TIME Religion

Extremism Is a Concept Alien to Islam–And to Human Decency

Like hundreds of other Ahmadi Muslims, Dr. Mehdi Ali Qamar was murdered only for his faith. Combined, education and compassion can conquer such extremism.

Dr. Mehdi Ali Qamar was the type of friend every American would proudly brag about. He was a loyal U.S. citizen. He was only 50, a loving husband and father of three. He dedicated his life to medicine and to finding ways to stop the suffering of others. He was only on day two of a three-week humanitarian mission to Pakistan to provide free healthcare to the needy when he was fatally shot a dozen times in the early morning of May 26, in front of his wife and two-year-old son—who watched in horror.

Like hundreds of other Ahmadi Muslims, Qamar was murdered only for his faith. He was murdered because he was an Ahmadi Muslim—a Muslim who believes in the Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian. It is for this belief alone that Ahmadi Muslims face intense persecution in nations like Pakistan.

And while some critics are quick to point to such murders as examples of alleged “Islamic” terrorism, few have the education or compassion to see the peaceful and patient response as examples of Islamic teaching. While such religious violence leads to both loss of life and additional fear of Muslims and Islam, ironically, therein lies the key to counter such loss and fear.

For Ahmadi Muslims, these death threats, and the days of most intense pain after a loved one is murdered, are the opportunity to reassert a campaign for humanity based on education and compassion. The extremists sending Ahmadi Muslims death threats are the same extremists killing Christians, spewing anti-Semitism and demanding theocratic rule. They are the ones promoting death for blasphemy laws, opposing female equity and equality and demanding suffocating restrictions on individual expression and thought. These are the ones hell-bent on a barbaric violent Jihad of the sword—a concept alien to Islam and human decency.

Thus, rather than pointing fingers at each other, this is our opportunity to unite against such intolerance wherever it exists. And this call to unity can manifest itself in any number of ways. So it wasn’t just the threats of murder, but the murdered themselves—like Qamar’s death painfully reminds me—who convinced me to write The Wrong Kind of Muslim and tell the story that millions can’t under threat of death. Thus, I believe all people of all backgrounds can unite on the following two principles.

First, I am beyond disgusted that terrorists and extremists dominate what Christians, Jews, atheists and other non-Muslim groups hear about Islam. I am a Muslim for peace, I exist and my voice deserves a platform. Dr. Mehdi Ali’s voice deserves a platform. His acts of service to and love of humanity deserve a platform. And millions of Muslims in Pakistan and worldwide exist who reject terrorism, extremism, intolerance and oppression deserve a platform too. The Wrong Kind of Muslim, for example, is just one attempt to tell the story they can’t tell, often under penalty of death—but it is a story that must be told. Thus, we have the chance to unite on the principle that education is an irreplaceable element to combat extremism.

But education alone is not enough.

Second, compassion must supplement that education. I believe that every human being of any faith or of no faith has the fundamental human right to believe or not believe as they wish. I believe no person, no government, no religious authority has the right to interfere in an individual’s personal beliefs. I believe that we are all equal human beings and our differences are not a source of division, but of recognition and strength. I believe that only when we recognize our differences, instead of glazing over them like they don’t exist, will any meaningful understanding of one another come to fruition. Thus, compassion for humanity and interaction with humanity melts away fear of one another.

Combined, education and compassion can conquer extremism. Education arms us against internal ignorance, and compassion compels us to engage in external collaboration. United, we can repeal Pakistan’s barbaric anti-blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws, avenge those lost to violence by ensuring a peaceful future and ensure we write the right narrative of humanity with tolerance—not terrorism.

But until we gain a critical and unified mass, the murders will continue—of Christians, Hindus, Shia Muslims and atheists, among others. May 28th marked the 4-year anniversary that the Taliban murdered 86 Ahmadi Muslims in broad daylight, and in response both Pakistan and Muslim leadership have remained silent. Qamar was murdered just this week—only for his faith. Last week another Ahmadi Muslim, Khalil Ahmad, was murdered while in police custody—only for his faith. And beware, next week approaches quickly.

Whatever your faith, I am here to convince you that we must remain united against extremism wherever it lies.

Countless people who you would have loved to call your friend are dying to convince you—educate yourselves, and have the compassion to listen.

Qasim Rashid is an attorney, author, and national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. He is the author of EXTREMIST: A Response to Geert Wilders & Terrorists Everywhere. Follow him @MuslimIQ.

