Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Are Your Garments Spotless?

when i was a child, catholic-bashers made fun of the roman catholic church by saying that catholics could do anything they wanted so long as they went to confession afterwards and received absolution.  fortunately, i don't hear that sort of talk much any more, but every sunday in churches of my sort the same thing happens: we read a corporate confession together and then an absolution for all of us, clergy included, is pronounced from the pulpit.  as i sat there after the confession last sunday i wondered, "what good did that confession do, if afterward we continue to live just as we did before the confession?"

it seems that confession is useless unless that which follows confession is an attempt to stop doing those things that we asked forgiveness for doing.  this is the problem with "original sin."  it leads to a fatalism that supports the idea that, as creatures who are compelled to sin continually, there is no way of correcting our faults.  therefore, we must rely on God's mercy and seek forgiveness rather than work to change ourselves, to be less sinful.  but if we are incapable of amending our ways in any significant way, what is the point of confession?  jesus said to the woman who was brought to him by his enemies after she had been caught in an act of adultery, "go and sin no more."  in other words, change your ways.  her accusers fled in the face of jesus' reminder that only those who are sinless have the authority to cast the first stone.  jesus asked where those who condemned had gone and said that he, too, would not condemn her.

so, here is the answer.  we have the power to learn from our mistakes.  it is not sufficient to admit them and ask for forgiveness.  the forgiveness comes not from the mercy of God but from our own attempts to lose ourselves in the process of becoming more than we were before.  we must forgive ourselves and make amends to those we have harmed, so that they, too, can forgive us.  confession is the realization that we have erred; forgiveness is an action that attempts to correct the error.

may we not depend on God to forgive us.  it is that still small voice inside us, "that of God," that leads us to the realization that confession is needed, and that same voice leads us to actions that propel us to "go and sin no more."  shalom.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Teach Us to Know the Truth that Sets Us Free

one of our pastors has been preaching a series of sermons based on readings from first and second samuel.  one of these, based on a passage from 1 samuel 15-16, focused on the anointing of david to succeed saul as king of israel.  in the course of the sermon, the preacher reviewed the reason that saul had been rejected by God: his failure to massacre all of the amalekites, who, according to 1 samuel 15, deserved death because in samuel's words that he reports came directly from God, "they [the amalekites] waylaid them as they came up from Egypt."

i was troubled that our preacher failed to address this part of the story.  how can we accept the message of the scripture that an entire city-state, all of its people--rulers, men, women, children--and even their animals are to be annihilated because of something that their ancestors had done?  is this the God that we worship when we come together each sunday?  saul could have been faulted for saving the best of the livestock, perhaps to satisfy his own greed or the demand of his soldiers for the spoils of their victory, and sparing the ruler of the amalekites.  there were many other acts that saul could have been condemned for:  his increasing insanity, his consulting a soothsayer, his building of a monument to himself at carmel after his defeat of the amalekites.  but why would he be rejected by God for sparing the lives of some of the amalekites?

another sermon in the series, based on 2 samuel 6, had to do with david's intention to bring the ark of the covenant to jerusalem.  the message of the sermon was david's seeming inappropriate behavior as he danced before all the people in the procession in celebration "before the Lord," an action that was condemned by his wife michal, saul's daughter.  earlier in the scripture lesson, in the early stages of the move of the ark, one of those watching the transport of the ark on a cart, a man named uzzah whose father abinadab had cared for the ark in his home, reached out to steady the ark and was struck dead because he had dared to touch the ark.  again i was troubled that there was no questioning of why God would strike uzzah dead as he was performing a good deed.  in what the scripture suggests was a spontaneous response to the stumbling of the oxen pulling the cart God murdered uzzah.  is that act consistent with a God of love and mercy?

i understand that the preacher was focusing on the anointing of david to be the future king in the first sermon and on david's exuberance in worshiping God in the second sermon, and my intention is not to criticize.  rather, i wonder why we so often ignore passages that give attributes to God that are not consistent with a God who loves that which God created.  why don't we question the "divine inspiration" of such verses?  do others sit through church services and think, "why are we afraid to challenge these teachings that don't make sense to us?  how can we ignore such content in the bible?"

may we not be timid about questioning that which is unreasonable.  may we seek a faith that takes us from blind acceptance to using the mind that God has given us.  may we not attribute a capricious cruelty to God on the basis of a book that is neither "divine" nor, in many instances, "inspired."  shalom.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

As Love Knows How

we continue to hear that christians in the usa are being persecuted--deprived of religious liberty--as the debate about marriage equality continues to unfold after the supreme court's ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.  the owners of a bakery in oregon have been found guilty of discriminating against a same-sex couple by refusing to bake a cake for their wedding.  elected officials in some states have refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.   all of these "christians" have cited freedom of religion as grounds for their discriminatory practices and refusal to abide by the law of the land.

