What does it mean to be a Christian?
When I was but a very young person with somewhat limited exposure to the world, what it meant to be a Christian was either to be Roman Catholic like my mother’s side of the family or to be an Old German Baptist Brethren like my father’s side of the family.? Both sides in this equation had dress codes.? Priest and nuns had uniforms and to be a really good Catholic, it was very clear to me (because my mother had aunts and uncles who were priests and nuns) that they were the ones to emulate.
On my father’s side of the equation were these Puritan-looking folks, the men wearing tall, broad-brimmed black hats with untrimmed beards (but no mustaches) and the women wore long dresses with capes and never cut their hair and wore it in a tight bun beneath a little doily with tie strings.? Until about fifth grade I didn’t know about Methodists and Presbyterians, American Baptists, and Greek, Serbian or Russian Orthodox people.? I knew about my experience, what I had been exposed to, and in addition what I knew was that I was not Christian because both the Roman Catholics and Old German Baptists told me and my family that we weren’t Christian because we were not them.? In fact both of my parents were excommunicated from their respective groups because of their sin.
For the longest time I thought their sin was that they were not wearing the right clothes.? Little did I know that it was that they took off their clothes and had sex, worse yet, pre-marital sex, with a person from another religious tribe.? I’ve tried unsuccessful to explain to my older brother, Jim, who is an Old German Baptist wearing traditional clothes, that he is really pure sin, given how he was conceived and all.? He tells me that he would rather not talk about it.? I continue to argue that I am really the firstborn of my parents once they were appropriately married.? I keep telling my brother that he is a product of sin and I am a product of sanctified love.
The Indiana House and Senate consideration of HJR-3, which would have embedded hatred, discrimination and injustice into our constitution, which should define rights and justice, has been argued by the more conservative side with the same ugliness, fear, ignorance, and religious intolerance that marred so much of my parents? lives.? I watched through the formative years of my life as my parents were ridiculed, chided and embarrassed by the religious communities of their birth.
Both of my parents are/were absolutely good people.? My father nearly made it his whole life without stooping to accept any religious intolerance in his personal life.? As he got sicker he did stand still long enough to let some Presbyterians sprinkle water over him.? He told me, “Just in case it really does mean anything.”? I told him I didn’t think it did but that it sure would make some people feel better.? My mother got remarried a few years back and would not allow me to do the wedding.? Silly girl.? She went and begged forgiveness of the church that had condemned her.? While I am still healing from the hurt of her decision, I understand, but I stand here today saying that Jesus would be embarrassed to call any of what my family walked through Christian behavior.? And, might I add, I do not know a more giving person, a more caring person, a better person of true faith than my father.? He was far from perfect and really did enjoy the Roman Catholic part of being able to drink alcohol unashamedly, but when it came down to crucial moments in living, he fully gave of himself and stood and lived for what was necessary and good, and many times he acted very sacrificially.? He was a man of faith and I think of him as a good Christian, better than many.
So, still we are left after my family-of-origin tale of woe, asking, ?What does it mean to be Christian?” There are men and women the world over who have fought and died for true justice, who have fed the hungry, housed the homeless, given the shirt off their backs and also their coats, who have read the holy words of Scripture hunting for what more they ought to be doing, who have been hungry for the Holy, and some of them have been Christian and some of them Hindu, Muslim, Shinto, Wiccan, atheist, and agnostic.
I so enjoyed our Saturday evening about a month ago at Beth Shalom when Professor Amy-Jill Levine was our guest speaker to a gathered group of Jews and Christians.? She did not want to come to Bloomington and speak unless our two groups came together in a joint effort to know our faiths more completely.? I am so glad she was so stubbornly insistent about it, because it forced us to work harder to bring our two congregations together for meaningful dialogue.? One of the many things I have taken from that experience is how many different Jewish systems?we’d call them perhaps denominational differences?how many distinct groups of Jews gather together as one group at Beth Shalom because they are Jews.? They openly accept their differences, they expect differences, they love their diversity, they fight in the midst of their differences, and still at the end of the day they are Jews.? It is not perfect, we know that.
We have so many churches in our land and we need to actively struggle not only to do a good job of defining for us what it means to be Christian in our communal and individual context, but we also would do well?for the sake of world peace, the hungry, the environment, any number of justice issues?we would do well to discover what it means to be a family of Christ followers that respect and love each other.
It is not enough to just be at peace in my soul with myself.? Of course, that rarely or ever happens but that does not excuse me from needing, from being called by the Holy to be one with, caring for, and fully bonded with the rest of creation.
