Tag: Jesus

The Curious Case of the Atheist Pastor

A controversy is brewing in the United Church of Canada over a minister who doesn’t believe in a God or in the Bible.  There are those in the denomination that believe she should be defrocked since she is an atheist.  She is demanding to stay ordained, believing that she is preaching a truer form of the faith, one centered on how we live instead of doctrine which she believes later corrupted the original intent of the faith.

“I don’t believe in…the god called God,” Vosper said. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.

What’s important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity’s beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.

“Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?” she said.

“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

Vosper made her views clear as far back as a Sunday sermon in 2001 but her congregation stood behind her until a decision to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 prompted about 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.

Things came to a head this year after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things — a reference to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

“That didn’t go over well,” Vosper said. “(But) if we are going to continue to use language that suggests we get our moral authority from a supernatural source, any group that says that can trump any humanistic endeavour.”

After I shared this on Facebook, some of my more progressive Christian friends wondered what the fuss was all about. After all, she was getting away from doctrine which can be soul-crushing.

Needless to say, I think Rev. Vosper is wrong. She has a big misunderstanding about what doctrine is all about and an even bigger misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about.

Let’s look at her main beef, that Christianity was based on how we live over doctrine. It’s an interesting supposition, but it goes against most of church history. If Christianity was only about living a good life, then huge chunks of the Bible are wrong (which I guess doesn’t matter since she doesn’t believe in it anyway). But if it was about living a good life, then why are there no records indicating this? If the push was supposed to be more of a philosophy like Stoicism, wouldn’t we have some record of it? It’s kind of hard to believe that there was a cover-up this big, ala the Davinci Code.

When it comes to doctrine, it is common among some Progressive Christians to look down on doctrine, seeing it as something that forces people to believe in things instead of living a good life. But I think such a viewpoint is in its own way anti-intellectual. It basically says faith is something that is not worth thinking about, but is something that you do.

Now, there has been a history of Christians that place emphasis on beliefs and living horrible lives. But that is not the whole of Christian doctrine. Doctrine and practice must go together. Doctrine is what fuels what Christians do in helping their neighbor and sharing their lives together in worship. Belief in the context of faith is adopting a certain worldview that drives all that we do, no matter if we are Christian, Jewish or Hindu.

Doctrine is also part of theology or faith seeking understanding. Christians want to understanding things like God, Jesus, the Church, the Cross, the Resurrection and the like. Doctrine is coming to grips with this nebulous thing called faith and putting into practice in our daily lives.

The United Church of Canada’s Statement of Faith is a way for people to understand humanity and its place in God’s world:

We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

This statement tries to understand all of the concepts I just stated and places fashions them in a document stating not what the church must believe, but what they place their trust in. They believe in a God who is a creator, Jesus who came in flesh to reconcile us to God and believe in a church- a body that celebrates God, proclaims Jesus and serves others. In this statement belief and action go together.

I can understand if Rev. Vosper doesn’t believe in all of this. That is her right. But does that mean that the church has to accept her as a teacher or leader in the church?

The good thing about Rev. Vosper is that she made me think again why I’m a Christian. I wish she would do some deep thinking about the church herself before trying to remake the church in her own image.

Can Christians Support Torture?

 

This week, we saw the release of the Senate Democrats report on torture in the CIA.  I’ve already written a post about my views on the Torture Report at another blog and you are welcome to read it.  One note, if you are looking for a clear and ringing viewpoint, you won’t get it from that post.  You probably won’t get it here either.

What I want to talk about here is something more related to the church in relation to torture: can someone be a Christian and support torture?

One pastor, Brian Zahnd makes a bold claim; no, you can’t be a Christian and support torture at all:

You cannot be Christian and support torture. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise. The support of torture is off the table for a Christian. I suppose you can be some version of a “patriot” and support the use of torture, but you cannot be any version of Christian and support torture. So choose one: A torture-endorsing patriot or a Jesus-following Christian. But don’t lie to yourself that you can be both. You cannot.

(Clearly you do not have to be a Christian to reject the barbarism of torture, you simply need to be a humane person. But to be a Christian absolutely requires you to reject the use of torture.)

I remember when Pew Research released their findings in 2009 revealing that six out of ten white evangelicals supported the use of torture on suspected terrorists. (Patton Dodd talks about that here.) The survey stunned me. I spoke about it from the pulpit in 2009 and have continued to do so. I said it then and I’m saying it again today: You cannot support the use of torture and claim to be a follower of Jesus.

