I was interested in the wonderful remarks made at Brent Caplan’s memorial service at the Jewish Temple in Alexandria. Brent deserved every word and more, because he was a great guy. I was also impressed with the mixture of people, not only Jewish, but Catholic and Protestant and perhaps others. Brent was not “tribal” at all. In fact, he married a Methodist. Everyone was his friend and their background didn’t seem to matter to him. Looking around in the Temple that day, I felt a sense of “togetherness”, and as the soloist belted out “Hallelujah,” I sang it too, (under my breath). Unity in the midst of diversity. Yes, Lord, yes.
I am thankful that we don’t serve a Deity who has favorites or shows partiality. No one in the pews of that Temple was superior to the person sitting next to him or her, theologically speaking. Jesus said, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He uses the word “all” many times.
Catholic Priest, Ron Rolheiser, wrote in one of his articles, “Atheism is a parasite, usually feeding off of unhealthy religion.” Religion becomes tasteless and tiresome when it becomes extremely fanatic, legalistic and tribalistic. Sometimes, I hear people quoting the Scripture out of context. Context is everything in understanding the Bible. Scriptures were written “for” us but not “to” us. They were documents collected from real-life situations hundreds of years before Jesus of Nazareth and about a hundred years afterward. You can proof-text almost anything by taking the inspired word out of context.
During my 70 years as an active church pastor, I found people who turned away from God and the church because of unhealthy religion, particularly sparked by preachers who are judgmental and preaching more about hell than the positive side of the Gospel. Many people turn away from the church because somebody hurt their feelings, or the preacher failed them somehow, or they let the world of science and materialism take over their belief system.
There’s more to God than we finite mortals can fathom. But I believe the teachings of Jesus give us some vital information on what God is like. Read Matthew 5, 6 and 7 (the Sermon on the Mount) and you will see that God is a loving, forgiving God; one who teaches that we shouldn’t be judgmental or worried about the future. We Westerners have a hard time with turning the other cheek or going the second mile or loving those who have wronged us. In fact, we skip over words like these. Living in a scientific and materialistic culture makes it difficult to break-through to spiritual realities. We want to put everything under some kind of scope and prove it with a bunch of rats. You can’t dissect love or faith or any of the spiritual realities.
Jesus also taught us that God is compassionate toward the “down and out”, even toward those in prison. You simply cannot sin yourself away from God’s love. Jesus welcomed everyone in ways that offended the religious leaders of his day. He healed a person on the Sabbath and talked to the woman at the well, and all of this shocked the Pharisees and Scribes. He tried to overcome tribalism, and ended up being crucified.
When I was pastor of a church south of here, a man and his daughter were members of my congregation. They were very close because they were all each other had. He was a beloved person in the community. When he died suddenly, I remember a phone conversation with his daughter the evening of his interment. “Brother Henry, I need to ask you a question. ‘Where is my Daddy?’” I was a little stunned at first, but she continued, “I know where his body is, but where is that wonderful spirit of his?” Finally, I answered, “Well, there’s a lot we don’t know, but the Bible says ‘From God we come and to God we must return.’ The Apostle Paul talked about the spiritual body vs. the physical body. The Psalmist spoke of dwelling in the House of the Lord forever. But there’s where our faith comes in.” We talked a few more minutes, she thanked me and the conversation ended. And so goes our constant search for ultimate meaning and the purpose of life, which is far more important than which tribe we belong to.
Now, do you really think, and be honest, that God actually cares what religious label you give yourself? Isn’t it what we do with the gift of life that really matters?
Prayer: Lord, though we may be thankful for our faith-heritage and traditions, help us to see beyond our “-isms” and realize that you are a Loving and Universal God and that all human beings are part of your creation, whether we approve of them or not. Amen? Amen.