Holy Listening

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

Happy birthday to the church! Many people today name Pentecost Sunday as the official beginning of the church. I know, it seems like just 50 days ago or so we were celebrating Easter. Today is the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit, which the book of Acts tells us descended upon the followers of Jesus like tongues of fire, gifting the church with supernatural gifts, like the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and be faster than a speeding bullet. Perhaps I’m confusing my stories a bit.

I love the way Bible scholar Walter Brueggmann says it: “Pentecost is the moment when gestation ceases and birthing occurs. Thus, it is both an end and a beginning, the leaving behind of that which is past, the launching forth into that which is only now beginning to be. Pentecost therefore is not a time of completion. It is moving forward into new dimensions of being, whose basic forms are clear, but whose fulfillment has yet to be realized.”

Yes! The church has been in utero for the last three years or so, and now she is bursting into the world to do something new. But she doesn’t have to do it alone. That’s what Pentecost is about.

Maybe you are like me and the word “Pentecost” conjures up some uncomfortable images of ecstatic worship where people are convulsing on the ground or speaking some unintelligible language. Maybe you think of people handling snakes in a church service. Or perhaps have some positive thoughts of the Holy Spirit and you think of the gifts that the Holy Spirit provides to equip the church. The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost has been interpreted by many different people in many different ways, but there is one thing that most all Christians can agree on. The Holy Spirit is the very presence of God living in us, among us, and through us. And though I readily admit that the Holy Spirit doesn’t get the same amount of attention as the other members of the Trinity, I also readily admit that we are utterly dependent on the Spirit to do the work Jesus has called us to do.

We could spend weeks looking at the Holy Spirit and asking what the Spirit does, and maybe that would be a good series to launch, as the Mennonite Church tends to be a little week on what is called “Pneumatology.” But today I want to show you that one of the central reasons the Holy Spirit was sent was to empower the church to be the people Jesus has called us to be. The Holy Spirit was sent to help the church be the church.

I want to start with just a little bit of background on Pentecost. The word Pentecost is just an anglicized version of the Greek word for “50th.” Pentecost is the 50th day after the Passover, which roughly coincides with our Easter season. Acts chapter 2 tells us that the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost. But they didn’t know that this was the day that the Holy Spirit would come to the people. They were gathered to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which you may know as the Festival of Weeks. The book of Leviticus states in chapter 23, verse 16, “Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.” The people were to count off seven weeks after the Passover feast. Seven weeks comes out to 49 days. Then on the next day, they were to celebrate by bringing a portion of the early harvest to the temple as an offering to God to thank them for their harvest.

Anybody bring radishes or spinach today?

Shavuot is considered one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals from the Torah, meaning that if they were physically able, all men were required to make the trip to Jerusalem for this celebration.

This is why the disciples are all gathered in one place in Acts 2, they are there to celebrate Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. This is also why people are there from all over the known world. People who spoke many different languages. Let’s pause that story for a few minutes and turn back time a bit to look at the passage from John that was our focus reading for this morning.

When reading John’s gospel, you find that Jesus gets all the way to chapter 2 before he starts ticking people off enough that he becomes worried for his own life. At least in Matthew and Luke Jesus is able to make it all the way to chapter 4 until the people try to throw him off the cliff after giving his first sermon. In John chapter 2 Jesus cleanses the Temple and tells the leaders that if they destroy “this” temple, he will raise it up again in three days.

Through this gospel we find Jesus pushing boundaries. He challenges the Sabbath laws, he challenges those who are in power. He spends time with sinners, prostitutes, and all kinds of questionable characters. He offers forgiveness to people. He heals the sick, he raises the dead. He frequently refers to himself as one who is in a unique relationship with God, like a father and a son. And on more than one occasion Jesus finds his very life threatened.

As the Passover nears, Jesus tells his disciples that he wants to go to Jerusalem, but they try to convince him otherwise. They know that if he goes to Jerusalem, he will be killed. But they will go along, even if it costs them their lives.

Our scripture for this morning takes place in Jerusalem the night before Jesus is put to death. He is gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples, where Jesus washes their feet, breaks bread and shares the cup with them, and chapters 13-17 show how Jesus was preparing his disciples for life without him. He says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35), and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” (15:12). Don’t forget, he also said, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you,” (15:18).

Which is kind of a weird thing to brag about, but that’s not the point.

I think that when Jesus talks about loving one another, he is simply encouraging the disciples to continue doing what he has been doing. This is what love looks like: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, teach, preach, give, heal, forgive, and spend time with people society tells us aren’t worth our time. That’s what it means to love. It is simple, but it isn’t easy, and Jesus knows that.

So Jesus promises to send someone to help. In Greek, it is the paraclete. We translate that as the Comforter, the Advocate, the Companion. Since we are just past our sermon series on comparative religions, I feel it is important to note that Islam teaches that Jesus was here proclaiming the sending of Muhammad. But we Christians read this differently. We see this as Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit.

Let’s put that all together. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem where he and his disciples expect him to be killed. He hosts a private meal for them where he gives them some final instructions about staying strong in the face of persecution. And he says that they won’t have to go through it alone. No, they will have an advocate.

Marianne Meye Thompson writes in her commentary on John that the Paraclete is the one who “causes the disciples to recollect and understand all the truth of Jesus’ words and deeds.” It is the Holy Spirit who helps us be the church.

Let’s go back to those disciples, huddled together about 53 days later. The disciples hear something that sounds like a loud wind blowing through the city. They saw something that looked like tongues of fire, whatever that means, descend upon them. Then in Acts 2:4 we read, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

But the disciples weren’t the only ones in Jerusalem that Pentecost. No, this was a required trip for all Jews. In verse 5 we read, “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.”

Every nation? Probably not, but every known nation. Back to verse 6, “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?’”

What a wonderful way to spread the good news in the 1st century! These men and women are Jews, gathered together, hearing about Jesus in their own language. They are hearing that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.

Can you imagine getting back to wherever they had come from and someone asking them at work the next day, “Hey, Bill. Anything exciting happen on your trip to Jerusalem?”

“Funny you should ask, Fred…”

I believe the love of Jesus, which I described as a culmination of his words and deeds, is something that needs to be translated into every language and understood by every person. As some of you know, the Mennonite churches in Augusta County are working together to try to plant a Spanish-speaking congregation in Waynesboro. A little over a month ago we had five brothers and sisters in Christ sitting in our Church Council meeting sharing their vision to start a church that is going to look a lot different from ours and it will sound a lot different from ours. And as they sat in our fellowship hall, there was an off-the-cuff comment made along the lines of, “You know, we will probably be looking to plant a Spanish-speaking church in Staunton next.”

They then took a self-guided tour of our facilities.

The love of Jesus crosses our language barriers, but as we see in the gifting of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, one of the best ways to spread the message of Jesus is by speaking the language of the people. And if you are interested in helping with the church plant in Waynesboro, please let me know.

Now there are debates about the gifting of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost: was this a gift of speaking different languages, or the gifting of hearing other languages? I think based on the text above that a case can be made for either.

And it is clear from other passages that the gifting of the Holy Spirit takes many forms. If we look at passages like 1 Corinthians 12, we find gifts like wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

These gifts aren’t meant for you to use to get more power, money, or fame. These are gifts from the Advocate, the Helper, whose goal is to help us live out the teachings of Jesus, to share the love of Jesus, to be the church in the world.

When I think about these gifts, and I consider which I would most like to have, and which might be the most helpful today, I think that I would like to have the gift of interpretation of tongues. But I want to nuance that a bit. If I could choose a gift, I would want to be able to understand everyone. And I’m not just talking about different languages. I want to be able to understand other people who speak my own language, because it is my opinion that many of us struggle to understand, even when others are speaking English.

After the 2016 Presidential Election, I heard many people say “I can’t understand why you voted for him/her.” And when we don’t understand, we start to assume, we start to label. All at once I start to hear people say, “If you voted for Donald Trump, you must be a racist.” Or “If you voted for Hillary, you must be a baby killer who wants to take away our guns.”

I’m convinced that these practices of stereotyping and dismissing come not simply from a difference of opinion, but from a lack of understanding.

We in the church are just as guilty of this. When we find someone who disagrees with us, we are quick to label them. They are conservative; they are liberal. They need to read their Bible. They just hate gay people.

I’m not saying that everything is relative and we can go on believing whatever we want to believe and doing whatever we want to believe. There are practices that are hurting people at the government level, and there are practices that are hurting people at the congregational level. But calling names, labeling, and dehumanizing people doesn’t help.

That is why I pray for the gift of understanding. Help me understand why you believe what you believe. Help me understand why you voted why you voted.

Look at the speech that Peter gives on the day of Pentecost. Drawing from the book of Joel, Peter says that the Spirit will be poured out on all people. Sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. Men and women will receive the gift of the Spirit. And it does come to the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. People from Egypt, Arabs, and Cretans.

