The Bible Tells Me So

Date: August 2, 2009
Scriptures: Psalm 119:103-105; 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Sermon: The Bible Tells Me So
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

A girl came home from Church School and she reported to her parents about the story of how the children of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt. She told of how Moses erected a pontoon bridge across the Red Sea. Then he called in his airplane bombers and destroyed the bridge just as Pharaoh’s army was in the middle of it. The girl’s parent’s suggested that was impossible back in ancient times. When asked why she had embellished the story, the child replied, “Well, if I had told you the story the way our teacher told it, you would never have believed it!” [Why Didn’t Noah Swat Both Mosquitoes?, Hoover Rupert, p.22, adapted]

The child has a point. The story of Moses lifting his staff and parting the Red Sea is a challenge from a plausibility perspective. And there are many such cases in the stories of the Bible. An ark filled with pairs of animals on the sea for 40 days. Jonah being swallowed by a big fish. The Israelites marching around the city of Jericho seven times and then blowing a horn and the walls coming tumbling down. Jesus turning 150 gallons of water into wine. Jesus feeding over 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. And then there is the resurrection story of Jesus coming back from the dead. Many stories in the Bible are questionable from a plausibility perspective.

The stories of the Bible keep pace with the best fiction has to offer. It’s no wonder the Bible is a best seller. In fact, it is the best seller of all time.

The Bible is significant for its impact on humanity, on varying cultures, on art, literature, language and on the human community as a whole. We use many references from the Bible in our every day speech: The kiss of death. An eye for an eye. The mark of Cain. The patience of Job. A house divided cannot stand. The Bible has been translated into countless languages. And it is read all over the world. One Sunday in Church School the teacher asked who knew the story of Jonah. One child raised a hand, and when called on gave an accurate summary of the story. The teacher complimented the student on having done the Bible reading for the week. But the child was honest and admitted, “I didn’t read it in the Bible. It was on a bubble gum wrapper.” [Rupert, p. 19-20] There’s no escaping the Bible!

When you think about it, it is rather bizarre that this collection of 66 books, gathered over the course of something like 700 years, and rooted in ancient far off civilizations extremely remote from our own, is still a best seller and is still having a major impact on human lives and the world today.

This morning we want to reflect on how we look at the Bible today. We will do this by reflecting on the quotation that we have been using regularly in the bulletin: “The Bible is truth not fact.” It is a quote from a contemporary spiritual writer, from the Episcopal tradition, Madeleine L’Engle. You may remember L’Engle for her best known book, A Wrinkle in Time.

Those who wrote and collected what we know today as scripture were motivated by a desire to share their faith community’s experience of their relationship with God. Our scriptures tell of how the people of Israel related to their God and how they experienced their God in their life together as a community. In the New Testament we hear of how that experience extended beyond the Jewish community among those who followed Jesus. From the creation through the prophets, and on to the gospels and epistles we are told of the experience of the people of God and their understandings of their relationship with God. There are a myriad of stories, perspectives, settings, types of literature, cultural influences, etc. but all share the ways that people of God from a particular tradition and geographical area experienced their relationship with God. Among those who wrote the texts of the Bible, the primary concern was truth not fact. They were not intending to write history as we know it with dates and factual information about events to be analyzed. And they certainly were not intending to write science.

These people were writing about how they experienced God’s power and presence in the life of their community. Did the people who wrote these texts imagine that they would be compiled and revered as holy scriptures? Probably not. In the book The Bible: A Biography, contemporary religious scholar Karen Armstrong discusses the case of the apostle Paul, credited with writing several of the letters in the New Testament. Armstrong tells us:

Paul traveled widely in the diaspora and founded congregations in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece, determined to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth before Jesus returned. He wrote letters to his converts, answering their questions, exhorting them and explaining the faith. Paul did not think for a moment that he was writing ‘scripture’ because he was convinced that Jesus would return in his own lifetime, he never imagined that future generations would pour over his epistles. [p.61]

The texts included in the Bible became scripture because they were found to be useful over an extended period of time by those in the faith community and they emerged as part of a long standing tradition. The texts were not specifically intended by the writers to be part of a Bible, as we know it. And again, they were not addressing the material in terms of truth or fact.

As the books of the Bible gained authority and were collected into the canon as we know it, a variety of perspectives was included because it was thought that no one view could completely encompass the reality of God. So there are two creation stories. In the first creation story, humankind is created all at once. In the other, first one human is created, and then another is created from the rib of the first. In Church School, the class was asked to write a summary of the second creation story. One student wrote: “God first created Adam. God looked at him and said, ‘I think I can do better if I tried again.’ So God created Eve.” [Rupert, p. 33] There are many stories in the Bible that are repeated with variations and interpretations. There are differing takes on issues because it was expected that scripture would reveal and promote dialogue, essential to an ever greater understanding of a God who could not be fully known, and necessary for the flourishing of the community.

Again, Karen Armstrong shares this perspective:

From the very beginning, the Bible had no single message. When the editors fixed the canons of both the Jewish and Christian testaments, they included competing visions and placed them, without comment, side by side. From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely differing meaning. Later exegetes [biblical scholars] held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their time. Sometimes they allowed it to shape their world-view but they also felt free to change it and make it speak to contemporary conditions. . . . The Bible ‘proved’ that it was holy because people continually discovered fresh ways to interpret it and found that this difficult, ancient set of documents cast light on situations that their authors could never have imagined. Revelation was an ongoing process [p. 5]

I don’t think those of ancient days would have had any problem with L’Engle’s quote, “The Bible is truth not fact.” They were constantly looking for truth, not arguing about whether the Bible was factual.

There is an historical tradition of lively debate and engagement with the Bible. There was discussion of differing visions and conflicting passages. People expected multiple meanings from the biblical stories because they believed that the mystery of God is inexhaustible and that scripture was intended as a living word. The Bible was expected to be interpreted to shed light on new circumstances.

Now let’s fast forward to today. How did we get from this historic perspective of lively debate to the contemporary bumper sticker, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”? There is a strong trend in contemporary Christianity to equate truth and fact when it comes to the Bible. Many Christians believe that the Bible is true because it is fact. There is the assumption among a large segment of Christianity today that for something to communicate truth, it must be factual. Truth and fact cannot be separated.

This perspective arose in response to the Enlightenment and modernity. With the Enlightenment came the perspective of the scientific method, proof, and inquiry. Testing theories and suppositions. As religious and biblical studies developed, scholars began treating the Bible as literature, and analyzing it as one would other literature. Unfolding developments in archeology and linguistics and other academic disciplines shed light on the biblical texts. The discipline of biblical criticism began to emerge where texts were studied in search not only of application for contemporary times, but also for the issues, concerns, and settings of the original writers. What were the original messages of the writers given their settings? The quest for the historical Jesus emerged. In pre-Enlightenment times, the Bible was not examined for historicity and it was primarily a tool of the church. With the evolution of what became known as biblical criticism, there was an ensuent backlash. The Bible was not to be viewed critically, associated with “criticize”, rather than “examine”. The discoveries in archeology, science, etc. were not needed to understand and follow the word of God in the Bible. So it is in the mid 1800s that the concepts of inerrancy and literalism began to develop. There were those who believed the Bible had a single message, one meaning, not multiple meanings. There was no room for interpretation. The Bible was God’s word. It meant what it said. It was divinely inspired so it could have no mistakes or inconsistencies or contradictions. The Bible was fact and truth. Truth and fact. This perspective evolved as a reaction against the Enlightenment and the scientific world view. It is a backlash against modern biblical scholarship. It is a fairly recent trend. And this view is embraced by a very strong, vocal segment of the current Christian church.

There are four brief comments I want to make that help to inform the conversation about the Bible, truth and fact, as it is taking place today.

