Thursday, February 20, 2014

We all Belong (A sermon on 1 Cor. 3:10-23; Matt. 5:43-48)

In the movie Sandy Bottom Orchestra, based on the novel by Garrison Keillor, Norman and Ingrid Green relocate to Sandy Bottom in Northern Wisconsin from Minneapolis. Norman operates the locale dairy, while Ingrid is choir director at Bethesda Lutheran Church. The choir struggles through a number of challenges and differences as they prepare for a classical concert to be performed at the annual Dairy Days festival.

Ingrid’s harsh attitude and approach leads to conflict with Pastor Sikes who fires her. In the aftermath of her firing, she pours herself into a campaign to save a historic old building that the mayor wants to tear down. At a campaign rally she discovers that Pastor Sikes’ wife is hospitalized in Minneapolis for severe clinical depression, leaving the pastor to care for their three sons.

Despite her anger at being fired, she is deeply impacted by the minister’s plight. Secretly she prepares a week’s worth of food and leaves it at the minister’s door. She doesn’t know that the minister was home and witnessed her kindness.

In church the next day just before the worship service, Rev Sikes says, “Before we begin today, I would like to take a moment to thank you all for your concern about Miriam. I have communicated your cards and your calls to her, I believe they are helping.”

He struggles to find the right words before he continues, “I’d like to tell you about one generous act in particular that has surprised me. I thought, having ministered for 15 years, there were no more surprises. But I was wrong. Last night, somebody left a week’s worth of meals for me and my boys on our front porch. There was no note, just the reassurance in that lovely act of kindness that we are not alone. In my deep distress I had come to believe we were. How wrong I was. We misjudge each other if in the heat of argument or disagreement or in the simple routines of daily life, we fail to see that God is in each of us always – struggling to love and be loved in return. We are none of us alone. We belong to each other.”

Then, looking at Ingrid who is sitting in the congregation, he adds, “I thank you my anonymous friend for refreshing my faith.”

We all belong. We are each one a part of the Temple of God. Paul wants the church at Corinth to recognize that they all belong to one another, and that it is foolish to divide and polarize around certain leaders. Paul argues that there is no place in the church for petty jealousies and pride.

Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Then he warns, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

I’m not sure what Paul had in mind when he issued that warning; I doubt if he did either. I suspect it was a hyperbolic threat, like saying to a child, “If you do such and such you will die an old man in your room.” It’s an exaggerated warning, which doesn’t initially sound like love, but those of us who have issued such threats to our kids care deeply about their wellbeing don’t we? Paul is telling them that when they attack one another, when they say and act in harmful and hurtful ways toward one another, they are harming and hurting God’s temple, which is holy, and that is a serious offense to God.

In this context “holy” doesn’t mean morally righteous or perfect, but rather, “set apart as special.” Paul believed that the churches formed “in Christ” constituted the body of Christ in the world, and they were set apart for a special purpose, they were set apart to be an expression of and witness to God’s kingdom on earth. Jealousy, envy, arrogance, elitism, selfish actions of one kind or another were injurious and damaging to God’s temple. Such attitudes and actions should never characterize a community of people who claim Jesus as the foundation of their fellowship.

Paul’s plan for the churches he established and ministered in was that they would function as colonies of God’s new world, harbingers and portents of what life will be like when God’s dream for the world is realized. Paul’s goal for the churches he established was that they would embody and manifest the kind of community life that would be realized universally when the future kingdom of God arrived.

If there is one thing that the letters of Paul demonstrate quite clearly, is that the churches he held in such high esteem as models of kingdom life failed time and time again to live that ideal. And as it was then, so it is now. We fail in numerous ways as “in Christ” communities to embody the ideal of love and justice reflected in the life of the Christ in whom we are united and joined together.

Some in the Corinthian church thought they were better than the rest, more spiritual and special, which resulted in the church splitting into factions. Paul warns them about injuring God’s temple.

Paul employs irony in the closing verses of this passage to make his point. In their pride over human leaders, the Corinthians were settling for far less than God’s best. Paul declares, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you.” “It’s all yours,” says Paul. And we can add, “And ours, as well as everyone else’s, because we all belong.”

Paul is using the temple imagery quite specifically of the Corinthian congregation, but there is no need to limit it to them or Christian churches in general. As Paul says to the philosophers and intellectuals in Athens in Acts 17 we are all God’s offspring and God’s Spirit resides in each one of us, “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This earth, this world and everything in it, constitutes God’s temple. We all belong.

In our modern context, where we live in a global village, I wonder if we are not guilty of the same pride and sin as the Corinthians when we proclaim a triumphant Christian exceptionalism that seeks to convert the world to our way of believing and thinking.

When Paul says, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Christ,” he is speaking to the Corinthians who were rallying around Christian teachers who were called to build on that foundation. That need not mean that Jesus Christ is the only way one can experience and encounter God or participate in God’s kingdom. For Christians to claim that Jesus is our Lord and that he alone is our foundation, is not to deny that other people of other cultures and traditions can experience the divine-human relationship and cooperate with God’s purposes in other ways and through other means.

Sisters and brothers, if in the coming years we cannot move past this triumphant Christian exceptionalism that has dominated Western Christianity for centuries, then I don’t know how we can even hope to create a just world and realize God’s will on this earth. And we face great challenges to overcome this.

An illustration of the difficulties we face can be found in the recent reaction to a 60 second Coca-Cola advertisement that aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial showcased a series of diverse voices representing different ethnicities singing America, the Beautiful over a montage of different scenes. Nine different languages were highlighted. Intending to celebrate America’s beautiful diversity, the ad sparked the most controversy of any of the commercials that aired. Many citizens blasted Coca-Cola for daring to sing America, the Beautiful in any other language than English. The implication was that true Americans speak English.

Christian exclusivism and exceptionalism contend that the true children of God are Christians. God’s true people only speak the language of Christian faith. But if the world is God’s temple and we are all God’s offspring and the Spirit lives and moves in each of us, then surely God can speak in other ways and through other means. If we cannot come to a place where we can accept others outside our Christian tradition as our sisters and brothers in the family of God, how can we hope to create a world of equity and equality, of justice and peace?