The gift of tongues, the gift of speaking in other languages, the gift of hearing other languages gives agency to these people. And while each person remains distinct, the line between “us” and “them” is reduced.

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Loving our Hindu Neighbors

Romans 8:18-27 New International Version

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

We have spent the last month looking at the world’s religions, taking seriously what Jesus called the greatest and the second greatest commandments. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. We have done this study not because all religions are essentially the same, but because there are significant differences that do matter, and there are things that we can learn from one another.

One thing that I realized last week after we had considered Judaism and Islam is that while we were studying what these traditions believe, the things I think we can learn from the most are the way some of these religions live out their faith. Most of what I have learned and can apply to my own life isn’t about theology, or what these other traditions believe about God, but about practice, how the faith of Jews and Muslims are often lived out. We looked at how the Jewish tradition focuses on “Rastlin’ and Remembering,” and how the Muslim tradition places a strong emphasis on prayer and fasting. And when we look at the paradigm that I used for this study, the Good Samaritan, I think it is clear that Jesus was emphasizing that we learn from the practices of other traditions.

Today we are moving into territory that I am less comfortable with. Though I mentioned at the beginning of this series that though I went to High School with a Hindu, I know very little about this religion. With Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all tracing back to Abraham, these three traditions have a number of similarities. The three Abrahamic religions believe in one God and reject idols. Hinduism has been said to have as many as 330 million gods which are commonly depicted in pictures and in statues. This seems rather antithetical to what we have been taught as Christians.

Let’s start by looking at some of the core beliefs and origins of Hinduism.

Hinduism is believed to be the oldest of the major world religions that is still widely practiced. There are currently close to 1 billion Hindus in the world, with 4/5 of the subcontinent of India calling themselves Hindu. There is no founder of Hinduism, nor is there a current leader. With no central leadership, Hinduism is among the most diverse of the world’s religions and least dogmatic. While there are many holy books in Hinduism, none is considered to be a direct recitation from the gods.

Let’s start with the holy books of Hinduism. The holy books of Hinduism are vast in quantity and length, with thousands upon thousands of pages dedicated to telling the stories of the gods. Stephen Prothero writes, “Hinduism is an over-the-top religion of big ideas, bright colors, soulful mantras, spicy foods, complex rituals, and wild stories.”

One of those over-the-top stories is about the deity known as Ganesh(a). Ganesh is the god of good fortune and remover of obstacles. Ganesh is often depicted with the head of an elephant, holding an axe to destroy obstacles, and a rope to pull devotees out of troubling situations. Because of he is the god of good fortune, you will almost always find a statue of Ganesh at a business owned or operated by a Hindu, and the stock exchange in India begins with prayer to Ganesh.

Ganesh acquired his elephant head when he was killed in a fit of rage by Shiva. When Ganesh’s mother, Parvati, petitioned Brahma, the creator god, and Vishnu, the sustainer god, they agreed that Ganesh could be saved if another head could be found for his body. They then went out and found an elephant, cut its head off, and attached it to Ganesh.

My favorite story is of the god Hanuman. Hanuman takes to form of a monkey, and he is often depicted holding a mountain. The story tells us that Hanuman’s friend, Lakshmana, was fatally wounded in battle, and there was only one herb that grew on a distant mountain that could save Lakshmana. So Hanuman was sent for this herb, only to find that many different herbs were growing on the mountain. Rather than returning empty handed or with a selection of plants to choose from, Hanuman brings back the entire mountain.

It is a story of friendship; a story of devotion.

So why do I tell these over-the-top stories about gods I don’t believe in doing things that are not possible? To show how different we Christians approach scripture than the Hindu people. We Christians have debates all the time about the accuracy of our texts. We use terms like “inspired,” “inerrant,” and “infallible.” I think that these are good discussions to have within Christianity. But if you ask a Hindu if they really believe the stories from their holy texts actually happened, or if they are inerrant or infallible, they would just look at you. A question that is central to us isn’t even relevant to the Hindu people. Their holy texts are made up of formative stories, not inerrant teachings.

If we go back to the Hindu gods, you will not be able to find a consensus among Hindus on how many gods exist. But the 330 million number is one that was offered from an outside source, not a Hindu. Many Hindus will name 33 deities, some will claim only 3, and still more that there is only one, as all deities simply emanate out of one central deity, Brahma.

Most Hindu homes will claim a few of these manifestation of deities as the gods of their home. These deities are often chosen based on ancestral history, geographical location, and the virtues a family wants to live out (the selection process seems to vary). The families often have small shrines and idols of these gods in their homes, and they pray to the objects regularly and often offer food and incense to them. To be clear, the Hindu people don’t believe that the little statue is their god, but that it represents their god.

It is without a doubt the polytheism and veneration of idols within the Hindu tradition that makes me the most uncomfortable. I have visited a Hare Krishna temple in DC as a part of a class on missiology in seminary, and visited a temple dedicated to Hanuman in Trinidad. While in Trinidad, I had the chance to preach at my friend, Ganesh’s church. About ½ of the population of Trinidad is of Indian descent, as were many of the members at Ganesh’s church. It is a well-documented fact that many who travel to our churches in lesser-developed nations are asked to preach when they show up to church in the morning. That wasn’t the case for me. I was asked the night before.

Thankfully, I had my laptop with me, and I had just preached a sermon the week before that I thought went really well. The sermon was based on Joshua 24, where Joshua asks the Israelites to recommit themselves to God. And I looked out over this beautiful congregation where my wife and I were the only white people in attendance, and I read the same passage I read to my home church a week earlier. Verses 14-15, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Those verses mean something entirely different to those first-generation Christians who had grown up in Hindu families.

What do Hindus believe? I want to focus on three teachings for the remainder of our time: karma, reincarnation, and yoga.

Perhaps your only experience with karma comes from popular culture, like the song “Karma Chameleon,” or the television show, “My Name is Earl.” If that is your only experience, let me simply say that probably does not make you an expert. But I do find some humor in the bumper sticker that says, “My Karma ran over your Dogma.”

Karma is the belief that you will experience bad things if you do bad things, and good things will happen for you if you do good things. Sometimes this is a simple cause and effect relationship that occurs in this life. For instance, if you are a good mother to your child, you may be rewarded on Mother’s Day when your grown children take you out to eat or buy you a new car. Or if you go around kicking dogs, one of these days you will get bitten. So within the Hindu concept of Karma, there is an understanding the Karma may affect your current wellbeing. However, much of the teaching on Karma revolves around the Hindu teaching on reincarnation.

Many people in our western society believe in reincarnation, but in my opinion, they still don’t have a solid grasp on this concept. Ask someone today who they were in a former life, and they will tell you that they were a queen in Medieval Prussia, or Napoleon, or Joan of Arc. Nobody was ever a ditch digger or sewage treatment worker.

Within Hinduism, the process of life, death, and rebirth is called Samsara. And again, Samsara is closely tied to the idea of Karma. According to Hinduism, when you live well, you will be rewarded in the next life, born into a better situation. If you live poorly, you will be punished by being born into a worse situation. You can be reborn as a king, or you can be reborn as an animal. Your status at the rebirth depends on how you lived your life.

Those who are familiar with the history of India have probably heard of the caste system. The caste system is a way of organizing the social classes of the people into distinct categories. There are at least four different castes, with many sub-castes within. The highest caste in the Indian system (Brahmin) is the priestly caste, because as we all know, clergy people are the most powerful people in any system and deserve the highest respect. The next caste down (Kshatriyas) is made up of rulers, administrators, and warriors. Then is the Vaishyas, which is made of the artists, merchants, and tradespeople. Finally, there is the Shidras, the working-class. Among the Shidras are the Dalits, the lowest of the lows. It is the Dalits who are often called “the untouchables.”

Even though the Caste System is not officially sanctioned by the government, it still exists in India. Marriages are arranged within one’s own caste. There is no chance of moving up in one’s caste. If your father was an untouchable, you will be an untouchable.

Within the Hindu system of Karma and reincarnation, your lot in life, and the caste you are born into is the result of your good or bad choices in your previous life. If you are a Brahmin in the highest class, and your royally mess up, you may come back as a Dalit. And the only way you can get out of the Dalit caste is to live a virtuous life and hope to be reborn into a higher caste. No amount of complaining or bargaining will help. Or to quote my daughter’s Kindergarten teacher likes to say, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

I think it is an overstatement, but I’m going to repeat something that I have heard others say before, and know that there are exceptions. But some have said that Hindus don’t see it as their responsibility to help the poorest of the poor, to help the untouchables with basic food, clean water, sanitation, or healthcare, because this is the result of Karma. They are where they are as a punishment for something that they have done. They have earned their lot in life, and if they want to do something about it, they must learn from their mistakes and pray that they are reborn into a better life. Thankfully, people like Mother Teresa and Jesus before her understood their responsibility differently.

