September 8, 2013

Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed

Passage: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Proper 18, Year C-2013

We are beginning the Fall season. Summer is ending; school has begun. Here at St. Andrew’s, we begin our Sunday School and adult classes, and hold our parish picnic today. Choir began last Sunday, and Glory and Praise begins again today. We hope to receive our building permit this coming week, and to begin construction soon on restrooms and new elevator in order to open our doors to all.

With all this going on around us and here at St. Andrew’s, it seems a good time to consider our purpose and mission, for which we begin this new season. And our Scripture lessons this morning relate to this intention. In our first lesson, the Lord suggests to Jeremiah the image of a potter working with clay, shaping a pot. The potter has an intention and purpose for the pot, and if the clay does not come out right, the potter reworks the clay to become a useful vessel. So also, God has intentions and purpose for us.

The Psalmist acknowledges that God’s purpose and plans may seem far beyond what we may now understand. But God has been forming us since before we were born with purpose in mind.

Paul in our Epistle encourages his friend and colleague Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, that he might work for a greater purpose and mission than Philemon’s own needs. Paul also encourages his friend to see Onesimus in a new, more inclusive way. And then comes our Gospel reading. Jesus suggests that seeking and following God’s purpose and mission may cause tensions with those around you. It may set you against family, friends, and popular opinion. Think about the conversations you may have heard recently about Syria, or the minimum wage, or child-rearing, or religion. Jesus urges us to consider our commitments carefully, including whether we can see them through. Two examples: Jesus’ teaching and ministry antagonized the religious leaders of his day, and offended many people who tried to throw him off of a cliff or urged him to leave their region.

Remember also Abraham and Sarah, who were called by God to leave Ur, where they had grown up and had family, to follow God’s call to go to a new land, for a new mission. Their leaving set them against their families and counter to their community. Yet by faith they set off. And Jesus, clear abut God’s plan and purpose for him and his followers, kept going even when others disagreed or tried to block his way. This Summer I read a book that has challenged and opened my sense of our mission and purpose as Christians and as a parish. It was Brian McLaren’s latest book, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Jericho Books, New York, NY, 2012)

Even the title lightens us up to consider some new perspectives. (I will leave the chicken crossing the road jokes for you all to share at our picnic.) So why did Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and the Buddha cross the road?

Imagine these four great historical religious leaders walking together, not fighting or demeaning one another or arguing or damning one another but moving together, each with insights, each with their own identity, knowing that God – Truth – goes beyond what we can comprehend. Wouldn’t that scene, just in itself, challenge expectations and stir up controversy in many places?

But think with me. If you are a Christian – whether liberal or conservative, traditional or emergent – if, like me, you follow Jesus, and see him as Savior and Lord, as the Word made flesh, then how do you think Jesus would treat Moses, Mohammed and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) if they met at a cross walk? Would Jesus push Moses aside and insist on crossing first because Christianity superseded Judaism? Would Jesus exchange insults with Mohammed, claiming his Crusaders could whip his Jihadists any day of the week? Would Jesus insist that the Buddha kneel at his feet and demonstrate submission before he could cross? Or would Jesus walk with these seekers after truth, and once on the other side, welcome each to a table of fellowship, not demanding any special status or honor but acting like a servant – taking their coats, getting each something to eat and drink, making sure that each felt welcome, safe and at home.

If those three reached out their hands, it is hard to imagine that the “friend of sinners”, who ate and drank with prostitutes and tax collectors, would turn his back or refuse to reciprocate.

I can’t see Jesus cursing or ‘smiting’ but rather blessing and loving and practicing being a neighbor like he preached about.

McLaren writes: “After all, according to the four gospels, Jesus had extraordinary insight into human character. He saw value where others saw only flaws. He saw the love of a sinful woman who anointed his feet with tears at a banquet, the spiritual thirst of an oft-married woman at a well in Samaria, the big seed of hope in a little chap names Zaccheus, the undeniable faith of a Syrophoenician mother, the flinty strength of loudmouth Peter, and the deep and spunky wisdom of Mary of Bethany. With that track record in mind, we can only imagine what he would see in Mohammed, Moses, or the Buddha, not to mention Confucius, Lao Tsu, Nanak or Wovoka.” (p. 4)

As for how the others would receive Jesus, I believe the welcome would be mutual. Remember when a few years ago, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama appeared together in Seattle? They were giddy, almost silly, in their affection for one another, without either qualifying or denying their own beliefs and perspectives. This question of Jesus’ purpose and mission, and our mission as Jesus’ followers today, is very important because there are many people around us (and maybe here in this congregation) who love Jesus, who seek faith, who are eagerly spiritual, but who are uneasy with or reject religion because it seem to be hostile, judgmental and divisive.

