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Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  This is the 2nd in an 8-part series titled, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  This week we’re dealing with the challenge of pluralism — a culture of many faiths. I hope your Sunday is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
#2. Pluralism — Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?

Acts 17:16-34

The old joke was told like this:  “A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Baptist preacher were together in a boat fishing…”

The joke was pretty funny, but that’s not my point today.  Today if you were to tell that joke, you’d have to add to the priest, rabbi, and preacher, a Buddhist monk, a Muslim imam, an Indian guru, a New Age spiritualist, a Wiccan witch, a Native American elder, a Mongolian shaman, an African witch doctor, a Haitian voodoo practitioner, and an aggressive atheist.  And maybe a partridge in a pear tree.

Then, not only would the joke be too long, the boat wouldn’t be big enough either.  My point, of course, is that we live in an age when we are aware of and exposed to many faith traditions, but it hasn’t always been that way in America.  When I was growing up, my buddy Charles Norris lived in the house behind ours.  We went to the same school, climbed over our backyard fence so often that we broke it down, and got into trouble several times together.  Once we set the backyard on fire, which was quite a show.  Another time we shot out the neighbor’s storm door with our BB guns.  But mostly we did 11-year old boy things together.  We built model cars, camped out in the backyard (which is how we set it on fire), rode our bikes all over Columbus, Georgia, and generally hung out 6-days a week.

We hung out 6-days a week, but not on Sunday, because Charles and his family were Catholics; we, of course, were Baptists.  Charles ate fish on Friday, I didn’t — mostly because I didn’t like the fish sticks the school cafeteria tried to pass off as fish.  Charles had to do some weird stuff like go to confession occasionally.  He’d tell me what he told the priest, and what the priest said to him.  Mostly, Charles had to say a lot of “Hail, Marys” — and I had no idea what that meant.

I asked my parents what the difference was in Baptists and Catholics, and got more information than I needed. Among other things they told me that Catholics prayed to saints and to Mary.  The Pope was the head of the Catholic church.  While we were living in Columbus, John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for the presidency.  Of course, we were voting for Nixon because Kennedy was a Catholic.  One day when I got home from school, my mother said, “Want to hear a joke?”  My mother seldom told jokes, mostly because she was too busy keeping up with my brother and me, so I said, “Sure.”

She said, “Do you know what phone number Kennedy will call for instructions everyday if he’s elected president?”  I had no idea, and really didn’t think this joke was going to be very funny at this point, so I said, “No, who?”

“Whom,” my mother corrected me, which she did a lot.  Then she said, “3909.”  She wrote the numbers on a piece of paper, and then turned the paper over and held it up to the light shining through the kitchen window.  The reversed numbers now looked like letters which spelled, “P-O-P-E.”

“Pretty funny, Mom,” I said.  It actually wasn’t that funny, but I was trying to be nice to mom.

Catholics were my introduction to folks who don’t believe like we do.  Of course, as I got older, I learned even more things about Catholics, mostly from Baptists, and most of it not complimentary to the Roman Catholic Church.  I grew up in the era when Southern Baptists believed, if we didn’t out-right say so, that we were the ones with the real truth about being Christians.  And, of course, when we talked about who was going to heaven, Catholics weren’t because they worshipped Mary, and hadn’t been baptized properly.  I am thankful to say that both my parents and I became much more tolerant and open-minded about Catholics and other faiths as the years moved on.

The Challenge of a Pluralistic Culture

Of course, now we have to deal with not just one, but many different faith traditions.  The events of 9/11 shocked us into a new awareness that the ugly face of religious fundamentalism is not just a Western face, but is also a Middle Eastern face.  Before 9/11 most of us, myself included, knew little of the Muslim faith, and thought it had little to do with our daily lives.  On that morning of September 11, 2001, we realized how much the strongly held religious views of one group can impact another group.  We as Americans became very much aware of the pluralistic culture in which we lived that tragic September day.

Twenty-five years ago, unless you lived in one of America’s largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and a few others — you had to travel internationally to encounter a significant number of people of another faith tradition.

I think I have told you about our first trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong together in 1989.  When we landed in Taiwan, I made the mistake of telling our host that I would like to see some temples.  For the next three days we looked at temple after temple.  I did discover that there were Buddhist temples, Confucian temples, and temples devoted to local ancestors and local gods.  We saw lots of temples, and it was a fascinating experience.

Temple worship was not like worship in a Baptist church back home.  The temples were mostly open-air, with people coming and going.  The monks sold josh sticks, and the josh sticks were burned as prayers for their departed loved ones, and also as prayers for prosperity, health, and other requests.  The temples were noisy, they smelled of burning incense, the monks were more like gift shop attendants than religious figures, and I was intrigued by the whole thing.

