Monday, September 20, 2010

"Honoring Sacred Texts"

I attended a service at Highland Baptist Church on September 11 called “Honoring Sacred Texts.” The service included representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhs, and Baha’i communities, each reading a selection from their sacred texts. According to Rev. Joe Phelps, senior pastor of Highland, it was intended “to be a word of witness against . . . divisive hate-filled ideology, found in every nation and religion, by reading what we believe is fundamental and common from our various sacred texts: love, humility, peace, reverence before the Creator.”

Undoubtedly Rev. Phelps and the good folks at Highland Baptist Church will take plenty of heat from this courageous action. Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, called their “interfaith” service a “denial” of the faith. This, of course, is the exclusivist position that will continue to foster ill will between people of different religious traditions and ultimately do more harm than good.

Rev. Phelps wrote on his blog that that their intent was not in any way “to deny or dilute the role of Jesus, who is central to the message and mission of Highland.” He then observed that the way of Jesus was “one of reconciling love rather than polarizing division,” and that the only ones Jesus excluded were “driven by a spirit of division.”

Rev. Phelps noted that “while there are passages that say he [Jesus] is the only way to God . . . other Bible passages are clear that God’s bigness and love extend to all the earth, to all peoples, to all nations who come in reverence before God.” See, for example, passages like Acts 10:34-35, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:19-20, and 1 Cor. 15:22. Rev. Phelps wrote, “Every sacred text–including the Bible–has passages that extol violence, which can be misunderstood and misapplied by outsiders (and by insiders).”

The Bible, Christians’ sacred text, argues with itself in numerous places. In an internet conversation with a Christian who refused to identify himself, I pointed out several passages of Scripture where there were clear contradictions and asked him to explain or defend his inerrant position on the Bible in light of these contradictions. That ended the conversation. He would not because he could not, at least not in any reasonable, logical way. It seems to me that the Christians who are most in denial of the faith are those who, like Dr. Mohler, are actually incapable of offering a legitimate, credible defense of the inconsistencies and contradictions in our sacred text. Claiming the Bible’s infallibility possibly turns more thinking young people away from Christianity than any other of the fundamentalist Christian doctrines.

I love our (Christians’) sacred text, but I do not worship it. I probably spend more time and effort studying it and teaching it than most do who claim it to be the literal word of God. And while I consider it inspired of God, it is clear to me that it is not without human flaws and errors. Rev. Phelps observed that our sacred text (the Bible) is a diverse “collection of inspirations and understandings which must be allowed to interact and inform each other.”

I am convinced that a healthy, transformative, compassion–filled Christianity is directly connected to an interpretation of Scripture that is rooted and grounded in the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank goodness I am not alone. There are a number of other Christian leaders and churches like Rev. Phelps and Highland Baptist Church (and more are emerging) who are committed to preaching, teaching, and sharing God’s unconditional love as expressed in the inclusive gospel of Jesus, whom we claim as our Lord.

Monday, September 13, 2010

God's Upside Down Kingdom

A pilot practicing maneuvers in a jet fighter turned the controls for what he thought was a steep ascent and flew straight into the ground. He was unaware that he had been flying upside down.

Maybe that is true for many of us. We have been so conditioned by our culture that we don’t know what is up or down. So when Jesus flips our world upside down in the Beatitudes he is really turning it right side up.

The second beatitude in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reads: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Jesus is not giving his disciples timeless truths about the way the world is, for the world is not this way at all. In the world mourners often go uncomforted, but not in the kingdom of God.

This beatitude is based on Isaiah 61 where, in its broader context, the prophet is lamenting the desolation of the holy city and the spiritual and social condition of the people of God. Jesus reflects this spirit when he looks out over Jerusalem and cries, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

Jesus mourned the spiritual and social state of his people, and yet he exuded an abundance of joy and peace. He, through God’s Spirit, was able to hold the contradiction together. He was in great agony in Gethsemane, not only as he contemplated his own death, but perhaps more significantly, as he mourned the state of the covenant people whose leadership was mired in legalistic stipulations, aristocratic pride, and religious manipulation. And yet, in the shadow of the cross, he said to his disciples, “My peace I give to you . . . these things I have shared with you so that you may share my joy” (John 14:27; 15:11).

