Saturday, January 13, 2018

“Something Good from Where?” - January 14, 2018

John 1:43-51

If you want to know something about someone, often you start with where they come from. When I was in seminary in North Carolina, there were only a handful of us from the northeast. So when I heard that the incoming class included a Marine chaplain-in-training who was from Pennsylvania, I went over to say hello. I asked her where she was from, and she said she was from a small town that nobody had ever heard of. I said, “What would that be, someplace like Womelsdorf?” and her eyes got really wide. I have no idea why I chose that place, except that I’ve always thought the name sounds funny. I had never even been there, but I can hear myself saying something like, “Can anything good come from Womelsdorf?”

It was actually kind of an embarrassing moment. I had sort of insulted her hometown. I didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could have come across. The experience does, however, leave me with some sympathy for Nathanael, at that point still a disciple-to-be, who hears about Jesus of Nazareth, and makes the offhand, snarky comment,

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  [John 1:46]

For a long time, Nazareth was held to be a backwater up in the Judean hills. It was far from the Mediterranean coast, which was the most cosmopolitan area, and far from Jerusalem, which would have been the center of both faith and politics. That gave rise to a tradition of hearing Nathanael’s comment as an expression of the attitude “that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel‘s religious center.”[1]    

Enter the archaeologists.  As a recent National Geographical article puts it,

“Gallilee — long thought to have been a rural back water and an isolated Jewish enclave —was in fact becoming more urbanized and romanized during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign fueled by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. Many scholars think it’s reasonable to imagine Jesus, a young craftsman living nearby, working at Sepphoris — and, like a college freshman, testing the boundaries of his religious upbringing.”[2]

Then the excavations in town continued and they have discovered the largest-known concentration of Jewish ritual baths — and a complete absence (at least so far) of pig bones,[3] suggesting that despite the Roman presence the area was actually a sort of Bible Belt.

So Phillip’s comment could mean

1)      Can anything good come out of that hick town? Or
2)      Can anything good come from that bunch of construction workers? or
3)      Can anything good come from a bunch of Bible nerds?

Take your pick: whom do you trust least?  Updated a little, would it be somebody from Utah, a Teamsters steward, or a Southern Baptist?  We aren’t quite sure where Nathanael would have pigeonholed Jesus on this continuum, but somehow I do think Jesus has the same problem now that he did then.  People think that he’s going to fall easily into some kind of category and he refuses to do that.

            Part of the problem is that so many folks are so loud in proclaiming that he is on their side, or that they know exactly what he would say and do in the twenty-first century.  I would put myself in that group, too.  I am sure, very sure, that he would be standing up for the poor and for migrants and for the decent treatment of women.  But are my notions of how to do that the same as his would be?  I hope so.  I hope so, and I am certain enough to make phone calls and write some letters and even pay the occasional visit to a legislative office about it.  But what if I encounter someone with different notions of how to do things, someone who is not just some cynical staffer who has memorized the talking points or an angry partisan who has drunk the Kool-Aid?  Mind you, those people are out there.  So, too, looking the other way, are folks who plaster bumperstickers on their cars or their guitar cases like they are hex signs that will ward off all evil from the land.  (How am I doing on these stereotypes?)

            Jesus refused to let Nathanael do that to him.  That’s what his (to us) weird response meant.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’  Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” [John 1:47-48]

There’s a whole, beautiful passage of Micah where the prophet promises a day when God will act so that people can turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks [4:3].

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid.” [Micah 4:3b-4a]

Jesus tells Nathanael he has seen him in a place like that.  Whatever it was that divided them – and there must have been something – he told him flat out that he could still see him in the kingdom of God, because Jesus saw that his heart was right:

“Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.”  [John 1:47]

It was to that kind of open heart that Nathanael responded, even to the point of confessing,

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!” [John 1:49]

            Now, neither you nor I can see people’s hearts like Jesus did, and does.  That’s why it’s all the more important that we give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.  So often, what brings out something good in someone is the expectation that it’s in there somewhere.  Nathanael went along with Jesus, and no doubt was there when he saw him do for others what he had done for him.  There was Zacchaeus, the tax collector who spontaneously offered to return all that he had ever extorted.  There was the woman taken in adultery, whose life he saved and then told her, “Go, and sin no more.”  There was a man so far out of his mind that the people of his town had to chain him up so that he wouldn’t hurt himself, and when Jesus left him he was sitting there calmly and making sense.  He could see past Peter’s fears that led Peter to deny him.  He could see through James’ and John’s bragging and boasting about who was the greatest.  Don’t you think he does the same for us (whoever “us” is) and for “those people” (whoever they are)?

