body really are seeking God’s vision, and begin to question my ability to be an authentic *United Methodist* Christian leader. I think it’s okay to be honest about this too, while leaving room for other United Methodists who are equally frustrated and disheartened with our denomination for exactly opposite reasons, and lift instead the challenge and struggle to be faithful as a human organization, seeking to live into a divine vision.

Those are the kind of easy ones.

3. Lack of adherence to supposedly orthodox theological positions. Most of these, I haven’t lost, but never had to begin with. You see, I believe, but I have been asked (sometimes by myself) whether what I believe is enough in line with my tradition. In the early 1900s, a movement arose to name the ‘fundamentals‘ of the Christian faith, and while the fundamentalist movement has sprung in large part from that, many if not most mainline perceptions of Christianity have also been influenced by it. And so many people think it’s impossible to preach “the Gospel” and *not* believe in a seven-day creation story or a talking snake. Even for the people who get past that, many raise their brows when I say things like “I don’t believe in original sin… at least, not at all in the way it is usually described” (I believe it has more to do with the fact that we are trapped in a destructive narrative [see B. McClaren, Everything Must Change], or that we are in the impossible position of trying to live into our commitments and what is asked of us, which we know we can never achieve [see R. Neville, Symbols of Jesus, I think]). I don’t think God is a being with hands and feet (and gender) and locality in time and place. I don’t place much stock in whether or not the Red (or reed) Sea parted, and I completely doubt that there was ever a prophet swallowed by an enormous fish. I don’t cling to the idea that Mary was (or had to be) a virgin. Doesn’t so much matter to me where Jesus’ DNA came from; I still believe he’s the son of God. I don’t need the the Bible to be infallible; it’s okay for me if it’s a human story of divine encounter. I don’t believe God demands a blood atonement for sin, and inflicts divine child abuse to exact it. I don’t believe suffering and violence and death are redemptive. I’m unsure about whether Jesus’ resurrection was physical and bodily; again, for me I care about what it means– that his life, his love, his oneness with the Divine transcended the grave, was more powerful than death, and we too when we live for him and as he did will find life and love and grace that are stronger than death– but I don’t really bother with the mechanics of it. If we suddenly dug up a body in Judea and proved it was his, that would not make the resurrection one ounce less true for me. I don’t believe that Jesus will come again in a cloud, or that anything described in the book of Revelation is intended to be revelatory of anything beyond the people of God living in faith in the face of the Roman Empire.

These are not temporary doubts for me, nor are they political debates. These are things I actually believe are theological and spiritual positions held by some that need not be held by all in order to live and believe an authentic Christian spirituality. And I will preach them. Again, leaving room for those who do believe that Mary was, by necessity, a virgin, and that Jesus’ blood did indeed avert the deathly wages of sin being extracted from humanity. But I have often said that if one need believe that God demands blood sacrifice in order to be a Christian, count me out. If one’s faith hangs on whether Jesus was a resuscitated corpse versus a spiritual being come Easter morning, I’m out of the club. I hear sighs of relief; I hear people give thanks, that they can now consider themselves Christian, when before they thought they were excluded. I also hear murmurs. Okay, then, what *do* you believe?

I believe God is; transcendent and immanent, Ground and Source of all Being, and that we are in God as a sponge is in the sea. I believe the Bible is the story of humanity’s relationship with God, filled with truth and beauty and adventure and sacrifice and chaos and anger and doubt and triumph, and that this story is true, regardless of whether it is factual. I believe that Jesus was, more than any other wise prophet or old soul, one and the same with that Divine, that to see him was to see God, to live the Way he taught is to live God’s Way. I believe that the consequence of confronting power and corruption and violence and domination, the cost of articulating God’s vision in the face of humanity’s greed is deadly. I believe that the life and love of God, and God in Christ, and now God in us as we are in Christ, is yet more powerful than the deadly force of Empire and fear and greed and corruption. I believe such life and love is eternal, and so Christ was and is alive beyond death. I believe that this Divine One, this God, is present with us even now, that we feel movement through Spirit and in community, that we are still called to be and build and participate in a new way of being and living, God’s realm, come to earth. I believe we are invited to make this new Way, together with God, and live as a people connected to God, to one another, to all of life, part of what Brian McClaren calls “God’s Sacred Ecosystem.” When that happens, we will see face to face, we will live as the Body of Christ, fully restored. We will see the fulfillment of all that needs to be.

These are my fundamentals.

But they are not sufficient for everyone. I have been told many times that I should renounce my wicked ways and confess before my congregation that I am not fit to be their pastor because I do not believe in the true tenants of Christianity. I have been told that I must have lost my faith, and that I must repent and seek the assurance of the infallible Bible, the inflexible answers, because to question is to doubt and to doubt is to deny God. I think to question is to invite deeper faith, to seek to know God more, to admit that I don’t have or need answers, only ideas and a direction to begin and begin again on the journey of faith that leads, as it must, to the Holy.