Clarence Jordan is a more contemporary example of a disciple of Jesus living with this contradiction. He and his interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia felt the prejudice, hate, and wrath of the powers that be. Their farm was boycotted and their people shot at. Their roadside market was destroyed by dynamite. In the middle of the violence against them their very lives were in danger daily. And yet Jordan was known for his laughter, his clever wit, and his love for life. When the local and state powers boycotted their farm, this little community relied on friends throughout the country to get their pecans to market. Their slogan was: “Help us get the nuts out of Georgia.”

This is the paradox: Even when we feel life diminished by the losses, suffering, and injustice of the human condition, we also discover that life is enhanced by the Spirit of Christ, immersing our lives in God’s goodness and in God’s dream for the world. Even as we mourn the poverty, oppression, and tragedies of life, as well as our own personal losses, we are sustained and strengthened by a deeper peace and joy.

Often, in our experience, either sadness or joy has the upper hand. We sometimes journey through grief into joy, where the Psalmist says that our mourning is turned into dancing. Our grief through our own personal loss and our ache at the evil and injustice in the world invites us to place our grief and hurt in larger hands. In one sense, there is no healing without woundedness, no growth without suffering, and no resurrection without death.

And yet, in Christ, we are able somehow to experience both grief and joy simultaneously and live with the tension this creates. The living Christ enables us to hold these incongruities together. The living Christ invites us to share in both his suffering and joy. (This is Part 2 of the “The Beatitudes”)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Less Is More

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel with the Beatitudes. (The teachings in Matthew 5–7 were no doubt given by Jesus in many different contexts and the biblical writer gathered them into this form.) The first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed” means something like “spiritually well-off,” (the translation “happy” doesn’t do it justice).

Luke’s version simply reads: “Blessed are the poor . . .” Was Jesus referring to the material poor or to a poverty of spirit before God? The Hebrew word that is behind the concept of “poor” conveys both of these meanings and both would have been intended.

In Luke’s version there is a corresponding judgment: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). How many sermons have you heard on this text? In Luke’s Gospel Jesus often speaks about the dangers of wealth. In one place he tells his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33). (I don’t know of one biblical inerrantist who takes that literally.) Jesus instructs one would–be disciple who was very wealthy to give away all his possessions, and when he is unable Jesus responds: “How hard it is for those who have wealth (this would include most of us who are reading this) to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24). In numerous contexts Jesus announces that the first now will later be last (when the kingdom comes), and the last now will later be first.

If we take Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels seriously it is clear that Jesus championed the cause of the poor (see Luke 4:17-19). There is no question that he exercised a preferential, perhaps even a prejudicial, compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Proponents of a health and wealth gospel find no support in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, I don’t plan to give away all my possessions anytime soon. (If I attempted it, my wife and kids would probably do me in to get the insurance money—maybe not.) But the fact is: I may not be wealthy judged by American standards, but from a global perspective I am one of the “rich” (the haves) of the world. That means that I am complicit to some degree in the disproportion and inequity of the world, and therefore, come under the indictment of Jesus. And simply cultivating a spirit of humility, generosity, and gratitude does not remove the indictment.

American disciples of Jesus who take Jesus’ life and words seriously must live with this tension, and “spiritualizing” all Jesus’ teaching on the subject is no solution. In the upside down kingdom of God the poor have the advantage, says Jesus.

If it is the role of the prophet “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” then Jesus is surely being the prophet in his teachings regarding possessions (afflicting us preachers as much as anyone). Keep in mind too, that the call to relinquish possessions involves the relinquishment of the power, prestige, and honor that goes with them. It’s hardly ever just about money; it’s what accompanies it.

When the rich man walked away sad, the disciples exclaimed: “Who then can be saved?” (Meaning: Who can be spiritually well-off/whole/blessed?) Most of us would like Jesus to pat them on the back and say, “It will be okay.” Instead Jesus says, “Well, it is impossible for human beings, but it is possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

There is a spiritual principle at work here: The less we are possessed by our possessions, the more God is able to possess us. The less hold (attachment) we have on our possessions, the more we are able to lay hold of the kingdom of God, and find our joy in being the companions of Christ and collaborators in helping bring in God’s new world.