Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Reflection

by Rev. Laura Barclay

John: 1-5, 12: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What had come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (NRSV).

What really strikes me in this lectionary New Year’s text is John’s vision of Jesus as a light against the darkness who enlightens his children, whom the author says are given power to be “children of God.” Such language conjures up images of Lord of the Ring, with Frodo facing the dreadful gates of Mordor, or the movie Gladiator, with Maximus alone having the courage to challenge a corrupt emperor. It brings to mind epic sagas of far off and exotic places. But let’s examine the world and context in which our author was writing.

According to scholars, the community of John’s followers had recently undergone a split. Theological differences arose between those who believed that Jesus was both human and deity, and those who believed he was all-deity. This community splintered and separated, and those left behind were wounded, broken, and left nursing their wounds from the fracture in the body of Christ. These people in John’s community, the legacy of the beloved disciple, saw themselves as inheritors of the legacy of Christ. It was up to them to teach who Jesus really was and share the hope that came from Jesus’ incarnation.

The pain of John’s community at the bickering and separation of their own seeps onto the paper but it doesn’t define them. They share the love of God who became human in Jesus and experienced the pain of rejection like John’s community. And, I believe they found salvation in embracing that hopeful love that reorients them facing ever outward in a broken world.

Because of the importance of the task at hand, this monumental story they have to tell, they speak of the light and the darkness—loaded metaphors for good and evil, being in the presence of God and outside of it. The darkness is a vast and seemingly formless void, just like what God witnessed at the beginning of everything. Yet the light of hope we see in Christ shines through the ages and guides us into community and toward one another. We are the presence of Christ and hope in the world, because Jesus gave us the power to be God’s children.

And that is the power of community. Like John’s community, we’ve experienced fractures. Whether denominationally, ideologically, or economically, these last few years have not been easy. But that’s the great thing about a new year. We look to God and know that no matter how much we’ve been bogged down in recessions, unemployment, war, health care debates, and the unseemly partisan rhetoric of the world around us, we have the power as the children of God to set a new tone. We can’t keep bad things from happening, but we can react with love. Together, we can be an unfailing light that fights back the darkness of despair. We can exit our church walls after the 11:00 o’clock sermon is over and vow to continually help our neighbors and share our love with them.

We must bring hope, peace, love and joy beyond the walls of the churches and religious buildings to which our faith too often remains confined. John Chapter 1 is an encouraging reminder to go forth—we have an example to follow! That example is a poor Jewish baby born 2,000 years ago who had the courage to love. That blessed child walked with God and exhibited love to everyone. It wasn’t a polite, meek love, regardless of his humble beginnings. It was a love that challenged the times, threatened the status quo, and overturned (sometimes literally) the position and power of those in religious and political authority. It was a love that called him to heal, embrace, lift up, and teach. He crossed social boundaries to show that love. What a powerful teacher we have in that child, who gave hope to a world wrought with suffering, oppression, slavery, and death. Let us remember to shine our light in the darkness, no matter how overwhelming. Let us remember that together, our lights shine brighter to overcome the darkness of brokenness, exclusion, hunger, injustice and poverty. Let us have the courage to love as Jesus loved and loves us still. Let us be open to the love of others. Let that be our resolution.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Fear of Christmas

by Rev. Dr. Joe Phelps

Sunday’s performance of Rutter’s Magnificat teems with sophistication as the basses and tenors chase sopranos and altos up and down the musical score, accompanied by a full orchestra. This highbrow work is sung in Latin, which, like a British accent, makes anything sound more elegant and urbane.

But what we call the Magnificat, or the song of Mary, is as down-home as a labor union rally. “The big cats are going down because we’ve oppressed far too long. God has heard the cries of the poor, so you’d better get ready for change you can believe in.”

No wonder we prefer Mary’s song in Latin set to lofty music. What better way to obscure the politically charged, radically subversive message of the woman chosen to carry the mystery of Divinity in her body than to civilize it to death?
We’ve done the same thing to the whole Christmas story, really. Two thousand years of carols about the perfect baby Jesus (“no crying he makes”) and angels that look like Precious Moments dolls have camouflaged the hard-hitting implications of the story. For example, let the previous compliment to the British be accompanied by a recent Reuters story of competitive British parents creating a “manger chic” for Christmas pageants, with exotic fur throws purchased for their children cast as sheep, and ivory bridesmaid dresses for their darlings selected to be angels.

The Christmas story begins with a recognition of who is in charge (“a decree went out from Emperor Augustus”) and his demand that all people in the occupied land return to their hometown to register to pay taxes (quick: name a Christmas carol that includes the word “tax”). That’s what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from where they lived in Nazareth, 30 miles to the north--imperial powers throwing their weight around, treating ordinary people like puppets, using their might to meet their own needs. Some things never change.

