My mother phoned last week which is always a pleasant occurrence. She had an amusing anecdote to share which helped to disperse the cloud and rain of that day. She told me that she had a call from my uncle, Ian. Not to be confused with my brother Ian, this is my father’s younger brother. Anyway, Uncle Ian had called to tell Mom that he had just come back from visiting his oldest daughter, Lynn, who lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. While there, they had attended the Episcopal church just down the street from where she lives. Coming out of the church that morning, Uncle Ian spied a black limousine with some official looking guys standing around it. He asked his daughter what that was all about. Lynn said, “Oh, that’s Governor Charles Baker’s car. Those are his bodyguards.’ Uncle Ian asked mom, “Can Kim beat that one?” i.e. Has he ever had anyone like that come to his church? I guess I was supposed to be impressed that the governor goes to the same church as his daughter. Things like that don’t tend to impress me much. Not that I don’t respect what people like governors do, it’s that I respect what everyone else does just as much.
What this story did do was awaken me to the values of our society. We honour, and may even worship, wealth, such as people who ride in limousines. We equate wealth to success, success to power. We believe that more is better. We believe we have a right to own and thus possess and the more we possess, the more powerful we are. We have come to believe we have a God-given right to have dominion over the land. We have come to believe we can own God’s creation. We have come to believe that a government can simply, by its presence on the land, own it, and if we buy it from the government we can own it and do what we like with it.
We honour our industrious natures which have brought growth, prosperity and civilization to an otherwise virgin world. We have fought wars to protect what we have and that has led us to believe that might is right. We believe we have earned what we have and assume that the rest of world wants to follow in our industrial capital ways of privilege and want to live as we do.
Lastly, we have come to believe, with a pride which develops from our wealth and power, that we are right. It becomes easy to ‘look down’ upon the lives and beliefs of others from our lofty pinnacles. Listen to the rhetoric of our society and one comes to readily see that there is a thread of superiority within it.
I have always found it interesting that it is hard for people of means to understand that there are people who choose another way of life. They assume that those who don’t aspire to what they have are the #2’s of the world, those whose have tried and failed and are left to settle for their lot in life. They, and quite honestly, we, because we too are the privileged on the scale of the world, become suspicious of other ways of being and thinking and dismiss other cultures and beliefs, as we have dismissed the indigenous people as uneducated, unsophisticated, a people who believe in myths. And God weeps for God has developed such a wondrous diversity of children who have all grown to become suspicious of each other. God weeps for God sent his only begotten son to gather the displaced, the dismissed, the defiled, along with the rich and the powerful into community. God weeps, for ever since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome, in effect, institutionalized the church, the values of imperialism have seeped into this community of faith.
We developed an order of priesthood, the hierarchy of bishops, and archbishops, cardinals, and eventually a Pope. One group divided from the next by the degree of their holiness As the church grew in influence, power and wealth, it became defensive, declaring they had the only truth and all those who thought differently were heathens and sinners. You know the history of the inquisitions and crusades which followed. God continues to weep.
You know today of the difference that lies between right wing Christians and those of us who see ourselves as more liberal in our views. I had someone declare to me, “You’re not a real Christian.”
Maybe not in your world. I am ready to confess that I am no saint but I know the truth of what I believe in my heart and I respect that you may believe or see things in a different way. I suspect some of you have heard this story before. Not so long ago. members of the Jehovah Witness came to my door. After disclosing to them who I was, I told them how I admired their dedication to their faith. Really, I do. Who among us would go door to door professing their faith? One of the women said to me, “Never mind that, are you telling people the truth?” “Which truth?” I replied, “Yours or mine?” “There is only one truth.” “And that would be your truth,” I responded. “It’s God’s truth!” “Or so you have been told by those who interpret God’s word for you.” I could see her winding up for a fight. I could never imagine how one argues matters of faith. It is faith, not empirical fact. It was a futile conversation. I would have been willing to continue the conversation if there had been a willingness to listen. I don’t have much time to enter into a debate which is trying to prove the other wrong. I thanked them for their time and closed the door.
