by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” — Luke 6:31
One of the adjunct professors at Bangor Seminary, the place I went to seminary, Dana Sawyer, had an interesting background. A Native American who grew up on the Penobscot Tribe reservation near Old Town, just north of Bangor, he had a Ph.D. in Far Eastern Religion.
Of course, you do not get that degree without having visited the Far East numerous times. Then he, a Native American with a degree in Far Eastern Religion, returned to Maine to teach at the University level. The particular class he taught at Bangor was, appropriately, World Religions.
This background was fascinating but something he said I found even more fascinating. He insisted the religion most practiced world wide, most practiced in America, was what he called folk religion.
What did he mean? (I could spend a half an hour unpacking that thought.) Here’s an American example he used: Fundamentalism is a folk religion, said he. How so? Fundamentalism has absolutely no basis in historic Christianity and began only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Following the Civil War, tensions developed among Christians in America. Scholarly Biblical criticism, a practice of Scriptural study which dates back millennia, started to be seen as something which encouraged social and cultural change. That very encouragement of social, cultural change was unacceptable to some, at least in part because of a resistance to social, cultural change.
And so, The Fundamentals, a series of papers, was published between 1910 and 1915, published in Los Angeles of all places, supported by an oil baron, right out of the Gilded Age who had some reason to resist social, cultural change because of his status. The bottom line is Christianity had never seen anything like organized Fundamentalism before. And this was organized by big money.
While many think Fundamentalism is ancient, obviously this is new, a little more than 100 years old. And it is, in fact, a largely American idea. This American idea spread to other faith traditions, Islamic Fundamentalism being the prime example. They had never had Fundamentalists before. I am sure the irony of that is not lost on you.
To put this into perspective, Fundamentalism is not a theological reevaluation of Christianity. This is a social movement, a cultural movement, whose mission was to resist change in society. I need to be clear. I am not saying people who follow Fundamentalism are insincere in what is believed. I am saying the movement itself stems from social, cultural and late origins.
United Church of Christ pastor Lillian Daniel has published a book whose title reflects my sentiments: Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To is the title. The Christianity I know, the Christianity to which I belong, historic Christianity, cannot be labeled a folk religion as it is not based simply on a current cultural, social trend. Fundamentalism is based on what was a new cultural, social trend just 100 years ago and, hence, as Dana Sayer, my professor, said, can be labeled a folk religion. (Slight pause.)
From time to time many of you have heard me say I have Jesuit training. My follow up line after that is, “Scratch a Jesuit, you get a Protestant.” That would be me.
I was, however, never in a classroom taught by Jesuits. Rather, since my father taught at a Jesuit High School for his entire working career, Jesuits were my friends.
Jesuits came to family parties. I went on trips with Jesuits. I played softball and basketball with Jesuits. Jesuits staffed the Summer camp I attended.
Question: most of the time how do we really learn, especially how do we learn about life, about how to behave, about how life should be lived? We learn from family. We learn from friends.
A competent teacher will tell you a significant chunk of learning happens outside any classroom wall. When Jesuits are friends of the family, it is hard to not be influenced by their thinking, to not learn from their thinking. (Slight pause.)
Jesuit have an interesting practice of which I know. Every ten years they publish a list of four priorities which will be the “mission of the Jesuit order” for the next ten years. They just published a new list.
First, “show the way to God through discernment and… Spiritual Exercises.” Next, “walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.” Third, “accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future.” Last, “collaborate in the care of (the earth) our Common Home.” (Slight pause.)
We find this being spoken by the Christ in the work known as Luke/Acts in the portion called Luke: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Slight pause)
The quote you just heard is often called The Golden Rule. It is found in many faith traditions and in many social traditions, in many cultures. It dates at least back to the Code of Hammurabi, 1,700 yeas before the birth of Christ. (Slight pause.)
Now, I think most of you are aware I had what might be called multiple careers before seminary. One piece of that was a nine year stint on and off working on Wall Street.
Do you know what The Golden Rule on Wall Street is? (Slight pause.) Those who have the gold make the rules. Its corollary is those who have power hoard power. Another corollary: those who dominate strive to perpetuate dominance.
These are cultural, secular golden rules. The question for us around that is simple: is following that golden rule, a cultural golden rule, a secular golden rule, the place to which God calls us, the place to which God calls the church? (Slight pause.)
Occasionally someone will say there are liberal interpretations of the Bible. Others will say there are conservative interpretations. Nether position is accurate.
What I am about to say is neither liberal nor conservative. The challenges with which Scripture presents us as we examine it, as we seek God’s Word and God’s will are multiple when it comes to the culture. The first challenge is that we need to identify the cultural trappings in Scripture which are based on the era in which Scripture was written.
That alone is not easy. After all, the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, contain at least five different documents written over the course of a number centuries and then woven together so they appear to someone who reads the text only in translation and not in the original language to be just one, single, singular document. If you’re reading in the original languages the differences jump out at you.
Each of those documents, woven together as one, written in different eras, need to be unpacked for the cultural content in the era in which they were written. And, when you are reading the words in the original language, it becomes evident sometimes one sentence is written in one era and the very next sentence is written five hundred years later and addresses a different cultural context.
After that, after the cultural contents are identified, the question for us becomes what is God saying? To where does God call us?
So, not only do we need to identify the cultural, social content. We need to neutralize it as we seek the will of God.
But there is another challenge. What does our culture, today, say to us? You see, to identify what our culture today says to us, its influence on us, is an even harder task than looking at an ancient culture in the Scriptural text.
After all, perhaps we cannot fully identify all aspects of an ancient culture. But we can identify many of them.
I think identifying today’s culture is a more daunting challenge. Why? We are living in and with our own culture. It is second nature to us. We do not even notice it.
And just like we should strive to identify cultural practices in ancient times when we read Scripture and naturalize those, we need to identify today’s cultural trends. And then we need to neutralize today’s cultural trends and yet again ask ‘what is God saying?’ ‘To where does God call us?’ ‘To where does God call the church?’
All of this points us to one place when looking at Scripture. Will we be overcome, will we be overwhelmed by the culture which surrounds us when we read Scripture? (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to my friends the Jesuits and their current ten year program. I would sum up that ten year program with just several words: discernment; reconciliation and justice; the creation of a hope-filled future; the earth, our Common Home. (Slight pause.)
As I said, Scripture is neither liberal nor conservative. That summation of the Jesuit program is neither liberal nor conservative. Why? Living into and with these ideas is about a way of life. Living into and with these ideas is how we learn about life, about how we learn to behave, about how life should be lived, about living together.
Christianity is not about rules. Christianity is not about the culture. Christianity is about a way of life. That is one reason why each time the Jesuits post a program it’s for ten years. This is about a ten year exercise in practicing a way of life with specifics. To practice a way of life takes time.
Will anyone ever be perfect at the practice? No. The idea is to practice and strive to improve every day. Perhaps more importantly the idea is to strive, as well as we are able, to see the world as God sees the world. How does God see the world?
I hear this is just one of the things Jesus said about living life as we strive to know God and to know the will of God: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Now that, my friends, is not a golden rule. That is a counter-cultural idea since those words are about God’s culture, not human culture. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Let me quote Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘Nothing worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.’ Do I get occasionally discouraged? Yes. But I understand my own frailty and mortality. I understand I live in a culture. I understand I need to pay attention to God’s culture. The culture is temporary. God is not.”
BENEDICTION: Let us go in joy and in love and in peace. God reigns. Therefore, let us go forth in the name of Christ proclaiming the peace of God which surpasses understanding. And may the face of God shine upon us; may the presence of Christ be with us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.