There’s the stable birth, complete with cattle that are lowing, whatever that means. Other than a cute twist for future Christmas pageants, does the stable detail tell us something about where the sacred is most visible?

And then there are the shepherds, the salt-of-the-earth, working-class folk who are the first to hear the news from “a multitude of the heavenly host.” This is akin to a dignitary sending birth announcements to hotel clerks and fast-food assistant managers instead of to the social and political elite.

We read that the shepherds were “sore afraid” by their nocturnal visitors. Translation: it scared the heaven out of them. You’d be scared too, both by singing night angels but also by their message that interrupts the regularly scheduled programming with the announcement of a new deliverer who will come from outside the prescribed places of power in order to shuffle the deck and deal out a new hand.

But can we hear this message?

I don’t see many of us afraid like the shepherds at Christmas. Maybe we fear not scoring a coveted Zhu Zhu pet--this year’s hip toy. Or we’re afraid our credit cards (symbols of the System if ever there were one) will max out before our shopping is finished. Or maybe we’re afraid that we won’t “get in the Christmas spirit” this year.

But the fear of Christmas that awakens in us an understanding of how the world should be ordered? Not so much.

Karl Barth, a German theologian during World War II, warned, “Christmas without fear carries with it fear without Christmas.” That is, lives void of reverence for the sacred carry in them the seeds of fear that grow unquestioned and unchallenged. These lesser fears paralyze us and ultimately bear the fruit of havoc in our world-- competition, hoarding, retaliation, isolation.

But what about the life-altering chill from hearing a message announcing that the Holy One hears the cries of the poor, comes among us, and condemns our wars and conflicts with the simple words “and on earth, peace”? What about the heart-in-throat evoking realization that this “good news of great joy” really is for “all the people”? What if it’s true that Love is stronger than hate? What if we really are meant to live together as one people, united in common parentage, humanity, and hope?

I wonder if even my Jewish and Muslim friends, who reverence their own faith stories just as I do, might be invited as honored guests to see beyond the details of Christmas and the specificity of the Christian faith in order to recognize a picture that is profoundly and universally true: The Heart of Love wants to scare us awake from the sleep of life-as-usual into a new way of being stewards of these beautiful lives we’ve been given.

Once frightened awake we are assured in Mary’s song “God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.” As the angels said to the awakened shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”

Joe Phelps is Pastor of Highland Baptist Church and Ridgewood Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jimmy Carter and Gender Equality

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Former President Jimmy Carter stated in a recent video appearance at the Parliament of World Religions meeting in Australia, “Every generic religious text encourages believers to respect essential human dignity, yet some selected scriptures are interpreted to justify the derogation or inferiority of women and girls, our fellow human beings.”

Carter has become a champion of women in religion over the past decade since his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention, and his humanitarian record is impeccable. His comments made me reflect about the global state of women in religion. Carter said, “It is ironic that women are now welcomed into all major professions and other positions of authority, but are branded as inferior and deprived of the equal right to serve God in positions of religious leadership. The plight of abused women is made more acceptable by the mandated subservience of women by religious leaders." This is an incredibly astute observation. While American women are slowly closing the pay gap in the secular world (MSNBC reported recently that women in DC make 92 cents for every dollar a man makes, though they lag far behind in the South), women are far from having equal representation in the pulpit.

Perhaps a perusal of Southern Baptist literature may tell us why. As America’s largest Protestant denomination (though their numbers are declining), their view on women says a great deal about conservative religion and women’s representation therein. The December 2009/January 2010 issue of SBC Life, Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention states:

“The Bible clearly teaches that men and women are equal in value and dignity and have distinct and complementary roles in the home and the church…If families do not structure their homes properly, in obedience to the teachings of Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, and Colossians 3, then they will not have the proper foundation from which to withstand the temptations of the devil and the various onslaughts of the world. This in turn impedes the husband and wife from modeling redemption in their home God has called them to (Ephesians 5:22-33).”

The SBC believes that women are separate, but equal to, men (they call it complementary equality). Women’s domestic duties are just as important as those of the men who run the church, and those who violate this teaching invite the devil into their homes. They clearly ignore Galatians 3:28; Jesus’ attitude toward women; Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene before any other after resurrection, making her the Apostle to the Apostles; and all of the women who are cited as church leaders in Paul’s letters, including Phoebe (a deacon), Priscilla (church leader), Junia (a prominent apostle), and others (10 female leaders in Romans 16). SBC leaders are threatening that the devil may take hold of your household if you violate their view of female subservience. They also ignore the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, which showed separate can never be equal. But, I don’t wish to get in an argument over prooftexting. That rarely serves any purpose but to find and distort passages to fit one’s own ideology, as demonstrated by the above excerpt from SBC Life with Ephesians 5:22-33.

