Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Come and See"

(A sermon preached on 1/15/2012 at All Saints' Episcopal, Littleton, NH)

There are certain words and phrases that should be used with great care:  especially when considering those you are speaking to.
For example, adults speaking to teenagers should be careful before saying “When I was your age....”
No matter how good your intentions, the teen is likely to think:
  1. You were NEVER my age
  2. You are speaking only as an authority telling me what to do
As an Episcopal priest, I try to be very selective with the word “must”.
Like the phrase “when I was your age”, “must” within church has too often been used to express unquestionable authority.
“You must go to church on Sundays”
“You must give your money to the church”
“You must obey these rules”
“You must hold these beliefs”
So it is carefully, with great thought, that I used these words to close my current newsletter article:
“We must invite others---skeptics and believers alike---to “come and see”. 
These words, “Come and see”, are used in this morning’s Gospel (John1:43-51).  They are first used a few verses before our excerpt this morning:
Jesus turns and sees two men following him: 
“What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”
Soon afterwards, Phillip is called by Jesus to “Follow me”.  This leads to an  exchange between he and Nathanael:
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
In the tradition of Jesus in the Gospel of John, we must invite people to “Come and See”.  We can no longer sit idly by and hope that people will come to visit us and stay as members of our community.  Jesus did not simply walk around hoping people would form a long line behind him.  He went and asked people to “come and see” where he abides:  what kind of new life he is living and is offering to others.  (From the Diocesan Come & See manual)
This DOES NOT mean that we are to tell people that they must join our church, or believe as we do, or even become Christians.... 
The must is the invite.
We are not only called to live out our faith by loving God and neighbor as ourselves, but to share that we choose to live this way.  
We are to demonstrate our faith, and even at times do the thing that many of us are most afraid of:  talking about it with others!
Many of us have been scared off by those who share their faith with an “in your face” style:  usually with a not so veiled message that failure to comply means punishment in hell.  We are right to recoil and reject so called evangelism that threatens and condemns those who are “outside” of whatever has been declared “in”.
This type of so called witnessing hasn’t just hurt the groups and individuals deemed outside, but they have been devastating to the name of Christianity.    The negative view they have created has not only been hurtful to Christianity:  they have prevented many Christians from sharing the truly important aspects of our lives with others.  
After all, our faith opens our hearts and minds to see and experience:
the beauty of creation
love of our neighbor
the promise of good news for the poor
movement towards justice and peace
hope for the world
If these are indeed the things that we value, and if this is the community where we come together to celebrate these ideals and work towards their realization, then it is critical that we learn how to share the impact that they have on our lives with others.
If we fail to try and talk about our values, giving into fear and worry over potential awkwardness or offense, we will prevent ourselves from forging honest relationships with others, and we will be leaving Christianity to be defined by those who would use it to exclude and condemn.
It’s not easy, but it’s that important...
So:  how do we share our faith with others?
It believe it begins with honest awareness:  Old Eli tells young Samuel to listen and respond to the Lord.  Eli then tells Samuel to honestly share what he has heard:  don’t be afraid and don’t hold back.  
Awareness refers to being fully present with those with whom you interact.  While sometimes we might enter a conversation with the intent to share our values, more often than not, the right time to do so may is within a conversation where we are carefully listening to what someone is saying and we are invited to respond.  
The key to these conversations is openness and vulnerability.  Genuine sharing is risky because it allows for the possibility to be changed, as well as rejected.  It’s worth remembering that none of us are finished products:  we all have new ways to encounter God and learn from each other.  If we ourselves are open to transformation, we will not only continue to learn and grow, but others will better hear what we are saying, regardless of whether they agree or not.   
And finally, when the spirit moves you do so, be willing to invite people to come and see your church community:
Come and see why All Saints’ holds a place in your heart, what it offers you and the community, and why it receives your time, talent and treasure.  
Remember:  the invite is only to come and see.  By doing so, the hope is that those you invite will, at the very least, better understand what one community is doing in the name of Jesus.  
And, perhaps, they will want to see more...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More on Cee Lo's "Imagine"

For some reason, I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking about my post on Cee Lo’s “And all religion’s true.”  This is not usual for me…

So, upon reflection and some early morning writing, I want to give a little more credit to Cee Lo’s change to Imagine.

If we imagine that there’s no heaven or hell, no country, and the rest of the vision leading up to the line, then it’s not a stretch for the results to be that “And all religion’s true.”  In other words, religion becomes more purely the way of life that one subscribes to, that’s not based on saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong”.   Religion becomes one’s particular ordering of life attuned to one’s genuine understanding of the world, and thus “all religion’s true” because it becomes one’s way, not the way.

That seems to fit Cee Lo’s explanation of his lyric change.  It also affirms Tripp Hudgins response:  "Given the religious strife in the world, expressing a love for humanity through all the world's religion was generous and very appropriate for a New Year celebration."  

I still prefer Lennon’s version because the way religion currently gets used is like the things that the song imagines no longer:  heaven, hell, country, possessions…imagine these no longer divide humanity.  In Cee Lo’s version, “all religion’s true” is a results of imagining, where in the original religion is seen as one of the things that currently keeps us from each other’s mutual benefit and understanding.

