Wednesday, August 25, 2010

No excuse for hypocrisy.

I preached this on August 22 at St Clement's Honolulu. The escalation of racism and hysteria in this country -- under the guises of sensitivity (e.g., to the vicitms of 9/11)or truth-seeking (e.g., was the president really born in the US?) or the Tea Party or some other flimsy cloak is taking this country on a spiral into a kind of fascism that will overwhelm our society before we know it. The media across the board need to take some major responsibility in fanning the flames.

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One of the real dangers of claiming a Christian identity is that it makes us vulnerable to accusations from those who have a certain understanding of what Christians are supposed to be, and then judge us according to their own definitions and perceptions. Our vulnerability increases when we are visibly active in a Christian community, and increases even more when we are ordained. Expectations of behavior become based in narrow perceptions of what Christians are. Many of you have heard my “And you call yourself a Christian” story about a cleaning lady I had – she lasted for one visit. During that visit, she not only cleaned but decided to rearrange the kitchen, dining room, and living room of the house. She went through the cabinets, changed the way items were stored, and rearranged wall hangings and personal things that were on display throughout the first floor. I came home at the end of the day, looked around, and pretty much went ballistic. Long story short – I called her and told her she did not need to return; she had gone way beyond her appropriate responsibilities. She was very upset at losing the job, used language that can’t be repeated here, and ended her rant by saying, “And you call yourself a Christian priest!”

She had a very specific idea what a Christian was and what a priest was. And that obviously wasn’t someone who would fire her.

There are two other statements that we hear often when we come across as judgmental. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is one. Supposedly this means we cannot judge another. “Look at the log in your own eye before pointing out the splint in another’s” is another. In other words, be mindful of our own inadequacies before we point out another’s.

But the best and most popular accusation against Christians is that we’re hypocrites. In other words, we profess a set of beliefs that we do not live in our daily lives. In three out of the last four weeks, we’ve heard Gospel passages in which Jesus uses the accusations, “You hypocrites!” or “You fools!” He says these things to those who interpret holy law literally and so that they might retain power and control over others. They don’t understand the importance of the spirit of the law and what it meant to share God’s love or to offer God’s justice. Jesus didn’t have a lot of patience with these folks.

Too often we Christians are just as guilty today as were those Jews to whom Jesus was preaching. Some Christians focus on selected laws of Leviticus to support a particular political or moral stance. They don’t take the time to read those laws in the context of the entire Bible and especially the teachings and ministry of Jesus. Other Christians remember the lines about judging and see them as protection against any kind of criticism – regardless of the context of those passages in scripture. Others are convinced that only true believers, born-again Christians, will be saved and go to heaven because Jesus said in John, “Only through the Son will you go to the Father.” Again, this is out of context in the teachings of Jesus and without knowledge of the reason for the writing of the Gospel of John. It’s easier and certainly more self-righteous to just state that only Christians are acceptable to God.

The Qu`ran has a statement similar to the one in John about Jesus: Allah only accepts Islam. He says in the Quran: "Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam it won't be accepted of him, and he will be one of the losers in the hereafter". The commentator says “I would rather lose anywhere, but not lose in the hereafter. This is because hellfire is eternal. It never ends and we never die when we go there, if we go there.” [Similar to those who believe that if we are not born again or do not believe in Jesus as our Savior, we are doomed to hellfire and brimstone.] There is another basic statement of Islam that might sound familiar: Worship of anyone other than Allah is the greatest sin. It is called shirk, and this is not forgiven except through repentance. [Similar to our first commandment: You shall not worship any other gods before me.]

Both holy books are full of passages and stories about violence and peace. And there are those in both faith traditions who use the sacred writings to justify violence and war and murder and conquest.