            George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, said, “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

[1] Kristin Romey, “The Search for the Real Jesus”, National Geographic vol. 232, no. 6 (December 2017), 64.
[2] Ibid., 47.
[3] Ibid., 60.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

“All Stars Lead to Bethlehem” - January 7, 2018

Matthew 2:1-12

            Matthew is the only gospel that talks about wise men visiting the baby Jesus, and he doesn’t say much about them, including how many there were.  Over the centuries, of course, the Eastern Orthodox churches decided that there were twelve of them and the Western church decided that there were three.  The three were named Melchior, Balthasar, and Casper.  It seems that after returning to their own land in the East, and even after death, they could not stop traveling because their relics had made their way to Constantinople by the fifth century and then to Cologne, Germany during the Crusades.  Somewhere along the way they became not only wise, but also royal.
            Matthew just calls them “magi”.  Those were part priest/part astrologer leaders of an ancient people who lived in what is now Iran.  They may or may not have been Zoroastrians, a Persian religion that flourished at that time.  They were known for interpreting dreams and for casting horoscopes; in fact, from them we get the word “magic”.  When they spotted a new star and identified its meaning, they were just doing their jobs.  That may be why Matthew describes their arrival in Jerusalem as being, for them, almost matter-of-fact.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” [Matthew 2:1-2]

Of course, what they do find once they get to Bethlehem is not the one they expected, but they are certain enough of their own skill and the evidence before them that when they arrive at the right place,

“…they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” [Matthew 2:10-11]

            These are strange people to be seeking and finding the Messiah.  They don’t fit any of the usual categories.  In Luke, the baby is recognized immediately by two people.  One is Simeon, who is an old, pious priest.  The other is Anna, an old, pious woman who spends her time praying in the temple.  Those figures make sense.  But the magi aren’t even Jewish.  They don’t have any idea who they’re looking for.  They’re politically na├»ve enough to go to Herod, of all people, to ask where to find the king of the Jews, which implies it is not him and eventually leads to his massacre of all the male children in that region younger than two.

Yet that all just goes to emphasize what can happen when people follow whatever leading the Lord sends them that brings them near to him.  That is a constant across the ages.

            Francis Collins is a doctor who led the Human Genome Project that the National Institute of Health describes as “the international, collaborative research program whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings.”[1]  Dr. Collins describes himself as “a believer in a God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes a personal interest in human beings.”[2]  That puts him right in the thick of things between people who believe only in science and deny God’s existence and people who have faith in God but who deny science when it doesn’t fit their view of the Bible.  So, in his book The Language of God he talks about his own experience and his own faith and how his work, first as a doctor and later as a research geneticist, brought him to faith in God and trust in Jesus.

            It was, for him, a long and round-about path and I won’t try to summarize it here.  I would just repeat his own summary:

“The need to find my own harmony of the worldviews ultimately came as the study of genomes – our own and that of many other organisms on the planet – began to take off, providing an incredibly rich and detailed view of how descent by modification from a common ancestor has occurred.  Rather than finding this unsettling, I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this as the master plan of the same Almighty who caused the universe to come into being and set its physical parameters just precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements, and life itself.”[3]

            God finds all sorts of ways to guide people to himself.  Right now I’m reading a book called The Year of Living Biblically in which A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire decides that he’s going to try to obey all the rules in the Bible for a year, and then turn it into a book.  Like Dr. Collins, he is starting from the point of being totally secular, although he does admit that he has a young son and is wondering how to raise him right and that this has something at least tangentially to do with his project.  Still, his main point is to explore and describe the religious landscape to people who will find it amusing when he gets into an argument with an adulterer when he asks his permission to stone him.  Like the magi, like Francis Collins, he is just doing his job.  I haven’t finished the book yet, so I cannot say how the search changes him, but even halfway through he is already describing how the practice of prayer makes him more aware of the needs of others and more thankful for things that he hadn’t generally noticed before.

