Sunday, February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017 - Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:38-48

Last week, Jesus said, If your eye offends you pluck it out and if your hand offends you, cut it off. And I said that I think he was speaking rhetorically, not literally. Well, this week, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And I’m sorry to tell you, but this time I think he means it.
I’m sorry because of all the things that Jesus says, this one is absolutely the most difficult. “Love your neighbour” - that’s easy. Once we figure out who our neighbour is, we can love them. “Welcome the stranger” - that’s not so hard, either. But “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” To love our enemies is to love the one who wants us dead, either literally or metaphorically. The enemy is the one who desires our non-being. I don’t mean that they necessarily wish we were dead, but they want us not to be anymore, so that they can be fulfilled. Your enemy is the one who takes pleasure in diminishing you, who breaks you down in order to build themself up, who stands in your way because your failure gives them joy. Throughout our lives, we encounter people whose sense of self is affirmed when they take away ours. And Jesus calls us to love them - to love our enemies. 

And not only our enemies. We are to love those who desire the non-being of those whom we love. We are to love the enemies of our friends, we are to love the enemies of the poor, we are to love the enemies of our children. Douglas Garland, who killed little Nathan O’Brien, comes to mind. We are to love those who prey on the vulnerable in order to raise themselves up. To love and pray for those who hurt seniors, and babies. Take a second and call to mind the face of someone who has tried to “get rid” of you, or tried to exclude you, or tried to hurt you. It may be that you can find it in your heart to love them. But now call to mind the face of someone who has done those things to someone you care about. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How can Jesus ask this of us? How exactly are we supposed to do this? And why?

To even begin to answer these questions, we need to look first at what is meant by “love.”  There are, of course, all kinds of ideas of what love is, and what kinds of love there are, and there’s the classical Greek division of eros, agape, and philia. But I want to look at what Paul Tillich, the German American Lutheran theologian from the 20th century, said about love. To begin with, Tillich said that love is not a feeling. Love is not the sentimental Valentine’s Day emotion created by cards with hearts on them or chocolate or flowers. Instead, love is how we act. (He actually said that love is also a state of being, which is why we say God is love, but I’m not going to get into that.) Love is an action. Specifically, love is acting for the other’s being. That is, love is acting so that the recipient of our love is affirmed in who they are, so that the Other feels recognized as a person, and valued, and that they are worthy of consideration and that God did not make a mistake when creating them. When we love someone, we act so that they know that they are an indispensable and irreplaceable part of the universe. 

Tillich suggested that there are three ways that we love. Three ways to act so that the Other is affirmed. The first is to listen. When we listen to someone, truly listen, taking in everything they say, putting our own thoughts on hold, listening so that we can hear not only what they’re saying but everything behind their words - deep listening, you might say - when we do that, we are affirming their being. This is what’s behind Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute us. In order to pray for someone, we must first listen to them. Listen to what they want to pray for, to what they consider important in their lives, to what they value, to what they fear. True prayer, which is to say not vengeful prayer, or praying, “Dear God, please make those who disagree with me come to see my way of thinking and change their minds,” true prayer means praying that the being of the Other is affirmed by God. And to do that, we have to listen.
Next, Tillich says that love is giving. It’s giving the energy and time and resources we put towards our own selves to the one we love, so that they can be more who they are created to be. It is orienting our lives toward the Other, so that they will thrive. Not necessarily so that they’ll exist - love doesn’t mean seeking to prolong our loved one’s life for as long as possible, simply for their existence. Existence is not the same as being. We can exist without being, if we have so descended into evil that we’ve lost ourselves, and we can be without existing, as we see in the resurrection. When we love, we give of ourselves so that the other can be. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that we always do whatever the Other wants. Tillich served as an Army Chaplain in the German Army in WWI and was a prisoner of war, and he lived through WWII, and, during his time as the Chancellor of the University of Frankfurt, was critical of Hitler and lost his job and had to flee the country because of it. Tillich struggled with what it means to love your enemy when that enemy is literally trying to kill you and millions of people. And so when Tillich talks about giving as one of the ways we act in love, he also said that the act of giving can include the acts of, as he said, “resisting,” “restraining,” and “depriving.” It can be an act of love to resist the harmful actions of the one we love, to restrain them from hurting others, and to deprive them of the power to destroy. When we do not resist or restrain the evil of the one we love, when we give them the power or even allow them to hurt their enemies, it’s like giving sugar to someone with diabetes. They may want it, they may say they need it, but it will kill them. And so we resist when the “enemies” we are called to love try to hurt others. Always with humility, of course, and with an awareness that we are tempted in our own ways to want to assert our own being at the cost of the being of others, but nevertheless, we can resist and restrain and deprive. As an act of love.

