Monday, September 29, 2014

The Real Tragedy Is Not What You Think It Is (Matthew 21:23-32)

Keep in mind that stories and particularly the parables of Jesus may mean different things, have different emphases in different contexts. It’s certainly possible that a story in the original life-setting of Jesus meant one thing, and then in the life-setting of the church years later meant something else. And no doubt these stories were modified and altered as they were orally passed down several decades before taking a particular written form. This is why New Testament scholars remind us that it is very, very difficult to speak with any certainty about the original form of a story, because the story has been modified through the many retellings of the story.

It is helpful, I think, to consider this story about the father and his two sons (which is very different than Luke’s story about a father and two sons) in light of its placement in Matthew’s Gospel. Just prior to this story Jesus has engaged in three prophetic acts – he led a peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey, he staged an act of protest in the temple, and he denounced a fig tree. All three of these acts were performed out of a sense of his own prophetic authority. Now after all of this, he comes back to the Temple and is teaching, and the chief priests and elders say, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus, of course, knows they are trying to entrap him; he knows that they are looking for some justification for getting rid of him, and so he very cunningly avoids answering the question by throwing a question back at them about John the Baptist, which they are afraid to answer. Then he tells this parable. So the parable, very likely, according to Matthew’s placement of the parable in this narrative, has something to do with Jesus’ authority in our lives.

The parable turns on the different responses of the two sons, which are not initially what they seem. The first son appears to present the biggest problem. When the father tells him to go work in the vineyard, he says, “I will not.” But then later, he has a change of mind and heart, he repents, and ends up in the vineyard. The second son is actually the biggest problem because he deceives the father. He tells the father what the father wants to hear, but then doesn’t do it. This son is a master of avoidance.

It’s always a tragedy in a household when the children and the parents never meet. I girl went home after school with a friend. The friend and her mother got into an argument, a very heated argument – it got pretty loud and intense; so much so, that the girl decided she better leave. Later that evening the friend called and apologized. The girl said to her friend, “I love the way you and your mother fight. My mother lets me have it and then walks away without bothering to listen to what I have to say. Your mother takes you seriously.” It’s not a tragedy when parents and children have rather strong disagreements; it’s a tragedy when parents and children are not close enough or do not connect enough to have disagreements.

When we think about our spiritual lives, we cannot grow and become more by living in denial and avoidance. I wonder if this is not what some Christians do with the Bible. When I point out to some of my inerrantist friends the inconsistencies or contradictions in Scripture, I sometimes hear accusations that I pick and choose what to accept.

And my response to that is, “Well, of course I do and you do too, only you won’t admit it.” Every one picks and chooses what Scriptures are going to have authority in their lives. We all pick and choose. The only difference is: some admit it and are intentional about developing a sound process of picking and choosing, whiles others do not. We all decide what Scriptures will have the most authority in our lives, and we can either deny that we pick and choose or admit it, but we all do it. And to follow that up, we can either go about our picking and choosing randomly in order to uphold without question some set of doctrines or beliefs handed down to us, or we can develop an intentional, reasonable, common sense, Spirit-led approach that allows us to hold these things handed down to us tentatively as we question and seek the truth for ourselves.

But you see, as long as one denies that one has to pick and choose what will have authority in one’s life, one can live in denial of all the inconsistencies and tensions that are present in our holy Scriptures without acknowledging that they exist. That way one doesn’t have to confront these inconsistencies or struggle with them and make tough decisions. Living in denial and avoidance is much easier, but it doesn’t help one grow and become more Christ-like either. Generally, it just makes one more defensive, fearful, and angry.

And when one denies the inconsistencies in Scripture, it is much easier to deny the inconsistencies in one’s life. Once again, we all have our inconsistencies – the main issue is whether we can own up to them. Our holy Scriptures mirror human life, they mirror the tensions, struggles, doubts, inconsistencies, and contradictions that characterize all of our lives. They reflect the human condition.

A few nights ago Melissa and I watched the 2013 film “Words and Pictures.” The lead character, Jack, who is a writer and school teacher, has a drinking problem. His drinking problem is destroying his life: it’s diminishing his ability to write and teach, it’s about to get him fired, and it’s destroying his relationship with his son, but he is still unwilling to acknowledge that he is an alcoholic and get help. It’s not until his drinking severs the relationship he has with a woman he has fallen in love with does he finally admit his alcoholism and join AA.