Rather, I agree with Carter’s view that the entirety of scripture is liberating. While you can prooftext and distort passages out of their historical context, the Bible as a whole has a bend toward freedom, love, and hope. In the Old Testament, Moses frees his people with God’s help, God watches over his people in exile, and God sends prophets and leaders to proclaim social justice (Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 22:3, Amos 5:24, Isaiah 1:17, Nehemiah 5, etc.) as an exhibition of the love of God toward all God’s children. In the New Testament, Jesus comes to declare that the poor are blessed, spends time with the social outcasts (tax collectors, lepers, and women), and has a large following of female patrons and supporters who funded Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). Jesus was politically dangerous to the Romans because he served a higher power that demanded love, social justice and obedience to God’s way, not Caesar’s. I take comfort in the liberating and logical words and deeds of Jesus over the fear and ludicrous suggestions espoused by the SBC that my husband and I might embrace the devil because we are both ordained and share housework. I love my God, and 400 years of Baptist history has taught me that personal experience and the priesthood of all believers make my love and testimony valid before my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.

Carter promotes women in ministry in his words, as well as religion being used faithfully to follow God’s liberating call in the world rather than to restrict and build hierarchies. I think Carter is trying to say that if the glass ceiling is broken at the top, and women can be seen as pastoral models and leaders, then our view of God and society will be transformed. If a woman’s perspective in religion is valued, than perhaps Ephesians 5:22-33 will be seen less as a justification for the devaluation of women and more of a treatise on loving understanding between the sexes.

I’d like to close with Carter’s most powerful words: “At their most repugnant, the belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo. It also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair and equal access to education, health care, employment, and influence within their own communities.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

How Far Is Too Far in Religious Politics?

by Dr. Ken Massey, pastor of First Baptist Church of Greensboro, NC

As a Baptist desirous of defending church state separation and religious liberty, I am troubled by a growing practice among Catholic leaders.

I’m referring to the practice of withholding communion from elected representatives who vote in ways that are not consistent with Catholic teaching. Catholic clergy across the country have either refused to give or have asked officials like Rep. Patrick Kennedy to abstain from communion because their votes are contrary to Catholic dogma. Should any religion use ultimate spiritual leverage to get a vote from our representatives who happen to be adherents of that religion? When does political pressure from religion turn into extortion?

Regardless of the issue or the religion involved, what we are seeing from the Catholic Church is a dangerous precedent that crosses the line into church-state entanglement. We have entered a minefield when ecclesiastical leaders use spiritual coercion on politicians so they vote according to sectarian doctrine.

I am not protesting Catholic discipline in general, only that which is directed at our representatives for the explicit purpose of making their votes line up with Church teaching. And I’m not suggesting that religious groups should not lobby for their causes. Rather, I’m arguing that severing a Catholic politician from their primary means of grace (Communion), leaps far beyond the typical political pressures of money and support. A Catholic should, if they believe the Church’s teaching, consider their immortal souls in danger if they cannot receive communion. A Baptist would just join another church, but for a Catholic politician it might feel like a spiritual gun is being held to their head.

When religious rulers step in between public servants and their sworn ultimate duty to uphold the Constitution, it seems to me that they have crossed a line. Threatening House and Senate members so that they vote with the Church is an unconstitutional goal that effectively creates congressional seats for the Holy See.

The U.S. has avoided the religious wars that entangled the Imperial Roman Church over the centuries. We did this not because we refused to elect religious people, but because we refused to elect men and women as representatives of their religion. Our congressional leaders represent ALL persons of ALL beliefs in their congressional districts. Our founders knew the tragic history of religious politics and rejected it.

This spiritual strong arm on elected officials is bad for the Church because it will create backlash. Many will refuse to elect otherwise capable Catholics if they think these politicians will be obligated or pressured to vote as directed by The Church. The same would be true if Muslim members of Congress were obligated to “vote the Koran” or if Methodist Senators had to check in with their bishop before they voted.

This practice is also a step down the wrong road for a country that values religious liberty. If you think political warfare between secular political factions is hurting our country, just wait for an injection of sectarian religion. There’s nothing quite like a mandate from God to kill compromise and justify any and all means necessary to achieve a goal. We don’t need religious exclusionists taking the mainstream hostage as we see in other countries.

Our country does not need Baptist or Catholic representatives. We need U.S. representatives that vote for the good of the country—a country that has refused to give preference to any religion but instead liberty to all.