And finally, Tillich said that love includes the act of forgiving. Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that although the Other has sought to disrupt our being, to diminish us, to cause us pain for their own pleasure, we nevertheless commit ourselves to their Being. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, or debts, or sins, as we forgive those who trespass or sin against us.” We are trusting God to commit God’s self to our being––to forgive us––despite our wrongs, as we commit ourselves to Others. Forgiveness is not pretending that the enemy has not tried to hurt us. It is acknowledging that they have, and then moving forward to say that we will not act as they have. On June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, a white man, baptized Lutheran, sat in a Bible Study with the people of Mother Emanuel Church, and then, in a premeditated act, took out a gun and killed nine of them, including the pastor, because they were black. Two days later, at his bond hearing, the family members of those who were killed spoke to him, and told him that he had taken the most precious things in their lives from them, but they forgave him, and they prayed for God’s mercy on his soul.

We do this these things––we love––because, as it turns out, our being is dependent on the Other’s. We do not live in isolation. We are all in relationship with one another, whether we realize it or not. God created the first person, and then God created a second for the first to be in relationship with, because we cannot be by ourselves. This was something the people of Israel knew very well, and something that was foundational for Jesus. When God made a covenant with the people, it was with the people of Israel, with the entire community. Our reading from Leviticus this morning speaks to this––we are to ensure the survival of all those in our community, by leaving the extras on the field after it’s been harvested, or the extras of the vineyard for others to come and gather. The entirety of the Law in the Old Testament is based on what is good for the whole community, so that one individual’s profit does not come at the expense of another. God created us to be interdependent.

This means then that the being of each of us is dependent on the being of the Other. I cannot be if my enemy, as a person, cannot be. This is why we love them, why we work for their being, by listening to them, and giving to them, and forgiving them. And this is why we resist our enemy when they act to destroy us. Because if we are destroyed or diminished, they are too. And if they are destroyed or diminished, if they lose who God has made them to be, we lose, too. We love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us both to protect them and to protect ourselves.

This is why God “makes the sun rise on both the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Not because God is impartial, or ambivalent, or finds our hurts to be insignificant in the bigger picture. God does this because God understands that we all must thrive and be who we are meant to be together, or none us can be. God calls us over and over to love our enemies and to commit ourselves to their being, even if it kills us, literally, because God grants us being after we cease to exist, in our resurrection. God calls us to love in this way so that we might not only act in love, but actually be love, as God is love, as a true and eternal affirmation of who we are. To be perfect as God is perfect, to be love as God is love.

This is the hardest thing Jesus calls us to do. And honestly, we can’t always do it. Sometimes it is too difficult, and we are human, and we are limited in what we can do. But even in those moments when we can’t pray for those who persecute us or those we love, when we can’t love our enemy––affirm them in their being or forgive them––we can, at the very least, entrust them to God. We can say, “God, I can’t do this. You do it.”

We know that when we do not love our enemy, when we don’t pray for those who persecute us, we are making ourselves into enemies. We are making ourselves into those who desire the non-being of others, and thus of ourselves. We make ourselves into people who are desperately in need of love, and forgiveness, and prayer. But, when all is said and done, our God is love, and God acts in love towards all of us. God listens to us, and freely gives to us, and forgives us. God affirms that we are all worthy of being, and commits God’s self so that we all might be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

February 12, 2017 - Reshaping our Identity

1 Cor 3:1-9; Matt 5:21-37

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. ... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” So, right off the bat, it’s important to say that I don’t think Jesus meant this literally. I think he was being rhetorical, using an extreme example in order to shock us into paying attention to the point he was really trying to make, which is that we should never treat wrong-doing casually or superficially, or make excuses in order to avoid the consequences of our actions. We should never make excuses for adultery, or rape, which is more likely what Jesus is talking about, or forget that divorce has serious consequences for all parties. Jesus wants us to be aware that even our casual references - insulting someone, or saying, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if someone assassinated that President to the south” - are not casual. They reflect our deeper, and more troubling, tendencies to turn away from righteous and godly living. And so he uses hyperbole to get our attention. He picks dramatic examples.