The tragedy is not that we are addicts. We are all addicts. We are not all addicted to alcohol, obviously, but we are all addicted to something – to work, play, certain negative ways of thinking and reacting, conflict avoidance, money, power, control, perhaps even to American exceptionalism. The tragedy is not that we are addicted; the tragedy is our unwillingness to see and admit and confront our addictions and engage in a redemptive process that brings healing and restores life.

The second son simply avoids all conflict and honest struggle, but in doing so chooses death over life. This son was only concerned with outward impressions, how he appeared to the father. He didn’t want to have to confront the father, so he told his father what his father wanted to hear.

Some years ago in the days of the local drug store, a young man went in and bought 3 one pound boxes of candies. The owner commented to the young man that it would be cheaper to buy one 3-pound box of candy rather than three 1 pound boxes.

The boy explained that he had a date that evening and the three boxes of candy were part of his strategy. He said, “If she allows me to sit close to her she gets one box. If she lets me put my arm around her she gets a second box. If she lets me kiss her she gets the third box.” That night he was having dinner at her house and he asked if he could pray before the meal. He prayed the most fervent prayer. After dinner on the way to the movie his date said, “I didn’t know you were  so religious.” He said, “Well, I didn’t know your dad owned the drug store.” 

I suppose there are reasons, some quite vain I’m sure, others perhaps more noble, why we want to appear certain ways before other people.
How many of you, if you know someone is stopping by your house start throwing things under the bed, in the bath tub . . . wherever? There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we want to know God and live for God and participate in an honest struggle to know the truth, then we will need to go much deeper than appearances. That will require some vulnerability and honesty and humility, and some digging into our real intentions and motivations. It will require some honest, sincere soul work.

I think it is interesting that in the postscript to the parable where Jesus comes back to the question he posed about John the Baptist, the word for “believe” occurs three times. Jesus says to the religious leaders, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Three times in this postscript the word “believe” occurs.

I think this tells us something about what faith is. This parable is about which son actually does the will of the Father. This is a theme that runs throughout Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus teaches with authority and the question is: What are we going to do with it? Are we going to obey what Jesus says? Or are we going to avoid what he says or find some way to dismiss what he says so that it doesn’t apply to us? At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father” (7:21). It’s all about doing the will of the Father.

Later while Jesus is teaching the crowds, his mother and brothers appear, wanting to talk to Jesus. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother” (see 12:46-50). You see, it’s about doing the will of God. It’s about loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It’s about treating others the way you want to be treated. It’s about actually confronting the status quo and working for the liberation of the oppressed. In Matthew’s Gospel believing is about doing. 

I think that in Christendom as a whole - in Christianity and the church at-large - we have a lot of fans of Jesus, who are just not that serious about actually doing what he says or emulating his life.
I want to be careful, however, about being too judgmental, because there have been seasons in my life where that has been true as well. 

I’m a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats, but I don’t bleed blue. I’m just not that committed. I’ve told this before, but it’s too good not to tell again. I heard about a woman who was an avid UK fan sitting alone at Rupp arena as the Cats were warming up to take on the Louisville Cardinals. There was an empty seat next to her. Someone asked about it and she explained that the seat was her late husband’s - they were season ticket holders and he recently passed away. The inquirer then rather brashly asked, “Couldn’t you have offered that seat to a friend or relative so they could have enjoyed the game too?” She said, “Well, I would have, but they are all at my husband’s funeral.” There are fans and there are fans – right?

It’s easy to be a fan of Jesus. Very easy. There are churches on just about every corner. I only live three or four miles away I guess, and I pass four churches on my way here – two on each side of this little stretch. It’s relatively easy to be a fan of Jesus. It’s much harder to actually do what he says. It’s much harder to actually love the way Jesus loved. It’s much harder to forgive the way Jesus forgave. It’s much harder to courageously take on the status quo the way Jesus did. It’s much harder to give of our selves the way Jesus gave. It’s much easier to just be a fan.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, believing is not about doctrines or facts or certitudes. It’s about doing the will of our Father in heaven, who incarnated what that looks like in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Believing is about struggling with the authority that is expressed through Jesus – surrendering to that authority and doing what he says. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. Confessing Jesus as Lord is not first and foremost a confession about Jesus’ nature or deity; it’s first and foremost a confession about our relationship to Jesus. It’s a confession of our willingness to follow Jesus and do what he says.

