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Monday, September 28, 2009

 
It has not been my practice to post my sermons on my blog, since they are found on Trinity's website, www.trinitylansdale.com , in both text and video, always posted by Wednesday or Thursday of the week after the sermon is shared. However, I have received so many comments on my sermon from this past weekend, based on the weekend's gospel lesson from Mark 9: 38 - 50, that I thought it important to post here also.

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Tolerance, Sermon for 17th Pentecost, “B,” September 26/27, 2009, Trinity, Lansdale

(I began by stating that I was not going to preach on cutting off one’s hands or feet or plucking out one’s eye and that I hoped no one would be disappointed (smile). I did note that these statements by Jesus in today’s gospel were obvious metaphors and that they pointed to Jesus’ emphasis on concentrating on what is important in life and faith and not what is not important).

This past week the season changed from summer to fall and, after reading today’s gospel lesson, I got thinking about how the summer of 2009 would be remembered. And, that reflection made me feel sad because I believe that the summer of 2009 will be remembered as the summer of intolerance, the summer of intolerance.

You do not have to go too far to find examples of extreme intolerance from last summer, especially on the national scene. Health care town meetings were orchestrated from all points of view to be shouting matches. The President of the United States was called a liar as he spoke to Congress.

The strangest summer intolerance may have been the many school districts which banned the President’s speech to school children from being shown at their schools, a speech that urged children to stay in school and study. More locally, we saw a Montgomery County swim club withdraw from a contract to allow city children to swim at their club, a withdraw which has since been investigated and found to be racially-based.

Of course, bad summer behavior was not confined to the political scene. There are always bad behavior examples from sports and entertainment figures. We don’t have to look very hard to find too many examples. Just think of rapper Kanye West’s public bad behavior at the Video Music Awards.

Now, I do not follow either rap music or country music as closely as I probably should, but I do follow fellow Wyomissing native Taylor Swift’s career somewhat and it doesn’t take a music expert to identify West’s poor behavior. President Obama correctly described it in a word similar to “donkey.” I also do not have a solution for the United States healthcare crisis, but I surely know as a pastor who sees people, especially the poor and the elderly, members and non-members alike, without adequate health insurance that what we now have is not working. And, my African American friends have told me what they think of Congressman Wilson’s outburst during the President’s speech before Congress and what they think is rather obvious.

Regardless of your personal point of view on these examples, I hope you can agree that, sadly, intolerance was all too common this past summer.

In today’s gospel lesson John says to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Sounds like intolerance goes back a lot farther than this past summer!

Jesus reacts strongly and decisively when he responds to John, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

John’s and the other disciples’ reaction to an outsider casting out demons in Jesus name – “He must be stopped” – is a perfect example of intolerant religion.

Now, intolerant religion was not a new phenomenon in Jesus’ day. The Old Testament is full of intolerance with God even ordering the Israelites to exterminate people of other faiths in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers, for example.

The early Christian church didn’t do much better. Remember the Crusades? The burning of heretics at the stake? The execution of women thought to be witches in the early history of our own nation?

Even today, some call for us to “hate the sin but not the sinner.” Let me tell you, those who have those words thrown at them can feel the hatred in those words.

There are just too many examples. The continual history of Christian hatred and persecution of Jews and homosexuals are just two more examples of both historic and modern intolerance.

I hope all of this makes you cringe as much as it does me!

This sort of Christian intolerance is a double problem for us. Not only does Jesus clearly condemn it, as he does in today’s gospel lesson, intolerance creates a very negative image of Christianity among non-Christians. Just ask the average young person on the street what they think of Christians – you will be surprised at their reactions – they will use words like “judgmental, narrow-minded, condemning and intolerant.”

Sadly, many Christians seem almost addicted to such intolerance. Well-meaning people see their intolerance as a desire to keep the truth uncorrupted. They treasure their intolerance as a means of assuring themselves of their own unique superiority. With such a view, open-mindedness and the possibility of changing one’s mind is never even necessary – they own the truth! They defend their racial, religious or class prejudices and asset their right to force their views on others. All this in the name of Christianity. Sigh…

All this caused Mahatma Gandhi, certainly one of the non-violence saints of the 20th century, to say that Christianity was a fine religion; he just had never found someone who lived it!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am pleased to say that this is less of a problem here at Trinity, and in our Lutheran congregations generally, then it may be in other faith traditions. But, it is something we must be continually vigilant about, lest we, too, fall into easy intolerance.