But I wonder if Jesus really considered that losing an eye or a hand is also not something to be treated casually, or used rhetorically. It is, in fact, very serious. Losing a part of your body, or even losing some aspect of physical functioning, is a tremendous loss. It is life-changing. You don’t have to physically lose an eye to know that losing your sight can be devastating. Or losing your hearing. Or losing the ability to run or jump or skip. Transitioning from walking on your own to needing a walker or a wheelchair. Losing the ability to take a shower on your own, or brush your teeth - these are losses akin to death.

In fact, they are a kind of death. They are a death of our self-identity. When we go through a major loss, whether physically or emotionally, we lose who we are. The person who we were with these things or these people or these situations is gone. Dead. And we must construct a new person - a new self - a new identity.
All losses, physical or otherwise, are the death of who we are - of who we have been up until that moment. When we move from one place to another - even if it is from our house to an apartment in the same city - it is a death of who we were as homeowners. When children move out of the house to go away to university - it is a death of our identity as parents of school-aged children. When we lose a job, or even just retire - it is the death of who we are as income-earners or as participants in our professional careers. When we lose both our parents, it is the death of our identity as children of living parents. When we face the loss of this congregation as it closes, we face the death of who we are as members of St. John. Any major change in our lives, whether it is from a physical disability, or a major change in our relationship with our parents or our children or our spouse, or a physical relocation, or the loss of a community, these are all losses that confront us with the death of who we have seen ourselves as up to that moment.

And when we sense that loss coming, or when we’ve just experienced it, we often find ourselves going through the famous, or infamous, stages of grief: denial or disbelief, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and finally, by the grace of God, acceptance or hope. And particularly in those first few stages, we tighten our grip on whatever it is that our identity is built on. Whether it is our idea of ourselves as physically independent, or whether it is our idea of ourselves as employed, or as a wife, or a mother, or the child of our parents - we will try to hold on to those things that represent our physical independence, like our cars or our driver’s licenses, or we might find it hard to let go of books or tools that remind us of our jobs, or we might find it hard to let go of any number of things that keep us connected to the way things were. When my family and I moved from California, it was a profound loss of community for us, and even three years later, up until just a few weeks ago, I was still following the community newsletter from where we used to live. I just couldn’t let go of that, or of the identity that I had there, as a member of that particular community. It can be overwhelming, when all of these losses start to add up. And the more we lose, the more tightly we start to cling. We hold on to whatever those remaining things are that help us to remember who we are.

But our identity does not truly rest in any of these things. Who we are is not determined by our physical abilities (or lack thereof), or our jobs, or our relationships, or what church we grew up in. And I know you know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded of this: Your identity, who you are, comes from your identity as a baptized and beloved child of God. When you were baptized, all those old identity markers were washed away, they were made secondary, and this new identity as God’s child was made foundational. And so the most important thing about your physical abilities is that your body was created by God. The most important thing about your relationships is that the love you experience and share is an overflow of God’s love for you. The most important thing about your work is that your skills and talents and energy are gifts from God. The most important thing about the communities you belong to is that they are extensions of the community of Christ that you are brought into by God. The most important thing about you, the only thing that anybody needs to know about you, the only thing that will make a difference at the end of the day, is that God loves you. God loves you so much that God is willing to give you God’s own identity - that is to say, God is willing to give you a title that identifies you to the world as one of God’s own, that of God’s beloved child. When everything else has fallen away, you are God’s child, sister or brother of Jesus.

This identity is renewed every time we come forward for Communion. When you make your way forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for you, your physical losses, the work you weren’t able to finish, the relationships you’ve failed at, the communities you’ve belonged to that have dissolved, all of these things are left behind as the Holy Spirit brings you forward to stand before God with the only thing that truly matters, the cross made with water on your forehead when you were baptized. It doesn’t matter that you can’t move the way you used to, or see, or hear like before, or that you can’t think as fast as you did when you were younger, or that your circle of family or friends gets smaller every year. I mean, of course it matters, but it doesn’t matter. You are still who you became the day you were baptized, and who you will always be no matter where you go or what happens to you.

And so, considering all of that, maybe Jesus really did understand the seriousness of what it is to lose an eye or a hand. In calling us to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand, or sell a building or close a congregation, maybe what Jesus is telling us is that these things really are only superficial when it comes to determining who we are because our identity is so firmly founded on God. Maybe Jesus is calling us to let go of those things that get in the way of us remembering who we truly are, because Jesus knows that God has already given us the most important identity of all, the one that tells you that you are God’s child for whom Christ died and was raised. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

February 2, 2017 - Calgary Interfaith Breakfast - UN Week of Interfaith Harmony

“Multifaith, not Interfaith: Raising a Family With, not Between, Two Faiths.” 