This parable acknowledges that this will not be easy. Like the son who said, “No” when confronted with the father’s will, Jesus’ teachings are not easy to obey. Loving the way Jesus loved, loving the way God loves, involves a lot of work and effort and sacrifice. There is nothing easy about it.

The tragedy of the first son in the parable, which is the tragedy of too many religious people, too many Christian people, is not that we fall and fail – the real tragedy is avoiding the struggle.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, help us to honestly consider and confront what it means to be a follower of Jesus. You know how we struggle with this. You know how difficult it is for us to stop hiding behind our excuses and denials and to actually surrender control of our lives to you. Give us the faith and courage and will to actually do what Jesus says and commit to love the way he loved when he was among us. And we believe that you are among us now, working in our hearts and lives, wooing us and prodding us to let go of our ego needs and wants and to allow your love to fill us and flow through us. Help us to be a people where your inclusive love and magnanimous grace have the day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Be Who You Are and Help the Church Be the Church

Vickie Beeching, the widely acclaimed Christian songwriter and performer who recently came out as gay, is a superb example of how LGBT Christians can help the church be the church. The path forward, however, will not be without setbacks, obstacles, and many twists and turns. 

Brian McLaren recently attended a forum on global human rights for LGBT persons where he recommended finding ways to help religious leaders move incrementally along a spectrum with four spaces:

Zone 1: Promote violence against and stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
 Zone 2: Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
 Zone 3: Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of gay people in the name of God and religion.
 Zone 4: Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality in the name of God and religion.

Blogger Fred Clark (Slacktivist) has noted that these zones do not reflect “a good, better, best spectrum” but “a spectrum that runs from monstrous to awful to slightly less than awful to adequate.” He summarizes the stages as:

1. Violent exclusion
2. Exclusion
3. Semi-reluctant exclusion
4. Inclusion
Inclusion is the only “adequate” position for the church that wants to model the inclusive love and compassion of her Lord. There is much, however, that impedes movement toward inclusion.

For example, three professors of biblical counseling in Southern Baptist seminaries recently gave advice to families with gay or lesbian children. They urged Christian families to create a culture of honesty where family members “can come out of the closet.” But the culture they have in mind is not one of acceptance and affirmation. It’s a culture where they can “confess their sin and ask for help.” One of the professors warned, “Ultimately this (the gay or lesbian) loved one’s eternal destiny may rest in their family’s willingness to confront sin.”

It’s ironic that these leaders speak of showing “unconditional love” to lesbian and gay family members, but clearly, their love has conditions. They think they are “infusing people with hope” by telling them “that Jesus always changes those who come to him in repentance and faith.” In actuality they are creating a climate of hopelessness, because sexual orientation does not change. These Christians are operating somewhere between zones 2 and 3 on McLaren’s map.

One cannot fault any of our LGBT sisters and brothers for their dislike of Christians and their churches. However, as Paul wrote, there is “a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b).

Vickie Beeching is one example. Beeching is best known for her worship songs that are sung in churches throughout America, Great Britain, and in other English speaking countries.

As a little girl she began to have an attraction to other girls her age, which only increased as she grew older. She also soon became aware of the negative and condemnatory attitudes toward such an attraction surrounding her in her Christian culture. So she bottled it up. She wanted to be attracted to boys, but she couldn’t. By keeping this all to herself and by denying her true feelings, she found herself in inner turmoil. She says,

“Realizing that I was attracted to girls was a horrible feeling. I was so embarrassed and ashamed. It became more and more of a struggle because I couldn’t tell anyone.”

She was musically gifted and began performing worship songs at services in front of hundreds by age 16. By then, too, the shame and isolation she experienced for being gay were escalating. She was also a bright student, and spent as much time on her own as possible, pushing friends away at school and working hours in the library alone. She said it was too painful to be around people who didn’t understand. All her energy went into making good grades and developing her musical skills. At age 23, her songwriting took her to Nashville.

