Longing to Belong – A Flock of Geep, Matthew 25:31-40

One day when my children were in elementary school a battered old car that didn’t belong to anyone in our neighborhood was parked in front of our parsonage in Worthington. When my kids saw it out there and that there were some people in it they had two very different reactions. One of them wanted to call the police and the other one said, “Let’s go out and see if we can help them.”

I share that story because it represents two very different reactions we can have to the least of these that Jesus talks about in the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. We react uneasily or fearfully if we see others only through the lens of “stranger danger” or we feel some degree of empathy for fellow human beings. There are other options of course – we can blame them for whatever problems they have or we can avert our eyes and simply pretend to not notice and hurry by.

My guess is that most of us fall into several of those categories at different times depending on the situation and what else is going on in our lives at the time. Our level of hospitality or empathy for people in need can fluctuate like an Ohio thermometer. Sometimes we feel warm and caring and other times when our own problems are too heavy on our minds, we can be a bit more like frosty the snow man—at least I know I am.

Today is our final installment in a series called “Longing to Belong” and it’s fitting that we give this text from Matthew the final word because of its unique perspective on what it means to belong to the human family and ultimately to God’s eternal kingdom. This text in Matthew is Jesus’ last teaching to his disciples before his passion and death on the cross. The separation of the sheep and goats is called the last judgment because it tells us in very simple but powerful images about what is required of us to belong in the Kingdom of God. It is both a judgment and a warning.

Note first of all that Jesus is the one who decides who gets in. He is the one who welcomes the sheep into his kingdom and quite literally tells the goats to go to hell. Judging is not our job but God’s. I saw a billboard sign along the road somewhere recently that said it very well, “Just love them all. I’ll sort them out later, God.”

Secondly, this is not some far off end of the world second coming of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel there is no ascension story. The risen Christ doesn’t leave the world behind to return at some undetermined date. Matthew’s Gospel ends with these words we know as the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

There is not a time or place when the risen Christ is not with us to empower us and to check up on how we’re doing.
So how do we make disciples of all nations? The sheep and goats parable tells us in very clear and practical terms – by offering hospitality especially to those in need. That’s it – one simple question – have we been hospitable or not? I don’t know about you, but that makes me more than a little nervous. However my day of reckoning comes will Jesus remind me of all the appeals for charity I’ve thrown away unopen? Will he parade before me the starving children of the world or just the homeless people on the street corner that I’ve hurried by on a cold winter day to get to my nice warm house? What other missed opportunities to serve others will he bring back to painful memory like a haunted Facebook year in review? I’ve always had this fear that when my life flashes before me at the end that it will be boring, but this is much worse than boring.

A book club that I’m in just finished reading a book called “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a social psychologist who has done research on how and why morality develops in humans. Leave the sheep and goat metaphor aside for a minute because Haidt compares humans to chimpanzees and bees. I’ve never known any chimps personally, but Haidt says that while they are very smart animals they do not develop any sense of loyalty to any other chimps. There actions are always self-interested. At the other extreme are bees that are totally organized to perform individual roles for the benefit of the hive they live in.

The bad news is that Haidt’s research concludes that we humans are 90% like selfish chimpanzees. The good news is that we are also 10% like bees. In other words, we are capable as we well know of compassion and acts of hospitality. We do make sacrifices of our time, energy and money to help others in need.

But what makes the difference in our hospitality for others? When and why do we act like bees instead of goats, I mean chimpanzees? Haidt lists religious affiliation as one of the community building groups that can trip what he calls the “hive switch” that makes us less self-centered and more “groupish” like bees. He has studied a variety of social groups and through scientific research identified certain activities that bind individuals together and allow us to merge our individual identities into a larger whole.

I took a friend of mine to her very first Ohio State football game a few years ago. We were soaking up the atmosphere and excitement of the best darn band in the land making their dramatic ramp entrance and performing Script Ohio, and then those 100,000 fans stood as one and sang “Carmen Ohio,” the OSU Alma mater. When we sat down my friend Linda looked at me with amazement in her eyes and said, “I saw people actually crying during the alma mater.” And I said, “O yes, this is a religious experience for many people.”