            Whatever light shines on us, God can use it to point us toward himself.    

            I wonder if there isn’t somewhere in this world a glassblower who starts thinking about how, if she can pull together the broken shards of an old Coke bottle and turn them into a lampshade or a snow globe, there must be someone who can take a shattered life and turn it into beauty.

            I wonder if there isn’t a toll collector who doesn’t absent-mindedly think about what it means for there to be a bridge across a wide river that nobody could cross on their own, but that bridge takes thousands and thousands every day safely from here to there, from this shore to the other.

            I wonder if there isn’t somebody nodding off right now, troubled and worn-out, too tired to hold an eyelid open from being caught up in ways of life that are not those of God, who may not in their dreams, hear him say, as he said to the wise men “The road you’ve taken isn’t safe; take another instead,” and waking, return home safely by another route.


[2] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 7.
[3] Ibid., 198-199.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

"Does God Belong?" - December 24, 2017

A Christmas Eve poem:

Does God Belong?

Does God belong
in flesh? Does God belong
in places void of dignity?
Is God found where the world's gone wrong,
where hate is strong?
What god forsakes eternity 

and leaves behind
the glory he deserves --
becomes entwined by ugliness,
by sin, by death? A god preserves
himself. Why bind
his fullness to our emptiness?

A peasant girl 
and carpenter who come
together underneath a cloud
of scandal and suspicion 
that made heads whirl--
is that a good way to start out?

A town beneath 
a capital's safe walls -- 
exposed to death in time of war

and targeted by trumpet calls --
no place to leave
a weakling child born to be a savior.

A feeding trough --
a part of every farm, 
a part of every stable, barn, 
or inn -- can take so many forms:
some smooth, some rough,
none any place to put a newborn.

Let that mind be
in us which was in Christ:
who, though he shared in God's own essence,
did not let anything entice 
to equal pride; imported presence

where absence is,
so right where God was not
God would be active -- human loss
no obstacle as we had thought.
So now love lives
in both a manger and a cross.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

“Who’s the Messiah?” - December 17, 2017

John 1:6-13

            We do not know that Jesus was born at this time of year.  Chances are that he wasn’t.  In fact, when people with a chip on their shoulder against Christmas (sometimes against Christianity itself) get on a roll, they will tell you that this time of year was a big one for the Romans, who whooped it up with a festival they called Saturnalia, and for the pagans of northern Europe, who had midwinter festivals where they lit fires and brought evergreen branches into their houses and told stories involving mistletoe and elves.  They point out that the Church decided to create its own competing festival incorporating a lot of these practices, as if that somehow undermines the validity of the holiday.

            I’d answer that the point of Christmas as we observe it is that God came to earth in Jesus and was born as one of us, and that alone is worth a party.  Since we don’t have an exact date, why not December 25?  It’s as good as any other, and better than some.  After all, for us it is the darkest time of the year, and it is in the darkest times that we are most aware that we need him all year long.  There would be nothing wrong with people in Australia or anywhere in the southern hemisphere saying that they need to observe in in June for the same reason.

            Of course, there are those who enjoy the trimmings but who don’t really go beyond that.  We all know a lot of those folks.  In one of his little-known poems, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”, T.S. Eliot says,

“There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.”

Muslims, who consider Jesus a prophet, but not the messiah and definitely not the Son of God, see no problem in celebrating his birth as we would see no problem celebrating Martin Luther King Day or Washington’s Birthday. 

            And then there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not believe in the Holy Trinity.  They do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that God lived in him.  They claim that Jesus was an angel, a messenger sent from God.  So, understanding perfectly well that what Christians celebrate is that Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, they will have nothing to do with even the outer trappings of a midwinter festival, since those go back to the pagans.  What a shame!  They both deny the meaning at the heart of the holiday and the joy at the edges. 