One of last year’s best-selling books, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, chronicled her travels to Italy where she ate; India where she stayed at an ashram and prayed; and Bali where she fell in love.  Her book has sold millions of copies because it is the story of one woman’s search for meaning.  But she found meaning in a multi-cultural, international, exotic cultural experience where the Christian faith played no part.

The challenge for those of us who are Christian, is how do we live in a pluralistic world as followers of Christ?  Paul’s encounter with the men of Athens holds some lessons for us.

Three Typical Approaches to Pluralism

Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled with how to address the world that did not embrace its beliefs.  Christianity, after all, was born in a multi-cultural, pluralistic society.  Even though the Roman Empire held the civilized world together with is Pax Romana, the world was filled with Jews who worshipped the One True God; with worshippers of the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods; with oracles and those who spoke ecstatically; with the demon-possessed; philosophers; and, those who simply wanted to debate intellectually the idea of gods and their role in the world of men.  These are the men whom Paul addressed in Athens, men who were religious, and interested in debating about religious ideas.

So, Christianity is not new to a pluralistic world, but we are.  How do we as 21st century Christians relate to other religious traditions, and how does that shape our own faith.

Typically, there have been three approaches by Christians to other faiths.

The first approach is the “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach. That was the approach I grew up with.  Baptists were right, Catholics were wrong.  As a matter of fact, everybody else was wrong.  Which presented a problem when we went to see my mother’s side of the family, most of whom were Methodists.  My mother explained to me that Methodists and Baptists were really pretty much alike, except Methodists sprinkled when they baptized people, but you could be immersed as a Methodist if you wanted to.  Having that option made Methodists not quite so suspect in my opinion.  At least some of them could get it right, I thought.

The “we’re right, you’re wrong” approach is known in theological circles as exclusivism.  In other words, everybody but us is excluded from salvation.  That doesn’t sound too kind or appealing today, but in the 1950s Baptists were pretty much exclusivists.  Some still are.  I remember reading a newspaper published by John R. Rice, Tennessee’s fundamentalist twin to Bob Jones down in South Carolina.  John R. Rice wrote in his paper, The Sword of the Lord, that Billy Graham wasn’t a Christian because when Billy Graham held a crusade, and people got saved, the Graham organization told them to find a local church, any church.   And, if they were Catholics, the Billy Graham team did not tell them to leave the Catholic Church.  John R. Rice thought that was blasphemy, and apostacy, if I remember his words correctly.  Personally, I thought John R. Rice was a bit intolerant, and I threw my free copy of The Sword of the Lord in the trash.

But there is an aspect of Christianity that is exclusive.  In John 14:6 — “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So, there is the sense in which we as followers of Jesus are followers because we believe Jesus is what he said he is — the way to God.  There is a exclusivism to that statement and to our belief, because by saying Jesus is the only way, we are also saying Buddha is not the way, Mohamed is not the way, and without Jesus there is no way.

Paul, however, preaches the gospel message without saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.”  Rather, he lays out the “good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul doesn’t have to dismantle their faith to speak of his.

The second approach is the “as long as you’re sincere” approach. That approach was the polar opposite of exclusivism, and is called universalism.  In other words, everybody is going to be saved.  And, it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.  That line of thought emerged as America became a more educated and sophisticated society. Religious intolerance seemed so out of fashion, so why shouldn’t everyone who believed anything go to heaven, too.  Of course, the old Baptist line for this was, ‘if you sincerely drink poison thinking it’s medicine, you’re not going to get well, you’re going to die.’  I heard that illustration more than once, and it has some truth to it.

The other problem with the “as long as you’re sincere” approach is that no other religion believes that to be true.  Each religious tradition presents its own truth claims as definitive.  So, this approach, while it sounds like a very tolerant embrace of all faiths, really leads us nowhere. And, while Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice by saying, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious,” he does not let them off the hook because of their sincerity.

A third approach is the “we think we’re right, but there may be other possibilities.” This is the inclusivist approach.  We’re all included regardless of our religion, as long as we’re seeking God.  The inclusivist approach humbly admits that we may not have it right, and there may be other possibilities for salvation, but we leave all that to God.  It’s a kind of uncertain certainty, if you will.

Granted, I am painting each one of these positions with a broad brush and not doing justice to the nuances of difference between them.  But, the problem with each of these approaches is that WE are the center of conversation.  Each one of these approaches is about what we think, about what we believe to be true or rational or tolerant or palatable.  And that is the problem.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God.

A More Faithful and Humble Approach To Life In a Pluralistic Society

At the center of the Christian faith we find Jesus Christ, not ourselves.  Christ is the expression of God in human form, and his followers were called “Christians” — “the little Christs” — because they lived like Jesus.  So, how do we deal with the challenge of a pluralistic society, a society in which many religions present their claims to absolute truth, in which many cultures have found new pride for their traditions in the world community, and in which Christianity itself is often seen as a less tolerant, less open, less gracious Western religion.

First, we as followers of Christ should not give up our faith practices just because we live in a pluralistic culture.

