March 20

Gilded Torments

Photo from Vanderbilt Lectionary.

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets warned of idolatry. In the New Testament, Jesus too warned of worshipping the wrong things. Yet many Christians today who invoke the name of Christ show by their actions that they worship something else.

When we place money, safety, or security ahead of serving God, we are idolaters. Jesus is clear on this. From Matthew 6:19-21 to Mark 10:17-27, from Luke 12:13-21 to John 13:34-35, Jesus tells us that we are called to focus on God and on helping others, not on material wellbeing. Yet our supposedly Christian society tells us otherwise. And many of us have bought the message. In a 2018 poll of Christians, Lifeway Research reports:

Churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs (75 percent) are more likely to agree God wants them to prosper than those without evangelical beliefs (63 percent)… One in 4 (26 percent) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.”

Two-thirds of Christians polled believe God wants them wealthy! And nearly a third think they can earn God’s favor in the form of wealth. Apparently, the point of becoming a follower of Jesus is to get rich. Yet if one follows where Jesus went, one is likely to get (from the world at least) what Jesus got: not wealth, but execution.

I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” But have you ever noticed that you can’t do both at the same time? Our allegiance is to be to God’s Kingdom, not any power or principality. Yet many Christians see the United States as somehow chosen by God and thuis beyond criticism– and worthy of support and protection. And not just from heathen in other places. We don’t welcome our fellow Christians seeking refuge from Latin America, Palestine, or Africa as fellow members of the Body of Christ. In fact, we pay billions of dollars to help Israel repress Palestinians–including Palestinian Christians. (Israel makes no distinction among Palestinians based on religion; they are all non-Jews.)

Perhaps this is not unexpected. Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, documents from original sources the shift in focus of Christianity from radical behavior change in its first three centuries, to cultural compromise and a focus on belonging by the 8th century. This shift largely began with Augustine, who saw baptism as more important than a change in behavior. Perhaps this was because, by his own admission, his church was filled with people who wouldn’t behave in a biblically-Christian manner.

The shift was helped along by Constantine and his successors, who not only legalized Christianity but made it mandatory. Obviously many pagans became Christians because they had to. And rulers and aristocrats likewise became Christian in name, but could not as rulers take seriously the injunctions to “love your enemies” or “feed the hungry.” (Can we even imagine a leader who embodies Isaiah 11:2-4?)

Kreider writes,

In Christendom there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between church and state… a symbiotic relationship.” (95)

In addition, because it assumed that there is no choice but to be Christian, religious training and practice become “perfunctory,” and standards of behavior are coerced rather than taught (96-97).

In our own context, this symbiosis emphasizes a national concern with wealth and cheap energy. Eventually, we have today what too often passes for Christianity: militarism, individualism, greed, and selfishness. We idolize the free market and the individual. Politicians from both parties have proclaimed that “Greed is good”– a slogan that is not only unbiblical, but was coined as a satirical reflection of our society.

We point to our enemies. Iraq, Iran, ISIS, North Korea– Name any enemy of the United States, and read the history of that enemy. You’ll find, with few exceptions, that we created that enemy ourselves through military or covert action.

Too often we are satisfied with the assurance that we are saved by grace. We are! But that’s not the end of the story.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

As a society, we idolize wealth and security. Church father Cyprian, who was raised as an aristocrat before his conversion, called these “gilded torments.” They distract us from God, and from the Kingdom. And yet they are accepted as legitimate parts of Christian walk in many churches today.

What if we started naming things as Jesus did? What if we called greed idolatry? Or militarism an ungodly use of force that should be reserved to God? What if, in the face of those who resist refugees, we quoted 1 John 4:20?

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

I suspect I know the answer. What would happen would be that we would follow where Jesus led: to the Cross, indicted by society’s religious and political authorities. Jesus commanded us to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), and we would be doing just that.

Preaching the Gospel is dangerous. But should that stop us?

If we believe, it should not stop us at all.

