How do Christians approach other faiths?

How do Christians approach other faiths?

This morning we have a strange story before us. Magi come from “The East” to bring gifts and honor to the Infant Jesus. We’re used to thinking about “three kings,” but the text doesn’t give a number. We settled on three because there were three gifts. Since one of the gifts was gold, the magi became kings. But the text uses a simple word “magi” as in “magic.”

My good seminary friend The Rev. Matthew Wright pointed out in the weekly email to his congregation that “Magician” is a word often used in Scripture for condemnation. Magicians, astrologers, practitioners of sorcery were “outsiders” to good Jews.

So today we are confronted with a surprise. These magicians recognize the true light. They follow the star and it leads them to the infant Jesus. Not only that, but they know that Herod, the leader of the Jewish people, is not to be trusted. These magicians are able to discern truth. Matthew’s story would have surprised Jesus’ religious contemporaries. God’s people were suspicious of outsiders.

Which brings me back to my initial question: how do Christians approach other faiths?

Perhaps some of you were brought up in a Church tradition that taught “exclusivism.” The idea is probably the best known Christian opinion. Exclusivism holds that no one outside the Christian faith can be “saved.” Exclusivists tend to have a very “after-life focused” vision of salvation as well. Christians go to heaven. Everyone else goes to the other place. Some versions of Christianity even teach that you must ascribe to their particular brand of Jesus-following if you’re to hope to see the inside of the pearly gates.

When I was in college, one of my theology professors, a particularly wry-witted nun and Pauline scholar sent us home with a final paper. I don’t remember the assignment exactly, but I remember the topic a friend chose to write about. This 19 year old college freshmen was going through a particularly evangelical season, and he had been arguing with the professor all semester as she brought an academic approach to Scripture. For his term paper, he argued that Mother Teresa was in hell. The writer he cited claimed we knew this, definitively. My friend showed me the paper when he got it back. I’d never seen someone write “F” in bright red all the way across a cover page before. I believe she also wrote the words “lies and heresy” across the front.

Now, that may seem harsh, and it was. He ended up re-writing the paper on a completely different topic with academically rigorous sources and passed the class. But I tell the story to illustrate a point. Perhaps the most loudly heard voices in Christianity have held similar opinions to my friend and his paper about Mother Teresa. The “exclusivist” vision of Christianity has held sway.

I’ve not had the chance, but someday I’d like to sit down with an exclusivist and ask “What do you do with the Magi?” How do you account for this story in the Gospel? These mystical heretics from the East that come to pay homage to Jesus are but one moment in Scripture that make me uncomfortable with the exclusivist claims.

Karl Rahner, the German Catholic theologian, had another approach. Rahner coined the idea of the “anonymous Christian” in response to the old question: “What about someone who dies having never heard of Jesus?” Rahner replied that it was possible for someone to live a Christ-like life without using Christian language. Since Rahner’s time, others have applied this formula beyond Rahner’s original question about someone who hadn’t heard of Jesus. They see this way of thinking as an “Inclusivist” way to look at faith. We don’t have to feel bad for our good Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu friends. If they live good lives, in the end, God will count them as unwitting Christians, and explain it all to them after they die.

Now, I’ve just given you a summary, which is dangerous to do with a German theologian. Rahner’s own brother said that it was better to read Rahner in English translation than in the original German, because then at least one person had already struggled to interpret Rahner’s dense text. But the summary, I think, is fair as one approach from Christians to those of other faiths. Do we see good people of other faiths as wrong in their choice of language, even if their actions are ethical?

I raise the question about other faiths today partly because we are performing the second half on an inter-religious wedding. Brian and Meg were supposed to be married by a priest and a rabbi together, but then the priest wasn’t able to attend. Now, this is an atypical couple in many ways. Most people don’t get married during a Sunday service. Most brides who show up pregnant try to hide their bellies.

But Meg and Brian are a-typical in other ways as well. It is rare that you find an inter-religious couple who so consciously practice their faith. When they started coming to Holy Communion, Brian and Meg were intentionally alternating weekends worshiping twice a month with Central Reformed Congregation, and twice a month with us here. Brian volunteers with a program for kids in the judicial system in St. Louis. He listed me as one of his references. I had a good laugh when one of the volunteer coordinators called me to ask about Brian. I had to say, “No we don’t let Brian teach Sunday School.” Then I had to quickly qualify: We didn’t ask him to teach because it would be a little awkward for him, as a Jew, to have to explain Christian teaching to the little ones. I gave him a glowing reference.

