I think one of the challenges for us in a congregation that identifies with the progressive, liberal, more open view of Christianity is to navigate the religious and political disagreements that will be in our midst.
Last week when folks in the congregation were posing questions about many things, one question had to do with people who disagree with us. I talked about listening, about realizing that I might have more to learn, that there were occasions when I could even be…wrong.
And then someone asked whether some of those folks who have a different religious or political viewpoint than many of us have make efforts to learn about, to understand those they disagree with. What are we to do when they are not interested in our point of view, when they are pretty sure they are never wrong?
Or as someone put it later in an email, “Are there pastors in conservative churches devoting worship time or discussions to helping their folks understand liberal thinking?”
Let me come back to that after a brief detour through the portion of Paul’s letter to the people of Galatia that we heard today. I think there are both instructive notes and cautionary notes in that letter that might be helpful as we think about our situation today.
One of the things that we know about Paul is that he was very passionate about what he believed was the truth.
At first, that truth resided in the traditions of Judaism, traditions that were being upset by the followers of this Jesus fellow who came down from Galilee and ate with sinners and healed people on the Sabbath and even turned over the tables of the exploiters in the temple.
Paul cheered on those who would stone these misguided Jews, he went out to hunt them down himself. And then, his world changed dramatically. He had an experience of the risen Christ in some way in his own life, and as he wrote, he now set out with just as much passion to proclaim the good news of Jesus to people well beyond the borders of Israel, well beyond his fellow Jews.
He was so sure he now understood the truth that he wrote that he did not even meet with the leaders of the Jesus’ movement in Jerusalem for three years – Peter, who had emerged as the leader among Jesus’ closest followers, James, Jesus’ brother who had taken on a central role in this emerging community.
We should note that there are other versions of what Paul did after his conversion experience that put him in Jerusalem much sooner than three years, but let’s stay with the argument he is making here.
Because Paul believed he had gotten the truth directly from God, directly from the risen Christ, he apparently did not want other people’s views to get in the way. And since Paul was focusing on the Gentiles – those who were not Jewish and who lived throughout the Mediterranean region – he told the Jesus story in ways that might make sense to those not rooted in Judaism.
Since Peter and James and the folks back in Jerusalem wanted Jesus followers to observe the Jewish laws and customs and Paul did not care so much about those anymore, he began to emphasize faith as the critical factor, not checking off the observance of rules.
Thus the theological and cultural battle was joined in the earliest days of Christianity.
Paul’s passion helped break open boundaries of Christianity and spread it far beyond its original confines, which is good. His rhetoric towards those who disagreed with him foreshadowed the disputes among Christians that continue to our own time.
Wendy Farley, a professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, who has explored how to hold truth in a pluralistic world, writes that Paul’s “dogmatic, self-righteous and intolerant attack on those with whom one disagrees has poisoned Christianity.”
She goes on: “The imagined purity of doctrine justifies us in our natural hostility to those who disagree with us. Paul’s strong condemnation of his opponents and utter confidence that he alone has possession of the true gospel has many imitators throughout history.”
We are going to see some of this played out in Madison over the next 10 days. I think one of the challenges for us in a congregation that identifies with the progressive, liberal, more open view of Christianity is to navigate the religious and political disagreements that will be in our midst.
On Wednesday, June 15, Franklin Graham is going to bring his Decision American Tour to the King Street side of the Capitol Square at noon.
Across the Square, inside Grace Episcopal Church, a coalition of Christians, Muslims and Jews will be holding a counter event called “Neighbors in Faith: A Celebration of Religious Diversity.”
Franklin Graham is the 63-year old son of Billy Graham. He is doing this tour of all 50 state capitols in an effort to, as he says, “proclaim the Gospel and challenge Christians to pray fervently and boldly live out their faith in Jesus Christ – at home, in public and at the ballot box.”
Praying and living out our faith are fine ideas. Where the divide comes is in how we do that around public issues, how our understanding of Jesus’ message gets translated into public policy and election year campaigns.
Franklin Graham has been outspoken in his dismissal of Islam as a “dead religion,” in his mocking of gay rights, in his defense of what he sees as persecuted Christians in the U.S.
While Franklin Graham does not endorse candidates, he has been quite outspoken in support of Donald Trump, perhaps because they both seem to share an antipathy to Islam. Graham asks at every stop on his Decision America Tour for people to imagine the impact on society if the majority of school boards were controlled by evangelical Christians.”
Now I don’t think that on June 15, there is going to be a lot of meaningful dialogue between the folks at Franklin Graham’s rally and the folks at Grace Episcopal. That is not the right set up for meaningful dialogue.
