Friday, November 30, 2012

A Daddy's Love Letter To His Daughter

Until I became a father in June of 2011, I never really thought too much about the passing of time. I have lived for thousands of days, and as I am a mere 41 years old as I write this it is reasonable to assume that I will live for many thousand more. Some always stand out as special, such as anniversaries, reunions, birthdays and holidays, but overall life was a long string of days passing as they would, and I never concerned myself too much with counting them. 

That all changed when my daughter, Riley Diane Ingram, was born just four days before my own birthday in late June. All of a sudden I had a daily reminder that time was passing, as each and every day I saw noticeable changes in my amazing little girl. Perhaps the fact that her birth coincided with the high school graduations of my two oldest nieces, with whom I have always been very close, but I suddenly became acutely aware of the passage of time. It was hard to believe that the two little girls whom I loved so much were no longer little girls at all, but young women going out into the world on their own. It was even harder to believe that my own little girl would one day do the same.

And so each passing day, each passing hour, really, has become an event. I take careful notice of every little change that occurs daily, knowing that these moments are the most precious of my life. I know that one day I will do as my sisters now do, and long for one more day of my daughter as a little girl. I try to keep that in mind as my business and responsibilities threaten my time with my girl, and I try to remember that nothing is as important as every single book I read to her, every tiny little tear I wipe from her cheek and every giggle I elicit by tickling her belly.

These are the things that matter, and they are in altogether too short a supply.

No matter what I do, one day it will happen. One day my precious little angel will walk out the door, move into her own space, walk down an aisle with someone she loves, take brave new steps into a world that is nowhere near as reliant on her Daddy as the one she currently occupies. And while those will all be joyous occasions to be celebrated, they will also be days that diminish my heart and my soul in some small way. For as happy as I will be to see her move out into the world and embrace her hopes and dreams, I will also long for these days, when the best thing is the world to her is sitting in her Daddy's lap and reading a storybook or watching Sesame Street.

In the past, my past before Riley, many days were not particularly special. Many came and went without particular notice, just another spot on the calendar to be reached and passed en route to another such day. But now every day is an event, something to be treasured above all other treasures. Each day is an opportunity to see my amazing little girl grow up a little bit more, maybe learn a new word or discover something new in the world. Try as I might, I can't squeeze any more days of Riley's childhood into her life or mine, but I can pledge to do everything in my power to make each day as special and as meaningful as possible for this budding new life.

I hereby make that pledge.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why Republicans Talk About Abortion

First of all, yes, there are a significant number of Americans who are concerned about abortion. Mostly they are concerned about other people possibly having an abortion, but there it is. There are people who honestly feel that abortion is murder, no matter whether it happens five minutes after conception or six months into the pregnancy. It's a polarizing issue, one that almost everyone cares about to one degree or another. That's why every time election season rolls around we are subjected to another round of abortion talk even as the economy founders, Libya is on fire and we fight wars on multiple fronts.

I don't mean to belittle those who are concerned about the lives of children, merely to offer a perspective on why an issue that is really not government business takes center stage during an election year. It may be the ultimate oxymoron that the part of "small government" seems to want to be in on every appointment between a woman and her doctor. Republicans have cow-towed to the extremists from the Tea Party to the extent that they now come out against contraception, seemingly wanting every sexual encounter between a man and a woman to result in a child. As inconceivable as that is, there is a reason why that's the case.

Simply out, Republicans don't want to talk policy when the cameras and recorders are on.

Let's start with education, which is near and dear to my heart both as a former teacher and as someone with a young daughter who will be starting school in a few years. Republicans have already done much to undermine public education, which they don't believe in at all. They don't want government to pay for education on any level because they believe those who deserve a good education can afford to pay for it. They don't seem to understand that the vast majority of Americans are not born with a silver spoon up their butts, and they don't seem to be able to find an inner city school to visit in order to learn a different truth.

Make no mistake, the No Child Left Behind legislation was nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to de-fund public schools, starting with the poorest first. They set a high standard for receiving federal money, without which poor schools cannot function, with standards so high that it's unlikely those poor schools will be able to achieve the necessary academic scores to receive the funding they so desperately depend upon.

The end result? Many poor schools are shut down, meaning the next closest schools are overcrowded. The best teachers leave for richer districts where they can have smaller class sizes and the higher pay that tends to go along with a stronger class of students from more affluent parents. So the students who need the best teachers are stuck with the last people who are actually willing to take the jobs, meaning they are handicapped instead of given the additional help they need.

Enter the voucher system, which would be the final nail in the coffin of poor public schools. A voucher system would allow parents who actually have the money and resources to transport their children to the closest white bread district to do so, thereby leaving only the absolute poorest students to fend for themselves in schools that can't even afford to provide minimal technology or even reasonable qualified staff to work with their students.

This is all according to plan for Republicans, who don't believe in public schools. But the last thing they want to do is go toe-to-toe with a Democrat and defend their position, so they talk about abortion and get the conversation completely off track.

How about the economy? What ever happened the to Conservative Party, the one that cares about balancing the budget and smart spending? The answer is that it completely sold out to big corporations, ranging from pharmaceuticals to big oil to the military industrial complex. They have dedicated themselves to giving tax cuts to billionaires under the guise of helping job creation, which ignores the fact that even though the richest 1% of Americans control 90% of the country's wealth they stubbornly refuse to create jobs . . .in America. They're creating plenty in Third World countries where children will work for a nickel a day.

Instead of defending that economic policy, of course, Republicans talk about abortion.

The bottom line is, no matter what the policy in question might be, Republicans can't sell it to the masses who determine who will win a given election. Instead they have to find a polarizing issue that excites their base, which will vote for them no matter who they run. That's about 25-30% of America, which is not enough to get elected. To win the middle Republicans work hard to make sure it's more difficult for college students, minorities and the poor to vote, they redistrict Democratic districts to try and stamp out Democracy wherever possible, and they use weapons of mass distraction, counting on the inattentive public to swallow whatever the latest news cycle spews out on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh's radio show.

Was Barack Obama born in Hawaii, as his birth certificate proves?

