Sunday, June 14, 2015

Talking About God and Religion with a 7-Year-Old

Dear Jack,

            Your mom tells me you have some questions about God and religion. She says you and your grandfather have been talking about God. Your mom asked if anyone who has had little boys like you has any good ideas on how to talk to someone who’s 7-years old about God and religion. I said I’d like to try. I’m a grandma and have had my own little boy and little girl who are all grown up just like your mom.

            Even though you’re only 7-years old, you are already beginning to learn how to think about things for yourself. You are learning how to read and to listen to teachers show you new ideas and introduce you to new things that you can learn more about. As you keep growing up, you will also learn how to figure out if what people tell you is true and makes sense or not.

            Sometimes you will not be able to figure things out right away. That is when it’s helpful to talk with the adults in your life and ask lots of questions. The helpful adults in your life will try their best to explain things to you, and they will tell you when they don’t know the answers. Then, maybe, you and those adults could do some study together and learn what the answers might be.

            One of the things about this great country that we live in, the United States of America, is that we have freedom of religion. That means we U.S. Americans think that everyone should be free to make their own choices about whether or not to believe in God and to participate in a religion.

            Religion is the way that people worship the God they believe in and the way that they get together in groups with other people who believe in God as they do. Christianity is one kind of religion, and there are many other kinds of religions. We can’t really say that one religion is better than another, although people sometimes talk that way. Each religion is important to the people who participate in it, and we are acting in a bossy way when we put down someone else’s religion.

            The first questions people ask about God are usually “Is God real?” and “Does God exist?” There are many good people in the world who truly believe that God is real and that God is active in their lives. There are also many other good people who do not believe in God and think God does not exist. People who believe in God and people who don’t believe in God sometimes argue with each other and even say and do unkind things to each other based on their beliefs or unbeliefs.

            It is too bad that people treat each other badly based on their beliefs or unbeliefs, because what is most important of all is that we treat each other as we want to be treated. The Golden Rule, which is part of every religion, says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That means be as nice to others as you are nice to yourself and as you want others to be nice to you. In other words, don’t be mean to someone else, because you wouldn’t want them to be mean to you.

            You may have noticed in talking with the adults in your life that some of them feel very strongly about their ideas about God and maybe even try to get you to believe what they believe. It is confusing, isn’t it? One of the important things you are doing as you work on growing up and learning lots of things in school and at home talking with your adults is that you are learning to think for yourself. You are learning ideas that make sense to you and ideas that you have to spend more time learning and thinking about before they make sense to you. Your mom’s goal for you, and every mom’s goal for their little boys and little girls, is that our children learn how to learn new ideas and to think for themselves.

            For many people God is real and an important all powerful, all knowing, influence in their lives. They believe that God, through important books written about God, teaches them how to live their lives as good people and how to treat other people in a kind way. They go to a church or a temple to hear religious teachers tell them about God and what God hopes for their lives. And when they are in church or in temple, these people who believe in God also spend time praising God for the things that they think God is doing in the world for human beings. That kind of praise, when done together with other believers in God, is called worship.

            When people who believe in God “talk” to God, either silently or aloud, that is called prayer. An example of prayer is someone who believes in God having what they think of as a personal conversation with God, telling God things and listening for God to tell them things in ways that make them feel like God is talking to them. Some people feel that God is talking to them by changing the way that they feel about things, or they believe that their nighttime dreams and daydreams are ways in which God talks to them. This is how some people believe in God, and it is not our job to say that they are right or wrong.

            For other people who don’t believe in God, they learn about how to become good people through the adults and teachers in their lives. A person can grow up to become a very good person without believing in God and without going to church or temple. It is a personal choice that a person makes after hearing different ideas about whether or not God exists. Each person gets to choose for himself or herself, and believing in God or not believing in God does not by itself make you a good or not-so-good person. Here, also, it is not our job to say that these people who do not believe in God are right or wrong.

            One thing that is important for good people to do is to treat in a kind way the right of other people to have their beliefs as long as those beliefs don’t interfere with the way that the other people live their lives. So, if I believe in God, it is important for me as a good person to treat people who don’t believe in God just as I want to be treated. Likewise, if I do not believe in God, I should not belittle or make fun of people who do believe in God, because I would not want anyone to make fun of me or make me feel small.