TIME faith

The Economy Is More Important Than Fighting Over Evolution

An evolutionist went fly-fishing with Tea Partiers, and they had more in common than she thought.

Last week, the New York Times reported that yet another Christian school—this time Tennessee’s Bryan College—is embroiled in a debate about the instruction of evolution on its campus. As a theologian, pastor, and seminary president I believe in evolution, and we certainly don’t teach creationism here at Union Theological Seminary. I also know that for this and many other issues you can’t just go to the Bible and find a passage that tells you exactly what to think.

However, reading the article left me feeling confused. Why, almost a century after the Scopes trial, are Christians still fighting about evolution—an issue wholly unrelated to Jesus’ gospel charge—while ignoring the egregious sin of systemic wealth inequality? When it comes to economic justice and the abolition of poverty, you don’t need any interpretive tools to approach the Christian Scriptures. Each page in our Holy Book addresses economic realities and makes clear to those gathered under the gracious arms of God what kind of world we should seek: a world where there is no poverty. It is not ambiguous.

Since I was three years-old, my family and I have jigsawed ourselves into the proverbial station wagon every summer and driven into the wilderness for three weeks of fly fishing. This past summer, I couldn’t find anyone who would agree to go along, and—mostly because I needed the kind of soul renewal that comes with it—I decided I was going to do it by myself. I signed up to go twenty miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on horseback with a group of people I didn’t know to fly fish for 10 days. We were an amazing, offbeat coterie and we got to know each other really well, really quickly. It wasn’t until the third day that I accidentally found out that everyone in the group was a member of the Tea Party.

There was great laughter when everyone realized that I had discovered it. They confessed that they quickly realized I was a liberal Yankee. What struck me most about our conversations around issues of economics was that the language and concerns that were spoken did not, on the whole, sound very different at all from those that I hear from my students here at Union, one of the most socially and politically progressive seminaries in the country. During Occupy Wall Street, 62 students went down from Union to Zuccotti Park, set up their tents, built their camp fires, and lived there for three months to bear witness to their desire for a new economic reality.

Among my new Tea Party friends and my long-beloved students, I heard three things passionately echo over and over again, with little discrepancy.

First, there is a shared conviction that the economic system in which we presently live is completely corrupt, and that Wall Street and the leaders of corporate America are not concerned about the flourishing of common people.

Second, there is a deep concern about the failure of our political system to work on behalf of the United States citizenry. Both Tea Partiers and Occupiers demand a government that is truly of the people, not one that merely masquerades as such.

Third, there is an anxiety about the destruction of the values of community—the values that mark how we care for our children; how we decide what we eat; how we build homes for ourselves; and how we constitute communities where we feel safe.

I travel with a flyer in my pocket that I was able to pull out several more days into the trip and share with them. It’s called the Freedom Budget for All Americans, drafted in 1966 by the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Atlanta under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin. This manifesto for economic change reminds me of the work ahead.

“We are budgeting our resources,” it says, “so that our nation can achieve freedom from want.” It’s not a complicated socialist or communist vision: guaranteed full employment, full production and high economic growth, an adequate minimum wage, farm income parity, guaranteed income for all who are unable to work, a decent home for every American family, modern health services for all, full educational opportunities for all, updated social security and welfare programs, equitable tax and money policies. It’s a Christian vision of economic justice in which people thrive because their basic human needs are met.

It is startling that fifty years later we have not—on a national level—taken steps toward the realization of any of these desires. In fact, in some areas, we’ve moved backwards. We must be better.

Perhaps what we need are more fly fishing moments, where our perceptions are challenged and we glimpse the possibility of a movement. Anything less than the abolition of poverty is too costly.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. This piece is adapted from one of her recent sermons, preached at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. She tweets online at @SereneJones.

TIME Religion

The Most Powerful #YesAllBiblicalWomen Tweets

If the women of the Bible could return to life and speak, here's what they might say about #YesAllWomen

The shooting spree in Santa Barbara, Calif. on Friday–and suspect Elliot Rodger’s manifesto against women that appears to have been behind it–prompted an online conversation critiquing the beliefs society instills in men about women.

But alongside the #YesAllWomen hashtag cropped up another one–#YesAllBiblicalWomen–as people began imagining the way the women of the Bible would contribute to the #YesAllWomen conversation if they could speak today.

