Reflections on Pentecost 18 and Sept 7th, 2013 at St. James UCC
Introduction: In a worship and spirituality that continues to revolve around the Good News of The Reign of God that is rooted in mercy and compassion… and some relevant liturgies from the past that help us in the process of wrestling with the issues God puts before us in the contexts of today . . .
We began with, Shana Tovah! Have a good year in Hebrew… a greeting that begins celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, [literally, The Head of the Year], a year that begins with 10 days of repentance that climax with Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and there’s always the play on words: at-one-ment, getting AT ONE with God, and that’s what these Holy Days are about. Rosh Hashanah is not a term used in the Bible regarding the day, although it does pop up parenthetically in Ezekiel 40:1; but, as noted in Leviticus 23:24-25, it is Yom HaZikkaron [day of remembrance] or Yom T’ruah [day of sounding the shofar], and the blowing of a trumpet that is always meant to be a WAKE UP CALL! And some scholars say it was in exile that the day really took on significance… because that experience was certainly a WAKE UP CALL for those who considered themselves Israelites… just like Jesus’ crucifixion was a WAKE UP CALL to his followers and to a primitive Christianity that got them on track for transcending religion and recognizing that mercy and compassion are about a way of life… and given where we are in our own moment in history, there are clearly a host of WAKE UP CALLS sounding off in many contexts and places, and it all makes THE GOSPEL OF LUKE seem like it was written for our own moment in time…
A New Heaven and a New Earth
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”
The reading from Revelations today contains within it a meme that has been -enthusiastically – adopted by people who are trying to maintain an exclusionary definition of marriage as “one man and one woman.”
This symbolic illustration of the Church “coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband” has become literalized in what is really a political narrative of explaining what God’s design for marriage supposedly is, and the people who employ it do take it very seriously. They honestly believe that this is what the Bible says about what marriage is.
First of all, the language leaves no doubt that this is metaphor. To illustrate just how odd it is to literalize it, let’s look at some other metaphorical language, a kind of language that’s very common in the Bible. From the Song of Songs:
Published in the Loudoun Times-Mirror January 9, 2013
Epiphany (Jan 6th) in the Christian calendar and the story of the visit of ‘The Magi’ to Bethlehem invite us back into the real world from the romanticized and sentimentalized pageantries of Christmas. As you read the whole story in Matthew 2:1-18 – and the author clearly wants us to see that ‘whole story’ – the stark reality of Herod’s massacre of innocent children to maintain political and economic dominance reminds us all too vividly of a violence and indiscriminate madness in our own world that claims the lives of innocent children… innocent lives too often reckoned as ‘collateral damage’ in terms of maintaining dominance and control… so the ‘whole story’ calls for some observations and concerns . . .
- Who are ‘The Magi?’ All we know is they are from ‘the east’ – and in a time of increasing multi-cultural and inter-faith realities ‘Eastern’ thinking ‘epiphanies’ might help us understand some spiritual truths that have too often been obscured and distorted by an imposition of ‘Western Christianity’ connected with global economic and political domination, and maintained too often by violent means. So we rejoice in some liberating spiritualities that come from the wisdom of contemporary ‘Magi’ – and the Dalai Lama might epitomize that wisdom among us today.
- Not the least of impositions of ‘Western Christianity’ is the assumption of a ‘Christian culture’ that frequently manifests a ‘Herodian paranoia’ – as in hyped up fears about a ‘war on Christmas’ – and reacts with hostility (with violent under-and-over-tones) toward truths that emerge from outside the box of traditional Christianity. So we are thankful for the creation of Loudoun Interfaith BRIDGES for bringing greater understanding and cooperation among people of faith… just as we are thankful for the witness of our Atheist sisters and brothers.
- Observing Herod’s ‘collusion’ with the organized religious community to pin-point Bethlehem as a likely place for a new ‘Judean messiah’ to be born… (given his own co-optation of the spirit of the ‘Maccabean revolution’)… we might take note of a ‘religious nationalism’ today that too often offers blind patriotic support for global US military domination. So we rejoice that on January 12th a coalition of faith communities will gather near CIA Headquarters to protest the use of ‘torture’ and ‘drone warfare.’ [For more info: Contact Jack McHale, 703-772-0635.]