In the original story of the wizard of Oz, the Emerald City is actually not any greener than any other city. In one of the original illustrations from 1900, the scene shows Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and everyone else, even Toto, wearing green colored glasses. When the little group of travelers discovers that the wizard is just an ordinary man, he explains, “I put green spectacles on all the people so that everything they saw was green.” 

Sisters and brothers, we were taught to see the world through Christian colored glasses. Our parents and teachers and other respectable folk who taught us this were not being deceitful. That’s all they knew. That was their world. They were just passing on to us what they had been taught. But we now live in a different world, and the wizard has been exposed. We must take off our singular colored glasses so we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world with diverse traditions. Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted and multilayered and multidimensional. We don’t need to abandon our faith, but we may need to rethink it, renew it, reconstruct it, and transform it so that it is capable of renewing, reconstructing, and transforming us to live as God’s coworkers and partners in accomplishing God’s will in a diverse world.

For us gathered here, Jesus Christ is our foundation – and on his life, death, and resurrection we construct our community and personal lives; he is our Lord – the one in whom we trust and to whom we pledge our allegiance. He is the way we follow into the truth and life of God. For us, there is salvation in no other name. That’s who we are as a community of disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

But God is not limited to the Christian way and path. The world is God’s Temple. The Spirit can work in numerous ways. Truth is truth is truth wherever it is found. There is a perennial wisdom that transcends religious beliefs and traditions. In our own Christian Scriptures one writer said that God is love and where love is God is. Whenever love is present, God is present.

The fire that consumes is the fire of love. Paul employs the language of building in the text. Paul speaks of a day when our work on earth will be disclosed. It will be revealed for what it is: wood, hay, straw, or gold, silver, and precious stones. The fire consumes the one, and purifies the other. I like the hopeful word that Paul offers even for the one whose work is consumed: “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through the fire.” God’s love is strong enough to even love the one who, for whatever reason, never learned how to love.

This is the basis for Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies in Matthew 5. God showers God’s blessing on both the good and the evil, on the righteous and the unrighteous. God has no favorites when it comes to pouring out his/her gifts. God doesn’t select some over others. God just scatters them all around. God gives the same grace and extends the same generosity to those who ignore, resist, and curse God as God gives to those who love God. We live as God’s children when we do the same.

Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father or Mother is perfect.” The word translated “perfect” does not mean flawless; it is not referring to moral perfection. It could be translated “mature.” Jesus is calling upon his followers to be complete and mature in their love, the way God is complete and muture in the way God loves. The way we do that is by loving those who do not love us; loving those who even want to do us harm. Surely this is a kind of wisdom that is regarded as foolish by the world, but it is in truth the very power of God that saves us from our little, ego-driven selves and that forms in us God’s very nature.

Sisters and brothers, we are not exceptional because we are chosen and others are not, or because we are loved and others are not, or because we have the truth and others do not, or for any other reason. But as disciples of Jesus, we should be exceptional in the way we welcome, accept, and include those who are different. We should be exceptional in the way we stand with the most vulnerable and work for social justice and the common good. We should be exceptional in humility, honesty, integrity, and forgiveness. We should be exceptional in the ways we engage in deeds of mercy and acts of kindness and in the ways we care for the suffering. We should be exceptional in the way we treat one another and love those who would wish and work for our harm. Why? Because we are led by the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of this world. Because Jesus Christ is our foundation and the whole world is God’s temple. Because . . . we all belong.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jesus' Version of Stand Your Ground (Matthew 5:38-48)

Whereas the normal human response to violence is either fight or flight, Jesus offers a third way: nonviolent direct action. Theologian, Walter Wink in his book, Engaging the Powers, articulated a penetrating exposition of this passage that I want to draw upon here. Wink pointed out that the word translated “resist” (antistenai) in this context means “to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.” Jesus is not forbidding all resistance, rather he is saying, “Do not react violently to evil, do not counter evil with evil, do not allow violence to cause you to react violently.”

What follows are three examples from his culture of nonviolent direct action. First, Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The context here is not a brawl or fistfight where the intent is to harm or injure; rather, this is an example of one who has power and clout using it to humiliate and insult one who does not. To strike the right cheek with the right hand would require a bankhanded slap, which was the usual way for reprimanding inferiors. In the dominant/subordinate structure of the ancient world, this is the sort of humiliating put down that a master might do to a slave, or a husband might do to his wife, or a Roman might do to a Jew.

Jesus is speaking to people who are trapped in an oppressive, hierarchical system of class, race, and gender as a result of imperial occupation. Instead of cowering in submission, Jesus calls for a courageous, nonviolent response. The one stricken stands up straight turning the other cheek toward his opponent, inviting another strike. The one who turns the other cheek is challenging the oppressive behavior of the one who has power. How different is Jesus’ stand your ground instruction from current laws that actually ignite violence? Both Gandhi and King, like Jesus here, taught noncooperation with anything demeaning and humiliating.

In the second example, Jesus imagines a context in which one is being sued in a court of law, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well” (see Exod 22:25–27 and Deut 24:10–13). Only a person deeply impoverished would have nothing but a garment to give as collateral for a loan. According to Hebrew law, the garment had to be returned before sunset. Jesus describes a setting where a debtor has sunk deep into poverty and cannot repay his debts, and the creditor has summoned him to court.

Indebtedness was endemic in first century Palestine, primarily as a result of Roman imperial policy. Emperors levied a heavy tax burden on the population. Land was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations, and no peasant would voluntarily relinquish it. Exorbitant interest, however, was used to drive landowners deeper into debt; and debt, coupled with high taxation, could easily pry Galilean peasants loose from their land. As a result, in the time of Jesus large estates were owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by tenant farmers, day laborers, and slaves (which, by the way, was an image Jesus used in some of his stories).