Any thoughtful person, no matter their religion or non-religion, knows that you cannot support torturing people and still claim to be a follower of the one who commanded his disciples to love their enemies. The only way around this is to invent a false Jesus who supports the use of torture. (The Biblical term for this invented false Jesus is “antichrist.”)

Those who argue for the use of torture do so because they are convinced it is pragmatic for national security. But Christians are not called to be pragmatists or even safe. Christians are called by Jesus to imitate a God who is kind and merciful to the wicked.

“Love your enemies! Do good to them.…and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” –Jesus (Luke 6:35, 36)

I don’t know of a greater indictment against American evangelicalism than the fact that a majority of its adherents actually admit they support the use of illegal torture on suspected terrorists!

The issue of torture has always been at least in public a very black and white argument, even though there are surveys where the general American public seem to view this in more shades of grey. This one issue tends to inflame passions, to have people drawing lines in the sand and determining who is moral and who is not.
I will say up front that I don’t support the use of torture but I also think those that it has “worked” on occassion (which doesn’t mean it should be used).  I think the torture done a decade ago was shameful.  But I am hesitant to go the next step that Zahnd does because if we start to decide that someone who holds a certain view is no longer a follower of Jesus, there are consquences that have to back that up.
Maybe it is the literal nature of my autistic brain, but I tend to believe that words have consequences.  If we say something, especially if we say something like Zahnd does, then it can be just left there.  If you are saying that someone who supports torture is not a Christian, then we have to ask some hard questions.  If this is the line that if crossed you are no longer a Christian, are you allowed to come to church?  Should such a person be expelled from the fellowship?  Should we do as evangelist Charles Finney did (he banned slaveholders from communion) and bar these folks from the communion table.
It’s one thing to say that if one supports torture that you wonder about their faith.  It is quite another to say that someone has created a mortal sin, one worthy enough of no longer being in fellowship.
I get where Zahnd is coming from.  I do wonder about the faith of those who might support torture.  But before I start excommunicating people, I want to understand why they support this practice.  How do they think it lines up with Scripture.
But I also wonder where grace fits in.  Or are these folk too far gone to save?  And what about other unsavory practices like the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists?
What I’m getting at here is that if you are going to point a gun at folks, you damn well better be ready to pull the trigger. Don’t sit here and talk tough but then fail back your words with action, because that is basically saying you don’t really mean what you say.
Maybe there are cases where you have to draw the line.  But I want to at least hesitate before I pull the trigger, because this is not a simple thing.  Not a simple thing at all.
Note: The cartoon is by Brazilian artist Carlos Latoff and is called, “It’s not torture when U.S. forces are doing it…”

Sermon: “Fit For A Dog”

“Fit for a Dog”
Matthew 15: 10-28
August 17, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

aDog1During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.

One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.

At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.

I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs. Continue reading “Sermon: “Fit For A Dog””

Sermon: “The Cruelty of April”

The sermon podcast is at the bottom of this post.

Matthew 28:1-10 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday
April 20, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Jonny Gomes #5 of the Boston Red Sox lays the World Series trophy and the 'Boston Strong 617' jersey onto the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street during the World Series victory parade on November 2, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jonny Gomes #5 of the Boston Red Sox lays the World Series trophy and the ‘Boston Strong 617’ jersey onto the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street during the World Series victory parade on November 2, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

It was the poet T.S. Elliot that once said that April was the cruelest month. Living as we do in the Northern United States, we know that April is all sunshine and flowers. April can be rainy and cold and we saw this week snow in April in Minnesota is not an unheard of event.

It was the Facebook posting of a friend that reminded me that April is the cruelest month not just because of the weather, but because some of the most memorable tragedies and disasters seemed to have taken place in April. Here’s just a few: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the genocide in Rwanda, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine School shootings, the Virgina Tech Shooting, Boston Marathon Bombing. I should add that most of these events happened to take place between April 14 and April 20.

My friend found this information on the website Gizmodo. The writer of this article says the following about this week and why is it so terrible:

Of course, if you look back far enough into history, you’re going to find something terrible for every day because, well, terrible things happen all the time. But you have to admit, this week just isn’t a good week for American history. Maybe it’s because of the weather. Maybe it’s because people suck.

The writer’s words were a bit coarse, but in many ways this writer is on the right track. We live in world where death seems to rule. People hurt and kill others that they don’t agree with or are different. People hurt others because of mental illness or because they just want to see people suffer.

