For this week’s events and happenings, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice “Love Thyself” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE. Link included for mural image “Love Thyself” by artist Artist Victor “Marka27” Quinonez.
Hi, Friends, it’s so good to be with you through your screens today. As always, I’m wishing I could look you in the eye or shake your hand or give you a hug today. Soon, soon, we hope.
It’s Thanksgiving this week. I’m not giving a Thanksgiving sermon. I’m talking about some of the ways our faith has failed in public life and how we can find a more healthy and useful faith together for the future there. There will be a little talk about race, there will be more talk about politics. I really don’t like politics very much, I shared a couple weeks back that I think we’re a little too attached to its significance, and I look forward to a time when socially, we’re not talking about politics so much. But we still are, and it’s been an important area where our faith has gotten off course, so there’ll be a little of that today.
But as we get started, real quickly, as Thanksgiving is upon us, please celebrate in a way that doesn’t get you or anyone else sick. And please – if that’s hard or lonely – please set an intention to love this week. Ask yourself, how – on Thanksgiving – can I love God, can I love myself, or can I love my neighbor? Vernee set us up with one way to think about loving God and our neighbor on Thanksgiving, as we metaphorically set places for memory, for justice, and for healing.
But open question for you in the chat as we get started, how can you love God, or love yourself, or love your neighbor this Thanksgiving? If you’ve got an idea, put it in the chat on zoom.
I’ll start. I’m taking an extra day off this week to walk and rest and play with myself and my kids, and I’m going to call 5-10 people I don’t normally call, and send them some love and encouragement. How about you?
This pain doesn’t last forever. We are resilient people. We’re gonna get through this, beloved. Alright?
Now, last Sunday, at the newcomers’ gathering we hosted after service, a person who knows a fair bit about the church scene said: Reservoir has roots in the American evangelical church, right? This place used to be Greater Boston Vineyard. And he asked: do you mind saying a few words about where the church comes from and what good things have we kept from those roots?
It was a great question. Reservoir was founded to be a church that took all the best we could from the Christian tradition and made it accessible in a not-very-churchgoing, post-Christian culture. This is why we exist. But the people who started this church had roots in really particular forms of Christianity, in American evangelical culture – and in two places in particular. A national college ministry called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that tries to help Christian college students become devoted followers of Jesus for their whole lives. And a group of churches called Vineyard Churches, that grew out of the Jesus Movement, a 1970s Chrisitan version of hippie counterculture.
Now we aren’t affiliated with either of those groups anymore, but it was easy to answer what good we’ve held onto. Those of us that had roots in the InterVarsity group like me learned to love reading the Bible there. We took away a sense that the Bible, as the primary source document of the life of Jesus and the life of faith before and after him for centuries, grounds us in the history of our faith and is one important way God speaks to us still. And from the Vineyard churches, we took away a belief that it is more valuable to experience God than to have particular thoughts about God. And we came away knowing and still practicing that an experience of God can be fun, wild, mysterious, unpredictable, but always healing, and good, and powerful.
Not all of our roots have been as positive or helpful to us, though. Our church left the Vineyard denomination five years ago primarily because they were going to kick us out if we grew as a healthy, fully inclusive church home for LGBTQ people. So we left. I’ve been disinvited from seminars and talks I was scheduled to lead, I’ve been cursed at, been told I’m not a real Christian, all because I lead a fully inclusive church, or because while I love and teach the Bible, I don’t read it all rigidly or literally. I’ve spoken with many people who were disowned by family, kicked out of churches, even threatened with eternal damnation because they no longer shared one of the beliefs of their Christian family or community. Sorry, but that is messed. up.
White evangelical Chrisitans are also outliers in American public life on a lot of things, and not all in what seem like good ways. I’m not going to name them all, as the media covers this pretty well these days.
Probably about half this church, maybe a little more, has some roots or personal experience with white evangelical Christianity in our faith history. But there have been a lot of reasons that some of us, and millions of people nationally, have looked for ways to practice our faith outside of this particular Christian tradition. There are enough of us, in fact, that a prominent Christian academic named David Gushee wrote a book about this, called After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. And it has been influencing my preaching in this Salt of the Earth series.
The book has 9 chapters, and the last two are on politics and race, because these are two areas where evangelical Christians have stumbled most badly, and have most harmed the witness to the good news of Jesus.