It's not about the birth certificate, it's about making sure those who will swallow such a ridiculous story aren't paying attention to the fact that their next paycheck will be smaller if Mitt Romney is elected because he wants to give more money to those poor multi-national corporations that employ fewer Americans each year and pay very little (if any) American income tax because they keep their headquarters in a post office box in Dubai.

That's why Republicans talk about abortion.

Are a lot of Americans worked up over the issue of abortion? Sure. You can go out on the street and find people who believe that when a woman has her period and eggs go unfertilized that it's a form of murder and they should be put to death for it. There are crazy people at the fringes of every issue you can imagine.

Rest assured, however, that the candidates and elected officials who use abortion as a primary platform issue are not interested in forcing women to have children every time they have sex,  and they're not interested in forcing rape victims to bear the child of their attacker. They are interested only in one thing.

They want to make sure you're not paying attention to their policies on issues that will actually impact your life on a daily basis. The vast majority of Americans believe that abortions should be safe, legal and rare. Most importantly, that should be left up to the woman in question, her doctor, her family, her religious mentor, and whoever else she decides to include . . .not not the government.

Abortion is a weapon of mass distraction for the Republican Party.

Nothing more.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 4: Is Jesus The Only Path To Salvation?

Christianity Applied
 Chapter 4: Is Jesus Christ the Only Way?
One of the toughest questions facing modern religious thinkers today is the question of the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.  Keeping in mind that Jesus himself was a Jew, and was not trying to create a church around his own teachings, is it necessary to believe in Jesus as the one and only path to salvation in order to be saved?

Admittedly, I struggle with this concept. What, exactly, is salvation? What do I need to be saved from? From the wrath of an angry god, hell bent on punishing me for the sins he knew I would commit before I was born?

Since our goal here is to find ancient answers to modern problems, let’s start by bringing forward the concept of salvation that Jesus and his followers would have understood.

When the topic of salvation comes up, we almost automatically think about going to heaven – or worry that we might be going to hell.  Often, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty and anxiety.   

Those who are very certain that they're going to heaven can seem a bit smug to others around them; therefore, we tend to avoid the topic of salvation. 

Let’s begin by looking at salvation in the Old Testament and let’s try to do that with fresh eyes – without assumptions. The Hebrew word that is translated “salvation” means rescue - especially rescue from sickness, trouble, distress, fear, or from enemies and violence. When the Hebrews were in Egypt, salvation meant rescue from slavery; freedom from bondage.  When the Jews were in Babylon, salvation meant rescue from exile. 

For example, after passing through the Red Sea and escaping from slavery in Egypt, Moses and the Israelites sang, "The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him.”  (Exodus 15:2) In Psalm 118, the psalmist sings about being in danger and about being rescued by God. “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place. 13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the LORD helped me.  14 The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. (Psalm 118:5, 13-14)In these examples, and all through the Old Testament, salvation is something that happens in this life, not after the person dies. 

The Jews were saved from bondage in Egypt.  They were saved from exile in Babylon. The next major crisis for them was occupation by foreign armies, first the Greeks and then the Romans. The Pharisees decided that the reason the Jews weren’t being saved from the oppression of Roman occupation was because of the sins of the people.  There are two striking aspects of all of this.   First, salvation is always in terms of the here and now, not some destination after death. Second, salvation is usually communal, not individual.

What about salvation in the New Testament?  Consider the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector.  Remember, a tax collector was seen as a traitor to his people.  He worked for the Romans, collecting their very high taxes. Whatever he collected over and above the Roman demands became the tax collector’s income, and Zacchaeus was a rich man.  It’s no wonder that he was especially hated by his fellow Jews.  He was an outsider among his own people.  Now, Zack did something strange.  He climbed a tree.  Generally speaking, grown men don’t climb trees.  People dressed in loose robes don’t climb trees.  And rich government officials with considerable power don’t climb trees.

 Jesus spotted Zack up in the tree and called him down, and then Jesus did something strange.  Here is a good example of how God pursues us.  Jesus invited himself to dinner with a traitor who worked for the occupying forces.  In those days, to sit at the dinner table with someone strongly implied your approval of them. Jesus invited himself into the tax collector’s home and into his life.  The crowd was upset about this. Zacchaeus was not a righteous man.  You aren’t righteous when you’re actively participating in a system that oppresses and crushes people.

But look at what happened.  Zacchaeus pledged to give half of his wealth to the poor.  Fifty percent is a whale of a lot more than a ten percent tithe!  He went on to say that if he had defrauded anyone, he would return four times the amount.  The requirement under the law of Moses was much less.  According to rules in Leviticus and Numbers, if the restitution was voluntary, the guilty party was to pay back the amount taken plus twenty percent.  Zacchaeus went far beyond any legal requirement and plunged into the territory of enormous generosity.

Repentance isn't just a change of heart; it bears fruit! Lots of fruit!

At this point, Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house.”  “[Zack's]‘being savedrefers to a conversion, to be sure, but not in any private sense. Not only is his household involved, but also the poor who will be beneficiaries of his conversion, as well as all those whom Zacchaeus may have defrauded. His salvation, therefore, has personal, domestic, social, and economic dimensions. Writing about this story, John Calvin said that Zacchaeus is “changed from a wolf, not only into a sheep, but even into a shepherd."

Just as in the Old Testament, there is a communal aspect to salvation in this story.  Salvation came to the house.  Jesus didn’t say, “You'll join me in heaven someday.”  He said that salvation had arrived - right then.

There are other times when Jesus talks of salvation, not in the future tense, but in the present tense.  Once, when a distraught father was told by friends that his daughter had died, Jesus told him, "Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved."  (Luke 8:50 NRS)  Jesus didn’t mean that she was going to heaven.  He was saying that she would be restored to this life.

On another occasion, he told a blind man that he had healed, “your faith has saved you.” (Luke 18:42 NRS) Not will save you, but has saved you. Similarly, in the book of Acts, we're told that day by day the Lord added to the early church “those that were being saved.”  Not those who will be saved, but those who were being saved.  Not only does this passage in Acts indicate salvation in the present, but it also refers to a process when it says, “were being saved.”