            (On a related side-note, there’s a story that’s too good not to tell.  When the Council of Nicaea was debating these matters in the year 325, there was a man named Arius, who had led a lot of people into the belief that Jesus was only a created being, a sort of super-angel, and not fully divine, and kept insisting that it would be wrong to speak of him as we do of God the Father.  One of the other bishops there became so exasperated that he stood up, walked across the room, and slapped him in the face, for which assault he was thrown into jail and stripped of office.  That man’s name was Nicholas.  Now he’s called St. Nicholas.  In other words, the major opponent of Christmas was once punched out by the man who became Santa Claus.)

There are better ways to do things.  Theology should not be settled in the boxing ring.  In fact, God’s humility in Jesus entire life models that so thoroughly that Christian joy in God’s coming to us in Jesus, that we celebrate all the time, is wide enough that it can be shared with others who don’t share its true source. We recognize a Messiah, a Savior, who is determined, not to go out and seize happiness and blessings for himself, or even for his wider circle of friends or his own nation.  He doesn’t turn his righteous anger loose on his detractors or his persecutors. He brings, even to his enemies, and at his own infinite expense, the blessings of God for those who have nothing: no joy, no hope, no sense of a future, no expectations, no love.  The gospel of John puts it this way:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:9-16]

            When the Romans celebrated their festival of Saturnalia, there was a tradition that during that time the masters would become the servants and the servants would become the masters.  I try to picture that happening without both sides of that having in the back of their minds, “This is not going to last, and just wait until everything is normal again.”   But when God, in Jesus, took on the role of a servant it was done to recognize the servant as his child, a member of the household of God, a citizen of heaven with dignity greater than an angel’s.  As the great theologian Athanasius taught, “God became like us that we might become like God.”  In the Messiah in the manger, we can see humility and glory side-by-side, and thanks to him we can experience and even share that eternal glory while still acknowledging God’s rule over us and over the whole world.

            This doctrine of the Incarnation, the embodiment of God in Christ, is complicated.  That’s why we express it always as “both-and”.  Jesus was both divine and human.  Jesus is both eternal and born within time and space.  Jesus is both equal to and obedient to God the Father.  Jesus both embodied the Holy Spirit and sends the Spirit to indwell his Body, the Church.  He has both come to us on earth and ascended into heaven.

            And thanks to him, we who are sinners, the same people John the Baptist called a “brood of vipers” are also open to a far brighter future – for that matter, a brighter present – than the world tells us or can even imagine, because

“to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.” [John 1:16]


“No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will
Receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.”

Consider this season itself an altar call, not summoning us to God, but to hear that God has come to us and asks to settle in, that we might share our lives with him so that he may share his life with us.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

“What’s a Messiah?” - December 10, 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4

The word “Messiah” is an anglicized version of the Hebrew word “Moshiach”, which isn’t easy for us to pronounce.  The gospel writers translated it when they were writing in Greek and used the term “Christos”, from which we get “Christ”.  It means “anointed”.

In the ancient Middle East, the act of designating someone to a special office, generally of kingship or priesthood, involved pouring a small amount of olive oil over his head or sometimes onto the chest or hands.  To this day, when an English monarch is crowned, the service includes a ritual that is considered so sacred that it was excluded from being televised in 1952.  Presumably, that will be the case at the next coronation, too.  (When czars were crowned, they were led out of the main church into the secluded area normally reserved for the priests for the same reason.)  What happens is that the new king or queen is seated on a throne that includes the Stone of Scone from Scotland underneath a golden canopy.  The choir sings the hymn “Come, Holy Spirit” and the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the royal head, hands, and heart with the sign of the cross.  Next comes a time of prayer and only after that are the Crown Jewels presented and the crown itself placed on his or her head.

In the Old Testament, the kings of Israel and Judah, were regularly referred to as “God’s anointed”.  That is, the king was a “moshiach”, a “christos”.  That’s the origin of the idea prevalent clear through to Jesus’ time and beyond that there is an intimate connection between royalty, especially the royal House of David, and messiahship (if that’s a word).  To be anointed made someone king.  Trouble began, though, when people started thinking that to be king made someone the messiah.