In handing over one’s undergarment as well as one’s outergarment, the person taken to court would be making a dramatic protest against the system that permitted this kind of oppression. It would have served as a vivid sign of how the oppressors strip the poor of their dignity.

The third example, according to Wink, reflects a situation where forced labor was allowed, but limited, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” A Roman soldier could force a subjected person to carry his pack up to one mile. Jesus advocates going beyond the limit and carrying it two miles in protest of such oppression.

So in these examples, Jesus is creatively finding ways to empower an oppressed people to take the initiative and assert their dignity. Rather than cower in submission, Jesus is encouraging nonviolent protest through the only means available to them.

This, of course, does not change anything, at least not right away, but it empowers the oppressed to act courageously. Wink declared that Jesus taught “a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”

The final example is not an example of nonviolent direct action, but reflects on life within an impoverished community, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (5:42). Jesus is encouraging a radical egalitarian sharing within the community, supporting one another against such oppression.

It is important that these examples of creative nonviolent protest not be severed from Jesus’ central command to love and pray for the enemy/oppressor. In other words, these instructions are not to be performed vindictively, but out of genuine concern for the oppressor, realizing that the one who victimizes others is also a victim of his or her own victimization.

These instructions are not laws; Jesus is not legislating specific behavior. He is offering an alternative to cowardly subjugation. Jesus is calling for creative, intentional, risky response to oppression that utilizes wit, humor, and some intelligent forethought.

If we read these instructions as laws then we are likely to throw up our hands in despair.  But these are not laws, they are examples; they are illustrations of the kind of righteousness that is higher, greater, more than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), because it is based on an ethic of love rather than law. 

A law can be obeyed in the wrong spirit.  Someone might say, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but he didn’t say what to do after that. So I’ll turn the other cheek, then I’ll knock your block off.”  The kind of righteousness that Jesus calls for is the kind that is motivated and empowered by an ethic of love. 

Love of God and love of neighbor (and one’s enemy is one’s neighbor) determines what is an appropriate response in any given situation. If turning the other cheek means that someone else will suffer great harm, then very possibly turning the other cheek is not the most loving response in that situation. It could just be a reaction of fear.

In a very real sense the ethic of love that Jesus embodied and teaches is situational. The question is not: What specific action is prescribed for this situation?  What law do I obey?  What rule do I follow?  The question is: What is the loving response?  What is the selfless response for the good of the other?  What is the redemptive response? 

According to Wink, Jesus’ third way incorporates the following elements:

Seize the moral initiative
Find a creative alternative to violence
Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
Meet force with ridicule and humor
Break the cycle of humiliation
Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
Expose the injustice of the system
Take control of the power dynamic
Shame the oppressor into repentance
Stand your ground
Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
Recognize your own power
Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
Die to fear of the old order and its rules
Seek the oppressor’s transformation

Jesus’ third way offers an alternative to passive withdraw and submission (flight), as well as armed, violent rebellion and retaliation (fight). His way enables the oppressed to stand against evil and expose evil, without being transformed by evil, thus pointing to a better way.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so embodied Jesus’ ethic of nonviolence that it became a social movement. He believed that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon an oppressed people could use in their quest for justice.

But he also understood that hate not only wrecks havoc on its victims, it is equally as injurious and damaging to the one who hates. According to King, it is like an unchecked cancer that corrodes the personality and eats away at the soul.

King also recognized that a strategy of direct nonviolent social action might possibly bring about a sense of shame in the opponent and break the cycle of violence. He understood that meeting hate with hate only intensifies the hate. He believed that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. He taught his followers that their aim was not to get rid of the enemy, but the enmity that empowered the enemy. Their aim was not to humiliate the offenders, but to win their friendship and understanding.

After a demonstration in 1962, King asked his most adamant supporters to make a commitment to: (1) meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus; (2) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love; (3) pray daily to be used by God so that all people might be free; and (4) refrain from all violence of fist, tongue and heart. King taught that all nonviolent resistance must be directed against evil itself, not the person who commits the evil.

How different from Rev King’s voice has been the surge of contemporary Christian voices in support of violence.  Dr. Charles Marsh, Professor of Religion at the University of Virginia, in his book, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity, references the war sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the period leading up to the Iraq war in the fall of 2002 through the spring of 2003.  

Franklin Graham claimed that our military forces in Iraq were preparing the way for the conversion of the Muslin world. Can you imagine? President of the SBC, Jack Graham, said that “in these urgent days we will seize the opportunity to advance the Kingdom of God.”  James D. Kennedy not only endorsed the invasion, but extended the call for America “to exercise godly dominion and influence over every aspect and institution of human society.” He boldly declared, “No power on earth can stop us.” 

Dr. Marsh was particularly appalled by a sermon from a highly popular evangelical preacher whose sermons are heard by millions of television viewers. In calling for support of the war he said, “God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers.” With a swat of the hand he dismissed the whole teaching and life of Jesus, saying that Jesus was speaking to individuals when he said to love our enemies. With one brief comment Jesus became totally irrelevant. Marsh comments on the sermon,

“The sermon’s tone of supreme self-confidence is horrifying. There is no anguish, no dark night of struggle, no wrestling with Scripture . . . not a hint of apprehension, or words of caution, about the certain violence inflicted on civilians. There is no sense in which the believer must evaluate all moral decisions on the basis of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”

The sermon was delivered by Charles Stanley. Marsh wrote that Stanley “interprets the New Testament material on violence through the focal lens of American foreign policy and creates a new American Christ along the way.”

The Christ of Matthew 5:38–48 calls for direct nonviolent action in the context of love for the enemy.

What reasons does Jesus give for his command to love the enemy?  Ultimately, we love our enemies, not in order to change them or convert them, but because God loves God’s enemies. We love our enemies because we are God’s children, because we share the heart of God. God loves the very ones that ignore, reject, and scorn him and we are called to share his nature. Certainly we pray and hope that our enemies will discover God’s love for themselves and have a change of heart, but whether they do or do not, we love them because God loves them and we are called to share God’s heart. If we respond to those who wish to harm us with the same animosity that governs them, then we are being shaped by the spirit of our enemy, rather than the Spirit of God. 