The Hindu people see this cycle of life, death, and rebirth (Samsara) and ongoing, moving us up or down, improving or worsening our life, until we reach Moksha. Moksha simply means “release.” There is no unified understanding of what happens when a person reaches Moksha. Some believe it is simply the end of the cycle and one ceases to exist. Other’s describe it as a blissful nonexistence. One enters Moksha by completing their dharma, their moral duty in this life.

I want to close this lesson with another story. For all of my adult life, I have suffered from back pain. Those who have issues with their lower back can often sympathize with the pain that comes from a slight pull of a muscle because those muscles hold us upright and allow us to be mobile. And for me, I can pick up 100 pounds and have no problem. It is when I bend over to tie my shoe or pick up a doll baby that my back pulls and I end up spending the week catching up on Netflix. For me, it isn’t about the strength of the muscles in my back, it is about my flexibility.

So a few years ago, I got serious about doing some flexibility training. This goes beyond touching my toes. I try to spend time every week twisting my body into positions named after animals, like downward-facing dog, cow/cat, and cobra.

What I am doing is often called “yoga.” Yoga became popular in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s when Hindu gurus migrated to the western world and found communities looking for new ways of connecting with the divine. The word “yoga” simply means “discipline.”

If you were to travel to India, you would find Yogi’s contorting their bodies into impossible positions as they meditate and chant prayers to their personal deities. In its original form, yoga has not only a physical, but also a spiritual and mental dimension.

I have heard pastors rant about Christians doing yoga. It is a practice that we learned from the Hindus, and therefore cannot be done by Christians.

Let me be clear, there is nothing satanic about stretching your back by doing cat/cows or cobra poses. Yoga can be a time to meditate and focus on your breathing. Yoga can be a time for prayer. Yes, if you are chanting prayers to a Hindu god, I would have a problem with that. But if you do yoga-type stretches for your health and well-being, if you mediate and focus on praying to the God revealed in Jesus, this can be a helpful discipline. And many of us find it helpful to do something physical while praying, because otherwise my mind tends to wander.

As Paul writes in Romans 8, our bodies will hurt, all of creation will groan. Decay is a part of this world. But as Christians, we believe that God will make all things new. We believe in bodies made whole and creation made right. And we believe that we can make this place more like God intends for it to be.

 

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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors-part 2

Acts 13:1-3

1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

Acts 14:21-23

21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. 23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Welcome to week four of our sermon series on Loving Our Neighbor. Last week we discussed how loving your Muslim neighbor at the very least means not killing them. I really wanted to emphasize that not all Muslims think the same and believe the same things, much as we Christians don’t all think the same and believe the same things. Please don’t lump everyone who is different into one pile. Recall that we need to reject the view of outgroup homogeneity. I hope that you don’t see Muslims as your enemy, but even if you do, Jesus gave us pretty clear instructions on how to treat our enemies: we are to love them.

Today I want to look at some of the shared convictions and practices of Islam. The Islamic community has identified what they often refer to as the “five pillars” of Islam. These are the things that keep the metaphorical roof on the religion. I’ll give you both the Arabic word (transliterated, obviously), because that is how you will often see it written, and the English paraphrase. The five pillars are: the Shahada/Statement of Faith, Salah/Prayer, Zakat/Giving to Charity, Sawm/Fasting, and Hajj/Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Often, different branches of Islam will interpret how these five pillars are to be lived out, and many will have additional pillars. This is an introduction to these practices, so don’t be surprised to hear of other variations.

Absolutely central to the Islamic faith is the Shahada. In English, the Shahada roughly translates as, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” According to Islamic tradition, if you say the Shahada and mean it, you are a Muslim. This the necessary statement of faith for all who convert to Islam.

If we break that down a bit, you see that Islam places an emphasis on monotheism. Much like Judaism, Islam developed within a polytheistic community where many gods were served. When Muhammad received the Quran, God instructed Muhammad to serve him and him alone. Muhammad would later go into a polytheistic temple in Mecca, where 360 deities were worshipped, and destroy all of the idols. This site, known as the Kaaba, is now the holiest site in Mecca, and we will come back to this shortly.

In my conversations with Muslims, it is their strict adherence to monotheism that prevents them from accepting the validity of Christianity. We consider Christianity as a monotheistic religion, and we have this complicated idea known as “the Trinity” to help explain how God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Muslims believe in Jesus, but they deny his divinity because that would be polytheism. Muslims also see the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of the one God.

I consider myself to be monotheistic, and I believe in the Trinity. But I also understand how that can be a stumbling block to others.

There are also Christian groups who don’t consider Jesus to be divine, and they ask some really good questions. For instance, if Jesus is fully God, who does he pray to? Was Jesus just walking around talking to himself? (Let the one without sin cast the first stoneJ). And recall the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” How do we explain that separation if Jesus is God and still maintain some sort of Trinitarian view? And in John 14:28, Jesus says, “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.”

Those of us who grew up as Christians read over these passages pretty quick without really pausing to hear how others might be interpreting these texts. The point that I’m trying to make is that this isn’t always as clear as we would like it to be. I believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. But just how that works, I’m not entirely sure.

In my conversations with Muslims, I often get the question, “How can Jesus be both God and the Son of God?” This is when I start mumbling and using big words that I don’t fully understand. Ontologically speaking, Jesus is the pre-existent logos who exists in a perichoretic relationship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Duh.

Monotheism is of the highest importance to Muslims, and I’m glad that they take this teaching so seriously. Obviously, we interpret the divinity of Jesus differently, and there are passages to support Jesus’s divinity. But I’m thankful for the challenge to dig deeper and understand the Trinity at another level. Clearly, we see the prophetic witness of Muhammad differently. But we all agree that there is no god but God.

The second pillar that I want to address this morning is Salah, or prayer. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day, at sunrise, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. A Muslim can pray anywhere they are at those prescribed times, but if it is possible, they are encouraged to gather together in the Mosque for prayer. And prayer is always done toward Mecca. Every mosque in the world is oriented so that the front of the prayer room is pointing toward Mecca.

The different subgroups of Islam will pray different prayers during this time, but they usually involve recitation of scripture, offering praise to God, and asking for help to keep from sin. In a mosque, the Imam will often recite something, and the congregation will respond in the appropriate fashion. The people go through a routine of standing, kneeling, and bowing with their faces to the floor, all in humble submission to God.

If monotheism is foundational to Islam, prayer is the cornerstone. Particularly in the Sunni tradition, prayer is seen as the dividing line between true believers and nonbelievers. Some go so far as to say that those who do not pray 5 times per day are “unholy sinners.”

Similar to Judaism, Muslims are to perform ritualistic washing before prayer. And there are certain people who are excluded from the prayer, such as menstruating women.

Muslims also differentiate between types of prayer. Salah is the ritual prayer performed 5x a day. But Muslims are not limited to prayer during those times. The prayers a Muslim offers between the Salah prayers are referred to as “dua,” which simply means “supplication.”

I recently heard a story about a Muslim woman who had converted to Christianity. She was being interviewed by a Christian media outlet, and they were being very supportive of this woman. They asked how she was being received by her parents and her family. They asked her about how she chooses to dress now and about her diet, and things of that nature. Then the interviewer asked her What do you miss the most about practicing Islam?

            The young woman said, “That’s easy. I miss prayer.”

The interviewer didn’t expect this response. He said, “How can you miss prayer? Christians pray. In fact, you can pray any time you want. God is listening.”

The woman replied, “When I was a Muslim, I prayed at least five times a day. Now that I am a Christian, I can pray any time and any place. But I rarely do.”

I can go back and forth on obligatory prayer and even praying pre-written prayers, or scriptural prayers like the Lord’s Prayer. I see some value and I can name some challenges. I’ll say this, and I know that there are many exceptions to what I’m about to say. But most Muslims pray us Christians under the table every day. They pray more frequently and put a higher value on making prayer central to their daily routine. How many Christians do you know who drop everything at certain times every day and pray? Even though we pray differently, I think we can learn a thing or two about prayer from our Muslim neighbors.

I’ll move quickly through this next one. Zakat, or charity. I’m hoping that there is nothing about giving to charity that seems foreign to you. Muslims and Christians give for much the same reason. What we have isn’t actually ours; it all belongs to God. Giving helps to keep us from being bogged down with worldly possessions and the need to accumulate more. And giving to charity helps alleviate the suffering of others.

The Muslim teaching on Zakat stems from the teachings of the Torah, the teachings of the Quran, and of course, the teachings of Jesus.

The fourth pillar is Sawm, or fasting. There are two kinds of fasting in Islam: individual and optional fasts intended as a way to grow closer to God, and the ritualistic fasting that is mandatory for everyone with the exception of the sick, elderly, pregnant, or nursing.

