Thursday, April 09, 2015

Onward Christian Soldiers...

Part one of the series:Religious freedom in the midst of the Culture Wars

Part two of the series:Culture Wars....and the politicians and media.

I have been a Christian since I was 7 or 8. I remember my first experience of accepting the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I remember sitting in church and Sunday School listening to the lessons of what the Bible says and is about. I remember reading the Bible, finding its messages for myself. And in all of that, I came to believe the Bible to be an authority in my life. Its words I have allowed to speak into my life. I make the best attempt possible to transform those words into a lifestyle. I don't make the best example of what the scriptures say at all times of my life. I am called to account for bad choices and I hold myself to account for bad choices. 


And to those Christians who have chosen to represent the Church in a stance against gays, I want to hold you to account for your choices.


Let me begin with a point of clarification. See the big "C" in that previous sentence? That "C" does not represent a building in a community or even the gathered members in a place in community. It does not represent a larger body of connected communities (some may call it a denomination or some other word). It doesn't even represent the groups of bodies that form faith traditions. When I use that big "C", it represents one thing: the entire body of Christ gathered under the name of Jesus the Christ. It represents anyone who calls upon the name of the one we believe to be raised from the dead and have sworn allegiance to as our king. There are no lines that separate in the big "C". Just because I happen to be (and love being) United Methodist, when I talk about being a part of the big "C" I mean people of all forms of Christian belief. 


And on behalf of a considerable number of my fellow big "C" sisters and brothers, I want to say that you do not speak for the Church when you stand against gays because of your religious beliefs or convictions. Some of us have a different understanding of how we are to treat people. And our understanding of that behavior is just as biblical as your "right" to refuse to serve them.


I know the line of "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching". It is brought up just about every 4 years. Around General Conference time for us United Methodists, it is just as common a refrain as "Happy Holidays" around November/December. I don't need anyone to point out the passages that "clearly" say that God is against homosexuals. First, because those passages are only slightly less reprinted everywhere than John 3:16 during football season. And second, if those passages were so clearly understandable, then we wouldn't have trees by the thousands being killed to "explain" them.


At the risk of being treated to the same effort to "explain" my use of scriptures, I want to present my (and I don't think I'm alone on this) biblical understanding for how I treat gays and anyone else that so many in churches consider undesirable.


1. Let's start with the Sermon on the Mountain (Matthew 5-7). I am kind of simple when it comes to some things. When the Bible says that Jesus said these things, I believe that a craftsman born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and impelled by God's Spirit said these things to a crowd of people a little less than 2,000 years ago. And because I'm so simple, I think he meant what he said. And because, maybe I am too simple, these words are preserved, then I am supposed to take his words and try my best to be an example of them in my life today.


There are those quaint phrases that Jesus begins with that many of us call the Beattitudes. When I read them, I hear Jesus saying that the people who suffer the most, God is on their side. And in this age and in this nation, there are people who are suffering. We may want to sweep them aside with simple platitudes. We may want to give them some "charity" and forget them. But God wants something to be done for them. The prophets of the Old Testament called upon God's people to DO something about those who suffer, not BELIEVE something or DEFEND those beliefs. 


The next paragraph after those quaint sayings tells the people that they are salt to flavor the world and light for all to see. And the way that we flavor the world and shine light for others to see is through the good works that we do. Who do you suppose would benefit the most from our good works? If the prophets were faithful to God's message, then I see that those who suffer receive the benefit of what we do.


Or what about what Jesus says about reconciling ourselves to others before we worship? Or about not taking into account the harm (perceived or real) done to us by others? Or the impossible thing Jesus says about loving people who would seek to do us harm? Then Chapter 6 has Jesus telling us that we are not to do good things just to be noticed. The things that we do as a devotion to God are their own reward. Finally Jesus gets to the heart of this message for the current subject: stop judging others.


I know what some of you are thinking. "Oh, he's a liberal." Let me ask you to stop and think for one minute about that. The fundamentalist argument is that liberals don't take scripture literally. I represented quite literally what was in Matthew 5-7. I stated that I believe a real, living Jesus of Nazareth said those things. And I hope I made it clear that I believe that Jesus meant it then and it means something now. If that makes me a liberal, then you have chosen to say "Jesus really didn't say those things."


2. Did you know that Jesus didn't follow his own teaching? Going back to the Sermon on the Mountain, I want to prove that point in a couple of ways. Jesus condemns the act of adultery in 5:27-30. Jesus even goes so far as to expand it from adultery to lusting. And the judgment for those that do so: cut off the offending member. Then in 7:6, Jesus uses the phrase, "don't give the sacred to dogs." Both of these are clear. Neither of these can be misunderstood. But Jesus does.