God loves the evil person, even while God hates the evil that he does. Many of us find it difficult to separate the evil that a person does, from the person himself or herself. I think parents are most able to do this. Parents are able to remember the good in the child, before the child was shaped by evil influences and pressures. I believe that God looks at the most evil person, the most prejudiced, arrogant, selfish, malicious and violent person and sees what that person could have been or perhaps still could be.

In a scene from the movie, Ironweed, the characters played by Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. Sort of dizzy themselves the two debate what they should do about her. “Is she drunk or a bum?” asks Nicholson. “Just a bum. Been one all her life,” came the response. “And before that?” “She was a whore in Alaska.” “She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?” “I dunno,” says Streep, “Just a little kid, I guess.” “Well, a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in.”

Everyone is something; everyone is a child of God, no matter how far that child may have wandered from home and no matter how bad that child may have become.

* * * * * * * *

Much of the material in this blog was drawn from a section in my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Faith's Tensions (Part 2)

It is easy to conclude from Paul’s correspondence with the church at Corinth that numerous tensions were present in that congregation. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Paul mentions jealousies, quarrels, and divisions where members were posturing around certain leaders. Some said that were followers of Apollos; others claimed to be followers of Paul. And apparently they were jealous of one another and bickering back and forth.

It is quite possible that Paul and Apollos had some real differences in matters of theology and in the practice of that theology. We don’t know, but that would have not been surprising. There was a great deal of diversity in the early Jesus movement.

Here Paul tries to sublimate their differences within a wider perspective. He says: “What is Apollos? What is Paul? We are just servants in God’s field. I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the growth.” Paul argues that if there is any growth at all, it is ultimately because of God, the divine life and energy that pervades and saturates the community. Planting and watering are important, there is no reason to downplay these activities, but no growth occurs unless there is life in the seed. God is the author and sustainer of the mystery of life in all its dimensions. (How this all works together is, of course, a mystery. Theologians have been struggling with the interrelationship between divine grace and human cooperation for years without any resolution of those tensions.)

Paul says that the one who plants and the one who waters share a common purpose, namely, the growth of the field, the growth of the community. Paul doesn’t define the kind of growth he is talking about, but from what he has written thus far in this letter, he obviously is talking about growth in the wisdom of God.  

The church at Corinth was obviously not living by the wisdom of God, because if they were, they would not have been polarized over personalities, they would not have been characterized by bickering and petty jealousy. Paul calls them “unspiritual”; he says they are acting like infants who can’t handle solid food; he says they are “people of the flesh.”

What he means when he says they are “people of the flesh” is that they are people being governed by the little I, the ego, the small self. They are acting out of their own selfish interests, out of their own little stories and agendas; not out of concern for the wellbeing and the spiritual growth of the body/community.

Let’s be clear what spiritual growth in the wisdom of God looks like. Perhaps the best description of it occurs in chapter 13. In that passage, Paul says that the ultimate purpose of the spiritual life is not about exercising the most sensational gifts, it’s not about possessing the most extraordinary faith, it’s not about expressing the most radical sacrifice, rather, it’s all about love, suffering love (13:1-3). Then he goes on to describe in one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature what love is and what love does. Healthy spirituality is measured in our capacity to love well.

Our failures at love create tensions within all of us who aspire to be disciples of Jesus. Paul, himself, was not outside these tensions. 

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes the love ethic over the law. He says that love is the fulfillment of the law of Christ (6:2). He declares that love is the fruit of the Spirit against such there is no law (5:22-23). In other words, you cannot regulate love with laws and stipulations. As disciples of Jesus we don’t ask: What is legal? We ask: What is the loving thing to do? Paul argues that the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love (5:6). And yet, in that very letter where Paul put’s such emphasis on love, he calls down a curse of damnation on those Christian teachers who were insisting that the Galatians live by the Jewish law (1:8-9). One gets the impression from such inconsistencies that Paul peeled off his letters on the run and maybe if he had paused to read some of what he said back to himself he would have self-corrected. I can think of a number of times in the course of my ministry I have said, “I wish I could have a do-over on that one.”

In his letter to the Romans Paul said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15). Unless one has no conscience, no self-awareness, every one should admit to feeling the inner tension of failing to live up to one’s ideals of love.

All these tensions that we experience in our faith and spiritual life, whether they are tensions in our tradition and theology, in our relationships or faith community,  or in our own psyche and inner life, do not need to be stifling and polarizing. If we let them, they can move us forward, they can drive us to honest confession and humble trust in the divine grace that holds us all up.  

I recently watched a wonderful British film called “Song of Marion” released in America as “Unfinished Song.” Marion, though terminally ill with cancer, continues to participate in a very unconventional senior’s choir led by a young lady named Elizabeth. Arthur, her husband, loves his wife and she loves him, but somewhere along the way he checked out on life and became a very angry, bitter person. And somewhere in that downward spiral he became alienated from his son. The movie is about Arthur’s journey back to life after the death of his wife.

Arthur makes a promise to his dying wife to take her place in the choir. After her death, he reconsiders the promise, but is pulled into the choir by Elizabeth, the young choir leader, with whom he develops an unlikely friendship. His friendship with Elizabeth and his participation in the choir draw him back into the flow of life. This creates tension for Arthur as he comes to face the truth about himself, particularly his failures at being a father. The key to his redemption is when he decides to deal with the tension and contradiction of what he had been in light of what he had actually become and what he knew he should be. It’s a beautiful story about Arthur coming to face these tensions and being changed in the process.

We are not gods. We are imperfect human beings. We have very few if any answers to anything. What we have is a great big God who cares deeply for this “bent planet” and everyone and everything in it. What we have is one another— our love for and commitment to one another, which comes from God who is love. What we have is our selves—our messed up, mixed up, screwed up selves—and no matter how many times we have fallen and failed, God still loves us with a wasteful, inexhaustible love. 

