Luke 18:9-17; Micah 6:8
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 16, 2016
Some religious people have been doing and saying things for a long time that are arrogant, condescending, and designed to turn back the clock. People who are religiously “righteous” often regard others with contempt, as Jesus explains in Luke’s parable, which is followed by the story about Jesus’ acceptance of children, also not considered worth noticing by religious men in Jesus’ day. Jesus repeatedly called for us to be humble, to do what is right and kind, as the writer of Micah described in Micah’s day.
It would be nice to say that all religious people are different today, more mature, more kind, more humble after all this time, but it seems as if we have not made a lot of progress since Micah’s day or even since Jesus made a point of describing God’s desire for religious people to be humble. Fairly frequently, I meet someone who, when finding out that I am a minister, tells me “I don’t believe in God.” My response to them is “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” Almost without exception, I am then able to say: “I don’t believe in such a God either.” But often times, in social situations, I don’t tell people what I do, because I get tired of apologizing for the words and tactics of some religious people today.
Last Monday, Barnes and Noble offered me a 20% coupon, and I just HAD to run up there, and so I found a book by a congregational minister named Lillian Daniel, a writer and a book that I had never seen before. Entitled Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To: Spirituality Without Stereotypes, Religion Without Ranting, I had to buy it. A former seminary professor at Yale and the University of Chicago, she is now a pastor at a Congregational Church in Iowa. She describes how, for years, she has felt she needed to apologize to everyone who has been hurt by Christians in the name of Christianity, hurt by the judgmentalism, arrogance, and cookbook religious formulas for salvation. As she says, she is now tired of it, tired of the energy it takes to say, “I’m not them and I’m sorry for what they did to you.” She is tired of being ashamed of being a Christian. She says:
Why do I – why do so many believers – feel that we’re inherently responsible for every single unchristian thing ever done by anyone who ever called themselves Christian? After all, Christianity is a pretty big category; in the United States alone there are more than 1,500 Christian denominations. Imagine that-one thousand five hundred groups decided they couldn’t abide their community of faith, so they started their own. Obviously these denominations don’t all believe the same things or behave the same way. So why should any Christian feel the need to apologize on behalf of strangers? Or even distant relatives?
I’ve gotten tired of apologizing for a church I’m not a member of. I’m tired of giving the conversation about faith over to the extremists, and letting them define me. I believe you can be an open-minded Christian, who thinks God can work out everyone’s salvation. We human beings don’t need to get all worked up on God’s behalf. God has this covered. Walk your path and enjoy the view.
That’s my path and I didn’t invent it. It’s been around for a while. There have always been strains of Christianity that denigrate other paths. And there have always been strains that delight in every alternate route, exit, and off-ramp.
You can find the same variety of paths in other religions. Paths are as diverse as the people who follow them. It’s easy to point to the problems on someone else’s path.
You’ll always find wrecks on the side of the road. That’s what happens when you open the path up to the public, otherwise known as other people.
She goes on to describe why many people today don’t say too much about their church, even when we’ve found one we really like:
Churches are also populated by folks who are recovering from one form of Christianity or another. In many cases believers are truly happy to have found a new church but they don’t want to spread the word. Why is that? Maybe they’ve been appalled by those “invitations” in the past, when someone knocked on their door or stopped them downtown to tell them Jesus loved them so much that if they didn’t go to the right church, they would burn in hell. If that’s what invitations come with, better not to invite anyone.
Maybe they are embarrassed by what passes on television and in political campaigns for Christianity. So they duck aside, not wanting to be associated with it.
Whatever the case, they have decided that the best policy for open-minded Christians is, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Stay in the closet. Don’t share your faith.
But open-minded Christians have faith journeys that are reasonable, rigorous and real. That’s worth sharing. It’s time for those Christians to stop apologizing and realize that how we talk about Christian community really matters. It matters to God, to the health of our churches, and to those in conversation with us.
She is right. The problem is that when we don’t talk about what an alternative view of Christianity is, most people only hear from the Fundamentalists, those who are clear that everyone else is going to hell, who believe that it is not what you do, but only what you believe, that is crucial. Lillian Daniel comments:
Fundamentalist Christians brought us the belief obsession – not the atheists, and not the rest of Christianity either. And yet we all get caught up in the same unhelpful fundamentalist literalism that privileges belief over all other aspects of religious life. Hence the atheist is forced into silence or a defensive posture, neither of which is any way to live. And now, I think open-minded religious people feel the same way, silenced. The trouble is, when one group is silent, the louder Fundamentalists get to define religion.
Which in turn keeps many intelligent and thoughtful people away, trying to figure out which category of nonbeliever they are, in order to explain themselves to their belief-obsessed Christian friends.
Many Christians, and many who have left the church, are still tired of political candidates and voters who identify as Christian but espouse behaviors that would make Jesus throw them out of the Temple.
How many Christians got tired of repeating, ‘Tm not like those Christians,” and finally stopped talking about the fact that they went to church?
But in reality, churches are full of people from different political parties who do care for one another. They may disagree on everything political, but they still bring casseroles to the grieving and arrange the flowers at one another’s funerals.
They teach one another’s kids at Sunday School, and when little Johnny pounds little Freddie on the head with a nearby Bible, and little Freddie responds by throwing juice on little Johnny, and little Johnny retaliates by smearing glue and glitter on little Freddie’s picture of the baby Jesus, no adult, Democrat or Republican, gets to tell these six-year-olds that they do not deserve to be called Christians. We admit they need help and training. And we don’t show up at church as adults as a way of announcing our own righteousness. We come because we still need to hear a word from the Prince of Peace and the God of Love.
So the continual criticizing of one another from a distance and in public is distasteful, especially to people who don’t go to church. They’ve never experienced the breakup of a six-year-old fight on the church playground, and the joy that teacher has when those kids grow up to be a little kinder to each other the next summer.
Instead they think, Christianity is about being good all the time and getting it right. And when you don’t, your fellow Christians call you un-Christian and they kick you out. Who wants to be a part of that?
Generally these critics are working off an old definition of one narrow sliver of Christianity, and they expect me to apologize to them for it. Sorry, but no thanks. I am tired of apologizing for a church I am not a member of.
What we have to remember is that somehow we must show people who have been harmed by religion, judged and pressured to believe something they cannot agree to believe, that there can be a compassionate and caring place of respectful dialogue, acceptance, and a desire to enable each person to make a positive difference in their own way. I like how Lillian Daniel describes the journey:
One of the most rigorous parts of a journey of faith is finding a religious community in the first place. It is hard to find that community that resonates; where a person can sense that they could feel at home, but not too much at home. A good religious community is like that: both comforting and discomfiting. God loves us exactly as we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay that way. That’s how religious community should feel, but it won’t because that perfect balance is God’s alone. We human beings just take a shot at it.
And the way we do that is in worshipping God together with other people, sharing comfort and discomfort, compassion and prophecy, judgment and forgiveness. But first we have to find a place to call home but not entirely at home. Finding that community, like worship, will take work.
I am thrilled at the people who have decided that we are the group they wish to journey with. I am thrilled by the people who say: “This is not a perfect place, but it is a good place, a compassionate church family, and I choose to be here, to learn and grow together, to care together, and laugh together, to cry together and sing together, to work together and relax together, and to become who I have been created to be a little more each day.”
May we no longer feel we have to apologize for who we are as Christians, as people of God. May we no longer let those who are arrogant and judgmental in their religion cause us to lose our voices, voices of tolerance, humility, compassion, graceful acceptance, and joy.