For the next six years, Beeching lived in the heart of Christian conservative America, recording albums and spending a lot of time in evangelical churches. To avoid facing her inherent sexuality, she would perform endlessly, filling up her hours as much as possible with work.

By 2008, at age 29, she moved to California, the year that proposition 8 - the state law to ban same-sex marriage - was to be voted on. The Christian lobby galvanized and Beeching was booked frequently to perform at mega-churches throughout California. She found herself performing at events that were basically anti-equal marriage rallies. This, of course, added to her inner tension and anguish.

One day she noticed a white line down her forehead. The scar grew and became inflamed. She was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease (linear scleroderma morphea) – a degenerative condition where soft tissue turns to scarring – a very serious condition that can cause blackouts, epilepsy, and be life-threatening. The treatment involved extensive chemotherapy. Medical professionals told her that usually this disease is brought on by some deep trauma. Her body was attacking itself.

She knew it was the stress of living in denial of her sexuality, and realized that she had to come to terms with it. She set a goal that she would come out by the time she was 35. This past Easter she came out, first to her parents, and then publicly.

Today she says,

“What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people. When I think of myself at age 13, sobbing . . . I just want to help anyone in that situation to not have to go through what I did, to show that instead, you can be yourself – a person of integrity.”

When she was asked why she just didn’t discard the church that considered her sinful and wrong, she responded,

“It’s heartbreaking. The church’s teaching was the reason that I lived in so much shame and isolation and pain all those years. But rather than abandon it and say it is broken, I want to be part of the change.”

Amazing! – that she would choose a more excellent way (1 Cor. 13). I realize that some of my LGBT sisters and brothers have been so hurt and abused by the church that they view any invitation to be part of a faith community with repulsion. I understand that. And the last thing I want to do is impose any guilt for feeling the way they feel. Those feelings are justified.

But to those who are able, to those who can receive it, may I offer a personal word: The church needs you. You may be the very ones to help a church reach the place of full inclusion. Your very presence in a faith community is a gift to that community.

Yes, it will take faith, courage, compassion, and endurance. Even in more predominantly progressive-minded congregations there are likely to be some members who have yet to come to a place of full inclusion, and they can be a “thorn in the flesh.” 

If the church can be the church, if the church can become “more” than what it has been, if the church can become welcoming, accepting, affirming, and empowering of our LGBT sisters and brothers, then the church can play an important role in moving the moral and spiritual consciousness of our species forward.

How does it happen? One church, one faith community at a time. Why not make a difference?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Welcoming (or Protesting) the Latecomers (Matthew 20:1-16)

The stories Jesus told enabled him to both conceal and reveal truth. There were people in the high ranks of the Jewish religious establishment who were completely closed to Jesus’ teaching – they were set on getting rid of Jesus at the first opportunity. The stories Jesus told had a way of conveying truth in a kind of veiled way. On the other hand, there was perhaps no better way of trying to get through to people who had their defenses up.

One of things that often blocks spiritual teaching – one reason we do not receive spiritual teaching very well - is because of our assumption that we already know. And this is why direct teaching that counters what we think we know hardly ever gets through, because we react in anger and defensiveness. It may be teaching that we need to hear, but we can’t hear it because we think we already know, and the first thing we want to do is prove the other person wrong.

So Jesus tells stories. We are naturally drawn into a story. And the stories Jesus tells are about common things - not religion, not God — not at first anyway, that is, not when you first hear the story. You don’t think it is about God — until after the story has become a part of your memory and consciousness. So that when you let down your defenses, the story is still there, and it works on you and at some point you realize that it is about God and about God’s kingdom and your place in it.   

Jesus’ teachings often turned on elements of surprise and shock; he loved to employ hyperbole as a way of embedding the image in our consciousness. He employs common conventions in unconventional ways to reveal to us a different world, to evoke us to imagine an alternative reality. And the common way he does that is by upsetting the status quo. This story upsets the status quo doesn’t it?

