We All Have Questions: Should the Church Be “Political”?


Lessons: Psalm 24, Matthew 22:15-22

A church member referred me to an article on the front page of last Monday’s Marin IJ about “election stress.”[i] Yes. Yes indeed. Can I see a show of hands of people who will be glad when this presidential election is over, even if you do care desperately about the outcome?

And so it’s with some trepidation that I bring up politics, especially when many of us need a break, a Sabbath, from all the craziness and incivility. I’ll do my best to land somewhere short of crazy and uncivil this morning. This fall, we’re looking at the questions people have about faith, and one very common question is whether the church ought to be “political.” “Political” is in quotation marks because it can mean everything from elections to governing to anything to do with the use or abuse of power, and often what people really mean when they ask this question is, “Should the church talk about things that make me uncomfortable?”

Oddly enough, some point to today’s passage in Matthew as proof that God and politics should be kept separate. Others have cited this passage as proof that Jesus taught that our duty as Christians is to support the government no matter what.[ii] But something else is going on here; something entirely different. We’re told from the outset that the Pharisees are plotting to entrap Jesus. To do this they join forces with an unlikely ally – the Herodians. This is one of those, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” situations. The Pharisees were highly observant Jews who despised Rome and Roman rule of their homeland. The Herodians, on the other hand, supported the Romans. They both want to get rid of Jesus. They form a super PAC. Read more →

We All Have Questions: What Do We Believe About Other Faiths?

Lessons: John 10:11-18, John 3:16-21

Why did the chicken cross the road? I learned last week that this old joke really is very old – it appeared in a New York magazine in 1847 and was so well known by the 1890’s[1] that it was already being lampooned. I’m awful at remembering jokes but my personal favorite variation is actually one of the few jokes I can remember. Why did the punk rocker cross the road? Because he had a chicken stapled to his lip. I don’t think they told that version in 1890.

The chicken joke is funny because the answer is not funny. When someone tells you a joke, you expect funny. When what you get instead is literal and obvious and not funny, like “to get to the other side,” it reverses our expectations and that’s what makes it funny.

Brian McLaren used his version of this joke as the title for his book about Christian identity in a multi-faith world: Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?[2] Before looking for a punch line, just imagine the scene. Four of history’s greatest religious leaders, not fighting, not arguing, not condemning one another to eternal damnation, not launching crusades or jihads, but walking together. Doesn’t that already reverse some of our expectations? Doesn’t it reveal our unspoken expectation – that different religions are inherently and irreversibly incompatible, even hostile toward each other?[3]

Take, for example, the way that the Christian Church – at least much of the Church for much of its history – has interpreted John 3:16. John 3:16 may win the prize for the best-known Bible verse. It shows up at sporting events and on In-n-Out beverage cups. Certainly, it offers comfort to many people. But what is Jesus saying here? Jesus says “everyone who believes…” will have eternal life. To be sure, the writer of John’s gospel thinks that making a decision about Jesus is earth-shaking. In Greek, John 3:16 actually says, “whoever believes into” Jesus shall not perish. The same Greek word that is translated as “believe” in the passage is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as trust or loyalty or faithfulness. So this is about trusting Jesus enough to follow him. Trusting him enough to become his body in the world.

The problem with this passage is that many people read into this passage that Jesus is implying a different outcome for those who don’t follow Jesus. People read into the passage, “I’m in with God, you’re out,” even though the core of the passage is what Martin Luther called “the Gospel in a nutshell” – that God is fundamentally a God of love, that love is the logic by which the kingdom of God runs, and that God’s love for the whole world – not just some of it, not just some people – outshines everything else. Even though if we read on, we learn that Jesus adds, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Period. Not part of the world. The world.[4]

