Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I'm Kind of in Awe of Fasting

The Velveteen Rabbi is one of my favorite blogs to read because Rachel Barenblatt's introspective representation of her own spiritual journey inspires me to take a closer look at mine (and, if we're being honest, because it makes me picture a velveteen rabbit with tzitzit and tefillin).
Recently, Rachel wrote about "Approaching Av....and Ramadan" and getting ready for the fast and introspective prayer to come. Fasting as a spiritual practice, of course is not limited to Judaism and Islam, but neither is it part of mainstream Christianity.
In  high school, one of my Jewish friends was nervous that she couldn't make it through Yom Kippur, so she talked fasting strategy with her dad. One key to a successful fast, he told her, is to eat lighter on the days ahead, so that the stomach can shrink a bit. The Muslim student in our class bemoaned the challenge of observing Ramadan, though she was happy to be excused from participation in phys ed. I was confused by this foreign (to me) practice.
In college, I had passing contact with Ramadan because of the Kay Spiritual Life Center's shared worship space. We Methodists rearranged some of weekly activities so that the Muslim students could share their evening meal. Because the allocation of time and space at Kay is finely tuned to allow each faith group private use of sacred spaces, this was one of the few times I saw our Muslim friends in fellowship with one another. I could see the community that Ramadan cemented among them, but I still didn't get their holiday.
When I was first teaching, my shadow tutor and one of my students both observed Ramadan. Since the sun set during our evening class two days a week, for that month we had small snacks during the class. And, because the other students and I were curious, Ayrene and Misha talked about their physical and spiritual experiences of fast. I finally started to get it, and I'm in awe of their dedication.
The discipline of fasting is less about the physical experience than about the opportunity for spiritual growth. Time not spent on cooking, eating, and tidying up can be used for prayer. Physical discomfort can be a call to pray without ceasing. Radical fasting marks out a time as other than ordinary. The balance between energy spent on spirituality and energy spent on secular details shifts in favor of the former. My Lenten fasts, prayerfully chosen though they are, pale in comparison to the discipline of fasting for Tish b'Av, Yom Kippur, and Ramadan. I've thought about observing a total fast for a day or a daylight hours fast for a week, but I struggle to incorporate it into Methodist tradition in a meaningful way. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Christian Citizenship