- And to better understand a Herodian mentality among us today look for Andrew Feinstein’s “The Shadow World – Inside The Global Arms Trade”, a tale of global arms trading and collusion among senior politicians, weapons manufacturers, felonious arms dealers, and the military— a situation that compromises security and undermines democracy, as well as Michael Moore’s recent Christmas Letter: “Celebrating The Prince of Peace in The Land of Guns.”
A final thought: The ‘whole story’ suggests a subversive ‘Magi’ spirit in risking Herod’s wrath by not sharing information he was seeking and returning home “by a different way.” [Matt 2:12] Surely, in a world of violence and indiscriminate madness, people of faith must seek a ‘different way.’
The following letter was published December 3rd in the Leesburg Today, on behalf of members of St. James.
The remarks of Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) reported in the Washington Times (Nov 26, 2012) call for a response from faith communities in Loudoun County. An effort to give all residents equal access to the courthouse grounds has yielded a great variety of displays, some with significant symbolism reflecting the spirit of the holidays; but, as the Times article put it, “not everyone likes the way different groups have been decking the grass mall.”
Years of conversation and contention over the holiday display policy show that there is significant concern about Loudoun’s “town square” and symbol of equal justice appearing to endorse specific religious beliefs, especially in a county as diverse as ours. The new, county-designed display planned for this year ignores this concern.
But according to Supervisor Reid, “[n]one of the religious organizations in the county have had any problem with what we’re doing. It’s strictly this group of terrorists. They’re fanatics who basically want to stamp out religion in all public life and property.” As members of one of the “religious organizations” in Loudoun County, we do have a problem with the board choosing and endorsing religious symbols for display on the courthouse grounds, and we take great exception to the use of terms like “terrorists” and “fanatics” to describe people who oppose that policy. Reid seems to believe that this is a disagreement between all people of faith and atheists, when it’s actually a disagreement between defenders of church-state separation, whether people of faith or atheists, and certain Christians who feel that they have a special right to use public property.
In referring to a group of caring, law-abiding citizens as “terrorists” Supervisor Reid has overstepped the boundaries of behavior expected from those elected to public office.
Some apologies are certainly in order, to the atheist community to be sure, but to the entire Loudoun County community as well.
Rev. R. Don Prange
St. James United Church of Christ, Lovettsville
Originally published in the Loudoun Times-Mirror on October 11, 2012.
Taking ‘the Bible’ seriously, not literally, is a major principle of the United Church of Christ. We see it as a ‘library’ of writings reflecting spiritual experiences, both Jewish and Christian, (although Muslims include some of their memories in their ‘library’ known as the Qur’an.) Rather than divine revelations understood in literal terms, we see biblical writings as spiritual experiences described mostly in metaphorical symbolism. That is true of theological concepts quite often rendered in poetry and song – such as stories of creation, but also of those considered historical – like the heroic epics of David, but hardly history in an objective sense. Such an approach offers greater possibilities for biblical relevance in discovering and taking seriously spiritual truths significant for daily life – especially truths involving human compassion, mercy, justice, and peace.
Literal interpretations have too often obscured these truths. Astronomical discoveries revealing countless galaxies beyond our own make ludicrous an observation five centuries ago that Copernicus and Galileo were heretics for saying the earth revolves around the sun. But a geo-centric mentality also led to distortions of biblical truth as human space evolved into religious space, and a narrow Christo-centric worldview emerged. The transcending truths of Jesus of Nazareth, already obscured by misunderstandings that named him Christ (Messiah in Hebrew terms), were lost in theological rhetoric excluding other paths to an authentic spirituality for life.
Christian superiority and exclusivism – and a history of European religious wars and inquisitions spanning a millennia and reaching horrific proportions in the Post-Reformation era makes it clear that not even Christians can agree when it comes to religious truth – reaches into our own moment in history. And in the United States – indeed, right here in Loudoun County – two contexts need to be cited.
One deals with concepts of family and the meaning of marriage. Distortions of biblical truth, based on literal understandings of certain narratives, lead to a failure to recognize that non-heterosexual orientations are as normal and natural in the order of creation as the earth revolving around the sun. We no longer take literally any biblical assumptions about that reality; neither should we take literally its assumptions for defining family or marriage. When it comes to same-sex marriage or same-sex families, both are quite capable of embracing transcending biblical truths about bonding human relationships around love, and compassion, and rearing children to be loving and compassionate. Sadly, there are those who continue to promote ‘family research’ and a ‘public advocacy’ that is un-biblical.