One scholar has compared the hearing of the parables of Jesus to looking through the glass of a window. We look through the window at the world outside. The window is clear, therefore we see through the window to the world. But then there comes the moment when, looking through the window, we can catch a reflection of ourselves in the glass. The window also acts as a mirror. The stories of Jesus are both windows into another realm and mirrors that enable us to see ourselves in relationship to that other realm. We read or hear the story and it is not about us, but then, at some point, perhaps even days later, we realize that it is about us.  

Where do you see yourself in this story? Do you find yourself protesting with the workers who bore the heat of the day and got the same wage as those who only worked one hour? Or are you rejoicing with those who only worked one hour and received an entire day’s wage? Where are you standing in the story?

I think we would all have to admit that the protesters had something to protest didn’t they? Given a modern setting in our culture we would have to say that the first-hired workers had every right to picket the landowner for unfair economic and business practices. I can see them now wielding signs that declare, “Management Unfair to Labor.” And they would have a case wouldn’t they? I could see myself joining them. This isn’t fair is it?

And that of course, is the point, I think. The story impinges on our sense of fairness. It disrupts our system of meritocracy that governs everything in our lives. Systems of merit run the world and we are all a part of these operating systems. It’s the way everything works – from business to education to religion.

The landowner says to the grumbling workers, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?”   Did you see that coming? They had a contract. This was agreed upon. But the landowner made no contract with the other workers. In fact, they were totally at his mercy. He simply said to them, “Trust me. I will give you what is right.” And really the story turns on that phrase doesn’t it? I will do for you what is right, he says.

Would you like God to give you what you deserve? How many of you hope God’s kingdom operates on a system of meritocracy? And yet if someone gets what we think we should have gotten because we earned it and they didn’t, we will be the first to complain.

The landowner says to the grumblers, “Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Now, that’s the question isn’t it?

You know, Jesus upset many of the Jewish teachers of the law who functioned as gatekeepers of a popular system of holiness that determined who was in and out, who was included and excluded. Jesus bypassed that whole system and opened the gates so all could come to the table — sinners of all kinds, prostitutes, those who did not even pretend to keep the law, and even the notoriously despised tax collectors who in their greed buddied-up with the enemy and took advantage of their own countrymen to get ahead. No one was despised more than a Jewish publican/tax collector. Jesus welcomed them all as they were. That doesn’t mean he wanted them to stay that way, but there were no hoops to jump through to get to Jesus. I’m sure this parable speaks to that context, but it is by no means limited to that context.

Maybe in Matthew’s church there were some long standing members who were grumbling over the special care and consideration that was being given to “newcomers” who hadn’t paid their dues. I pastored a church one time that didn’t have any written policy on deacon elections and they didn’t want to have any new elections. The same deacons had been deacons forever. That liked being in control and didn’t want any new blood. 

If the truth were known some people don’t really like grace, unless they are the ones getting it. Jennifer Jones won an academy award for the title role in the movie, The Song of Bernadette. Bernadette received a vision of the Immaculate Conception and became something of a celebrity. An older nun became consumed with envy. She prays, “Why her?” Her thinking was, “No one has prayed harder, worked longer, and suffered greater than I. So why her and not me?” Later in the story Bernadette collapses while scrubbing the floor. After being examined, the doctor talks to he older nun. He asks, “Has she never complained?” “No,” says the older nun, “she just quietly does her work.” The doctor says, “That’s amazing. The affliction she has, she has had a very long time and the pain is unbearable.”  Later, the older nun repents of her envy and prays for forgiveness. She says to God, “Thank you for the opportunity to serve the one you have chosen.” We are all chosen, though that involves different roles.  

Why can’t we let go of our comparisons and judgment and resentment and simply rejoice in the truth that we are chosen too – that we are all loved by God with an eternal love? Why can’t we be overwhelmed with gratitude for being loved the way we are loved? I hope we all have some experiences that melt our resentment and evoke such gratitude. Experiences of great love can do that.

In a story by Wendell Berry, Wheeler Catlett is an attorney for an old farmer named Jack Beechum and they had become good friends-. Jack died, leaving Wheeler in charge of his affairs. The only family Jack left behind was his daughter, Clara Pettit, and son-in-law, Gladston Pettit, who had no interest in farming - their only interest was in the money. Jack and Clara never agreed on anything, but of course he still loved her.