The first comment has to do with authority. Some Christians who view the Bible as entirely truth and fact, taking the Bible literally and claiming its inerrancy, have chosen to believe in the Bible and follow the Bible and worship the book itself. Peter Gomes, retired minister of The Memorial Church at Harvard University and religion professor at Harvard, names this phenomenon “bibliolatry”. [The Good Book, p. 36]. Gomes tells of this incident: “A colleague who went to a small Christian college in the South told me of a. . . preacher of her experience [who] stood up and read his lesson from his Bible. He then closed the book and threw it out of the nearby open chancel window, and said, ‘Well, there goes your god.’ He was of course making a point about idolatry, and he was illustrating it with an attack upon bibliolatry, or the worship of the Bible.” [p.36-37]

Gomes goes on to say, “In the absence of a visible God, the temptation is always near to make a god of whatever is visible and related in some proximate way to the real thing.” [p. 37]

And so, there are those in churches today who claim to follow the Bible, literally. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And thus make an idol of the Bible. I don’t know about you, but I was not taught to believe in the Bible. I was encouraged to believe in God. I was not instructed to follow the Bible. I was invited to follow Jesus. The Bible was to be a tool or guide for the journey.

Second, we make a comment about interpretation. As we have seen in the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, every one has an interpretive perspective. She was accused of letting her cultural heritage and background and experience influence her rulings, as if the cultural heritage, background, and experience of white Euro-American men and women on the bench does not influence their rulings. Everyone’s view of everything is influenced by culture, experience and background. There is no way to read something, to write something, to say something, or to hear something without bringing one’s perspective to bear on the process. So, there’s no way to read the Bible in a totally objective manner without interpreting it. The best we can do is to acknowledge the filters and lenses that we are using because of our experience, culture, and background, and to listen to others who have differing perspectives. Those who claim the Bible as truth and fact, generally also claim complete objectivity without interpretation. But this is impossible. You cannot read the Bible without interpreting it. Everyone brings a unique perspective and this can be seen as a gift to be shared, rather than as distortion or manipulation.

We also want to say a word about translation. The Bible is a collection of books written, selected, and translated by human beings with all kinds of room for human influence. As a brief example, I want you to take a few minutes to think about what words can be made with the two consonants S and T. You can add whatever vowels you would like, and you have to keep the consonants in order. By adding vowels, what words can be made from S and T ? Sit Sat Set Site Sot Suggestions from congregation. . .

In the original texts of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the oldest manuscripts do not use vowels in the writing. The addition of vowels came later. So when the vowels were added, the transcriber had to decide, by context and meaning, etc. which vowels to put in and what the word would be. Just this little exercise shows but one tiny way in which human involvement has influenced how the Bible has come to us. You will hear a bit more about this in an upcoming sermon requested about biblical references to homosexuality. But this just gives you an idea of how humans over hundreds and hundreds of years in varying situations and cultures have influenced these texts. So to say the Bible is truth and fact, and that it is inerrant, minimizes the inevitable influence countless people have had over the Bible as we read it today.

We also want to say a word about the relationship between science and the Bible. The ancients didn’t know as much as we do about how the weather worked. As I mentioned last week, they thought there was a metal dome above the sky and above that was water. When God wanted it to rain, God opened windows or vents in the dome and rain fell on the earth. This influences the way scripture talks about and refers to weather, rain, snow, storm, etc. We have different explanations for weather patterns today. Or take the advancement in medical science. In the gospel of Mark, there is a story about a man who brings his son to Jesus for healing. We are told that the son is possessed by an evil spirit which gives him seizures – he is unable to speak, he falls to the ground, he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. [Mark 9:17ff] I am not a doctor, but we might associate something like this with epilepsy or some other medical condition, not a demon living inside the person. Those who claim that the Bible is truth and fact force themselves to divorce spirituality and intellect, head and heart. To read the Bible and suspend contemporary knowledge of science, both hard science and social science, is to deny and devalue the wonderful advancement of the human intellect which is a God given gift.

The contention over truth and fact in the Bible has been fomenting since the Enlightenment and has become more heated in recent years. With so much change in society, I think there are people longing to cling to something that they feel is cut and dried and does not change and is not relative. And they are willing to suspend reason to have that. There are others who are not willing to give up intellect, reason, logic and scientific discoveries to accept the Bible as a combination of truth and fact.

In a recent reflection piece in the St. Petersburg Times related to this very issue, the writer tells of how she was raised believing the Bible on faith. Then she encountered the academic side of biblical scholarship. In the article she talks about taking an introductory Bible course in college. She says:

I lost my religion in Religion Class. . . . It was not the college’s intention to undermine our faith, but religion was taught as history. Who were those tribes? How did they come to worship one God, and how did the books we call the Bible get written and put together?

I discovered that the Bible had come together over hundreds of years, written by different men in different times.

The writer continues:

Doubt crept in like a poison, or maybe it was faith leaking out.

All I know is, during those months, as I read my chapters, took notes and wrote papers, belief gave way to logic. God – at least the God I was kneeling to in church – was a construct, put together over centuries, codified, fought over, killed for, and what did we really know? Nothing, except we needed this story, needed to believe our souls went somewhere and that we didn’t blink out like lightbulbs at the end.

The writer stopped going to church, calls herself an atheist, and has moved on, “bidding God a goodnight.” [St. Petersburg Times, 7/5/09, Sunday Journal, “Moving on, and bidding God a good night” by Norma Watkins]

Frankly, this article surprised me because I have had the exact opposite experience. Having grown up in the liberal United Church of Christ, I absorbed the assumption that the Bible was fact, but not all fact, and a lot of truth. The Bible was important and to be respected. And there was actual fact in the Bible, but it wasn’t necessarily all fact. But I didn’t get much help about how to sort that out. Frankly, classes in college and seminary weren’t much help either on this score. This was pretty much left to the individual. Which left me feeling pretty ambivalent about the Bible.

As a pastor, I diligently studied the commentaries on the scripture texts for preaching each week, but not with much delight or enthusiasm, because of this fact and truth dilemma and not feeling equipped to sort it out.

But I have to say that for me biblical scholarship in recent years has been extremely helpful. It is through the insights of scholars and academics in the biblical field that I feel I have received new tools for addressing the interplay between truth and fact in the Bible. So I no longer feel bogged down with ambivalence.

Through scholarship, study of ancient texts, and archeology, a lot more facts about the writings in the Bible, the times of the writings, the people, the places, the cultures, etc. have come to light. So we have a lot more actual, verifiable factual information about the Bible than ever before.

We know that there was a band of nomadic people called the Hebrews. We know from sources outside the Bible that many of the kings mentioned in the Bible did actually serve. We know, again, from outside sources that an actual person named Jesus lived, around the time the Bible says he lived. We know that he was actually, factually crucified for treason. We know that Paul actually lived as well as some of the other disciples. Archeological evidence and outside sources have helped to verify factual information in the Bible. For me, this does not undermine the Bible but makes it more real and believable and less mysterious and remote.

There’s enough fact for me to take the Bible seriously and with respect. Especially when it comes to the life of Jesus. After that – for me, it doesn’t matter so much. I look for the truth, and don’t worry about the fact. There is still meaning and truth in the stories, regardless of factuality which in most cases cannot be resolved. What was the meaning for the original writer and reader? What is the meaning and truth for us today in our circumstances? This we can address without getting mired in the fact debate.

The more I have studied the Bible, particularly the work of the Jesus Seminar, and scholars including Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, John Shelby Spong, Rita Nakashima Brock, and John Morwood, the more the Bible has come to mean to me. The more facts I learn, the more truth I see. My love for the Bible has blossomed. I now find reading and studying the Bible stimulating, insightful and informative, because I know there is enough fact to ground what’s important, and without being bound in the truth/fact dilemma, I can let the stories speak truth. Fact or not, the truth is still there.

Do I believe creation happened in 7 24-hour days by fiat? No. But I do believe that creation is sacred and an expression of divine love. And I do believe that humans are special because, of all living creatures, they have the greatest capability of the expression of divine love.