This morning I’m going to talk a bit about this phenomenon of interfaith or interreligious families. In fact, as you’ll see from the title of my talk, I prefer to use the word ‘multifaith,’ because of the different ways in which ‘interfaith’ is used. As you see from our breakfast, and from the UN Week of Interfaith Harmony, ‘interfaith’ is still most often being used to describe the discussion between peoples of different religions or marriages where the couple are from two different religions, even when only one religion is practiced in the house. But my focus today is on families where more than one religion is actively present in the home, and so I prefer to use ‘multifaith,’ so that we can have a sense of two religions overlapping in one place, rather than a home sitting in the gap between two different religions.

So, this morning I’m going to start by wearing my scholar had and offer a broader picture of multifaith families, and then I’m going to switch to my mother hat and talk a bit about my own family and our experiences, and the blessings and challenges of that, and then, finally, because three hats is enough for now, I’m going to put on my clergy hat and offer some of my thoughts about how clergy and religious communities can be welcoming to multifaith families.

The latest data we have in Canada on multifaith families comes from the 2001 Canadian Census. The Census tracks religious identities only every ten years, and the data from the 2011 isn’t public yet, so the numbers are out-of-date, but if they follow historical trends, they will have increased since 2001. In any case, by examining marriage statistics, we see that as of 2001, what they call ‘interreligious unions’ made up 20% of married couples: of the 14.1 million Canadians in couples, nearly 2.7 million has a partner from a different religious group. And I suspect that that number is higher in cities like Calgary and lower in rural areas.

The reason I am quoting from marriage statistics instead of religious identification statistics is because of a flaw in the way the data is collected. If you’ll remember from the 2011 Census, when it came to religious identity, every possible religion was listed, as well as “None.” However, the census allows respondents to choose only one religion. Which means that anybody who identifies with more than one religion will have to make a false choice - either putting down only one of the religions they identify with, or putting down “none.” And in fact, we can see this when we look at the Household Survey of those living on Indian Reservations, where the questions are slightly different. In that case, when asked for religious identification, 77% of Canada’s indigenous people identified as Christian, but when asked about the importance of their traditional spiritual practices, 80%  said they were very important. So when we look at spiritual practice as a marker of religious identification, we have a significant group of people who are, in practical terms, multifaith.

  But for more accurate data, we have to turn to the United States, and to their wonderful Pew Report, from the Pew Research Center. In the 2009, they came out with a Report on Multiple Faiths, and it says that twenty-four percent of Americans say they regularly or occasionally attend services of a religion other than their own. Of those who attend a weekly religious service, almost 30% have attended services outside of their own faith. Forty percent of marriages today are ‘interfaith,’ (to use the report’s words), and as of 2008, 37% of families identified as such.

And these 37% of families are finding places to meet. The Interfaith Families Project, an organization in Washington, D.C. offers religious services and “school” specifically for interfaith families and registers 300 active members. The Chicago Interfaith Family School registers over 70 families.

So what does it look like in these families? Those children who have been raised those inter-faith programs that support multiple-faith identities,
 say things like, “I want to stay both, because it’s original and it represents part of who I am.” Another says, “I feel the coupling of both faiths has given me unique avenues to God.” And another says, “I cannot be severed from either of these religions, nor be limited to [either alone].”

 The theme of being both, and not half, resonates with many raised in multi-faith families. And so, when asked if he is half-Jew and half-Christian, for example, one person responded, “No, because I don’t think you can be half a religion.’ I say I’m both. I don’t think I can ever say I was ever confused about what I was, because I always just kind of understood that I was both.” When pushed to identify with only one faith, another responded, “I’m actually interfaith. I was raised Christian and Jewish. So for me to pick one over the other and say I’m just Jewish, it’s kind of like asking me to pick if I’m white or Latino.”