Not all kings showed themselves worthy of the honor that went with the job.  Many of them turned out to be incompetent or ill-suited.  Others were led astray by bad advisors or their own pride.  Eventually, in all the wars that the Middle East is so known for, the kingdoms were swallowed up and destroyed.  People in exile looked forward to the restoration of the kingdom and with it the establishment of another ruler to be “God’s anointed”.  But the kingdom and the messiah became hoped-for parts of the future, not a present reality.

Into that stepped Isaiah and other prophets like him, who had the chance to say, “Hold on here.  Let’s get some clarity about what we’re looking for.”  They, who were collateral damage in the fighting as empire after empire rolled up from Egypt and south from Assyria and west from Babylon and then Persia, they looked for one who would free them and lift the oppression of occupation and enslavement, maybe even someone who would rebuild Jerusalem and the temple that lay in ruins like Dresden in 1945 or Mosul in 2017.  Someone would arise who would announce,

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations.”
[Isaiah 61:1-4] 

And they did return from exile.   Nehemiah led people from Babylon back to Jerusalem and they rebuilt the walls, and Ezra returned shortly after that and brought the scriptures, and Malachi arose to encourage the completion of the temple.  God is faithful, and did not forget his people.

            But the empires kept on rolling over them.  First it was the Greeks from the northwest, led by Alexander, and later the Romans who sailed in on the sea and set up a puppet government under the dynasty that included Herod.  There was no longer a king or a kingdom, not in the same sense.  Herod and his successors were not even really Jews.  His ancestors came from the lands to the south, at the edge of the Arabian desert, and they ruled at the whim and permission of the Senate, or later the Emperor, of Rome.  Roman money bought them their position and Roman weapons kept them there.

            Where, then, was the anointed one?  Some people began to look for a leader to arise who would beat all of the empires at their own game.  Inevitably, they were slapped down brutally.  Jesus warned his disciples,

“‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.’” [Luke 21:8-11]

Did I mention Jesus?  Let me follow up on that. 

Earlier anointed rulers had led the nation down a path of trouble.  Perhaps, if they were to be led into a future that was free from those troubles, they needed to look for different qualities in a messiah.  There was a man named Jesus, who had gone to spend some time at one point among the followers of another man named John who was proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand.  John encouraged people to be baptized in the Jordan as a sign of entry into or renewed allegiance to this kingdom and Jesus took part in that ritual, but as he came up out of the water the Holy Spirit came upon him from beyond this world, and he was anointed by God for something better and more lasting than to lead yet another army into yet another war.

Not long after,

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
 [Luke 4:16-21]

            Now, since this is a sermon series and I’ve already crossed over into territory that’s for next week, I’m going to stop there.  But I will say this as a matter of conclusion: over the ages, messiahs have come and gone with varying degrees of effectiveness.  One messiah, however – the one who opted out of the rigged games and false hopes that the others became entangled in – that one messiah has done what none of the others ever did, and brought an end to oppression and a freedom from all kinds of captivity that the others never even envisioned, and of him it can be said in a way that cannot be said of any of the others,

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16:16]

Saturday, December 2, 2017

“Why a Messiah?” - December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 
as when fire kindles brushwood
   and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” 
[Isaiah 64:1-2]

Biblical scholars suggest that the book of Isaiah incorporates the words and the experience of more than one prophet, but that it covers a span of events that can be taken as one distinct and increasingly disastrous period in the history of the kingdom of Judah.  Judah was the part of Israel around Jerusalem that had survived conquest by Assyria in 722 B.C. but would not survive invasion by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.  A handful of survivors, including the prophet, became prisoners of war.  Some of them were forced into exile.  Some of them became slaves.  All of them bore with them the horrors of what had happened.

“Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
   Zion has become a wilderness,
   Jerusalem a desolation. 
Our holy and beautiful house,
   where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
   and all our pleasant places have become ruins. 
After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?”
[Isaiah 64:10-12]

In exile, their captors had no trouble making them relive the moments of devastation for their own amusement.  Psalm 137 tells of that, and what it did to them.

“By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
   ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ 

How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy. 

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!”

There you have one response to genocide and to horror, to the uncaring and unashamed lust for power that cares nothing for the suffering of the helpless and the innocent: the desire for revenge.