Do I believe there was an actual Adam and Eve living in a garden? Do I believe an actual snake talked with them? No. But I do believe that humanity has fallen short of our full capability of embodying love.

Do I believe there were actual brothers Cain and Abel and that one killed the other over a birthright? No. But I do believe that brothers kill each other, out of jealously and greed, and that it is heartbreakingly tragic and separates us from God.

Do I believe that there was an actual person named Noah who built a boat and set sail with pairs of every kind of animal? No. But I do believe that God seeks the thriving life of all of creation. Animals and all of nature are needed for human life to flourish. All is sacred to God.

Do I believe that Joseph’s brothers actually sold him into slavery and that the brothers later had to go to him for food to be saved from starvation? No. But I do believe that brothers are capable of evil. And I do believe that people can forgive even what seems unforgivable. Yes, I believe people are capable of amazing grace.

Do I believe there was an actual person named Goliath who met David on the battlefield? I don’t think so. But I do believe that sometimes the underdog triumphs. I do believe that the purposes of divine love prevail, sometimes through unlikely people, often through unlikely people. Look around you!

There was a Church School class talking about the story of Jonah. The teacher asked one of the children the lesson of the story. The child replied, “It means that you can’t keep a good man down.” [Rupert, p. 17]

Do I believe there was an actual person named Jonah who was swallowed by a large fish and spit out again? No. But I do believe that we ignore, deny, and run away from God’s call, and that it is at our own peril and the peril of others.

Do I believe that a peasant girl Mary in first century Palestine was actually impregnated by the Holy Spirit? No. But I do believe that a child was born who, more fully than anyone before or since, embodied the fullest expression of love, and his name was Jesus and his mother’s name was Mary.

Do I believe that Jesus fed over 5000 people with 5 actual loaves and 2 actual fish? No. But I do believe that when people work together, amazing things can happen. Everyone contributing what they have can mean that all have what they need. Together we are more than the sum of our parts. Generosity and sharing can produce unheard of results.

Do I believe that the body of Jesus actually came back after literal death and walked the earth? No. But I do believe that Jesus’ friends continued to experience his presence in powerful ways after his death. I do believe that people can come out of hopeless situations to find new life. I do believe there can be life after grief, addiction, despair, mental illness, psychic trauma, and the countless other ways we may experience death in this life.

As for actual scientifically verifiable evidence of the resurrection, we don’t have it. Nor have the bones of Jesus been found and identified. So, we don’t know. And for me, I don’t need to know. Scientific evidence or not, I have seen the power of life and love bring new life, hope and transformation in the most desperate of circumstances. That’s proof enough of truth for me.

Thomas Jefferson is said to have cut out all of the miracle stories from the gospels and created what was known as the Jefferson Bible. This was what he felt a rational, educated person needed to know to be a Christian. But with those stories goes so much truth. 20th century writer Flannery O’Connor says, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” I believe that the stories of the Bible inform our faith whether they are fact or not.

There is an important insight in the article in the paper by the woman who lost her faith and left the church. Remember she says, “belief gave way to logic. God – at least the God I was kneeling to in church – was a construct, put together over centuries, codified, fought over, killed for, and what did we really know?” It was the conflict of truth and fact, again. And her church did not give her a way of integrating the two, finding a reasonable balance, accepting the facts and letting the truth shine through. It was all faith or all logic. No integration.

The reason we put the quote we do in the bulletin each Sunday is because we want people to know that we believe in the integration of truth and fact, intellect and story. Faith and reason. It is not either/or. Or all fact and all truth. Or all fiction and no truth. There are other choices. Integration is possible, in fact, it is desirable. We don’t expect people to suspend their logic and rational thinking when they come to church. The quote in the bulletin is an attempt at one way to say that. We could quote Marcus Borg, “We take the Bible seriously, but not literally.” The point is figuring out a way to say we respect the wisdom and truth of the Bible and feel it can be accessed without suspending reason and logic. We don’t have to abandon the scientific worldview when we read the Bible. We can integrate archeological evidence and study. We can bring the insights and findings of medicine and social sciences to the Bible and find they work together.

The quotation, “The Bible is truth, not fact” is a way of saying we do not limit the Bible to literalism. We may want to be literal about some things, like “love your enemy,” “love your neighbor,” “do unto others,” and other favorite teachings of Jesus. But we expect the rich and lively engagement, the conflict and contention, the multiple meanings and competing visions to speak to us today as they did to the people of pre-Enlightenment times. And we expect scholarship and intellect and emotion and the arts to be part of this lively engagement. In this light, scripture becomes a living word. And if you take it all as literal fact, you miss a lot of the truth.

With all this said, we may be tempted to throw the Bible out the window, too, and give up on this ancient, archaic book that is a source of division and contention in church and society. We can view much of the Bible as no longer applicable today. And as inane fiction. Why not read a good, insightful novel, some poignant memoir, contemporary spiritual reflections, or some stimulating non-fiction and forget about the Bible? In The Good Book, Peter Gomes tells of a parishioner who described listening to scripture “like eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant where the parties on whom you were listening in are speaking fluent French, and you are trying to make sense of what they are saying with your badly remembered French 101. You catch a few words and are intrigued, trying to follow, but after a while you lose interest, for the effort is too great and the reward too small.” [p. 6]

Why bother with the Bible? Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg reminds us in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, that the Bible is not the end in itself. Borg uses the Buddhist metaphor of the teaching of the Buddha as “a finger pointing to the moon.” It’s not about the finger, it’s about the moon. The Bible is analogous to the finger pointing to the moon. The Bible is pointing us to God, to the spiritual life, to the transforming power of love.

Borg also uses the image of a lens. One of his students commented: “You’re saying that the Bible is like a lens through which we see God, but some people think it’s important to believe in the lens.” [p. 34-35]

Why bother with the Bible? Because its truth helps us to know ourselves more fully. Its truth shows us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Its truth shows us God. There is truth in the Bible or this collection of books would not have been revered as scripture for well over 2000 years. The Bible continues to reveal light and truth. The facts that are needed to ground that truth have been revealed through scholarship. And we have the truth of the Bible validated in our own experience as we are transformed by the divine love embodied in the actual life of the crucified first century Palestinian Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Are We There Yet?

Date: July 26, 2009
Scriptures: Mark 12:18-27
Sermon: Heaven: Are We There Yet?
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Father Agnellus Andrew was the British Broadcasting Company’s advisor on Roman Catholic affairs. There was a producer working on programming to do with heaven and hell. The producer asked Father Andrew how he could ascertain the official Roman Catholic view of heaven and hell. Father Andrew sent a return memo of just one word: “Die.” [The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Clifton Fadiman, general editor, p. 17]

So, from the beginning, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject of heaven or hell. And yet, concepts of heaven and hell are very prominent not only in our religious tradition, but in our broader, public culture as well. And so, we venture into this mysterious territory.

For a bit of background, we want to remember that in the early books of the Hebrew Bible, the word heaven is almost always plural, and it refers to a specific place in the scheme of ancient cosmology. Our ancient Hebrew forbears believed the earth was like a platform. There were pillars at the edge of the platform which held up a metal dome, above which was water, and the dwelling place of God, the heavens. The dome was thought to have vents in it, and when God opened the vents, it rained on the earth. It was also thought that below the platform called the earth was the realm of the dead. So there was the realm of the dead below the earth, the earth itself, the sky, the dome, water, and God’s dwelling place, the heavens.

In later tradition, during the time of the exile, the prophets developed the idea of judgment associated with death, and the concept of going to heaven or hell after you died began to gain ground. The Israelites had been conquered; they had been removed from their land, and dispersed into neighboring countries as servants and foreign immigrants. Why had God allowed this to happen? What about the good people who suffered? Why do bad things happen to good people? and Why do good things happen to bad people? So, in an effort to deal with these theological dilemmas, the concept of a final judgment in the afterlife was developed. The idea of going to heaven or hell was a way to conceive of the triumph of justice which had not taken place in this earthly life. If God did not make things turn out as they should in this life, then there must be an afterlife and a final judgment, and that’s when things got straightened out.