It was Jack’s wish that his farm go to the young couple, Elton and Mary Penn, who had been living on Jack’s farm for about eight years, taking care of the land and taking care of Jack. Jack loved them as if they were his own children. He wanted the Penns to have the land and the land to have them and Wheeler knew this was what Jack wanted. Jack’s will stipulated that his daughter Clara, would get the land, but he left the Penns enough money to buy the land from Clara. What Jack forgot to consider was his daughter’s greed. 

He had communicated this to Clara, but he failed to establish this in his will. So Clara decided to sell the land at public auction, anticipating a larger profit. Bidding began at $200 an acre, and the Penns, of course, were nervous. Wheeler, however, inspired by old Jack’s spirit and the desire to help urged the Penns to keep bidding, because he knew what Jack wanted. When it was over the Penns ended up with the land, but the price was considerably more than the Penns could afford. So Wheeler covered $65 an acre, almost $10,000 out of his own pocket.

Elton Penn, being somewhat of a proud man, said to Wheeler, “You’re saying there’s not anyway to get out of this friendship.” “No,” said Wheeler, “you can get out of it. By not accepting it.  I’m the one, so far, who can’t escape it. You have it because I’ve given it to you, and you don’t have to accept it. I gave it to you because it was given to me, and I accepted it.” Here he is talking about the friendship that Jack gave him. That’s how grace works.

But I need to issue a warning. Grace cannot be presumed upon or it ceases to be grace. Jesus never lowered his high expectations for his followers. When Jesus knew that he was going to be killed, he didn’t try to protect his followers. He said, “If you want to be my follower, then you will have to deny your instinct for self-preservation, take up your cross and get in line behind me.” Jesus said, “You need to be prepared to die too.” Grace doesn’t lower the expectations.

For us, at the very least, this involves dying to our ego-driven and ego-dominated self, the little, false self that we spend so much of our lives protecting and projecting. And I have to be honest. I don’t do that very well much of the time. I can be proud and stubborn and want things my way. I really like to win. I’m not real good at ego-denial and walking in the way of the cross, which is the way of suffering love. But Jesus doesn’t lower the standard. Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, Chuck that’s okay if you can’t carry the cross today, if you can’t say “no” to your stubborn self-will and pride today, that’s okay.” Jesus never says that. Jesus says, “If you want to be my follower, then you better learn how to die to your pride and greed and selfish ambition and your need for honor and recognition and all the rest. Jesus says, “You have to let go of all that to be my disciple.” So grace doesn’t lower the expectations.  

We can’t presume anything, but we can live by grace, rather than by a system of meritocracy that leaves us looking over our shoulder to see who is going to beat us to the prize.

Here’s what I think. I think everyone of us when we consider what we really deserve are all latecomers, we are all in the group that worked for one hour and got a full days’ pay – everyone of us. We have all received more than we ever deserve. 

I know I need grace — everyday. I usually need a lot of grace. And I think I know most of you well enough to know that most of you need about as much grace as I need, and some of you need more, but I will suspend judgment. 

All of life is pure gift, and any notion that we have earned all that we have is pure illusion. That doesn’t lower the expectations of discipleship, nor does it justify our lack of effort. God expects our best effort. But hear this sisters and brothers, even our capacity to extend effort, to give our best – that too is grace. And when we see all of life as gift, there is simply no place for jealousy or envy or resentment or bitterness – just gratitude that we have been included, that we all have been included – for we are all latecomers. And whether you work 1 hour in the shade or all day in the hot sun, whether you have easy job or a hard job, you’re in, you have been chosen, you are included – not because you deserve to be, but just because you are. Thanks be to God.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, Forgive us for all the times we expect grace from you, but when it comes to our brothers and sisters we want you to treat them differently. Forgive us of our pride and envy and for thinking that we are better or deserve more than someone else. Help us to live by grace so that we won’t forfeit grace to a life of meritocracy. As we have received so may we share with others out of the forgiveness and grace we have experienced from you. And may we learn to rejoice with the latecomers rather than resent the grace you have given them. May we be reminded of your amazing grace as we eat this bread and drink this cup and inspired to be instruments of your grace in the world. In the name of Christ I pray. Amen. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

What to Do About ISIS? A Christian’s Anguish

When I think about ISIS and what our response as a nation should be to their reign of terror my soul is in anguish.