Feminist Jewish and Christian theology is a relatively new development in each faith’s history, and many of the women in the Bible, as these tweets suggest, experienced consequences of male entitlement. Here’s a selection of the #YesAllBiblicalWomen tweets, each sharing a Biblical woman’s story, from @AllBibleWomen and others:

 

TIME Sudan

Christian ‘Apostate’ Sentenced to Death in Sudan Gives Birth in Jail

Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian and refusing to convert to Islam

A Sudanese woman sentenced to death for “apostasy” after marrying a Christian and refusing to denounce the faith gave birth in prison Tuesday morning.

Lawyers for Meriam Ibrahim, 27, told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that the mother of two wasn’t taken to a hospital or allowed to see her husband, who has been waiting outside of the prison.

Ibrahim was sentenced to death May 15 for apostasy and adultery by a Sudanese court. She will be allowed to live and nurse her child, named Maya, for two years before she is put to death. Her 20-month old child Martin is in prison with her, too.

World leaders and human rights organizations have spoken out to stop the execution.

An Amnesty International petition to override the sentencing has been signed by more than 660,000 people thus far.

Now that Ibrahim has given birth, the Telegraph reports, she is subject to 100 lashes for adultery.

[Daily Telegraph]

TIME Religion

The Questions We Don’t Ask on Memorial Day

Why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from them?

Monday was Memorial Day, full of family trips and events, lots of picnics and barbecues with friends and neighbors, and a national day off from school and work. For us it was the Northwest Little League All Star game here at Friendship Field in Washington D.C., a family tradition for many years. My wife Joy, the Commissioner, organized the game day, including a wonderful picnic on a glorious baseball day for players, parents, relatives, and many fans–with 300 hotdogs!

It was also a day to remember all the people who have died in America’s wars. For the families of those war victims and so many of their fellow veterans it was a day of remembering and mourning. In the quiet moments of listening to the national anthem while looking at the American flag, our little baseball crowd with hats off might have been thinking about the meaning of the national holiday. But right afterward it was “Play Ball.”

On Memorial Days I always end up listening to the many stories from the families who lost their most beloved ones and from the veterans whose eyes still tear up when they recall their dearest buddies lost on battlefields far away. The emotion and pain always moves me. And watching all the messages of veterans’ organizations, you also see the incredible pain of those who came back from war with injuries and memories that still afflict their bodies, minds, and hearts. But I also wonder why nobody raises the questions about why all these sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, dads and moms–all these best of friends–had to die in those wars.

So why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from the wars? What was gained or lost? Who decided to go to war? And why do their families often bear the least consequences for the war decisions?

These are very hard questions, and people get angry when they are raised as some already are in reading this. Some will say it disrespects those who have suffered and died. But to raise the hard questions of why wars were decided and who decided them is actually a way to respect those who paid such a heavy price and perhaps would prevent more such horrible human costs.

I almost never hear veterans speak about the merits of their war, or its cause or purpose, or the strategies and ideologies behind the decisions to go to war. They talk about their friends, their brothers and sisters, their “family” who they lost on the battlefield. And the families of lost servicemen and women talk about how their loss was so devastating and life-changing. Hardly any of the Memorial Day testimonies are to the war; they are to the war victims.

The war in my youth was the Vietnam War and I still hardly ever go to the Vietnam Memorial. The few times I’ve gone there, I felt enormous pain. My generation’s names are etched on that long black wall, and when I read and touch them I feel overwhelmed with grief.

The Vietnam War was based on lies and was exposed as a political and moral mistake, but went on even after we knew it was wrong and destined for disaster. Vietnam’s American casualties were disproportionately lower-income and racial minorities. This war sank into tactics that killed many innocents while damaging the souls of our own soldiers. Vietnam violated our nation’s best values and religious convictions, but even then many were angry when leaders like Dr. King asked hard questions about war.

Iraq was another war based on lies, and morally compounded by being a war over oil. Was this a war of necessity or choice? Again, the casualties were significantly lower-income people and racial minorities who volunteered for the military hoping for future opportunities they didn’t have. Only some brave souls questioned why so few were asked to bear the terrible costs while the rest of the nation went on with life as usual. Afghanistan, begun to bring those who attacked us to justice, became the longest war in our history, again without honest answers to what we really have accomplished.