And so here, I reject the premise that this could be considered a loss of belief. I believe very strongly. I would challenge that simply because what I believe is not the orthodoxy from an older age or the post-intellectualism ideas of fundamentals, that doesn’t mean I question the deep truth of the Gospel. I would not count myself among disbelieving clergy, although many have pointed their fingers at me with just such an accusation. To my congregations, I say simply that I am on a journey with them. I have deep truths, and deep faith in God on which I stand. And if we differ from there, or you wish I articulated more solid answers, then perhaps your faith is in a stronger or wiser– or maybe just different!– place than mine. But if you question too, then be not afraid. I’ll hold your hand through the dark night of the soul; I’ll rage with you when our human institutions fall short of the Divine justice and truth we strive to live into; I’ll listen and hear and hold your questions about God and truth and Christ and existence, and share my own and maybe together where us two are gathered in Jesus’ name, we will find his presence with us. I’ll preach that: what I believe, what you might believe, what others might believe, because more than anything I know we all see God only in part, and only together can we begin to piece together how massive, how mighty, how all-encompassing, how grace-full, the Divine truly is.

The Invention of Faith?

My husband and I recently watched the movie “The Invention of Lying,” written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson (at Internet Movie Database). I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard more about this film sooner; I thought it was one of the most interesting and though-provoking movies I’ve seen in a while.

It starts as a romantic comedy of sorts, and a brilliant one at that. Sharp and witty and pushing the edge of its PG-13 rating, the film explores an alternate reality in which no one can ever lie. Ever. They don’t even have a concept for it. Now isn’t that a funny place to tell a story about a fat man looking for love?

Except the movie doesn’t stop there. When main character Mark does manage to break the mold and tell a lie, a whole new world opens up, for him, and for the audience. It’s not about lying to get girls in bed or to make easy money. Mark discovers something incredible.

(Mild spoilers ahead, but I try to be good about it)

Mark has discovered not just lying, but a whole series of stuff about saying something that isn’t. You see, by inventing “lying,” he has also discovered creativity, storytelling, and fiction. He has created, at least for himself, a concept of truth and honesty, because now he has a choice about when he will lie and when he won’t. This plays out very dramatically in a scene where he could get everything he wants– not money or sex, but what he really, truly wants– if he’d just tell a little lie. Mark discovers that he now sees the world in a different way, not only by what is, but by what could be, and he sees in people not only what they look like, but what they seem like, who they are inside. He’s discovered, although he never names it as such, hope. (here comes the spoiler-y bit)

And that’s ultimately what I think he’s trying to express when he invents his biggest “lie,” religious belief.

I was prepared for that to be really offensive, and at first glance it is. The film seems to suggest that faith is a lie, something we invent to give ourselves hope, to make ourselves less afraid of what happens after we die. What Mark invents is exactly that, and as he discovers, it’s not transformative or life-changing, it doesn’t help others see the world the way he sees it, and it ultimately doesn’t bring hope or change to anyone because it’s only an empty promise about the afterlife and some removed “guy in the sky” and not a way to change *this* life and live with new priorities, new eyes.

And I agree. When we strip faith down to be something like that, to be a series of empty promises about heaven and hell and how to get to one and avoid the other, we take something transcendent and holy and we turn it into a lie. We make it a silly story we tell ourselves to be less afraid and alone in life, and we strip it of any power to transform us and the world. We create our own religion, which has little or nothing to do with the powerful gift God is trying to give us. I believe that what God offers us, when truly understood (which we see only in glimpses most of the time), is powerful and profound and life-changing. Like Mark’s discovery, it should free us to live more deeply and fully, to express free will and choice and creativity, to love passionately and honestly, to be a part of something much more than ourselves or the survival of our species, but the lifeblood of all that is, a part of the vast and sacred scope of all of creation.

But instead, we boil it down to our own desires: safety, security, a relief from fear and loneliness. We take God’s gift of faith and we make it into a human invention of religion, empty, powerless, devoid of any transformation or lasting hope.

We render it a lie.

Like I said, the film got me thinking. I recommend it, and if you watch it and want to discuss it, I’m happy to kick around ideas some more. Enjoy!

That Old Time Religion Ain’t Conservative Enough

So my friends lists on Facebook, and on my blogroll, and even on my television (good Lord, do I love Rachel Maddow) are all talking about the same thing this week.

The Conservative Bible Project.

Like Rachel Maddow, like many of my friends when we first emailed this around, I was convinced this had to be satire. Surely The Onion was pointing out the foolishness of over-reliance on Biblical translations by creating a silly story about people so committed to the causes of conservatism– including Biblical literalism– that they would re-write the Bible to make it easier for them to take it literally. A joke, right?