So, today, in our 4th of 5 weeks on looking for a better future for our faith, one that is healthier and more useful in the world, that lives up to Jesus’ call for his followers to salt the earth, we ask how does our faith find its way out of its troubled history on both race and politics? And again, I’m aware that today, I’m addressing politics more than race.
Rather than a deep dive with a single scripture, we’ll take the briefest of looks at four different verses, each of which illustrates a statement I will make.
Here’s the first.
Most of the modern American Christian church has White supremacist, colonial roots we need to disentangle.
Mark 2:22 (NRSV)
22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
Jesus says that new work of God requires new containers. Renewing work of the Spirit of God requires change in our mindset, our assumptions, and even in our institutions.
I taught a mini church history class this fall – looking at some of the best and worst of our faith’s past as well as some productive ways forward. And the four sessions were built around four famous, hugely influential figures in church story. And someone noticed: they’re all white men. And indeed they were. And not just that, but one was a violent colonial emperor. One presided over executions of his theological enemies. One was a slaveholder who advocated for the expansion of slavery in American’s Southern colonies. And the last refused to fully support the American civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, as most white Christians did not at the time. It’s too long a history to tell here, but suffice it to say, a faith that began in the Middle East, a faith who early roots were North African, West Asian, and Mediterranean olive skinned and brown skinned mothers and fathers – that faith was in time centered, developed, transformed into the faith of white colonial Europe and then America. Most of Christianity became in time a colonial religion, and slaveholding religion, and a religion that centered the art and thinking and music and culture of the people who became known as White.
This has done harm both to the faith and to the world. And over the past century, the Spirit of God has through many means, in many times and places, through many contemporary people I would call prophets been showing us this needs to change. The Spirit of God wants us to pour out onto the ground the old, poisonous vinegar of White Supremacist Christianity and drink the new, healthy wine of the true faith of the God who made and loves all peoples and cultures of the earth. Will we collaborate?
Here’s the second.
2. God cares about the physical condition of the earth and its inhabitants, especially people.
And the scripture is the final verse of Jonah.
Jonah 4:11 (NRSV)
11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
We’re thinking about spending Lent, 2021, the season before Easter, with the prophets of the Old Testament, rediscovering what is most important to God. And one of those little books of prophecy, Jonah, is just charming in how it communicates God’s love of the earth, even when we hate parts of it. This is very much true of people we hate – this is the center message of Jonah. But it is even true of animals. Twice in Jonah, animals are appointed by God for specific tasks, and animals are also part of what God loves, and wants to protect and save. I bring this up in contrast to how Christianity has developed over the years, in that it became a religion that was primarily taught as a path to the afterlife, an escape from an earth that God may not fully love. The result of this heresy really has been a faith that has often demeaned and desecrated the earth and its inhabitants, especially its supposed non-Christian inhabitants.
God, though, so loves the world. God so loves the kosmos – the whole created order. God so loved entering into relationship with creatures of the earth, that he gave his one and only son that we could have eternal kind of life, both in the future and now as well. God cares about how we’re doing today, not just tomorrow.
3. God takes sides.
Deuteronomy 10:17 (NRSV)
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
I love this. What it means for God to be impartial isn’t to treat everybody exactly the same. What it means that God is really just is that God looks to do right by people who have been done wrong. God has unique compassion and interest in people who are suffering. The theology shared by most people of color of the earth, by most of the poor of the earth, has learned to put it this way, that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” God takes sides.
When God acts and moves on this playground of the earth, and sees bullies and the bullied, God doesn’t give them all a high five. God wants to lift up the bullied and get the bullies to stop. When God sees takers and those taken from, God isn’t interested in giving them both a wave and a smile. God wants to make that injustice right and stop it from happening again. This is what the scriptures teach about God.
And last of my four big points I’m setting up today,
4. The Bible is political, and so is the gospel.
The Bible’s whole message, and the good news of Jesus in particular are political. Now by political, I don’t mean partisan. You’ll hear, I don’t think God is a republican or democratic. I don’t think God is a capitalist or socialist or communist. I just mean that the Bible and the gospel are not merely private or personal – though they are both of those things. But they are also public, and publicly disruptive.
Jesus said there are two great commandments of God, which are really one. The first he quoted from here.