Paul, in Philippians, also speaks of salvation as an ongoing process.  He told them (Philippians 2:12-13 NRS) “. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  “It should be clear from this passage that Paul's understanding of salvation is different from what many of us have learned in church. Salvation is not a matter of never sinning, or never touching those we consider unclean. Nor is it a matter of having our sins taken away and joining the ranks of a comfortable middle-class congregation. Salvation consists, rather, in the joy, freedom, and partnership we experience when God's grace sets us free from the powers of this world, not so that we can flee this earth, but so that God can use us ‘to work for God's good pleasure’”

What does salvation in this life, today, here and now look like?  For Zacchaeus, it meant realizing that Jesus didn’t condemn him but loved him.  It meant that he was accepted by his God.  It meant that his heart was filled with generosity and freed from greed.  It meant that he had a new relationship, not only with God, but with his neighbors. Salvation means to be set free from our fear, to be saved from our compulsions and addictions and other self-destructive behavior, to be rescued from emptiness, meaninglessness, and despair. Salvation means being rescued from fruitless ways of life such as the cycle of insult and revenge, hatred and fear.   Salvation in the present is a journey, a process, a continuing transformation that brings “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7 NRS)  Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10 NRS)Salvation now is about participating in God's saving love for all creation, living in an adventure called the Kingdom of God. It’s a lifelong journey. It’s about being rescued from a life that is disconnected from God and being part of a fellowship that supports us and travels the journey of faith with us.

Given this definition of salvation, we return to our original question of whether or not Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation, and the answer is clearly a resounding yes . . .for Christians. But is Jesus necessarily, the only path to salvation? Just as clearly, the answer would be no . . .for every other adherent to faiths and beliefs that are not based upon Jesus. 

To those who feel that Jesus may be the only way, and are disturbed by any other possibility, simply refer back to the two most important commandments. If we love others as we love ourselves, we should be able to embrace our differences as well as our similarities. 

Is it so strange to believe that God can find many different ways to communicate with His people?

There's an old saying that when God draws his circle around the saved it will be much bigger and all-encompassing than the circle you or I would draw.

Thank God for that!!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 3: The Danger Of "McDonald's Ministries"

Chapter Three: The Danger Of "McDonald’s Ministries"

I was recently talking to some nice people who live just around the corner, in
the flight path of my toddler daughter’s daily neighborhood walk. They were
telling me all about a trip they had just gone on with a group from their
church. They had all flown to Africa and fed untold numbers of starving children
and no doubt saved the world in the process.

Their church is one of the new breed of what I like to call “McDonald’s
Ministries,” because they have lots of franchises around town all preaching the
same generic, flavorless message. People go there because it’s convenient and
because they don’t have to make many choices. Everything is familiar and easy to
consume, no matter how empty it may leave you later.

As they chattered on about the trip to Africa, I was silently calculating the
amount of money the group probably spent collectively just to get to Africa. I
don’t know the figure, of course, but it’s not hard to image a group of 30-some
people spending over $10,000 on a trip like that, and I’m probably significantly
underestimating the cost. Flight alone around $ 2500 round trip per person, over
$ 70,000 spent on airfare. Sure would buy a lot of food or medicine or water
wells, etc.

When the couple came up for air, I asked, in the most innocent way possible, how
much time and energy their church group spent working in our own inner city,
saying that I might be interested in joining the local effort.

Two blank stares . . .followed by a pair of matching puzzled looks.

“Locally? You mean inner city Dallas? Those people are just lazy. God helps
those who help themselves.” A phrase, not from the Bible, but Benjamin Franklin.

Yep, that’s the response of someone who regularly consumes Happy Meal homilies,
for sure.

The real world isn’t as simple as all that, and it’s much more complex than a
weekly message that “Jesus saves” and all will be right in the world when he
returns to claim his own. That’s not only bad theology, it’s also extremely
oversimplified. The charge of following in the footsteps of Jesus is much more
than an invitation to join the cool kids for lunch after church.

There’s a reason, for instance, why people in Africa are starving. They’re
starving because they have reproduced to the point that the land can no longer
sustain their population. When we fly over on a glorious mission trip to feed
the starving children – bizarrely, without contraception to disperse most of the
time – all we do is perpetuate the problem. The problem of population is made
worse by various complexities – land held by corporate owners rather than
families raising their own food, famines caused by drought in some areas, high
percentages of parents wiped out by AIDS leaving hordes of orphans in some
regions, and corrupt governments filling their own pockets rather than investing
in infrastructure, health, land reform, and education for the general
population, and other complicating factors.

Meanwhile, here at home in the Land of Plenty, people are starving all around
us, and rather than reach out a hand in the spirit of Christian charity, we too
often tell them to “get a job!” But it was Jesus himself who taught us that
‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,
you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40 There doesn't appear to be a single instance
where Jesus checked to see if someone was qualified to be helped. He didn't
check references, ask if the family was hungry because the parent was a drunk or
too lazy to work, or otherwise check to see if they "deserved" to be helped.

So, are all "mission trips" a bad idea? If you think that a one or two week trip
is going to provide permanent relief to the suffering or create a life-changing
conversion experience for someone in a third-world country, you're deluding
yourself. A Band-Aid effort won't provide long lasting healing for deep wounds.
Short trips are like a small dose of aspirin given for traumatic pain, but you
might return with a large dose of self-righteousness. If you really want to help
others, go for three months, six months, or a year. It takes time to get to know
people, really find out their deepest needs, and learn the root causes of their
problems. Otherwise, the money you spend on airfare would do greater good in the
hands of NGOs that know how to be effective.

On the other hand, if you go with an open mind, a compassionate heart, and the
desire to learn, a mission trip can give you far more than you give to others.
You can receive more than you ever give in terms of valuable lessons. In
experiencing the poverty of others, your eyes can be opened to just how rich you
are. In witnessing the limitations that their culture or their government
imposes, you will have new appreciation for your own freedom and education. In
receiving their hospitality offered out of scarcity, your own selfishness may be
unveiled. In seeing the way they care for each other with strong community ties,
you may realize how isolated and lonely your own life is. Those who have little
can teach us what is really important.

Almost twenty years ago, a trip to Hungary showed me how people remained
faithful and committed Christians in a communist ruled country despite peer
pressure, economic pressure, and government pressure. They did so without
becoming bitter or angry. It caused me to question whether my faith was
important to me, or if I had just been "going through the motions."