Why did this child die in this tragic manner? That’s not right. Well, the child is going to heaven, and will spend eternity in bliss. So this injustice is corrected. Why does that terrible person who has caused all kinds of suffering end up rich, successful, happy in this life? Well, he or she will be going to hell, and will suffer torment for eternity, and so get his or her due. Why were we thrown off of our land and forced to be slaves? It’s not right. It’s unjust. The idea of ending up going to heaven or hell after you die was a way to deal with what feels like injustice in this life. It doesn’t all get straightened out here, but it will in the next life. You might have it good here, but just Or, you’re suffering now, but your reward will come. There’s comfort in this thinking. That eventually, God will set things right. That our physical death from this life is not the end of the story.

This kind of thinking is prominent in the gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is a beggar who lives outside the rich man’s gates. The rich man ignores him. Lazarus dies and goes to heaven. The rich man dies and is burning in hell. There’s no changing the situation for eternity, and no way for the rich man to warn his brothers. [Luke 16:19ff]

So, the concept of going to heaven or hell after you die is also motivation for good, moral, righteous behavior while you are living here on this earth. Be good so you will go to heaven. So heaven and hell evolve from becoming a way to redress injustice, to a way to motivate good behavior. And the other side of that coin is to use hell as a threat against bad behavior. Don’t be bad or you will go to hell. Sadly, these concepts which were intended to provide comfort and encourage goodness, became a stick in the hands of religious authorities to force compliance, cooperation, and submission. Do what the church wants, or you will go to hell. So the church used/uses the concepts of heaven and hell to control behavior that it determines desirable. Go to church every Sunday or you will go to hell. Give this amount of money to the church if you want to go to heaven. Don’t get divorced or you will go to hell. Be Christian if you want to go to heaven. All other religions are going to hell. Be heterosexual or you will go to hell. There are a million and one ways the church has used the concept of eternal life in heaven or hell to enforce compliance with its agenda. The church has gone beyond using heaven and hell as comfort to redress the injustices of this life to using heaven and hell as a threat keeping people scared, anxious, and cowering. Sadly, this abuse of religion still goes on today, but it is weakening.

In a recent study by Baylor University, it has become evident that Americans have a broader view of heaven than they did 40 years ago. In the poll conducted by Baylor, 54% of the respondents felt that at least half of average Americans will make it into heaven. 29% said they had no opinion about the eternal fate of the average American. Rodney Stark who worked on the survey, reflected, “I know that when we did studies like this back in the ‘60’s, the notion that only Christians could go to heaven, for example, was much more extensive that it is now.” When it comes to other religions, 72% thought that at least half of Christians would go to heaven. The figures were lower for other faiths: 46% felt that at least half of Jews would go to heaven, 37% felt that at least half of Buddhists would go to heaven, and 34% felt that at least half of Muslims would go to heaven. This is a significant increase over past surveys of this kind. Stark concluded, “I think what you’re seeing is a real level of religious tolerance,” and, “it’s probably going to be higher ten years from now.” [The Christian Century, 10/21/08, p. 20]

So the idea that only good Christians go to heaven is softening. And rightly so. When I was in seminary, we had to write a paper that took a religious question that could be answered in two equally valid ways, and use the Bible to make the case both for and against. Then we had to take a personal stand. The question I chose was “Is salvation universal?” In other words, is everyone going to heaven? You can make a case from the Bible for some going to heaven and some going to hell. You can also make a case from the Bible for everyone going to heaven. I sided with everyone going to heaven, in part because I feel this is more consistent with the teachings of Jesus, and because of how the church has used the concepts of heaven and hell to perpetrate violence and exert domination and control over people. I can’t see reconciling the loving God we see in the life and ministry of Jesus with a God who would send people to burn and rot in hell.

As for people of other religions, one of the great stories of the Christian tradition that we associate with heaven and hell is the story of the separating of the sheep and the goats known as the last judgment. When did we see you hungry? When did we see you naked? When did we visit you? Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me. One group goes to heaven for offering compassionate service to the least of these. The other group goes to hell for neglecting to offer compassionate service to the least of these. [Matthew 25:31ff] We tend to focus on the compassionate service and behavior as the core message of this story, and we should. But it is interesting to note who is being sorted at the beginning of the story. This sorting involves not just the Jews, not just religious people, not just Jesus’ followers. This sorting according to compassionate service encompasses the people of all nations, implying all faiths, all religious traditions, all cultures. So the story lifts up behavior not belief as the standard for judgment.

So, in answer to the question about who gets into heaven, a strong case can be made for everyone, and certainly for people of other religions, and a case can be made for judgment according to behavior not belief. Even if your beliefs are supposedly consistent with religious expectations, it’s the behavior that is determinant. All of this can be claimed from the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

Now there was a radio preacher doing an announcement for his next program. “Do you want to learn what hell is?” he queried. “Well, tune in next week. We’ll be featuring our organist.”

So, what is heaven like? There is much speculation about pearly gates, streets paved with gold, harp music, etc. Much of this imagery is taken from the book of Revelation. What we can say conclusively is that we don’t know.

There was a popular book written recently called 90 Minutes in Heaven, by Rev. Don Piper. Piper dies in a car crash and claims to spend 90 minutes in heaven before being revived. Piper calls heaven “a buffet for the senses.” He tells of seeing people he knows who have died before him. He tells of how wonderful it is. He tells of the beautiful music. So is this what heaven is like? It was for Don Piper and he can’t wait to go back. In the book, you almost get the feeling he resents having been brought back to this life.

I don’t in any way deny Piper’s experience. I don’t think he is making it up. This is what he believes happened to him. If I died, would I have the same experience? I don’t think so. For one thing, I believe that our thinking and beliefs in this life shape our experience. So, with regard to heaven, Piper is a Baptist minister who has spent his life singing, envisioning, preaching about a certain kind of heaven, what it is like, and how glorious it is. I believe that his experience reflects his predisposition due to his belief system. Our belief system programs us to see things a certain way. I don’t share Piper’s belief system about heaven, so I don’t think I would have his same experience.

I believe that if there is something, some kind of life after this life, whatever it is, we will enjoy it. And our conception of that afterlife depends on our belief system, our religion, our experience, here in this earthly life.

There’s a story about a woman who called on a Presbyterian minister and asked him if he would preach a funeral for her dog who had died.

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that,” he replied. “It’s not consistent with our doctrine. Why don’t you try the Baptist minister down the street.”

“All right,” she said, “but can you give me some advice. How much should I pay him – three hundred dollars or four hundred dollars for the funeral of a pet?” “Hold on,” said the Presbyterian, “You didn’t tell me that your dog was a Presbyterian.”

I have been asked, “Will my dog be with me in heaven?” To me, if you think you are going to heaven, and you love your dog, and heaven would not be complete joy for you without your dog, then, I think you should incorporate your dog into your thinking about heaven. And, by the way, I would be happy to do a memorial service for your pet, as long as it’s a UCC!

The concept of heaven was intended to be a comfort. As the image of heaven began, it was a dwelling place for God insuring that God was part of the human world view. Everything is in God’s hands. As the concepts of heaven and hell evolved, the injustices of this life would be set right. Again, a source of comfort. And of course, the concept of heaven also evolved as a way to deal with the pain of separation from loved ones at death. There is the hope that in heaven, we are reunited with our loved ones. This is a source of comfort and solace especially when someone we love dies. While I do not know from personal experience what happens after we die, what I do feel confident about is that when we die whatever happens will be fine. If there is some kind of heaven, whatever it is, it won’t be disappointing. If your dog isn’t there, you’ll be o.k. with that. Death and whatever goes on afterward will be infused with the same divine love that seeks to permeate this life.