I recall being in Middle School when the Houston Rockets were playing in the NBA finals. I don’t remember much about the game, but I recall the announcers making a big deal about Houston’s future Hall of Fame center, Hakeem Olajuwon, fasting. I’ve been around Christians who talk about fasting, and for many of them it means skipping a meal, or for some it simply means delaying breakfast until after their morning prayer meeting. But in Islam, during the month of Ramadan, every Muslim is to completely abstain from food or drink from sunrise until sunset.

Ramadan is the Muslim holiday that marks the giving of the Quran. This year if begins on May 15 and ends of June 15, during the NBA playoffs and finals. So when the Rockets would play a day game in the finals, Hakeem Olajuwon would not drink his Gatorade or even water.       When was the last time you fasted? I’ve done some fasting, but nothing to the extent of a complete fast from food and water from sunup to sundown. I probably wouldn’t suggest you try that, either. But if you look at the scripture that we read this morning from Acts, fasting and prayer were integral parts of the life of the early church.

In these two examples, fasting and prayer were a part of the selection process for the church leaders. Our next Executive Director for MCUSA began his role this past week on May 1. I didn’t fast or pray. I chaired the search committee for our conference minister and our overseer. I’ll admit again, I did not fast, though I did pray (one out of two isn’t bad, right?).

I’ll be straight with you all, fasting is something that I don’t fully understand. What is the purpose? How does it benefit us or God? I don’t know. But I do know that fasting was important to the early church, and it is important to Islam. Like prayer, I’m wondering what we could learn from our Muslim neighbors about fasting.

Finally, the fifth pillar of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Recall that Mecca is where Muhammad was when he first began to receive the Quran and he later left for Medina, where he gained a significant number of followers, and a significant amount of power. According to Islamic tradition, Mecca is the place where God miraculously provided water for Hagar and Ishmael after Abraham had them banished from his camp. Out of praise to God, Abraham build a temple to God, and the angel Gabriel delivered a black stone which is included in the structure of the Kaaba.

By the time of Muhammad, the temple was filled with pagan deities of every sort. And when Muhammad returned to Mecca with power and authority, he cleared out all the pagan deities and rededicated the temple to God.

To this day, every Muslim is required at least once in their life to make the trip to Mecca during a week-long celebration of Muhammad’s rededication of the temple. Muslims dress in white and they walk around the Kaaba seven times, touching the stone when the reach the center of the circle.

While Christianity does not require a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, I know a lot of people who find a trip to Israel to be a powerful experience. Walking where Jesus walked, praying where Jesus prayed. Some are even (re)baptized in the muddy waters of the Jordan where Jesus himself submitted to this practice.

With so many similarities between Christianity and Islam, some may wonder what differences really exist. There is a story about a bunch of scholars sitting around at a conference discussing different religions, and that very question arose. What is the main difference between the world’s religions? After kicking the question around for a bit, CS Lewis walked in, and they asked him, Professor Lewis, what is the main difference between the world’s religions and Christianity?

            Without hesitation, Lewis responded, That is easy. It’s grace.

That’s a bit of an overstatement, as grace is a part of most religions, including Islam. But the dominant image in Islam is one of a balance scale. On one side of the scale are all of your bad actions, on the other are your good deeds. At the end of your life, the hope is that the good deeds outweigh the bad. Every time you perform Salah prayer, you add to the good side. When you give to Zakat, charity, you add to the good side. This is how misguided leaders convince some Muslims to go to extreme lengths, promising that they will be adding to their pile of good deeds.

I’ve heard Christians do something cute with this example as well. Continuing with the metaphor of the balance scale, they say that we have an advocate in Jesus. As all of our bad deeds accumulate on one side, we find Jesus with his thumb on the other side. Maybe leaning on it for some of us.

While that’s cute, I’d also say that isn’t biblical. Rather than Jesus leaning on the side of the good deeds, we find Jesus swiping away all the bad, erasing them from memory so that they no longer count against us.

The differences between Islam and Christianity are significant, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from one another. I’ve only scratched the surface, but just by looking at these five pillars of Islam, I’m convinced that the average Muslim beats me hands down when it comes to prayer and fasting, two practices that were central to the early church. How can we learn from Muslims about giving to charity? How can the Muslim understanding of monotheism help us to refine our view of the Trinity? As we continue to learn about one another, it is my prayer that we can grow closer to God and one another.

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Loving Our Muslim Neighbors-part 1

Genesis 21:8-21 New International Version (NIV)

8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

I’ve run a few competitive races in my adult life. A few 5 and 10K’s, but nothing to brag about. Yesterday I completed my first (and last?) ever ½ marathon, running further than I ever had before. And when I got home, my children asked me, “Did you win, Dad?”

I said yes, I finished first among all 38-year-old men named Kevin who weigh over 200 lbs.

But I can say without stretching the truth that I feel as if I won. I worked for something, trained for months, and reached my goal. Maybe I wasn’t the first across the finish line, but I did win. And I have the participation medal to prove it!

This is obviously different from running in the Olympics or even on the High School track team. There is some kind of community feeling to it all where people want to see one another succeed. And when one succeeds, we all benefit.

Today we continue in our sermons series on, not the world’s religions, but the religions of Staunton, Virginia. And our reason again for studying these religions starts with what Jesus calls the greatest commandment and the second greatest commandment. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. We aren’t saying that all religions are the same, but according to Jesus, we can actually learn to be better Christians by looking at other religions.

Today we are looking at how we can love our Muslim neighbors. And after beginning to write this sermon, I realized that there was no way I was going to cover everything I wanted to cover in one sermon. So next Sunday, we will look at some of the specific teachings of Islam, particularly the 5 pillars of Islamic faith. Today I simply want to set the bar really low and show that loving our Muslim neighbors, at the very least, means not killing them.

Of course it is really hard to love our Muslim neighbors when they are all terrorists who want to kill every Christian and recite phrases like, “Death to America.” (I’m going to say this with a very sarcastic tone. Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.) Let’s start by unpacking some misunderstandings and misperceptions about Muslims.

A few years ago, my daughter was just learning how to walk, and a part of learning how to walk is learning how to fall down gracefully. Neither was Hadley’s strength. I recall very vividly the Sunday afternoon when she was coming down the stairs and tripped. She performed a perfect forward roll, but she failed to stick the landing. Instead, her little head met the radiator at the bottom of the staircase. And in a battle between forehead and a cast-iron radiator, the radiator is going to win 10 times out of 10.

If you have ever seen or experienced a forehead injury, you probably know that the tight skin of the head splits open easily and is well supplied with various blood vessels, which means an injury like this bleeds. A lot.

I picked up Hadley and held her as she bled onto my cream-colored sweater. We weren’t overly worried about brain damage or any lasting injuries, but we knew that she would need stitches. I drew the short straw, so I packed her into her car seat with a compress on her head, and drove off to seek medical help.

Nobody likes to hold a two-year-old as they receive shots and stitches. But the doctor was patient with both me and Hadley. He showed me how to hold her and talked me through the entire procedure. He talked to Hadley and explained that he had a daughter her age as well. No, the entire experience wasn’t pleasant for any of us. But I am thankful for the way the doctor made the experience more bearable.

I even remember his name, four years after the event. His name was Dr. Mohammad.

Alright, maybe not all Muslims are terrorists. This one was surely the exception. He had taken his Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. But most Muslims…

Wait, I’m told that there are passages in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, that condemn those who kill women and children. There are also passages against killing civilians in a war. The Quran even goes so far as to condemn to hell any who commit suicide.

The Quran condemns the killing of women, children, civilians, and one’s self. I’m no Islamic scholar, but it sounds like the Quran condemns terrorism.

Now don’t let me mislead you. The Quran does indeed have teachings that encourage the killing of non-Muslims. But just for fun, I want to play a little game called “Bible or Quran.” I’ll quote a passage, and I want you to tell me if it is in the Bible or the Quran. I’ve redacted a few words so that they don’t give it all away.

“If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns [God] gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of…your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky,  and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in [the holy city], take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.”—Deuteronomy 17:2-5

“If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from…your God.” –Deuteronomy 13:6-10a

“And when the forbidden months have passed, kill the idolaters wherever you find them and take them prisoners, and beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent and observe [the commandments], then leave their way free. Surely, [God] is Most Forgiving, Merciful.” –Quran 9:5

“Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” –Psalm 137 8-9

The wise among us will surely know how to respond to these passages. We will say something like, “Yeah, but that’s the Old Testament! We follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace!” And “Sure, that might be in the Bible, but you need to read it in context!” When we say such things we are saying that we give more weight to one part of the Bible over another, and that it is easy to distort a text when we fail to consider the bigger picture. I simply want to say that we need to offer the same grace to Islam that we as Christians ask from other.

Indeed, there are violent Christians who would like to “kill them all and let God sort them out” and quote Old Testament passages like the ones above. Let me be 100% clear: I’m not that kind of Christian. Most Christians aren’t.

Let me continue to be 100% clear: there are Muslims who believe that it is their duty to kill non-Muslims. But most are not that kind of Muslim. Again, can we offer them the same kind of grace that we want others to extend to us?