Faith that doesn't change you, that doesn't transform you, that doesn't make
your priorities and your passions different in some important way from the
culture where you live, is just empty social religion – fast food religion that
may go down easy and taste pleasant, but gives little or no nourishment.

It sounds good and honorable to travel across the globe to help those in need,
and indeed it is an honorable pursuit. But the honor in that deed is tainted
when our response to our neighbors is to walk quickly past, staring down at our
smart phones or just simply looking the other way. The opportunity for mission
exists wherever you find yourself at the moment.

After teaching that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, a man asked Jesus,
"And who is my neighbor?" Luke 10:30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was
going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They
stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A
priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he
passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and
saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came
where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him
and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own
donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out
two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when
I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into
the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This story is rich with details and deep with meaning. It seems like a simple
question, "Who is my neighbor?" Is it the person living in the adjacent
apartment? Does it include the people I work with? Do I have to count all of the
folks in my exercise class as neighbors? Is everybody in my suburb a neighbor?
Instead of giving a direct answer, Jesus told a story. Those who heard the story
listened with their own familiarity with the setting of the tale.

Going down the road from Jerusalem was a risky trip. It was a steep and winding
path through the hill country and it provided many places where robbers could
hide and surprise travelers. Being robbed and beaten on this road was not
unusual. A priest came by and went around the man. Some might excuse the priest
because the victim may have appeared dead and priests were forbidden to touch
dead bodies. Others would hear this as an indication of the social and cultural
distance between priests and the common citizen. Palestine was occupied by Roman
forces that oppressed the country. Priests were allowed to serve at the pleasure
of the Roman occupation forces and were seen as collaborators with the enemy.

A Levite – a hereditary class of people who worked in the religious structure of
the Jewish faith - was the next person to come across the victim in the road.
He, too, walked on by. Some might make excuses for the Levite. If he touched a
dead body, there would be a rigorous cleansing ritual to go through. If he
stopped, he, too, might be robbed. A common motif in stories and jokes is a
sequence of three actions. The first two are always similar and the punch line
comes with the third action. Both the Levite and the priest are religious
workers. To the common person, a lowly day laborer, they have reliable income, a
secure lifestyle, and appear to be (and likely are) out of touch with the real
life of the vast majority of people.

Those listening to Jesus expect the third person to be a lowly commoner, someone
who knows about suffering, someone who will be compassionate, unlike the first
two stuck up religious elite snobs. But the third person isn't even a Jew. He's
a Samaritan, a low-life half-breed of both Jewish and pagan ancestry. He doesn't
agree with you about which writings are really scripture and he worships at the
wrong temple. And he is the one who stops and renders aid to someone who thinks
he is dirt.

Then Jesus asks, which one was a neighbor? He points out that "neighbor" isn't a
matter of living nearby. It isn't determined by being in the same club or church
or ethnic group. Neighbor isn't geographical or social position. It's a behavior
that crosses ethnic, class, economic, educational, and religious lines.

So, if you live in the suburbs, are Protestant, white, and drive a BMW and
someone else lives in the hood, drives an old Chevy pickup, is black or brown,
and worships in a jumpin', fallin' out black church or a Hispanic,
statue-filled, incense-burning Catholic church, then you are to be his neighbor
and he is to be your neighbor.

Jesus expects us to go beyond our comfort zone, do anti-culturally-accepted
things, and love our neighbors in the same way that we want to be valued,
respected, and loved. It can be difficult, but it’s a lot more transforming and
nourishing than a Happy Meal with a cheap, plastic toy souvenir.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 2: The Inerrancy Of Scripture

Christianity Applied Chapter 2
Inerrancy of Scripture
2 Timothy 2:15 Present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

                To begin with, we should be clear about the terms we use.  Scripture is whatever written document that is used by a religion as its foundational guide for worship and living.  It is the prime source for belief, behavior, and understanding of life.  For Christians, scripture is the Bible.  The word bible comes from the Greek word for book.  So, for anyone interested in Christianity, a really important question is "What is this book and where did it come from?
                The Bible has two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Old and New are simply descriptions of the relative age of the two sections and not their relative worth.  The word testament is another word for testimony, what someone has said about some subject.  In the case of the Bible, we have testimony about the relationship between people and God.

                In each testament there are a lot of subdivisions called books, which is a little misleading.  None of  the "books" are what we would call "book length."  Some are less than a page long, while others are forty or more pages, and the styles of these writings are quite varied.  There are narratives, poetry, songs, wisdom, sermons, letters, and strange visions.  There is sex and violence and humor and steadfast love.  There are inspiring good examples and horrifying bad examples of human behavior.   The Bible isn't a single book in the usual sense; it is more accurate to think of it as a library of many writings of various lengths and styles.  It might be called an anthology of things written about the interactions between God and people.

                How old is the older testimony and how new is the newer testimony?  The actual texts were written over a period of about 1100-1200 years.   Sometime around 1000 BC, the ancient stories that had been passed down for many generations began to be written down.   Centuries of oral tradition were written down, preserving stories about Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Moses and Miriam, and Joshua and Rahab, and lots of other people who were part of the history of the Hebrew people, the Israelites.  Over the next six or seven centuries, more was written, telling of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel, the heroes and the scum-bags, the prophets that preached great sermons of warning and encouragement, the times of ignoring God and the times of close attention to the Holy One of Israel. 

                By the time of Jesus, the books of the law (also commonly called the books of Moses) were used as scripture among the Jews, the descendants of the Hebrew people, the Israelites.  The writings of and about the prophets were also accepted as scripture.  When Jesus talked about scripture, he often used the phrase "the Law and the Prophets," referring to these two groups of texts.   This was the "Bible" of Jesus.  It wasn't until after the time of Jesus, around 100 AD, that a consensus was reached among the Jewish scholars, as to what other writings were worthy to be called scripture.  For example, there was some wrangling over the book of Esther because God is never mentioned in it.  Other discussions were about how the sayings in the book of Proverbs sometime contradict each other and that the Song of Songs is so erotic. Eventually though, the decision was reached to include them in scripture.  These scriptures were written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews.

