On Burning Qurans and Bibles

 So, pretend for just a minute that we know nothing about the Christian Bible.  And, pretend that we know nothing much about Christianity.  But, we do know a few Christians.  And, we like them.  We like the few Christians we know.  They're nice people.  Smart.  Kind.  Good neighbors. 

Let's continue this game of pretend.  We walk into your church today, and we listen as the Christian pastors read from Christian Scripture.  And, here's what we hear.  These texts are, by the way, from the ecumenical lectionary for September 19, 2010.

"Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call out your name."   

"And, I tell you, make friends of yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.  If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches?"

No wonder the world is so messed up.  Those Christians and their Scriptures.  No wonder those Christians are so violent; their Scriptures bless violence.  And, their Lord holds up dishonesty as a way of being in the world.

Now, of course, we know that's not the case.  We know that Christianity is a path that teaches love and grace and forgiveness and trust and reconciliation and togetherness and respect and tolerance and understanding and caring.  That's Christianity.  But, if you take these texts and lift them out of the deep contexts in which they were produced and in which they are heard, then you can get a pretty skewed vision of what Christianity is all about.

This is, by the way, not a new phenomenon.  The Gospel text for this day, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, was used a very long time ago to disparage Christians and to disparage Jesus.  Almost 1700 years ago, a Roman Emperor by the name of Julian used this passage to assert that there must not be much to any religion whose main guy praises a scoundrel. 

What's really interesting is that history looks upon Julian in different ways.  In some circles, he's known as Julian the Philosopher.  In other circles, the circles of orthodox Christianity, he's known as Julian the Apostate.  Don't be criticizing our religion or our Main Guy, or we'll saddle you forever with a pretty nasty name! 

In any event, it has been the case that people can and do misunderstand other people's religions.  We know that Jesus doesn't bless dishonesty.  We know that Jesus doesn't condone shady dealings.  But, how do we know that?  After all, in today's Gospel lesson, he appears to do just that.

Thankfully, we have places like Day1 and our local congregations and highly competent pastors to help us get the straight scoop on such tough passages.  Because of that, we can easily be reminded of what we've known since we were kids in Bible School.  Don't try to stretch a parable so far that it breaks down.  A parable is a story that usually contains one central truth.  But, a parable is not to be interpreted in a strictly allegorical manner.  If this parable is an allegory, then it breaks down pretty quickly.  We know that the fact that the manager is dishonest, for example, has nothing at all to do with the point Jesus is trying to make. 

We know that the Psalmist in Psalm 79 is simply trying to give voice to the sadness and even the rage that sometimes is part of life.  And, we know enough to say something like this.

"I don't know everything that's going on in those passages of Scripture.  That's why I trust my pastor or check out Day1.  My trusty religious professionals will explain things for me.  But, here's what I do know.  There must be some context.  Some history.  Some helpful tidbits to understanding things.  Because, Christianity isn't violent.  And, Jesus isn't some jackleg who espouses dishonesty as a virtue.  I just know that."

You are right.

In the parable of the Dishonest Manager, Jesus blesses shrewdness, not dishonesty.  And, in the Greek text, the shrewdness Jesus blesses refers to carefully considering experiences and carefully projecting the outcome of potential decisions.  It refers to recognizing the implications of our decisions and being sensitive to the fact that the decisions we make now affect what happens to us later.

This passage is about being as shrewd in our spirituality as the Dishonest Manager was in his business dealings. 

We know that. 

Not everybody does.  Julian didn't.  And, neither to people today, people of other religions who are not familiar with the Christianity we know.

Do you see the problems that arise when we take someone else's religion and someone else's religious texts, and uproot them so violently out of their various important contexts?

Some of our Christian sisters and brothers are doing that very thing with the Holy Quran, the sacred text of our Muslim sisters and brothers. 

Can you just imagine someone somewhere suggesting that Christian Bibles be burned, based on passages like Psalm 79 and Luke 16?

If we want to misunderstand the religion of others, we can.  And, if we choose to do that, we can make of Islam or Judaism or Christianity a violent and death-dealing enterprise.  I can find plenty of texts in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible to make Judaism and Jesus and Christianity look like a bundle of trouble. 

What keeps us from thinking that?  The answer is this.  We know it too well.  We know Christianity from the inside.  And, while we might not know every jot and tittle of Biblical scholarship, we know enough to know that Judaism and Jesus and Christianity are good for us.

Can we please cut the same slack to Islam?

We don't know their Scriptures.  I spent some time over the past few days reading the Quran.  Guess what?  I spent some time being confused.  So, to attempt to address my confusion, I attempted to spend some time studying the Quran.  Are you kidding me?  How long would it take for me to know as much about that Book as I do about the Bible?  I mean, I've been studying the Bible since I was a tiny critter.  I went to Vacation Bible School every year, Sunday School and church every week.  And, them I spent a few years in a seminary, learning about the Bible.  And, since the time that I finished seminary 25 years ago, I have attempted to study the Bible almost every day.  And, as a student of the Bible, I am still learning about it. 

I studied the Quran enough to know that there's a context.  Various contexts.  A lot that I don't know.  But, this I do know.  I know some Muslim people.  And, they are smart.  And, they are kind.  And, they want to get along.  And, I can hold their hands.  And, I can trust them to hold mine.

If I wish, I can use their Scriptures to turn their religion into something it's not.  And, you know what?  If they wish, they can do the same thing to mine.  Because, the Psalms bless violence and Jesus praises a scoundrel. 

What I'm saying is that the world has become very small.  I ate lunch the other day in a place where the menu contains no English.  Right here in good ol' Atlanta, GA.  No other Caucasians in the room.  Thankfully, the kind woman at the counter did speak some English, so she was able to help me figure out what I wanted. 

Within walking distance of my church, there's a Buddhist monastery.  And, I don't have to drive very far to find a synagogue and a Jewish temple and a Hindu temple and a mosque.  This is not the Atlanta I knew as a small child.  We are definitely not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy!

The world is small.  And, people are different, vastly diverse.  And, what's needed today is compassion and understanding and tolerance and respect and trust.  And, as long as we keep each other at arm's length and judge one another with ignorant misunderstanding, we will keep the world tottering on the brink of death.

We've done that long enough. 

What could you and I do to build a bridge?  We live at such a fertile intersection.  The opportunities we have for bridge-building are amazing. 

As it turns out, what's needed is exactly what Jesus said in the Parable of the Dishonest Manager.  We need people who are willing to be shrewd.  And, when we become as shrewd and as wonderfully calculating in our kindness as that Manager was in his business dealings, then we will have helped nudge the world a bit closer to the reality of brotherhood and sisterhood that Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God.    

I encourage you in your efforts to employ the best shrewdness in your best efforts at kindness!