Think about it a minute: If you’re a Christian, if you love Jesus as I do, however you want to see him or talk about him – as Lord and Savior, as the Son of God, as the Word made flesh – whatever – how do you think Jesus would treat Moses, Mohammed and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) if they came to a crosswalk together? Not to mention Conficious and Lao Tse and anyone else. Would Jesus push them aside and demand to cross first? Would he trade insults with them or demand that they kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them, and once on the other side, welcome each of them to join him for a meal, maybe even taking the role of a servant, hanging up their coats, getting them something to drink, making sure each felt safe, welcome, and at home?[5]

When we look at the Jesus we meet in Scripture, I feel very comfortable that Jesus would practice the neighborliness he preached. He’s the one who saw value where others saw flaws. I doubt he’d feel insecure or threatened. I can’t picture him making anyone agree on fundamental doctrines before he’d cross the road with them. So why is it that we – the Church – have read this passage as though it tells us who is “in” with God and who is “out”? And not surprisingly, that it declares that we are “in”? Huh. Maybe that tells us more about us than it tells us about Jesus.

Brian McLaren says Christians know how to do a couple of things well. Some of us know how to have a strong Christian identity by opposing other religions. Almost as though that’s required, as though being a Christian necessarily means being against anyone with a different belief system. These folks might act friendly to people of other faiths but really, what they want them to do is convert to Christianity.

Some of us know how to be positive and accepting and wouldn’t dream of trying to convert anyone, but the way we do this is by weakening our Christian identity. We make it matter less that others are Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim by making it matter less that we are Christian.

McLaren suggests there’s a third option, a Christian identity that is both strong and kind. A Christian identity that’s vibrant and defining, and also hospitable and accepting. A Christian identity that moves us toward people of other faiths in wholehearted love, not in spite of their non-Christian identity and not in spite of our own Christian identity, but because of our identity as followers of God in the way of Jesus.[6]

What gets in the way of our doing this is not Jesus. What gets in the way is the same human impulse that causes people to read insiders and outsiders into John 3:16. It’s that persistent need to think in terms of us versus them. To be fair, there’s plenty of us-versus-them all through the Bible. If you were here last Sunday, you heard the Reverend Yolanda Norton remind us that the Bible is just people, trying to make sense of God, themselves and each other. That means the Bible is full of us-versus-them, insiders and outsiders, tribes and clans, chosen and not chosen, we’re right and you’re wrong, in both the Old and the New Testaments. That’s people. In John Drinkwater’s play about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln has a conversation with a zealot for the Northern cause. She’s against everything about the South. When she asks President Lincoln for news of the war, he replies: “Yes, there is news of victory. They lost 2,700 men, and we lost 800.” The woman is ecstatic. “How splendid!” she says. But Lincoln finds no joy in this news. He adds, slowly, “Thirty-five hundred human lives lost.” But the woman interrupts, “Oh, you must not talk like that, Mr. President. There were only 800 that mattered.” With deep sadness, Lincoln responds, “Madam, the world is larger than your heart.”[7]

That’s human history. It’s just that much more insidious, however, when our tendency toward tribalism rears its ugly head in religion, because then the claim is not just “We’re matter more than you do,” but “We have God on our side.”

Maybe, just maybe there was a time in human history or pre-history when there was something about an us-versus-them worldview that helped human survival. In the 21st century it’s glaringly apparent that this worldview could destroy us all. It was already outmoded 2000 years ago, which is why Jesus taught the good news of reconciliation, the good news of loving our neighbors as our selves. For God so loved the world, says Jesus. John 3:16 is a love letter from God. With that much love for the whole world, should it surprise us if it turns out that the one who is the way, the truth and the life meets and includes those outside our little circle?   Who are we to limit the wonderful ways that God can work with the world that God so loves? Who are we to hem in God’s grace? Who are we to say that those others in God’s flock, described in John Chapter 10, are not Hindus? Jews? Buddhists? Muslims? Atheists?

