Thursday, November 15, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Politcal Parties and Truth Claims

Voting for a Lost Cause--Political Parties and Truth Claims


"How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God.



Today, I want to look at the third of three of those stumbling blocks--Political Parties and Truth Claims.



In Mark 12: 18-27, good religious folks called Sadducees ask a question about Jesus. The question is reminiscent of "what if" questions by children, who, at every answer, say, "Yeah, but what if...?" The Sadducees present this scenario. "There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her."



In Jesus' response, he redefined resurrection. C. Clifton Black, in his commentary on Mark printed by Abingdon Press, paraphrases Jesus’ response this way. Resurrection is not about which husband gets to dance with his wife in heaven. Instead, resurrection is an announcement that God has the power to remain steadfast to his people both in life and in death.



Now, it is important to remember that in Jesus' day, there was disagreement about resurrection. While the Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees did not. The battle between the parties was for who was right about this claim of resurrection. The battle--which party held the truth in their teaching.



We have the same battle today. Does one party--Democrat or Republican--have the claim to the truth? Does one ideology--Progressive or Conservative--have the claim to the truth? The answer, No. Neither the Democratic or Republican platform fully embody the Word of God. Neither those who are Progressive or those who are Conservative and their ideologies fully embody the Word of God. There is a depth, breadth, and transcendence about the Word of God that cannot be embodied in one platform or ideology.


In the Democratic system of government, the decisions our legislative bodies make are, as Robert Jenson writes in Christian Dogmatics, a functional solution, supported by the majority of people, that may or may not be moral. The battle between Democrats and Republicans; the battle between Progressives and Conservatives is not a battle for truth, as they would claim, but for the power to express, through the political system, their world view and approaches to understanding people, nature, and the cosmos.



In this, we find the stumbling block, blurring the lines between the battle for power and control to assert a world view and holding onto the truth which is not ours to hold, but is revealed to us--as Mark would write, "by the Father."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause--Government as the Solution

Voting for a Lost Cause--Government as the Solution


"How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God?


Today, I want to look at one of those stumbling blocks--Government as the solution.



In Mark 12: 13-17, we read that some Pharisees and some Herodians approach Jesus. They offer their regards, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth." They then ask Jesus this question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" In one of the more commonly known answers from scripture, Jesus states--in accordance with the truth--"Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God's."



In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, C.  Clifton Black writes, "Caesar receives his due, but not more than that. For Caesar and God are neither identical nor inter-changeable."



In the way that the question was shaped, Jesus was offered a limited choice between theocracy or worship of the empire. The choice appears to be clear, a faithful person will choose a nation that has God at the helm. The assumption is that a godly nation will be a prosperous nation. The richness of Israel's story says otherwise. We see the rebellion of Israel in calling for an earthly king similar to the nations around them. As a result, Saul was crowned king leading to a subsequent "civil war" between Saul and David. At times, God's people suffered at the hands of other empires, but at other times, God works through seeming "ungodly" nations and leaders, such as Cyril, even using the term Messiah for them.



No system of government fully embodies the reign of God.  Neither a government nor a governmental leader at all times and in all places speaks for and acts on God's behalf. We can lean toward a pietistic resignation of our situation, or we can lean toward political idolatry. To each of us, Jesus names, in sincerity and truth, our stumbling block. Government is not a replacement for the reign of God. It is the breaking in of the reign of God that transforms the world and impacts the situation of each person.

Voting for a Lost Cause--Tripping over Ritual

Voting for a Lost Cause--Tripping Over Religious Ritual


In my last blog, the question was asked, "How far are you from the kingdom of God?" This question is based on the claim Jesus made of the scribe questioning him in Mark 12. Jesus states, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Not far appears to indicate, not quite there. That leads me to ask a second question. What are the stumbling blocks that keep this Scribe from the kingdom of God.



Today, I want to look at one of those stumbling blocks--chiefly, religious ritual.