Christians follow Christ, there is no way around that.  Without Christ, there is no Christianity.  And, without Christ as the centerpiece of our faith, we are not Christians.  So, we can’t roll over when the culture asks us to pray in God’s name, but leave off the name of Jesus as we have seen in recent controversies.  We can’t dumb-down our faith so that Jesus is not offensive to others.  Of course, we don’t have to act obnoxiously either, which is what we Christians have often done.

Here’s a personal story — For many years, I was ambivalent about offering prayer for a meal in a public restaurant.  Does it look too pious to others?  Is it necessary?  Will others think I’m “holier than thou?”  But, then I saw Muslim men on TV one day, kneeling on prayer mats outside their place of business, not once but three times a day.  I thought, “If they have that much conviction and are faithful to the practice of their faith, then I should be also.” So, Debbie and I pray before each meal whether at home, which we always did, or in public.  It is a way I express my faith publicly.  Of course, I will ask others dining with us if I might offer thanks for our meal before we eat.  I am courteous to others, but not apologetic about my practice.

Paul is completely unapologetic as he talks about Jesus, and his place in God’s plan.  Luke says in Acts 17:18 — “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.  They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.”  Paul did not change his message because some disagreed with him.

Secondly, we should be humble about our faith.

The exclusivistic approach — “we’re right, you’re wrong” — has led to family fights, hurt feelings, the Crusades of the 11th century, and the Spanish Inquisition, among others.  Explorers to the New World often decided that if the local natives would not become Christians, then they would have to be killed in order to save them — a religious version of the 1950s “better dead than Red” motto.  Exclusivism is arrogant, unloving, and presumes we know as much as God does about the soul of the person or persons who are the object of our wrath.

Humility in living our faith does not mean apologizing for our faith.  Rather, humility acknowledges that God knows things we don’t, like who’s going to be saved and who isn’t.  Humility about our faith acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is, as Leonardo Boff says, the first evangelist.  In other words, God is at work in the hearts and lives of people that we don’t know anything about.  The Bible contains stories like that of Lydia who was a God-fearer, and to whom Paul brought the gospel message.  Lydia responded to Paul’s message, because God had already prepared her heart.  The Ethiopian eunuch is another example — an African official who was reading a sacred scroll, possibly the scroll of Isaiah, and already had the desire in his heart to know God.

We must be humble, because arrogance and triumphalism is unbecoming to the gospel message and the love of God.

Paul compliments the Athenians on their religious practice, and does not seek to discredit the gods they serve, or even the monument to the Unknown God the Athenians have erected.  Rather, Paul reinterprets the history of the universe with God as creator, sustainer, and eventually judge.  Paul is both humble, and candid, courageously presenting a new way of looking at the history of the world.

Finally, we just have to tell the story.

We do not have to make the story debate-proof.  We do not have to have an answer for every objection.  We do not have to discover Noah’s ark, an original copy of the Gospel of John, or any other archaeological artifacts to prove our faith.  We do not have to apologize for the story of God sending his son Jesus, to live, die, and rise from the grave.  We do not have to be embarrassed at this 2,000 year old story because it is the same story the apostles told on the day of Pentecost.  It is the same story Stephen told before he was stoned.  It is the same story that Paul told as he carried the message of Christ from Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the uttermost part of the world.  The writer of Acts tells us that some believed Paul, and some didn’t.  Others said they would like to hear some more about Paul’s story.  And then Paul moved on to another place to tell his story, again.

Like the stories of our childhood, the story of Jesus is our story.  It is our story because we have found ourselves in it when God saved us.  It does not matter if it contradicts the story of Islam, or the story of Buddhism, or the story of Judaism.  We do not have to apologize, or change our story, we simply have to tell it.

Our reluctance to tell our faith story is more in our own heads than in the responses of others.  I have visited hundreds, if not thousands of people in hospitals in my 30-years in ministry.  Only once was I turned down when I offered to pray with a concerned family member.  I have travelled to China, governed by a system that is opposed to both American capitalism and Christianity.  But I have also had Chinese men ask me about being a “priest” (they don’t know the difference in priest and pastor), and about church, and about Christianity.  I did not have to apologize, or change my story, I just had to tell it.

Since moving here, I have heard from the Chinese man who works for the company in Nantong, China with which I did business for several years.  About three years ago, after we moved here, I got an email from Mr. Wang, stating that Mr. Chen and Mr. Zhu were coming to the U. S. and would like to see us, again.  They wanted to come to our church where I was a “priest,” so that (these are his words) “they could hear me pray.”  Mr. Wang closed his email by saying, “We are all lost sheep.”

Their plans changed and they did not come to Virginia, but I thought that was an interesting admission from a Chinese man who knows little of the Christian faith.  God is at work in his heart, too.  And he is right, we are all lost sheep.  The difference in our lives is that we know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.