Last year, someone gave me this Bobble head Jesus. I cannot recall who it was. This is, in fact, the first time it has been out of its box. I got the joke, but at the same time, it made me uneasy as being somewhat disrespectful of Jesus. So it stayed in a box in the cupboard. But today, I bring it out, because, this week, it feels important to be able to make jokes about religion, to be free to satirize faith, to tread too closely to the edge. My faith, can handle it. Can yours?
I am often getting email jokes sent me by parishioners and friends alike. Not long ago, this one arrived: Jesus said to Peter: come forth, and I will give you eternal glory. Peter came fifth and won a toaster.
Or the fridge magnet we once received as a present that read: I found Jesus…he was behind the couch, the whole time.
My faith can handle it? Can yours?
It should go without saying, that the terrible tragedy in France this week, does not speak for an entire religion, but only the extremists who claim to hold that faith, and have corrupted it by making violence out of what was meant as laughter. The newspaper that was the target of the attacks was satirical, and treads farther than a paper here likely would, in its cartoons depicting Mohammed. The acts are certainly more connected with violence and terrorism, than any ability to laugh at religion. But let’s not lose that thought as well: when we lose our ability to joke about our beliefs, to find humour in our faith, we close the door on real conversation, we make people too nervous to broach the subject with us, and we take a real conversation about religion out of the public sphere. Faith and belief are meant to be a lifelong debate, between God and ourselves, and ourselves and others. Iron sharpens Iron.
Not that some of those conversations don’t really irritate me. More often these days, a question about religion from outside the church is an opener for criticism, designed to create space for the person posing it to be trashing religion and its many failings. In those circumstances, when what I believe is treated as foolish or uneducated or silly, it is hard not be defensive. But then something like this happens in France, and we are once again reminded, that we are privileged to be able to openly call each other silly or foolish or wrong, and not be targeted for it. That’s a conversation to which none of us should run away. Most of the time what is behind it is curiosity.
But there is another kind of conversation that merits not curiosity, but a more direct response. It is the conversation that happens within religious communities, between people of faith, attempting to place them a little closer to the God then the other person. These people tend to speak about being “born again” not as renewing their relationship with Christ, but as obtaining an extra badge that gives them the authority to judge others. This posture limits conversation by immediately setting one person above another. It is the root of some of our most virulent religious issues today - the view that some faiths are worthy and other faiths less so, that some people are worthy, and other people less so.
So let’s look at what John the Baptizer says to us in the first chapter of Mark. If there was every a guy who should feel high and mighty, it’s John. Essentially, he’s the number one guy on the scene, until Jesus arrives. He’s gathered the followers, he’s spread the word, he has star power. But ever and always, he is humble in that power. When he feels the people are getting distracted, too focused on himself, he shifts focus: “The one who greater then I is coming after me,” he says. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Jesus, John says, will do more than John every could: “I have baptized you with water: but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Listen to what John says: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” How often do we adopt this posture in life? Jesus, when he arrived on the scene, was a teacher. But he was also a servant to the people. He asked them questions. He heard their answers. He served them. Often when he was asked to boast about his own credentials, he refused - allowing others to make the statement for him. He did not go around, observing that somehow his faith, his life, his deeds, were superior than everyone else’s. His message was one of inclusion, tolerance and even acceptance. He didn’t just listen to others. Jesus truly heard them.
It’s a New Year. The websites are full of exercise tips. The stores have put exercise clothes at their front doors to lure us in. And I can’t tell you how many people have talked about doing a cleanse. But how focused are we now on cleansing our souls, on draining the impurities from our attitudes and thoughts? I would argue that the one thing pretty much everyone I know could work on is to listen more, and truly hear others. To see the world from John’s position: as unworthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. When we set ourselves above others, we miss opportunities. When we assume to have the answers, we don’t hear the right questions. We need to learn to listen without judging, to work hard to see the perspective of the other person, and to respond with an open heart.
Social scientists have long noted that poorer people are more generous than their wealthy counterparts, the lower on the socioeconomic scale people fall the more they give to charity, and see society as communal. They see the need for community and that they can’t get by on their own. In a series of experiments published this week, researchers tested this theory out - to see if just making people feel slightly disadvantaged could make them more generous. They did it with university students and with preschool kids. Both times, the subjects given the subtle message that they were less well off, responded more generously with the materials they had. The fact is that wealth is a matter of perspective, and in real world terms we have it pretty good. But I wonder if those experimenters weren’t really capturing humility - the kind that John espouses.
It’s this humility that we are called to adopt as Lutherans, a faith built on the foundations of social justice and individualism in our relationship to God. Try it out, while you think about your January cleanse, your holiday detox: don’t elevate yourself about others. Recognize your skills as something to be shared. The thoughts of others as something to be listened to. The fact is this: when John finally did meet Jesus, he was treated as a friend, a partner in faith, not a subservient. He may have declared himself unworthy to untie the thong on Jesus’ sandle. But Jesus called John to walk together for the love of the world.
Try it out: Be less defensive. Listen more. Laugh at yourself. Be open to new views of faith and life. Don’t put yourself at the front of the pack. It’s a lonely spot to be. Walk in the crowd, like Jesus did.