January 29

Against the Wall

I realized today that I am not happy with the arguments I’ve heard against the border wall. Don’t get me wrong: I oppose the wall, and I oppose the fear of immigrants. But it’s not because Leviticus tells me to welcome the stranger, or at least not only because of that. It’s not because my heart breaks for those who live in fear and squalor, though it does. And it’s certainly not because I hate America, because I don’t. My ancestors founded this country on a dream, and I believe in that dream.

The reason I oppose the wall is simple: God reigns.

This is the message of the Gospel. Satan is defeated, though given a chance he will still make his mischief. Death has been defeated. Fear has been defeated. God’s Kingdom has been established, and we get to choose whether or not to be part of it.

I choose God as my sovereign. Jesus is my Lord. That means I do not give in to the fear pandered by people seeking political power in this world. They are not in charge. God is.

That means I will not bow before powers and principalities, though they may have certain powers over my life (and I accept that). It means I rebuke the demonic powers of fear, nationalism, and narcissism that infect so much of our culture.

I choose Jesus as my model. This same Jesus healed not only his own people, but a Roman centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5ff) and a Gentile’s daughter (Mk 7:24ff), offered the water of life to Samaritans (Jn 4:1ff), and held up a hated enemy as an exemplar (Lk 10:25ff). His disciples went not only to their own people, but to the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Admittedly, Jewish Christians were afraid of what might happen when these outsiders came into the Church, but James (the brother of Jesus) wisely made cultural accommodations (Acts 15:1ff). Clearly the Church would not have been the same otherwise. Its early theologians were almost exclusively Gentiles, hailing from such places as Rome, Antioch, Smyrna, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Augustine was a pagan in North Africa before becoming one of the Church’s most important theologians.

We are a nation of immigrants. (Just ask any Native American.) No one stood on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and told my ancestors, “You can’t come in without the right paperwork.” On another side of my family, my grandfather came from Ireland on a visa, but he overstayed it by 50 years before he finally got right with the law.

Some will argue, “But that’s England and Ireland. They’re different.” I could reply that when my grandfather came, NINA (No Irish Need Apply) was a common sign in American businesses, and people debated whether or not the Irish were really white. They were characterized as criminals and drunks. They were supposed to be a bad influence on American society. But yesterday’s enemy has become part of the fabric of our nation.

I think it’s more important to appeal to Paul:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

And John:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (1 Jn 4:20).

John tells us that God is love. Paul says that if I do not have love, I am nothing. Jesus says that if I only love those who love me, that’s no credit to me. I am called to love my fellow Christians, wherever they may be from. But beyond that, I am called to love each and every one of the people God made in his image.

And I am called to do it without fear, because God reigns.

I am the child of immigrants, some more recent than others. That suggests compassion.

I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. That demands more.

Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same (Lk 3:11).

This country will do as it wills. But as for me, I refuse to deny the Lord who lifted me from darkness. Jesus is Lord. God reigns. I submit.

December 18

What Does the Gospel Have to Do with Mondays? Reflections on Luke-Acts in Our World Today

Image result for jesus healing images

It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.

Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” [1]

I remember the first publicized school shooting, back in 1979. [2] Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, CA. She came from a broken home, lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child. [3] When asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.” [4] That response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.

My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.

Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.

 My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.

To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.

 By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?

Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?

Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?

Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population. [5] We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country. [6] We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco).[7] Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.

Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.[8]

Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.

Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom. [9] What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. [10]

Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?

In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.

On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?

[1] Julie K. Brown, “To longtime friend, school shooter Nikolas Cruz was lonely, volatile, ostracized,” Miami Herald, February 17, 2018, (http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200754714.html, accessed November 15, 2018).

[2] The first school shooting as we now define it occurred in 1974, but if it got much publicity, I wasn’t aware of it.

