Sunday, May 21, 2017

Where the Apostle Paul got it wrong

“To an unknown god”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Air-ee-opagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortal’s life and breath and all things. 

From one ancestor, he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by one whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
For centuries, this story has been the model for evangelism. Paul taught us how to toss out the bait. “Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” And then he praises their object of worship. “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.”

Paul sounds accepting…sounds like a man interested in an intellectual conversation about how some come to see God differently than he… then comes the zinger. “What you worship as unknown is actually known, at least to those of us who have a corner on the truth market.

Listen up, says Paul, we know who God is…we know and you don’t and we are here to save you. There is only one way and if you’ll hear me out, I will show you the way. And then comes the topper. Paul says God has ignored your ignorance up until now. God’s judgment will be up on you soon. You’re either with us and “in” or you see God differently and you are “out.”

That’s the sort of thing I heard growing up in the Protestant church but it didn’t make any sense to me…it didn’t square with Jesus’s teachings. The Good Samaritan never once tried to convert the man he found along the roadside. He bound up his wounds and found him help…and then went quietly on his way. The inconsistency between what Jesus taught and what my pastors were telling us is was why I left the church as a teenager and didn’t come back until I became a parent and reluctantly decided that while I didn’t need church, my children did.

It was there that I was inspired to help start the Habitat for Humanity chapter in Cheyenne. It was then at First Christian. Highlands was a big part of it. The founder of HFH was a fellow named Millard Fuller. Millard was a rich man who literally awakened one morning and gave it all to the poor and started HFH. You know how Habitat works. Those who “have” help build houses for those who “have-not.”
Along the way, Millard often ran into complaints from fellow Christians. “I want to do this but I can’t work alongside Mormons…or Catholics…or Jews…or…Muslims or…on and on it went. People. Most often Christians of one flavor or another objected to working with those whose theology differed. Millard’s response was what he called “the theology of the hammer.”

This theology is about bringing a wide diversity of people and faith communities together to build houses and establish viable, dynamic communities. It acknowledges that our political, philosophical and theological differences exist, but we can all find common ground using the hammers and nails as an instrument of God’s Love.

The theology of the hammer recognizes the problems of the world or even the problems down the street can’t be solved by people who find God in one way working alone without others who find God in an entirely different way or, I might add, without those who are skeptics, agnostics or even non-believers. It doesn’t matter how or whether you believe, we believe everyone has been given gifts that can be used to bring us a little bit closer to the Kingdom of God.

There’s another story that makes my point. It’s a Bibles and Beer story. It’s a story that begins like an old joke. “A Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim Imam walked into a bar.” It does sound like the opening of a gag but it is actually how Bibles and Beer began 6 years ago. A Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim Imam walked into Uncle Charlies and invited others of diverse faiths to join us.

A couple of years after it all began, one of our members, a Game and Fish biologist, came with a guest. He was from Kenya, Africa. He was a Muslim from a part of the world that saw very little cooperation or even friendships with Jews or Christians. He too was a biologist, a part of a delegation of African scientists who spent the summer in the U.S. studying with American scientists. This fellow came back every Monday evening and took part in our Bible study. At the end of the summer, they all returned to their African homes.

Before leaving, the entire delegation gathered to share what they had learned while in the U.S. Each took turns telling of the new veterinarian techniques they’d learned or about the wide-variety of research projects in which they’d been involved. When it came time for our Kenyan-Muslim friend to share, he said, “What I learned is that it is possible for Jews, Christians, and Muslim to sit together and study the Bible.”

How different things might have been if that had been Paul’s message that day in Athens. How different the history of the world might have been if there would have been a focus on doing the work of the divine and not how we each come to know the divine from the start; no one marginalized, rejected, discarded, or killed in the name of someone’s limited view of god.

How different it could be if we shifted now from concerning ourselves with whether someone else is a Mormon or a Muslim, a Hindu or an evangelical…whether they are inspired by the Quran or the Bible or the sayings of the Buddha…how different it can still be if we just worked with one another to feed the hungry, house the homeless, comfort the addicted, visited the prisoner…and loved our neighbor.

How different things might have been if Paul had acknowledged the truth in the inscription he found on that Greek altar. The unknown God is the God of all of us.

Sorry Paul…but it is possible, even more likely, that we can live out our faith without being concerned with converting those whose faith directs them to work with us side-by-side. As Job said, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not.” AMEN

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Profile in Courage? Not here, not now

The refusal of Wyoming’s congressional delegation to meet constituents in town hall meetings exhibits a fundamental lack of courage. Yeah, it might be a tough couple of hours, but, some are folks concerned, angry or frightened. Instead of stepping up, they send staffers to face the crowd.