I thought I was just being clever, but according to professor Haidt I was exactly right. He uses college football and all its pageantry, songs, cheers and traditions as a prime example of behavior that can trip the hive switch, a bonding of total strangers into a unison choir. It’s easy to see how the things we do in worship, singing hymns, reciting common prayers, rituals like baptism, communion, weddings and funerals are similar group building activities. As a side note, our familiarity with the rituals as regular attenders in worship also means we need to be sensitive to newcomers who may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know the “routine” that we take for granted.

So the hive switch is what makes communal action and hospitality possible. Theologically I’d call that the Holy Spirit within each of us. Where my theology pushes back at the scientific analysis of human morality is where Haidt concludes that we humans are best at what he calls “Parochial altruism.” In other words we extend hospitality most often and most easily to people who are like us. That’s obviously true, but what science can’t account for is the inbreaking power of God’s spirit that makes all things possible, even radical hospitality for the strangers in our midst.

So, what does that all have to do with sheep and goats? Most of us know we aren’t good, righteous sheep all the time. I have a wonderful friend who is the most caring person you can imagine. He’s a retired firefighter and EMT and felt called to that kind of vocation because of his gentle, caring soul. But in that work he witnessed some trutly horrific acts of inhuman behavior. I remember one time he told me about going on a squad run to help an 84 year old woman who had been brutally beaten are raped. My peace-loving friend shook with emotion as he told me he didn’t trust himself to be in the presence of that rapist for fear he would kill him.

In the very best of us there is some goat. I believe it’s a smaller percentage than Haidt’s 90% figure, but it’s there and we are in danger if we forget it. I even read that Andy Griffith admitted that there were times when he wanted to beat up Barney Fife. By sharing our humanity in Jesus God knew up close and personal about our goatish tendencies. Even Jesus didn’t always practice what he preached. He got angry at times and called people fools or a brood of vipers. He got so angry with the money changers that he turned over their tables and drove them out of the temple with a whip.

Jesus understood none of us pure bred sheep. We are a flock of Geep, a hybrid of hospitality and goat-like selfishness that sneaks out when we’re uncomfortable or fearful or insecure.

The parable makes such a clear cut choice between sheep and goats, good and bad, there is no middle ground. So we wonder if there’s any hope for us Geep. You bet there is. Matthew includes this judgment story as a warning. Jesus makes the choice so stark to impress us with the urgency of how we treat each other. His words certainly ring true for the troubled world we live in where there are literally millions of hungry, thirsty, ill-clothed, unhealthy, and imprisoned people. The surprise in this story is that neither the sheep nor the goats realized that their treatment of neglected, marginalized people was how they treated Christ himself. We can’t use that excuse. We’ve been told, we’ve been warned, and we who know what it’s like to long to belong have a duty to treat others not just the way we want to be treated, but the way we would treat Christ himself.

At our church conference Thursday night we watched a powerful video message from Bishop Palmer. The video is being shown at every church conference this year to introduce the mission theme for the West Ohio Conference for this Conference year. The theme is “Be Not Afraid—There is enough.” Be not afraid got me wondering what kind of fears prevent us from being the good hospitable sheep Jesus calls us to be. Bishop Palmer said that when we are afraid there aren’t enough resources to go around, when we live out of scarcity mentality it’s hard to share what we have for fear we won’t have enough for ourselves.

There’s no doubt the needs of those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and in prison, those in need of warm clothing as winter approaches – those needs can be overwhelming. But just because we can’t do everything for everybody is no excuse for doing nothing. Bishop Palmer used one of my favorite Bible stories to make his point about how we can overcome our fears of scarcity by living out of faith in God’s abundance. In the feeding of the 5000 story the disciples are afraid they can’t feed the hungry crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach.
They very pragmatically take inventory of the food they have and come up with just 5 loaves and two fish. This is obviously not enough to feed over 5000 people. But Jesus tells the disciples to give him what they have. He takes it, breaks it, and blesses it and there is not only enough to feed and satisfy everyone there, they collect 12 baskets full of leftovers that can go to the local food pantry.