If we consider religious history and much of religion today, those who claim and preach a strong identity appear to separate themselves from others, even be hostile towards others, and intolerant of those who disagree. And then we see those who want to be tolerant towards others espousing a weak identity, a more wishy-washy faith. And then some seek to be the moderate middle – more tolerant, but less clear in identity. The same kind of range of attitudes can be seen in other religions also – think of strict Jews and Muslims who are antagonistic towards others also.

We need to get off that continuum, off that scale. When I look at Jesus, I see someone with a very strong identity, and who was benevolent towards others. We need today a religious identity and mission and purpose which is strong and benevolent. I believe that God’s original purpose for us as God’s people is to be strong in identity and benevolent towards others.

When God called Abraham and Sarah – our forebears in faith – God blessed them to bless others. That was their new identity and purpose. They were called to go forth as a blessing to others. All nations, all families, were to be blessed through them. (Genesis 12ff) And when Jesus came to Capernaum for his inaugural sermon, he said (quoting Isaiah), the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring Good News to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release to captives (Luke 4). Not just Jewish poor, or Christian blind, or Episcopalian captives. To all people!

And to underscore the point, Jesus reminded his hearers about Naaman the Syrian and the widow of Zarephath – outsiders who were blessed and healed. And do you remember the people’s reaction? They were offended, enraged – examples of father set against son and daughter against mother, and so forth. McLaren shares an unsettling statement from an evangelical friend, which I am also struck with: ‘In a pluralistic society (which is where God has called and placed us), a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its non-members.’ (cf. oft-quoted words of Archbp. Wm. Temple also) Our mission as Christians is to welcome, to bless, to serve God’s people – all of them. Consider these statements (from Brian McLaren):

Because I follow Jesus, I break down the walls of hostility.

Because I follow Jesus, I move toward ‘the other’.

Because I follow Jesus, I love you.

Because I follow Jesus, I stand with you in solidarity.

Because I follow Jesus, I affirm that you are made in God’s image.

Because I follow Jesus, I am your servant.

All of that is in the Bible – strong and benevolent identity and mission!

What I am suggesting is a renewal or even a reformation of Christianity identity and faith. (This is an invitation for discussion, which we can continue at the picnic and in the months ahead. And I will post this sermon on our website for further discussion.) Here are four areas for such renewal and reformation:

In Christian teaching, let us consider the Trinity not as a litmus test for correct theology but as a model of diversity within unity, that the image of God includes one and another, different persons and yet one God, dynamic and inclusive.

Let us consider election – being God’s chosen people – not as a justification for genocide and oppression but as a calling to serve, for the benefit of others. Let us consider original sin not as a reason for God’s wrath but as a recognition of original violence, our falling short since the beginning of history, for which we all seek and need God’s healing.

In historical study, let us own up to the violence and judgment in our own Christian history, from Constantine to colonizers and the many examples of biblical racism. Let us admit our errors and humbly seek to learn and grow and improve, with the help of others like and unlike ourselves.

In liturgy, let us think of baptism not as a separating of the clean or worthy from the unclean and excludable, but as a sign of repentance and renewal, of re-thinking, of new identity in Christ, in the Love of God which from always.

Let us see the Eucharist not only as an altar of sacrifice, to demonstrate God’s love, but as a table of reconciliation where we gather together with our Lord as a new fellowship, all welcome in the Name of Jesus.

And let us see mission as reaching out to others, to bless and to serve, spiritually, with reconciling love. And let us begin with ourselves – strengthening our faith and compassion towards those unlike ourselves.

Let me close with the words with which Brian McLaren closes his book – they sound to me like very Biblical words over-all:

So imagine, then, Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed crossing the road to encounter one another. Imagine us following them. What will we discover together in that crossing?

Surely it will be holy and humbling in that sacred space. Surely there will be joy, grace, and peace. Surely justice, truth, and love. We will find hospitality there, not hostility, and friendship, not fear, and it will be good – good for our own well-being, good for the poor and forgotten, good for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and good even for the birds of the air and the flowers in the meadow and the fish out at sea. “This is very good,” God will say. And we will say, “Amen.” (p. 273)

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