Jim Rigby, a Presbyterian pastor in Austin, Texas, challenges the traditional Christian interpretation of John 3:16 this way: “If I believed in hell I would not want to be ‘saved’ from it. Why would Jesus teach us to love everyone and then leave some of us behind? Where is the ‘good news’ in saying most of humanity is doomed to eternal torture, but that me and a handful of my selfish Christian friends can save our own skin by exploiting a glitch in the rules? Forget that! If there were a hell, love would compel us to go minister there.”

Note he said, “go minister there,” not “go to convert them.” A Christian missionary went to a Muslim majority country specifically to convert Muslims to Christianity. After some time there, he got a sick feeling that he was serving neither God nor the best interests of the people around him, but instead, was serving the colonizing agenda of the religious clan that sent him. So he changed the direction of his work. He started mobilizing Christians and Muslims to work side by side in helping the poor. “Something happens,” he said, when we work together for the poor. We all change. I know that both the Christians and the Muslims feel they are encountering God in one another, and together we are encountering God in serving the poor.”[8]

Brian McLaren writes, “The invitation is for Christians and non-Christians to seek a deeper conversion that begins in our deepest religious identity and transforms all life. … We still cherish our distinctive religious identity but we abandon religious supremacy. We are converted from hostility, from seeing the other as a threat to be feared, pitied, eliminated, or refashioned in our image. We are converted into hosts and guests, practicing and receiving hospitality, sharing our treasures and gifts.”[9]

This great gift – the gift that God loves us all – to the multi-faith world is also a gift to us. It challenges us to be more Christ-like. To be better followers of the one for whom the encounter with God always led to a fresh encounter with other people as well – especially others unlike us. It challenges us to develop more and more into a joyful, peaceful, loving, contagious strong-benevolent Christian identity. Because everyone is crossing roads. Many, like the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan, cross the road in fear and prejudice to avoid contact with the other. But some, like the Samaritan, “cross the road in compassion and solidarity, moving toward the other to touch, to heal, to affirm human-kindness.”[10]

What does this look like for us, here on the ground, so to speak? In Marin it’s hard not to know people of other faiths. We have church members married to people of other faiths. There is no substitute for learning about other religions and getting to know the people who practice them as individuals. That’s how we overcome stereotypes and get past that kneejerk reaction to avoid people who are in some way different. I gather with a group of rabbis and pastors every month and what impresses me most is what we have in common in this increasingly secular culture. Above all, we as Christians can teach our children the truly good news of our own faith, which is that in Jesus we see how God loves everybody. God loves the whole world.

McLaren writes, “Our varied histories have brought us to a crossroads. We can stand our ground here on our opposite corners and defend the frigid distance between us. Or we can cross the road.”[11]

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2016 all rights reserved.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), pp. 1-2.

[2] McLaren.

[3] McLaren, pp. 2-3.

[4] David Lose,

[5] McLaren, p. 3.

[6] McLaren, p. 11.

[7] “Abraham Lincoln” is a somewhat fictionalized play by English poet and playwright John Drinkwater (1882-1937) about the 16th President of the United States. Drinkwater’s play opened in England in 1918 and on Broadway in 1919.

[8] McLaren, p. 245.

[9] McLaren, p. 257.

[10] McLaren, pp. 270-271.

[11] McLaren, p. 272.

We All Have Questions: What is the Bible?


Lessons: John 1:1-14; Genesis 1:1-3

Note: today we welcome guest preacher The Rev. Yolanda Norton, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, San Francisco Theological Seminary. Ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Norton is completing her doctorate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University.

Greetings friends! It is wonderful to be with you on this beautiful fall, California morning.

Please join me in prayer: God, grant that your peace, grace, and mercy abide with us in this space. Call us to those things that are bigger than ourselves. Let your Word prevail. Let your people be reminded of your presence with each breath. Amen.

