Sunday, July 9, 2017

Religious Know-it-alls

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I saw this phrase this week in something I read: Religious know-it-alls. It refers to people who are confident they know what God thinks and whom God loves. They are also confident that they know whom God hates.

I saw a Facebook post this week warning the participants of the Women of the ELCA Triennial Gathering that people from a particularly vocal congregation would be picketing outside the Convention Center in Minneapolis. They say that the ELCA is a false religion, because of our legal acceptance of all people, including who are homosexual. They also insist women should be silent in church, that women pastors are an abomination, especially Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and that women who are active in church leadership are serving the antichrist.

The leaders of this group are religious know-it-alls. Yes, this is an extreme example of contempt and hatred. But these emotions and opinions are expressed everywhere, with very loud voices. We have all heard and maybe even experienced them. When we decide for God whom God loves and whom God hates, we enter a risky place unless we look to Jesus as our role model.  

We find that kind of role modeling in this text from Matthew. Jesus talks about himself and John the Baptist. The crowds love them both, follow them, support them, talk about them. If this was happening today, there would be Facebook pages, and Twitter and Instagram posts. There would be news interviews and soundbites galore. That’s how popular they were among the people.

However, the leaders had different responses. They were religious know-it-alls. John fasted and lived in the desert when he wasn’t preaching and baptizing. He resembled the Prophet Elijah and preached like him, challenging the powerful people of the day to change their ways. King Herod had him arrested and killed.

Jesus hung out with everyone: sinners of all kinds, foreigners, religious leaders, tax collectors. He touched lepers and talked with women. And the leaders arrested and tried him and turned him over to the Romans, who killed him. The religious leaders were not able to see the God that John and Jesus presented to them. They were not able to see that God welcomes all, accepts all, forgives all.

And 2,000 years after Jesus, we still have trouble with that. I have seen and heard and read so much this past week alone: TV news, Facebook posts, sermon commentary, books, and so forth about how divided we are as a community, as a nation, and as a world. Jesus must be weeping at all the hatred he sees despite his sacrifice for us.

So, how do you know whom God loves? How do you decide?

Here are some stories of people who made acceptance of all an important part of their lives. They are working to accept all people as Jesus would.

These two stories are about accepting people of all faiths, but they could equally apply to accepting people who are gay or lesbian, disabled, immigrants, homeless, and so forth.

… In 2004 in Pittsburgh a group of Muslims joined together to form an ummah, a worshiping community. But until they saved enough money to build a mosque, they needed a place to meet. They needed space for Friday midday prayers and daily prayers during Ramadan, the month of fasting.

They approached all the churches in town, asking to use their fellowship halls. And they were turned down by everyone, until they spoke to Trinity Lutheran Church. It turns out that Pastor Fred had recently participated in an educational event about the things that Islam and Christianity have in common.

The Council agreed to let the ummah use their hall. In return, the Muslims invited the members of Trinity to join them for iftar, the meal Muslims eat to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The two congregations worked together to clean up the building. Eating and working together, they got to know each other and became friends.

The Muslims now have their own community center and they continue to celebrate iftar together. Pastor Fred says, “They basically want the same things we do. Love their God, love their families, and contribute to their country.”

… Brandon Robertson is the speaker at the Franciscan Chapter meeting I am going to in a few weeks. It has been recommended that we read his book, “Nomad.” It tells of his spiritual adventure from rigid religious know-it-all to an expansive acceptance of all.

He tells this story: As a senior in high school, he met two Muslim boys. At first, he tried to convince them to become Christians. He said their God was a pagan moon-god named Allah, that they were commanded to kill anyone who did not accept their faith, that they were out to destroy America, and that they worshiped cows. These were all things he had been taught or heard on TV about Muslims.

As he talked with the boys, telling them that what they believed was wrong, the Muslim boys began to laugh. Those things were not what they believed. The Muslim boys had also been told untrue things about Christians, and they all laughed together at the falsehoods they had been taught.

They spent time getting to know one another, and realized how much they had in common. Their face to face conversations enabled them to respect each other and each other’s beliefs even though they were different.

… I believe this is what Jesus calls us to do and be. He does not need or want any religious know-it-alls. He wants people who are on their own spiritual journey, learning day by day to love and accept as Jesus himself does.

There is much in our culture which has caused us to be unkind to others. There are constant negative voices which tell us one side, one person, is right in God’s eyes, and just as many voices telling us the other side, the other person, is right in God’s eyes.

The truth is that God loves both sides, both people. It’s true that God doesn’t always like what we do and say, but God never stops loving.

Our task is to work hard to not be religious know-it-alls but to be open to face-to-face conversations. When we know and understand those with whom we think we disagree, we will most likely discover we have more in common than we ever thought.

I also admit that there will be those with whom we will never agree, such as the leaders of that vocal congregation. While we may be willing to talk with them, they would never be open to hearing what we have to say. For folks such as they, we can merely, and powerfully, pray for them to hear the truth in God’s heart.

Please pray with me. God of love and mercy, help us to love those whom you love. Amen