Just as we peacemaking Christians emphasize the teachings of Jesus, there are peacemaking Muslims who also place a greater emphasis on certain passages of the Quran. The Quran, which means “recitation,” is said to have been dictated by God to the prophet Muhammad through his adult life. The first 12 years of this conversation took place in Mecca, where Islam was a persecuted minority. The suras, or chapters, of the Quran recorded at this time tend to be more peaceful and invite Muslims into peacemaking practices. But after the center of Islam moved from Mecca to Medina to flee persecution, Islam became a political and military powerhouse. The teachings from Mecca are much more peaceful than the teachings from Medina, where Muhammad and his followers would have had more power and authority (see Shenk, Christian, Muslim, Friend, pg. 143).

Much as we can find passages to defend violence in the Christian Bible, so too can you find passages to defend violence in the Quran. But the whole situation is made even more complicated by the fact that most Muslims believe that to truly read the Quran, you have to read it in the original Arabic. And only about 20% of Muslims can do that. So a few powerful leaders can mislead an entire group of Muslims (or other religious groups).

I want to introduce you to a group of Muslims who rarely make it into the nightly news. They are called the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, or Ahmadi Muslims for short. We hear about the Shia and the Sunni Muslims, but not usually the Ahmadi, even though some estimates put their number at close to 20 million adherents.

Tell me if this story sounds familiar. The Ahmadi are a non-assimilated group. Even though they often live in western societies, such as their headquarters in Great Britain or in Chicago, they dress in the traditional ways of the Islamic people of days past. They teach against materialism. Some other groups of Muslims call the Ahmadi people heretics, and this group has undergone a significant amount of persecution. Even persecution by other Muslims.

The Ahmadi people are people of peace, in many cases they adhere to absolute pacifism. In 1989, the Caliph, or leader, of the Ahmadi community wrote, denouncing terrorism, “As far as Islam is concerned, it categorically rejects and condemns every form of terrorism. It does not provide any cover or justification for any act of violence, be it committed by an individual, a group or a government.”

Nonconformity, nonviolence, teaching against materialism, and suffering from persecution? Sounds a little like our own Mennonite tradition.

Now make no mistake, I do not believe that Islam and Christianity are the same thing, nor do I believe that the Ahmadi and Mennonite have a shared religion. But I would say that there are sects of each religion that have similar practices and just as we Christians don’t like to be lumped together with the worst manifestations of our religion, the same is true for Islam.

Let’s get a little more background on Islam. First we need to know that the word “Islam” means submission. A Muslim is one who submits to the one God, as they are strict monotheists, and the Arabic word for God is Allah. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, traces its origins back to Abraham. But while the other traditions go back to Abraham through his son Isaac, Islam traces its roots through Abraham’s son with his second wife/concubine, Hagar, who was brought into the family as a servant to Abraham’s first wife, Sarah. Hagar was the first to get pregnant, and she gave birth to Ishmael. But there was some jealousy and some concern between the two families. Specifically, Sarah was worried that Ishmael would be the one to inherit Abraham’s wealth, and even more so, she seemed worried that he would receive the blessing that God promised to Abraham’s first born.

So Sarah throws a bit of a fit, and demands that Abraham kicks Hagar and Ishmael out. We pick up the story in Genesis 21:11, “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’”

God clarifies his original promise to Abraham. Indeed, it would be through Isaac that Abraham’s people will be numbered. But Ishmael will also grow into a great nation. This is repeated for Hagar to hear in verse 18. It appears that God is making it clear 4,000 years ago that both the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael will develop into major world powers, even major world religions.

A recent Pew report claims Christianity as the world’s largest religion, with about 2.3 billion adherents, and Islam is second, with about 1.8 billion. Compare that to the estimated 12 million Jews worldwide and the 2 million Mennonites.

Muslim people have a name for the three Abrahamic religions, for the traditions who trace their origins back to Abraham. We are called “Ahl al-Kitab,” which means “People of the Book.” The Quran speaks highly of the People of the Book, and provides encouragement to us: “[God] sent down the Law, and the Gospel” (3:3). That’s right, the Quran speaks of the inspiration of the Torah and the Gospels (though they also claim Christians corrupted the Gospels). “People of the Book, you have no ground to stand upon unless you stand fast by the Law and the Gospel and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord” (5:68).

Muslims often state that we and they believe in the same God, but I would add that there are some significant differences. Muslims see Jesus as one of God’s greatest prophets, but they would deny his divinity and that he died on the cross. According the Islam, God would not allow his prophet to die a sinner’s death.

There is much debate today about whether or not we worship the same god as the Muslims. I honestly don’t get that excited about that discussion. To be honest, I’m not sure that I worship the same God as some other Christians. To hear some of my brothers and sisters in Christ talk, I might assume they were speaking of some other god altogether.

On one hand, I believe that there is only one God. So in that sense, you can’t worship another god, only ideas of god. But if I was truly pushed, I would say that my God is most clearly revealed to us through Jesus Christ. Jesus says things like, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” And, “I and the Father are one.” Or as the Apostle Paul writes, “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

I would say that I worship the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If your God doesn’t look like Jesus, then we are going different directions.

But I come back to this idea of running a long-distance race. I didn’t finish first, but I did win. And I believe that when we look closer at other religions, especially ones like Islam that so many people fear and so many people know so little about, I think we can all win. We win when we love God, and when we love our neighbors. And not killing one another is a great place to start.

Refuse to hate, refuse to kill, refuse to lump all Muslims together and slap a label like “terrorist” on them. If nothing else, do it as a fulfillment of the Golden Rule. I’m not that kind of Christian, and I don’t want to be confused for them. Let’s offer the same grace to our Muslim neighbors.

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Loving our Jewish Neighbors

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

1These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

October 6, 1965. The date itself may not seem that significant to you, but in many ways, this was a date of hope, a date of validation, and a date of inspiration. October 6, 1965 was game one of the World Series, a best-of-seven matchup between the LA Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins, to determine the top team in all of Major League Baseball. Many considered the Dodgers to be the favorite, with their big lefty pitcher leading the way from the pitcher’s mound. Sandy Koufax had won the league’s triple crown of pitching, leading all pitchers in strikeouts, ERA, and games won.

This is the scenario that every young baseball player dreams of. And that is in part what makes this story so significant. Because on October 6, 1965, the best baseball player in the Major Leagues refused to play.

Sundown on October 6, 1965 marked the beginning of one of the holiest of holidays on the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As described in the book of Leviticus, Yom Kippur is the day when the Hebrew people petition God to forgive their sins. There are a series of sacrifices made that day, such as the offering of incense. At the peak of the ceremony, two goats are brought to the High Priest, he prays over them, and one is offered to God as a sacrifice. The priest the prays the sins of the people onto the goat, laying his hands on its head, and the goat is sent out into the wilderness as a symbol of the sins of the people being taken away. This goat is referred to as the “scape goat.”

The sacrificial system ended with the destruction of the Temple, but many of the practices continue even to this day. On Yom Kippur, Jews are to abstain from all food and drink. There are certain restrictions on clothing and acts of self-care. This is meant to be a time of penitence. And much like the Sabbath Day, no work is to be done.

Sandy Koufax was not a particularly devout Jew. Many today describe him as a secular Jew, Jewish by ancestry, but not really practicing. But even a secular Jew knew better than to work on Yom Kippur. Koufax would later say that it was never an option for him to pitch on Yom Kippur and that he had refused to pitch on the holiday in years past as well. People often just didn’t notice because Yom Kippur is a floating holiday on our calendar. This year it will begin on September 18, several weeks before the World Series. And Koufax hadn’t received the attention in years past because he was really just an average pitcher in his earlier years.

But when the first day of the World Series landed on the holiest of Jewish holidays and the best pitcher in baseball refused to play, the world noticed. The Dodgers lost that first game.

Today we are continuing our sermon series on, not the world religions, but Staunton’s religions. These are the religions that we will find in our neighborhoods, our schools, and in our shopping centers.

If you were not with us last Sunday when I preached an introductory sermon on why we are looking at these different religions, I would encourage you to go back and either read or listen to the last sermon. I was also encouraged to give a brief overview each week in case anyone was wondering why we are doing this. Essentially, it comes down to two reasons: 1. We are commanded to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. I think that it is important to use that space between your ears to grow closer to God. So sometimes we focus a bit more on teaching and less on preaching. 2. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. And when Jesus was pushed about who his neighbor was, Jesus used the story of an outsider, a non-Jew, to illustrate neighbor love. We can actually learn to be better Christians by looking at what other religions are doing well.

I did not know a single Jew in my growing-up years. In fact, I would say that the only time I heard the word “Jew” used, it was used as a verb. That’s not okay. Little did I know that the coolest guy on TV, Arthur Fonzarelli, was Jewish (thanks, Adam Sandler).