War has become such a business in America, whose beneficiaries are not the people we remember on Memorial Day. The veterans we honored yesterday are not even receiving adequate care when they come home and are being used as political pawns, as the latest Veterans Administration scandal reveals.

As we remember those who died serving our country, Memorial Day should also be a day when we ask the hard questions about our wars, what we have learned, and whether such painful losses are truly worth the terrible cost.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME faith

Why Pope Francis May Be the Best Politician in the World

Bethlehem Pope Francis
Heidi Levine—SIPA Pope Francis arrived in Bethlehem's Manger Square in an open vehicle where over 10,000 Christian pilgrims were packed on May 25, 2014 in the West Bank.

To reduce the Pope's upcoming Palestinian-Israeli prayer summit to an act of mere symbolism fails to understand the role religion can play in addressing political crises

It’s hard to argue that Pope Francis is not the world’s best politician after his trip this past weekend to the Holy Land. In fifty-five hours, the 77-year-old Bishop of Rome visited three countries, gave fifteen addresses, planted two trees and held a groundbreaking 45-minute press conference. With a weekend full of blockbuster moments, it might be a bit audacious to say one stood out above the rest. But if there is one that will have a lasting impact on the region, it was Pope Francis’s Sunday surprise.

While celebrating an open-air Mass in Bethlehem, Francis unexpectedly invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a June meeting of prayer and dialogue. Within an hour, both had accepted.

Francis’s successful overture was especially remarkable considering the failed efforts by the United States earlier this spring to get both sides to the table to begin negotiated peace talks. However, this could be the boost that Secretary of State John Kerry needed to revive this peace process, which has been largely dormant for the past four years.

But almost immediately, commentators have tried to downplay the meeting. Daniel Levy told The New York Times that the meeting would “mean nothing in big-picture terms.” David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, added that “[i]t would be naïve to think the sight of Peres, Abbas and the pope doing anything together is going to change the world.” He did acknowledge, however, that the meeting would help the “effort to foster a different mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians.”

But to reduce June’s meeting to an act of mere symbolism fails to understand the role religion can and should play in addressing difficult political and ethnic issues. Throughout world history, religious prophets have creatively navigated tense situations to advance peace and justice. Within the past century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and St. John Paul II showed us that religious witness can win a war without raising a hand.

Even as recently as last September, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church flexed their spiritual muscles in the wake of possible American military intervention in Syria. When an invasion seemed imminent, Francis called on the Church to have a global day of prayer and fasting. During a vigil held in St. Peter’s Square, Francis asked: “[i]s it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?”

Critics argued then that the Church’s response of fasting and prayer would do nothing to alter the situation in Syria. But they were wrong. The international community negotiated a disarmament plan for Syria’s chemical weapons, and the United States was able to avoid a third significant overseas military campaign in twelve years.

Did prayer really makes the difference? It’s hard to say. Violence still engulfs Syria, and the progress towards peace is difficult. But time and again when political actors fail to make progress on society’s most contentious issues, religion has made all the difference.

If Pope Francis’s prayer meeting is the initial catalyst to restart the Middle East peace talks and we can somehow end the perpetual violence that plagues the region, then we will know the angel Gabriel was right: “nothing is impossible with God.”

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME faith

Pope Francis Pivots To Take on Scourge of Church Corruption, Child Sexual Abuse

Pope Francis leaves for trip to Holy Land
L'osservatore Romano/EPA Pope Francis disembarks a plane at Queen Alia airport in Amman, Jordan upon his arrival for a papal visit on May 24, 2014.

On a flight back from Holy Land tour, Pope Francis talked to reporters for 45 minutes.

The man never stops.

On the plane back from his three-day trip to the Middle East, Pope Francis held a 45-minute press conference with journalists, and he announced that he will meet with a small group of victims of sexual abuse for the first time in the coming weeks. The church, Francis said, cannot have “Daddy’s boys” who would be exempt from punishment for sexual abuse of minors. “There are no privileges,” he said.

Victims from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland will participate in the meeting. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of Francis’ core group of eight advisory cardinals, will also participate. While the meeting is a first for Francis, Pope Benedict XVI met with victims of sexual abuse several times.

Francis also announced that he will visit the Philippines and Sri Lanka in January. He also indicated that future Popes may follow his predecessor’s example and retire. He himself would consider retiring, if that is what he senses God is calling them to do. “I believe Benedict XVI is not an isolated case,” he said.