Another deals with religious bigotry, especially targeting Muslims and distorting transcending truths they embrace. Most take those truths seriously and challenge those with distorted views of the Qur’an. And if there are concerns about a ‘Muslim rage’ in certain places, just recall that ‘Christian rage’ cited above. Then consider what a small fraction of the population has been involved; the numbers are probably no more than 100,000, not even one-thousandth of 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
In taking the Bible seriously at St. James UCC in Lovettsville, we continue to reflect on realities such as these… just as we did last Sunday in observing a spirit of a ‘worldwide communion’… with a recognition of a spirituality that being the family of God involves an acceptance of all our sisters and brothers… and with an extravagant welcome that says “no matter who you are or where you are in the journey of life you are welcome” in our religious space.
The Rev. Don Prange, Director-Ministries in Economic Justice, firstname.lastname@example.org and Minister, St. James United Church of Christ, Lovettsville, www.stjamesucc-love.org
We come first of all in humble and heartfelt confession . . .
Mindful that dreams of justice, mercy, and peace in the Americas are too
shattered by the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism
We confess our complicity in these dream-shattering realities.
For each vibrant life and hopeful dream annihilated by war and too
often written off as collateral damage
We lift up our pain and remorse.
For the millions who go hungry or suffer sickness because bombs are more
lucrative than bread and missile and drones more important than medicine
We lift up our grief and shame.
For each mind forever haunted and each body broken by war, for wars in
which soldiers become pawns and veterans become burdens
We lift up our sorrow and sadness.
For homes reduced to rubble, and citizens cast out as refugees, for our
thirst for revenge and our captivity to a narrative of violence, and for
hiding our terror of vulnerability behind a bravado of greatness and
We lift up our complicity, our pain and remorse, our grief and shame,
our sorrow and sadness, and humbly seek forgiveness and renewal.
But we come also in joyful celebration for all who have ever witnessed against
racism, materialism, and militarism and the systemic injustices they bring . . .
So we celebrate and give thanks especially for the witness of our brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And mindful that there is always a price to pay for a witness to justice,
mercy, and peace
We celebrate and give thanks for his sacrificial witness, and for all
those who paid the price for embracing his vision and his dream.
And mindful of so many struggles for justice, mercy, and peace we think
first of all of the Indigenous in the Americas, and then of all those – known
and unknown – who have struggled for the rights of people: those who
endured and resisted slavery, who struggled for worker’s rights and
economic justice, who struggled for women’s equality, who struggled (and
struggle yet) for civil and human rights regarding sexual orientations, who
stand in solidarity with immigrants, and all who have at any time spoken and
acted for the poor, the marginalized, and the liberation of the oppressed
We celebrate and give thanks for their faithful witness, and with our
brother Martin invite their spirits to join us at this moment.
So we call on all who have gone before us and for all who are still resisting
forces of racism, materialism, and militarism… and whose witness stirs up
our hearts with visions and dreams of justice and liberation, with tenderness,
and, above all, with a spirit of humility
Stand beside us now and encourage in us a deeper capacity for
critical dialogue… for engaging in risk-taking endeavors… and for becoming committed communities enlightened and empowered to pursue the dreams and visions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
-Rev. Don Prange, St. James United Church of Christ
Delivered at the Annual I Have A Dream celebration at the Douglass Community Center, Leesburg, January 16, 2012
Reflections for January 8, 2012 – the First Sunday after Epiphany…
Some introductory thoughts: In recognizing our faith, worship & life journey this year as one of pausing to take time for some spiritual discernment… we moved last Sunday from celebrating Jesus as the Christ-child to celebrating ourselves within a spirituality of being children of God. And as we recall today that Jesus grew in wisdom as he matured into adulthood… we want to take note of the story of The Magi and the degree to which he might have been influenced by eastern wisdom. So we will reflect today on a spirituality of creation with its emphasis on the metaphors of darkness & light in pursuing a transcending immersion in a spirituality in which we see God in everything and in each other.