The message is that when we feel like we don’t have enough time or energy or resources to care for those in need if we give what we have to God in faith it will be enough. A year ago no one would have believed that this church could regularly feed 100’s of neighborhood children who don’t have lunches on days when school is not in session. But a few people saw the need and had the faith to start a new ministry, and guess what – in the last year we’ve provided over 5000 brown bag lunches to our neighbors. As the need grew there were always enough volunteers, enough food, and enough love to meet the need.

We are called to treat everyone the way we would treat Jesus! Wow! That’s a tall order for us imperfect fallible Geep. None of us treat everyone all the time like we’d treat Jesus, especially when Christ comes in a Halloween costume disguised as a hungry, sick, ill-clad prisoner! “But Jesus, if we’d only known it was you!!”

But here’s the really good news—we know from other stories about Jesus’ grace and mercy that he doesn’t expect perfection. Just look at the rag-tag bunch of disciples he chose!! And other New Testament writers share the same message of mercy and amazing grace. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” That’s because none of us are good enough to pass the sheep/goat test on our own merits.

I John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The sheep and goats parable is both a warning and a way into God’s kingdom. It forces us to look honestly at how goat-like we sometimes are, and when we are brave enough to do that we are humbled and fall on our knees in confession.

I like the way a preacher named Ronald Luckey interprets this text. He says “The King will judge us and give us hell. He will show us the suffering, starving children. We will feel their pain with terrible regret and remorse as we relive those missed opportunities to love and help others.
The King will show us all the times we’ve failed to do God’s will, and the goat’s horns will weigh heavy on our heads.

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve – The king will look at you and me and say,
‘You who have full cupboards are truly hungry, I will feed you.’
‘You who dress well are truly naked, I will clothe you.’
‘You who have lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison, I will set you free.’

The king will give us back our lives, judged on the basis of our deeds but sentenced on the basis of grace.”

The same king who says “Father Forgive them,” the king who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, including yours and mine. Thanks be to God.

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A Wise Heart


While meditating on Psalm 90 again today my ears were tickled by verse 12: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Other translations say “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” What does it mean to have a wise heart? Conditioned as our western minds are by Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” philosophy that locates the seat of knowledge in the head, the notion of a wise heart seems anatomically incorrect.

Perhaps even attempting to discuss such a concept from a rational-logical mindset is the height of foolishness, but so be it. The traditional Psalm (51) read on Ash Wednesday also speaks of the heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” And later it says, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” That Psalm is often understood as King David’s plea for God’s mercy after his sins of adultery and murder are exposed to him by the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12). While that connection helps us appreciate the depth of David’s need for repentance and forgiveness, the danger is that if we interpret that Psalm in too narrow a historical context we can deflect its relevance to our own hearts.

We have 20/20 when it comes to seeing the speck in David’s eye. If anyone needed to have a contrite heart it is he—a wealthy, powerful ruler who abuses his position to take whatever he wants without regard to the rights of others. But lent is a time to look in the mirror and see the logs in our own eyes. Where have I fallen short of the glory of God? Where have I failed to love my neighbors as myself? Where have I failed to treat the least of my sisters and brothers as I would treat Christ himself? (Matthew 25).

The biblical record is crystal clear about humility as a key virtue of a faithful person. Micah plainly says that what God requires of us is “to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (6:8). Second Isaiah describes the Messiah as a suffering servant, and Jesus teaches by word and action that “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12). How many of us ever aspired to be someone’s servant when we grow up? Lent’s a great time to wrestle with those hard questions.

The wise heart is a humble heart, but what about that reference to a broken heart in Psalm 51? Anyone, and everyone has, known the pathos of a broken heart—a rejection or abandonment by the person one’s world revolves around. The death of beloved pet or a lifelong dream shattered. We all know of stories or have personal experience of a spouse literally dying of a broken heart when a life-long partner dies. I still remember the poignant opening lines of the 1970’s movie “Love Story”: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” Why would a loving God wish that kind of pain on us?

We don’t have to blame suffering on God to appreciate its depth or its universality. Loss and suffering are built into the human condition because this life is fragile and temporary. Psalm 90:10 reminds us of that just before the line about a wise heart. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” And I don’t quote those to be a Debbie Downer, they are just honest words about life and death that wise hearts learn to accept and embrace.