While we don’t know what heaven is like, what happens after we die, we do know that the concept of heaven is a way to talk about and image a state in which reality is fully consistent with the intentions and purposes of God. In the Savior’s prayer, we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are implying that in heaven, everything is as God intends, and that we are striving for this on earth as well. This is our way of saying that we want earth to fully reflect the will and way of the God of life and love.

So the original Hebrew idea of heaven being a geographical location that is the dwelling place of God has expanded into the idea of heaven as a way to talk about what it is like when God has full dominion, when God’s will is fully done, when God is sovereign. So the domain of God evolves into the dominion of God. And while this dominion of God is associated with life after death, in the ministry of Jesus we see this idea of the dominion of God associated with this life. In his first preaching in the gospel of Mark, we are told that Jesus announces, “The realm of God is at hand.” Or “The Kingdom of God is here.” Or “The dominion of God has come near.” [Mark 1:15] There are a variety of translations because scholars can’t quite agree on the tense and intent of the phrase. Is the dominion of God actually here or close by?

The New Testament tells us that Jesus told many stories about the kingdom of God, heaven’s domain, heaven’s imperial rule, God’s dominion. These are all ways of envisioning what it is like in this life when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus shows us what it is like for God’s dominion to be present on earth, in this life. And we learn that it is a significant departure from the way things are currently.

Story after story in the New Testament teachings of Jesus reveal that when life is lived

with unconditional love even for one’s enemy, with compassion, with generosity, with humility, without judgment, with anti-violence, with justice, with forgiveness, we will experience the healing and peace of God. Life lived according to the intent of God gives us the opportunity to experience love and intimacy with God and each other here and now in this life. The teachings of Jesus offer us a path to heaven in this life.

As I said, I don’t know what happens after we die. Like Father Andrew who worked for the BBC, I don’t pretend to be an authority, because I haven’t physically died yet. But I can tell you that I have experienced the presence and power of the God of love in this life, I have experienced communion with God in this life, when I have tried to live out the values and teachings of Jesus. I can tell you that the amazing God of creation and the profusion of life, the God of love and beauty, the God within each and every person, the God of the cosmos, the God of our pulse and our breath as well as the most distant star, the love of that God is endless, eternal, and everlasting. Many scholars believe that the concept of eternal life was not meant to apply to our lives, but the life and love of God. To experience eternal life is to know that the love and presence of God is endless and eternal, not that our lives go on forever. I have complete confidence that whatever happens when we die is in the hands of this God of eternal love and there is nothing to worry about.

A husband and wife died in a car accident. They got to heaven and there was a beautiful golf course, a gorgeous swimming pool, the food was delicious, the mansion they were given to live in was spectacular, there were no taxes, no work to do, and their health was peak. But the husband was grouchy and sour. Finally, the wife asked him, “Honey, what’s wrong? It’s so perfect here.”

“If you hadn’t made us eat oat bran and low fat food, and exercise every day, we could have been here ten years ago!”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t prefer to die just now or any time very soon, but I am ready to experience the dominion of God by seeking to live the way of Jesus here and now. And, if there is some kind of final judgment, involving heaven or hell, I’ll know that I have my bases covered with the good works and compassionate service, the forgiveness and generosity that go with the Christian life. And maybe, just maybe, by living the Jesus life here and now, we’ll bring a little bit more of heaven to this earth. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

In God We Trust

Date: July 5, 2009
Scriptures: Luke 20:20-26
Sermon: In God We Trust
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Speaking at a media event in Turkey on April 6, on his first overseas tour as president, Barack Obama declared, “I’ve said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is – although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population – we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

The backlash was immediate. Gary Bauer of American Values replied, “The last time I checked, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were Christians, not Muslims. Our Founding Fathers were inspired by the Bible, not the Koran.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asserted, “Obama went to Turkey, and I think was fundamentally misleading about the nature of America. We are not a secular country.”

Karl Rove responded, “Yeah, look, America is a nation built on faith.” [Church and State, May 2009, p. 21]

Bauer, Gingrich, and Rove may be surprised to learn that the administration of President George Washington negotiated a treaty with Muslim leaders of north Africa and in the treaty it was stated explicitly that this new country, the United States, was not founded on Christianity. To reduce fears that this new nation would be hostile to Islam, Article II of the treaty states, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. . .” The Treaty with Tripoli was passed unanimously by the Senate under the administration of John Adams in 1797. [See Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “Is America A ‘Christian Nation’?: Religion, Government and Religious Freedom”]

I wonder if Gary Bauer, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and others who support their views would light into founding fathers Washington and Adams insisting that the US is a Christian country?

The truth is, those who first settled this land from Europe did promote Christianity. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, church attendance was mandatory. Those who were truant without illness or permissible excuse were pilloried (put in the stocks) with an ear nailed to the wood. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished from Massachusetts for heretical beliefs. [See Wikipedia, “Massachusetts Bay Colony,” “Roger Williams,” “Anne Hutchinson”]

The first colonies perpetuated the European model of a state-supported church. But by the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights were created, our forbears, after much discussion and debate, endorsed the wholly new concept of the separation of church and state. This new nation would experiment with a new model for the relationship between government and religion.

The first amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” In addition, article VI of the constitution prohibits “religious tests” for public office.

In light of the church/state problems in Europe and the oppression and tyranny generated in the colonial period, our forbears chose a new path – separation of church and state. Past experience indicated that when religion and government are enmeshed, both are compromised.

Let’s take a few moments to look at some contemporary issues related to the important principle of separation of church and state.

Issues around the separation of church and state and the public school system have been prominent in recent decades. The legal ramifications of the separation of church and state allow for students to pray and read religious materials during free time in the school day. The law allows for religion to be discussed in the context of the curriculum particularly in subjects like social studies, geography, literature, history, and the arts. Religious groups and clubs may use school facilities outside of the official school day. Charisma, a Christian magazine, reports that there are 10,000 Bible clubs meeting in America’s schools. [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”] The elimination of mandatory prayer in school was not the elimination of religion from school. During the school day, the school is not to sponsor activities which involve religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or mandatory religious activities.

The intent is not to be anti-religion, but to support the family and faith community as the appropriate settings for religious instruction and guidance. The separation of church and state leaves decisions about matters of religion to the family and to the individual. The family and faith community are the appropriate context for religious practice, study, worship, and prayer, not the public school system. [See Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “Prayer and the Public Schools: Religion, Education and Your Rights]

Issues around education and separation of church and state also involve school vouchers. Churches and faith communities are free to establish schools and educational institutions. They are free to include religious instruction and religious practice in the curriculum. They are free to teach the religious doctrines of creationism, and intellectual design in the curriculum. But the voucher system involves taxpayer dollars being given to such schools, and that amounts to state support of religion, a violation of the first amendment of separation of church and state.

Another current area of debate in church/state discussion involves the faith-based initiatives movement instituted by executive order by the previous administration and not yet dismantled by the current administration. This involves taxpayer dollars being given to faith communities to do social service work. If the money is used to upgrade facilities, then the faith community benefits. The faith community can use religious criteria in hiring. It also opens the door for religious activities to be provided along with the social services. For example, you maybe expected to attend a worship service before receiving a free meal. Or children in an after school tutoring program may be expected to do practice reading from a children’s Bible. This mixing of tax dollars and religion is in clear violation of the separation of church and state. If a church wants to run a program like that with no tax money, fine. But tax money is not to be used to promote religion. [See Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “The “Faith-Based’ Initiative: Religion, Social Services and Your Rights”]

The last area we’ll look at today involving church and state is marriage. For decades, clergy have functioned on behalf of the state officiating at weddings. The individual was clergyperson was free to perform or not perform a wedding ceremony according to conscience. Now we have the current movement toward equal civil rights in marriage for same gender couples. So, clergy are free to perform or not perform such ceremonies again, according to conscience and church governance. However, if I feel it is an expression of my religious commitment as a clergy person to perform a same gender wedding and the state does not recognize it, is the state interfering with my religious expression?