There are stereotypes, and there is antisemitism in our community. But we are called to love our Jewish neighbors.

We are looking at Judaism today because this is probably the religion that most of us know the best. Christianity and Islam both trace their roots back to the Jewish tradition. We have a shared text, which we Christians call the Old Testament. Of course, that’s not what a Jew would call it, because it isn’t the old testament. It is the only testament! That’s not exactly true, but let’s start by looking at the Hebrew scripture to get a better understanding.

What we call the Old Testament, a Jewish person would call “The Tanakh.” Tanakh really isn’t a word, but a sort of acronym. The “ta” is short for Torah, the first five books of the Bible, sometimes also call “The books of Moses.” Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The “na” is short for nebi’im. Nebi’im is simply the Hebrew word for “prophets.” So books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc., would be in this section. Finally, the “kh” is a reference to the ketubim, which roughly translates as “the writings.” Psalms, Proverbs, Esther, Ruth, and so on all fall into this section.

It is often cited that there are 613 commandments, or mitzvah, in the Tanakh. The Tanakh is considered to be inspired by God, though that does not mean that it is all taken literally. So even though the Psalms and Isaiah speak of the four corners of the earth, don’t expect to hear a bunch of Jewish rabbis arguing that the earth is flat. But that doesn’t mean that Jewish rabbis don’t argue! Instead, they argue over the interpretation of the 613 mitzvah, because often, these commandments aren’t clearly explained.

Think of the Ten Commandments. One that we all know is that we are to have a Sabbath and it is to be on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day. But when does the seventh day start and when does it end? Is it at sunrise or sunset? The Ten Commandments don’t say! But in the creation narrative of Genesis 1, it says, “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” So the Jewish tradition is to start a holy day at sundown. But what is work? You better believe that there are many different interpretations. How far can you walk? What can you operate? What about emergencies? Sandy Koufax clearly understood pitching on Yom Kippur as work, though I play ball with my kids on my Sabbath all the time. Then again, I’m not getting paid for it.

So while the 613 mitzvah can be found in the Tanakh, there is no real sense of clarity on how to live those out. Surely many are outdated and have not been practiced since the fall of the sacrificial temple system. But many live on. This is where two other books come in handy, the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Mishnah and Talmud are considered holy books, but they are not considered to be inspired by God. So they are a little lower than the Tanakh.

The Mishnah was written around the year 200, and it expounds upon the Torah’s teachings. It is a collection of oral traditions throughout the history of the Hebrew people. This is where we get the teachings that say how far you can walk on the Sabbath, when you can or cannot bake bread or light a light, and so on.

The Talmud is mostly a collection of commentary from rabbis who argue out what it means to follow the mitzvah. Two of the most prominent rabbis in the Talmud are Shammai and Hillel. There are some really important discussions recorded in the Talmud between Shammai and Hillel. But my favorite has to do with telling what we might call a “white lie.” These two prominent rabbis are recorded having this discussion about whether or not it is appropriate to tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful on her wedding day. (Come on, now. We’ve all been there.) Shammai says that it is always wrong to tell a lie, even to tell an ugly woman she is beautiful on her wedding day. Hillel believes differently, because, he argues, all women are beautiful on their wedding day.

I keep using the word “arguing,” and that is intentional. If you walk into Torah school today, you will find young Jewish scholars arguing back and forth about the meaning of a commandment. If you walk into a synagogue, you will find rabbis and lay leaders arguing about how to apply the Talmud today. And if you watch “Fiddler on the Roof,” as our High School class is doing right now during Sunday School, you will find the main character, Tevye, arguing with himself. And you soon wonder just how many hands he has. “On one hand…but on the other hand…on the other hand…”

In Judaism there is no central authority on matters of interpretation. The rabbis are learned, but they aren’t the highest authority. Therefore, what it means to be faithful is always a point of discussion.

Scholar of Religion, Stephen Prothero, writes, “Judaism is about narrative. To be a Jew is to tell and retell the story and to wrestle with its key symbols: the character of God, the people of Israel, and the vexed relationship between the two…But above all else [Judaism] is a story of a people banished and then called home—a story of exile and return.” (God is not One, 244)

In the book of Genesis there is a strange story about two estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s return to his home land to see his brother for the first time in decades. Jacob sends his family and servants on ahead and camps alone by a river. As Jacob is there by the river, he begins to wrestle with a man. All night long, these two men wrestled, and there is no reason given for why this wrestling match took place. I guess that’s just what you do when you find a man sleeping beside a river. And you wonder why I don’t like camping.

When daybreak comes, the man demands that Jacob release him. Jacob says, I will not release you until you bless me! The man says, What’s your name? And Jacob says, Jacob.

Then in Genesis 32:28, we read, “Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Israel, the name given to Jacob, the name given to the nation, the name often used to refer to the entire Hebrew people, means “he who struggles with God.”

You can find ultra conservative Jews, like the Hasidic Jews who grow the hair at their temples long and wear yarmulkes all the time, and you can find progressive Jews, who dress in a contemporary fashion. Some keep the kosher food laws, others do not. There are 12 million Jews in the world today, all vastly different from the next. Yet, there is one thing that unites these various Jewish groups: they struggle with the mitzvah, they wrestle with the commandments of God.

I keep using the Hebrew word for commandment, mitzvah, because it is likely a least somewhat familiar to you. When Hebrew boys reach the age of 13, they participate in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony. A Bar Mitzvah recognizes that a person is at the age when they become accountable for their actions. They are officially a son of the commandment, or Bat Mitzvah, daughter of the commandment.

The Jewish system is one of commandment and reward. Look at verse 1-2 from our text for this morning: “These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.”

Learn these commandments, pass them on to your children, and you shall enjoy a long life. Where we Christians often focus on life after death, the Jewish faith focuses on life here and now. The Jewish tradition doesn’t have a clear conviction of life after death. Where we focus on right faith and right theology, the Jewish religion focuses on right living and keeping the commandments.

Bind them on your foreheads and on your hands, so that anytime you look at another person, or look down at your own hands, you will be reminded of God’s mitzvah. Nail them to your doorpost, so when you leave and when you come home, you are reminded of what God commands. Start and end your day, when you wake and when you lie down, reciting the commandments. And to this day, most practicing Jews will start and end each day by reciting the shema, “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”

Judaism is about remembering the story of how God has acted in the past on behalf of the people, and wrestling with the meaning today. When the Israelites were passing into the Promised Land, God instructed them to stack stones, one upon another. Twelve stones high, something that doesn’t happen naturally. And that’s the point. We read in Joshua 4 that God anticipates the children will see these stacked stones and ask, “What do these stones mean?”

When they do, tell them the story.

Last month we held a Passover Seder meal here at Staunton Mennonite Church. There are a number of foods consumed, each with symbolism: bitter herbs, to remember the bitterness of slavery. Unleavened bread, to remember the hurry to leave Egypt. In every Seder meal there is interaction between the adults and the children. They children ask, “What does this mean?” or “Why do we do that?” Each step is meant to remind the people, both the adults and the children, of what God has done.

When Jewish families gather for Chanukah, they pray the prayers, light the candles, and the children ask the same question every year, “Why is this night different from all the rest?”

Tell them the story.

A rabbi was once asked which was more important in Judaism, to keep the commandments, or to remember their stories. Do you focus more on living out what God has required of you, or do you focus on telling what God has already done for you?

The rabbi said, “I don’t understand the question.”

If you want to keep the commandments, you must remember the stories. If you tell the stories, you will keep the commandments.

So Sandy Koufax sits out the first game of the 1965 World Series, and he was lifted up as a symbol of Jewish faithfulness. How would God reward the community for this witness? Well, Koufax lost game two on the day after Yom Kippur. But he would return and pitch a win in game five. And then he pitched a complete game on just two-day’s rest, shutting out the Twins, and winning the series.

Did God help the Dodgers with the World Series because Sandy Koufax chose not to pitch on the holiest of holidays? Yeah, that’s really not what I’m trying to say. But this story shows us just how important it is in the Jewish tradition to keep the commands of God. And an important part of keeping the commands is remembering the tradition.

I think we as Christians can learn a lot from the Jewish faith. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for grace and that Christianity is not a system of rewards and punishment. But I think we could do a lot better at remembering our stories and connecting them to what it means to be faithful. God has been faithful, and so have our ancestors. We in the Mennonite tradition know the stories of the martyrs who stood strong when faced with persecution. What stories and what practices can we bring back so that our children will ask us, “What do these stones mean?”

May we continue to wrestle with God and each other.

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Beyond Tolerance

Luke 10:25-37

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I have seen a number of bumper stickers in my day. Some make me smile, and some make me cringe. Some are witty, and some seem to be so witty that they go right over my head. Some are comforting, and some are controversial.