Previously, in Mark 12, Jesus had good rapport with the Scribe. In Mark 12: 38-40, it appears that Jesus reverses course. In this text, Jesus offers warnings about the Scribes. They like to wear long robes in public, assume places of honor, and offer long winded prayers for the attention it receives from others. The question becomes "Why?" Why does Jesus reverse course. To get to that answer, we must go to the gloss [added on commentary] on the teaching he made on the greatest commandments. Jesus adds this, "This greatest commandment of the Torah is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." Whole burnt offerings and sacrifices are what priests offer in the Temple.



We find 2 pieces that can move us along in the answer. First, while teaching in the temple, Jesus asserts that the Messiah is Lord of David--claiming the authority of the Messiah. Earlier in Mark, Jesus defines himself as the Messiah. Second, the first verses of chapter 13 of  Mark has Jesus announce the destruction of the temple. With the destruction of the temple, and the claim of the authority of the Messiah, Jesus calls for a change of devotion. Devotion is moved from the offerings and sacrifices offered in the temple to a life of discipleship, following Jesus as the Messiah. Being a disciple and following Jesus is loving God with all heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God completely leads us to love others as dearly as those who are most precious to us.



This is the stumbling block. No religious ritual, no matter how honorable, can come close to fulfilling the commandment of loving God.



It is important for us to recall that Israel not only believed that God spoke to them, but that they could stand in the presence of God. Standing in the presence of the Almighty One, the Holy One required the purity of the supplicant. Around this desire for purity came the practices--rituals of cleansing--that prepared a person to be in the presence of God. The risk of practices--of rituals--is that the practices take on more meaning than the reality to which they point. The priority of purity, over being in the presence of God, is the potential pitfall. An establishment gathers and is created around the need for purity. Establishments soon strive to be self-perpetuating. Supplicants become seen as means to support the ongoing work of the establishment. Ritual practices, then, take on a call for conformity, requiring its adherents to fulfill the obligations of the establishment. Those who do not are diminished as unclean and unfaithful--sinners to use theological language.



Religious practices create a population of people that are homogeneous. Religious practices regulate by determining who is in, who is out, who is to be honored, and who is to be shamed. In doing so, those who are invited to stand in the presence of God, may be ostracized for not fulfilling the obligations of the establishment--in the case of this text, the temple cult.



In our own faith communities, we are challenged to be ask, "Do our worshipping communities look like the world in which we live?"



Follow the rules, or follow Jesus. One is close to the kingdom of God, the other is part of the kingdom of God.


Biblical commentary resources are by C. Clifton Black in his commentary on Mark, published by Abingdon Press, Nashville.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Voting for a Lost Cause

Voting for a Lost Cause


As a disclaimer, I want to point out that this title for the sermon on Sunday, November 11 was chosen prior to the election on November 6.


The text for the sermon is Mark 12: 38-44. I want to propose that at the center of this text is the question, "How close are you to the kingdom of God?"


Leading up to verses 38 to 44, we read in chapter 12 of Mark that Jesus is approached by good religious folks like the Chief Priests, Elders, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. Finally, we have a scribe approach Jesus. Unlike the trap questions from the other religious folks, this scribe asks a genuine question, "Which commandment is first of all?"


Jesus answers, first by  quoting the Shema, "Hear, O Israel". In his answer, he speaks of One God. Israel is to show the fullness of love to God with heart, life, strength, and intelligence. Then, Jesus makes this connection. Given to loving God fully in this way leads one to love strangers in the same way one loves his or her dearest friends.


His answer is orthodox and consistent with Rabbinic writings of later decades. The scribe compliments Jesus' answer.


To the scribe, Jesus responds, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Thus, the root of the question asked above, "How far are you from the kingdom of God?"


If he is not far, but still not there, what is the stumbling block?


So, to answer the question, "How far is God's kingdom from you?" we must use our spiritual imaginations to recognize the stumbling blocks. These stumbling blocks can be discovered by reviewing the questions asked of Jesus by the religious leaders earlieer in chapter 12 of Mark.