Wyoming politicians haven’t always lacked “profiles in courage.” I read John F. Kennedy’s book by that title in junior high. It gave me a vision for public service. Kennedy wrote of, in his words, “pressures experienced by eight U.S. Senators and the grace with which they endured them-the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses.” Alas, there’s no such grace or risk-taking among current Members of Congress.

It’s useful to revisit times when Wyoming had courageous public servants.

One early hero was Asa Mercer. He had the wherewithal to speak the truth about the Johnson County War. Initially a supporter of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, Mercer came to believe the cattle barons weren’t protecting their interests from “rustlers.” They were trying to drive small ranchers off land they wanted for themselves. Mercer exposed them, publishing a controversial book. The barons endeavored to suppress “Banditti of the Plains.” Mercer was beaten, an arsonist destroyed his publishing office, and he lost his job. But, his 1894 book still stands.  

Stan Hathaway, a Republican Governor from 1967-1975, boldly fought the powerful mining industry and members of his own party to enact Wyoming’s first tax on minerals. He battled the same power base for a Constitutional amendment creating the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. A Casper Star-Tribune headline at the time said, “Stan drops bomb, backs mineral tax.” It took audacity for a Republican to “drop” that bomb on an industry that exercised such control over Wyoming politics.

Teno Roncalio was Wyoming’s Congressman in 1972, when El Paso Natural Gas proposed a crazy fracking project. They planned to detonate underground nuclear explosions in Sublette County to free deep deposits of natural gas. Even the Atomic Energy Commission supported “Project Wagon Wheel.” There were many heroes in this struggle but even though Teno had lost Sublette County by a significant margin, he valiantly fought their battle. After persuading the Speaker to appoint him to the House Atomic Energy Committee, Teno maneuvered to kill Wagon Wheel’s funding.

Governor Milward Simpson opposed the death penalty as a matter of principle. He knew it would cost him the Governorship. It did. Milward’s son Al fearlessly supported gay rights and the right of a woman to choose, costing him the 1988 GOP vice-presidential nomination. When Congress authorized LBJ to escalate the Vietnam, Senator Gale McGee was one of 56 Democrats voting for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. As the war became increasingly unpopular, nearly every other Democrat abandoned the President. Undaunted, though abandoned, McGee maintained support for the war with an unflinching belief that it was in America’s interest.

In state-federal relationships, political pandering almost always overcomes principle. Not so for former Governor Leslie Miller. When FDR proposed expanding Teton National Park in 1943, every Wyoming politician was opposed. Miller, a Democrat, believed the highest use of that region was tourism and recreation. Looking to the future, Miller was alone in testifying for the park’s expansion. He said of the opponents, including a Democratic Governor, “Seldom, if ever, in the history of Wyoming has a project which should be entitled to sympathetic consideration been so grossly misrepresented.”

If only Leslie Miller or other intrepid souls were around to offer similar words to Governor Mead who fearfully insists Wyoming remain the only state unwilling to permit refugee resettlement. Miller’s words would be a welcome retort to the Congressional delegation’s blindly partisan willingness to toss thousands of their constituents overboard to fulfill a campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and to state legislators who voted party rather than conscience to deny expansion of Medicaid to thousands of low-income working people.

Time passes and, sadly, one need look farther and farther back in history for any “profiles in courage.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Today's sermon-Preaching the Gospel of Mary

There are a number of stories and teachings in the Bible that never find their way into the lectionary and are, therefore, are never preached. Take, for example, the story of that time God tried to kill Moses. Try preaching that one sometime.

And then there is this from 1st Corinthians where Paul writes in chapter 11 “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”

Not a very good piece of scripture for a Mother’s Day sermon around these parts. But, you know, neither is it representative of how women are depicted throughout the Bible.

Take Jael for instance. Jael saves Israel. Her story is told in the 4th chapter of Judges. The general Sisera was being pursued by the people of Israel at the request of Deborah the Hebrew Judge. He ends up at Jael’s tent, trying to hide anonymously. But Jael recognizes him as an enemy of her people. After the general went fast to sleep. Jael sneaked into the tent with a tent peg and hammer. The Bible says that she drove the nail through his temple and pegged his head to the ground. Battle over. Israel safe, for the moment.

There was Pharaoh’s daughter who openly violated the Pharaoh’s mandate to kill the Hebrew children and saved Moses…thus saving the Hebrews. There was Rahab who protected the Israelite spies at Jericho and saved their lives, earning her a place in the genealogy of Jesus though she was a prostitute.