            Thanks, Jack, for letting me talk to you about God and religion. Perhaps we can talk again soon about other things like the different kinds of religions that people participate in.

Your mom’s friend and your friend,


Monday, June 8, 2015

Who is Your Family?

I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, over the weekend to conduct an anti-racism/anti-discrimination workshop for members of the shared ministry teams at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, which is a bicultural, bilingual mission with a large contingent of Hmong immigrant congregants. For the workshop, we focused on the Episcopal Church's teachings on race, racism, and racial justice as well as an in-depth exploration of culture--what it is and how it impacts people, discrimination and stereotypes, and ways in which we can all improve the ways in which we show our love and respect for our fellow human beings. I was invited to preach on Sunday, and below is my sermon. The Gospel for Sunday was Mark 3:20-35:
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" -- for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

* * * * * * * * * *
         Good morning. In Cantonese—“Jo sun.” In Hawaiian—“Aloha.” And in French—“Bon matin.” I am very pleased to be with you this morning to share the word of God with you and what it has to say to us today. Thank you to the Beloved Community at Holy Apostles for inviting me to be here this weekend to conduct the Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression workshop on Friday night and Saturday and to be your preacher this morning.

         I have learned from my Native American sisters and brothers to take the time to introduce myself and where I come from—my family—when I first stand up to speak to a group. It is a lovely way of being present with a new group of people—to honor your own family by sharing stories about them and to honor the people you are with by opening yourself to them, letting them see into your heart, so that they know you trust them and that they can trust you.

         My Chinese name is Lee Cheuck Guin, and my American name is Lelanda Lee. I am the eldest child of a Chinese father who was born in the United States of parents from China and a Chinese mother who was born and raised in China and married my father in an arranged marriage when my father, his older brother, and their mother, my grandmother, went back to China to find wives for the two brothers. My American name is Lelanda, because being Chinese, my family was planning on a first born son, who would be named Leland after my father’s father who was named Lee Lund in Chinese. When I, a first born daughter, came along, my clever father added an “a” to the end of Leland and named me Lelanda.

         I will tell you the story of my family, as I share with you some thoughts about the nature of being family from the words of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, which said:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

          In this Gospel passage, Jesus gave us a new definition of family. He said that those people—women and men—who sat around him to listen to him teach, were his brother and sister and mother. They were doing the will of God, listening to Jesus, the rabbi, the spiritual teacher, and Jesus affirmed—Jesus said, “Yes, this is my family”—that whoever does the will of God is his brother and sister and mother—his family.

         You will recall the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha. When Martha invited Jesus into their home, it was Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach. Martha became upset that Mary was not helping her with the work of providing hospitality and asked Jesus why he didn’t care that Mary was not helping her. And in the Gospel of Luke, it was recorded:
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

          The story of Mary and Martha is another instance in which Jesus emphasizes the importance of listening to the teachings of God—to the will of God—and then, following through by doing the will of God. Jesus said very clearly that Mary had chosen the better part by sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to what he had to say.

          Now, do you remember what Jesus said about Mary, his own mother, and the nature of family when he was dying upon the cross? In John’s Gospel, it is recorded:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

          Jesus named the family relationship for his mother and the disciple whom he loved by saying, “here is your son,” and “here is your mother.” It was not a family relationship based on blood, but a family relationship based on love. The disciple loved Jesus, and when commanded by Jesus to take Jesus’ mother to be his own mother, out of love for Jesus, he obeyed. In a way, you could think of this story as Jesus commanding that an adoption take place—that the beloved disciple should adopt Jesus’ mother, Mary, and treat her like his own mother.

          The same can be said about the family relationships that Jesus described in today’s Gospel. Those who sat around him, listening to him teach, were not blood relations, but they were people who loved Jesus and who followed the will of God and also loved each other. Those were the people whom Jesus chose to be his family.

         Think about that for a moment: choosing who will be your family.

          In the most significant way, each of us in this church today has already done that—chosen who will be our family—by choosing to be baptized into the Body of Christ. As members of the Body of Christ, we are sisters and brothers to one another. The more we love Jesus, the more we must love our brothers and sisters and our neighbors as ourselves.