It’s a time for a clear articulation of principles, of beliefs so that the community is reminded that there still are many differing ways today’s followers of Jesus understand his message, that is not just the person with the biggest crowd or the most money or the best public relations effort.
What I am hoping, what I am counting on, is that articulation of different understandings can be done in ways that don’t mirroe what has happened at too many presidential campaign events this season – punches thrown, chairs broken, eggs tossed, blood spilt. No one side has had a monopoly on bad behavior. None of that is an example of living out our faith.
That still leaves us with the questions from last week, though. How do we reach across the chasms that sometimes separate us? Are we the only ones trying to do this? Why does it sometimes feel so futile?
Let me suggest that we are not the only ones trying to do this. Yes, just in the church world, there are groups who are so sure they are right that they have no interest in hearing any other point of view.
You might even think of them like Paul not wanting to have his thinking affected by Peter and James, even though they were two of the people closest to Jesus when he was alive.
Yet Peter and James’ understanding of Jesus’ message turned out to be too narrow as well. It eventually took difficult conversations and powerful experiences to bridge some of their gaps.
But here are just a couple of examples that may not be on your radar.
InterVaristy Christian Fellowship is an evangelical organization based in Madison that focuses on college campuses as mission fields. They are present on about 650 campuses and they host a major gathering of some 20,000 students every three years called Urbana.
Last December at Urbana, Worship leaders wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, while featured speaker Michelle Higgins called Black Lives Matter “a movement on mission in the truth of God.”
While Intervarsity has a long history of tackling racial issues, this was an unexpected move in an organization rooted on the more conservative side of Christianity. They received plenty of criticism, and yet they thought it was important not only to address racial issues, but to have a diversity of voices in the mix.|
Closer to home, Upper|House is a relatively new presence near the University of Wisconsin campus. It, too, would fall on the more conservative, evangelical side of Christianity in its overall orientation.
Yet last fall, it hosted events as part of the UW’s “Tales of Planet Earth” festival exploring climate change, bringing together people across the Christian spectrum. Then in March, it hosted a Reporting on Religion conference that brought together Christians, Muslims and Jews for a day of conversation – and of learning from one another.
David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times who writes from the more conservative side of the political spectrum, had a compelling column urging his readers to do more to become aware of the pain that afflicts so many people in the U.S.
He wrote: “We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.”
A lot of folks at Memorial already do that in many ways. The first step in getting across the chasm is to start getting to know people who are not just like us. Another step is to hear their story without expressing judgment. Another is to find common cause in projects people with differing views can work on together.
Eboo Patel leads something called the Interfaith Youth Core. He was interested as a young man in conversations across faith traditions, but quickly found the traditional interfaith dialogues pretty dull events.
But when Muslim and Jewish and Christian youth began working together on a project and stopped for lunch and one explained why she would not eat pork and another explained why he was a vegetarian and another talked about kosher food, pretty soon they were into an exploration of their faith traditions.
That’s how I think it goes.
That does not mean we need to condone bigotry or hatred or discrimination. It does mean we might want to take a few moments to consider what underlies those attitudes.
Dan Schultz grew up in this congregation. His dad, Jon, was the pastor here for 25 years, his mom helped create some of the beautiful quilts we still have around here. Dan is now a UCC minister himself, serving a congregation in Fond du Lac County.
Twenty years ago, though, he was serving a congregation in central Pennsylvania, a place where manufacturing plants were closing or moving overseas, where workers suffered from asbestosis from working in the plants, where crime was rising, where the social order seemed to have come undone.
Dan wrote about them, “Every time something changed in their lives, it changed for the worse.”
He had no illusions about these folks. “Were they wretched?” he asked. “Yes, sometimes. Were they racist? Great googly-moogly, yes, more often that I would have liked.”
As their pastor, he tried to listen for what was underneath all of this. And he wondered where the church could be for them. He looked for ways the church could serve them, not just write them off as hopeless bigots caught in the time warp of a past that would not return.
Yes, I know, there are so many people who think differently than us, who live differently than us, who face problems beyond what we think we can help solve. And yes, it is easy to get discouraged when we think we might be willing to listen to others but then don’t want to listen to us.
Here’s the thing. I think part of our calling as followers of Jesus is to keep reaching out in ever widening circles even if we don’t always sense others are reaching back.
Sometimes, we may need to stand in opposition to what we hear from others. Jesus had to do that too. But then he would sit down at dinner with a Pharisee or with a tax collector. He would keep the invitation out there to follow him, even when the rich young man walked away.
Maybe all we can do at that point is remember what Jesus was trying to do and then hold each other in prayer and in song.
Hymn # 498 is not a familiar one, but it is not hard to sing. The melody and the words to “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love” cut across cultures and continents and calls us to open ourselves not to an intellectual construct but to love in action. So let’s sing it together.