one wonders where this idea of discrimination masquerading as freedom of religion will lead.  are "christian" officials who issue building permits going to refuse to issue permits to religious organizations that violate their private religious beliefs?  will we see a "christian" official deny a building permit for a mosque on religious grounds?  are those who make other bakery items going to ask if those baked goods will be served at a pre-nuptial party for a same-sex couple before they agree to sell their cookies or pastries?  will "christian" manufacturers of cutlery stamp notices on their products that disallow their sale if they are going to be used by a same-sex couple?  these are all examples of "participation" in same-sex marriages that flow from the "religious liberty" reasoning of the christian right.

baking a wedding cake is quite different from condoning same-sex marriage; a cake has no opinion, it has no religious beliefs.  issuing a marriage license is not a sanction of a same-sex marriage; it is simply performing the duties that one agrees to perform when placed in a public office, usually by election.  the act of issuing a marriage license has no imprimatur from the official issuing it.  this "religious liberty" jargon is a form of "newspeak" in which the meaning of the phrase has nothing to do with liberty and everything to do with discrimination, a form of discrimination that is now illegal.

may we learn to accept the difference between private religious belief and public service, acknowledging that, when we open a business that serves the public, we have no right to deny service to some members of the public based on our relgious beliefs.  may we insist that public officials obey the law they swore to serve when they accepted the responsibilities of their positions, rather than allowing them to hide behind a perverse definition of freedom of religion.  may we act in love towards all those who may now claim the right to legally wed.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Land of the Free

now we hear outcries about "unelected" judges who are "legislating" decisions contrary to "nature and nature's god.".   at the same time complaints are heard that the plurality of citizens who favor marriage equality have influenced the five justices who formed the court majority to decide, not according to the constitution, but rather, based on popular opinion.  is there any reason appointed judges would be more susceptible to the vagaries of prevailing mores than elected judges would?  it would seem that judges who depend on the votes of the populace  are more likely to cater to the will of the people even if that will circumvented the clear language of the constitution.

the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government in the usa is dependent on an independent judiciary that is answerable only to posterity and preservation of law based on constitutional principles.  the federal courts, especially the supreme court, are the protectors of minorities from the tyranny of the majority.  popularly elected legislators may pass laws that trample on the rights of the under-represented, but the courts have the obligation to prevent such laws from taking effect.  this is what has happened in the case of the marriage equality ruling.  those who long have been denied the right of marriage, with its many legal benefits, on the basis of religious teaching and tradition, now are treated equally before the law, thanks to the decision of a majority of the supreme court.

may those who disagree with marriage equality on the basis of religious belief accept this ruling, which cannot force them to abandon such beliefs.  may all see that in a secularly governed state religious belief  cannot be used to deny some the rights that others enjoy because of the accident of birth which determined their gender.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

the event, held on the grounds of, and paid for by, a large church was called "red, white and blast."  on one end of a large grassy field, a giant usa flag hung from a line supported by two "cherry-pickers" extended from utility trucks.  at the other end of the field, bounce houses provided amusement for scores of children.  hundreds of small usa flags marked the route leading to and from large parking lots and still more of the flags were planted around the field.  families sat in lawn chairs and on blankets all over the field between the giant flag and the bounce houses, awaiting the arrival of dark and the promised fireworks spectacular, as vendors sold frozen treats and drinks on the pavement beside the field.

on the stage in front of the giant flag a brass ensemble played.  during a break between songs the members of the musical group performed a skit in which one musician, acting the part of a baseball player, bemoaned the hiring of a new umpire to one of the other musicians, who played the role of a fellow baseball player.  As a pretend pitch was thrown, the new umpire seemed to be unable to make a decision about whether the pitch was a strike or a ball, finally deciding it should be deemed a "strike-ball," exhibiting characteristics of both.  the next pretend pitch made contact with a phantom bat, and the umpire, unable to determine "fair" or "foul," asked the audience to vote on what call should be made.  this was too much for the players, who brought out the rulebook.  the umpire pointed out that the rules called for "subjective" determinations to be made and that many of the rules were quite old and might no longer apply.  the players stalked away, calling over their shoulders that there was no longer any reason to play a game that had no rules.

the obvious point of the skit was that society was abandoning the rule book, that is, the bible.  without the biblical rule book, there was no point to life.  right or wrong was determined by the position of the majority.  there was no prevailing morality because the "objective" criterion of the rule book had been abandoned.  the problem with this point of view is that the bible is not a rule book.  it is a religious document that is often self-contradictory.  those who espouse the rule-book view of the bible are the self-appointed umpires who get to choose which rules are to be obeyed and which are to be ignored.  they claim to have an absolutist position on what is right and what is wrong, but even the most cursory examination of history demonstrates that the interpretation of the biblical rules changes over time.  the practice of slavery that was supported by biblical rules is no longer considered to be right; this "right" has now become a "wrong."  the legitimate use of birth control and abortion that evangelical christians once considered "right" has now become "wrong."