Jesus looks at tolerance and intolerance differently. In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is clear: Jesus does not care if someone is even his disciple, if he is doing good, then, Christian or non-Christian, that person is doing Jesus’ work in this world. It is a simple as that.

St. Paul follows Jesus’ lead when he writes in Romans 14, “Let us no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” In Philippians, Paul goes even further when he states that he rejoices whenever Christ is proclaimed in any way by any one, whether their motives for doing so are good or bad.

Jesus goes even further in today’s gospel lesson, suggesting that teaching hatred to children, putting any stumbling block before any little ones, is as bad as sinking to one’s death in the sea. Remember that old song about prejudice and hate from the musical South Pacific – “You’ve got to be taught.” Jesus says “no” to any teaching that involves hate or prejudice and even cautions against judging those who do not believe in him!

I believe that Jesus, in today’s gospel lesson, is teaching us that tolerance is the better way. Here’s why:

Intolerance is a sign of weak faith. When some people find themselves insecure in an argument, they think they can win by talking louder – witness the health care town meetings this past summer. In the same way, insecurity about faith can lead us to an intolerant attitude. If we are uncomfortable or unsure in our own faith, it is then easy to try to expose absolute rules in the hope that they will overcome any doubt or ambiguity. Witness those who oppose the recent ELCA changes allowing gay and lesbian pastors in long-term, committed same-sex relationships to be pastors in our church. Some of those who oppose these changes are now shouting a lot and making absolutist and ultimately, I believe, false statements about church history and homosexuality.

Regardless, tolerance is just a better way. Intolerance always damages the cause it tries to defend. Attack a heretic and you give him an audience. Banish a book and everyone wants to read it. Condemn a sin and some want to try it. More importantly, an intolerant Christian attitude only ultimately drives people away from Christianity. If you don’t believe me, check out the fastest growing religious group in America according to recent polls – that group is “none or no religion.” And we Christians have only ourselves to blame, I believe, for the growth of that group.

Tolerance, and only tolerance, overcomes hatred. The church, our congregation, must be a model of tolerance in a hate-filled world. We must present Christ to the world. And Christ is not arrogant, He does not coerce belief, He is not dogmatic. We cannot exult love by encouraging hate.

We Lutherans love the word “grace.” By grace we always mean the unconditional love that God has for us all in Jesus Christ, God’s continual outreach in love to us, even when we do not love God in return, God’s promise, once and for all times, of eternal life with him for all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Tolerance of others, however similar or dissimilar they are to us, flows from this grace. Tolerance is and must be our commitment in Christ. We choose the path of tolerance and grace, not because it is the broad or easy path, but actually because it is the narrow path, the path advocated by the highest and best that our Bible and tradition has to offer.

Tolerance is the path of Paul and Jesus and is the high road of grace. May it be our path and high road also.

Amen.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

 

Communities of Peace

As you know from reading this blog, I was one of 12 people from a number of faith traditions who were blogging as a part of the "Million Minutes for Peace" effort by the Odyssey Networks (http://www.odysseynetworks.org/), an effort to undergird the United Nations International Day of Peace this past Monday, September 21, in prayer.

The final question we were asked to make a blog response to was this: "Are there some communities or countries that seem to have successfully established cultures of peace? Could you identify them and describe how they achieved peace?"

Here is my response:

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I am interested in "communities and countries that seem to have successfully established culture of peace," but I am more interested in those who champion efforts for peace in the midst of far less than peaceful situations. When I think of such champions, I think of my dear friend, the Rev. Dr. Munib A. Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

Younan serves as Bishop of the Lutheran churches located in Jerusalem, Amman, Jordan, and the occupied territories of the West Bank. He has become a champion for peace with justice in Jerusalem and Palestine while challenging everyone to avoid violence in the pursuit of such justice.

