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Over the years I have been blessed with many educational opportunities, and a part of a pastor’s calling is to continue in the process of growth and learning through the continuing education provided for, in the call of the congregation to the pastor. I have also been blessed with a good deal of teaching experience around the world, notably central Africa, SE Asia and India, to participate as guest lecturer in usually in matters related to theological study and\or Religious Studies. It has been my practice, with the support of our church council, to use my continuing education allotments of time and funds, to participate teaching invitations that continue to come through these connections.
That is why over the course of the last 12 years, I have been privileged to be able to travel to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, India and France to lecture, and to teach under the auspices of various universities, associations and institutes. Frequently members have asked, “how did it go?,” and “what did you do?,” and in answer to these questions I have often made allusion in preaching stories; (eg.: losing monks in the metro in Paris; recovering an expensive cell phone stolen out of my hands on a sky train platform in Bangkok, etc).
This year (Feb. 2019) I have been honored to be the keynote lecturer at an annual guest lectureship at Chulalungkorn University in Bangkok Thailand, speaking on the subject of Religion and Society. It had been my intention to use a theme developed by American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, to begin to develop a sense of the urgency of religious engagement in the social and political realm, concomitant with the absolute necessity of caution against religious enthusiasts for whom doctrine takes precedent over reasoned process. To this, the Dean, who knows me to be a bit of a story teller, encouraged me to add contemporary stories or examples, based on my experience, to make the propositions come alive, so that the auditors might better be able to relate to the urgency of my thesis.
What we agreed I would talk about included the following topics: 1) the American context, with reference to Virginia, the Mueller Probe and the politics of narcissistic demagoguery; 2) the Thai context, with reference to the upcoming elections (March) after a five year military coupe, and the recent attempted entry of the Princess as a candidate for one of the parties; and the ongoing influence of Thaksin Shinawatra; 3) the Myanmar context, with reference to the escalating, but apparently forgotten Rohingya crisis; noting the Bangladeshi plea about the recent incursion of even more refugees from Myanmar (now more than 880,000 souls); 4) the Palestinian context, seeking to understand the plight of the Palestinian people in view of a multitude of inter-related issues: including Islamic extremism, Zionist extremism and American influence; 5) the argument for the universality of a religious ethic that seeks to embrace national independence, human rights, and positive interfaith relationships.
Accordingly, I have integrated some of my personal experience into the text of the lectures, and it has made for very lively conversation and interaction. I thought it might be useful to share this with the congregation on the first Sunday I am back, as a part of our worship. I am not easily persuaded to relinquish the sermon time for anything other than the proclamation of the gospel, but as it turns out, our text for that day, the 7th Sunday after Epiphany is Luke 6: 27-38, in which Jesus confronts us with his radical ethic of love. That ethic (loving one’s enemies) is perhaps the single greatest beginning, in bringing the notions of fairness and justice and equality, inherent in all religious traditions’ conversations about social life. His ethic is paradigmatic of the impossibility of religious calls to love in the face of societal self-interest. (Reinhold Niebuhr called that an “impossible possibility”). It can rightly be posited that all traditions call upon their faithful not to defeat or destroy or barricade or expel their enemies, but to understand, and ultimately to love them. Jesus perhaps greatest among such proponents!
So, perhaps, my conversations about these matters do seem to be an appropriate backdrop as we confront the impossibility of Jesus’ ethic.