 90% of this group stated that belonging to two faiths was complex, but not confusing, and that it was life-giving. For those who are Jewish and Christian, believing in mitzvot and tzedekah as foundational for Jewish ethics contributes to the Christian understanding of Jesus’ call to care for the poor and love your neighbour as yourself. Believing in the second coming of Christ as a time when God’s peace will reign deepens the Jewish understanding of tikkun olam and the healing of the world. Participating in the Passover rite of the Seder, with its actions of reading aloud, eating, dipping, raising a glass, tasting when performed within the Christian Holy Week, as it normally is, works with Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, of eating, tasting, speaking aloud, raising a glass. Both rites deepen within one another and give rise to a fuller thanks-giving, the goal of both Seder and Communion. Lighting the candles every Sunday in Advent works with the act of lighting the Hanukkah candles for eight consecutive nights, deepening the meaning of bringing light into the world in times of great darkness. Those male children who were born into actively Jewish-Christian multifaith families experience the covenant of circumcision for the Jewish people and the covenant of baptism oforf the Christian people in way that do not exclude each other, but help deepen the meaning of the other. Circumcision physically marks the covenant in a way that baptism lacks, while baptism, as it leads to communion, moves the covenant internally, in the taking in of the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist. While belonging to two faiths may seem paradoxical, it is not a paradox that leads to conflict or the sacrifice of one to the other,
 but one where one difference contributes to the other difference, and vice versa, in a mutually constructive way.

That’s the theory. But what about the reality? Well, here’s my story. My husband and I had been together for four years before we got engaged, and had met each other’s families, and his family knew that I was studying to be a Lutheran pastor, and my family knew that he was a Reform Jew, but it wasn’t until we announced our engagement that there were any concerns. And the question that was always asked was, “What about your children? How are you going to raise them?” And when we responded that we intended to raise them in both religions, the question was always, “Won’t they be confused?” We are, of course, always concerned about the next generation, and rightly so. 

The questions and reservations about multifaith families come from two concerns. The first is that, in being exposed to two religions, they will inevitably become lost to at least one. They will either eventually pick only one religion, having been swayed to that side, and the other religion will lose a “member.” Or, neither religion will be present, out of deference to the other, and the children will grow up honestly and truly in the “none” category. A legitimate concern for those who value religion. The second concern is that the children, being exposed to two religions, will experience such cognitive dissonance that somehow their religious identity will suffer a breakdown and they will be, as so many pointed out to us, “confused.” (Back then, it never occurred to me to ask why being confused is so bad for children.)

Instead, never having been parents ourselves, and also not having seen any other multifaith families around us, we reasoned that people hold cognitive dissonance in their head all the time without suffering mental breakdown, and that we would immerse the children in both religions but allow them to make their own decisions when they reached the age of confirmation, and that we would make religious belief a fundamental of our dinner-table conversation. For my part, that was easy, but it was also easy because my husband has a minor in religious studies.

But more than just introducing them to the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity, we were committed to the idea of actively participating in two religious communities so that when our children decided to choose one, they would feel that both were comfortable and familiar. I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of traveling to another place, where you don’t know anybody personally, and then attending a worship service there and feeling “at home.” Even though you don’t know anybody in the room with you, knowing the order of the service, knowing the words in the prayers, being able to participate with everyone else in the physicality of the worship, these are the things that make us feel like we belong to the community and are part of a family, even if everyone is a stranger to us. And that’s what we wanted for our children. That sense of familiar belonging, in two religious families, instead of just one.

We also wanted our children to know, and live out, the fundamental values and the histories of both of their religions. And with Judaism and Christianity, the values and the histories intertwine, so it has been easier in that respect for us, although it does require us to be honest about the hostility between the two religions during certain times in history. When it comes to values, for my part, as a Christian, I wanted my children to have the faith of the Jewish Jesus, whom I believe was trying to live out his Jewish identity, not overcome it.

And so that was the plan - raise them in both faiths, immerse them in both communities, and talk, and talk, and talk.

And then our first son was born. And, like all naive parental plans, it all fell apart. No, I’m kidding, it didn’t, actually, which is even more surprising. We planned a circumcision for him, which was ritually done in our house (which may be the only parsonage in all of Canada, if not North America, to have a foreskin buried in the yard). That was followed by a naming ceremony in the synagogue we attended, and then a few months later by a baptism here in Calgary. As we saw it then, and continue to see it, we understand the circumcision as his entrance into a covenant with God through Torah, and his baptism as his entrance into the family of Jesus, and a different way of understanding the same covenant, not a replacement. So that no matter what he chooses in life, he will always know that God has him firmly in hand.
Through his preschool years, he attended both synagogue and a Christian preschool, and two memories during stick out in particular for me. One was hearing him sing one day, “This little light of mine,” and I asked him where he learned that song, and he said, “At Hannukah Tot Shabbot,” which made me laugh, because that’s actually a Christian song, and it was nice to see Judaism taking a turn at appropriating things. And the other memory I have is that one year in preschool he was given the role of Joseph in the school’s nativity musical. Now I knew it was because he could memorize and sing all the lines in the role, but when I asked him why he got the role, he said, “Because Joseph was Jewish and I am, too!”