But amid all the religion-themed news of the flight, coming off of a high-profile and news-packed pilgrimage, there was another significant tidbit that could get lost in the shuffle: Francis confirmed that the Vatican is investigating charges that $20 million went missing from the Vatican bank during Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s watch. Bertone, Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, stepped down in October when Francis replaced him with Archbishop Pietro Parolin. “It’s something being studied, it’s not clear,” Francis said, when asked about the investigation of missing funds. “Maybe it’s the truth, but at this moment it’s not definitive.”

It is a reminder that Francis still faces the substantial task of reforming the Vatican’s scandal-plagued financial system. He has been making some progress. Last August, he issued a statement against money laundering. In February, he established a new Secretariat of the Economy and appointed Australian Cardinal George Pell to lead it. He also created a 15-member council of lay financial experts and Catholic prelates to guide policy and oversee audits at any time. Over the last year, the Vatican bank, under the leadership of Ernst von Freyberg and formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion, has closed hundreds of accounts.

Even for a smooth operator like Pope Francis, it takes time to turn an operation as giant and unwieldy as the Vatican around.

TIME Religion

Pope Corrects Israeli Leader: Actually, Jesus Did Not Speak Hebrew

The Pontiff set Benjamin Netanyahu straight on Jesus' language

Oops.

One minute into Benjamin Netanyahu’s sit down with Pope Francis on Monday, the Israeli prime minster found himself eating his words—words about Jesus, no less.

“Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” Netanyahu said, discussing the strong connection between Judaism and Christianity.

Pope Francis looked up and slightly pointed his finger. “Aramaic,” he corrected.

Netanyahu quickly recovered: “He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew.”

The correction was gentle, even playful—typical Pope Francis style. Everyone smiled and laughed.

 

 

TIME Religion

Buckle Up, People: The Pope’s Brilliant Move

Pope Francis is proving himself to be one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

On Sunday, he arrived in Bethlehem and made an unexpected stop that surprised everyone: en route to mass in Manger Square, he halted the popemobile and caused a chaotic flurry of press, security, and onlookers as he walked over to the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. Beneath the graffiti scrawled “Bethlehem,” he reached out, placed his hand on the wall, and prayed.

Only a Holy Father like Francis could pull off this kind of stunt. One small gesture, and the Israeli military in the watchtower above and the Palestinian people below were all at his mercy. He rendered all sides powerless by drawing them into his service, the most counterintuitive service of prayer.

To top it all off, during his sermon at mass, Francis made a historic invitation: “In this place where the Prince of Peace was born, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace. And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer.”

Within an hour, both leaders had accepted his invitation. What were they going to say, no?

The brilliance in this move goes something like this:

“Hey Peres, I’m in Bethlehem, preaching not in Jerusalem but in Palestinian territory, which happens to be where Jesus who founded my church was born, and don’t forget, I’m about to come to Israel to lay a wreath on the founder of Zionism’s grave. Hey Abbas, I’m visiting Palestine first, before I’m visiting Israel, and I just prayed at the wall, so all eyes are on you right now. I’m going to take this opportunity to invite you both, via my sermon, to come pray with me in the Vatican. And because I just made this historic invitation public, you pretty much are going to have to show up. Also, because Peres’ term expires in two months, this needs to happen ASAP. See you soon!!”

Wink, smile, drop the mic.

This is a pope who understands the power of his position, and knows how to wield it with disarming humility. Buckle up, people. We’re only fourteen months in to his papacy. This is already fun.

TIME Religion

Sermon Series: “Getting Smashed for Jesus”

Stefanie Fauth, Festival of Homiletics Walter Brueggemann

The following sermon was delivered at the 2014 Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis, Minn.

Read sermons from additional speakers provided to TIME by the Festival.

Have you ever, as a preacher, had a good idea, and then looked for a good biblical text to fund it?…I thought so…Well, you are probably not the last preacher who will do that. And you are certainly not the first to do it. Consider Paul. He wanted to write his vexed church in Corinth. He saw that they had confused major matters and minor items, majoring in minor stuff to the neglect of major stuff. They were preoccupied with class distinctions, differences between Jewish and Gentile folk, arguments about circumcision, and right food, insiders and outsiders, even some lawsuits, all the usual stuff that makes for church quarrels. Paul wants to call them out. But you could not just do that, especially from a remote distance by a letter.