So I before I begin this morning, I must confess that I spent the better part of the last two months trying to figure out what I did to your pastor during my interview process at SFTS. I assume that I must have done something wrong because while I was delighted to receive an invitation to be with you all this morning and I am always humbled by a pastor’s invitation to stand in the pulpit and profess something, the invitation to answer the question “what is the Bible?” on World Communion Sunday in 20 minutes or less seemed like a bit of a set up!

It is a big question!

Read more →

We All Have Questions: Where Is the Spirit?


Lessons: Galatians 5:22-23; John 14:15-17

My ninth grade English teacher, Miss Hall, seemed to me to be about a hundred years old. She wore old lady dresses and old lady shoes and had old lady hair. It was years later I realized she couldn’t have been much older than in her mid-sixties, which gets younger every day. Whatever age she was, Miss Hall was definitely old school. She’d made it her crusade to teach serious, hardcore grammar, spelling and – believe it or not – penmanship. I come from a family that’s probably already too attached to grammar. The other day I almost bought one of my siblings a t-shirt that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” But Miss Hall taught me things I did not know. The conditional tense. The use of the possessive with gerunds. I know; I’ve already lost most of you.

Miss Hall had us memorize grammar and spelling rules, and carefully write them in our best penmanship. We also had to memorize and write lists of words, the longest being the list of prepositions. For those of you who haven’t thought about the parts of speech for a couple of decades, in simplest terms, a preposition is a locater word. It tells you where something is in space or time. The alphabetical list of prepositions began with “aboard, about, above, across, after, against …” and ended with “…up, upon, with, within, without.”

I hadn’t thought about this list of prepositions for a long time, until, in response to our inviting people to bring us their faith questions, a church member asked, “Where is the Holy Spirit?” Read more →

We All Have Questions: Why Do We Pray?


Lessons: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-26; Philippians 4:4-7

You are in my prayers. Please pray for me. Let us pray. These words trip easily off our tongues in the church. Praying is what we do. Prayer and Scripture are the pillars of our worship and much our life together.

And yet, I probably hear more questions about prayer than any other spiritual issue. Behind these questions lie our beliefs about what prayer is. Most people think of prayer as asking God for something. Our Scripture passages today support this. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In the First Thessalonians passage, he writes, “Beloved, pray for us,” meaning something like, “Pray for our well-being, for our ministry, for our ability to persevere.”

The challenge in looking at prayer as asking for something is that is raises more questions than it answers. Doesn’t God already know what we need? Doesn’t this kind of prayer assume God is some kind of Wizard of Oz, or some kind of divine jukebox: plug in your prayer instead of a quarter, and get your wish? What about all those people praying their hearts out who don’t get the job, don’t get cured of cancer, don’t avoid foreclosure, don’t manage to keep their kids off drugs? What about all the people whose lives are scarred by terrorism, wildfire, earthquake, warfare? Did they just not pray hard enough? As a philosophy professor once put it, “If God can influence the course of events, then a God who is willing to cure colds and provide parking spaces but is not willing to prevent Auschwitz and Hiroshima is morally repugnant.”[1] Read more →

Doubts with a Cherry on Top


Lesson: 1 Corinthians 13:9-13

Today’s sermon was a conversation between our two pastors about their questions and doubts about faith. It is the introduction to our fall sermon series, “We All Have Questions.”

We welcome your questions!

Together we serve,
Joanne and Diana

Image credit: Zechariah Judy, “ice cream Sunday” 2010

My Labor, My Work, My Ministry

On the Sunday before Labor Day, we hear from people in our community of faith about how they respond to God’s calling in their work. Our speakers this year were Dale Steinmann, Sharon LeClaire, and Chuck Wright.

Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-7

Dale Steinmann, Marin’s Math Mentor

A while back I walked through those doors with two little girls in tow. They had just turned age two and four.  Those little girls are now 23 and 25.  Maggie has just moved to Boston where she is embarking on a Masters of Nursing program.  Carter graduated from Mills College last year, she is gainfully employed, supporting herself, and enjoying the life of an urban hipster in Oakland.  I want to thank all of you for being their church family and helping me in my efforts to be a good Dad as they were growing up.  Since we are here to talk about vocations, I am very clear on the fact that raising those children was the most important work I will ever do in my life.   Certainly the most important God-centered work I will ever do.  I realize how blessed I am to have two grown children who still like me, most of the time, and still make time for me in their lives.