The blogs this week will look at these stumbling blocks:


1. Religious ritual, intended to prepare one to be in the presence of God, can become a way of keeping the faith community insulated from the diversity of the world.


2. We can fall into the trap of believing that the American system of government is the fullest expression of God's kingdom, but can the two be considered identical?


3. Our ideological battles can lead us to conclude that our world view is the fullest expression of the Word of God. Put into play in the political system, these ideologies have the capacity of conviction through the law, but not conversion of the heart.


We will conclude the week by looking at the move from sitting and critiquing systems, to being a converted person whose faithful presence changes the system in which the person finds him or herself.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Where Is Heaven? When Is Heaven?

Where Is Heaven? When Is Heaven?


What do we do when all human capacity is exhausted? Are we willing to allow for the possibility that a divine power breaks into the reality of our systems? In the story of our people, the divine power that breaks into our systems is called God, LORD, revealed through Jesus Christ. With the presence of God, there is a metaphysics. For us, that metaphysics is called heaven.


The commonly held belief is that heaven is a place, and thus we ask, "Where is heaven?" When we ask that question, too often our reflection is upon: Who gets into heaven? What must one do to get into heaven?  Will those with whom I disagree or those that offend me be rejected from heaven? We ask what is right, what is wrong, and replace faith with what Professor Willie Jennings from Duke Divinity School calls "ethical oughts."


I want to put forth the possiblity that heaven is a time as well as a place. We can then ask a second question, "When is heaven?" At the point of asking that question, we can follow up by asking, What will God do when heaven happens?"


Some scriptural references to the concept of heaven being a time as well as a place include:

-Now is the acceptable time.

-Now is the day of salvation.

-The day of Lord.

-Jesus, "I go ahead [future] of you o prepare you a place."

-The phrase eternal life connotes an aeon, age, epoch.

When we add the image from revelation of the Holy City being established on earth, then the vision for the future is when God's kingdom is established here on earth.


When we allow the possibility of heaven being a time, we allow room for the following ideas:


Walter Brueggeman writes that "God is unwilling to go the whole way with creation...God cannot tolerate this possibility for God has too much at stake in creation...God's grace continues to mean something." See Genesis 6: 7 and 8 for an illustration of this belief. So, while, in times of disaster, we can believe all has come to an end, there is yet "to dawn a more glorious day" of restoration.


If the future holds the power of God at work in restoring creation to something even greater that before, then we must ask ourselves, "Do we look far enough into the future?" In the midst of the passion, despair, fear, and angst of a calamity, our sight lines are short. Perhaps, we do not look far enough into the future. Perhaps, then, we can be motivated by a vision of the future more so than a fear of the future because we are no doing what we ought. Inspiration can come through vision instead of motivation through despair.


Allowing room for heaven to be a time as well as a place opens up the possiblity for theology and science to have a conversation. Rev. George Murphy writes of what is called the Final Anthropic Principle. The principle states, "Intelligent information--processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out." Murphy goes on to write, "Those who espouse FAP assume that life will evolve toward ever greater knowledge and control of the universe...The most extreme of these ideas is Frank Tipler's 'Omega Point' theory, which claims to predict, purely on the basis of physics, the coming into being of an omnipotent God and the resurrection to eternal life of all who have ever lived in the ultimate future of the universe."

When we ask "When is heaven?" The answer is the source of hope and inspriation.

Where Is Heaven? Guilt and Shame

Where Is Heaven? Guilt and Shame.


In Psalm 39, we read And now, what is my hope? O Lord, my hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions and do not make me the taunt of the fool. I fell silent and did not open my mouth, for surely it was you that did it. Take your affliction from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand. With rebukes for sin you punish us; like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us; truly, everyone is but a puff of wind. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears.



In a blog earlier this week, I lifted up the story of our people that holds that God, as ruler of all, has conquered the power of chaos. Yet, we also read that on occasion the power of chaos rears its ugly head. At those times, our people look evil in the eye and challenge God to intervene.