                The New Testament is the collection of writings about Jesus and his followers.  The oldest documents in the New Testament are the epistles (letters) of Paul , written no earlier than about 49 AD and over the next decade or so.  Paul didn't sit down to write scripture; Paul was writing letters to specific people and congregations.  When we read them, we are really reading someone else's mail.  The gospels are four books written about the life and teachings of Jesus and they were written over a period of time from around 70 AD to about 90 AD.  The rest of the books of the New Testament may have been written by 100 AD or perhaps a couple of decades later.

                The various Christian documents were passed around, copied, and passed around some more.  There was no official list of "these are authentic and useful writings and the others are not so useful or authentically what they may claim to be," not for a couple of centuries.  The issue of what was really worthy of being called scripture became more prominent around 150 AD because of Marcion, a wealthy ship owner.  He decided that the only documents worthy of being scripture were ten of Paul's letters and some edited selections from the Gospel of Luke.  All of the Old Testament and much of what we now call the New Testament were rejected by Marcion.   His father, a bishop, excommunicated him.  It wasn't until 367 AD that anyone (Athanasius) made a list of valuable texts that matched the table of contents in the New Testament we use today.   Not everyone agreed even then.  In fact the part of the church that we refer to as Eastern Orthodox didn't accept the book of Revelation until sometime in the 700s.

                In the 1500s, Martin Luther would have gladly tossed out the books Esther, James, and Revelation, and it is possible that the accepted list of contents of the Bible might change in the future.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul mentions a previous letter to the Corinthians.   In Colossians 4:16 Paul speaks of a letter to the Laodiceans.  If ancient manuscripts of these were discovered, should they be added to the Bible?

            What do all of these historical facts tell us?  First, the Bible is not a single revelation from God.  It did not, so to speak, fall down from heaven, bound in black leather.  It was written by dozens of people over about a dozen centuries in as many different situations.  The contents of the Bible have been the subject of deep consideration - by many people - over many centuries.  There have been even more human hands involved in writing and selecting the contents of the Bible.

                 The Bible is about our relationship with God.  Its primary focus has never been to be a history textbook, nor was it ever intended to be a science textbook.  Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith) says that the Bible is about a movement of faith concerned with meaning and values while science is concerned with empirical descriptions of the workings of the natural world.   In many respects, science deals with "how" and faith deals with "why."  The Bible also wasn't organized to be a book of magical numerology.  People who find special meaning in the number of books, the number of chapters, and/or the number of verses in the Bible have lost track of one more important fact:  there were no chapters or verses until 1205 AD, when Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, oversaw the project of adding chapters and verses to the Bible.

                If the Bible has so many human fingerprints on the writing and compiling of the Bible we have today, then can we believe that it is true?  The Bible is not simply a collection of facts and rules.  Some parts of the Bible are obviously written in poetic, metaphorical, or symbolic language.  The purpose and value of the Bible is not in telling us what is true (factual) but in telling us what is Truth.   For instance, the so-called Golden Rule, "Do unto other as you would have them do unto you" is Truth that will serve each of us very well the more we live that Truth.  

                In the first chapter, we referred to Exodus 20:5, which clearly states that children will be punished for their grandparents' sins and Ezekiel 18:20, which says that each person will only be punished for their own sins.  It seems like an obvious contradiction.  If part of the Bible is not factual, does that mean that we cannot trust it at all?  Knowing that human writers left their own personal and cultural marks on the text should drive us to study deeper, to look not so much for specific detailed rules but for the overarching themes and wisdom to be found in this book of Truth.

                There may be no more divisive issue facing modern Christianity than that of the inerrancy of scripture. Some say the Bible is a fax from God, absolutely perfect in every way, right down to the last semi-colon. Others say the Bible was "inspired" by God, but not "written" by God, and therefore very much open to interpretation.

                The fact is, the Bible is a library, not a book, and while God no doubt inspired every word (just as he is inspiring THESE words), he has never been a heavy-handed editor. God tends to say something along the lines of: "Here's the inspiration you requested; please use it wisely."

                Some do; some don't.  When we see the Bible as dictated word for word to human stenographers, as the words of God rather than the word (message) of God, we turn the Bible into an idol that we worship. 

                Before we go much further it's important that we introduce two words that may or may not be a part of your everyday experience. Eisegesis and exegesis are going on all around you, but you may not quite understand exactly how they're being used. So let's take a moment to talk about these ever-important elements of Biblical scholarship.

                Exegesis, which literally means “to lead out of,”  is defined as the explanation of a text based on a careful, objective analysis. Basically, exegesis is the act of reading the Bible and deriving meaning from what you read.

                One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 John 4:18, which reads: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This passage has meant different things to me at different times in my life, but it always symbolizes the importance of being bold and acting on your feelings of love. Whether that means romantic love or love of life, being brave and pushing aside fear has served me well throughout my life. My study and reaction to this verse is an example of exegesis, as I am deriving meaning from the scripture.

                The opposite approach is eisegesis (“to lead into”), which is the interpretation of a passage based on a subjective, non-analytical reading. In this approach the reader injects his own ideas into the text, making it mean whatever he wants.

                An example of this might be my own dislike for football, and the way I can judge those who play it to be worthy of immediate smiting. You see, according to Leviticus 11:7-8, touching the skin of a dead pig is strictly forbidden, which I take to mean that everyone who plays football is going to hell. This may sound like a silly example, and it is, but it is no sillier than the approach many people take in using Leviticus to suit their own issues.

                Leviticus is used to justify many forms of hatred or judgment, and may be the most abused book of the Bible when it comes to eisegesis.

                In his book, Basic Bible Interpretation, Roy Zuck offers up a more theologically and historically thorough example of the difference between Eisegesis and Exegesis:

2 Chronicles 27:1-2
“Jotham was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. . . . He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Uzziah had done, but unlike him he did not enter the temple of the LORD.”

First, the interpreter decides on a topic. Today, it’s “The Importance of Church Attendance.” The interpreter reads 2 Chronicles 27:1-2 and sees that King Jotham was a good king, just like his father Uzziah had been, except for one thing: he didn’t go to the temple! This passage seems to fit his idea, so he uses it. The resulting sermon deals with the need for passing on godly values from one generation to the next. Just because King Uzziah went to the temple every week didn’t mean that his son would continue the practice. In the same way, many young people today tragically turn from their parents’ training, and church attendance drops off. The sermon ends with a question: “How many blessings did Jotham fail to receive, simply because he neglected church?”