So we began with a hymn lifting up the spirituality of THE MAGI… one that helps us understand what worship is all about… and following their sighting of the star the lines go on…
“Hi Neighbor, you have a nice display of lights,” the anonymous note begins. “This love note explains how that pagan tradition began.”
lecture “love note” was distributed to residents of a Michigan neighborhood:
For thousands of years, Sun-worshippers have celebrated the Sungod’s rebirth after Solstice. Pagans honored the birth of the “invincible sun” with a “festival of lights.” They used big bonfires, pigs fat tallow candle lights, and today, billions of colored christmass lights. Rome’s seven-day December Saturnalia was religious revelry with decadent drunkenness outrageous adultery and giving Saturn’s
nativity birth giftsto the children. The Norseman’s yuletide solstice carousal used sexual soliciting mistletoe, Yule-log bonfires, and decorated evergreen wreathsand treeworship. None of this honors Yeshua the Christ… [the published image cuts off the note at this point. -Ed.]
During the two-plus years of the ongoing Loudoun Festival of Holiday Free Speech and Vandalism, I don’t recall anyone from any community attempting to dictate the content of other people’s displays on private property. We can be thankful for that, at least.
It doesn’t extend to respect for the personal appearance of our neighbors, though. A Muslim friend reports this experience: A fellow customer at a local business made a point of returning (after bravely starting her car), to sneer “Merry Christmas!” at my friend in a tone that was not jolly, or loving, or inspired by good will toward all people. And this was not an isolated incident. What has happened to us?
I bet this Christmanukah Treenora wouldn’t pass inspection by any of these folks, either. I’m sure this must violate some religious authority’s notion of appropriateness. And that’s unfortunate, because the only people in the Bible who Jesus really expressed anger toward were those who – in the name of God – put their own dogma of cultural conformity above being loving toward other human beings (a thank you to John Shore for pointing this out so compellingly). In other words, people who for some reason think they have the authority to make exceptions to what Jesus clearly says is the most important thing of all: Love your neighbor as yourself.
‘Cultural Christmas’ comes to an abrupt halt on December 25th – when some say real and authentic Christmas begins to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But if we take note of its history, what is presumed to be ‘real and authentic’ is clearly part of a ‘cultural’ reality, one forcing us to recognize the dominance of a Christian tradition – at least in the Western world – from the 4th Century on into the 20th. Put simply, a ‘Christian culture’ has been dominant around the globe, and in the U.S. has been a federal holiday since 1870. If you weren’t ‘Christian’ you just had to grin and bear it through a ‘culture of Christmas’ on public display.
Pluralistic and multi-cultural realities in a post-modern era have brought dramatic change, and for some still clinging to a mythology that we are a ‘Christian nation’, that is often a hard pill to swallow. But such a metaphor might help us to realize that all the challenges to a spirit of ‘Christian domination’ might very well be a healthy antidote to some ills that plague our nation. Indeed, challenges from other religious and cultural traditions are not only liberating for the whole society, they may even liberate many Christians still captive to misunderstandings, even distortions, of what the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and his life and teachings are all about.
In Loudoun County – especially with displays on the courthouse lawn – the difficulties of wrestling with a ‘transcending reason for the season’ come into sharp focus. But if it generates critical dialogue about the ultimate significance of the birth, life, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth – and takes us beyond the verbal hand-wringing in some letters to the editor – it can be very healthy.
Perhaps the most controversial of the courthouse lawn displays – one depicting a skeletal Santa Claus on a cross – is also perhaps the most truthful, especially in helping Christians – even non Christians – to arrive at a ‘transcending’ meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus. The materialistic mugging of a religious tradition that has created a ‘Christmas market’ and “crucified” a transcending spirit of Christmas ought to take us back in time when another materialistic takeover of a religious tradition created a ‘market’ around the ritual sacrifices of The Temple in Jerusalem. And had it not been for the fact that Jesus and his followers were protesting and challenging the leaders of a religious system who had betrayed the ‘prophetic imagination’ of an ancestral faith story that had said what God wants is mercy, not sacrifice, (cf Hosea 6:6 and Matthew 9:13 & 12:9), what God wants is justice, compassion and humility, not ‘religion,’ (cf Micah 6:6), a challenge that was also directed at a collaboration of religious leaders and a priestly aristocracy with the Empire of Rome that was creating oppressive poverty and a captivity to impossible debt – he would never have been crucified and we would not even be remembering his birth.