These events remind us that things are not right in the world. If we think about this long enough, we might just give up, believing that there is no hope for people.

Today’s scripture in Matthew is about the ressurection of Jesus. The women associated with Jesus’ ministry come to the tomb to finish preparing his body for a proper burial. They had seen what had happened a few days earlier; they saw their friend Jesus die a miserable death. They expected to do the business they had to do and then leave the tomb with heavy hearts.

But something happens. The ground starts to shake violently. An angel appears and sits on the stone in front of the tomb. I can only imagine that having an earthquake and then some odd being dressed in white had to be fear inducing. The guards at the tomb were so frightened that they fainted. The stone is moved and then the angel says to the women: “Don’t be afraid.”

“Don’t be afraid?” Really? You just roll a stone away and cause grown men and you tell people to chill out? God does have an odd way of doing things.

The angel tells the women that Jesus isn’t here. Jesus has been risen from the dead, just as he said. This is a joyous message, but listen to what the passage says: the women leave the tomb filled with fear and joy. Maybe the women were acting like most of us do at times, hopeful for better times, but knowing deep down this might be an illusion. Maybe they were overwhelmed by the odd events and wondered if any of this was real. But they also had to have a bit of excitement that maybe, just maybe, what the angel said could be true. The women carried in their hearts fear and joy at the same time. That’s not so unusual; we always live in joy and in fear. We love our children, but we are fearful of the world we are giving them; we love our work, but fear getting laid off, we are happy to retire from decades of work, but fear how to make financially and it goes on and on. Hoping for the best, planning for the worst, that’s how you have to live in a world of cruel Aprils.

When Jesus appears in this text, he tells the women the same thing: “Don’t be afraid.” I don’t think the angel or Jesus meant that its a sin to be frightened. There’s a lot in this life to fear. Jesus disciples would face many challenges that would cause them to fear. To not be afraid is to not be overcome by the fear. It is to place our hope in the Risen Savior and believe that death and fear don’t have the last word, that love and God will always win.
Easter is really about courage. It is about believing and trusting in God even when things look uncertain and scary. The ressurrection is not telling us that we will never have hard times; it is a promise that reminds us that God is the rock we can cling to when times are hard. The ressurrection is wonderous that Jesus defeated death, but remember, Jesus still died.

As we at First discern our future, we need to mindful that God is with us during these uncertain times. We believe in an Easter God, the kind that conquer death and give us new life. But we are also an Easter people- we believe that Jesus was raised, we believe God is there even when things look dark and hopeless. This congregation, First Christian of St. Paul is called to go from this place and be messengers of this ressurection hope. We are called to share Christ to those who are hungry and homeless, to those who are lonely, to those facing addiction, to the whole wide world. We share this message in word and indeed. We can say all of this in the midst of genocide, shootings, terrorism and the like not by ignoring the evil that is in the world, but by believing in the ressurection power of Jesus in thick of a world where bystanders are injured or killed by a homeade bomb and where a disgruntled person can drive a rental truck to a building in a major city and cause havoc. Nothing, nothing, nothing can deny this wonderous message: the tomb is empty, death doesn’t have the last word.

That is the message we leave here with. April can do its worst, but we are an Easter people serving an Easter God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Like The Woman At The Well?

Like the woman at the well, I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy.
And then I heard my Savior speaking—
“Draw from My well that never shall run dry.”
Fill my cup, Lord;
I lift it up Lord;
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.

The Samaritan Woman - John 4:1-42We are going to be singing the song “Fill My Cup,Lord” (the song above) in church on Sunday. It comes from the story in John 4 about the Woman at the Well. It happens to be one of my favorite stories in Scripture. When I went to China fifteen years ago, I got three wall hangings of the work of He Qi, the Chinese artist who depicts religious stories in paintings. The three I bought were based on stories I love, the Good Samaritan, the Road to Emmaus and the Woman at the Well.

I love this story because it is a story of Jesus breaking boundaries left and right. But I really love it because it is about grace and about Jesus being the friend of sinners.

I will be preaching on the text Sunday, but as this Sunday grew near I felt a bit of hesitation. You see, over the years it seems to get harder to preach this story. Over the years, I’ve heard people reflecting on the story and well, challenging one aspect of it: the role of the woman.