In addition, the movement promoting marriage between one man and one woman is based on religious principles. If this is codified into law, is that not the state enforcing one religious viewpoint on the entire population?

Until these issues are resolved according to constitutional principles not religious principles, a growing number of clergy are not performing any wedding ceremonies, same gender or a man and a woman. They are refusing to be complicitors in a system that is denying the civil rights of same gender couples and violating the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson observed that with the ratification of the first amendment to the Constitution, the American people had created a “wall of separation between church and state.” [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”] While the wall has had cracks and chinks throughout the years, it has served this nation well and has received broad support from varying political perspectives.

In a speech given in 1960, President John F. Kennedy declared, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Senator Barry Goldwater, a noted conservative Republican, also strongly backed church-state separation. In a 1994 essay, Goldwater wrote, “I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state. The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process.”

In a famous 1981 speech, Goldwater noted, “By maintaining the separation of church and state, the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state?” [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”]

While religion is the source of conflict and contention in many places around the world, here in the US it is estimated that 2,000 faith groups and denominations are active and coexisting fairly harmoniously. [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”]

In Europe, where until recently in most countries, church and state were still in partnership, there is declining interest in religion. In England, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, fewer than one in ten people attend religious services. In the US, nearly 50%f of the population attends religious services regularly. 83% say they have prayed in the past week, and 95% say they believe in God. In addition, Americans donate an estimated $81 billion annually to religious institutions. Separation of church and state has led to a vibrant, rich religious landscape in this country. [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”]

Jesus did not come to establish a governmental system, he came to create beloved community where all people are treated with reverence, dignity, and respect. He came to bring people closer to God/the Divine/the Sacred/the Source. He came to bring people closer to each other as neighbors. For us as Christians, separation of church and state means that there are no restrictions or limitations upon our freedom to follow Jesus and to live out our Christian convictions. We are truly free to love our neighbor, love our enemy, work for peace and justice, worship one day a week or every day of the week, engage in activities of charity and compassion, comfort the grieving, visit the sick and those in prison, heal the earth, help the poor and homeless, and donate countless dollars to the church. We are fully free to live the Jesus life – to serve others, to live justly, to worship, to advocate. There are absolutely no limits from society or government on our freedom to follow Christ. So what are we waiting for? Let’s let our religious freedom RING! Amen.

Much of the material for this sermon came from the website and print materials provided by the organization, “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.” The executive director of Americans United, Barry Linn, is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor, as well as a lawyer.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Are You a Christian?

Date: May 3, 2009
Scriptures: Acts 4:5-12 and 1 John 3:16-24
Sermon: Are You a Christian?
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

There is a scene in the novel, Life of Pi, in which the main character, Pi, a teenager, is walking down a beach promenade with his parents in their home city of Pondicherry in India. As they walk along, they happen to run into the local Muslim imam, the local Catholic priest, and the local head of the Hindu temple, the pandit. Quite unexpectedly, they all coalesce as they walk along. All three religious leaders, much to the surprise of Pi’s parents who are non- religious, know their son well. And to everyone’s surprise, it is discovered that Pi is a devoted practitioner of all three religions. He has linked himself with all three faith communities. He is observing the rituals and traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

The three religious authorities proceed to have a conversation about the attributes and criticisms of their varying religions. The comments include:

Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.

And Muslims have many wives.

There is salvation only in Jesus.

Where’s God in your religion? You don’t have a single miracle to show for it.

It isn’t a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time. We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing – these are miracles enough for us.

A whole lot of good it did for God to be with you – you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet?

The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours in the middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fits brought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation. That, or the sun frying his brains!

Things finally deteriorate to the point that the three religious authorities conclude:

With their one god Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots.

Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.

While Christians kneel before a white man! They are the nightmare of all non-white people.

A few pages later in the novel, the highly embarrassed Pi takes severe lampooning from his older brother who challenges him:

‘So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the hajj this year?’ . . . bringing the palms of his hands together in front of his face in a reverent namaskar. ‘Does Mecca beckon?’ He crossed himself. ‘Or will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pius?’ He drew in the air a Greek letter, making clear the spelling of his mockery. ‘Have you found time yet to get the end of your pecker cut off and become a Jew? At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life.’

So, is Pi a Christian? Is he a Hindu? Is he a Muslim? He is observing the dictates of all three, so which is he?

When questioned, the adolescent Pi replies, “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” [Life of Pi, Yann Martel, pp. 64-70]

In the conversation between the priest, the imam, and the pandit, the Catholic priest is the one who reminded all that, “There is salvation only in Jesus.” Here we have the quintessential Christian claim of exclusivity. There is only one way to truly love God. And it is the Christian way. Through Jesus.

We heard this claim articulated in the scripture we heard from Acts: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” And there are numerous other verses in the New Testament with similar sentiments:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [John 14:6]

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already. . .[John 3:17-18]

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. [Mark 16:16]

And there are many other examples of similar sentiments.

As we consider these New Testament scriptures, we want to remember that they were written down more than thirty years after the death of Jesus. So decades had gone by, and the Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah were facing certain challenges. And they needed their faith to speak to those challenges.

In 70 CE, the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The Temple was demolished and later the entire city itself. Scholars tell us that the city was completely destroyed in 139 and a pagan city built in its place. The surrounding area was called Palestine, a reminder of Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. Within one hundred years, the governor of the region had never even heard of Jerusalem, so complete was the destruction. [Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, p. 26-27.]

The destruction of the Temple had a profound impact on the Jews since their religious practice was centered on the Temple. The leaders wanted to hold their religion together in the face of this horror. So they had to reconstruct their religion without its focal point, the Temple. They needed to make sense of what had happened. Were they being punished for neglecting the Law? The leaders decided they needed to get back to strict adherence to the Law to regain God’s favor and to bring cohesion to their community, since they no longer had the Temple to fulfill that role. Now the Jews who followed Jesus took the perspective we are free to love God and neighbor; we don’t need the Law anymore. This was at odds with the agenda of the religious leaders who were trying to save their religious tradition by focusing on implementation of the Law. So the Jesus Jews were targeted. Shut them up. Cast them out. Turn them off. For they were seen as undermining the very survival of the Jewish faith.

The Jesus Jews responded by notching up in their expression of their convictions, too. We’re right. Jesus is the one. He is the Messiah. He’s the true way. Listen to us. They want vindication of their beliefs and their sacrifices and their deaths. So, they promote the idea that believing in Jesus as Messiah is the only true way to love God within the Jewish tradition. If you don’t love Jesus, you don’t love God.

This is basically a family fight within Judaism. They are not confronting paganism and other religions. This is a conflict within one religion, and those are often the nastiest, most hostile conflicts as we see, for example, between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics.

These verses then, from the New Testament, which refer to the extreme exclusivity of the Jesus movement, emerged in a very specific, intense, emotionally charged situation. They were then universalized by the later church to cultivate the supremacy and exclusivity of the Christian religion. And that has led to severe consequences which don’t particularly reflect love for God or neighbor.

This idea, that Christianity is the only way to love God, that it is the right way, that it is the only path to heaven, has caused much strife in human history, including much behavior that is very “unchristian.” This belief in the supremacy of Christianity has fueled violence by Christians against Jews for over 1000 years, including the holocaust in Nazi Germany. In 1543, the revered leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther, “wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, a treatise in which he advocated harsh persecution of the Jewish people, up to what are now called pogroms. He argued that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated.” [Wikipedia, “pogrom,” accessed 4.29.09] The belief in the supremacy of Christianity fueled the crusades and the killing of Muslims. Do you think the US would have engaged in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the same intensity if the populations of those countries were predominantly Christian? I doubt it. In addition, it was the belief in the supremacy of Christianity that fueled the fire of Empire and led to the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas. When you look at this heritage, it is hard to see Christianity as a religion centered on love of God and neighbor.