A wise heart that has known sorrow and is willing to face it head on instead of dodging in denial and distraction is a heart that is compassionate. It is a heart that leaves the comfort of complacency and works for justice for those who are oppressed. It is a heart that loves the unlovable with a simple gesture that needs no words.
They say wisdom comes with age but I don’t believe that age is prerequisite for having a wise heart. The wise hearts of children who have not yet learned the stereotypes or prejudices of their elders are the kind of wise and humble hearts God gives us all, and sometimes little children are the best at teaching us how to be.

Two stories come to mind. A mother saw her young son sitting on the front porch with an elderly neighbor who had recently been widowed. Bobby was there for 30 minutes or so, and when he came back home his mother asked him what he and Mr. Brown had talked about. Bobby said, “Oh, we didn’t talk. I just sat there and helped him cry.”

The other is more philosophical and illustrates the beauty of deep knowledge that weds both heart and head. A pilgrim asked a wise old guru, “When is the moment when I can tell the darkness from the dawn? Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog? “ “No,” said the wise one. “Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?” The guru shook his head and after a silence said, “When you can look into the eyes of another human being and say ‘You are my sister; you are my brother’ that is the dawn. Until then there is only darkness.”

O God of grace and wisdom, help us to count these holy days of Lent that we may gain humble, wise and compassionate hearts. Forgive any pride, judgment, and arrogance you find within me, and may I open myself completely to you so you can “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Amen

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

Patience and Perspective: Why Thanksgiving and Advent Matter More than Ever

“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” Psalm 90:4

The joke says “Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes wisdom comes alone.” There’s some truth in that, but as one who is learning the hard way, I can attest that age does come with some perspective and experience. I am going to resist the temptation to do a general rant about the rush to Santa Claus that turns the time between Halloween and December 25 into a blur. But I do regret the de-emphasis of Thanksgiving and Advent. We need more than ever times of gratitude and patience in this anxious age of instant gratification that doesn’t satisfy. Gratitude and patience are what Thanksgiving and Advent are all about, or should be.

I heard from several disenchanted voters and analysts of all persuasions that the recent election was all about a desire for change because of voter frustration with the current political situation. While I understand that sentiment and agree that much of what goes on in government is corrupt and broken, I was struck by a phrase I heard several times from Millennials and Gen Xers who said “nothing has changed in 50 years.”

I can’t begin to address the solution to what’s ailing our democratic system, but since I’ve voted in the last 13 Presidential elections beginning in 1968 I do feel somewhat qualified to address what’s changed in the last 50 years. In the 90th Congress, elected in 1966, there were only 11 women in the House of Representatives and 1 in the Senate. In this year’s election those numbers are 83 in the House and 21 in the Senate. I have not found exact data on racial minorities for 90th Congress, but one source said there were fewer than 10 until 1969. By contrast the new Congress in 2017 will have the greatest racial diversity in the history of the republic – 102 members of color in the House and 10 in the Senate. Those numbers equal an 867% increase for women and 1120% for racial minorities in the last 50 years.

Does that mean we have achieved equality in D.C. or in our nation? Of course not; we all know we are a very long way from achieving the high ideals of “liberty and justice for all” that we all profess to believe in, but where we are today on the long journey to equality for all is a far cry from saying nothing’s changed in 50 years.
There are many examples of progress toward social justice if we take time to look for them, and gratitude requires an intentional commitment to focus our attention on what there is to be thankful for, especially in this 24/7 news cycle and social media world where we are bombarded with mostly bad news constantly and can overreact to something and make it viral before bothering to check it’s veracity. Isn’t it interesting that the word “viral” comes from a term that used to mean something contagious that makes us sick?

We can all do something about the virus of untrue and biased information besides just complaining. There have been times in the last 2 weeks that I have simply had to turn off the TV and all my devices (de-vices?) to keep from being overwhelmed and depressed about the “news” coming at me from all directions. A fast from consuming the viral spread of anger, hate and fear is good preventative health from time to time. Perhaps more importantly, we can all stop and verify information before we spread it around by reposting or retweeting. Social media makes it far too easy to just hit a button and spread a virus before we have time to evaluate the information and its source. In the heat of political conflict it is not always easy to remember that, but if we would all pause and reflect on what the consequences might be and how images and words might affect others who become our unintended audience when we hit that button we can all help in a small way to heal the growing divisions in our nation and world. If we aren’t part of the solution we are part of the problem, and if we aren’t helping create positive change in our nation we shouldn’t expect our elected leaders to do it for us.