About a decade ago someone came to me because they were offended by a bumper sticker that they saw a number of Christians sporting on their cars that said “Coexist,” spelled out with various religious symbols. This person was outraged because he understood this to saying that all religions are essentially the same. I scratched my head a bit and said, “I thought it meant that we were to exist at the same time, and not kill one another, which is a message I can get behind.” He hadn’t seen it that way, and I hadn’t really considered it from his perspective, either.

Who was right? What do these stickers mean? Here’s the issue: different people mean different things when they put these stickers on their cars. Surely some would go so far as to say that all religions are the same. But maybe others just think it would be good to get along.

The point that I’m trying to make is that while bumper stickers can be a fun way to make a statement and begin a conversation, we should never assume that we fully understand what a person means or believes when they stick a little piece of vinyl on their bumper. I know that my belief system cannot fit on a bumper, nor can it fit into 140/280 characters, or a Facebook post. When someone makes a religious proclamation, we should not assume we fully understand what they are trying to say based on a few soundbites or lines of text.

Over the next few weeks I want to spend our time looking at some of the religions of the world, not because I think that all religions are the same, but because we know so little about other religions. We tend to have bumper sticker understandings, limited to just a few short ideas or concepts. And what we do think we know, we (I) often get wrong! What I want to do today, before we even begin to look at other religions, is to ask why we are doing this and give us some guidelines for how we will be studying these religions.

Before we go any further, let me make myself absolutely clear: I am a Christian. I believe that there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved, but that of Jesus our Lord. Just how Jesus saves and what it means to be saved are fun topics of discussion, but that’s not what we are talking about. Since this isn’t a sermon series on how Jesus saves, I just want to put that out there as my prima facie: salvation is through Jesus. And I want to add that I’m really glad that we don’t have to have all of the details about how Jesus saves worked out, something we call “atonement theory,” or even “soteriology,” if you really want to get technical. We don’t need to have Jesus’s relationship to God the Father and the Holy Spirit worked out to be under the grace of God, which I’m really glad about, because I cannot explain the Trinity without falling into some historical heresy. So all of these things blur the question of salvation a bit, so praise God that we don’t have to have it all figured out!

I grew up in a rural community where we thought we were being diverse when we hung out with the Catholic kids. I don’t think that I knowingly met a Jewish person until I was in college. I did graduate from high school with a kid from India, who moved to our area when his family purchased a hotel in our community. I didn’t think about him being a Hindu until we were changing for gym class one day and I noticed he wore a string over his left shoulder, across his shoulder, and under his right arm. And when he would go to the bathroom (not that I was looking), he would pick the lower end of the string up and place it over his ear.

We finally asked him, “Kunj, what’s with the string?” All he said was that it was a part of his religion, and we were all caught off guard that he wasn’t a Christian like everyone else.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, Kunj was singled out for being different. Many kids called him Gandhi, because that was the only Indian that they knew. And later, when people started figuring out what a Hindu believed, every time we had hamburgers at lunch, someone would say, “Hey Gandhi. I’m eating your grandma!”

My experience with other religions growing up was quite limited, but I know that my children’s experience will be different. For decades, maybe even centuries, the United States has been known as a melting pot. But in recent years there has been a movement toward embracing the differences of other cultures and backgrounds. Today we live not so much in a melting pot, but diverse stew of potatoes, beef, and carrots. Each is distinct from the other, and each contributes to the overall flavor.

Our backyard neighbors are Jewish. When we went to the water park over Christmas, there were Muslim women wearing Burkinis. You probably know someone who practices an Eastern religion, like Buddhism or Hinduism. We are no longer talking about world religions, we are talking about the religions in our own neighborhood.

Our scripture for today is one that you are surely familiar with. I would bet that if I asked you what the greatest commandment is, you would be able to tell me. I could probably even push you and ask you the second greatest commandment, and you would be able to tell me the answer to that, too. We find Jesus answering this question in both Matthew and Mark. Evidently he said this a lot, because on one occasion, a lawyer asks Jesus a question, and when Jesus turns it back to the lawyer, he too knows the greatest and second greatest commandment. From Luke 10:27, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Sometimes the church can be accused of being anti-intellectual. But the greatest commandment includes not only loving God with your heart and soul, but also with your mind. We are commanded to be thinking people! So just to warn you, this sermon series will probably be a bit more heady than some. I’m not going to just stand here and tell you what to do. These next few sermons will be more teaching and less preaching, though I have a difficult time differentiating between the two sometimes.

I can’t emphasize enough that Jesus does not and perhaps cannot separate the greatest commandment from the second. Nobody ever asks him for the second, he just offers it. Free of charge! Loving neighbor is intricately linked with loving God.

In Luke’s telling of this story, the lawyer then goes on to ask a follow-up question. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

It is this simple question that leads Jesus to telling one of the most powerful stories in the Bible, the story of the Good Samaritan. A man is beaten, stripped, and left along the road to die. Several good men pass by. Religious men who you might expect to stop and help. But for whatever reason, they cross over to the other side of the road and leave the man there to die.

Who stops to help? It is the outsider, a Samaritan. Remember that the Samaritans traced their ancestry back to Abraham, like the Jews, but they weren’t Jewish. They were a different people group with different religious beliefs. And much like we see today among many religions, the Jewish people didn’t trust the outsiders. They aren’t a part of “us”; they are “them.” This is why the story of the Good Samaritan would have been so powerful. Nobody believed a Samaritan could be good!

Jesus had other interactions with Samaritans. Most notable would be the story of the woman at the well. I think we can say that Jesus had an interreligious dialogue with the woman at the well about theology and ethics. And when the disciples walked in on this conversation, they were surprised that Jesus would be talking to a Samaritan, and a woman Samaritan at that!

A good take-home point from that interaction is that if you are confident in your faith and your system of beliefs, it shouldn’t intimidate you to talk to people outside of Christianity about faith.

There are so many stories of people doing absolutely terrible things to people of other religions, and often doing so in the name of Jesus. I understand that people are afraid. After September 11, 2001, fear became normal for many people who previously hadn’t felt afraid. But fear makes us do some absolutely un-Christ-like things. And sometimes, we Christians can learn a thing or two from other religions when it comes to living out our faith.

In February of 2015, a Houston, TX mosque was set on fire by a man who claimed it was an accident. The imam from the mosque took to social media, posting things like, “[We] hoped from the beginning that it was not a hate crime.” And, “We feel that this world has enough hate, and we have to have love and harmony and solidarity.”

A truck driver responded via social media, calling all Muslims “scum,” and writing that he hoped a mosque “burns for every American killed by these terrorists.”

Do you know how the imam responded? He invited the truck driver to stop by the mosque the next time he was driving through town and get to know the community. And the amazing thing is, the truck driver did just that! He spent five hours with the Islamic community that day. Here’s what he had to say afterward: “Everything that a lot of us are told as Christians, they do as far as treating everybody the same. Even after my comments that I made, they still treated me good. It’s just not what I was expecting.”

The imam continued to interact with people on Facebook. One man wrote on the mosque’s Facebook page after the fire, “I can donate some bacon sandwiches and a bible if you all want!”

The imam accepted the offer: “We would gladly take you donation. Knowledge is something we can never have enough of. And we may feed the homeless in our area with the sandwiches. You are such a thoughtful human being!”

You might say that the imam is trolling these people a bit. But what is he teaching? Being kind to people who seek to do you harm? Loving those who hate you? Seems like someone else we’ve studied here.

No matter what stream of Christianity you come from, these Christians acted inappropriately. If you lean toward Evangelical Christianity, everything you do and say is supposed to point others to Jesus and his self-sacrificial love on the cross. If you lean toward peace and justice Christianity, you should be building relationships, not tearing them apart. If you are a part of the holiness/pietistic tradition, your goal is to be set apart from the way of the world, transformed through your relationship with Jesus. And if you are a part of the Pentecostal tradition, you are to be a living embodiment of the Spirit of the living God.

All of that is to say that there is no place for hatred, there is no place for threats, there is no place for mocking, arson, or online trolling in Christianity.

We hear a lot about religious tolerance in our world today. Don’t get me wrong, I think that religious tolerance is a good thing. We should tolerate one another. This goes right along with the bumper sticker that calls us to coexist. But as Christians, we aren’t called to tolerate one another.

I wish I could claim this example as original to me, because it is just that good! Unfortunately, I need to give credit to Bruxy Cavey, a Brethren in Christ pastor in Canada. Bruxy reminds us that tolerance really isn’t a biblical concept, but love is. Tolerance doesn’t go far enough, the bar is set too low. I’ve been married to my wife now for almost 15 years. And some evenings, after the dishes have all been washed, and the children are all in bed, I will often turn to my wife, look her deep in the eyes, and say, “I tolerate you.”

I’m thankful for when the religions of the world tolerate one another. But we are followers of Jesus Christ who called us to love one another. And yes, the love between a husband and wife is different from the love between a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. But there are other aspects of this shared emotion that I think would be helpful.