Knowing practitioners of other faiths, like Brian, I simply cannot identify with the exclusivist claims that some Christians make. I also have a hard time with Rahner’s idea that good people are really Christians anonymously. I find that pretty presumptuous.

Partly, I’m less anxious about the question of other faiths because the Christian teachers I have learned the most from have tended to emphasize salvation as a question of the here and now more than “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.” Howard Thurman, sometime chaplain at Boston College where he taught a not-yet Dr. King, argued in his seminal book “Jesus and the Disinherited” that a religion focused on the afterlife does little to change the circumstances of people who live with their “backs against the wall.” He saw in Jesus a revolutionary figure interested in turning over the status quo in this life. Salvation was a much a question in the here and now as in the afterlife.

But the question of other faiths still beckons. My mentoring rector in Washington DC, The Rev. Luis Leon used to say: “I am a Christian because it is in Christianity that I have seen the light shining the brightest.” Those are carefully chosen words. We could use more carefully chosen words coming from Washington. There is an emphasis on subjectivity in the sentence: “Christianity is where I have seen the light shining the brightest.” There is also an acknowledgement that I have seen the light shining in other places.

Many of us have wonderful interfaith friendships. I have been privileged to attend Friday Prayers in Istanbul’s blue mosque with Turkish Muslim friends. I’ve whirled with Dervishes in Tribeca. I’ve danced with neighbors Simchat Torah as the scroll of Scripture surrounded the synagogue. I’ve sat silently for Zazen in a Buddhist Temple in San Francisco. I’ve even shared a feast with self-identified pagans for Samhain. I’ve been privileged to catch glimmers in many faith traditions.

Among the many deaths of 2016 was a scholar of world religions: Dr. Huston Smith. His book “The World’s Religions” is widely assigned by professors of religion, and it is good enough to read even if you’re not in college anymore. He studied and befriended people of other religions across his life. He famously introduced the Dalai Lama to the West. Smith said he remained Christian. For him, “God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus.”

Smith’s work helped us see a way of being Christian that did not study other faiths for the sake of forming good arguments against them. Huston Smith gave us permission to be dazzled by other religions. For him, faith was a journey, an adventure.

These magi are adventurers, journeyers. You get the sense they’re working on a hunch by following this star. You know the old joke about the wise men, yes? How do we know there were three wise men and not a wise woman? Well, if there had been a woman they wouldn’t have arrived so long after Christmas. They would have stopped and asked directions. The joke betrays scripture a bit, because sometimes the detours are the important parts of the journey. Without detours, you miss the adventure.

Encountering the magi, these mystical figures from the East, I ask. How do you approach those of other faith? Do you hope to prove them wrong? Do you come with fear? Or do you come, like the magi approached the baby Jesus? Can you encounter another faith with a sense of adventure?

Turn the question back on Christianity. Is your faith an adventure? We live in a time of growing “secularism.” That is to say, more and more people are leaving “the church” leaving “the faith.” I suspect that for many of them exclusivism plays a role in the decision. Fewer of us want to be part of a club that doesn’t admit Jews, Muslims, people of other faiths. We’ve seen too much light in our neighbor’s practice to shut them out.

I wonder as well, if we saw faith less as a series of rote beliefs and exercises, could it be more compelling? What if our faith looked more, felt more like the faith of the magi? Could we set off, dazzled by the light, not exactly sure where the journey will lead? Do we dare to offer our gifts, to open our hearts, to follow a star that will lead us home by another road? This year, will you come on an adventure of faith?

What Makes a Man (or a Woman) Wise

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the coming of the Three Wise Men. Today’s lesson is of the moments in the Bible when the New Revised Standard Version, the translation we use most often at Holy Communion, could make a decision about gender plurals in Greek. Often masculine plurals in the Greek have been changed for the New Revised Standard Version. In the older “Revised Standard Version,” when Jesus in Matthew Chapter 5 for instance says “tous adelphous,” the English is rendered as a masculine plural “your brothers.” In the New Revised Standard Version it becomes “Your brothers and sisters.” Greek, like many languages, uses masculine plurals if there are any men in a group. So the translation is plausible. We can included “sisters” in modern English translations of the Bible.

But somehow “three wise men” doesn’t become “a group of three wise men and women.” You’ll see in our short pageant later, we’ve decided to go with that idea anyway. We’ve got a wise woman bringing a gift at Holy Communion. But our modern feminist translation of the Bible doesn’t change the masculine plural here. I wonder why. You know the old joke right? What would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of wise men? Three Wise Women would have “asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be Peace on Earth.”