Hagar, the slave women, who gave birth to Abraham’s first son and though exiled to the desert protected Ishmael and nurtured him so that he could follow God’s call to father one of the world’s great religions, Islam.

You know the stories of Esther and Ruth…and then it was the women, not the frightened men, who were the first to find the tomb was empty.

The stories of all of these women among so many others demonstrate Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians do not do justice to women. But there is another story of a fiercely independent woman that didn’t even make it to the Bible. It is the story of Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus told in the Gospel of Mary from which Cathy read this morning.

There were a number of writings that didn’t make the cut. Like Mary’s gospel, the gatekeepers felt many of them were too strange in their message, too gnostic, that is they taught that salvation comes from acquiring knowledge rather than from the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, these texts were outlawed and 2nd century Bishop Athanasius, the same Bishop who decided the Book of Revelation belonged in the Bible decided the Gospel of Mary should not and ordered it and others be destroyed.

But some of the monks defied the Bishop. They weren’t willing to allow them to be lost forever. So, they gathered them up, sealed them in large pots and buried them in the desert in upper Egypt, where fragments of the Gospel of Mary, like that you see on the front of your bulletin, were discovered in 1896. It remained unpublished until 1938.

The Gospel of Mary exposes a theological understanding of women and their role in the faith far different from those words of Paul I read. As the narrative opens, the Savior is engaged in dialogue with his disciples. Afterward, Jesus departs, leaving the disciples distraught and anxious. According to the story, it is Mary who speaks up with words of comfort and encouragement. Then Peter asks Mary to share with them any special teaching she received from the Savior, “Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know (but) we do not.”

Mary recounts a conversation she had with the Jesus. "I saw the Lord in a vision,” Mary says. “He said to me: “Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure." I said to him, "So now, Lord, does a person who sees a vision see it through the soul or through the spirit?"

In the conversation, Jesus teaches that the inner self is composed of soul, spirit/mind, and a third mind that is between the two which sees the vision. The next four pages are missing. When the narrative resumes, Mary tells of the revelation given to her in a vision. The revelation describes an ascent of a soul, which as it passes on its way to its final rest, engages in dialogue with four powers that try to stop it. Her vision does not meet with universal approval.

Andrew said to the brethren, "Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas." Peter is offended that Jesus selected Mary above the other disciples to interpret his teachings. He asked, "Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?"

However, Levi comes to Mary Magdalene’s defense. The Gospel of Mary says, “Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That’s why He loved her more than us.” And when they heard this, the Gospel reports, they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.
Thus, the Gospel of Mary exposes as untrue, the church tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, it is a piece of theological fiction. The Gospel of Mary also provides us with a convincing argument from in the earliest days of Christianity, for the legitimacy of the leadership role of women in the movement.
Theologian Karen King wrote a book titled The Nag Hammadi Library, in which she makes these observations:

“The confrontation of Mary with Peter, a scenario also found in The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of the Egyptians, reflects some of the tensions in second-century Christianity. Peter and Andrew represent orthodox positions that deny the validity of esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to teach. The Gospel of Mary attacks both of these positions head-on through its portrayal of Mary Magdalene. She is the Savior's beloved, possessed of knowledge and teaching superior to that of the public apostolic tradition. Her superiority is based on vision and private revelation and is demonstrated in her capacity to strengthen the wavering disciples and turn them toward the Good.
Taking the 1st Corinthians verses I read earlier out of context is not fair to Paul, though throughout his writings are verses that have been used to marginalize women. But, if you read his letters in their entirety and watch what he does more than what he says, you can imagine him joining Levi in the debate with Peter and Andrew. It was Paul who wrote that "in Christ there is neither male nor female."
Priscilla and her husband Aquila were side-by-side companions of the Apostle Paul in his work both in Corinth and in Ephesus, and Priscilla is portrayed as the more gifted and capable teacher, a clear-cut case of a knowledgeable woman being used in the teaching of a man with no hint of an objection from Paul.
Further, in Paul's letter to the church in Philippi he urges an unnamed fellow-worker to "help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” In the letter to the Romans he mentions other women who labored with him "in the Lord.”
We won’t put an end to the debate over whether the Bible is a patriarchal text…but we know what we have experienced in the life of this church…and that is the critical role the women among us have played and continue to play.
It is impossible to imagine Highlands without their commitment, without their leadership, and without the contributions they make of the gifts God provided each of them. To witness what they do, what they accomplish…to witness their leadership at Highlands, one might not help himself in exclaiming as did Libanius, a 4th century pagan philosopher QUOTE: “What women these Christians have.”
So, on this day when we celebrate what women we Christians have, let us give thanks to God for all their leadership in our faith community. AMEN