Have you heard about the sentences in trials of Balkan war criminals that were handed down last week?  For many of the victims, they do not do enough.  And then there was the insult of the Croatian man who managed to get hold of poison and drank it in the courtroom and died, thinking to subvert justice.  For that matter, I find myself wondering what kind of human justice could ever even up the score when you consider what misery and terror these people and their confederates inflicted on entire towns without signs of mercy or conscience.  A quick execution seems to let them off lightly.  What victim could be blamed for feeling disappointment or for even seeking comfort in the thought that such people meet a fuller judgment beyond death?

The enormity of such crimes, and the cruelty that is part of them, is that they are so systematic.  It is not just one angry perpetrator, or even one twisted mind or warped soul that does these things.  If it were, there would be some level of compassion somewhere, some ability to say that wrong had been done in a fit of rage or had grown out of an uncontrollable insanity.  That is not to excuse it, but to make it understandable.  That would be to make it possible to categorize it and put it onto some mental shelf somewhere, the way that a medical museum puts terrible tumors or painful growths into jars and says, “Look what happens when things go wrong.”

But here it is a matter of cold, deliberate policy.  It is what names mass murder as “ethnic cleansing” or torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  It is what relabels evil as expedience.  It is what happens when the powerful decide that others are expendable, as when Caiaphas the high priest stood before a council of his peers and explained that they should have no hesitation to hand Jesus over to the Romans, saying:

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” [John 11:50]

Wrong can be confronted and corrected.  People do terrible things and then cry out, “What have I done?”  There is hope in that.  There is the beginning of repentance.  Evil says, “I have done nothing wrong.  I don’t really need to justify my deeds, but if you must know, I do everything for the greater good.”  So if wrong can be confronted, evil must be resisted and opposed.

Thus there appeared among the Jews in exile a hope that went beyond revenge.  There arose a holy longing for one who would, at God’s behest, be more than the prophet calling in the wilderness.  There arose a faith that God would send a chosen one, a messiah, who would go to the heart of the deepest evils of the world and tell them, “No!  No, you don’t overrule God!  You do not get to declare what is acceptable.  You may not disguise yourself any longer as other than you are.”  It is like what happened when Jesus met a man filled with demons and cast them out and they fled into a herd of pigs, and then not even the pigs could bear to host them and jumped into the sea and drowned. [Matthew 8:28-33]

Isaiah expresses the longing for deliverance from the structures of oppression more clearly than any other, expresses it on behalf of himself and of his people and of all who are tugged into the grinding machinery of unresponsive and heartless wickedness.  And in his cry the people heard more than pain.  What they heard was God’s promise of deliverance to come.  Paul Hanson puts it this way:

“The doubts, the contradictions, the tensions, the pains that have been expressed in the lament are not thereby resolved.  But they are lifted up in one final impassioned plea to the only one who can help.  Memory of God’s gracious saving acts of the past remains intertwined with the hardships of day-to-day existence.  In the act of lament and supplication, troubles do not vanish, but human vision is lifted above human helplessness to the heavenly parent.  In such a situation, where no human parent deserving of the name could remain unmoved, is it possible to imagine that the source of love will remain silent? …Therefore, even when God seems to have withdrawn, the suffering faithful individual and the stricken faithful community persist in directing their cries to the heavenly parent, ‘Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.’”[1]

[1] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 in the Interpretation Bible Commentary series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 240-241.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

“Politics and the Pulpit” - November 26, 2017

Ephesians 1:15-23

My text this morning comes from the Letter to the Ephesians, but I also want to cite Paragraph (3) of subsection (c) within section 501 of Title 26 (Internal Revenue Code) of the U.S. Code, which provides a tax-exempt status for:

“Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.

This is sometimes called the Johnson Amendment, and what it did was to put into legal form a longstanding recognition of the right of religious groups to engage in prophetic advocacy around any issue, but draws the line at direct involvement on behalf of candidates or parties.

How does that work?  It means that back in the 1980’s Cardinal Krol could send out a letter to be read in every Catholic church in Delaware County the Sunday before Election Day urging his people to vote for candidates who opposed legalized abortion and state funding for parochial schools but never said, “Don’t vote for Bob Edgar on Tuesday, because he’s United Methodist clergy.”  Today it means that I can tell you that the tax bill currently making its way through Congress would repeal this amendment, and to consider for yourself what it would mean, especially if you think politics and the pulpit need to be kept in a proper relationship.