In John chapter 4 and chapter 8, Jesus encounters a couple of women who, we may judge her as, have loose morals. One has bounced from husband to husband to husband to husband to something less than husband. The other was caught in adultery. Jesus has clearly condemned both lifestyles. But what is his reaction? He receives the woman the well in grace and teaches her. To the woman on the ground deserving of condemnation he says I do not either.


Then in Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus is entreated to heal the daughter of a woman that was not of Jesus' own people. As she gets pushy, Jesus responds to her begging by saying, "It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs." That is clearly an echo of the saying regarding the sacred from the sermon. And it is clear that Jesus intends that statement to be the end of this interaction. But Jesus does not leave the woman with nothing. Instead he uses his power and glory to restore the daughter to health.


In all three of these cases, there is clear justification to say that Jesus could have chosen to cut those women off. He would have been completely right in ignoring the woman at the well, in allowing the woman to be stoned, or keeping his healing power for the people of God. But he chose not to. 


3. The Golden Rule. nuff said.


4. When Jesus gets into a conversation about the most important commandment, he follows in a very Jewish custom of summarizing the covenant given to Israel by Moses. His summation, I summarize as, "Love the Lord your God with everything you are." But Jesus pushed it just a little beyond just summing up the second part of the covenant. He filled it with greater meaning. "Love your neighbor as you would show that love to yourself." This is a clear statement. There is no confusing what he means here. If we would use our resources or our energy to show love to ourselves over something, then we are commanded by God to show that SAME love to others.


The way I teach the concept of who we are commanded to love follows this pattern:
We are to love those we join together with in faith community (one another).
We are to love those who are like us and share points of common traits (our neighbor).
We are to love those who are not like us; people of different race, religion, language, traditions, and sexual orientation (read the Good Samaritan story again).
We are to love those who would actively do harm to us either in word or action (our enemies).


Did I forget anyone?


Finally, for anyone who says that we are supposed to help convict sinners of their errors and get them saved, you are wrong in so many ways.


First - we are not equipped, nor called, to be judge and jury of another persons sins. There is only one who can judge the hearts and minds of humanity. And his court will not be in session until some day later when ALL will stand before his judgment seat and give an account for what they have done in this life. And the way I read Jesus' words, if we aren't doing the stuff above, then we better get used to wearing a goat hair coat for a very long time in a very bad place.


Second - it is only after someone gets to know Jesus that convincing and convicting of sin happens. The Holy Spirit works in their life to bring them to a point where they are convinced that something is wrong and there is only once source of healing for that. The Holy Spirit then works with them to bring them to Jesus Christ. We only act as the bailiff in the courtroom, so to speak. If the Judge and the Counselor want the "convicted" to know something or do something, it is our task to lead them there. But it isn't our job to step into those other roles.


Third - the only people we have a right to question their choices are people of faith with whom we have a relationship. I have no right to tell my Baptist clergy they should let women be preachers. I may disagree with that prohibition. But I do not have a right to "correct" their behavior because I disagree with it. If we follow the principle of "I don't agree with your choices therefore I won't support your action" then kiss the ministerial alliances of our communities goodbye. Because my Baptist brothers can declare that just as resolutely about us God-forsaken Methodist who ordain women. 


When we are in a covenant relationship with someone (by merit of Baptism) and we are in voluntary fellowship with one another (by merit of membership vows), we have a duty to hold each other accountable. We have a responsibility to see that we grow and develop one another into more mature Christians. No where in the New Testament instructions to the Church do we see a clear mandate that a church is to abandon holding each other accountable to spiritual development while at the same time criticizing, condemning and chastising those outside of the fellowship.


Fourth - the Church does not have permission to speak into the lives of others anymore. It used to be that the Church had authority to speak into others lives. In a previous day, Christians could change the course of communities by declaring the authority of the Church. But that day is over. The authority of the Church is diminished. We do not have the right to claim a right or wrong way in a secular world. And part of the reason for that lies at the feet of those who have made a mockery of the Church. People who have spoken loud in judgment against the "evils" of this world and then were found to be just as much a participant as those who were railed against.


Fifth  and finally - your perceived religious "rights" do not include your business. There is nothing Christian about capitalism and the free market system. If you choose to do business in the marketplace, then you have to accept that your business is open to people of all kinds of things you may not like. If you don't want to serve a certain kind of people, then close the store front and make yourself a ministry. Give your service only to those whom you feel comfortable doing business with. Keep your activity among only those who are worthy of your gifts and talents. 


Or better yet, consider yourself in ministry where you are, with your shop open. Consider that Jesus went to people who weren't like him and didn't like him and what he stood for. He healed the sick Jews and Romans. He touched the lepers and the children. Consider that maybe God has blessed you with a small (or big) business in order that you can be a witness of the grace and mercy that was shown to you (a sinner). 

Tomorrow I plunge headlong into disaster.