This week in the midst of the controversy in Indianapolis around HJR-3, which has been put on a shelf for a while, I had an interesting encounter with someone from the other side of that issue.? A guy called the church and asked to speak with me because he remembered seeing me over a year ago appearing with Caela and other clergy alongside Mayor Kruzan at the Buskirk for the large gay wedding event.? He didn’t just want to talk, he wanted to meet and possibly very soon, like that afternoon.
You know how life can get at work and at home?busy, busy, busy, and all relatively important stuff.? Our office manager, Lisa, asked, “Jack, what you want me to do with this guy?”? I asked if he sounded more angry and defiant than most.? I asked if he talked about coming here and shooting us?? She said, “No, but you never know.”? So, I called him back.
He answered the phone and when I introduced myself, I could tell that he was shocked that I had called him back.? He told me that he had been calling people for a full year or more on this side of the marriage equality issue and he said no one would talk with him.? He told me that if I were available he could be there in fifteen minutes.? So I asked him, ?How crazy are you?”? He said, ?I’m not crazy, but I want to know how you make a decision, as a Christian on marriage equality, such as you have made.”? He said, ?I don’t understand.”? To which I responded, “Mister if you want to come here just to lecture me on your side, I will walk away from the conversation.”? This man’s unfailing politeness and thanks to me for just talking to him won me over.
I had Lisa stand outside the door.? I asked her to come in when she heard the first gun shot.? I told her I was prepared to dodge the first shot.? The gentleman, God blesses his soul, is a Purdue graduate in mechanical engineering and is 80 years old.? He began by telling me that he finds people shooting each other in schools and churches such a sad reality that he cannot understand.? I relaxed a little and also thought, ?How clever to distract me that way!”
What followed was my introduction to a truly phenomenal individual, a most enjoyable professional man of a deep and abiding faith and a curiosity to know more.? We actually conversed.? We did not argue.? While his religious life has not afforded him exposure to a wide array of possibilities regarding not taking the Bible literally, it has taught him to have respect and to be eager to learn.? What amazed me the most, in a sincerely sad way, was that he told me again and again, “It has taken over a year to find someone who would return my phone calls.”
He and I did not solve the big divides of our day, although we began to find a pathway to talk with each other.? I can scarcely adequately express how much I loved this man as we finished.? I liked him and I trust him and he did not attempt to shoot me, even figuratively.
What got me going on this pathway this morning were those Scripture lessons we read earlier from Matthew.? Caela and I read them earlier this week.? They are not easy readings because they seem so very judgmental and narrow.??? Jesus? words from the Sermon on the Mount seem initially harsh and legalistic, says the Adventurous Lectionary Blog.? ?They set a standard well beyond that of ambivalent humankind.? No doubt, Jesus? listeners appropriately responded, ?Isn?t it enough to do the right thing?? Do we have to always have the right attitudes??? Jesus suggests that true wholeness, however, comes from the law written on the heart: alienation can be deadly to us and others; objectification separates us from our neighbors; and inability to forgive harms body, mind, and spirit.? We need to cultivate an alignment between our inner and outer lives.? We need to do the right things, and also feel in synch with what is best for us and others.? On the journey, there is nothing wrong with beginning by the external actions of reducing our carbon footprint, refraining from violent words and deeds, and eliminating sexist, racist, and homophobic comments as first steps.? Over the long haul, our actions?our self-control?need to be grounded in a growing sense of kinship with all humankind, including those we perceive as enemies. Joy and health come from alignment of heart and hands, thoughts and deeds, emotions and actions.
?Choose life,? proclaims Deuteronomy 30.? What we do shapes the future, our own and that of those who will follow us.? While this passage is best not read in terms of a linear acts-consequences causation?that is, God rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous in clear and obvious ways?it points out the importance what we do right now has ?for our futures.? In an interdependent universe, in which dynamic interdependence involves individuals and communities, cities and ecospheres, and cells and souls, everything we do matters in creating a positive or negative future for ourselves and others.? Nothing is lost in forging the future.? The smallest acts of kindness can be catalytic in transforming a community in positive ways.? Conversely, the life of the ecosphere depends on both small and large acts of stewardship, embodied by individuals, corporations, and political institutions.