Mr. Rogers’ has been quoted a lot lately about “looking for the helpers” in a bad situation. Please, in this week of overeating and overshopping and overfootballing, let’s all take time to look for the positive signs of change in our world and be thankful. To do that requires backing up to get a better perspective on the big picture instead of focusing entirely on our problems. Yes, health care costs and jobs and our own civil liberties are important, and we must keep working as fast and justly as possible to change those situations. But to do so requires patience and perseverance and an appreciation of how far we’ve already come. The big picture gives us a better perspective on progress while at the same time reminding us that there are millions of other people in the world who are homeless and refugees and orphans, addicted and incarcerated that we must not ever forget. From Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in Genesis 4 to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” to Jesus in the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10), God’s answer is “What you do to the least of these you do to me.” (Matt. 25)

As we have seen this week in the Trump vs. Hamilton tweet storm, artists and artistic works have great power to give us a glimpse of the bigger picture. Good drama and fiction can transport us out of our own swamp of alligators for a time and move us emotionally in ways that pure “facts” or logical arguments never will. It is no coincidence that the musical “Hamilton” celebrating diversity has taken Broadway by storm in this season of division and bigotry. And it is likewise no coincidence that the movie “Loving” began showing in theaters 4 days before the 2016 election. I haven’t seen it yet, but “Loving” is based on a landmark Supreme Court case, yes 50 years ago, in 1967. It’s the story of Mildred and Richard Loving who were sentenced to prison for violating a Virginia law against interracial marriage. In a unanimous decision (imagine that?) the US Supreme Court ruled that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Yes, a great deal has changed in the last 50 years, and much of it for the better. But here’s where patience and Advent come into play, and the turmoil and anxiety about what a Trump presidency may do to impede the cause of justice and equality only underscores this point. We’re not sure who actually coined the phrase “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” but it is certainly true. A major reason for the necessity of patience and vigilance in our democratic system is that what is seen as progress by some is always seen as a threat to others. The balance between individual liberty and universal justice is in constant tension, and that tension is usually part of the creative process. When the tension becomes bitter and partisan, when one or both sides want to be right more than they want justice for all, when the tension becomes more like a competitive tug-of-war instead of a cooperative teeter totter the tension can become destructive. We have had cycles of both productive and destructive tension throughout our history, and keeping the total picture in mind helps us to be patient with the process and not resort to oppressive or violent means to demand change to get our way.

The truth of the matter is that some people, not all, who voted for Trump and Pence under the banner of change do not want change at all. That minority of white voters really want to undo the changes we’ve made in the last 50 or 100 years that don’t benefit their privileged status. The reality is that in addition to seasons of gratitude and patience the USA desperately needs a season of reflection and repentance to remember all of our history. Only when we admit that this nation was built on a foundation of racism and genocide can we appreciate how far we’ve come and why we’ve got so far to go before “liberty and justice” for all is more than a pious platitude.

The struggle we are now in for the heart and soul of our democracy is so difficult because it is so old and so deeply ingrained in our history and DNA that we don’t recognize it. We learn at an early age about the early European immigrants coming to America in search of liberty and freedom, but most of our schools, families, churches and other civic organizations fail to teach white Americans the rest of our history. We don’t learn about the evils of slavery or we naively think it is a nasty little problem that was resolved by President Lincoln. We don’t learn about the founding fathers being slave holders. We don’t learn about the rape and pillage of Native American lands from people who were here for centuries before the first Europeans “discovered” America.

Why? Because our parents and their parent before them didn’t learn those lessons either because to learn the whole truth about who we really are is too painful. But ignorance is more painful in the long run. Without knowing our past we are condemned to repeat it generation after generation. Our lack of knowledge and the successful use of fearmongering racist tactics to win an election are an indictment of our education system, but even more they are an indictment of the church of Jesus Christ for being co-opted into a conspiracy of silence instead of proclaiming a John the Baptist Gospel of repentance for our sins. John and Jesus told it like it really is. Contrary to Jack Nicholson’s famous line in “A Few Good Men,” not only can we handle the truth only truth and the whole truth can set us free. As Frederick Buechner said so well in “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale,” “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.”