And we were able, with only some minor hiccups, to do the same thing for our second son, as well.

And so our children are now ten and seven years into our experiment of raising children in two faiths. They go to synagogue and to church. They say the Shema every night when they go to bed, and they know the words of the Lord’s Prayer. We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas as separate holidays - no Chrismukkah or Hanukkah bush. (Although they only get presents on Christmas, and not on Hannukah. Instead we try to do one miztvot each of the eight nights.) After Christmas Day service, we go see a movie and have Chinese food for supper, which, since I always work the night before and all morning, I really appreciate not having to cook. We celebrate Passover and Easter, and we’re adamant about telling our churches that Christian Seders are as inappropriate as Jewish Holy Communions. We’ve given up the traditional Hot Cross buns on Easter because they’re usually during Passover when there’s no leavened bread. We tell them, over and over, that they are both Jewish and Christian, and that they are very lucky to be both, and that most people are not. I will be up front with you that we do not keep a kosher house - mostly because we are lazy about that, and we often forget to light Shabbat candles. But they know the story of Exodus better than any Christian child their age, and are probably the only kids in their Sunday school at church who can read Hebrew. They know that when I go to visit sick people as part of my job that it’s a mitzvot. We have a tzedakah (charity) container on our counter, and they are constantly worrying about people who are homeless. They have a very keen sense of justice, and they know quite a bit about the history of Second-Temple Judaism and the early Christian church. In fact, when they were little, I remember once when one of them said said, “Hey, Jesus is Jewish - we should call him Jewsus!”

I did ask them, when I was preparing this talk, what was the worst thing about being raised in two faiths, and they said, “We don’t get the weekends off.” There’s no question that being part of two faith communities requires double the time. But on the other hand, we make decisions about which events we think are truly part of the religion, and which are just social.

As parents, the most challenging part is worshipping as a family. I feel uncomfortable when my husband brings the kids to church on Easter, because I know how the story has been told in ways that blame Jews for what happened. The hymns we sing on Easter are often laden with this accusatory theology, and even though I’m the pastor of the church they’re in, I can’t always do anything about it. I also miss having us praying and taking communion all together. But that is not a challenge that has anything to do with raising a family in two faiths - many nominally Christian families have one person in the family who doesn’t go to church.

Another challenge comes from clergy who don’t understand where we’re coming from. When we went to have our second son circumcised, the rabbi welcomed us at first and was happy to be at the bris, but as soon as he heard that we were planning a baptism after, he told us he couldn’t possibly be there, but maybe the incoming intern could be there, we just wouldn’t tell him about the baptism later. And we were welcome to have a lunch after in the synagogue, but he wouldn’t attend. It didn’t matter that I was working on my dissertation on overcoming supersessionism, or Christian replacement of the Jews, or that I was committed to having my children in synagogue, or that my understanding of baptism was different than most Christians. Religiously speaking, he told us he was bound by the dictates of his rabbinic organization. As a member of the clergy, I can certainly understand the need to be in step with your professional colleagues, but as a pregnant mother, I was devastated by a rejection that felt incredibly personal. (Although I have to say that we persisted in attending the synagogue, and a few years later when my husband and children were invited onto the bimah to open the Ark, I was invited, too.) 

So there are challenges, as you’ve heard, that come primarily from the religious institutions. It wasn’t until moving to Calgary that we found a Reform synagogue that did not demand exclusive Judaism as a prerequisite for our children attending Hebrew school. But the blessings of having a multifaith family are abundant, not just for our children, but for ourselves as adults. My husband is more active in his synagogue than his parents were, and he knows more about what Torah actually says and about Jewish history than he did before, mostly because, as he says, “When your wife has to learn Hebrew in seminary and can read it better than you can, and knows more about your own religious stories and history than you do, you have to step up!” For my part, although I knew in my head that Jesus was Jewish, the implications of that for my faith have deepened tremendously and led me to doing my PhD. In fact, I would say that for my husband, being Jewish has become easier, while for me, being Christian the way I used to be has become more challenging, and I think that’s fair, given our religious histories, and I consider it a blessing.