If we can face and hold these tensions, if we can live with them honestly, without denial and excuse, without blame and withdrawal, these tensions (whether it’s the tensions in our belief system, in our relationships, or in our own souls) can become the very instruments that save us, that bring about our growth and transformation into the loving communities and persons God has called us to be. And as the movie “Unfinished Song” beautifully depicts, it’s never too late.

Faith's Tensions (Part 1)

I have found that many Christians are better able to cope with tensions in life in general than they are able to cope with tensions in their spiritual and religious life. There are reasons for this, I’m sure, but I am not going to speculate on what they may be. It’s enough to acknowledge the reality.

For whatever reason there are many Christians who are willing to overlook real paradoxes and contradictions, and settle for superficial solutions. Tensions abound—in the biblical text, in our faith communities and relationships, and in our individual lives—and yet these tensions are often consistently ignored, denied, and trivialized in favor of simplistic answers, dogmatic certitudes, and quick fixes.

Matthew 5:17-19 presents a case in point. Apparently there were tensions in Matthew’s church over the place and validity of the Jewish law for disciples of Jesus. Should the Jewish law have authority in the church and in discipleship to Jesus? This question may seem strange to us today given our place in history, but in those days this was an explosive and divisive issue.

Matthew’s community, most likely, consisted of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. Apparently some of the non-Jewish members of the community, who may have been influenced by the teachings of Paul (though there is no way to know for sure), wanted to do away with either some or all of the Jewish law. Matthew seems to be responding to this group in this passage. Matthew says that Jesus did not come “to abolish” the law, but “to fulfill” it, which I read to mean, that Jesus wanted to flesh out the true spirit or intent of the law. Jesus wanted to help people live in righteousness—in right relationship with God, each other, and all creation.

So far so good. But then, Mathew’s Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” If Matthew is pushing back against those who want to do away with the Torah, he risks pushing them off the cliff.

The problem is that the above statement seems to clearly contradict Matthew’s own portrait of Jesus, who does not mind at all disregarding certain aspects of the Jewish law.

In Matthew 12, for example, Jesus clearly disregards Sabbath law by permitting his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. When he and his disciples are confronted by certain Jewish leaders acting as guardians and custodians of the law, Jesus justifies their actions by citing an example from the Old Testament. David disobeyed the law, says Jesus, when he and his men ate the sacred bread in the holy place (12:3-4). Famished from being pursued by King Saul’s army, they took the bread from the holy place, which was unlawful to do.

Jesus clearly did not care about every stroke and letter in the law. In fact, twice Matthew’s Jesus says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7) suggesting that acting mercifully, caring for human need always takes precedence over the details and regulations of the law.

What I find so interesting is that Matthew surely knew this. When he included this passage in 5:18-19 he knew this stood in glaring contradiction to his overall portrait of Jesus. Nevertheless, he writes it down and lets it stand, without any attempt to resolve all the tension this creates. Matthew gives both the conservatives and the liberals in his church something to chew on.

This tension in the text undoubtedly reflects some of the tension in his faith community. There were those who insisted the Jewish law needed to be kept and those who insisted it didn’t, and they were together in the same church. Evidently they made it work.

Matthew’s church is an example of disciples of Jesus from different backgrounds with different theological perspectives and faith practices worshiping, sharing, and serving together.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Being Spiritual and Religious (1 Cor. 2:1-16; Isa. 58:1-9a)

According to a recent Pew report, almost 1 in 5 Americans identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” It is a growing trend. At one time these words (spiritual and religious) were used interchangeably. Not so much today.

In contemporary speech the word spiritual is more associated with personal or private experience, while the word religious is usually connected to communal, institutional, and organizational religious life. Those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious reject traditional organized religion as the sole, or even the most valuable means of advancing one’s spiritual growth.

In 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Paul is continuing to contrast the wisdom of God with the wisdom of the world, a discussion began at 1:18. Within this broader context he talks about what it means to be spiritual. Now let’s be clear from the outset: Paul connects Christian spirituality with Christian community. We can discuss whether or not we agree with Paul, but for Paul himself, there is no such thing as being spiritual but not religious. Paul’s understanding of being spiritual is inseparably connected to life in the church, the community of faith.

Paul claims that a spiritual person recognizes the generosity of God in the many good gifts God has given to the community. He writes, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (2:12). The gifts Paul has particularly in mind are the gifts that he mentions in chapter 12 of this letter, gifts that build and enhance community life. The gifts mentioned there are by no means exhaustive; they are representative of the kind of gifts that God gives to the church, so the church can function as the body of Christ in the world.

When Paul admonishes the church in 12:31, “Strive for (seek or pursue) the greater gifts” he most certainly is not talking to individuals, but the church corporately, telling the church as a whole to give precedence to those gifts that edify and strengthen community. This is why Paul favors the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. While the gift of tongues primarily edifies the person who expresses the gift, the gift of prophecy edifies the whole community (1 Cor. 14:1-25).

Authentic spirituality—rooted and grounded in God’s grace—is expressed in community life through gratitude. I doubt if it is possible to live a spiritual life without some experience and expression of gratitude. Paul typically begins his letters with thanksgiving. He opens this letter to the Corinthians by saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4). In Jesus Christ we have tapped into an endless reservoir of grace that cannot but gush forth in expressions of gratitude.

Paul also says, “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). Paul is not saying that God withholds these gifts, rather, the unspiritual do not recognize and acknowledge these gifts that come from God. And while Paul is not eliminating personal gifts, his clear focus is on the gifts that God gives to the faith community. We learn in church—in our worshiping, praying, studying, and serving together—how to be a grateful people.

Another point Paul makes about being spiritual is that to be spiritual is to be taught by the Spirit so that we are able to exercise spiritual discernment (2:15). And once again, he has in view the way our life together in community shapes and forms our spiritual sensitivities.

Stephanie Paulsell, professor at Harvard Divinity School and writer for The Christian Century told about being mentored by an Episcopal priest at the University Church where she attended graduate school. She assisted him at the altar on Sundays as they celebrated the Eucharist. After several weeks of assisting, the priest asked her to take a turn as celebrant.