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with preaching about church attendance or the transmission of values. And a cursory reading of 2 Chronicles 27:1-2 seems to support that passage as an apt illustration. However, the above interpretation is totally wrong. For Jotham not to go to the temple was not wrong; in fact, it was very good, as the proper approach to the passage will show.

First, the interpreter reads the passage and, to fully understand the context, he reads the histories of both Uzziah and Jotham (2 Chronicles 26-27; 2 Kings 15:1-6, 32-38). In his observation, he discovers that King Uzziah was a good king who nevertheless disobeyed the Lord when he went to the temple and offered incense on the altar—something only a priest had the right to do (2 Chronicles 26:16-20). Uzziah’s pride and his contamination of the temple resulted in his having “leprosy until the day he died” (2 Chronicles 26:21).

Needing to know why Uzziah spent the rest of his life in isolation, the interpreter studies Leviticus 13:46 and does some research on leprosy. Then he compares the use of illness as a punishment in other passages, such as 2 Kings 5:27; 2 Chronicles 16:12; and 21:12-15.

By this time, the exegete understands something important: when the passage says Jotham “did not enter the temple of the LORD,” it means he did not did not repeat his father’s mistake. Uzziah had proudly usurped the priest’s office; Jotham was more obedient.

The resulting sermon might deal with the Lord’s discipline of His children, with the blessing of total obedience, or with our need to learn from the mistakes of the past rather than repeat them.

Of course, exegesis takes more time than eisegesis. But if we are to be those unashamed workmen “who correctly handle the word of truth,” then we must take the time to truly understand the text. Exegesis is the only way.

As Zuck so appropriately points out, it’s easy to plop open your Bible and find something that supports your particular view on a particular issue when you don’t take into account the context or full meaning of the section you’re reading.

Is the Bible “inerrant?” As we’ve shown, that very much depends on how you read it. In the first chapter we talked about the Two Commandments – to love the Lord with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. If we approach scripture with those two commandments in mind, we may, indeed, find a limitless and non-contradictory source of inspiration and a window into the nature of God and his relationship with the world.

If, on the other hand, we enter into our relationship with scripture with a particular end in mind, turning aside the love mandate and seeking to justify ourselves or condemn others by parsing words, we can quickly turn to misusing and abusing scripture, incorrectly "handling the word of truth."  When one overlooks the humorous, the poetic, and the metaphorical writing in the Bible and insists that every word is true (meaning factual) an odd thing happens.   By claiming that the Bible is inerrant, many passages become contradictory.  By refusing to accept human involvement and limitations in the writing, people expect factual perfection instead of inspired relationship.   Those who insist on an "inerrant" Bible may find that the Bible is no more inerrant (and perhaps no better) when thus misused, than the supermarket tabloids that litter the checkout lanes of our neighborhood grocery stores.  Some supermarket tabloid is sure to have a headline that screams "Bible warns of sea monster with seven heads and ten horns!" 

                Rather than having the gall to try to use the Bible to support our own agendas, we would do well to go to the scriptures to learn from the experiences of our ancestors in faith and seek the wisdom that the centuries pass on to us with open minds and hearts.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 1: The Two Commandments

Christianity Applied Chapter 1: The Two Commandments

Luke 10: (25)On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
(26)“What is written in the Law?” he replied. How do you read it?”
(27)He answered: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” 

You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.”

     It’s probably safe to say that you are all at least anecdotally aware of the Ten Commandments. Even if you can’t quite recite all ten of the “Thou Shalt Nots,” you can probably at least come up with not stealing from your neighbor, refraining from murder and a couple other highlights. If you can’t quote them all without whipping out your Old Testament, don’t worry. People in Jesus' time, who were a couple of thousand years closer to the original story, had trouble with the Ten, as well.

    In many ways, it seems Jesus came to simplify things for his followers. The original Ten Commandments were often interpreted fairly harshly, especially the one about not coveting your neighbor’s Ferrari . . .er, donkey. They also left a lot of room for interpretation.

    The first Commandment says, “You shall keep no gods before me.” This is a clear reference to the widespread polytheistic beliefs of ancient times, first of all, but in modern times we have come to question whether or not the things we spend the most time with have become the gods we put before God, as well. We make idols of all kinds of things, from extravagant housing to expensive cars, fishing trophies to country club memberships, Rush Limbaugh (or Keith Olbermann) to sports teams to our IRA retirement account to our kid's soccer team.  Our idol is whatever we invest a great deal of time, money, or effort into, that which is the determining factor in how we live our life. We all have idols and some of them can be really big idols.  Do we put our jobs before God, and if we do, is that breaking the first Commandment? Do we worship our possessions? Does moving the sermon up an hour to avoid running over an important football game constitute putting a pigskin god before God?

    It’s easy to see how this can start to get complicated, and it was no less complicated in Jesus’ time despite the lack of professional sports.
    The second Commandment starts off easy enough, with God saying that we shouldn’t worship any false idols, but then he goes on to say that if we were to bow down to some graven image he would punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” according to Exodus 20:5. Really? If I pay homage to Joel Osteen then God will condemn my great, great grandchildren to hell? That might seem sensible enough to some, but also incredibly harsh to others. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty?

     What about Ezekial 18:20, which reads: “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.”

    At times like this, where we have conflicting scriptural references, it’s important to remember that God is still speaking, giving us continuing revelations and a growing understanding of scripture.

    The third Commandment is fairly straightforward. “Contrary to popular opinion,” the bumper sticker says, “God’s last name is not Damn.” God would prefer we not use his name in vain. If you do it, God will not smile upon you. Got it.     

    Things start to get a little bit sticky when we get to Commandment four. This is where God tells is that the seventh day is holy, and while there is somewhat of an argument at least on the fringes of the Christian community as to whether Saturday or Sunday is the seventh day, there is almost a consensus that it’s now perfectly fine to work on either one or both of those days. The idea of taking a day of rest is almost as archaic as the idea that God actually, literally created the world in six days. What’s more, much of the working class simply can’t afford the luxury of a day off.

     Consider Mark 2:27: Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The point is that the Sabbath was a gift to people, not a burden, and the time for rest and renewal included servants, strangers, slaves, and even work animals. When the working class cannot afford a day off each week, that's a sure sign that wages are inhumane.