Deuteronomy 6:5 (NRSV)
5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Love the Lord your God was literally love the God of Israel. Love this particular god, the good one, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God who is speaking to you, walking with you. The Israelite faith was not at first monotheistic; it was monolatrous, which means people were told to love and worship and follow a particular god, and not other ones. It was a call not just to faith, but to allegiance.
And the second great command: love your neighbor as yourself, was most often expressed as Love the stranger among you, for you too once were a stranger. The law of Israel, as much as it called for love of God, called for hospitality and dignity for foreigners, for refugees, for migrants, because all of us were once these things.
This was political – commands for how to be in public life. And the New Testament faith of Jesus picks it up without a beat. The most common formula of faith in the New Testament was to say, “Jesus is Lord.” In Greek, which the New Testament was written in, this was a direct assault on the Roman formula: Caesar is Lord. Love of Jesus was to say: no human ruler has my devotion or allegiance. It goes to Jesus instead. Again, political.
And all of this, almost all the Bible really was written by and to colonized and oppressed people groups seeking freedom in many forms. Political.
To be apolitical – to say faith has nothing to do with public life, to say churches should stay out of the big things that impact us all away in the world, to say things to do with labor and business and money and politics and land and laws, to say that’s all too controversial so we should just not talk about it, this is a luxury of the privileged. If the way the world is ordered is working really well for you, maybe you feel like you can be apolitical, not talk about public life. But most people need to, and our faith does too.
Now there are bad and good ways to engage with faith and public life, so let me mention just two ways I think we’re called to live this out.
One is by decolonizing our faith. The other is by practicing a healthier integration of faith and politics. Here’s what I mean.
Decolonize our faith. This means we recover its sources amidst multiethnic, oppressed people groups. We practice again our faith’s radical commitment to the dignity and empowerment of all people. This means we root out habits and practices leftover from a white supremacist, colonial, patriarchal past. (Trusting, paying men more than women. Sidelining and neglecting children. Preferring the intellect and art and history and leadership of white people. Lots to root out.) And we pay particular attention to the voice and work of God among people historically marginalized. To be followers of Jesus, the brown-skinned Middle Eastern Savior of the world, we’ve got to chart an anti-racist future together.
Now this is not aligned with any particular political or ideological strategy for doing these things. We’re going to disagree on methods sometimes. And this isn’t us hopping on to a trend outside of our faith, this is us seeking to recover the healthiest, most useful faith possible. We’ve actually been addressing this a fair bit the past couple of years and will continue to do so.
Develop a new way forward for faith and politics. I’m no political scientist or expert here, but the path David Gushee lays out in his book is one I endorse. In the era of Trump, parts of this stand in obvious contrast to the so-called Christian right, but parts are pretty different from tendencies in what might be called the Christian left as well.
I’ve given us a lot today, but I’ll close with Gushee’s 7 criteria for healthy, faith based engagement in politics.
Foster a Jesus-Centered Identity, not a Civil Religion
If you follow Jesus, you are God’s child first, and American or Democrat or anything else second. And same is true for everyone you will ever meet.)
2. Practice Politics of Hope, not Fear
(Riling up people’s worst fears, or letting some politician or news outlet or corporation do that to you makes you a sucker and a fool, and a meaner, harder person. It is not the way of Jesus, who is always calling us to hope, renewal, and possibility. Sorry to say this so strongly, but there it is.)
3. Keep Critical Distance from All Earthly Powers (vs. Partisanship, Partnership, or Surrender)
(Don’t over-love your political party, or any brand or company or whatever. They’re not all equal, but they are all flawed.)
4. Learn from Christian Social Teaching Tradition (vs. hard ideologies or improv)
5. Develop a Global Perspective (vs. Parochial or Nationalist)
America first, or Blue States first, or whatever isn’t God’s way in the world.
6. See with Vision for the Common Good (vs. Self-Interest)
Protecting my dollars from taxes, protecting my religion from governmental intrusion, protecting my kids’ needs above others, protecting my preferences – this is human and may have its place, but Jesus will always stretch us to consider the common good in public life and to live and love and give and work and vote accordingly. And lastly:
7. Practice What We Preach
Anything you expect someone else to do for the world, ask if you are willing to do your one-person sized bit of that yourself, And say yes to that.