This woman (who is unnamed) comes to draw water in the middle of the day. In very warm climates, you would not be out when the sun is at its hightest. No, you would draw your water in the early morning or the evening when it is cooler. The fact that this woman comes at noon indicates that she is some sort of outcast. During the conversation with Jesus, he asks her to go and fetch her husband. When she says she has no husband, Jesus replies that she is correct. She has had five husbands and the man that she lives with now is not her husband. Now, traditionally people have thought that she might have been doing something that was considered sinful. However, another story has come forward in recent years that rejects seeing the woman as a sinner, but more as a victim of some sort. The Bible never really tells us what this woman has done, if anything. The passage raises question about this women and what has led her to be an outcast, but we are never told what happened.

What I loved about this story is that God can work through someone deemed a sinner. The kingdom of God is for this person as well. Friend of sinners indeed.

But that view is starting to fall out of favor at least in mainline circles for this newer viewpoint. There is no mention of sin. There is no repentance. They argue that the traditional understanding of the woman at the well is full of misogyny and moralism.  Here is what David Lose said in a Huffington Post article in 2011:

She is not a prostitute. She doesn’t have a shady past. Yet when millions of Christians listen to her story this coming Sunday in church, they are likely to hear their preachers describe her in just those terms.

Her story is told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. She is a Samaritan woman who Jesus encounters by a well. Jews and Samaritans don’t get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. So she is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).

And that’s it. That’s the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. Conservative preacher John Piper’s treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as a prostitute, but I guess I could see people thinking that. So if this isn’t the correct interpretation, then why is it being used?  The continued oppression of women:

So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? I would suggest two reasons. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men.

A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, Goofus & Gallant cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.

I can understand why the traditional view can be so unsettleing.  Christian leaders have used scripture to belittle women.  I definitely would not call the woman a whore with the certainty that John Piper seems show.  We really don’t know what she has done, if anything.  So , we need to be careful in thinking we know the woman’s “sin” if there even is one.  Plus as Lose and other Bible scholars have noted, she might have been involved in a Levirate marriage.

That said, Lose’s alternative understand of this story, one where the woman is offered an identity and dignity seems to be weak tea for me.  Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Jesus treats woman with dignity matters.  The gospels present a Jesus that felt women had a role in his kingdom and it was more than cleaning tables.

But there is something missing in Lose’s interpretation.  Maybe the problem is that this is the kind of stuff I would expect to hear from nice, tolerant liberals.  It has nice words to say about inclusion and about treating women with respect.  But do people need to go to church to hear this?  Inclusivity is important, but I can learn that from a Coke ad.  I don’t need the church for that.

I agree that the woman does get to be a missionary to her people, which is groundbreaking.  All of this is good, I just don’t know if it really says anything about the love of God or what this all means for the church.

As I said before, we don’t know if this woman had sinned.  What we do know is that she was viewed a sinner by the townsfolk- which is why we see her getting water at noon instead of the morning or evening.  Whatever happened, we know that she is an outcast and outcasts are normally made to feel like sinners even if they’ve done nothing wrong.

I think it matters if this woman appeared to be a sinner (note that I said appear.  I did not say she was a sinner.)  If that’s the case, then the story changes.  This is then not about offering dignity but it is about Jesus, the friend of sinners, the one who is willing to impugn his own reputation to love the sinner and the outcast.  THAT is what makes this story so amazing.  Regardless if this woman was a sinner or not, Jesus radically loves this woman, even to the point of causing people to talk.

We all love to talk about Jesus being a friend to sinners, but we get a little nervous when Jesus in the Bible or Christians today, actually try to be friends…to sinners.

Lutheran pastor Delmer Chilton recounts a story that place right after his ordination; one where the newly minted minister ends up in the midst of some “working girls:”

I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg.  An old college friend drove several hours to be there.  After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day.  Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs.  We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep.  I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt.  Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green.  I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”

He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?”  I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.

The reason the Woman at the Well resonates with me is that Jesus was willing to be seen talking with someone that at the very least was an outcast and still loves her. Because of that radical love, this woman was able to witness to her neighbors and they too saw Jesus as the Messiah.

In the end, this story really isn’t about the Samaritan woman. She does factor in and is important to the story, but the story is really about a God that is willing to love someone, anyone so radically that one might think God is off God’s rocker. If God is a friend to outcasts and sinners, then God is surely a friend to me. We can rest in the hope that we have a God that passionately loves each one of us.

Hmmm…I think I might have written my sermon for this Sunday….

 

JESUS MAFA. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48282 [retrieved March 21, 2014].