I know that’s a lot of setup for a joke. But it is also to point something out glaring in the text. As wise men go, these guys have a lot against them at the start. How do you call someone wise who leaves home following a star, only to get lost and end up not only at the wrong house, but in the wrong city. Why do they arrive so late? Christmas was awhile ago guys. What gives? How do we call them wise?

What makes wise men and women wise?

I want to posit this morning, that this text is about wisdom. This strange story of the magi teaches us that wisdom is different than knowledge. A wise person is able to listen deeply. A wise person stays open for spiritual surprises, and a wise person can accept a big change in the plan.

The magi listen deeply. These are shadowy characters. The visitors appear from the East, they last for exactly twelve verses and are never mentioned again. We know that they must be astrologers, for they are following signs in the heavens. We know they must have some status, because they are given an audience with King Herod. It makes sense that they end up in the throne room. Common knowledge tells you that if your star has predicted the birth of the King of the Jews, you head to Jerusalem. But as they listen to Herod, something doesn’t sound right.

We talked about Herod last week. Herod wasn’t really in the business of listening. Herod was in the business of telling. The client-king, politician, and architect wanted to make sure you knew HIS story. Herod wants to control the narrative. Herod wants to be in charge of the story. Herod wants you to listen to him. But though the Wise Men have arrived at the house of the man the Romans have declared “King of the Jews,” they know something is off.

We have the benefit of 2000 years of telling and retelling of Jesus’ story. Our perspective is shaped by our history. But the magi lived in what the Gospel calls “the time of King Herod.” Herod was large and in charge, and it would have been hard to hear anything other than what Herod wanted you to hear, especially in the palace. But the magi are able to listen to something deeper than the surface story. They are able to tell that all of the pomp and power, all of the wealth and might that Herod has on display, it isn’t what they are looking for. He’s not their king. This isn’t the star they have followed. They hear over the clamor of the palace. They listen deeply, and they head to Bethlehem.

Now this is where the story gets interesting. Up until now, this has been a political drama. Three distant officials coming to celebrate the birth of a foreign king, could be an important act of diplomacy. But following the Star of Jesus takes them to an unexpected place. They kneel not in a throne room, but in a much humbler home. Their opulent gifts seem out of place in the ramshackle Bethlehem dwelling. The story ceases to be a political drama, and becomes, dare I say, religious. They are in for a spiritual surprise.

I believe the magi are surprised by Jesus. They were expecting to find a king, and they find themselves among the poor, the lonely, and the frightened. How fitting a place to meet Jesus. Matthew makes it clear to us that these men are not Jews. They come from “The East.” They’re not Romans. We do not know their faith, but we know they’re not Christians (No one was Christian yet. Jesus had just been born). Yet, somehow, encountering the infant Jesus, they have a spiritual experience.

Christianity, as a whole, has been historically hostile to other religious perspectives. We’ve called others heretics and heathens. We’ve launched conversion campaigns and crusades. Today, as we live in a more pluralistic world, where Christians like us here at Holy Communion are trying to live peacefully with other religious people, I think we could borrow some wisdom from the magi.

Whatever their faith, these three mysterious figures know they have encountered something sacred in Jesus. You can have all of the religious knowledge in the world. You can have all of the Bible memorized. You could get a PhD in Systematic Theology and write a thesis on Thomas Aquinas. But it takes wisdom, not knowledge, to see when God is acting outside your religious systems. It takes wisdom to let God surprise you by showing up in a slum, among people of another faith.

Christians today have some learning to do as we approach other faiths, and we can learn from some of the first wise people who knelt before our Savior, people who didn’t share his faith. What would it mean to approach other faiths with an open heart? Could we meditate with Buddhists, whirl with Sufi dervishes, eat a Passover meal with Jewish neighbors? Could we be open to the Spirit moving in all of this? The magi did not convert to Christianity on the spot. They didn’t walk away reciting the Nicene Creed. But these wise people understood that something surprising had taken place. Their hearts were open enough to be surprised by the Spirit working in another culture, another faith.

Something happens to the magi, as they kneel before the baby under that unexpected star. Some change is wrought. Though Herod has asked them to return to his palace, to share the location of the competing king, they choose to return “by another road.” This brings us to the third teaching about wisdom in our text: Wise women and men are able to make a big change in plan.

I love the poetic way Matthew puts this change. “They returned home by another road.” It reminds you of Robert Frost, doesn’t it? “and I/I took the [road] less travelled by/and that has made all the difference.” They returned home by another road.

How often in life do we end up on another road? More often than we planned for sure. Sometimes, like Frost, we choose the road. Sometimes, like the magi, the road chooses us. The circumstances changed for these wise people. They knew they couldn’t return to Herod, and so, they had to take another road.