She loved what the priest did at the altar —she thought it was beautiful and mysterious—but she had grown up in the Disciples’ tradition with a very different ritual of Communion. She thanked the priest for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.” The priest said, “Oh, we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do this in order to find out what it means.”

What she learned was that faith is not a linear movement from right thinking to right action; that she did not have to wait until she had everything figured out before she led the Eucharist. She discovered that it is possible to act our way— worship, pray, sing, and serve our way—into new ways of thinking. Whatever Paul says to the church at Corinth about being spiritual, he assumes that their spirituality is worked out in community.

In Isaiah 58:1-9a, the prophet chides and chastens the covenant people of God for going through the motions of repentance—fasting in sackcloth and actions—without making any attempt to change.

The prophet tells the people that the fast God chooses is one where the bonds of injustice are torn asunder and the oppressed go free; it’s where the hungry are fed and the homeless poor are given shelter. Only then says the prophet will the light of God break forth like the dawn in their midst.

It is true that many churches have completely ignored this prophetic call to justice and mercy. I can understand why the number of those who say they are spiritual, but not religious is on the rise. The church has embarrassed and disappointed them, maybe even oppressed them, and so they have given up on religious community. I get that. I do not doubt that plenty of Christian communities exist on both the left and the right stymied by dysfunction and immobilized by a toxic spirituality. But I wonder if a better solution might be to find a healthy church where social justice and mercy are practiced, rather than abandoning the church and becoming allergic to all religious communities.

I am glad that in the Western world we are moving into a post-Christian era. During the era of Christendom, which began when Constantine united Empire and church, social justice was largely abandoned; it was not taught or encouraged in many churches. Now that Christendom is falling apart maybe more of the churches that remain will actually become light and salt again, rather than simply being extensions of the Empire or heralds of civil religion, controlled by the wisdom of the world. There is a movement afoot right now that is crossing denominational and doctrinal barriers to reinstate social justice as a non-negotiable component of authentic Christian discipleship. A place it should have occupied all along.

Paul says that spiritual discernment is nothing less than having the mind of Christ. Paul writes, “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ?” (2:16) Notice again, it is “we,” not “I.” It is the community that has the mind of Christ, and as individuals we nurture the mind of Christ within us as we worship, pray, study, share, and serve together in community.

I am not going to argue whether or not it is possible to be spiritual, but not religious. There may be persons who are not religious and are far more spiritual than I am. Who am I to say? I am no one’s judge. But I can say rather confidently that Paul would not have given any thought to that possibility. For Paul, spiritual discernment was learned in the context of a worshiping, praying, sharing, serving, studying, caring, and loving faith community. 

In one sense, spirituality exists whenever people struggle with ultimate meaning, when they wonder where the universe came from, or why they are here, or what happens to them when they die. Whenever people are moved by beauty, love, mercy, social justice, and matters of the common good, whenever people are drawn into a larger story and struggle with how their lives fit into the larger scheme of things, they are venturing into the realm of spirituality. I wonder, however, if such promptings and movements can be sustained without the discipline, discernment, challenge, and inspiration that a healthy, transformative religious community provides.

As I was researching this topic online I came across the SBNR website. I read on the home page: serves the global population of individuals who walk a spiritual path outside traditional religion. Fair enough, but then as I looked closer I noticed that the last posting was dated June, 2012. It looked to me like the site had been started and then abandoned. This, I think, illustrates the problem. Healthy, transformational spirituality is hard to sustain and practice without a faith community.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in an article at wrote: “To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.” It seems to me that a healthy faith community provides that window.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Being Salt and Light (Matt. 5:13-16)

In the first paragraph after the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:13-16), Jesus’ disciples are directly addressed as the salt and light of the world.

Light as a metaphor hardly needs comment; salt may be less obvious. Salt functioned as a spice as it does today, but it also functioned (in an age without refrigeration) as a preservative. I suspect both meanings are intended.

Disciples of Jesus can have a preserving function in our world by living according to the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of the world (the domination system). Communities of disciples of Jesus can help preserve some of the virtues and qualities so essential to our true humanity, like compassion, mercy, justice, humility, honesty, etc.

And these qualities do need preserving. John Pierce, editor of Baptist Today, in a recent editorial told about coming across a historical marker along the Tennessee Riverwalk that chilled him as much as the cold wind and falling temperatures he was walking in.

It was President Andrew Jacksons’ message to U.S. Congress in 1830 regarding “Indian Removal.” Jackson said:

“It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching a happy consummation. . . .The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. . . . It will separate Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”

President Jackson tried to make the Government’s persecution and enforced hardship upon the Indians sound as if it was for their own good and happiness.

In a world where the domination system executes its own agenda disciples of Jesus are called to form communities that become light and salt, that offer an alternative. And we do so, not for the benefit of ourselves, but the for the benefit of the world. We are to be light and salt for the world.

By presenting an alternative to the normalcy of the world, by living according to the way of Jesus, not the way things normally are, we confront the world with a choice. We are like a city lit up on a hill that cannot be hid. When we identify with the poor and the suffering, work for social justice, speak truth to power, love our enemies . . . when we live the Sermon on the Mount, then we offer the world an alternative, we will be a city on a hill that cannot be hid.

Like salt, we will add zest to the life of the world. To catch the nuance, it might help to think about a different seasoning; we will be like red hot peppers. Followers of Jesus should be lovers of life adding spice to life.

The salt and light that Jesus was is in each of us—we just need to tap into it and let it out. If we as disciples of Jesus fail to embody his life and teachings, fail “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God,” fail to love God, neighbor, and our enemies, then like salt from which the sodium chloride has been leached, we will become tasteless, boring, meaningless, and uninteresting.

There may be times of intense persecution when the only way the church can survive is by going underground, but otherwise, our role is clear. We are called to live in visible communities (“you” is corporate, not singular) where we function as salt and light, not to ourselves, but to the world.