In a recent speech to the convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), Younan said, "In the midst of overwhelming injustice, we Palestinian Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation, brokers of justice, defenders of human rights, instruments of peace and prophets to speak truth to power." He asked for prayers for peace that affirm each person's humanity.

In his ELCIC address, Younan spoke of "signs of hope" in the Holy Land. Younan went through a long list of hopeful signs for Christians in the Holy Land, emphasizing the unique role his small church has in the pursuit of peace with justice there. I am most interested in his interfaith work which includes the "Jonah Dialogue Group" made up of faith leaders from Palestinian Christians and Israeli Jews, a group which deals with issues of daily life "to help us know and respect one another." Another area of Younan's interfaith work is in Muslim-Christian dialogue where his call for a "code of conduct" resulted in the "Amman Declaration" which supports mutual respect among world religions and continued "dialogue and human cooperation so that justice, peace, development and decent living, called for by the human and religious teachings of the heavenly religions, can be achieved."

Younan also helped call together the "Council for Religious Institutions in the Holy Land" in 2005, a group which, for the first time, brought together Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders there with the purpose of "promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation." Among other agreements, this group has set up a hotline to take calls about derogatory remarks by clergy, imams and rabbis about other faiths, part of their call for adherents of all three faiths to accurately represent each other at home, in school, at work and at synagogues, churches and mosques.

Near the end of his ELCIC address, Younan stated that reconciliation is possible and is a sign of hope in the Holy Land. He spoke of true reconciliation being rooted in truthfulness and built on justice with the willingness to forgive. The fruit of such reconciliation is peace.

His full speech is online at http://www.elcjhl.org/Signs%20of%20Hope%20ELCIC%20June%202009%20final.doc .

Younan is fond of quoting this story from the Midrash in which a rabbi asked his students how they would know when the night is over and the dawn is come. One student responded, "Is it when, in the first rays of morning light, you can tell a dog from a sheep?" "No," said the rabbi.

Another student responded, "Could it be when we can distinguish an olive tree from a fig tree?" Again, the rabbi said, "no." "So," said the rabbi's students, "when can we tell the night is over and the dawn is come?" The rabbi answered, "It is when you can look in the eyes of another and recognize your brother or sister. Then truly the night is over and a new day has dawned."

I pray for such a new dawn of peace in the Holy Land, throughout the Middle East and across the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

 

"Is peace simply "the absence of war"?

This week's blogger question on www.odysseynetworks.org is "Is peace simply the absence of war?" My response follows. As you know, if you have been reading my blog postings, these blogs are part of a larger effort to recruit "A Million Minutes for Peace," that is, to have 1,000,000 people pray for peace for one minute at noon on the UN International Day of Peace, September 21st. You can sign up for this effort on Odyssey's website also - www.odysseynetworks.org.

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Is peace simply "the absence of war"?

Of course, the simple and direct answer to this question is “no” – peace is not simply “the absence of war.” However, before I reflect on peace in a wider perspective, I must say that, if we asked people in Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia or you name the war-torn country or area, they would probably say that peace as simply “the absence of war” would be just fine, thank you, and a welcome relief!

So, I do hope we are praying on September 21st and every day for an end to war and for peace in that sense. I also hope we are praying for personal peace (peace of heart and mind), for peace in our families and with our spouses/partners, and for peace in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and communities and cities. This peace can look very different from “the absence of war” but, if you ask a child with an abusive parent or parents, they would certainly describe what might only be called a “war-like” atmosphere at home and if you asked a mother in a poor area racked by poverty and violence, their answer wouldn’t be much different than those in the midst of an “official” war. “The absence of war” would be just fine, thank you.

I see far too many people in my community who cannot find any peace because the world has dealt them a very cruel hand. All too often here at our church office one of our pastors or our deacon will exclaim, “the poor are getting screwed again!” as we try to help someone who has had their electricity cut off for a late bill or had their car repossessed after getting behind on a payment (just last week for those two!)