     Things get a bit easier after that. Commandment five tells us to honor our parents, which is really not all that hard to do before and, especially, after puberty. After that we’re Commanded not to steal, not to commit adultery and not to bear false testimony against our neighbors. Some may find these commandments hard to follow, but they are not at all hard to understand.

    The final Commandment is about envy, and while it speaks of donkeys where we use cars, the gist is that we should not covet our neighbor’s possessions. This one can be particularly difficult, especially living in the United States of America, where our entire culture and economy is based on the business of envy. They may not have had flat screen TVs or luxury cars in Jesus’ time, but there was plenty of envy to go around, nonetheless.

    Needless to say, there was plenty of wiggle room in terms of interpreting the Ten Commandments, and people were wiggling all over the place. Jesus encounters a group of men who have arbitrarily decided that adultery is a more severe (or more clear cut) sin than others, and they are about the task of stoning a woman for the offense. Jesus points out that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, and the stones ultimately go unthrown.

    This is one example, but it was a common theme. Not unlike today, back then people were very busily interpreting the Ten Commandments in whichever way they saw fit and in whichever way gave them some advantage over others. For that reason, primarily, Jesus came to remind his fellow Jews of the core motivation and attitude of the law.  He was, after all, quoting from the ancient scrolls:
(Deuteronomy 6) 4Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

             (Leviticus 19) 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Here’s Jesus’ take:

            (Mark 12) 29The most important (Commandment),” answered Jesus, is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
            Similarly, in Luke 10, Jesus told a man who asked him the path to salvation that he was correct in saying it was this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.”
            Finally, when the Pharisees tried to corner Jesus on the subject of God’s greatest Commandment, Jesus answered simply: (Matthew 22:37) "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All of Moses' Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments."
     The Two Commandment story was seen as so important that it was included by all three synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

    The last part of Jesus’ answer sometimes goes unnoticed or even unread, but it may be the most important part of the whole passage. The rest of the Commandments are based on these two. If you’re loving your neighbor as yourself you are extremely unlikely to envy his wife or his car. You’re extremely unlikely to murder him, bear false witness against him, steal from him, or dishonor him. If you love God with your heart, soul and mind, you won’t take his name in vain, you won’t fail to take time out to honor him – be that time on Sunday, Saturday or some other day – nor would you place other gods before him.

    This is at the core of the whole issue.  When we are motivated by love – and love is an action verb – then our attitude toward God and neighbor will be seen in how we treat ourselves, each other, and even God's property (all of creation or all of the universe, if you prefer). It is when we turn all of this into legalistic specifics that we lose attitude and motivation, and seek to rigidly follow rules. In a silly, but actual example, wanting to show respect for God and to show how important taking time to worship God was, people dressed up just as they did for other important events.  You wouldn't wear your bib overalls to meet the governor of the state or for your daughter's wedding, would you?  But it's a very quick transition to you have to dress up to go to church or you can't go.  It's easy to shift from showing respect for God to trying to show up your neighbor by wearing finer clothes.  Focusing on minute adherence to rules, written or unwritten, can sour love and turn it into self-righteousness.

     You see, as today, people in Jesus’ time struggled mightily with the Ten Commandments, and they were constantly looking for ways to justify themselves and empower themselves by using those Commandments as a means to an end. When Jesus came and reminded us of the Two Commandments upon which all other Commandments are based, he made it much more straightforward.           
     People still try to use religion as  a way to judge others and to empower themselves, but in reading and understanding Jesus’ most simple laws we can cast aside those attempts as clear violations of not only the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, but of the letters of his teachings, as well.
      Looking at the law of love as being an innate, basic, not-at-all-an-option law just like the law of gravity, is a helpful way of thinking about this.  This isn't a new law imposed from above, but an insight into how life works and how we can live in harmony with the universe and our fellow travelers in life.  It isn't a burden, but a key to happier living.  Note that Jesus said, "Do this and you will live.
Don't do it, and life will have more suffering and less living.

--- Co-authored by Reverend Michael E. Lamm, First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville, NC

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Danger Of The Christmas/Easter Christian

I was raised in the Christian church, but not just as a casual believer. My parents were and are deep thinkers on the subject of religion, spending far more time studying the faith outside of the church than they do in those few hours on Sunday morning and perhaps the occasional Wednesday night.

Suffice to say, Sunday morning was only one small part of my religious education.

The thing is, as I have grown older and continued advanced studies in the history of the Church, the history of the Bible, and the context of both, I find it harder and harder to identify with the modern Church. The focus is too often on issues that were non-issues to Jesus Christ and his followers. We allow the public discourse to focus on wedge issues like abortion and sexual preference - which were not even on Jesus' radar - and largely forget his primary messages of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves and doing unto others as we would have done unto us. Turning the other cheek is unheard of; we seem to prefer to embrace the "an eye for an eye" philosophy of the Old Testament.

In fact, much of the dogma surrounding Christianity today is directly from the Old Testament (see, particularly, Leviticus) and avoids the New Testament - Christ's story - entirely. We all agree and celebrate the birth and death of Jesus, but all of that other stuff that came between seems to be lost on many Christians.

My second Dad (I am lucky enough to have two) is now a Presbyterian minister, and he penned the following sermon for last Sunday's message. So today I bring a guest writer to the blog . . .and without further ado: A Battered Gospel, by Mike Lamm.

A Battered Gospel         

Isaiah 50:4-6  4 The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens-- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
 5 The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.   6 I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
Matthew 26:47-53 47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people.  48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him."  49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him.  50 Jesus said to him, "Friend, do what you are here to do." Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.   51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  52 Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.  53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?