Our ancestors in the faith give room for another understanding of God and the power of chaos. This understanding holds that God has conquered the power of chaos, and at times of dire necessity, God uses the power of chaos for divine purposes. Chiefly, God uses the power of chaos as consequences for the sins committed by God's people. This belief is expressed powerfully and painfully in the excerpt from Psalm 39 used above. And, God uses the power of chaos to test people. This belief is expressed in stories such as that of Job. Walter Brueggeman raises this concept in his work and draws the conclusion that "Israel can live with this view of God and is neither in wonder or embarassment about it.



I urge readers to visit some of the following passages from Scripture: Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 45:7; Job 40: 15-24 and 41: 1-34. Also, please see Leviticus 26: 16, 23-25, 28.



In our time, this concept of God is terribly difficult to accept by many, and I fear, many times pushes people away from God. To help unpack this belief of God using the power of chaos, I want to draw a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt, in scripture, is a legal term and connotes that a person has broken the law and stands convicted of that crime. Shame, however, is a feeling that is ever present in human life. Shame can accompany a guilty act ( I am both guilty of breaking the law and ashamed of myself for doing so.) but, shame can also speak about the overwhelming feeling we have that takes responsibility for actions and consequences that are not our fault. (I witness a man slip on ice on a sidewalk at distance from where I am standing and ask myself repeatedly througout the day why I did not do more.)



The poet, Wendell Berry captures the essence of shame.


The times are disgusting enough,

surely, for those who long for peace

and truth. But self-disgust

also is an injury; the coming

of bodily uncertainity with age

and wear, forgetfulness of things

that ought to be remembered,

remembrance of things best forgot.

Forgive this fragmentary life.



If we accept the story of our people, we have a deeper expression of faith that gives us the strength to face making difficult decisions that include risk to self and pain to others. We have a deeper expression of faith that helps us live the reality of one person losing a house in a hurricane while ours is still standing.


The most difficult challenge this belief poses is a challange to human capcity. It challenges the trust we have in our systems and our capacity to cope through ingenuity, resolve, and mustered inspriation. This belief poses the possibility of a power, a force, a divine presence that is outside the system, that breaks into the system, and has the strength to restore the system. In doing so, we are reminded of our weaknesses, our failures, and our temptation to put trust in powers that cannot conquer death. We, as Christians, call the divine presence God. The metaphysics that come with this belief is called heaven.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Where Is Heaven? A Divine Wrestling Match

Where is Heaven? A Divine Wrestling Match


Along with a faith life being portrayed as a runner in training and a boxer conditioning, the faith life is portrayed as a wrestling match. Jacob takes on God in an all night wrestling match. Our faith story shows us times when we wrestle with God.


When turning to our faith story, we find a people who trust that God is ruler of all creation. God has subdued the power of chaos. Yet, at times, this chaotic power rears its ugly head. In its wake, we find destruction.


Walter Brueggeman speaks of this power in his book An Unsettling God. Much like a strong man who has been captured but continues his taunts, the power of chaos threatens creation. This power, Brueggeman shows, can come into being through the action of an unfaithful leader. In the story of slavery in Egypt, we read about the actions of Pharaoh leading to a series of plagues that grew in severity.


The image of the strong man appears also in Mark 3: 20-30. It is as if a strong man breaks into our home. We are able to subdue the strong man, but have not gagged him. He sits, restrained but taunting, hoping that his taunts will bring about fear that leads to some action on our part that would set him free.


Now there is a tendency among some to blame the destruction of Hurricane Sandy on choices people or leaders in our country have made. Before the accusations land on a person or certain people, I want to call our attention back to the section of Mark in which we speak about the strong man. Mark follows this account with the challenge of the blasphemy of the spirit. Simply put, be cautious of calling that which is good, evil and that which is evil, good.


Perhaps we should ask, "What do we want this storm to be?" An answer that leads us toward that blasphemy warrants caution.