This sermon was delivered Sunday, July 3, 2011 at the Marcellus and Wakelee United Methodist Churches (Kalamazoo District, West Michigan Conference). The Gospel text was Matthew 22:15-22.
I grew up in the late 20th century. When I was in high school in the ‘90’s the debate about the separation of church and state was being fought in terms of prayer at school assemblies and graduation programs. When I graduated, the choir director had to rewrite some lines of the songs the choir had traditionally sung to take God out of them. So, with that background, it’s always a little strange for me when I come to church on the Sunday of 4th of July weekend and we sing patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
In the United States, this tradition of the separation of church and state is a long standing one. It’s not hard to understand why. The grandparents of our founding fathers probably remembered the turmoil England suffered because of the religious civil wars in the 17th century, and Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington never wanted that to happen again. Many early colonists including the Puritans, Quakers, and Catholics came to North America in order to have the opportunity to practice their faith freely. Thus, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the freedom to practice their faith openly and publicly by stating that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
For us in the United States, freedom of religion means that we can support and attend any church we want or no church at all. We can enroll in schools, get jobs, vote and marry without having to prove our faith. But separation of church and state has also come to mean that we don't pray together in social and civic groups of mixed faiths. We have not yet confined our faith to the privacy of our own homes as they have in France, where people functionally have freedom from religion, by which I mean that religious faith is considered a private matter, and expression thereof is banned in the public sphere.* No headcoverings for Muslim and Orthodox women, no visible crosses for Christians. Is that what we want, though? Do we want our civic lives and our electoral decisions to be robbed of the guidance that our faith gives us? It's a tough question.
I think the Bible can offer some wisdom on this score. We citizens of modern democracies, born in the 18th century Enlightenment, are not the first to struggle with the concepts of church and state. The Jews of Joseph and Mary's generation were subjects of King Herod, a Jewish leader, but they were also subjects of the Roman Emperor. It was their fulfillment of their civic duty to be counted in the census that took them to Bethlehem for Jesus birth.** 
            In the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether Jews should pay taxes. In part, they’re just trying to get out of paying taxes but also to trap Jesus in his own words, which seems to be their goal each time we meet them in the New Testament. This episode, however, can lead us to a deeper question: Can we be good citizens of the earthly, temporal state into whose organizational structure we are born at the same time that we are good members of God's eternal heavenly congregation? Jesus responds to these men, and to us, with the seemingly simple: “Is it not Caesar's likeness on the coin? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.” Um. thanks, Jesus. Easier said than done. 
I'm going to pause here a minute to mention the fundamental difference between taxes and tithes: Taxes are obligatory, and there are legal repercussions for not paying them. Non-payment of taxes carries earthly punishment: jail, imprisonment. And taxes are pretty hard to avoid. They are rolled in to our utility bills and airline tickets. They are assessed at the grocery store. On behalf of the government, our employers take them directly from our paychecks. And most of us do everything we possibly can to avoid paying them: we deduct our children, we deduct mortgage and student loan interest, we deduct the losses of our farms and small businesses, we deduct the funds we give to charities.
Tithes, on the other hand, are a freewill offering. They express our gratitude to God for the blessings we have received and our commitment to supporting the projects and goals of God through the church.
So, okay, the coins and bills in my wallet and in yours are stamped with the likeness and symbolism of the state, so they belong to Caesar. Or, in our case, The United States Federal Reserve. But we, each of us, are stamped with the likeness of God. We are created in his image, and it is ourselves Jesus is telling us to render unto God in the verses I read this morning. 
The frustrating thing about Jesus's message is that he often tells us what to do without telling us how to do it, and rather than muddle through and puzzle it out prayerfully, we look around for easy answers. In the media today, you can find voices who will say that Republican conservatism is the place to be if you're a Christian. You can find an equal number of voices identifying the liberalism of the Democrats as the Christian path. Those voices will tell you to hate gay people. To hate rich people. To hate poor people. To hate our enemies. To hate our president. Those voices often tell you to mistrust and disbelieve anyone who disagrees with them and to respond with anger and with hate.
You know, though, I don't think Jesus ever told me to hate anybody. Jesus calls me and you and all of us to love. The New Testament calls us to love. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Turn the other cheek. Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that those who believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Love the lord your god with all your heart and soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. God is love.
Did you catch all those people and groups whom we're supposed to be loving? Here they are in short form: God, ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies. Note that enemies is on the list. This is not a Pollyanna system, where everyone always agrees and there are no arguments. There are times that we are going to find ourselves battling for what we believe is right. Yet, even in those moments, we are called to love. My friend Sarah, a devout Christian, thinks I'm insane. How can we love the terrorists? They'll just take advantage of our weakness. But I believe love is never weakness, especially when our love is a conduit for God's love.
I think it’s safe to say that most of the time, most of us are doing okay loving the people around us in our homes, in our churches and workplaces, and in our communities. We at least try to love the people with whom we have personal contact. It's when we come to the larger arena of citizenship in a nation of more than 300 million people that we are not doing so well. When we bring anger and hate to our citizenship, we are not being Christian citizens. 
For me, Christian citizenship involves deploying that love that Jesus emphasizes throughout the New Testament in his words and in his actions. It means considering issues carefully and going beyond the two sides shouting in the media. Often, it means reframing the debate by asking a different question. It means making prayerful decisions and, finally, acting out of love.
Think for a moment about the most contentious issues in American government and society. Here’s my list: immigration, banking, abortion, the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, jobs, taxes, the economy. I don't think the Bible gives us absolute easy answers to what we should think about any of these issues. But I do think that Jesus’s message and call to love tell us how we should approach our particular decisions and how we should interact with those who disagree.
Let's take for example, the issue of abortion. We citizens of the United States have been arguing over whether abortion should be legal or illegal for a lifetime, and we bring all the weapons of hate to the debate: we call each other names, we do violence to property and to people, we misrepresent the ideas and values of our enemies on the other side. And we're really not getting anywhere. 
I don't want to argue about whether it should be legal or not. I believe every abortion is a tragedy that begins long before the woman reaches the clinic. I want to make abortions unnecessary. Let's love ourselves and our bodies enough to understand how they work and to teach our children, because knowledge is always power. Let's destigmatize adoption by loving the parents who give the child up as well as the parents who give the child a home. Let's change the debate. 
The same goes for dealing with terrorist organizations around the world. They're really angry, and their anger hurts us. A lot. Is our anger any better? Can we use love to try to understand their anger? Can we recognize our common humanity? Can we love them?
This  sermon has been an unusually political sermon. So, I want to state clearly, that I am not advocating a particular political party or a partisan stance on any of the issues I've mentioned. What I want you to take away this morning after we've sung  patriotic praise songs as part of our religious worship is the idea that patriotism and religious faith not only go together, but they can enrich each other. Specifically, that the life of radical love for everyone we encounter to which Jesus calls us will help to make us better citizens.

*     *     *     *
Of all the sermons I have given, this one made me the most nervous. I knew I was approaching the limit of what is acceptable in the pulpit. Nevertheless, I felt called to give this message. The response was great. Many people thanked me for the message and the ideas to ponder. One woman commended me on having the nerve to give it. At Wakelee, they clapped when I was done. I know that at least a couple of people were unhappy, I hope that they don't give their pastor a hard time for having invited me to preach in his absence. I hope that all the people who appreciated the message have the nerve to live it out and pass it on.
At Wakelee, the final hymn after I gave the sermon was "This is My Song." I couldn't have planned it better.


* This is a gross oversimplification of the reality in France, for a more nuanced discussion of the separation of church and state in the current French republic, see Brookings.  (added 2/14/16)
** I'm aware of the debate about whether there even was a census. Common Reason  lays out all the pieces of the argument well, if you're interested. Historical accuracy aside, Luke's story remains a good illustration of divided allegiance.