A Battered Gospel

            Last Tuesday, Michael Blythe spoke at the Lenten Devotional Service.  My ears really perked up when I heard Michael say, “We all have our way of shaping the gospel to our convenience and even, at times, battering it in the process.”  Often, as people living in the twenty-first century, we can forget just how different life was in the time of Christ.  News was by word of someone’s mouth, not printed or broadcast.  As Christians, when we read of Jews, we think of others, but Jesus was speaking to brothers.  In many ways, we're hampered by the distances of time and space and cultural changes that separate us from Jesus and the early disciples.  We assume elected government; they assumed kings of royal descent or appointed governors.  We assume that everyone has a say about choosing their faith and their rulers.  They assumed that government and faith were essentially inherited.  And so, Michael legitimately asked us if we will let the gospel overcome our prejudices, our knowledge, our opinions, our desires, or will we batter the gospel, consciously or unconsciously, reshaping it in large and small ways, fitting it to our lifestyle and our viewpoint?  
            Many of us can look back now and see a clear example of how our view of life has affected our view of scripture.  So long as society and the male ego declared that women were the weaker and more befuddled gender, we read the Bible with that assumption and we found verses that confirmed what seemed to be plainly obvious truth.  So in history we ignored Catherine of Aragon, Isabelle of Spain, and Elizabeth I of England.  In scripture we ignored Deborah, Naomi, Miriam, Phoebe, and several Marys, to name a few important women of faith.  Despite the texts and examples to the contrary, we failed to understand that in Christ there was neither male nor female, failed to accept Phoebe as a deacon or Junia as an apostle, failed to love half of our neighbors as ourselves, and we blindly thought nothing of it.
            For a couple of years I have been considering the possibility that we have a similar blindness problem with parts of the story of Holy Week.  Let's take another look at some of the moments leading up to Christ's death.  The Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John tell us that when the authorities came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, someone drew a sword and cut off a man's ear.  Immediately, Jesus stopped the sword play.  What's more, Luke tells us that Jesus healed the ear of this man who had come to arrest him.  If we only see this moment in the Garden as part of a pre-determined series of events, then it has little to do with us.  But then we recall that on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, "I say to you, 'Do not resist an evildoer.'" That's what Jesus taught.  That's what Jesus did.  
            There in Gethsemane, Jesus went on to say, "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"  Jesus said that he had the option of calling in overwhelming forces, yet he chose not to do so.  Jesus, in the midst of danger, lived as he had taught others.  On the mount he had said, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."  When push came to shove, Jesus chose to walk the walk in unity with the talk that he had talked.
            Later that night, Jesus was brought before Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine and the issue of armed resistance came up again.  Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" If someone claimed to be king of the Jews, Rome would see that as treason and sedition.  Rome was in charge, and Rome would decide who ruled Palestine.  Jesus replied to Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me" free.  Jesus taught, "Do not resist an evildoer." That's what Jesus taught.  That's what Jesus did. 
            After his appearance before Pilate, Jesus was led away to be executed.  He had been beaten.  He had been spit on and ridiculed.  What sort of person taunts and tortures a man who is about to be executed in the most hideous and painful way that had been devised at that time?  Stripped naked, he hung there helplessly as the guards gambled for the clothes they had ripped off of him.  He hung there naked, humiliated before his mother and the women who had supported his ministry out of their own purses.  Helpless, humiliated, and hurting with every breath, he prayed, "Father, forgive them."  In the very horror of dying, he not only lived as he had taught, he died as he had taught, for he had said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
            We view the events with some detachment.  They happened so long ago.  We weren't involved.  The events leading up to death on the cross are less disturbing if we think of them only as a pre-planned series of events, predicted long before, everything unfolding as arranged.  As terrible as things were, we aren't involved.  Nothing is demanded of us.  We only have to be grateful for the benefits that we receive from the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We hear that we're washed whiter than snow by the blood of the Lamb - and we blithely fail to even consider what a violent and gory image that is.  We're content to see a divine plan in Holy Week so long as it's about people back then killing Jesus - and us reaping the benefits of forgiveness and salvation.  But there's more going on than we want to consider. 
            We overlook the moments in scripture that point to this whole story being something other than a divine drama with all of the characters playing their parts exactly as the script had been written long ago.  In fear and anguish, Jesus prayed for a way out that night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If there was a script, Jesus was asking for a rewrite.  "Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me."   What had Jesus taught about prayer?  "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."  That night in the garden, evil was on the prowl.  Evil was approaching with torches, coming to arrest Jesus, and temptation would arrive at the same moment. "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"
There's the temptation.  There's the option.  It only takes a request and it's a done deal.  It really is the obvious choice.  Use the force at your disposal to vanquish evil.  Talk about shock and awe!   Picture the headlines.  "Heavenly Host invades Jerusalem to protect Jesus.  Not a single Roman survives the night.  Roman ships sink in the harbors on the coast as Roman soldiers stampede and overload the ships.  Caesar begs for a cease fire and grovels before Jesus and his radiant winged bodyguards."  Jesus doesn't have a script; he has a choice.  And he chooses to live the way of life that he has taught.  "Do not resist an evildoer.  Love your enemies."
            During Holy Week we want to forget that Jesus was wholly and completely human.  We only want to think of him as wholly and completely divine.  God can do those hard things, make those painful choices that we read about.  But don't remind us that Jesus was human and that a human made those hard choices, a human was begging to be delivered from evil, but refused to wield power in his own defense.
            It's a fearsome thing to hear the message of Jesus that he taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  It's inspiring to watch how he lived the way of life that he taught.  It is awesome and frightening to watch him chose to die rather than abandon the way of life that he taught.  And we really don't want to hear that Jesus not only invites us to hear his message, he calls us to follow his example, live the life he showed us, and stay on the path wherever it leads.  But he reassures us with the promise, "Fear not, for I am with you."  Fear not.  Amen.

Luke 22:50-51 NRS   50 Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear.  51 But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him.
John 18:33-36 NRS  33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"  34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"  35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"  36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."
Luke 23:33-34 NRS   33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.   34 Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
Mat 5:38-47 NRS   38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'   39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'   44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Matthew 26:39 NRS   39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want."

                There are several passages in Isaiah are often understood as predictive with regard to Jesus, or at least descriptive of his situation.   One is Isaiah 57:8.  "He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people."  Another translation reads, "He was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.  When we hear this passage as saying that Christ was killed for our sins, we have no involvement in the event except to accept the benefits of his death.  But the word can also be translated as "through" or "because of."  We are quick to say that Jesus died for our sins, but we don't want to read the passage as Christ died because of our sins. For = "by reason of" the transgression of my people 
Isaiah 53:7-8 NRS   7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.   8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.
Isaiah 53:8 TaNaK By oppressive judgment he was taken away, Who could describe his abode?  For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.


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