          Now, my Chinese family in the U.S.A. was an immigrant family that spoke Cantonese at home and in the Chinatown communities that we lived in, first in New York City and then in Detroit, Michigan. My father worked in Chinese restaurants, first as a waiter and later as a cook, and finally, as a manager, and my mother worked in Chinese hand laundries and later in Chinese restaurants, also. As teenagers, my brothers and I also worked in those same Chinese restaurants and Chinese hand laundries. We had a large, extended family on both my father’s side, where his parents had seven children who lived, and my mother’s side, where her parents had eight children that survived. So, yes, my family had many blood relations.

          But in the U.S.A., my parents and we children also had an even larger family that was not based on blood, but based on relationships of mutual need and mutual assistance. The Chinese immigrant communities in the Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants and hand laundries that my parents worked in were places where we needed to help each other figure out how to live in the United States, how to make a living to take care of our families, how to sponsor other family members still in Asia to come to the United States, and how to get things done where we didn’t know the English language, and where in the middle of the 20th century many White and even Black Americans looked at Asian immigrants as being foreigners invading their land and taking away their opportunities through our humble hard work.

          My father was the Chinese-American man who spoke both Cantonese and English. Even without ever using the word “volunteer,” my father was the person who would go with non-English speaking Chinese immigrants to the hospital or to the immigration office to translate for them. My father was the one who would fill out immigration paperwork and income tax forms for those non-English speaking Chinese people. My parents treated those other members of the Chinese immigrant community like family, and they became family to us. We children grew up knowing the Chinese adults in those Chinatown communities as aunties and uncles and their children as brothers and sisters.

          Jesus said that we must love our neighbors as he loves us, and that is exactly what Chinese people like my parents did, including those Chinese people who had not heard of Jesus and were not baptized Christians. Doing God’s will does not require being a baptized Christian, because God’s great love and grace is given to all human beings—even those who haven’t heard of Jesus and the stories of God’s people. God’s power of love is mysterious and generous. God’s love touches all people, if we let it, if we don’t get in the way.  And God’s love gets multiplied so that more people know God’s love, if we, God’s people, the followers of Jesus, follow Jesus’ example to love other people, especially people who are different from us.

          Now skip down to my generation and how I have learned to think about family. I was baptized at age five and confirmed at age 12 in a very conservative Lutheran church—the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. From the teachings of the church on the ten commandments, the catechism, and the teachings of Jesus and his parables, and the examples of my Chinese immigrant parents, I learned to volunteer in the community at an early age. At age 12 I could get a work permit to do volunteer work, where I started in the offices of Catholic Social Services.

          I was also a teenager in the 1960s during the civil rights movement and learned about the justice of treating every person, regardless of her or his skin color, as a fellow human being and a fellow member of the Body of Christ. For me, family became much larger than just the people in my blood family. Family also included all the people who had helped my family and who had been helped by my parents.

          My husband and I lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, for 15 years from 1975 to 1990. In Hawaii, there are many descendents of Native Hawaiians who lived and taught a philosophy of loving our neighbors and expanding our families to include people who are not blood relations. The Hawaiians call the extended family the “ohana,” and they call the family of choice—the family of people who are not blood relations that we choose to love as family—their “hana’i” family. That philosophy of a “hana’i” family of choice has stuck with me all of these years, because it reflects the family that Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel.

         Jesus said, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

         Sometimes it is easier to figure out what doing the will of God means than we think. We humans often want to make simple things complicated and difficult, because we think it will show the world how smart we are, or because we think that surely our God who is so all knowing and all powerful must be a God who teaches very complicated and difficult lessons. Yet, the opposite is true. Jesus always taught in the most direct words about some things that we humans find difficult to do, like giving up whatever wealth we have, even if we don’t have very much, and sharing what we do have with others who have even less; like changing our behavior so that we honor not just our own mother and father, but that we also honor all mothers and fathers.

          In the Gospel of John, Jesus said:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

          What a beautiful lesson our Lord Jesus has taught us in today’s Gospel—that we look around us, see the people who are following Jesus and doing God’s will, and that we not only think of them as our family, but that we love them, honor them, and treat them like they are truly our family in the Body of Christ. In the mind of our Lord, family is all about love and loving each other even when we are not related by blood.

          And so, my sisters and brothers in Christ, I share with you—look around you and see who needs your love, who needs your kindness, who needs a family to love them—and make the choice to be family to them. That is the will of God. Amen.