hymns

World Cup, Patriotism, and the Language of Faith

By Rev. Mindi

I’m sure I’m not the only pastor uneasy about the Sunday closest to July 4th. Our Christian faith gets convoluted with civil religion and the separation of church and state goes out the window—even in most American Baptist churches I know, where we spout the words of Roger Williams in our Baptist history classes but place the flag prominently on the left hand side of the chancel. Every church I have served has had the American flag in the sanctuary. On the other hand, every church I have visited in a country other than the U.S. has not had their country’s flag in the sanctuary.

It’s a tricky thing to maneuver as a pastor. Do we sing patriotic hymns or not? If we say God Bless America, do we also say God Bless Afghanistan, Algeria, and Australia? Ideally, I would do none of it, and try hard to remember that we pray for Christ’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.  I would rather that we remember that all people are God’s children, no matter our citizenship or documentation in worldly nations. I would not have the flag in the sanctuary if it was up to me—but it is not.

At the same time, I am writing this right after the USA vs. Belgium World Cup game, in which the USA games have been watched more than any other sporting event in recent memory in the United States. People from all religious backgrounds, all ethnicities, all political views, have been rooting together, and more interestingly, getting caught up in the entire World Cup fever. The World Cup has been a place where national pride, the language of faith (“I Believe That We Will Win”) and the energy of millions has been funneled together. And while the United States did not advance, the game was well-played and there is a sense of being part of a global community, even if it is limited through this sporting event and its fans (temporary or loyal to soccer/futbol).

Patriotism in and of itself is not a bad thing at all, but when we convolute our love of God and our love of country together, we end up with flags draped on the cross, and forget that our God is the God who created all of us, and we forget that the United States has more than just Christians as citizens and participants. We shove God and the United States into the same box.

While many pastors I know will not even mention Independence Day on Sunday, for those of us who cannot get away from some sort of patriotic display, let us open the boxes completely. Let us pray for God to bless America, along with Afghanistan through Zimbabwe. May we show the same sense of pride of being citizens of the reign of God. And may we learn a lesson from the World Cup—our language of faith—“I Believe that We”—can also be adapted to suggest faith and trust in other human beings, and that we are stronger together. 

Advent and Anti-Semitism

By Rev. Mindi

And so it happens. As we turn the page on the end of another year in the Revised Common Lectionary, we turn to Advent. Darkness coming out of light. Waiting for the Messiah. And a lot of theologically challenging Advent carols begin to enter our hearing, not to mention this year’s complicated Year A readings from Isaiah.

 

I grew up in a very liberal American Baptist congregation. It was one of the founding churches in the Welcoming and Affirming movement.  When religious liberty was challenged by school sponsored prayer or “motivational speakers” hired by some of the more fundamentalist churches in town to come into the schools and the lure us to their after-school programs, our church stood up for all people, for all religions and for those of no religion or belief in God.  I went to a liberal arts college and studied under professors for whom the conservative Christian body would warn me not to take classes with, and attended a fairly liberal, welcoming church during college.

 

But I was stunned as I sat in my Old Testament class, first semester of seminary, when my professor dared to talk about the Hebrew Scriptures, the passages from the Prophets, especially Isaiah, and talk about early Christians putting Jesus back on the Scriptures when they wrote the Gospels.  How the early Christians went looking for Jesus in the Hebrew texts and found certain passages that they borrowed from to fashion fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah, and that the Jews had other interpretations for those passages, especially the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah, and the young woman with child in 7:14. I had always, always interpreted those scriptures to be about Jesus. I had never thought of them any other way.  I felt the foundation of my faith crumble out from under me.

 

After coffee with my professor and chatting with other seminary friends, I began to rebuild my faith. I also began to study the scriptures in context. Funny how we chose that one verse in Isaiah 7 about the young woman conceiving and naming her child Immanuel and not the rest of that passage, where the child is to eat curds and honey—never heard of that being Jesus’ early diet, nor the rest of the references to Assyria, nor chapter eight’s references to Immanuel.  In fact, it’s pretty clear that the verses used to prove Jesus as the Messiah by the Gospel writers and early Christians were plucked right out of context.  But as my professor said, there are certain attributes we ascribe to Jesus that the early Christians saw in the Hebrew texts about God, or about the coming Messiah, an idea in Jewish theology that came later.

 

So as I plan my preaching for Advent, I have three options: one, to continue to preach Jesus as predicted by the prophets, and thus risk perpetuating an anti-Semitic stereotype that somehow the Jews just missed Jesus and we got it right, appropriating the language and ideas from another religion to fit our own; or two, to just preach the Gospels and avoid all references to the Hebrew Scriptures (a very difficult task) and avoid any reference to prediction or prophecy; or three, to tackle this head-on and read them while acknowledging how they have been used in Christian theology and history.

 

I’m going with three. We as Christians need to acknowledge that while we claim the Hebrew Scriptures as our own, we have taken certain Scriptures out of context, misappropriated concepts and ideas about the Messiah and Israel’s future to fit Jesus into a box that was neatly pre-determined by God. We need to look at our hymns that have taken the Scriptures out of context, sometimes even changing the Scripture to fit in rhyme and verse, and replacing “God” with “Jesus.”  We need to acknowledge that this is part of our tradition and history with Advent. Not ignore it, and not go along with it, but to acknowledge, to look to other ways to see Jesus as our Messiah, and to recognize our need to rethink the Advent season and what we teach, sing, and say.

 

So rejoice! Advent is almost here. Darkness is coming out of light. We are waiting for Christ to enter our world in a new way and into our lives by remembering Christ’s coming before. But let us not buy into the myths of the past. Let us not continue to appropriate without acknowledging our history of anti-Semitism within the church and our ignoring of our Jewish friends’ interpretation and understanding (and historical context) of these same Scriptures.