It is significant that “The Protester” is Time Magazine’s 2011 “Person of the Year,” and that alongside those who have ‘protested’ and voiced dissent against authoritarian leaders, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, along with angry voices of protest in Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as ‘protesters’ in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Christmas, 2011, can also be a day to remember and celebrate Jesus the ‘protester’ – along with all those who have ‘protested’ on the Leesburg courthouse lawn.
- The Rev. Don Prange, Director of Ministries in Economic Justice & minister at St. James United Church of Christ in Lovettsville.
Our Adult Education group is currently watching and discussing the PBS series “God in America” (you can watch all six episodes online here). This post will provide a place to continue the discussion – each episode will be added below with a link to its study guide. So if you’re unable to attend the sessions (3rd Sundays of the month at 9:45 am), you can still watch and participate – all are welcome!
The New World challenged and changed the religious faiths the first European settlers brought to it. In New Mexico, the spiritual rituals of the Pueblo Indians collided with the Catholic faith of the Spanish Franciscan friars who came to convert them, ultimately exploding in violent rebellion. In New England, Puritan leader John Winthrop faced off against religious dissenters from within his own ranks, and a new message of spiritual rebirth from evangelical preachers like George Whitefield swept through the American colonies, upending traditional religious authority and kindling a rebellious spirit that fused with the political upheaval of the American Revolution.
America’s experiment in religious liberty involved an unlikely political alliance between evangelical Baptists and Enlightenment figures such as Thomas Jefferson as they forged a new concept of religious freedom, first in Virginia and ultimately in the new nation, as written in the Bill of Rights. These new freedoms had a significant impact on the country as it pushed westward, creating a vibrant religious marketplace where new religions started to take root and new Protestant denominations began to overtake the old. But the definition of freedom was contested, and its meaning ignited political conflicts between Irish Catholic immigrants and the Protestant establishment in New York over the reading of the Bible in public schools.
How did religious beliefs shape the origins of the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s actions during the conflict? As Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders clashed over the question of slavery, each side turned to the Bible to argue its cause. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist newspaper editor, despaired that people who called themselves Christians could defend the evils of slavery. Protestant denominations fractured, with each side declaring God was on its side. Meanwhile, Lincoln, who had put his faith in reason over revelation, confronted the mounting casualties of the war and the death of his young son. In his anguish, he began a spiritual journey that transformed his inner life and changed his ideas about God and the ultimate meaning of the Civil War.
During the 19th century, the forces of modernity challenged traditional faith and drove a wedge between liberal and conservative believers. Bohemian immigrant Isaac Mayer Wise embraced change and established Reform Judaism in America while his opponents adhered to Old World traditions. In New York, Presbyterian biblical scholar Charles Briggs sought to wed his evangelical faith with modern biblical scholarship, leading to his trial for heresy. In the 1925 Scopes evolution trial, Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan faced off against freethinker Clarence Darrow in a battle between scientific and religious truth.
In the post-World War II era, rising evangelist Billy Graham tried to inspire a religious revival that fused faith with patriotism in a Cold War battle with “godless communism.” As Americans flocked in record numbers to houses of worship, nonbelievers and religious minorities appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to test the constitutionality of religious expression in public schools, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a modern-day prophet, calling upon the nation to honor both biblical teachings and the founders’ democratic ideals of equal justice.
The religious and political aspirations of evangelical conservatives found expression in a moral crusade over divisive social issues. They worried that the nation was adrift on a secular sea, unmoored from its Christian foundations, and they wanted to change the culture. Their ambitions were large, and they succeeded in transforming the religious and political landscape of the country. Their embrace of presidential politics, though, would ultimately end in disappointment and questions about the mixing of religion and politics. Across America, the religious marketplace expanded as new waves of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America made the United States the most religiously diverse nation on earth. In the 2008 presidential election, the re-emergence of a religious voice in the Democratic Party brought the country to a new plateau in its struggle to reconcile faith with politics. God in America closes with reflections on the role of faith in the public life of the country, from the ongoing quest for religious liberty to the enduring idea of America as the “city on a hill” envisioned by the Puritans nearly 400 years ago.
The next session, a recap of the whole series, will be held on May 20, 2012 at 10:00 am.keep looking »