He had to find a biblical text. You can picture him leafing through the book of Jeremiah, one of his favorites, looking for a good text that would support his good idea. And he found it! In Jeremiah 18! That prophet had gotten himself a perfect “sermon illustration” by a visit to a local potter. So Jeremiah goes on and on about the potter being God and Israel being the clay. He saw that if the clay pleased the potter, the potter would value and keep the pot that the clay had become. But if the clay was resistant to right shaping, the potter would smash the clay and start again to get it right. The “performance” of the clay would determine the way of the potter with the clay. Jeremiah used the imagery to comment on the coming smashing of Jerusalem, smashed clay that had displeased the potter for much too long.

And then, just to be sure he had enough material to work with, Paul flipped back to the book of Isaiah. He came to chapter 45.That old prophet had just told the exiled Jews that they would be saved by a goi, by the Gentle, Cyrus the Persian. This was God’s new way to save God’s chosen people. Apparently some of the Jews said, “No, we will not be saved by a goi. We refuse that rescue and will wait for a good Jewish Messiah.” Isaiah responds to that refusal with the same imagery of clay and potter:

Woe…big trouble coming…

Woe to you who refuse the way of God,

Who strive with your maker.

Woe to the clay that disputes the potter.

Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?”

Does the clay say to the potter, “You forgot the handles?”

No, the clay just turns compliantly in the hands of the potter, yielding to the artistry of the potter.

And then, just to add a more daring figure, Isaiah adds,

Does the semen say to the father, “What are you on about?”

No, the semen just keeps moving.

Does the fetus say to the mother, “Why are you in such agony?”

No, the fetus just keeps tracking along. Israel is like clay, booked to the potter.

like semen obeying the father,

like fetus responsive to the mother.

So shut up your Jewish mouth; this is my future for you.

Paul got these two texts on clay and potter from Jeremiah and Isaiah. He got them on Monday. By Wednesday he thought they would work. But then he realized he had to work some to make them work. Like we do with texts, he had to jiggle them a little. Because the problem in Corinth was not disobedience to God as with Jeremiah’s folk in Jerusalem under threat or resistance as with Isaiah’s folk in exile. The problem was majoring minor stuff and neglecting major stuff.

So Paul “adjusts” the text. He makes the issue not clay and potter. That would be too obvious. He makes it clay pot and the contents of the clay pot. Neither Jeremiah nor Isaiah had thought to comment on the contents of the clay pot. But that just shows what holy imagination can do, especially at a festival where you can use texts you cannot use anywhere else. Paul has ample imagination and lots of chutzpah, the kind required to do a good sermon. He extends the imagery beyond his text.

We have this treasure in clay jars.

We have the container and the stuff contained. And we have confused them! We think the clay pot is the real thing and have neglected the stuff inside. And when we do that, being the clay pot, we think that we are the treasure. We might, in a moment of great eloquence, even dare to think that the “extraordinary power” belongs to us. We might think that the church, the clay pot that holds the treasure of the gospel, is a big deal. We might think that all the little stuff that so preoccupies us and uses up our energy is more crucial than the stuff inside the jar. We might! And then we would be like Corinth!

So if Paul can imagine out from Jeremiah and Isaiah, you will not mind of I imagine out from Paul. The treasure is the news of the gospel, the news of God enacted in Jesus Christ, the one who reconciles us and liberates us to new life. This God shows up with what we most desperately must have to live an abundant life. The treasure is:

-forgiveness in order to start again in a society that never forgives and keeps score forever;

-generosity that overwhelms our lack in a society based in scarcity and getting more for ourselves;

-hospitality that welcomes us in a society that is inhospitable to all but our own kind;

-justice that protects the vulnerable in a social system that is deathly in its injustice.

It is the old, old story of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!

Everything else is a clay pot that is designed to hold and transmit and enact the treasure. Everything else!…the church and its ministers, its hymnals and catechisms, it budgets and programs, its pensions funds and mission boards, its conference offices and dioceses and ordaining councils, its congregations and middle judicatories, its church bells and bulletins and candles and music programs, its seminaries and their curricula, its research and commentaries and learned articles, its youth groups and mission trips and church camps, it mission festivals and quarrels and acts of mercy. Everything else is a clay pot…fragile, likely to break, never fully able to contain the truth and richness of the treasure.