Let me tell you of another way for God’s children to live in this world. Many have asked why Jesus thought he needed to be baptized of John in the wilderness. After all, many believe that Jesus, being the son of God, must be sinless. So, what sin was John going to wash away? Even John thought so. “There is one coming among us who is greater than me. I baptize with water, he with fire and the Holy Spirit. I am not fit even to untie his sandal.” So, was the baptism of Jesus an attempt to have God publicly ordain his ministry? Was it and act of humility? Let’s take a step back.
We know that John and Jesus were cousins, probably second cousins. John grew up as a PK, a preacher’s kid. He grew up in the temple and his father was grooming him to become a priest, just as he was.
No one knows what really happened but somehow John left this all behind and went wandering in the wilderness. One theory is that John could not take the hypocrisy he found in the institutionalized church.
He went to a place w here he could hear only God’s voice. Some followed him. He challenged the entire nation of Israel to come to the wilderness and repent of their God forsaken ways.
From the time he sat on his mother Elizabeth’s knee, he had heard stories about his cousin, Jesus. Stories of Auntie Mary, the virgin, and a manger, and a star, of angels and heavenly hosts, of the prophesies of Simeon and Anna at the temple, and Jesus debating with the Pharisees.
Although Jesus’ life initially followed the path of hammer and saw, John knew he had been anointed by God. Little wonder he felt a little intimidated when he saw Jesus standing on the shoreline. Do you know what the climax of this story is? Surprisingly, it is not the moment Jesus comes up out of the water and the heavens opened. That might have been the most dramatic moment of the story, but it is not its climax. The most crucial moment is when Jesus leans down from the river’s edge, steadies himself with a hand upon John’s shoulder, and steps down into the mud. Why? Because, at that moment, Jesus, although having been divinely anointed to his ministry, respects what John is doing and honours his ministry. This was not Jesus patronizing John. This is Jesus honouring John for doing what he can and, because of this, God is well pleased.
It seems to me that this story comes to us today in our fractured world with great wisdom. Simply, respect for others is the way to tear down walls. The truth of others may not be your truth but it doesn’t mean it is not a truth. I heard an indigenous elder say the other day that the only one who has the right to destroy the earth is the one who gave birth to it. You’ll not find that in any of our scriptures, but it does not mean it is not a great truth.
A Muslim wisdom. Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams, they all have different names but they all contain water. Just as religions do. They all contain truth.
Buddha. Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, people can not live without a spiritual life.
Pope John Paul. Science can purify religion from error and superstition, but religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.
From the Quran. If the sea were ink for the words of Ali (God), the seas would be consumed before the words of our Lord are exhausted.
But, but, but, we stammer in our defensiveness and our arrogant need to be right, what about salvation by grace alone? I know nothing in other religions that contradicts that belief. What about salvation by the cross alone? That is the theology of St. Paul. I don’t remember anywhere Jesus saying that. What Jesus did say is that he sacrificed his life so others would know the redemptive power of love, that nothing is more powerful than the love of God for God’s creation. Well, what about Jesus saying he is the truth, the light and the way? Jesus was the truth, the light and the way, but did he say he was the only light, truth and love?
The one that fills me with shame is when we believe we have the only way to God and, that others who follow the same ways of peace and love, will spend an eternity in hell because they didn’t confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour? Did Jesus ask the Samaritan woman he sat at the well with to convert to his religion? No, he simply shared with her his truth. And what would he have converted her to if her had, Judaism?
Remember that Jesus was a Jew. He had no intention of starting a new church. He said, “I have come to fulfill the law not to destroy it.” He came to put the heart and soul back into the institutional church. The truth is there is more which binds us together than tears us apart. It is our own need for justification that grants us the arrogance to look down on others, to define them from us. What if we all could take a step down into the mud? What if we respected the faith and ministries of others enough to honour their rituals? As one wise person once said, “All of our faiths are like pieces of different colour stained glass reflecting God’s omnipotent light in so many glorious ways. Together we make a beautiful reflection of God. Separately, we are just one shade of God. Respect. It will allow us to see the full beauty of God.