When we are truly being salt and light in the world, there will be no need for marketing strategies or evangelistic teams canvassing neighborhoods. Our very presence in the community being light and salt will confront society with the alternative path of Jesus of Nazareth.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Interpreting Matthew 5:17-20 (one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels)

It is difficult to know how much of this passage, if any, originated with Jesus and how much is to be attributed to the author/redactor of the Gospel. Either way, it’s in our sacred text and we are faced with the task of making sense of these words from Matthew’s Jesus.

What is Matthew’s Jesus saying? The most obvious reading is that Matthew’s Jesus takes a strict view of the Jewish law. But how then can this text be reconciled with a text like Matt. 12:1-8, where Jesus clearly disregards Sabbath law, offering as justification an example from the life of David where David clearly violates the Torah requirements regarding the sacred bread in the holy place? The tensions/contradictions these differing responses to the Jewish law create are not easily resolved.

What may have prompted the writer in 5:17-20 to be so insistent (or so over-the-top) on the continued validity of the Jewish law?

Part of the answer is that he is preparing the way for the antitheses that come next in the Sermon on the Mount where he contrasts, “You have heard that it was said” with Jesus’ “But I say to you.”

Then, too, maybe some in Matthew’s community/church were pushing for the abrogation and abolishment of the Torah all together and Matthew pushes back (overreacts?).

Matthew insists that the law still has validity and must be respected, and that Jesus as the divinely inspired interpreter of the law, has come to “fulfill” the law rather than “abolish” it (5:17).

What does it mean for Jesus to “fulfill” the law? It’s very ambiguous. It could mean that Jesus “adds” to the law, or “obeys” the law, or “confirms/establishes” the law, or “completes/perfects” the law, or “reduces” the law to the supreme command to love. Maybe all these ideas are intended or a combination of them.  

Matthew’s main general point seems to be (regardless of the precise meaning) is that Jesus is not in any way opposed to the law; he ministered squarely within the tradition of the Torah.

I like to think of Jesus “fulfilling” the law in the sense that Jesus fulfilled, completed, perfected the law’s divine intent, namely, to create a righteous community—a community right with God, each other, and all creation. Jesus demonstrated the true spirit of the law.

The problem is that in fulfilling the law Matthew’s Jesus shows little concern for the “strokes and letters” of the law emphasized in 5:18. For all practical purposes in some cases “fulfilling” the law meant abolishing the law (see 5:38-42).

Other passages in Matthew such as 19:16-22; 22:34-40; and 23:23-24 add to our understanding of how Matthew’s Jesus fulfills the law. Jesus invited the rich young man, who had kept the commandments all his life, to a deeper allegiance and commitment by giving all his wealth to the poor and following him. Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on loving God and loving neighbor as oneself. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law” like “justice and mercy and faith,” while meticulously keeping laws of tithing.

The last example above can be employed as a guide for interpreting Matt. 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

However we make sense of Matt. 5:17-20 certainly Matthew’s Jesus had great respect for the Torah. Jesus “fulfills” the intent and spirit of the Torah aimed at creating a righteous community.

It’s interesting that in Matt. 1:19 Joseph is called “righteous” because he did not carry out the letter of the law. Joseph was “righteous” in disobeying the law, which demonstrates that sometimes particular laws can stand in direct opposition to the overall aim, intent, and spirit of the law. No interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20 can resolve all these tensions.

One way to read Matt. 5:17-20 in a contemporary context, though it is very unlikely that the author would have intended this, is to read 5:18-19 in light of Jesus’ “fulfillment.” Since Jesus “fulfilled”—“accomplished” or completed the intent of the law—the law now in effect is the law of love that Jesus taught and embodied in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. The “commandments” referenced in 5:19 are Jesus’ teachings/commandments.

Or a slightly different version of the above reading makes the law in 5:18 the law of love that will be “accomplished”—realized fully—in the kingdom to come.

We can also draw the following analogy: It’s important for disciples of Jesus today to respect the totality of Scripture, even the parts that have no authority in our lives. It is clear, in light of the revelation of God’s will in Christ, that there are Scriptures that are inadequate, deficient, and stand in direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus. Their teaching value is in showing us how people of faith can misunderstand and deviate from God’s will, how faithful people can regress and completely miss what is redemptive and transformative. Even regressive laws and Scriptures serve a purpose.

What is starkly clear in this text, regardless of the difficulties in reading it, is that Jesus is our guide. Disciples of Jesus do not look to the Torah, they look to Jesus, and in particular, the Sermon on the Mount delivered by Matthew’s Jesus. What matters to Jesus must be what matters to us—his disciples.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Different Kind of Wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-31; Micah 6:1-8)

The antithesis Paul develops between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world in his correspondence with the Corinthians was most likely prompted by the spiritual arrogance of some in the Corinthian church who were claiming to have special wisdom and knowledge of God, and therefore were deserving special honors and status.

When Paul talks about the wisdom of the world he is not talking about Greek philosophical wisdom; rather, he has particularly in view the wisdom that crucified Jesus. The wisdom of the world is the wisdom of the domination system that attempts to shape society according to its own self-interest.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Paul call the wisdom of the world “the normalcy of the world, the way life most commonly is, the way things are.” The wisdom of the world is expressed anytime individuals, governments, organizations, institutions, communities, and societies act in their own self-interest. It is the wisdom of “might makes right” and “the end justifies the means.” It is the wisdom of “what is mine is mine,” and some would add, “and what’s yours is mine, if I can get it.” It’s the wisdom expressed in the popular AT&T commercials: “Bigger is better; it’s not complicated.” How different is the wisdom of Jesus where all through the Gospels Jesus invites his followers into lives of simplicity where “less is more.”

Is America controlled by the wisdom of the world? If there is one thing that our president and both political parties agree on is American exceptionalism—a philosophy and ideology rooted squarely in the wisdom of the world.

The world’s wisdom is reflected in the huge disparity between average people and the very wealthy who wield much influence over politicians and people in power. It is expressed in the ways we can invest huge sums of money to stockpile weapons of destruction or acquire large sums of money by selling these weapons to other nations, and yet we cannot provide the basic resources to create conditions that will lift the poor out of poverty.