In the text, Paul writes to a church that is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. That is a standard position for the faithful church; no surprise there! We now know about being afflicted, perplexed and even struck down, though mostly we are not faithful enough to be persecuted. We all know now that the church is in big trouble. Everyone knows that. My own pastor says regularly, “You know, people don’t just come to church anymore!” And my own Episcopal Bishop in Cincinnati says that he will only ordain folk to the ministry of Word and Sacrament who are theologically grounded and have enough of an entrepreneurial capacity to do something new, missional, and generative. It is a new day that evokes new responses.

The temptation for the church—when it is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down—is to give in to being crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, and destroyed. It is enough to push us over the edge, to despair of the future. But we make this move,

From afflicted to crushed,

From perplexed to despair,

From persecuted to forsaken,

From struck down to destroyed…

we make this move only when we give too much credence to the clay pot and confuse the clay pot with the treasure. It is easy enough, when you are a pastor or a responsible lay person, to worry excessively about the clay pot of the church, whether we will have enough dollars, enough members, enough ministers, enough seminary students, enough young people, enough journal articles—to keep it all going.

But we know, when we think carefully, that the church is not the treasure. The church is a fragile, transitory vehicle for the gospel, not more. Nobody thought, did they, that our old hymnalswould last forever? Nobody thought, did they, that our favorite seminary would endure to perpetuity? Nobody thought, did they, our preferred liturgy or catechism or organizational chartwould persist in eternity? Nobody thought, did they, that present arrangements in our conference or diocese would abide? Nobody thought, did they, that any form of the church would last on and on and on? Because clay pots are fragile, transitory, and passing. So the church, with its vested interests and greed and anxiety and foolish judgments and ideological advocacies, is not durable in any form or manifestation, not even the ones we most value.

But says Paul, the treasure prevents us from taking the vessels with ultimate seriousness. It is the treasure of the gospel, the news of reconciliation and emancipation, that is the abiding reality that does not fail. It is the treasure that draws the line against our over-investment in clay pots. It is the truth of the gospel that permits us to live freely in this vexed context,

afflicted but not crushed,

perplexed but not driven to despair,

persecuted but not forsaken,

struck down but not destroyed.

It is the treasure that lets us see clearly and love dearly and follow nearly. It is this “But not” that matters. When we fall into despair and panic cynicism and romanticism, it is because we have confused the treasure with the clay pots, when we regard our capacity to make it work as a life or death matter. We have been seduced by a “can-do” American consumerism or by works righteousness to bet inordinately on our work and our imagination and our skill and our wealth. And none of it will abide.

So my work in this hour is to consider with you treasure and clay pot, gospel and church arrangements,

To be sure that we do not confuse the treasure with the vessels,

To be sure that we do not take the vessels too seriously,

To be sure that we recognize that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us!

“Extraordinary power” concerns self-giving forgiveness, hospitality, and generosity. “Transcendent power” does not come from good management or good planning or good scholarship, but from vulnerable self-giving.

Our moment of crisis in the church is a moment to consider among us the richness of the treasure and the fragility of the vessel in the presence of the treasure. It may be a moment to decide yet again to give ourselves over to the truth of the treasure and let God manage much of the rest for the sake of the vessel. I have in mind exactly vexed church treasurers, exhausted pastors, and worried church leaders. I have in mind all of us who have taken on the burden of the church, the cost of discipleship as it takes church form. I have in mind that we pause to recognize that more is going on than us, that in, with, and under us and our efforts is this buoyant fidelity that abides and sustains, no matter what. I have in mind that we not be talked out of the truth of the gospel that is the only warrant for the vessels we so value.

We are watching while the clay pots are being smashed like Jeremiah imagined old Jerusalem to be smashed, smashed maybe for being disobedient and irrelevant, smashed for being too-self-preoccupied, smashed for being too comfortable with privilege and national ideology and middle class morality. So I had the thought, the clay pots are being smashed for the sake of Jesus, that the power of Jesus in his generosity, forgiveness, hospitality, and justice can break loose in the world to make for healing and newness.

Paul writes this fourth chapter around the gospel of Friday and Sunday. He writes that we carry “in the body the death of Jesus.” We are marked by vulnerability, exposed for the sake of the gospel. We are always being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, always having life sucked out of us because we have embraced the gospel. But then he asserts,

that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence (v. 14).

