Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 11:28-30
Rev. Tom Herbek
January 29, 2017
Lillian Daniel describes what happens as she reads papers written by the confirmation students in her Congregational Church:
I was surprised to read in many of their papers ambivalence based on concern that the church embraced a strong fundamentalist strain of theology. They were pushing back against it, but they seemed to be pushing back as though all of us in their church believed it.
Some wrote, “I’m just not sure I should get confirmed and join the church as an adult member…I’m just not sure I should take that step, because I don’t believe the world was created in six days.”
I asked them, “Who in this church told you they believe the world was created in six days? Or that you had to believe it?” I was hopping mad. I wanted those renegade volunteers’ names so that they could receive the appropriate theological beat down, or at least a few polite questions. When I pressed those kids, they acknowledged that they didn’t hear that stuff in Sunday school class and they had not heard it from their parents.
Somewhere in the culture they were getting the idea that real Christians believe that you have to take scripture literally, the way fundamentalist Christians do. So being eighth graders, and therefore experts on what is wrong with everything, they did what came naturally. They took an idea like the world was literally created in six days and they looked for the hole in the argument.
That’s not too hard to do, but being eighth graders, they assumed their insights were unique, daring, and definitive. “They don’t even mention the dinosaurs in the Bible but we know that dinosaurs existed. Therefore, the Bible can’t be true because they missed something huge: dinosaurs missing….hello??”
Their conclusion was that if you could find a flaw in the Bible then that meant you were not a Christian. You believed instead in this scientific theory of evolution. I wanted to say, “Who in this church told you that science and evolution were at odds with your faith? Who here told you we were creationists?”
But they didn’t hear it from us. They hear it on the news where the weirdest voices of Christianity get way too much airtime. If there’s a tsunami, an earthquake, a heat wave, or a drought, chances are some professional Christian will say that it’s God’s way of getting our attention and therefore it must be someone’s fault.
Hearing from those eighth graders at my church taught me something. No matter how much you teach within the circle of your own religious community, there are these dominant ideas about religion that are out in the culture, coming from other people, and they play a huge role in how we talk about the church.
If there were ever a time when Americans who call themselves Christians yet do not share those beliefs should speak up – at least to their children – it is now. Make it clear that there are other Christians who don’t spread hate and fear, because we don’t believe that Jesus spread hate and fear either.
This obsession with belief is fascinating, because the Fundamentalists who claim that they’re following scripture ignore what Jesus says and does. For Jesus, in general, faith and belief were what you do and how you act.
For instance, when he says, “Do you believe?” it generally means, “Do you step forward? Are you willing to follow me? Are you willing to try this?” He doesn’t ask for anyone to give a long theological discourse. There’s no moment when Jesus recites the Nicene Creed about himself.
When the fundamentalist movement commandeered the word “Christian,” faith came to be associated with intellectual certainty. So you have one group of Christians who says, “This is what you have to believe”; but then you have another who says, “Well, I can’t believe in that with intellectual certainty,” or “I believe that sometimes, and other times I don’t.” Either way that second silenced group wonders: Is there room for me in this church? Or should I just opt out?
- Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Believe In
Somehow, thoughtful Christians have been outshouted by the Fundamentalists for so long that many people believe that Fundamentalism is the only brand of Christianity, the only option, and they don’t want that.
It has gotten to the point where thoughtful people are sometimes reticent to admit that they go to church, just as I am sometimes hesitant to tell people I am a minster when they first meet me. There are so many people who call themselves Christian and espouse ideas that are the opposite of what I think Christianity is all about, so sometimes I would just as soon not admit I’m a minister, because everyone knows that ministers are judgmental and ready to condemn everyone else and don’t accept science or rational dialogue about anything.
Diana Butler Bass tells the following story:
I was preaching in a small, rural Lutheran church. The church was charming and old-fashioned, mostly older people with only a few young families; their weekly bulletin announced a quilting bee and plans for members to pave the parking lot the next Saturday. About seventy people gathered for church in a cozy sanctuary where we listened to the Bible being read and sang hymns together. After my sermon, we all shared a potluck lunch. A young woman sat next to me and shared her story of being in the belief gap.
She was a student at the nearby university, one of the only young and single members of the church. “I love this congregation,” she said. “The people have become my family.” She paused, and her voice dropped to a confessional whisper. “But I don’t know what to say to my classmates when they ask me what I believe. Whenever I say ‘I Believe in Christianity,’ they look at me as if I’m crazy. Besides, I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or, Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and God loves me through these people, by learning how to quilt and singing these hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living. Does that still count as being Christian?”
- Christianity After Religion
Somehow Christianity has evolved into a set of things you must believe, which is the opposite of what Jesus taught, and also not at all what the early followers of Jesus understood it to be. As Diana Butler Bass says:
Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world- not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven.