Why the anguish? Does ISIS not completely devalue human life and are they not committed to the utter destruction and mass enslavement of all people who refuse to surrender allegiance to them? Does this not warrant the use of military action to stop them?

The reason I am in anguish is because I take seriously the nonviolent life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth whom I strive to follow. In the temptation narrative Jesus renounces the option of wielding power as a means of accomplishing God’s will. In his conflict with the religious and political powers of his day, Jesus chooses the way of suffering every time instead of the way of violence. At the time of his arrest he tells his disciples, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus dies powerless and mocked, absorbing the animosity of his tormentors without wishing them harm.

Less we think this was somehow unique to Jesus, he instructed any would-be follower to renounce all violence by taking up his or her cross and getting in line behind him (Matt. 16:24). He even told his disciples to love their enemies by praying for them and doing good to them (Matt. 5:38-48). In his letter to the Romans, Paul echoes basically this same teaching (Rom. 12:14-21).

Not all Christians have or do take Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies seriously. Church historian and religion professor Charles Marsh researched some of the sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead-up to the first Iraq war. He discovered that many, such as Franklin Graham, Paul Crouch (Founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network), Jack Graham (then president of the SBC), and popular Baptist preacher Charles Stanley, to name a few, fully endorsed the war effort.

In one sermon Stanley admonished, “We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible.” He quoted Paul in Romans 13:1 about being subject to governmental powers, but completely ignored Paul’s instruction to not repay evil for evil, refuse retaliation, and do good to our enemies in Rom. 14. And with a wave of the hand, he totally dismissed Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and love of enemies in Matt. 5, claiming that Jesus was speaking to us as individuals, as if that somehow justified completely rejecting it. Marsh observed that Stanley expressed “no anguish, no dark night of struggle,” no “hint of apprehension, or words of caution, about the certain violence inflicted on civilians.”

For the first three centuries the vast majority of Christians rejected all expressions of violence and refused to take up arms under any condition. The reason: They sought to be faithful to the life and teachings of their Lord and his alternative kingdom. That all changed when Constantine wed church and empire, and made Christianity the official religion of Rome.

Since then the majority of Christians have endorsed violence or sought to justify it under certain conditions and circumstances. Many have simply ignored, dismissed, or rationalized Jesus’ life and teaching as if they did not matter.

Father George Zabelka was the chaplain who administered catholic mass to the bomber pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 resulting in the mass destruction of civilians. Later he came to repent of his complicity in the destruction. In an interview with Sojourners, he described the Christian ethos of the times: “I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church [the church at-large/the majority of Christians] in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best—at worst it was religiously supportive . . .”

There have always been pockets of resistance to violence from peace-loving people, and from Christian communities that have born prophetic witness to both state and church, but for the most part Christendom has a sad history of acquiescing to violence.

I struggle with Jesus’ teaching and do not claim to renounce violence in all circumstances as Jesus commanded. I cannot fault Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for I probably would have done the same. I suspect I would employ any means available, including violence, to save family and friends from death by violence (if an intruder invaded my home, for example), and so I struggle with the question of what to do about ISIS. Do we, as a nation, have a moral obligation to our sisters and brothers in that part of the world to protect them from genocidal destruction?

By the way, I wish our president and national leaders would frame the question as a moral obligation to humanity, though I don’t expect them to. They tend to frame the question the way empires frame the question: What must we do to protect national interests and our own people? A follower of Jesus must frame the question in terms of the dignity and value of all human lives, not just American lives. Anything less is not Christian.

Is violence ever justified? According to Jesus it is not. Hence, my anguish of soul. I am a Christian minister but I am not yet willing to follow Jesus all the way to the cross.       

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dr. Albert Mohler versus musician Michael Gungor: Who is on the verge of theological peril?

Dove Award-winning Christian musician Michael Gungor has been taking a hit from some of his evangelical fans for saying that he has no more ability to believe that Adam and Eve were literal persons who lived 6,000 years ago or that “a flood covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago” than he is able “to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity.”

