I got a call this week inviting me to participate in a podcast panel discussing this question: What are challenges to Christianity these days? We’ll record the podcast on April 2, so I’ve got some time to think about it…and to hear from you all. What do you think? What are some of the challenges to Christianity these days? (Responses)
To be sure, Christianity faces many challenges in the 21st century. Perhaps the greatest one, though, is credibility. Clergy sex scandals, Christian support for policies antithetical to Jesus’ teachings, oppression of the least of these… When our nation’s president, who is supported by millions of evangelical Christians, disagrees with Jesus’ command to love our enemies…yeah. Maintaining credibility these days is a big challenge.
In these incredulous times, it makes sense that millions of people– particularly young people–are ditching Christianity. When the people most-identified as Christians don’t act like Christians, it’s hard to make the case for following Jesus.
I’ve told this story before…and probably will tell it again. That’s because it explains where I’m coming from, not only as a follower of Jesus, but also as a pastor, as your pastor.
Some of you know that I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when fundamentalists were taking it over. The big issue for those people was women in ministry. It was brutal. Seminary felt like one long assault on my gender.
I spent my first year in doctoral work at Emory trying to heal from that experience. The healing actually took much longer….but that first year, I had an epiphany.
On a walk through campus, my path took me under the chapel. When I realized where I was, I stopped. I couldn’t move. For the first time in my life, I was, at Emory, surrounded by people who practiced other faiths…and many, no faith at all. There beneath the chapel, I realized I could choose. I could continue being Christian…or not. It was a simple as that. At seminary, I had experienced the underside of Christianity. Standing under the chapel at Emory, I suddenly felt free. I could let go of the faith tradition in which I had experienced such abuse.
I stood thinking about it for a long time. Then, as he is wont to do, Jesus came to mind. I thought of everything he taught…of how his followers haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of living what he taught. There beneath the chapel, I decided that if a community of people tried to follow Jesus–they didn’t even have to get it right!–if a community just tried to follow Jesus, I believed it would change the world. I still do.
In that moment, I felt called to lead that kind of community–one that tries to follow Jesus…a community that works hard at figuring out what Jesus was teaching so we can live our lives in ways that will create the world of which God dreams…a world where everyone has enough food to eat…a world where everyone can live as the person God created them to be without fear…a world where all people can live freely in the countries in which they were born…a world where we realize that we’re all connected, that we’re all in this thing together.
So, how do we do it? How do we do the work of figuring out how to live Jesus’ teachings from 2,000 years ago in the year 2020? Today’s Gospel story shows one way.
I gotta warn you, though: it’s a strange one. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. Before their eyes, Jesus is transfigured— his face becomes as dazzling as the sun and his clothes as radiant as light. (Reading this passage while I’m taking radiation treatments is a bit surreal.) Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, conversing with Jesus.
Overcome by what he’s experiencing, Peter offers to build three shelters, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. While he’s still speaking, a bright cloud overshadows them. Out of the cloud they hear a voice: This is my Beloved. Listen to him!”
So…we’ve got a glowing Jesus…then Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, join Jesus for a little confab. Then a voice repeats the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Beloved. Listen to him!”
As fantastical as the scene is, its meaning is plain. First, came the law. Then came the prophets. Jesus is descended directly from the law and the prophets. He’s also the one who will take the teachings of the law and the prophets to the next level. Jesus will, in his own unique way, reinterpret the religious tradition for the time in which he lives.
Our task as followers of Jesus in the 21st century is the same. We are descended from the law, the prophets, Jesus, and myriad other teachers of the faith. Our job is to reinterpret everything we’ve learned from everyone who’s gone before us for the time in which we live. That’s what’s happening in the class Brenda is teaching on Isaiah—reinterpreting the words of the prophet for our 21st century context.
It’s tempting sometimes to ditch the traditions and stories of our faith. It’s especially tempting to ditch the Bible. I fear when we do, though, we’re throwing the baby out with the baptismal water. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we’ll keep the baby. We’ll continue wrestling with the tradition and with Scripture and wrest from them truth for our time.
I’ve been to the Middle East twice, once in 1992, and again in 2006. When in Israel, the guides will tell you—this is the location of the Sermon on the Mount. Or, this is place where John baptized Jesus. Or, this is the tomb in which Jesus was laid. In truth, though, we really don’t know.
While not believing I was seeing the exact locations of events in the Bible, I was deeply moved by visiting the sites. The meaning came, not from what purportedly happened at the sites, but from the recognition of just how many millions of people over the centuries had visited them.
Was Jesus buried in the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? We don’t know. But standing in line with the faithful to see it? That was holy. Did Jesus really lead a procession, riding a donkey, down from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem on what we’ve come to call Palm Sunday? We don’t know. But walking with friends down the road and into the city? That was holy. Did Mary really give birth in the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? We don’t know. But standing in line with the faithful to visit it? That was holy.
The line to see the grotto where Jesus might or might not have been born passes through a large Byzantine church. No longer a place for worship, the cavernous room is lined on each side by thick, soaring columns. Visitors pass by the columns on their way to the cave below.
On one of the columns, roughly eye-level, are five indentations, each worn smooth by people placing their fingers in the same holes day after day for centuries.
When you think about how many people it took to create holes that deep…millions of the faithful touching the same piece of marble, over and over…then place your fingers in the same holes…and feel the faith of millions beneath your fingers…it is a deeply moving experience.
Figuring out how to live the faith of Jesus today is a lot like touching the indentations in that column in Bethlehem. Is the cave below the Church of the Nativity the actual site of Jesus’ birth? We don’t know. But the column’s indentations attest to the millions who have come to see if it might be true, or how it might be true for them.
In the same way, we read, wrestle with, and interpret texts and stories that millions of other faithful people over the centuries also have read, wrestled with, and interpreted. In fact, that’s our job as followers of Jesus…not simply to accept—or reject—the tradition that’s come down to us. Our job as followers of Jesus is to wrestle—hard—with our tradition and find within it meaning for today. We visit Moses. We visit Elijah. We visit Jesus. Then, using our own intellect and our own experiences, we reinterpret their teachings for the times in which we live.
I bought the stole I’m wearing today on my second trip to Bethlehem. A Lutheran Church there supports Palestinian women by providing supplies for them to create crafts. The crafts are sold in a gift shop at the church.
My first visit to Bethlehem came right after I graduated from seminary. In a bold act, I bought a stole created by one of the Palestinian women, saving it for the day when I would pastor a church. By the time I got home from the trip, though, my hope had died. How was I, a woman, going to become a pastor? I gave the stole away to a friend who was pursuing ordination in the Episcopal Church.
By the time I returned to Israel in 2006, I’d been pastoring for 5 years. From the moment I decided to go, I planned what I would do in Bethlehem: I was going to buy another stole.
Along the way, I shared my intention with the rest of the group I was traveling with. When we arrived at the church in Bethlehem, they let me go first. I found this stole and bought it. I wear it mostly on Christmas Eve…because I bought it in Bethlehem.
Today, I wear it as a reminder of just how important it is to keep wrestling with our faith and with our tradition. The epiphany I shared earlier—the one that came on the underside of the chapel at Emory—happened a few months after I got back from my first trip to the Middle East, just a few months after I gave the first stole away. I had given up. But that one moment of reflection, of wrestling, was enough to open my mind and my heart to another possibility.
What might happen if we, as a community, continue reflecting and wrestling with our tradition? What new possibilities might present themselves? What new light and truth might break forth from God’s word? Might we yet discover that God is indeed still speaking?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2020