Posted by: smstrouse | February 3, 2019

Offended by Jesus? Join the Crowd!

welcomeThey say you can’t go home again. Maybe that has some truth in it. Or at least sometimes going home can cause discomfort – in both your old hometown friends and family and yourself.

In 1996, it was the 100th anniversary of my home church.  As a daughter of the congregation, I was invited to preach at one of the services that anniversary year. Now I have to tell you, that my relationship with that church was not without its ups and downs. In fact, I had almost flunked Confirmation. After three years of classes, memorization, sermon notes, and tests, I was in danger of not being approved for Confirmation. The reason? We actually got report cards and were graded on memori-zation, sermon notes, tests, as well as attendance in class, Sunday school, church, and Luther League (Sunday night youth group).

I had gotten straight A’s in everything, except Luther League. Straight F’s, all because I was a very shy kid and all the other kids were from other schools, and I just refused to go (I could probably get an A in stubbornness). Eventually, after a month of extra classes, I was allowed to be Confirmed. I also have to tell you that for a 13-year-old, this was a shaming experience which stayed with me a long time and sensitized me to all the ways that the church can shame people, often without even realizing it.

OK, it’s 33 years later and I get to preach in that very same church. I actually started my sermon with this story. At the end of it, I said, “So, the moral is: never discount any child; she just might come back to be your pastor.”  It was meant to be humorous; people laughed. I think most who had been around during that pastor’s tenure recognized his strict ways. However, after the service, my brother came up to me and said, “About your Confirmation story: Mom was mortified.” And I got it. My mom had a way of seeing both the church and me. My story didn’t fit with her narrative. And I’m sure this discordance made her very uncomfortable. So, it is true. Often times you can’t go home again without offending somebody.

Jesus certainly found that out, didn’t he? The hometown crowd not only did not like whathometown-nazareth-sign-e1428950184677 he had to say, they actually dragged him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. Although it does seem that Jesus provoked them a bit. Maybe he was offended by their astonishment that the hometown kid, Joseph’s son, could make good. Because then he seems to purposefully poke at them by reminding them about the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, both foreigners, both adherents of other religions.Hearing Jesus single out these two as recipients of God’s grace did not fit in with their narrative as God’s chosen and all others as outsiders. This discordance obviously made them very uncomfortable, hence their drastic response.  

So what is the epiphany for today? What revelation is manifested for us today? That we can’t go home again? I don’t think that was the point of the story. Although we could glean a number of points from it, not the least being that being a follower of Jesus can sometimes bring about challenge and discomfort to others. As Jesus said himself, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And we begin Black History Month, we can hear Jesus echoed in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “There comes a time when you must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must take it because your conscience tells you it is right.”

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There is another point in the gospel story that is often overlooked. And that is the religion of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. World Interfaith Harmony Week also began on Friday. It is an initiative of the United Nations and was  first proposed at the UN General Assembly in 2010 by King Abdullah of Jordan. From then on, the first week of February is observed as World Interfaith Harmony Week. I bring this up because the reality of other religions caused such discomfort and violence in Jesus’ day and causes discomfort and often violence still.

I have for many years been involved in interfaith activities. But I’ve also been involved in what I call the intrafaith conversation. What is intrafaith? The simplest way to explain it is that the prefix matters. Inter means “between” – as in interacting, doing things with other people or other groups. So interfaith is more than one religion getting together. Intra means acting within or inside one group. Intrafaith is just one religion examining itself in light of its interfaith experience. A good illustration of inter would be our country’s system of interstate highways that run across multiple states – as opposed to the highways that run only within one state’s intrastate system. Or intramural sports being played within just one school.

Let me share a story with you of how I became Interested in this. In the days after 9/11, many congregations wanted to learn more about other religions. I’d been involved in interfaith activities for some time, so was delighted when members at the church where I was serving as pastor at the time wanted to have a study of the world’s religions. They decided on Hinduism as their first venture. In light of the fact that we’d be looking at another tradition solely through our own Christian lenses, I asked if they would be open to inviting a Hindu guest to one of our sessions, someone who was willing to share her story as well as answer any questions. Their answer was an enthusiastic “yes” and I invited a Hindu woman who was active in interfaith activities to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions.

However, after the session one of the participants asked if she could stay and talk to me about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her personal story. But she had a big concern. “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity,” she said, “I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

At the time, I reassured her that, given her firm foundation in Christianity, an explor-ation of other faiths would not endanger her soul. But afterwards, as I reflected on the incident, I realized that she had raised a challenging intrafaith issue for us today. 

How we, as Christians, relate to the religious diversity in which we live is no less challenging than it was for the people listening to Jesus. For them, the question, the challenge was: what does it mean to be a follower of YHWH in the midst of these people with beliefs different from ours? For us, it is: what does it mean to be a Christian in a multi-faith world?  I’ll tell you another story. I attended a funeral at a neighboring Episcopal church. I sat next to a friend from our interfaith women’s group. As the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I had preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time it sounded rude, exclusionary, and offensive. It was a powerful epiphany, which led me actually to come to Berkeley to study interfaith theology, get my doctorate, and write a book and blog on the subject.  

I haven’t been thrown off of any cliffs, but I have been accused of abandoning my Christian faith – which I have not. In fact, meeting and listening to the stories of people of other religious traditions, forced me to examine my own beliefs and not just repeat them unquestioningly. And like many say in the interfaith movement, by doing so, my own faith has become stronger.

I was reading an article this week dealing with difficult parts of scripture: violent, misogynistic, condoning slavery, and other troubling passages. One of the things the author said applies to our topic today.

He quoted St. Augustine as saying something to the effect of “you should interpret every passage of the Bible in the light of the love of God.”  “If we read every passage through the eyes of love, it becomes easier to see when a passage represents the limitations or biases of the author — and not a declaration of the Divine Will.

“For example, when the Bible suggests that God condones slavery, we know that God is a God of love and justice — so clearly, those slavery-accepting passages represent the cultural bias of the human author, and not the word of God. The same goes for verses that suggest God is okay with violence, or genocide, or sexism, homophobia, etc. If a passage undermines God’s love and mercy, we can safely assume that the passage is telling us more about human imperfection than about divine perfection.”

Surely that’s what St. Paul was getting at in his incredibly beautiful chapter in I 875998c0bbb583ef036b9e167a250199Corinthians. Read so often at weddings, it wasn’t written for a couple beginning their married life, although it certainly does apply. He was writing to all the people in the church at Corinth. One of my favorite devotional writers, Joyce Rupp, has set an intention to memorize verses 4-5 during the month of February.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

She says, “I’ll pause and allow the verses to become embedded in my consciousness. I hope to carry them into each day, so that what they espouse will become activated in my approach and attitude toward all beings.”

She adds, “Perhaps you might join me this month in this life-giving endeavor.” I think she’s on to something. When we lead with love, we’re less likely to want to throw someone off a cliff or under the bus, to discount them, or refuse to listen to them.

And finally, from Parker Palmer, the Quaker author and teacher: “The mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way – to love the world as God did and does. If we are able to love the world, that will be the best demonstration of the truth which the church has been given.”

Amen.

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