Christians walk a thin line but a clear one between the need for earthly rule and authority and the recognition of its limits. 

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21]

Disagreement on that point is what led the Romans and the rulers of Jerusalem to nail the upstart rabbi from Nazareth who said that to a piece of wood to die as an example to anybody who might not recognize Caesar’s full authority over every corner of life.

The gospel claims that the effort of earthly powers to supplant God is futile.  Earthly power passes from ruler to ruler but eternal power is God’s alone.

“God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” [Ephesians 1:20-23]

So when push comes to shove, we recognize earthly power and the people who exercise it. but only in a contingent way.

            Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God.  Nobody else has a proper claim to the title, even though every generation sees someone who puts himself or herself forward that way, tsars and Holy Roman Emperors, kings and queens.  Sometimes they are totally blatant about it.  In 1609, King James I told the English Parliament:

“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth ... Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of divine power upon earth. For if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king. God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none: to raise low things, and to make high things low at his pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have Kings; they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting down: of life, and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only.”[1]

Ummm… no.  And “no” is the correct reply to anybody who says that they are going to be the savior of a nation, much less of the world.  No politician of any party or stripe will ever bring the kingdom of God.

            We find that out time and time again.  It was the claim of Pope Pius XI in 1925 that

“If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquility, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent.”[2]

That may be good in theory, but the problem is that if a ruler ever forgets or denies that there is a Divine King, that is when they begin to travel the road to tyranny.  Twelve years later, this same Pius XI had to write a letter to people in Germany – and he wrote it in German, not Latin, which was not his normal practice – that said,

“Should any man dare, in sacrilegious disregard of the essential differences between God and His creature, between the God-man and the children of man, to place a mortal, were he the greatest of all times, by the side of, or over, or against, Christ, he would deserve to be called prophet of nothingness, to whom the terrifying words of Scripture would be applicable: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them.’ (Psalms ii. 3)."[3]

Then Hitler began sending Catholics to concentration camps along with Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jews.

            The Church of Christ is not here to push any political agenda, but to proclaim the gospel.  That means that the Church is always going to be questioning – and urging others to question – whether the policies and laws of a nation match the will of God as expressed in scripture.  It isn’t because we have the answers to all human situations.  It’s because we admit that we do not know everything.  Somebody who experienced that intensely was Jimmy Carter.  In his memoir, Living Faith, he talks about the need to exercise any kind of power with humility.

“Whether within a church, among a crew of workers building a house, in a family, or in a nation, I have noticed that isolation comes with increasing power or prestige.  This can breed arrogance, as truth and sharing suffer when others are not willing to speak up to us or to correct our errors.  This is true in military organizations and in governments, including democracies like ours, except that in a free society even the top officials can expect criticism, both constructive and otherwise, from political adversaries and the news media.  Appreciated or not, this provides a very beneficial self-corrective influence.”[4]

And he goes on to confess,

“Knowing how many lives could be affected by my decisions, I felt a special need for wisdom and a sense of God’s presence.  Although I had a lot of advice from all sides, it was a lonely job during times of crises or when the issues were especially controversial.”[5]

            No less than anyone else, those in office remain human beings.  If it’s our place to remind them of that, it’s also our place to remind ourselves of that.  No human being is without need of God’s grace, nor beyond it.  Some of those in the highest places may in fact be the most deeply wounded or troubled.  One reason we don’t endorse candidates is that we have the duty to be supportive in a different way.  We should be asking the Lord’s help for them as people, which is hard to do when we get caught up in seeing only their good points or only the bad.  So we read in I Timothy:

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and for all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [I Timothy 2:1-4]

Pat Robertson should be praying for Nancy Pelosi.  Franklin Graham should be in prayer for Barney Frank.  Jim Wallis should be keeping Mitch McConnell in God’s light.  Anyone who’s up for a real challenge might want to take on the grand slam: Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jin Ping.

“For there is one God;
           there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
           who gave himself a ransom for all.” [I Timothy 5-6]

Yes, the scripture says, “All.”

[4] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1996), 96
[5] Ibid., 97.