The church, says Paul, reperforms the death and the new life of Jesus. We are now facing some dying in the church in order that we may be raised to new life.

This argument from death to new life is reflected exactly in Paul’s first letter to Corinth. In I Corinthians 1, Paul writes of the cross of Friday:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (v. 25).

And then in the very next verse he says to the church,

Consider your call…God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are.

At the end of this same letter, in chapter 15, he testifies to God’s victory in the resurrection:

Death has been swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where O death is your sting? (vv. 55-56)

And then he says to the church:

Therefore my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (v. 58).

From crucifixion in chapter 1 to resurrection in chapter 15, the church is between that Friday and that Sunday, on this gray Saturday, not knowing, waiting, trusting, not crushed, not in despair, not forsaken, not destroyed. Here is the Friday mandate:

Consider your call.

Here is the Sunday mandate:

Be steadfast…abounding in the work of the Lord.

And we between, with our clay pots, but sure about the treasure.

A visit to the potter’s house permits the prophet to ponder that the potter can make and unmake and remake the pot. And he sees that in exile, in its time of displacement, Israel is being unmade and remade in a new form according to God’s purpose. Israel will and must become who it was not for the sake of God’s intention. No, the clay does not get to question the potter. For Paul this same imagery from the prophets pertains to the church. God is the same potter. We have this clay pot of church life. We like clay pots a certain way. We like the handle and the design and the color the way we like them. We like worship to be a certain way and music to be a certain way and mission to be done in a certain way, etc. etc. etc.

And then we have this moment of stunning attentiveness. The pot is being reshaped before our very eyes because it no longer pleases the potter. Some folk do not like the change and its new requirements. Well, none of us like it very much. We want to resist the potter and have it the way we want it. But that is to confuse the treasure with the vessel.

So my word to you–as a white, tenured, retired male who has no risks to run–is to care more for the treasure. Because this is the truth about the treasure: there is not any single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one! The treasure must be enacted in new forms. It must take many new forms. But the forms, those we prefer and those forms that we resist, are not the treasure. The clay pots include our salaries and our health care coverage and our family security. And we worry about them as we worry about all of our preferred clay pots. But they are not the treasure!

My friend, Henry Zorn, an ELCA pastor where I live, tells of a colleague complaining that in his church there were only sixty members. Henry remembers that their seminary teacher chided his friend: “Just think, sixty people hearing the news and ready for ministry. Think of that and do not say ‘only’.” This is not a proposal for church shrinkage. It is rather that the usual indices of church health are not pertinent. The relevant matter is the treasure and its power to transform. The impact of the news is not through gimmicks that the clay pots might conjure; it is the truthful richness of the treasure that makes all things new.

You may know this story of an Anglican diocese in Canada. It was sued for a long-term practice of sexual abuse of children in their parochial schools that had happened long ago. The diocese lost the suit and had to declare bankruptcy. Penitence was seriously enacted; payments were made; serious apologies were enacted. Then the day after bankruptcy, the bishop called a press conference. He said, (get this!):

We have a book and a towel, a table and a cup. And we are back in business.

We have a book that tells the story of God’s transformative power.

We have a towel whereby in vulnerability we enact transformation.

We have a table where all are welcome.

We have a cup of life poured out in forgiveness.

What we have is a small vessel! But it is an adequate vessel! The bishop authorized the clergy of the diocese to depart from the diocese if they wanted a vocation elsewhere. Not one left! They all stayed. Because they were back in their proper business, glad to be fragile clay pots for the treasure. It was like a wake-up call for the church that had confused the treasure with its own clay pots. So it is with us now, as Paul writes:

That God’s grace may extend to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

What a menu: grace, thanksgiving, glory! So Paul to us:

Consider your call for the sake of the cross.

Be steadfast…abounding in the work of the Lord in the wake of Easter.

We are indeed afflicted…but not crushed;

We are indeed perplexed…but not driven to despair;

We are indeed persecuted when faithful….but not forsaken;

We are indeed struck down…but not destroyed.

The right vessels will be given in due course. The treasure provides that for us, and for many others through us. Paul writes at the end of his clay pot paragraph: “We do not lose heart!” We lose heart only when we value the clay pots excessively. But we do not lose heart…We do not! Because of the treasure!

Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, where he served from 1986 until 2003. He was one of many featured preachers and professors at the 2014 Festival of Homiletics.

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