By practicing Jesus’ teachings, followers of the Way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual path. Indeed, early Christianity was not called “Christianity” at all. Rather, it was called “the Way,” and its followers were called “the People of the Way.” Members of the community were not held accountable for their opinions about God or Jesus; rather, the community measured faithfulness by how well its members practiced loving God and neighbor.
If one believes that Christianity is about belief, taking refuge in fundamentalism is logical. As Harvey Cox argues, however, “Fundamentalisms, with their insistence on obligatory belief systems, their nostalgia for a mythical uncorrupted past, their claims to an exclusive grasp on truth . . . are turning out to be rearguard attempts to stem a more sweeping tidal change.”
A religious scholar, Reza Aslan, makes the same point. “Reza Aslan has a challenging and ultimately refreshing perspective on religion in the world- a long view of history and humanity that news cycles obscure. He was born in Tehran and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a scholar of religions who has written bestselling books about Islam and Jesus, and is a curator of independent media and information from the Middle East.” Krista Tippett interviewed him:
You’ve said, “Religion, it must be understood, is not faith, it is the story of faith.”
Aslan replies: “We have to remember that fundamentalism is a reactionary phenomenon, not an independent one. It is a reaction to the natural progress of society. And so when I see fundamentalism surge, I know that what is really happening is that the natural progress of society is surging. And fundamentalism is reacting to it. I choose to focus on the progress, not the reaction.” (Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett).
And it is crucial that we also focus on the progress of society much more than we focus on the reaction of fundamentalism in any religion.
Jesus’ example of the Good Samaritan was scandalous to any good, religious Jews of his day. The degree of hatred and bitterness between Jews and Samaritans was on a par with the hatred and bitterness between Israelis and Palestinians today. And by making the Samaritan the “good guy” in the story, Jesus ups the ante even more. Not only should we good Jews, good religious people, show mercy to the Samaritans, but they even have something to give to us! Really?
Jesus insisted that our interpretation of the law and the rules of right and wrong, our interpretation of our beliefs, is the only way these things become healthy and life-giving. Only if our beliefs bring life and love and compassion can they be God’s will. Interpretations that prevent us from extending God’s grace to others (like those of the priest and the Levite) reveal the use of belief, of faith, to become instruments of death rather than instruments of life. Unfortunately, every faith institution has proven itself susceptible to using religious laws, rules and beliefs to shame, exclude, and judge others rather than to welcome them, encourage, and embrace them.
The danger of Fundamentalism is that the rules become more important than the people. In a wonderful movie called “Chocolat”, a small French town has lost the ability to live, because everyone is so concerned about the religious laws, about rules, until a strange woman and her young daughter move into town. Both the woman and the townspeople are forever changed by their interactions, by the fresh winds of change. Even the young Catholic priest, Pere Henri, stops being an instrument of law and becomes a voice of grace. The dramatic break for the priest occurs in his Easter sermon, where he sets aside the prepared, approved sermon and speaks from his heart instead.
He says: “I don’t want to talk about Christ’s divinity today. I’d rather talk about his humanity. I mean, you know, how he lived his life here on this earth – his kindness, his tolerance. Listen, here’s what I think: I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we have to measure our goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
The priest and the Levite- religious leaders, good people of their day- defined their goodness by what they did not do, by what they denied themselves, by what they resisted, by who they excluded. And so, for whatever reasons, they did not get involved. They walked right past the wounded man on this dangerous road. They did not get involved. And Jesus shows us how they missed out on life. They missed the whole point of life, and of faith.
How do we allow ourselves to get involved again, to take some steps tomorrow that we might not take today? To set aside those beliefs and rules that might keep us from reaching out, from making a difference?
Perhaps the secret lies within ourselves. We each have within us a desire to help, a wish to make a difference in the life of another person.
As a church family and as individuals, how can we strengthen this desire to serve that is within each of us? How can we enable each other to get more involved? How can we make sure that each of us sees our goodness- as a church and as individuals- in what we embrace, what we create, and who we include?
Let us each resolve to do these things and to work together to enable each other to become all that God has created us to be. And let us do all we can to spread the word, the good news, that, in this church family, we come here – not because we all believe the same things – but because we are people of compassion, followers on the Way. We don’t believe that everyone else is “going to hell.” We believe that religious community may not be for everyone, but, for us, it makes a positive difference in our lives. I like what Lillian Daniel wrote about her Congregational Church:
I’m glad that religious community is optional and therefore freely chosen. In the large space between “whatever floats your boat” and “burn in hell,” freely chosen religious communities are varied, rich, and changing, but still way too much of a secret. I wish more people knew how good religious community can be when it is reasonable, rigorous, and real.
Thank you for being a church family that is reasonable, rigorous, and real. And I would add deeply compassionate, and a lot of fun!