So, let’s pray for peace in the world’s trouble spots, no question. But, let us also pray for peace in our hearts and homes and communities, especially for the poor whose lives offer them little peace.

Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2009

 

"Unsung Heroes" of Peace

I have now posted my third blog on www.odysseynetworks.org for the UN International Day of Peace on September 21st and Odyssey's effort to have 1,000,000 people pause at 12:00 noon that day for a one minute prayer for peace. You can sign up for this effort on Odyssey's website.

This week’s question was: "Some of the world’s great peacemakers lead quiet lives unrecognized by the world at large. Have you encountered any of these “unsung” peacemaker heroes?"

Here is my blog response:

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This question got me thinking about the story of the man on the beach and the starfish. You may have heard it in one of the many versions which are travelling around the internet. The basic story goes something like this:

“Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf's edge and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide. The person was throwing the starfish from the beach back into the ocean, one by one. The man was stuck by the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf. As he came up to the person he said, "You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, "It sure made a difference to that one!"” (Loren Eiseley from “The Star Thrower”)

Our communities (faith, municipal, school, work, neighborhood) are full of “star throwers,” people who try to make a difference, who do make a difference each day in small ways, helping others, bringing peace to their homes and schools and neighborhoods and local faith communities. Most of these people not only go unnoticed, they would rather be unnoticed. If you asked them why they are involved in their community, they would probably say something similar to the person in the starfish story – “It sure makes a difference for that one!”

I think of the volunteers who come to our congregation every Wednesday night to feed hungry people from our community. They have no interest in recognition for this ministry. The ministry alone is enough. They are able to give our dinner guests a sense of peace, at least for a short time, in their difficult lives. At the least our volunteers can send our guests out filled with good food (and a bag lunch for later). And, hopefully, a sense of peace. Our once a week meal won’t end hunger in our community, not by a long shot, but our volunteers know, “it sure makes a difference” for those they feed each week.

Friday, September 04, 2009

 

Does religion divide or unite?

As I noted here last week, I've joined "A Million Minutes for Peace," a grassroots effort to get 1,000,000 people to stop at 12 noon on the United Nations International Day of Peace, September 21, to pray for one minute for peace. You can join at www.odysseynetworks.org . I am also one of the bloggers for this effort. My second blog response on the "Million Minutes for Peace" website that Odyssey has created is now online. We were asked to respond to this: "Many people maintain that, throughout history, religion has caused conflict by dividing rather than uniting people. How would you respond to this opinion? Here is my response:

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Does religion divide or unite?

Early in my pastoral ministry career I was invited to a party hosted by friends who were not members of our congregation. At the party, I had a delightful conversation with a medical doctor, who, when he found out I was a Lutheran pastor, wanted to talk faith with me, especially the commonalities between his Jewish faith and my Christian faith. It soon became clear to me that I had more in common with this Jewish doctor, who actively practiced his faith, than I did with many “members” of my Christian congregation for whom faith was more of a hobby than a way of life!

That has been my continued experience in ecumenical and interfaith relationships – active people of faith of almost any faith have much more in common with active people of faith of almost any other faith than they do with inactive people of their own faith group. My experience is that the commonalities among world religions far outweigh the differences: almost all religions value justice, kindness, family, concern for the poor and the environment – I could list many more.

Certainly, religion has been used as an excuse, a crutch, for terrible behavior over the centuries. My own faith group, Lutheran, for example, has had to reject Martin Luther’s late-in-life writings about Jewish people. Most religions can point to individuals who have acted in the name of their religion who have perverted their faith. (Think of those who kill in the name of their religion – I’m bold enough to say, and it is not really very bold to say it, that they are NOT true followers of their faith).

True religious faith, at least the many different faiths I have come in contact with over the years, true religious faith is and should be something that unites people, rather than dividing them. When this does not happen, as it all too often does not, that is not the fault of the religion, but of what we Christians would call our “sinful humanity.”

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Please go to www.odysseynetworks.org and join their effort "A Million Minutes for Peace," to get 1,000,000 people praying for peace for one minute at 12:00 noon on September 21st, the United Nations International Day of Peace. Thank you.