We are living by the world’s wisdom when we fly drones into other countries to kill our enemies (and civilians too), and when we deport people who have migrated to this country illegally to escape war, poverty, oppression, and in some cases almost certain death. There can be a world of difference between what is legal and what is moral, just, and right.

And let’s not overlook the way we are all duped by the wisdom of the world in diverse and subtle ways. When we as individuals care more about upward mobility, more about appearance and achievement, more about acquiring position, power, and prominence, than we care about the common good, or loving our neighbor as ourselves, or treating others the way we would want to be treated, then we are operating by the wisdom of this world/age.

How different is the wisdom of Jesus who rebuked his disciples for seeking power and arguing about who would be the greatest. He told them to forget about being first or great and become “the servant of all.” Not a servant of a select few who can advance our cause and support our agenda, but “of all,” especially the poor and marginalized.

Paul finds the ultimate expression of the wisdom of God in “the message of the cross,” the message of “Christ crucified,” which he claims was utterly ridiculous and absolutely absurd to the rulers and leaders of this age. It was, indeed, ridiculous and absurd until the church turned the cross into a theory of atonement for the forgiveness of sins. When the church did that, then the rulers of this world/age no longer took offense in it. Then, belief in the cross simply became the means to enter a heavenly world. It was no longer offensive.

The church has paid a heavy price for this dumbing-down of the message of the cross into a theology of hell evasion and heavenly bliss. Let’s not forget what the cross was. It was an instrument of torture and execution reserved for those who dared to challenge the imperial might of Rome. Crucifixion was a horrific way to die imposed by Rome to display publicly what traitors and rebels of Rome could expect.

So how does “Christ crucified” become, as Paul says, “the wisdom and power of God”?

Jesus’ death cannot be separated from the life he lived that led to his crucifixion by Rome. I have no doubt that when Paul references Jesus’ death in his letters, which he does quite frequently, usually in sacrificial terms, he is succinctly and poignantly summing up the entire life and career of Jesus.

Jesus centered his life in the rule of God. He gave himself over to God’s will, preaching good news to the poor, freedom for captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. He crossed borders, broke down boundaries, accepted the unacceptable, forgave sinners, healed lepers, included the marginalized, loved enemies . . . and what happened? Paul sums it up in two words, “Christ crucified.” They put him to death. He threatened the normalcy of their world.

The wisdom of this world had no use at all for the wisdom embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. His death on the cross was the culmination of a life lived sacrificially for the cause of God and the good of others. So when Paul speaks of the cross it represents the suffering love of God and, unfortunately, what we can expect when the domination system (the wisdom of the world) is confronted and challenged by the wisdom of God. 

The cross was not an answer to some sort of cosmic dilemma in the mind or character of God about whether or not God should or could forgive sin; it was not a solution that satisfied God’s honor or justice as if God’s honor or justice needed satisfying. And certainly the death of Jesus was no appeasement or propitiation of divine wrath. Jesus didn’t bear the wrath of God; he bore the wrath of the powers that be, he bore the wrath of the religious and political establishment.

Unlike other ancient deities, the God of Jesus forgives freely by divine grace. The God of Jesus does not require human sacrifice. The sacrifice that God wants is a pure heart, a readiness to receive and share God’s love with others.

Isn’t this what the prophet says? “Shall I come before the Lord with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7) If God doesn’t want this from us, surely this is not what he wanted from Jesus.

What does God want? What does God require? What is “the good” that God expects? It is this: “to do justice [social justice, restorative and distributive justice, working for a just society], and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is the sacrifice God wants: lives and communities committed to social justice, to deeds of mercy and compassion, and to authentic humility.

* * * * * * * *

This antithesis between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God is not an antithesis between what in our culture is commonly distinguished as the secular and the sacred. The wisdom of God can be found anywhere, right in the midst of the so-called secular. One does not have to be in a holy place to encounter God’s wisdom. Any place may become a holy place, because God’s wisdom can be experienced anytime and anywhere to challenge our assumptions, expectations, commitments, and priorities rooted in the normalcy of this age.

A beautiful expression of this plays out in the movie, I Am Sam. Sam, who has the mental capacity of a seven-year old, father’s a child with a homeless woman who then abandons them. He is left to raise the child himself. He gets by for a while, but when his daughter, who can read better than he can starts to drop behind in school, he gets in trouble.

The child is taken from him and placed in a foster home. Sam is allowed two supervised visits per week. He picks a law firm, quite by accident, and ends up in the office of Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) who tries at first to get rid of him. She has a reputation of being cold and unfeeling, but in order to prove that she is not heartless and in a context of office one-upmanship, she takes the case pro bono.

You will have to watch the movie to find out what happens, but in the course of her developing relationship with Sam and his daughter, his honesty and love for his daughter changes her. She becomes a different person. It is a vivid portrait of how the wisdom of God can transform a person who formerly was thoroughly immersed in the wisdom of this world.

Paul wrote, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God choose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Humility, generosity, and forgiveness are the only appropriate responses to the wisdom of God.

In an article in The Christian Century, Pastor Matt Fitzgerald wrote about a shocking encounter he had with the wisdom and power of God when he visited a man on death row who had been convicted of brutally murdering a teenage girl 21 years earlier.

Fitzgerald wrote: “This man had claimed the love of God as his own. He had claimed what I preached. And yet when the evidence was in front of me, I could not believe it. I’d spent a lot of energy trying to contain God’s presence. I had carefully learned rituals and chosen music and crafted sermon sentences that aimed to cultivate grace.”

“What I had either forgotten or never learned is that right next to all of us is something that’s out of control: the power of God. It’s a surging and crackling energy, a wideness that the church hints at but doesn’t own. When I felt it come alive in that prison it made me jump because it defied a deeply, ingrained belief in justice and decency [justice as in getting what one deserves]. How could a murderer grab hold of the same love I’d been given?”

Such is the wisdom of God. Forrest Gump captured the wisdom of God in a single line: “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Whenever love is present, God is at work; wherever love is, God is.