[3] Böckler, Nils; Seeger, Thorsten; Sitzer, Peter; Heitmeyer, Wilhelm (2013). School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies, and Concepts for Prevention (1st ed.).Springer Science+Business MediaISBN 978-1-461-45526-4. Cited on Wikipedia, “Cleveland Elementary School Shooting” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Elementary_School_shooting_(San_Diego)#CITEREFB%C3%B6cklerSeegerSitzerHeitmeyer2013, accessed November 15, 2018).

[4] “School Sniper Suspect Bragged of ‘Doing Something Big to Get On TV’,” Evening Independent (AP), January 30, 1979, 2A (https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=r8EwAAAAIBAJ&pg=6676,3418018, accessed November 15, 2018).

[5] “Top 20 countries in primary energy consumption 2017,” Statista.com (https://www.statista.com/statistics/263455/primary-energy-consumption-of-selected-countries/, accessed November 18, 2018); “What is the United States’ share of world energy consumption?” EIA.gov (https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=87&t=1, accessed November 18, 2018); “Countries in the world by population (2018),” Worldometers (http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/, accessed November 18, 2018).

[6] “10 world’s leading food producing countries,” Mediamax, (http://www.mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/261583/261583/, accessed November 18, 2018); “Food Consumption by Country,” World Atlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/which-country-eats-the-most.html, accessed November 18, 2018); “Global Obesity Levels,” ProCon.org (https://obesity.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006032, accessed November 18, 2018).

[7] “Motor Vehicles per 1,000people: Countries compared,” Nationmaster (https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Transport/Road/Motor-vehicles-per-1000-people, accessed November 18, 2018).

[8] Joshua Cohen, “’Deaths of Despair’ Contribute to Declining U.S. Life Expectancy,” Forbes, Jul 19, 2018 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2018/07/19/diseases-of-despair-contribute-to-declining-u-s-life-expectancy/#513a22be656b, accessed November 18, 2018); Maya Rhodan, “Gun related deaths in America keep going up,” Time, Nov 6, 2017, (note that the title is misleading; the article states that rates have begun to go up after a long period of stability; http://time.com/5011599/gun-deaths-rate-america-cdc-data/, accessed November 18, 2018); Y. Chen et al, cited in “US leads developed nations in drug overdose deaths,” Healio, Nov 12, 2018 (https://www.healio.com/internal-medicine/addiction/news/online/%7B95b75228-d6be-4e72-bb3d-e1a3a17cedcb%7D/us-leads-developed-nations-in-drug-overdose-deaths, accessed November 18, 2018).

[9] John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or: the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/, accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance, Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus, Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.

[10] Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives that do not conform to its professed worldview.

October 1

Bible: Heaven is NOT the end.

Have you ever read the ending of the Bible? Apparently few people have. Believe it or not, it doesn’t end with us going to Heaven.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:1-2)

“Heaven and earth” is the biblical way of saying “all creation.” (See for example Genesis 14:19, 2 Kings 19:15, Isaiah 37:16, Acts 17:24, and there are many others.) Notice that we don’t go up to this new creation– it comes down to us!

Still not convinced that it’s here in this world?

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb… The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (Revelation 21:22, 24)

How could the nations walk by its light and the kings come to it if it were not on earth? This vision of the shining city on a hill parallels the word of God in Isaiah (2:2-3, 25:6-8, 49:6, 52:7).

And if that’s not enough, beware of Revelation 11:18:

The nations raged,
    but your wrath has come,
    and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
    and saints and all who fear your name,
    both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

As you can see, Earth is central to God’s ultimate vision. It is not destroyed, it is made new. (Yes, the old earth passes away (Rev 21:1), but only as it is remade into a new earth.)

What, then, is Heaven? It’s a temporary residence for those who have died redeemed. The Bible tells us that those who are in Heaven will return to earth when Jesus returns:

[F]or you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;

you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

God made Creation for a reason, and he’s not done with it. Earth is our ultimate destination. So how is it that we focus not on where we are and where we will be, but on that temporary “vacation” in Heaven?