On the topic of important work in which I have been involved, I would like to mention that for over a year I invested every Monday night in the Pastoral Nominating Committee that called Rev. Whitt to our pulpit.  I am as proud of that work as any I have done.  I would also like to say to my sisters and brothers on the committee and Chairman Phil Heinecke, thanks for putting up with my contrary opinions on all those Monday nights.

Read more →

A Piercing Quiet


Lesson: 1 Kings 19:1-15a

First a note about the story I’m about to read from our scriptures. I think you may appreciate a bit of background. Elijah is a prophet of God who lives in the kingdom of Israel. The prophet Elijah is like the Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt of prophets. He is the best of the best and just swept the medals at the religious Olympics – no one came close to matching what he and God can do. Case in point, the story that leads into today’s passage.

King Ahab is the current ruler in the Israelite kingdom and part of his job is to ensure that all the people are following God appropriately. However, King Ahab took Jezebel, a princess from another land, to be his queen. Part of their marriage agreement was that she would bring her own prophets and would worship her own god, named Baal. This was not good news to Elijah or to God. The religions clashed. Read more →

Religion and Rules


Lesson: Luke 13:10-17

The closing ceremony for the 2016 Olympics is tonight, and I, for one, am sad. I’ll miss the breathtaking daring of the gymnastics; the excitement of a sprint; the sheer skill, effort and dedication of the athletes, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.[1] Especially this year, when it not only gives us a break from the presidential campaign news but also lifts up values sometimes missing in that campaign, values such as international cooperation and friendship, and good sportsmanship.

I’ve been intrigued by some of the Olympic’s arcane rules. Did you know that a false start in a track race results in automatic disqualification? Talk about heartbreaking. You prepare for years to get to the Olympics; one false start and it’s over. You go home without even running the race. Anyone in the pressure of the moment, with the whole world watching, could make a mistake like jumping the gun. It happened to several runners this year and it even happened to Usain Bolt in a world championship in 2011. So I looked it up. It used to be that one false start resulted in a warning to all the runners. Anyone in the same race who jumped the gun a second time would be disqualified, even if it wasn’t the first offender. But what was happening was that slower runners would jump the gun on purpose to throw off everyone else’s timing and give themselves an edge.[2] So in 2010, they changed the rule.[3]

So there’s a good reason for this harsh rule. In today’s passage in Luke, Jesus is confronted with a rule that, in this context, seems harsh. The disagreement arises when a woman with a debilitating spinal condition shows up on a Sabbath while Jesus is teaching. Jesus sees her, touches her, heals her. The indignant religious leader fumes: “There are six days on which work ought to be done.” He’s referring to the fourth commandment of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.”[4] Read more →

Interpreting the Present


Lesson: Luke 12:49-56

I’d guess many if not most of you were a little uneasy about saying, “Thanks be to God” in response to this particular Scripture passage. With what’s going on in our world in general and in the presidential campaign in particular, it seems as though the last thing we need is a gospel text that encourages more division. This is not a reading for Sunday school. It’s not a reading that offers comfort. But hang with me here. Jesus did not have an evil twin or suddenly get a personality transplant. This is the same Jesus who reminded us that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.[1]

First of all, Jesus is frustrated. He says as much, and if nothing else, this passage shows Jesus responding to stress in a very human way, a way with which most of us can identify. He says he has work to do and he’s under incredible stress to complete it in the time he has left. Who wouldn’t be frustrated? Now, does that mean Jesus knew for sure he was going to be arrested and crucified? Maybe, or maybe it just means he knew the risks of putting love of God and love of neighbor first. Read more →