November 17, 2014

A Hidden Reign

            We are progressing to the culmination of the Christian Year.  We have moved through the seasons of Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time, which have ordered our days and assisted our deepening discipleship.  This coming Sunday we will celebrate the recognition of Christ as the One who will reign forever. The texts for this Sunday offer a picture of majestic humility. 

The passage from Ezekiel portrays one who refuses to reign without exerting every effort to gather the scattered subjects.  “Now I myself will ask after my sheep and go in search of them” (34:11b).  It is a lovely demonstration of mercy: “I will search for the lost, recover the straggler, bandage the hurt, strengthen the sick, leave the healthy and strong to play, and give them their proper food” (v. 16).  God’s shepherd does not look kindly upon those who have exploited the weak, and promises to judge accordingly.  Those who “butt with their horns” will not be welcome in God’s flock.
The Gospel lesson echoes the prophet’s warning, again using pastoral images of sheep and goats. Matthew 25:31-46 offers a vision of how God will sum up the age by dividing between those who have participated in God’s hidden reign and those who have refused. The criterion for inclusion is feeding the hungry, offering drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, tending the ill, and visiting the prisoner (vv. 35-36).  Ministering to these is ministering to Christ, who has so identified with the “least of these.”

I do think we make “following Jesus” an overly complicated pursuit at times.  We want to understand mysterious sayings, such as the timeframe contained in this passage, yet we ignore those things that are quite clear.  Followers of Jesus pursue certain practices, and these practices of mercy express the values of God’s reign.
It is also a picture of judgment, which is not a very popular topic in many Christian circles these days.  We tend to think we have unlimited time to turn toward godly acts, and we continue in our self-absorbed patterns.  Yet, God is not blind to the ways we exploit others for personal satisfaction, and there will be an ultimate reckoning by God’s calculus.
The humility of God’s reign is remarkable.  Rather than coercing belief through displays of sheer grandeur, God chooses to invite participation in the holy work of mending the world, what the Jews call tikkun olam. I trust we will find that we are blessed of God as we join in this labor of love.

Molly T. Marshall

            Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

November 10, 2014

Respecting the Lived Religion of Others

            Religious pluralism is the reality of our time; indeed, the world has always contained persons of widely varied religious experience.  Because of differing historical and geographical circumstances, people have found different pathways to express their deepest longings to worship.
            While Christians have taken seriously the great commandment to preach to all the nations, they have also learned the challenge of encountering the lived religion of others.  Heroic attempts to spread the Gospel in the 19th and 20th centuries on the part of American missionaries have resulted in only a fraction of converts in lands where Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, to name some of the major world’s religions, are imbedded.
            Consequently, many Christians have recast the nature of mission from conversion to shared humanitarian projects.  Conversions still occur, but they are in the context of a larger vision of human flourishing than a narrow version of what constitutes salvation.  Missionaries are learning that as they join the life of the people they serve, their Gospel witness is offered more humbly—and more effectively.
            One no longer has to journey to the “uttermost parts” to encounter different religious commitments and practice.  As the demographers tell us, the United States is home to many traditions as migration of the world’s peoples rapidly accelerates.

            Yesterday afternoon I was a part of a significant interfaith conference at the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, TN.  The presence of this center in Middle Tennessee was hotly contested, yet it has been open for two years, providing worship for Muslim families and educational opportunities for the larger community.  The imam is deeply committed to fostering conversations that can be transformative for shared understanding.

            I joined a renowned Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, and a gifted Islamic scholar Zainab Alwani, to offer lectures on our respective understanding of our tradition’s understanding of Scripture and Sexuality.  It was a daunting assignment, and we each mined our sacred texts—Tanakh and Talmud, Christian Scripture, and the Koran—for guidance.  Each woman sought to illumine the “thou shalt,” “thou shalt not,” and “thou might want to” texts.

            I chose to delineate the spectrum of Christian responses to human sexuality: prohibitive, procreative, communicative, celebrative, and unitive.  I suggested, following David Jensen’s insight, that the whole of Scripture is a narrative of desire.  I believe that desire for God and for one another is of the same longing, and they do not have to be competitive.  Constructing a thoughtful theology of human sexuality is an important and much needed pursuit.

            As you might imagine, there were significant differences among the three Abrahamic traditions, as well as common concern for the promotion of healthy human living in families and the larger community.  Each of us dealt with transposing ancient texts into a contemporary key, which proves most difficult for the perceived inviolability of the Koran.

            The long afternoon was punctuated by a time of prayer for the Muslims, and many of us skipped the refreshments in order to observe the serious devotion to regular prayer with fellow congregants.  It was a further opportunity to grow in respect for the lived religion of this body and to acknowledge their generous hospitality to those of us of other traditions.

            Molly T. Marshall

           Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.