Rev. Paul Shupe

Sermon for Temple Isaiah

 November 18, 2016

 My friends of Temple Isaiah, it is such a joy to be with you in worship tonight.  I know that I speak for everyone from Hancock Church who is also here, along with those who are not, when I say that we are honored by your invitation, and cheered by your welcome.  As we were reminded a few weeks ago when your good rabbi, and my friend Howard Jaffe came to speak with us, our congregations have a long and wonderful history of shared endeavor and mutual affection.  I dare to say that our two congregations together form the backbone of interfaith work here in Lexington.  Whenever there is shared worship to be planned and led; whenever there are works of justice and peacemaking to be done; whenever the town is in need of moral leadership, Isaiah and Hancock will be found at the forefront, and I do believe that our unique relationship provides a cornerstone for the foundation of the amazing level of cooperation and mutual respect that is found among the houses of worship in this town.  As current stewards of this relationship, my colleague Barbara Callaghan and I are honored to work closely with your rabbis Howard and Jill, and we pray constantly that the good spirit that unites us in so much important work will long continue.

I have been asked to share a bit about what my Christian faith means to me, and as an amusing way into that task, I have a story about a couple of your members here, and no, I’m not going to name names, so don’t ask!  A few years ago, at a reception following a memorial service for a Hancock member who had died after a lifetime of service to the town, these friends came up to me and whispered, “We probably shouldn’t even think this, let alone say it, but if we weren’t Jewish, we’d be members of Hancock Church.”  So let me say that I feel something of the same: If it weren’t for my being a disciple of Jesus, I might well find my spiritual home in your midst.  But I am a follower of Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth.  And the faith that makes me so is perhaps the most important commitment of my life.

I was born into a Christian home, in a largely Christian neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, in the same year that this lovely building was under construction and your congregation was meeting for school and worship at Hancock.  Ours was a largely Lutheran neighborhood, and in most neighborhood homes, there were Christian crosses hanging on one wall or another, and several homes had one in every room.  The cross is, of course, the symbolic reminder of one core Christian teaching: that Jesus died a sacrificial death in order to redeem humankind from sin.  The cross of Christ is at the center of what some of my most inspiring Christian teachers are now calling, and not with affection, “belief-only” Christianity.  The idea is that humankind was unable to free ourselves from the grip of sin, and so God sent God’s only son to be the perfect sacrifice to satisfy the debt that our sin caused us to owe God.  Having paid the debt on the cross, Jesus was raised up, resurrected, and restored to glory, the Son restored to the Father.  Our responsibility, according to “belief-only” Christianity, is simply to believe that this happened, to accept with gratitude the gift of salvation, and to declare Jesus to be our personal Savior, the One whose actions freed me from the wages of sin.  This is probably the dominant understanding today of what Christianity is supposedly about.  Certainly if all you were reading or watching was the way that media portray Christianity, you would think that believing in this way is what it means to be Christian.

Well, as I have said, mine was a Christian home growing up, and I was surely taught this theology, and truthfully, I do find wisdom and power in it.  But instead of a cross on the wall of our home, we had a portrait of the man, Jesus of Nazareth.  There was, of course, considerable artistic license going on: no one can know with certainty what Jesus looked like, but I’m quite sure he didn’t actually look like the man in the portrait, who frankly looked more nearly Swedish than Middle Eastern.  But no matter.  The point was that in my house, our faith rested more on the teachings of Jesus the man, Jesus the rabbi, Jesus the lover of human beings, than on believing that Jesus us the incarnate Son of God, the perfect sacrifice.  And my mother, who would at my request, read me stories by the hour from both the Hebrew scriptures that both of our traditions honor, and from the unique Christian stories about Jesus, would always remind me that Jesus taught love, and Jesus showed mercy and kindness to the poor, and that Jesus wanted me to do the same.  Whenever I came to her with an ethical dilemma, and goodness knows that for adolescents the 1960s and 70s were filled with ethical dilemmas, instead of giving me some standardized answer from a list of acceptable Christian teachings, she would ask me this question: “What would Jesus want you to do?”

Now please notice that she didn’t phrase her question the way that it became popular in the 1990s for some Christians to say it, “What would Jesus do?” sometimes abbreviated to WWJD, which fit easily on bracelets, T-shirts and all manner of merchandise readily available in ubiquitous Christian bookstores.  What would Jesus do? is a question that presumes that Jesus left an answer for every problem, that our task is simply to know that answer, and change our behavior accordingly.  Unfortunately, the problem of living as a faithful disciple of Jesus is not so simple.

One of the problems with asking: What would Jesus do? is that on a great many issues of today, Jesus did not offer any clear teaching.  Many of the issues of our day he never spoke about.  Abortion, for example, Jesus never mentioned as such.  He never spoke of homosexuality.  Sexual harassment, or the grinding effects of racism?  Silence.  The dangers of secularity, of life without faith? That he never pondered as a possibility.  He never addressed anti-Semitism, though being Jewish himself, my guess is that he was against it.  Living at a time when Israel was oppressed by Roman occupiers, he left his followers with lots of guidance about how to respond to oppressive powers, but no wisdom for how we should live as faithful people when we are instead citizens of the dominant world power.  So you see, there are many topics on which ethical choices and decisions must be made today, upon which Jesus himself was silent, which makes “What would Jesus do?” a not very helpful question.  And far too often for my liking, it seemed that the people wearing WWJD bracelets would ask that question only about personal moral decisions, and all too seldom about matters like economic justice, or systemic problems like racism for example.  So for these reasons, I never found the question of “What would Jesus do?” to be compelling.