It’s possible that Cee Lo was addressing what some certainly hear in the original lyrics:  that imagining “no religion” is a call to reject all religion as a bad thing.  Certainly I’ve encountered that understanding, but I come back to the idea that the song as a whole imagines what it would be like if we didn’t use these things as weapons of division.  It is not a call to simply reject all understanding of afterlife, country, religion and possession.  Instead (repeating my last post’s ending) the vision of heaven, the love of country, the wisdom in religion, and the use of one's possessions is intended to bring us into community and closer together.   The hope of the song, when we finish imagining, is to see the possibility of connectedness and mutual respect from within our differences.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cee Lo's "Imagine"

I have two thoughts on Cee Lo's controversial version of John Lennon's Imagine, where he replaced the phrase "And no religion too" with "And all religion's true" on the New Year's Eve broadcast:
1)   Cee Lo, in his public performance of Imagine, has every right to make the performance his by changing notes and lyrics, PROVIDED that he was within the copyright law permissions of the song's performance.  Changing lyrics without permission of a copyrighted song is a violation.  Only Cee Lo and whoever currently owns the song (Yoko?) know whether or not this is the case.  I'm assuming that with a well known piece like Imagine, that he had permission, since people were certain to notice the change.  Regardless, fans of John Lennon need not be up in arms over changing the "sacredness" of the words.  That's artistic license.  Bono and U2 do this all the time with their own songs and lyrics (so they certainly have the legal right, even if their fans don't always like the changes).  Cee Lo certainly wasn't trying to pass his version off as the "real lyrics".  Perhaps it was naive of him to think that he could change something like Imagne without people really reacting  (which I have to say, is unlike the Bible, where people get away with changing the "lyrics" all the time!)  
2)  Having defended his right (to a point) to change the lyrics, I think it is an interesting question as to whether or not one agrees with Cee Lo's understanding that arises from the change. 
In his blog post "Cee Lo, Tebow and American Fundamentalisms", Tripp Hudgins writes:  "Given the religious strife in the world, expressing a love for humanity through all the world's religion was generous and very appropriate for a New Year celebration."  
"I will say that it's all about love....It was all done out of love and out of peace and unity and tolerance and acceptance and all those many wonderful things that seem cliche and a little bit cheesy."
I agree with the point of both Hudgins and Cee Lo's statements.  But clearly this is NOT what everyone heard in the words: "And all religion's true."

Some likely think that this means that every religion is equal.  And since some religions say that only their religion is true, it’s clear that, one way or another, that there’s something not true here...
I’m also concerned with the reality that many people have been abused by words from religions.  That's not true.

People also, in the name of religion, condemn others.  That's not true either.
I'll give Cee Lo the benefit of the doubt that he was trying to be inclusive.   And I do believe that there is truth to be found in most religions.  But the statement that “All religion’s true” just isn’t.
John Lennon’s lyrics work best because the song imagines the end of all the things that people use to justify hurt, superiority, and injustice.  These include the pursuit of heaven, country, religion and possessions at the expense of others.  The song imagines what it would be like if we didn’t use these things as weapons of division.  Instead, the vision of heaven, the love of country, the wisdom in religion, and the use of one's possessions is intended to bring us into community and closer together.   The hope of the song, when we finish imagining, is to see the possibility of connectedness and mutual respect from within our differences.
Call me a dreamer!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The bishop, the "shock jock", and the surprise of God's love

Yesterday I heard an amazing testimony to God's love, as well as an example of remaining calm in the midst of an anxiety producing storm.

My former bishop, The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, found himself with a Cleveland "shock jock" who had mocked the bishop's (and the diocese's) statement:

"God loves you. No exceptions."

The broadcast does a good job setting up the circumstances that led to the bishop being in studio.

Mark was simply remarkable despite being cut off and provoked over and over again (especially in the beginning of the "conversation"). He never raised his voice and never responded with anger, while all the time demonstrating a strong sense of mission to proclaim the surprising love of God.

You can listen to the broadcast here.

The comments from the listeners are rather appreciative of the bishop.

Lynda Bernays wrote: "Thank you, Bishop Hollingsworth, for stating so clearly, over and over, that God loves us. You are a voice of radical welcome and acceptance in a world that has way too much rejection and hatred -- everyone needs to know that God's love is ever-present, and through that, our love survives (no matter what)."

Jane Russell Freeman wrote: "I so appreciate hearing Bishop Hollingsworth's non-reactive, calm proclamation of God's love with a very provocative radio interviewer. His responses were a model for us all."

Mimi Moore wrote: "I think that the hosts of this show, by the sound of their voices, slowly began to respect both the Bishop, and the message. They used better tones, more respectful language, and that shows they started to turn towards the message rather than turning away from it."

Torey Lightcap, rector of St. Thomas in Sioux City, Iowa, was struck by these sobering words of the bishop: "What I don't want is for my resentment and vengeance to take over my life."

And last (and perhaps least) I commented on the site:

"Bishop Hollingsworth was a remarkable presence here, which I'm grateful for..."

(A version of this appeared on Episcopal Cafe's The Lead)