The concept of the exclusivity and supremacy of Christianity has led to unintended consequences that are drastically at odds with what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus that we have in the New Testament.

Nowhere do we see teachings that if people don’t accept the way of Christianity, they are to be punished, tortured, or killed by Christians. In fact, in the life of Jesus, we see the exact opposite. We have the story of Jesus telling his followers, if you are not welcomed in a town, shake the dust off of your feet and move on. [Matthew 10:5-14, Mark 6:6b-13, Luke 9:1-6] No defense, and certainly no violence is encouraged.

In an article reflecting on, “Who’s Taking Blame for Christian Violence?,” journalist Calvin White, writing for the Toronto Star, reminds us:

Contrary to what some might like to insist, Christianity is not the religion of ‘an eye for an eye’ but it is the religion of Jesus, who refined those earlier directions and distilled the ten commandments into two. One was to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Pretty definitive isn’t it? As is the edict of turning the other cheek.

Jesus expected to be betrayed. He expected to be arrested by the authorities. There was no exhortations [sic] to prepare for battle. There was no bloody attempt to stop the proceedings.

Even as Jesus was brutalized while carrying his own crucifixion cross and being nailed onto the timbers, there was no violent counterforce from his disciples. Not even an outcry.

No matter where one reads in the accounts of Jesus, the only conclusion one can come to is that Jesus was about love. [“Who’s Taking Blame for Christian Violence?,” Calvin White, published on Tuesday July 26, 2005 by the Toronto Star.]

In the stories we have of Jesus, we do not see him insisting on right belief, correct doctrine, or specific religious observance, before receiving God’s blessing and grace. While the Jewish religious institution sent the message you have to do these sacrifices, say these prayers, give this money, follow this rule to be right with God and neighbor so that God will bless you, Jesus just gave out grace. You need food, here it is. You need forgiveness, here it is. You need healing, here it is. Embodied in the life of Jesus is expansive love for everyone, of his faith, other faiths, and no faith. No questions asked. No testimony of faith required. No rules to follow, no tax or tithe necessary. There is no quid pro quo, and there is no demand that people endorse a certain religious persuasion. And there is certainly no endorsement of violence in the name of Jesus.

In considering this claim of the superiority of Christianity, we want to remember that when Jesus was alive there was no Christianity. He was born, lived, and died a JEW. Not a Christian. Christianity did not develop as a completely separate and distinct religion until after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple. So Jesus could not have promoted the exclusivity of Christianity because it did not exist during his lifetime.

And yet, this concept has become a core belief of the Christian religion. In the memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, talks about her spiritual journey. She tells us, “Culturally, though not theologically, I’m a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian.” [Eat Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, p. 14.]

The early faith community developed and perpetuated the notion of the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way to love God in response to their specific situation. There were reasons at the time and in that context. We now know that promoting the Christian-only view of salvation actually undermines love of God and love of neighbor and is fomenting violence, injustice, inequality, disrespect, and death. These are the very things Jesus wanted to eradicate, not to promote. We are in differing circumstances today. The time has now come for the faith community, the church of Jesus Christ, to present an alternative to the view that Christianity is the only true way to God. This is needed to reduce the harm and violence done in the name of Jesus and to extend the love and support of the faith community to those like Gilbert who are attracted to Jesus’ teachings of love, justice, and community, but repelled by the exclusivity and consequent violence that has been done by the church.

The Christian claim of superiority and exclusivity is keeping people out of the church. Thoughtful people have a hard time endorsing an institution that has caused such harm in the name of the exclusive claims of Christianity; harm which is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. In addition, someone who has a sister who is married to someone Jewish, a daughter who has become Hindu, a neighbor who is Muslim, a co-worker that’s Buddhist, and they are all good people, can have a hard time with a religion that relegates loved ones and friends of a different religion to second class status.

We have a friend who went to a church where the pastor warned the congregation against the practice of yoga because, they were told, this was not just about exercise, but it was Satan luring them away from Christianity.

The exclusivity claim is keeping people away from the church- people who need the church, and people the church needs.

Remember, there was also a time when the church endorsed slavery.

The time has come for us to proclaim that Christianity is about embodying love and you can definitely do that without promoting the exclusivity of Christianity. You can love God and neighbor, without condemning other religions or insisting on the superiority of Christianity. In fact, in today’s world especially, one could argue that it must be done that way.

There is a story in the gospel of Matthew in which the people are separated into two groups. Those who responded to the needs of the “least of these” – helping those who were hungry, naked, or in prison, and those who did not respond to those needs. [Matthew 25:31-46] The parable of the last judgment teaches us that it is our behavior that determines our path. The belief in the superiority of Christianity can lead to behavior that is not loving or compassionate or Jesus-like. It is time to bring Christianity back to love of God and neighbor, all neighbors, regardless of race or creed.

It is not essential to believe that Christianity is the only true religion to be a Christian. In the scripture we heard from the first letter of John, the writer challenges us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” This is getting at the core of Christianity. This is getting at the essential heart of the teachings of Jesus. Love God by loving your neighbor through concrete acts of compassion, generosity, and justice. That’s the core message of Christianity. That’s what defines a Christian.

So, are you a Christian? Am I a Christian? Was Pi a Christian? Look at the love and you will know. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

True Confessions

Date: April 29, 2009
Scriptures: Luke 24:36b-48 and Acts 3:12-19
Sermon: True Confessions
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

In Kurt Andersen’s novel, Heyday, set in the 1840’s, there is a troubled soul, Duff Lucking, who sets fires to buildings out of vengeance and retribution. The fires have resulted in numerous deaths. He doesn’t get caught because he is a firefighter, and knows what he is doing. At one point he has a sort of religious awakening of sorts and, since he is a Catholic, he decides to go to confession.

Duff goes to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, on the first Friday of the first month of Lent, when the Bishop himself hears confessions for just one day. Duff stands in line with 400 others. It has been 8 years since his last confession and he wants to make “a clean breast of it.” [p. 173] Of what? Of the fire set in the sugarhouse, in which three men died fighting the blaze. The fire to a distillery. Three other fires. And there were the Catholics he killed in the war in Mexico, before deserting and joining the ranks of the other side, against the Americans. Oh and there was just one more thing. Duff tells the bishop, “A mortal sin, when I was thirteen. I told you about the abuser, the vile old banker who ravished my sister when she was a girl? I avenged the crime, Excellency. I killed the man. And I am sorry to God for that sin, as I am for all the lives I have taken – in the war, I mean, in Mexico. And deaths I may have been responsible for. And for all of my other sins. I pray and promise I will never take another life again. I am a repentant sinner, and I wish with all my heart for God’s forgiveness.” [p. 175]

After the confession, we are told: “Bishop Hughes instructed Duff that for the rest of his life he must say an entire rosary twice each day, the Act of Contrition twice each day as well, and a novena once a month.” And he is to perform “works of mercy in the name of Jesus Christ to please your Lord God and Savior. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Excellency.’”

“And no more fire-setting, eh? You’re finished.”

“Yes, Excellency.”

Duff waited for some additional penance. But he heard only an energetic clearing of Hughes’s throat.

“O my God,” Duff, said, “I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because they have offended thee, my God who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

“Ego te absolve,” replied the Bishop, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [p. 176]

That was it. Duff confesses, the Bishop absolves him, tells him to say some prayers, help others, and don’t do it again. To me, this seems like a fairly small consequence for the crimes committed. You can read the novel to find out whether he sets any more fires or is responsible for any more deaths.

So just what is reconciliation and forgiveness? In this case, it doesn’t involve any kind of public admission, any kind of restitution to those harmed, no process of setting things right with the individuals, the property owners, or society. I think it makes the church’s forgiveness seem cheap and easy.