Right? please?

Nope.

So you’ve probably heard this one by now, but there’s this group on the conservative wiki “Conservapedia” who want to create a ‘translation’ of the bible devoid of liberal bias, which, according to them includes “three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning:

  • lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ
  • lack of precision in modern language
  • translation bias in converting the original language to the modern one.”

Instead, they want a Bible that obeys these guidelines:

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
  3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
  4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
  5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
  6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
  9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
  10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

I’ve never found Hell to be particularly logical. In fact, I’ve never really found there to be a strong case for it in the Bible, but I’ve been reading those liberal Bibles that leave things in their original language where possible, so I read more about Sheol and Gehenna than Hell. Oh well.

I don’t even understand point 9. They want a bible that credits the openmindedness of the author of the fourth gospel, who, 70 years after Jesus’ death, wrote “No one comes to the Father but by me”? I can’t speak to this point.

And 10 just makes me laugh. Yes, silly liberal wordiness; why keep single words in their original language like “Yahweh,” when you can use two words loaded with historical, gendered, medieval baggage like “The Lord”?

But strangely, the one I have the biggest problem with is #7. Maybe this isn’t strange; I did just watch Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which I highly recommend, and about which I hope to post soon. In any case, I can’t even begin to get my mind around how much you have to misread the Bible to think that a good translation would be committed to “explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.”

Yes, yes, I remember. The Israelite concept of Jubilee– you know, bailouts for the wealthy, but forget that bit about letting all the slaves go free and forgiving individuals’ debts. The Deuteronomic Law insisting that in the land which God provides, the people must care for the widows and orphans and strangers (actually, aliens– don’t know if we mean illegal immigrants there or people from other planets…)– that’s the one part of Deuteronomy we should ignore (but keep the part about sexual practices, because nothing in human sexuality has changed in 4000 years). Most of the prophet Micah’s work, because in fact, God requires that you seek punitive justice, love kindness as an abstract concept, and walk along arrogantly proclaiming that you are in accordance with God, who, now that ‘He’ thinks of it, could care less about mercy and does require a big, honking CEO bonus of a sacrifice.

Then there’s that ridiculous Socialist society of the early church, holding all things in common, by which we should really understand that they took things from other people to accumulate their own wealth, which they held in common until the strongest among them developed a corporate buyout scheme, leaving the rest of the fledgling church members paupers.

And that Jesus guy. I must have totally misunderstood! He didn’t really mean blessed are the poor, but thank God for the poor because without their class to oppress, the rich couldn’t be rich. And he was being sarcastic when he said that it a rich man should sell everything and give it to the needy; no, he should sell everything at the best price he can get for it, gouging other retailers so they go out of business, and making the poor dependent on his goods so they can’t sustain their lifestyles. God’s kin-dom is like a foreman who hires workers for a day, and pays them all the same amount regardless of the hours worked, because the foreman is trying to break the back of the Union so tomorrow he can fire all those workers and hire new ones for much less money. Whoever holds on to their life is bound to accumulate more and more of it, and whoever looses their life for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel is a right fool who deserves to fall on hard times and no one is going to give them a free ride.

Again, you have to seriously, painfully misread the Bible and misunderstand what faith is and what it means to be faithful to think that this is a idea that merits anything other than scorn.

The Coolest Thing Since the Printing Press

codexI’m surprised that this didn’t make more of a splash when it came out a month or so ago. The Codex Sinaiticus project is updating and making available online the images and translations of a codex—a 1600-year-old bible, one of the oldest and most complete versions of the Christian Bible ever found.

Why do I think this is amazing? Why do I compare it to the printing press or the translation of the Bible into the vernacular? Because it seems to me that this is just as important a moment, placing images and translation processes previously discussed almost exclusively in academic circles before the whole world.

To me it is moving to see the respect and care with which these sorts of documents are treated, when found, and to witness the dedication and the reverence with which they are studied, translated, reconstructed, and incorporated into the body of knowledge about Biblical source material.

At the same time, it is much more difficult to believe that this is a text delivered as a finished product direct from the hands of God. Rather, it is a very human document, edited and re-written, margins filled with corrections and commentary, lost and found, but nonetheless joyfully, reverently, miraculously handed down for millennia, still conveying truth and power and love and God’s ongoing story of creation and love for the world. That it speaks anything coherent after all that fragmentation and reconstruction is astounding; that it speaks truth and power and love is jaw-dropping.

Is this an amazing moment in the life of the church, this invitation to see the Bible perhaps with new eyes? Or is it just a bunch of old parchment found in the desert somewhere? Only we—and by we, I mean anyone with internet access—can decide what it means to us.

Seven years later

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

May we know the spirit of forgiveness of ourselves and others, in the midst of remembrance and ongoing violence. Please.

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