as a preacher i heard recently put it, there are many in our society who use the bible as a hammer with which they drive nails into the hands and feet of those with whom they disagree.  they pick and choose which of its contradictory rules to follow; they ignore those they find unpleasant or "antiquated."  they forget the simple, profound "rule" of micah 6:8:  "what does the lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

may we not use any "sacred" book in ways that were never intended.  may we instead use our reason as we read these books, gleaning what wisdom we can without using them as weapons against those who disagree with us.  may we more concerned with cultivating lovingkindness and compassion within ourselves than we are in insisting that others conform to our views of right and wrong.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Come to Me and Do Not Fear

he came to them, and they welcomed him.  he sat among them and heard their kind words.  in the end, he hurled racial epithets at them and killed nine of them.  then he fled, soon to be apprehended.  this killer was not choked to death by the police, as a black man was in new york for stealing a pack of cigarettes.  this killer was not shot in the back by the police, as  a black man was in south carolina for fleeing from a policeman.  this killer was taken into custody without a struggle, and almost immediately those who would perpetuate the society which fostered this killer began to rationalize away the racism that filled his heart.

he must have been high on drugs, they said.  he killed them because they were christians, not because they were black, they said.  he killed them because they didn't carry guns and couldn't defend themselves, they said.  it was the victims' fault, they said, because their leader promoted a message of non-violence and espoused the cause of reasonable gun laws in his role as a state senator.

they looked at the symbols with which he surrounded himself and declared that the symbols didn't matter.  it's ok to fly a flag on the grounds of the state capitol, even though that flag glorifies a past that forced thousands of people of color to live in the most degrading and cruel conditions, a past that ripped thousands of free men and women from their native lands to live as the property of others, they said.  "that flag is part of our heritage," they said, failing to mention that heritage is disgraceful and ought to be disavowed in the strongest terms.  it's insignificant that he posed in pictures with that flag, they said.  it's unimportant that he wore clothing that pictured the flags of white-supremacists regimes in africa, they said.

how can the right-wing apologists be so blind?  or is it blindness, at all?  is it pandering to the bigots in society in order to win their votes, to keep the bigots on the side of right-wing politicians who depend on the racists to stay in power, especially in the former confederate states?  contrast their ignoring the cause of the young killer's actions with the speech of the victims' families.  "i forgive him," was the litany that was heard coming from their mouths and hearts.

may we have hearts filled with forgiveness.  may we go the extra mile for those who demand the first mile of us.  may we pray for those who "despitefully use" us.  may we condemn a past that visited unspeakable horrors on so many innocents.  may we refuse to see those who appear different as "others" who are a threat.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I Stand Alone on the Word of God?

we christians are wont to claim that christianity is the only true religion and quick to point out what we view as absurdities in other religions.  how often do we examine our own religion in the same way we examine other religions or analyze the beliefs of our own expression of christianity in the same we analyze the beliefs of other variants of christianity?  if we put ourselves in the place of a hindu looking at christianity as an outsider, what would we point out as problems with christian belief?

how can we believe in a god who creates creatures with certain desires and then punishes them for acting on those desires?  how can we believe in a god that insists that we follow the teachings of a "holy" book that is full of contradictions and how do we know which of those contradictory teachings are right?  how can we believe in a god that commands us to overpopulate the world?  how can we believe in a god that becomes angry and destroys what that god created?  how can we believe in a god that visits terrible suffering on us and expects us to accept that as the will of a loving god?  how can we believe in a god that "saves" some to live in eternal bliss and condemns others to eternal suffering without regard to the virtues of either the saved or the damned?  how can we believe in a god that sanctions the descendants of abraham and sarah to murder thousands of innocents in the process of conquering a small corner of the middle east?  how can we believe in a god that creates us with rational minds and then expects us to accept the irrational on faith?

this list could continue, and we christians need to examine our religion as non-christians would.  so much of the world's suffering is caused by our inability to see that some of the basic tenets of our religion are indefensible when held up to the light of reason.  to insist on irrational belief, on blind faith, is to deny what is the defining characteristic of human nature.  a true God expects us to use our minds, to question, to sort through that which is reasonable and that which is unreasonable.

may we not waste time defending the indefensible.  may we never fear to ask questions or to challenge conventional beliefs.  may we not place our faith in beliefs that make no sense, but may we instead use our minds to search for truth and follow that path wherever it leads us.  shalom.