The followers in both faith traditions span the continuum from extreme radicals to extreme peacemakers. Those extreme radicals will resort to violence to make their points, claiming the Bible or the Qu`ran as their authority and justification. Extreme peacemakers will put their lives on the line to make their points, claiming the Bible or the Qu`ran as their authority and justification. What about the average person in the pew or on the prayer rug? Where do they place themselves – where do we place ourselves – along that continuum? How will we decide? And when we do find our place and make our statement, will Jesus call us hypocrites and fools as well? Or will Jesus say, “Well done, thy good and faithful servant”?

There’s a leader of the Muslim community in New York City – a man well-known for his efforts at peace and inter-faith reconciliation – who has been leading a mosque for many years – a mosque that is located twelve blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. He found a great piece of property – a nine story building – to build a community center. It happens to be in the same neighborhood as the mosque and is two blocks from the former WTC site. Initially, as he went through the various city zoning processes and talked with his inter-faith partners, there were no issues. But just recently, lots of Americans have developed problems with this. I would venture a guess that many – probably a majority – of these Americans identify as Christians. How, I wonder, does their faith inform their decision to protest this community center. Indeed, is this is a religious issue or is it a civil issue or is it an emotional issue? Or is it a combination of all three? And which approach trumps the other two?

Jesus says, Blessed are the peacemakers. Mohammed says, If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them. Our nation was founded on Christian principals and one of the major reasons our forefathers and foremothers came to this continent was to be able to freely practice their religion – whatever it might be. We have an awesome opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we truly believe that. On the other hand, the former WTC has developed a sacredness to many American people, such that there seems to be evolving an invisible and amorphous space surrounding it that has also become “sacred.” There were Muslims who were killed in the 9/11 attack along with Christians and Jews. Those Christians and Jews who lost relatives in that attack seem to be shrouded in sainthood, but the Muslim relatives seem to be invisible. We would not see similar hysteria over a Christian center or over a Jewish center. But two blocks seems to be too close for a Muslim center, Would five blocks be acceptable? How about four or three? Remember the story in Genesis when Abraham bargained with God, who was going to destroy the city of Sodom because some of the men there were wicked? And Abraham said to God, Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous men in the city – will you not do what is just and leave it alone? He negotiated God down to saving the city even if there were only 10 righteous men in the entire city. He would not let God brush a broad stroke of wickedness over the whole city because of a few. We also must be careful to not brush a broad stroke of extremism over the whole of Islam because of a few, just as we don’t want to be brushed with the same stroke as those who kill in the name of Christ.

What drives us as a Christian people, as a people who claim a country of religious freedom? Do our emotions drive us? If they do, then we deserve to be criticized with comments like, “And you call yourself Christians!” “You hypocrites – you’re neither for peace nor for freedom of religion.” If we let our emotions drive us, then we will listen to those who make incendiary and false statements about Islam, its people, and mosques as centers of peace or terrorism.

There is no peace in those who demonstrate against this mosque. They are not evil people, but they are scared and live in fear of something they don’t understand. And they are fueled by people who call themselves Christians – people like Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. Franklin Graham is not a man of Christ but a man of violence and untruths. They are fueled by people who wrongly think President Obama is a Muslim and consider that evil. They are fueled by people like those Christians in Florida who have established a Burn the Qu`ran Day (can we visualize the book burnings of Nazi Germany?).

Do we Christians allow ourselves to get caught up in the same kind of hysteria that resulted in the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II?

Or do we Christians remember that we are people of peace and inclusion. Do we Americans remember that we have fought wars for over 200 years to guarantee religious freedom?

We need to decide what drives our decisions concerning this issue and other issues that have to do with faith. We cannot let the media escalate our emotions so that our commitment to our Christian identity becomes compromised by views that are contrary to what we have been taught by Jesus Christ. That is where our discussions need to begin and that is where our decisions must be based. Remember that our faith is a way of life and we are guided in our life and all its little and big pieces by Christ through the Holy Spirit. If we are true to him and to his teachings and his ministry, then we will make our decisions based in a Christ-driven faith, not an ignorance-driven fear.