Deuteronomy 30 asks preacher and community alike, ?Are we choosing life???? The author clearly sees God at work in the relationship of acts and consequences.? I would suggest, however, that God?s involvement is not found in linear rewards and punishments, but in the relationship between our actions and the intensity and nature of God?s involvement in our lives.? When we turn away from God, we diminish God?s impact on our lives:? God is never absent, but God?s voice and vision can be drowned out by our own self-centered value systems and actions.? When we turn toward God, a whole new array of possibilities and the energy to achieve them becomes available to us.? We receive an abundance of blessings because we find ourselves rooted in God?s vision and open to God?s movements in our personal and corporate lives.?
When we allow ourselves to just enjoy being angry and self-righteous rather than experience it as a call to rise up and fight against the real injustices of this world, we are committing murder.? We are killing our essential selves and we are probably dooming others to die in our lack of action.? We should be angry about global warming, over-population, the use of war as a primary method our nation uses to boost commercial and religious interests, the lack of a coherent immigration policy that dooms generations to unnaturally broken up families and continued spirals into poverty.? The list goes on and on and on.? We need to use our anger to help define ourselves as individuals and as a faith community and give ourselves as completely as possible in positive action forward on these and many other very fundamental issues of our day.
Adultery.? I don?t really know anyone that is in favor of it, really, do you?? We need to find ways to honor our primary loves in life.? We need to learn that sex sells and to teach ourselves and our children and youth how to recognize the power and the primacy and the wonder of sexuality and love rather than dooming them to trial and error and endlessly being led astray by a primal power in our lives that can be so good and so bad and so wrong and so right.
And then Jesus goes on to talk about divorce.? How awkward.? I am divorced.? I married a wonderful woman the first time just so that I could have that sexual experience that no one would talk to me about.? I was nineteen and honorable.? But, getting married to have sex is not a good reason to get married.? We have a tendency still to be supporting some ancient tribal purity code in regard to sexuality and marriage while doing precious little to be teaching adequate relationship skills.
Jesus was not talking about divorce as we do today.? Divorce in Jesus? day was a method of getting rid of a piece of property, which is what all women were.? Jesus said, ?No,? you can?t just put aside a woman like you do a plow or a horse because you are coveting, feeling adulterous, wanting to have some other woman.
I spent a lot of years in therapy realizing that I first married a fine person that I should just not have married.? We didn?t enjoy each other, need each other, want each other. I have never done anything that hurt so bad, that ultimately was so good for me, as to get a divorce.? I?m still embarrassed because I like to think that I can always keep from making mistakes, but aren?t I just human?? Jesus was not against divorce, he was against treating each other as mere pieces of property, against mistreating people and being mean.
Jesus then and today was not critical of the laws of Moses; he was asking then and today for us to be more than mere law abiders,?? He is asking us to live fully into the spirit of the laws rather than being mere law abiders; he is asking us to be our biggest selves, our selves, lovers not takers, men and women of the highest standards who love God with all our heart, mind and soul and everyone and everything as we love ourselves.? Of course the problem often is many people don?t love themselves well and it shows in how they love others.
What does it mean to be Christian?? Well, it has precious little to do with a creed or a set of beliefs that churches ask us to affirm.? It has to do, for me, with seeking to live my life in a community that seeks to emulate the Ways of Jesus of Nazareth, the way Jesus honored people, especially the people on the margins of society, those most misplaced by the powers that be.? It means giving sight to those blinded by the status quo of nearly anything.? It means restoring justice to those oppressed.? It means setting free, bringing liberty to people, animals, insects, even the earth itself from those who are using and abusing them.? It means, being Christian, being humbly powerful and using our power for the least of these.? It means being radically open to strangers in our midst and loving, sincerely loving those who are our enemies, inviting them for a coffee, or a whiskey, or a time of gentle talking with the aim of coming out friends while still in disagreement.? It means comforting those whose friends and loved ones have died prematurely and even in old age, it means comforting those whose dreams remain unfilled, and it means bringing comfort to those who are hungry not only for food, but for love, support, learning and justice.
Being Christian or being Jewish or being Muslim or whatever is not about the label, it is about being the presence of God and bringing the fullness of God to whatever need presents itself.? We may not solve all the problems but we will live having tried, and we will be seen as men and women who care even in the face of the deepest despair.
Let us choose to live life fully, invested as we are with the love of God in our hearts, souls, and minds and let us bring the world, because of our lives both as individuals and as a congregation, to know the reality of God?s Kingdom, Queendom, God?s Reign?it is an ever present reality asking to be born through each of our lives. Let us live it. Let us choose life.