Ironically the bad news of the Gospel and of our current political state is something that we should be thankful for. I’m not one bit thankful for hatred and racism ever, but as one commentator pointed out nothing new happened on November 8. The anger and divisions have always been a part of our history, clear back at least to the Continental Congress. The silver lining in the Trump election is that the dark underbelly of hate and anger is out in the open where it can be dealt with.

The struggle for liberty and justice is never easy, but when we look at the big picture and understand why change is so hard and how long it has been going on, we can appreciate and be thankful for the progress we’ve made; and we can be confidently patient that from God’s perspective the outcome of the battle between justice and evil is not in doubt. The road to justice is not linear but full of curves and detours and switchbacks, but we have a roadmap from a God who is always on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden. Justice probably won’t happen in our time, but because we also live in God’s time where a thousand years are but as yesterday, we live in gratitude and hope even as we continue to wait and work for liberty and justice for all.

The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

Walls or Bridges?

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!” Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

O God of unity, forgive our walls made of concertina wire. Forgive our walls of fear and hate, fortified with ideology and suspicion. Forgive our scarcity mentality that hoards life and refuses refuge to the homeless and hopeless. Remind us again that we are to treat the sojourner and alien in our midst as one of us because we are all one human family, that how we treat the least of our sisters and brothers is how we treat you.

The need is overwhelming, but your love oh God is boundless and unconditional. Renew our faith that all things are possible with you; swing wide the gates of our hearts and empower us with your Holy Spirit to build bridges of hope instead of ugly walls. Amen.

Let Justice and Righteousness Flow

Many advocates of church growth argue that politics and controversial social justice issues should be kept out of church pulpits and classrooms because they will produce conflict and drive prospective church members away. The resulting prosperity gospel/cheap grace messages may indeed increase attendance in the short run. Praise services that resemble rock concerts more than worship services entertain attendees and may produce a feeling of spiritual euphoria, but do they also challenge participants to examine their lives, confess their sins, individual and corporate, and deepen their faith in ways that address human need in relevant and effective ways? That seems to me a question the Jesus I know would want us to ask ourselves regularly.

Those who argue that political and social issues don’t belong in church simply have not taken seriously the Hebrew prophets, the liberation history of God’s people from slavery and political oppression, nor Jesus’ own confrontation of the powers and principalities of Rome and the established religious authorities of his day.
A clergy colleague of mine told me recently about his experience at a 50th high school reunion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Asked to offer a prayer before the reunion dinner, he took the opportunity to reflect briefly on how much the world had changed since he and his classmates had graduated. Among other things he pointed out that the total population of the world has doubled in the last half century. So far so good, but then as they say he stopped preaching and went to meddling. He said, “That means there are a lot more poor people in the world that we who have been blessed with a good life and good education need to be concerned about.” While some of his classmates appreciated that observation, many others were upset and expressed anger that he had spoiled their celebration by asking them to think about unpleasant things.

I don’t know what my friend said in reply, but here’s what the Hebrew prophet Amos says God would say to them: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).

The Hebrew word for justice is “mishpat,” a much more inclusive term than what we often mean by our English use of the word “justice.” We have departments of justice, and we talk about justice being served or people getting their just desserts, all of which are about retributive justice or retribution, i.e. getting even for a wrong that has been committed against a person or society. The Judeo-Christian concept of justice, however, is also about distributive justice, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of life’s necessities to all of God’s children. Those necessities include not just material items required for survival, but basic human rights. It is both kinds of justice that human nature at its best strives for in memorable words to live by like “liberty and justice for all” in our U.S. pledge of allegiance and in Jesus’ Golden Rule encouraging us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” (Matthew 7:12).

Like all important matters, concern for justice requires balance. Many years ago I heard Bishop Peter Storey from South Africa preach a sermon on the need for a balanced approach to theology and how we do church. His advice is even more relevant 30 years later. The image he used that has stuck with me all these years was of a bird with one wing. He said that a church that emphasizes either evangelism or the social gospel to the exclusion of the other is like a bird with one wing that simply goes around in circles.