Brueggeman also speaks about the suffering of people due to the power of chaos. This concept is found in many Psalms of Complaint. Psalm 30: 7-11 reads, "While I felt secure, I said, I shall never be disturbed. You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains. Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear. I cried to you, Lord; I pleaded with the Lord, saying, What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; O Lord, be my helper."


We hear the words of Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus himself picked up this cry at his death on the cross.


Appears, at times, that God is inattentive. In those moments, the power of chaos shows forth. God's people have done nothing wrong, but suffer from the inattentiveness of God.


At those times, God's people "take God on." Listen to the words of Mary, after the death of Lazarus, "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died."


There is room to wrestle with God. We wrestle with God in trust. Trusting that God will hear our complaints and cries for help, and be our helper. Throughout Scripture, we find a God who is not distant, but hears the cries of His people.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Where Is Heaven? Disruption!

Where is Heaven? Disruption! On Sunday evening, October 28th, I felt the muscles in my shoulder blades become more tense. This tightness slowly went from my shoulder blades, to my shoulders, to the back of my neck. The end result, a "Skuller." A skuller is what my mother in law would call a bad headache. Stretching my neck muscles, using a heating pad (which made me feel quite geriatric), and Advil did not solve the problem. Only after I awoke two mornings later, Tuesday morning, when my family had come through Hurricane Sandy unscathed, did I notice the tension wash away. No trees had come down. The electricity stayed on. With eletricity, the sump pump continued to work, so no flooded basement like during Irene and Lee--with 3 feet of water in my basement. So, while the shoulder and neck pain may have been due in part to the last minute clearing of the gutters on my house, more than likely it was related to the anticipated disruption of Hurricane Sandy. I trust in a world that is orderly and a world that has integrity. In its order, the world can be described in scientific terms, classified, understood at smaller and smaller levels. Ecosystems, at their ideal, allow all parts of the system to be fruitful. In integrity, there is the point where one life form ends and another begins; there is the point where water and land separate; there is a point where membrane separates one cell from another. Yet, this orderly world, in all its integrity, finds itself at times disrupted. Chaos exerts itself over order. The integrity of one form--body, land, cell--is violated by another. Hurricance Sandy was such a disruption. We can certainly turn to our remarkable human capacity to weather the storm. I am thankful to our local television stations, WGAL, for their outstanding warnings, coverage, and follow-up from the storm. I am thankful for government officials and first responders, leaving care of home to a spouse, to watch over others. I am thankful to colleagues who open their buildings for emergency shelter. We have the capacity as humans to be prepared through anticiaption. We have the capacity as humans to ride out the storm. We have the capacity as humans to recover from the storm. As people of faith, with this remarkable human capacity, we have a metaphysics that is laid over these disruptions. To grasp this metaphysics, we go to the stories of our people as recorded in Scripture. These stories call to light many thoughts, but this week, I want to focus on the following: First, in this world, while we believe God reigns supreme, there is a force--Karl Barth calls is the force of nothingness--that brings about chaos from order, an undoing of creation. Our relationship with God is shaped by the power of this force. I will take a look at this in Tuesday's blog. Second, much harder for us to hear, Scripture shows us that at times, God, Himself, in the source of the undoing and move toward nothingness. This very much challenges our modern mindset which clouds the difference between being guilty and being ashamed. I will take a look at this in Wednesday's blog. Third, our metaphysics is commonly expressed through what we call heaven. The questions quickly becomes, "Where is heaven?" I want to consider the possiblity that heaven is not only a place, but also a time--an eternal age, if you will--and how that may impact our response to the disruptions of order and integrity in our lives. I will write about this in Thursday's blog. Fourth, if heaven is a time, as well as a place, then there are new avenues opened for our understanding of the present moment in our lives. I will take a look at three possilible avenues in my Friday blog--1. The final outcome of the world, 2. Looking far enough into the future, 3. A connecting point for theology and science.