I know some of you are on unchosen roads. Ernie Last and I had a conversation this week, and he shared this on Facebook, so I feel comfortable sharing it with you. Ernie has been diagnosed with cancer again. Many of you know the Lasts faced other health and family challenges in 2015. This week was tough news, and I ask your prayers for Ernie and Joy.

When he called to tell me, I didn’t have any wonderful healing words. I wish they could tell you exactly what to say in Seminary. Maybe they did, and I skipped class that day. All I could come up with in the moment was “This sucks.” Ernie reported my words on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset about that. Sometimes you just have to say what you mean. But I also told him, and he also reported, that he wasn’t going to be alone. He may not have chosen this road, but I knew how much he and Joy are loved in this community and by the people of Holy Communion. He isn’t going to walk this road alone.

Ernie is just one example. I know many of you have faced or are facing unchosen roads: facing diagnosis, facing loss, facing changes in direction you wouldn’t have chosen. Whatever road you find yourself on. Know that you do not have to walk alone.

Ram Dass the Jewish/Hindu professor and religious teacher explained the work of spiritual community better than anyone I know. He said simply, “in the end, we are all just walking each other home.” Wisdom is characterized by the ability to face a big change in the plan, to take another road. And wisdom is most often grown in community. Whatever road you find yourself on, it will lead you home. You will have people to walk with you. WE are all just walking each other home.

Today, we’re celebrating Epiphany. On Wednesday, January 6, the proper feast day of the Epiphany. a small group of us gathered in the Chapel for Eucharist. It just happened that January 6th fell on the 1st Wednesday of the month. We have Eucharist at 12:10pm each 1st and 3rd Wednesday. The crowd that gathers is usually a group of people who have reached a “mature” age. Most people who can come to a mid-week, mid-day Eucharist are retired. I joked with them that we often use the term “wise” to talk about people who are older than we are. “Wise” can be used as a euphemism. But then again we all know some folks that have grown older without getting any wiser.

So, if it isn’t age, what makes a man (or a woman) wise? Wisdom, at least for the magi, comes from listening deeply, staying open to spiritual surprises, and accepting changes to the plan. The magi’s star may not lead power and influence, to money and fame. But those who follow that star may find themselves able to accept some of the changes and chances of life, to hear the voice of God in surprising places. Together shall we follow that star, the star that leads to wisdom?

Wisemen and Mad Men (an Epiphany sermon).

What star do you follow?  What road do you walk?

The story of the three wise men that we have today from Matthew, is strange.  Three nameless travelers follow a star to kneel before the child Jesus.  There is no way around the strangeness.  We variously have called these characters “the wise men,” or the “three kings,” or the “magi (the magicians).”  The last title is closest to the original.

At least one of those guys is pretty strange...

In Matthew’s Gospel three strange visitors “appear” in Jerusalem.  The details of their visit are shadowy, we know they come from the East.  We know they have status.  These magicians must also be astrologers, for they have noticed a new star in their Western horizon and have followed its appearance.  Somehow though, they got a bit lost along the way…
The three magicians, seemingly used to government contracting, head to the royal authority in the region.  Herod the Great, Herod I, ruled as a client king for Rome in Jerusalem, and these three men come knocking on the halls of power.  They seem to know that a king has been born, which makes, Herod who is perfectly happy reigning as king, currently reigning as king, very nervous.  New candidates tend to make incumbents nervous.  Herod checking in with his own paid consultants, identifies Bethlehem as the city of coming anointed one, the Messiah’s portended birthplace.

You might notice I keep referring to the Magi, the wise men, the three kings, as “consultants.”  Maybe this is because I find myself living in a town where it seems more people contract or consult for the government than actually work in the government.  Probably though, I have just been watching too much of the Television show MadMen.  Now do not despair.  I worked for awhile trying to get a joke that brought together the titles “Wisemen” and “MadMen”, but it never quite worked.  So I will spare you.

But the past few months I have been captivated by the TV show MadMen, and luckily I can now stream the first several seasons.  If you don’t know MadMen, it is a primetime TV drama that centers around consultants, specifically a Madison Avenue Advertising agency Adman: Don Draper.  MadMen’s drama plays out in the usual ways: Don trips through seedy romantic relationships. The plot develops around campaigns for big name clients.  The whole show is saturated with the glamour of New York.  The twist of MadMen is that, unlike most of our TV shows which are set in the modern day, Don does not work on today’s Madison Avenue.  The MadMen universe is set in the 1960s, and the thrust, the energy of the show is a sort of “my-how-times-have-changed” effect.