For instance, how many of us who are married remember when you first started dating your spouse and everything was new and exciting? You spent time writing letters, talking on the phone, sending texts, or using AOL instant messenger (dating myself, I know). I’m sure many of you stayed up way too late just talking to one another, getting to know the other person. When you love someone, you want to know all about them.

That’s why we are doing this sermon series. We need to get to know the people who we are commanded to love. Not because all religions are the same, but because Jesus Christ is Lord!

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The Anthropology of Paddington Bear

1 John 1:1-2:2 New International Version (NIV)

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete.

5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

Our children finally went back to school this past Tuesday after a long spring break. They had six days scheduled off, and the week before they had a couple of snow days and late starts. Yeah, I’m glad they got a break. All that is to say that it feels good to be back on schedule again.

When we began considering what we might do during spring break, we decided to take a trip to the mountains. We scheduled one day at Massanutten Water Park, where we were joined by every other family in the tristate area. After that, we planned to do some hiking in the National Forrest, drive along Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway. But it was cold and rainy, so we were left trying to find something else to do as a family (we sure weren’t going back to the Water Park!). After much deliberation, we decided that we would come back to Staunton at go to the movies.

The new theater at the mall is perfect for families. They show second-run movies at $3 per ticket, so for $12 we all got to see a movie in a theater, where it was warm and dry. Next challenge, of course, is what do you go to see with two young children that won’t be totally excruciating for adults?

We went to see Paddington 2. Not because we saw Paddington 1 and loved it, and I really didn’t get into the books growing up, though I do know that I share an appreciation for orange marmalade with Paddington. At one point, Paddington 2 had the highest ranking of all movies on the website “Rotten Tomatoes.” So we gave it a shot.

If you get the chance, I encourage you to see this movie. I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone, but this film is filled with humor, decent acting, and a great message. One of my favorite scenes in the movie comes toward the end when Mr. Curry, the head of the neighborhood watch program, squares off with Mr. Brown, who is kind of a foster parent to Paddington in London. Mr. Curry has never trusted Paddington, presumably because he is different. He is, after all, a bear…who talks and wears human clothes. Mr. Curry is constantly trying to turn other people against Paddington, but it is nearly impossible to not like a polite bear with a British accent.

In this scene, Mr. Curry yells into his megaphone, “We don’t want him here!”

Mr. Brown replies, “Of course you don’t. You never have! As soon as you set eyes on that bear you made up your mind about him. Well Paddington’s not like that. He looks for the good in all of us and somehow, he finds it!”

Our scripture for this morning comes from the first epistle of John. This letter would have been written right around the turn of the century, close to 70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. By this time the church has grown, been persecuted by Rome, scattered, and grown some more. And among the challenges the early church faces is the question of orthodoxy. Who gets to choose what is right and what is wrong, especially when it comes to abstract concepts like the nature of Jesus. What was he, a man, God, a spirit? Well John is ready to claim some authority on the matter. In verse 1 he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

It is debatable whether or not this is the same John who was the disciple of Jesus. But this John is at least claiming to be a part of the tradition that traces back to those who walked with Jesus. He is essentially saying, We have experienced Jesus firsthand. We have all the good stories. Pay attention, because this is about to get real.

John then launches into a metaphor about God which he will later use to explain the role of Jesus, which we really won’t get to this morning. John’s metaphor here is the lesser-known “God is…” statements in this epistle. He writes in verse 5b, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”

Light is good, darkness is bad.

Before we push this metaphor out further, I want to offer a warning. We need to be careful how we present this metaphor in the church and the broader world. We talk about light being good and darkness being bad, and the Bible even talks about whiteness being pure and clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

The warning I offer is something that I had never even considered until I studied with African-American theologians and scholars. When whiteness becomes clean and pure, the symbol if innocence, does that necessarily imply that blackness or darkness is bad? I say absolutely not! But I also want to be aware of how people of other races and nationalities hear our witness. And people like me of European descent need to remember that Jesus was a lot darker skinned than us.

So what is John getting at with this metaphor? Clearly God isn’t light, God is the inventor of light. So what aspects of light are we to assume are aspects of God?

First I would say that without light, there would be no life. Our sun is nothing more than a giant ball of burning gas. Radiating off that ball of gas is heat that helps regulate our body temperature, the body temperatures of animals, and the temperature of planet earth itself. Light provides heat, and without that heat, you would freeze to death. If you didn’t freeze, you would starve, because plants need light to synthesize their photos and grow and develop.

Sunlight is the sustainer of all life on earth. Likewise, God is the sustainer, and maker, of all life. So far, the metaphor holds up!

Furthermore, what John seems to be suggesting in this passage is that God is like light in that without him we cannot truly see. Light is necessary to see, even for animals and people with night-vision goggles. Animal eyes and night-vision goggles are simply more efficient at utilizing smaller amounts of light.

If you want to see where you are going, where you are walking, what you are doing, or who you are talking to, you need a little light. (This makes me think of Amazing Grace, and the line, “I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.)

John also teases out the properties of light a bit. He first presents light and darkness as complete opposites. And there is some truth to this. I challenge you to go outside on a sunny day and try to find some darkness. You can maybe find some shade, but that is simply light to a lesser degree, not darkness. There is no darkness in the fullness of the light. And even when you try to block the light, a little often still gets through.

And I remember as a kid making hay tunnels in the barn, where we would have bales of hay stacked in hay mows twenty feet high, twenty feet wide, and fifty feet long. When you tunnel all the way into the middle of the hay mow with twists and turns, there is no light getting in. I remember going deep into the hay tunnels, getting into what seemed like absolute darkness, and just turning on the light on my watch. This little light cut through the darkness, illuminating everyone’s face to a point where it normally wouldn’t have been able to.

Light and darkness are complete opposites. In direct light, there can be no darkness. In complete darkness, there can be no light. Yet, most of the time, light and darkness don’t exist as complete opposites. Instead, we find differing quantities of each, but almost always, some of each is present.

In the middle of the day, I can go into our root cellar, which has no windows, and it is pretty dark, but not completely absent of light. I can wake up in the middle of the night, the sun having been down for hours, the lights all turned off, and I can still read the clock by my bed, or go outside and see the stars.

So on one hand, John is right. God is light, in Him there is no darkness. But what about us? I would say that on the other hand, John is still right. We are neither light nor darkness.

Let’s look at verse 8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

To claim to be without sin would be to be to claim to be in the complete light, no darkness at all. How many people here want to claim to be without flaw or sin? If you claim to be without sin, you are a liar, and lying is a sin. So by virtue of that vicious cycle, you have just confirmed your sinfulness.

But I don’t hear many people claiming to be perfect, at least not seriously. What I do hear is the opposite. I hear talk about people being complete darkness, void of any light, completely evil. And unfortunately, it is always Christians who want to point out the complete absence of goodness in people. These Christians call this position “Total depravity.”

I found this definition of Total Depravity this week: “Total depravity does not mean that all men will display evil to the fullest extent possible, or that one man may never be good relative to another, or “in the right” when it comes to a particular situation; yet it does mean that no man can ever do anything whatsoever that is completely acceptable in the sight of God. The very best acts of fallen man are tainted and imperfect, and thus loathsome before the altogether holy God of creation.”

Christians can be the biggest downers sometimes. Who doesn’t want to hang out with that guy at a party? And why is it always men who are totally depraved?

As I’ve said before, and has been said many times before me, why do we start our theological anthropology in Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1? Why do we start our assessment of human beings with the Fall of humanity, rather than the creation of humanity? Because if we go back two more chapters, God created the heavens and the earth, and said, “It is good.” God created human beings and said, “It is very good.” God created man and woman in his own image, and scripture reminds us that even after the fall, human beings still bear the image of God.

In God there is no darkness, but there is light and there is darkness in varying amounts in each of us.

I think that our assessment of the human condition could use some help from an imaginary, talking bear who wears an oversized hat and coat, and loves to eat orange marmalade. Paddington looks for the good in all people, and somehow, he finds it. Maybe we should, too.

Here’s my proposal. There is darkness and there is light. We see what is good in God, and we see that through Jesus. No one is all good, and nobody is all bad. And for 2,000 years, we Christians have made a priority out of pointing out what is bad, we point out the darkness. And indeed, there is a place for that. But maybe, just maybe, we’ve focused too much on the bad and not on the good.

And let’s be honest, how has pointing out nothing but the darkness worked for the church the last fifty years or so? At least here in North America, I would say it hasn’t worked out well.

What if we Christians became more like Paddington, and looked for the good? If the image of God is still present in every person, then what would change if we focused on the light rather than the darkness?

I believe that we only know what is good and is “in the light” because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is our perfect example of what is good. I want to be the kind of person who looks for Jesus in each person, and let them know when I find it. In doing so, I won’t only be changing the way I see that person, but perhaps I can help them see their selves differently as well. Perhaps I can show people that they are beloved individuals, people God loves, and people that I love.

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