The hardest part has been finding religious communities that fully accept what we are trying to do in our family. And from that perspective, I thought it might be helpful for you, as leaders in your own religious communities, to have some concrete suggestions on how you might make multifaith families feel welcome. I know that we’re all interested in interfaith dialogue, but intentionally welcoming a multifaith family is a bit different. Of course, the same rules around interfaith dialogue also exist in multifaith families: Talk about what is the same and then about what is different. Don’t try to convert anybody. Talk about what is essential and what is not. 

In addition, I would say, trust their intentions. That is, trust that the people who come to you are really, truly seeking to honour their religions. They are not ambivalent or uncommitted. If they were, they wouldn’t be coming at all. They are not trying to have it all - religious commitment these days is not something people take lightly - there are all kinds of other things they could be doing with their time. They’re coming and wanting to get involved because it’s really important to them.

Don’t be surprised if they challenge religious tradition. Aside from the obvious challenge of being multifaith, they will want probably to know *why* things are the done the way they are, as a way to figure out what is essential. When we were married, we had a long discussion about whether or not we wanted a chuppah - the canopy held over the wedding party in a Jewish wedding. After a lot of research, we concluded that since the chuppah represents the sky, and we were being married outside, it was redundant. We may have been right or wrong, but we certainly did our research, and we talked a lot about the intention and meaning of *everything.* 

The flip side of that is that once the multifaith family understands why, they are likely to be fully on board. In fact, your multifaith families may even be more dedicated than your regular ones (as they say, converts are always more committed). Multifaith families are very intentional about their practice and their faith, and they are a great strength, rather than a weakness, in a religious community.

Another thing that I would say is that if you are committed to welcoming them, educate your staff. In fact, before I even get to that, I emphasize that welcoming them will keep them coming back. A report by United Israel Appeal Federations Canada (UIA) says that, “Having a Rabbi officiate at an interfaith ceremony is extremely important to the likelihood of future participation in Jewish life. In fact, 50% of interfaith couples married by a Rabbi indicated that it is important to them that their eventual grandchildren are raised Jewish as opposed to 18% when no Rabbi officiated at their wedding ceremony.” When it comes to multifaith families, if you want to keep them, you need to outdo the other religion in welcome and hospitality.

Getting back to educating staff, educate those who will educate the children. One of the ongoing challenges we have, in both our synagogue and our church, is that those who are teaching our children aren’t aware that these kinds of conversations are happening. The number of times my children have come home from their church with really questionable material is more than the number of fingers I have to count them. Especially during Christmas. And as clergy, I understand the difficulties of what I’m asking, but it is really important to make sure that your childhood educators have a clear understanding of what it means that they have multifaith children in their classrooms, and of what the material they are using to teach might be saying. Not so they can water down what they’re teaching, but so they can be sensitive about not putting down other religions, which is something we should all be working on anyway.

And finally, I would say, don’t be surprised if your people are ahead of your policies. We have felt more welcome by people in the congregations, even after they found out about our “status,” then we have by official policies. In fact, in several synagogues we have been in, when people found out what the official policies were, they were quite surprised. The people are almost always ahead when it comes to showing hospitality and welcome.

My family is only in the middle of this religious experiment. I have no idea what they would tell you in ten years about how they experienced a multifaith life. For all I know, they may turn their backs completely on Judaism and on Christianity and become Buddhist, or Hindu, or worse, atheists. But they will, at a minimum, have learned religious tolerance and that religions are, at their heart, about treating one another well and trying to make the world a better place for everyone, and if we succeed at that, we will be as content as any parents could be. Thank you for listening.

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January 29, 2017 - Cause for Complaint

Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

This warm weather sure is nice, isn’t it? Although I have to say, I could do without the wet roads. I took my car in to get new tires, and when they asked me what colour it was, I said, “Dirty green.” But I got a car wash, and then, of course, I cried as I drove down Deerfoot because all the spray just coated my car again. And then, when I was going to get another car wash on Friday, my mother said that she had spent an hour in line at the carwash. An hour! That’s ridiculous! But, I shouldn’t complain.

“I shouldn’t complain.” How many of you use that phrase? Or hear it on a regular basis from others? Or think it when others are talking, “You shouldn’t complain. . .” we might think in our head, or say out loud to our children. One of my sisters likes to say, “Suck it up, buttercup,” when I complain about something to her. We have this cultural belief, don’t we, that complaining is not good? It’s ungrateful, it’s pointless, it shows a lack of inner strength.