Often this is played for a comedy.  As regularly as possible we hear what people earn in salary: $40 week is middle class pay.  But that is okay because apartments rent in Manhattan for a couple hundred dollars a month, and a cup of coffee costs a nickel. (My how times have changed).  Pregnant women regularly swill cocktails and smoke.  Everyone smokes.  (My how times have changed).
Other “my-how-times-have-changed” moments play around questions of justice.  Every man in the office works behind a door, and every woman, save one plucky Peggy Olsen, works in front of a door.  All the women do is answer phones, type, get drinks for the men.  The one black man in the office operates the elevator.  No one picks up on the clues that the art director is gay, not even his wife.

Part of the “my-how-times-have-changed” thrust of MadMen is that here, in the advertising offices that the fictional MadMen office represents, a major revolution took place.  You see the times they were a-changin’ in the 1960s on Madison Avenue, and in many ways the people that worked there, they helped those times change.  Regularly on MadMen the advertising agents consider how the new fields of psychology and sociology can help them sell their product.  They seek to push consumers to see how purchasing a product or service is in their “self-interest.”  Don Draper convinces Lucky Strike cigarettes that they do not need to produce the “best cigarettes” or the healthiest cigarettes, or have better filters.  They need to catch the sense of pleasure that the consumer has in imagining herself satisfied by purchasing and using the product.  “Luckies are toasted.”  (All cigarettes at the time were “toasted” but something about the word brings images of satisfaction to the consumer.)

The admen of Madmen were busy in the 60s, as they are busy today, polishing a star.  “Follow this star, the star of self-interest.  Buy the product. Consume the service.  You will be satisfied.”  This is the message of advertising.  Madison avenue still wants you to follow that star.  It is a very old star, perhaps one of the oldest, the star of self-interest and consumption.  The star of self-image.

Lest we think this was only a problem in the time of MadMen, we have an article that my mother sent me about the religious neural impulses caused by iPads.  My mom and I are Apple devotees, and so when scientists began

claiming that Apple’s iPad advertising caused the same neurons to fire in the brains of Apple consumers as icons and religious images caused in the brain pathways of religious followers, we were not that surprised.  The image of the satisfied consumer, the star of self image can exert powerful influence.
I wonder if that star, that old star, is what distracted the magi, the wise men, on their road to see the Christ child.  These mystical consultants were used to working with kings.  I wonder if the star above Herod’s palace in Jerusalem appeared more familiar that night.  That star had led them before to influence, to comfort and power.  I wonder if that star caused the detour to Herod’s throne-room.

Something about where that old star had led them, it did not seem right.  The magi are wise enough to know that when they have arrived at Herod’s palace, they have not really arrived.  My family always laughs at those GPS systems that come in rental cars, the ones that tell you, “you have arrived.”  Somehow you know you really haven’t.  Something nags at the magi.  Another star beckons.
Following the Star of Jesus the Messiah takes them to an unexpected place.  They kneel not in a throne room, but in a much humbler home.  Their opulent gifts seem out of place in the ramshackle Bethlehem dwelling.  But something happens to the wise men, as they kneel before the baby under that unexpected star.  Some change is wrought.  Though Herod has asked them to return to his palace, to share the location of the competing candidate, they choose to return “by another road.”

These strange men are, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first converts.  I debated using that word “convert.”  There is another sermon to be preached about the magi, Matthew, and interfaith dialogue, because these pagan astronomers do not walk away reciting the Nicene Creed.  They might do something like that in John’s Gospel, but Matthew is content that their conversion be a conversion of life.  Their religious ideology to us is unknown, but encountering God in Christ caused them to live differently.  They walk away by another road.

In Matthew’s Gospel, These strange characters are the first to choose to live differently in response to Jesus.  Their decision asks us to choose as well.  Faced with whole constellations of distracting stars, in a world that pursues money, fame, image, and power, those of us who consider ourselves people of faith, consider ourselves Christians, are tasked with searching out a different star.That Bethlehem star, as it did for the wise men, still leads to ramshackle tenements.  Our God confounds human wisdom by choosing to dwell among the least, the lost, and the left out.  Following the star led a young woman from Albania to become a nun in Calcutta, to find Christ among the lepers.  Following that star led a young black preacher from Atlanta to march in the streets of the American South and to tell America that he had a dream.   The star does not lead power and influence, to money and fame.  But those who follow that star, the star that arose over Bethlehem so many years ago, will find their lives changed by love.  The Epiphany star leads us to the Christ who came to our world for love.