As main line churches decline in membership at a frightening rate there is understandable concern for the survival of the church. But concern must not be allowed to grow into panic that clouds judgment. Desperate people do desperate things, and far too many desperate churches and church leaders water down the gospel to the point of irrelevance in an ill-advised attempt to survive and “grow.” My mother used to say that the church is only one generation from extinction, and while there is some wisdom to that observation, Amos reminds us that God is more concerned about the quality of our faithfulness to God’s will than the quantity of church members or the size of our church buildings or budgets.

Church growth advocates will argue correctly that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed to the vast numbers of people in our nation and world who have not heard or have not responded to it, but it is the whole Gospel that is needed, not the one-winged bird of either extreme in the theological debate between liberal and conservatives within the church. All of us, regardless of our theological or political convictions need a personal relationship with God that casts out our fears in whatever form they take. That’s the assurance of personal salvation for all eternity offered in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the first meaning of the cross and the foundation of Christian faith upon which the rest of the household of faith must be built. But the foundation of a house is not a whole house, just a necessary first step in a much larger process.

Assurance of eternal life is such a powerful promise that the temptation to embrace that gift and stop there on our faith journey is very strong. The desire for heavenly peace alone is the false hope and danger that Amos points out for those who are eagerly awaiting “the day of the Lord.” In a classic “be careful what you wish for” warning, Amos offers these ominous words: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” (5:18-19).

Why such harsh condemnation? Read the earlier chapters of Amos to understand why Amos believes God has lost all patience with Israel and other nations for their disobedience to God’s will and especially their unjust treatment of the poor. Is Amos exaggerating to get Israel’s attention? Is he like an exasperated parent who loves a wayward child so much and fears for his/her well-being so deeply that emotions overflow?

Context is always critical in Scriptural interpretation. The Hebrew understanding of the nature of God in the 8th century BCE was far more legalistic and judgmental than the God of grace Jesus proclaims 800 years later. But let us not be lulled into a cheap grace sense of complacency by an overreliance on God’s mercy. I am as grateful as anyone that the God revealed in the New Testament grades on a curve, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Gospel makes very serious demands on anyone who wants to follow Jesus.

Amos warning that a just and righteous life is expected of us is not discounted by Jesus in the least. Jesus invites any disciple to “take up a cross and follow me” (Luke 14:27). The cross of the resurrection is also the cross of sacrifice and service on behalf of God’s kingdom and God’s children here and now. (The examples of what this looks like in Jesus’ teachings are too numerous to mention here, but would certainly include the difficult standards of loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:43, Lk. 6:27), turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39), forgiving 70 x7 (Mt. 18:22), “what you do to the least of these you do unto me. (Mt. 25:45), and if someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well (Mt. 5:40).

Righteousness is the other quality demanded by God in Amos 5:24. Righteousness means being in a right relationship with God and all creation. That’s raising the bar very high. In fact none of us gets there. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God” (Mk. 10:18 & Romans 3:10). So if Jesus can’t even meet that standard, what hope is there for the likes of you and me? Are we asked to do the impossible? That would be an unjust request, and we do not serve an unjust God. It’s also why we all stand in the need of grace. But what it absolutely does not mean is that we throw up our hands and give up. Our own human limitations are not an excuse for ignoring the hard parts of the Gospel but a reminder that we can and must do better than we are doing when justice and righteousness are but a trickle instead of an everflowing stream.

We Americans live in the richest nation in the history of the world and in one where 10% of the people control 75% of wealth. No one but the 10% could possibly consider that just. President Kennedy once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible we make violent revolution inevitable.” We are seeing rumblings of such revolution today in the streets of Hong Kong. Students of history know about labor riots inspired by injustice in our own country in the 1890s (Google the Haymarket riot or the Pullman strike, or Coxey’s Army). Our economic history is like a roller coaster of bust and boom cycles because we fail repeatedly to learn the lessons Amos was warning us about 3000 years ago.

Someone smarter than I will have to figure out the economic and political details, but what I do know is that as long as the driving values of our lives are comfort and prosperity and not justice and righteousness, we’d better not be longing for the day of the Lord/judgment day/the second coming.