For several Lents in a row, I gave up complaining. Most people give up chocolate, but I decided to give up complaining. Although it makes me feel better in the short-term, in the long run, I thought it couldn’t be healthy, and so every year, for three years, I gave up complaining during Lent. And it was hard. The first year, I still complained, I just felt really awful every time I did it. The second year, I managed to actually not complain very much at all, and it felt really good. But the third year I noticed something really odd. I gave up complaining, but at the same time, I realized that I was unable to speak up about things that really were wrong or unfair. I had been treated unfairly by a professor that semester - along with some other students - but I didn’t know how to raise the issue without complaining. What had happened was legitimately unfair, but since it was Lent when it happened, I couldn’t go to the Dean’s office and register my complaint.

And it was in that third year that I realized that complaining can actually be a sign that we are seeing or experiencing some kind of injustice. When we complain, often times it’s because we are recognizing that the world is not as it should be. That the values that we think should guide society - equality and fairness - are being set aside for other interests. When a child complains that their sibling’s piece of pie is bigger than theirs, they’re pointing out that, in a world where everyone is supposed to be treated equally and receive the same thing, the distribution of pie is not equal. Or, to take a completely different example, when someone complains of chronic pain, they are pointing out that in God’s creation, which God called “very good,” it is not supposed to be that people are in constant pain. Or when someone complains that they are tired from taking care of a sick family member, they are highlighting that there is a failure in our society wherein caregivers are left to care for their loved ones on their own, without any meaningful support from anyone. When people who are unemployed complain that immigrants are coming in and taking all the jobs, they are telling us that in a society where we value hard work and self-sufficiency, there are not enough opportunities for everyone to do that.

Complaining is really a hungering and thirsting for righteousness, if we understand righteousness to mean God’s justice as a reality in this world. When we complain, it’s because we are dissatisfied with the imperfections of the world. We know that God provides enough for everyone to eat, and that God values the lives of each one of us equally, but we see that God’s reality is being thwarted. And so we cry out for justice. We complain. “I hurt in a world where there is supposed to be healing. I hunger in a world where there is supposed to be food for all. I experience death and loss in a world where we are supposed to have life.”

When we understand that complaining is a way of pointing to the injustices of the world and a cry for things to change, our readings for today are opened to us in new ways. In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Micah asks God how we are to worship God, and the response is, God “has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The worship and gratefulness that God wants from us is to do justice. To first look and see the injustices in the world, to notice the ways others and ourselves are being treated unfairly, and then to do something about it. To say something. To complain. As an act of doing justice. As worship, even.

Or look at our Gospel reading today - what we call the Beatitudes - the blessings. If you look at “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” you see complainers. Those are the folks who are always out there marching and protesting for some issue or another, who yearn for the justice of God, for God’s righteousness, to be a reality in this world. The complainers are the thousands who protested yesterday at airports across the US because of the President’s order to ban entry to Muslims from certain countries. We call them social activists, if we agree with their cause, but complainers, if we don’t. Martin Luther, whose 95 Theses were really 95 complaints, was a saint to those who agreed with him and a heretic to those who didn’t. But no matter what we call these complainers, Jesus says that they are blessed, and that they will be filled. Their complaining will be answered, by God. Jesus even says, “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Those who go out there and complain and protest and agitate for refugees, or for the environment, or for women, and get vilified by society or arrested and thrown in jail, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Those complainers have God’s kingdom. Here. Today. God blesses those who are dissatisfied with the world the way it is. Our Scriptures today tell us that God blesses the complainers. 

And lest you think that the complainers of the world are only those out there, let me tell you that we, too, are complainers. Every Sunday. You see, every Sunday, we pray what our Lord Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be they name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When we pray this, we are praying that God would make this world the way it is supposed to be. We are praying that God’s will would be done here and now, just as it is in God’s kingdom because we recognize that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. We pray for daily bread because we, as a global community, do not each get enough for our daily bread; when we pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” we are complaining that we don’t all have daily bread, and we are praying for food justice––food security––for all. When we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven we are recognizing that there is such injustice in this world that the only one who can fix it is God. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are complaining. We are hungering and thirsting for righteousness. And God blesses us.

The next time you find yourself complaining, rather than just saying, “But, I shouldn’t complain,” see if you can figure out what your complaint is really about. What is the injustice that is really bothering you? How is your world different than the world God plans for us? How does the injustice of your situation help you to see the injustice in other people’s? And then, knowing that God blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the complainers of the world, pray whole-heartedly, that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, and remember that when you do so, Jesus proclaims that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Thanks be to God. Amen.