There was a Baptist who moved to an all Catholic town. Every Friday night, he would grill steak on the barbeque. This drove his Catholic neighbors crazy during Lent when they weren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays. The neighbors discussed what to do, and decided to convince the man to become a Catholic, and he agreed. On the big day, the Baptist stood before the priest who sprinkled Holy Water on him saying, “You were born a Baptist; you were raised a Baptist; you are now a Catholic.” The town breathed a sigh of relief until the first Friday in Lent when the familiar smell of grilling steak wafted through the town. “He’s forgotten,” the Catholics said. “We’ll go remind him.” So they walked to the new Catholic’s house and into the backyard, where he was grilling a huge, juicy steak. He stood before the grill with a cup of water and said, “You were born a cow; you were raised a cow; you are now a fish.”

Part of the trouble I have with confession in church is that it can seem so superficial, so platitudinous. Words are said, but does it really mean anything? Is there justice or conversion involved? Someone from the church family recently asked me about having a confession in the service and you can see my ambivalence about that. I’ll say a bit more later.

In the story that we heard from the gospel of Luke, the disciples are together and they are undoubtedly revisiting their betrayal, abandonment, and desertion of their beloved master and teacher at the crucifixion. They all fled. Not one was there for Jesus in his hour of need. And Peter outright denied even knowing Jesus. Can you imagine the psychic pain they were experiencing?

Think about when a couple has a knock down, drag out fight in the morning then both go off to work for the day, and one is killed in a car accident. The other is left with the regret of that last encounter with a loved one. For the rest of that life, there will be that sharp-edged, cutting memory never to be erased. It’s hard to find peace in that kind of circumstance. It can be done, but it is very difficult.

So here are the disciples, living with this kind of pain and despair. And there is this story, of Jesus, appearing among them, saying “Peace be with you.” Not saying, “What happened to you, you worthless bunch of slugs? Where were you when I needed you most? What happened to you, when the chips were down? You can’t be counted on for anything. You’re useless, disloyal, and untrustworthy. You have as much value as grass that’s trampled underfoot!” No. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” And in the days ahead, the disciples are transformed. They are released from their fear and shame and become courageous witnesses to the power of the gospel.

This story conveys the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness, and the way it needs to be embodied. Jesus comes back to let his friends know that they are forgiven. He brings them the peace they so desperately need. He spares nothing. Even coming back from the dead. Then he tells them to forgive as he has forgiven them. Go to any lengths necessary to set things right. Be as lavish and generous in their forgiveness as he has been with his.

And in the story from Acts, we see that the disciples have taken this message to heart and are offering forgiveness to those who were involved in the death sentence of Jesus. They are embodying the forgiveness they have received from Jesus. They are going to any lengths to be forgiving.

Traditionally in church we follow the gospel directive that before you come to the altar you should set things right if you have any unresolved problems with others. So there is the time for confession in the service and the passing of the peace. But realistically, this is not an actual process for setting things right in our relationships. It could be the opportunity to solidify our conviction about our desire and intent to seek reconciliation, but true forgiveness and reconciliation usually involve more work, more time, and more mess. And does it mean anything to seek forgiveness from God if that forgiveness does not result in a process of reconciliation with those we have wronged?

And in our case, that can be quite sticky. There are the workers in sweat shops that make our clothes, and those in the fields who pick our food, there are the soldiers and civilians being killed in the military action that we fund, there is the damage to the earth itself that we cause with our consumptive life style, there are the children who will go to bed hungry in this country and around the world as a result of our failure to overcome the distribution issues, and on and on.

Does engaging in confession in church do anything about the 29.4% of the national budget being spent on the military [St. Pete Times 4/28/09] while children comprise 36% of Americans in poverty but only 25% of the population? [Sojourners Magazine, 1/09] Does saying something in church do something about that?

And what about reconciliation in our personal lives? Making peace and restoring relationships with those we have wronged in some way, and who have wronged us. This is complicated and difficult.

In Montana, families of crime victims and families of perpetrators came together to abolish the death penalty in Montana. Crime victims’ families, death row inmates’ families, former death row inmates who were proven innocent shared experiences of forgiveness, redemption, justice. They told their stories, demanding an end to the death penalty in their state. This is the kind of difficult, significant sharing that can lead to transformation and reconciliation. It is not simple or easy. [Sojourners Magazine 2/09]

I am not saying that it shouldn’t be done. Of course, I believe we should always be working toward reconciliation each and every day. But it can be a life journey.

For me, I don’t want saying a prayer in church to trivialize the complexity of living a life of forgiveness and reconciliation and the transformation that is involved.

While I may have some doubts about the role of a ritual of confession in church, I do see that the church is needed for the pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation. The disciples reinforced each other in their common witness. And they invited those who had a hand in the death of Jesus, not just to receive a verbal reprieve, but to become part of the faith community, to be brothers and sisters with Jesus’ friends, and to live a life of transformation and reconciliation in community. They are not assuming that this will be quick or easy.

The church is needed to make sure that we don’t just utter a prayer and go our merry way, but that we pursue a transformed life.

Indeed, the church is desperately needed to foster forgiveness and reconciliation. The church is needed to help us to see the power and hope and new life that are possible through forgiveness. The church is needed to inspire us and affirm our ability to engage in the process of forgiveness of ourselves and others. The church is needed to help us see where forgiveness and reconciliation are needed in our lives and in society. The church is needed to train our vision to see those who are victims and wronged by us directly and indirectly. The church is needed to train us to treat others with dignity and respect so that there is less hurt and abuse in our midst. The church is needed to help us learn to engage in conflict in productive, constructive ways that do not involve violence. The church is needed to help us know that we are frail human beings, capable of incredible wrong. And the church is needed to help us see that we are vessels of the divine, forgiving love that is desperately needed in the world. The church is needed to remind us that regardless of what we have done to ourselves, others, or the earth, reconciliation and peace are possible. The church is needed to be a community of support encouraging reconciliation, right action, moral behavior, and enacting grace.

During World War 1, Harry Emerson Fosdick published a prayer for the Germans: “O God, bless Germany! At war with her people we hate them not at all. . . We acknowledge before Thee our part in the world’s iniquity. . . We dare not stand in thy sight and accuse Germany as though she alone were guilty of our international disgrace. We all are guilty.” Charles Biddle, an American pilot, responded to Fosdick’s prayer by pledging to kill as many ‘Huns’ as he could, saying that ‘if Christianity requires us to forgive them, I am afraid I am no Christian.’ [Christian Century 5/5/09, p. 8]

Fosdick is articulating the challenge of the Gospel dictate to love your enemy. And the man who responds is honest. He shows an awareness of the challenge of forgiveness and reconciliation, and he consciously decides that he does not want to go there. There is integrity to that. The damage the church does is when we ignore the call of the gospel and undermine the powerful significance of forgiveness and reconciliation.

There was an old man who died and there was a wonderful funeral with the preacher extolling all of the good traits of the deceased — what an honest man he was, and what a loving husband and kind father he was. Finally, the widow leaned over and whispered to one of her children, “Go up there and take a look in the coffin and see if that’s your father.”

The fact is, we will all sin. In personal ways and as part of society. The gospel calls us to transformation and reconciliation. And in that process, we find peace.

Jewish rabbi and theologian Martin Buber tells this story of his grandfather:

My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher, and he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance to show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. [Quoted in Resources for Preaching and Worship- Year B: Quotations, Meditations, Poetry, and Prayers by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild]

When we talk about forgiveness and the grace of God, people should see it in us, as they witnessed it in Jesus and in the disciples. We have powerful testimony to share of how we have given and received forgiveness. We have incredible tales to tell of reconciliation in the face of tremendous loss. We have amazing stories to tell of new life and hope and transformation. May we not simply pay lame lip service to the power of God’s grace, but may we live that grace with infectious joy and peace. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.