But I am still asking my mother’s question every day.  She asked me what I thought Jesus would want me to do, and that’s a different question.  It requires me to think, both about those things that Jesus did teach, and also about what the current situation may be calling for me to do.  What’s more it practically requires me to be involved in a community in which these questions are being addressed.  You see the difference, right?  “What would Jesus do?” asks only that I identify and correctly apply the presumed to be perfect teaching.  “What would Jesus want you to do,” invites a conversation that includes me, along with others who are similarly inclined, and we must discuss together all that we think that we know about Jesus and what he taught on other subjects, as well as a careful analysis of what is at risk in the current situation, and then requires us to have the courage of our convictions, living in harmony with our answers to the questions.  At the risk of knowing too little about your tradition and therefore blundering into saying too much about it, still it has come to seem to me that my mother’s question is at least faintly rabbinic.  It’s an invitation to think and to talk about faith and what it requires of us, with full awareness that faith is not a matter of certainty, of simply applying ancient, pre-settled truths to every situation, but rather is an interactive process that requires us to think actively, that requires us to participate in a communal process of discerning what God might be doing in this time and place, so that we can adapt our behavior accordingly.

It has been is said that every game of chess that is played amounts to an argument about how chess should be played.  I think that my mother’s way of phrasing this question amounts to an invitation to see faith in this way: as a disciple of Jesus, I am responsible for arguing, for discerning, what Christian faith means in this time and place, at this moment in time, and then living my life in faithful response to what we have discerned.  Is this not at least faintly rabbinic?  Is this not fairly harmonious with how you approach the question of how to live as faithful Jewish people in this time and place?

There is an obvious and crucial difference of course: most of the time you do not take Jesus’ teachings into account as a part of your tradition, while I take his teachings as the most important of all.  Still, there are deep similarities in our process, even if we look to different sources.

But now the next logical question emerges: just what are the teachings of Jesus that I regard to be the most important of all, the ones that I bring to bear in every conversation about what it means to be a Christian?  Here are a few:

  • That vulnerable human beings can more readily be in relationship with God than can those who think themselves to be wise, strong, mighty and in need of no one’s help.
  • That vulnerable human beings include, but are not limited to: all children, the poor, the sick, those cast out of polite society, the prisoner, women in patriarchal society, refugees and immigrants, sojourners, anyone persecuted for his or her beliefs, those who grieve, and those who hunger to see justice prevail.
  • That wealth, while not inherently bad, nevertheless has a profound impact on our souls about which we must be mindful, and that hoarding wealth makes right relationship with God and other people more difficult.
  • That God is God, and we are not, and when we pretend that our words or actions perfectly describe all truth, then we practice arrogance, and turn our words, our beliefs into idols, and put other gods before God.
  • That sin, the harming of others and the scarring of the world, is probably unavoidable, but that God’s forgiving love is freely given to those who repent and seek to begin anew so that yesterday’s sins do not have to be carried endlessly into tomorrow.
  • That the reign of God, what Jesus called the kingdom of God, and what some of our African-American womanist theologians have taught us to call the kindom of God, is always at hand, always ready to break into human life with new possibility, new hope, new peace, whenever we dare to be vulnerable and truthful with one another.
  • That when God’s will is being done on the earth, everyone is included, regardless of race or gender or creed or nationality or religious tradition or sexual orientation or physical or mental or mental or emotional capacity, because God transcends any and all human differences, and God’s love makes possible the celebration of difference, as each contributes to the grand mosaic of the world that God called into being and declared to be good.

These, as well as a few other closely related teachings are my answer to my mother’s question.  I regard them to be the heart and soul of the vaguely Swedish-looking rabbi in the picture on the wall of my childhood home.  More, I regard them to be the heart and soul of how human beings can and ought to live in this world.  More still, they are the heart and soul of the man I aspire, and occasionally manage to actually, be.

Knowing this, it may not surprise you to know that when Howard asked me to share with you what my Christian faith means to me, I heard my mother’s question: “What do you think Jesus would want you to do?”  And my first answer was that I should do what I have tried to do: to be clear about my faith.  And the second, which came nearly simultaneously, was that Jesus would want me to be humble about my faith because frankly, all too often “humble Christian” is an oxymoron, self-contradictory.  Christian confidence tempts Christians toward the notion that we have a monopoly on truth, which in turn tempts us to believe that those who do not believe as we do have turned their backs on truth, rendering them unworthy of God’s love, and we don’t have a great history of avoiding these temptations.  You do not need me to tell you about centuries of arrogant Christian anti-Semitism and the diabolical and disastrous consequences of that unique and utterly unacceptable form of human hatred.

And so I am here tonight answering my mother’s question in this way:  Jesus would want me to say that there are many pathways to God, certainly including, but not limited to, yours and mine, and that when each of us draws from the well of humility even as we simultaneously draw from the deep wells of our convictions, then we can and will learn from one another; then we are able to work with one another for the common good; and then we are able to deepen our own faith, even as we honor the faith of others with our respect, and that in so doing we can change the world, heal the world, and make the world a more just, a fitting response to God’s creative call.  Being humble makes us teachable, cooperative, and loveable.  My Jewish sisters and brothers, the Christians among you here tonight at your invitation have learned these things from our teacher Jesus, but we see them also in the ways that you live out your own faith, which is now similar, and now different from our own.  We are strengthened by our continuing shared endeavor, and look forward with you to the day when all of God’s people, all of God’s people, walk hand in hand and work side by side for justice and peace.  May the day soon come!  Amen.