In a recent podcast Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist’s flagship seminary in Louisville, claims that Gungor “is shifting into theological reverse, moving right back to the last decades of the 19th century.” According to Mohler, Gungor’s ideas are the result of Protestant liberalism, “which also came over to the United States [from Germany], infecting many denominations and seminaries.”

I mean, really, Dr. Mohler? When is learning how to think a disease? What Dr. Mohler doesn’t say is that practically all mainline biblical scholarship rejects his inerrantist view of the Bible and his literal interpretation of the creation story and flood narrative. Even many evangelical scholars who still cling in theory to biblical inerrancy (they are forced to sign faith statements in that regard) reject the literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis.

Actually, throughout most of the history of the church the literal meaning of a biblical text was deemed the least important reading by many Christian scholars and teachers. The literal reading was sometimes compared to the physical body, while the spiritual or metaphorical (sometimes allegorical) reading was likened to the human soul.

It’s a helpful analogy. If a person narrowly focuses on the physical body to the neglect of the soul (a healthy inner life), that person becomes quite shallow and lacks spiritual, emotional, and psychological substance. When the literal reading takes precedence over the spiritual/metaphorical/theological reading of the biblical text, the result is a superficial kind of Christianity that lacks depth, mystery, heart, and struggle.

Mohler claims that “when the Bible speaks, God speaks.” Is that true? Consider the following biblical passages,

“The Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have handed Jericho over to you . . . The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.’. . . Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:2,17, 21).

  “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman” (Deut. 22:22). 

“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:33b-35)

 “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man: she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:11-14).
Are the above texts literally God’s word? Are these instances of God speaking? I hope not, don’t you?

The more people become aware of what is actually in the Bible, the less likely they are  to believe that the Bible floated down from heaven on the wings of angels and is a literal word from God.

Human beings wrote the Bible and because flawed and fragmented human beings wrote Scripture, the Bible is also flawed and fragmented. It is also a beautiful, powerful book that contains a variety of sacred literature of diverse genre. The Bible mirrors the human struggles and contradictions that characterize the very human lives of people of faith everywhere and anytime.

All Christians read the Bible through a particular lens that reflects their biases. Everyone brings their biases with them into the process of reading and interpreting biblical texts. A healthy bias is rooted in common sense, reason, the best of human intuition, honest struggle with contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox, and a humble quest for the truth. It is natural for one with healthy biases to be evolving in their faith.

An unhealthy bias is based on dogmatic assumptions and certitudes, and is often science- denying and reason-defying. This is why it’s nearly impossible to reason with such folks in the comment section of a blog like this one. Their biases denigrate reason, common sense, and science in favor of dogmatic beliefs.

For example, Mohler says,

“We will either believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God—that it is the specially revealed word of God, which is our ultimate intellectual authority, because it is, indeed, the word of God—or we’ll see it merely as a collection of inspirational and spiritual writings that are to be ‘reinterpreted.’”

We believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible, says Mohler, not because good judgment, critical discernment, spiritual enlightenment, reason, and common sense so indicates, but “because it is, indeed, the word of God.” It’s literally the word of God because Dr. Mohler (and those who adhere to his conservative version of Christianity) say it is. How is that for an honest, humble search for truth?

Because the Bible is both a divinely inspired and humanly imperfect book, the Bible contains wonderful, breakthrough, transformative texts and regressive, petty, punitive, and life-diminishing texts (as quoted above).  Thomas Merton contended that the Bible in the hands of an unenlightened person can become a deadly instrument.

In one of the great, transformative texts of Scripture (1 Cor. 13) the Apostle Paul concluded,

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Isn’t it time we grow up?  

Mohler contends that Gungor, by disbelieving that the early chapters of Genesis contain historical, factual information, is in danger of “theological peril.” But who really is on the verge of theological peril? I have had conversations with people who knew Dr. Mohler in his student days and they claim that back then he was a much more moderate, balanced, and reasonable thinker. What happened?

Father Richard Rohr contends that the Bible is primarily about the conversation between God and people of faith regarding power. Could he be right? Could the struggle with, against, and for power be behind much of what is written in and about the Bible? Is that the real struggle behind so much of our reading and interpreting of biblical texts today?

Could that struggle turn a reasonable, balanced thinker into a dogmatic fundamentalist? I wonder.