For these last few weeks, the readings for Sunday mornings have been rather uninspiring for me -- maybe a better preacher would have been deeply inspired by these readings, but alas, this poor community must suffer the "iffy" quality of it's preacher. They graciously do not often point out how my preaching could be better.
They are -by default- suffering through my boredom with these readings. It's pretty much the entire tenth chapter of Matthew, where Jesus speaks this long soliloquy to his disciples about how they are to go off into the various towns and cities in the area to preach about the coming Kingdom of God, of what this all means, what they're supposed to take and/or not take, who they're supposed to stay with, that he's come to bring division and not peace, that he'll give them the right words to say, and that anyone who receives them actually receive Jesus.. and are actually receiving the Father, etc. Okay... got it.
This chapter has been divided among the previous three Sundays, and while it does give some sense of what the disciples were to do, and what Jesus was about, I just struggled to find inspiration for real-world relevance. So I have instead been preaching on things not so related to the readings. Oh well. I'll be waiting for the Liturgical Police to come arrest me soon.
So I talked about social stuff. You know; how we treat each other, what the Kingdom of God means in our world today, what it looks like, and how we're called to act. Basically about what real faith may look like, what it's calling us to live like, how it can inform our lives, lived out among real people in real situations. And in this political climate... well, let's just say preachers do not lack for subject matter.
There is a large chunk of good Christian folk out there that have a very hard time talking about their faith (cough... Lutherans... cough) much less praying with others. Additionally, many of us across the Christian board do not take much time (through the day, week, or month) to process life-stuff through the lens of faith.
I'd venture to say we - as individuals - don't often have a practice, a personal discipline, of measuring our lives... our experiences, etc., up to the faith we so ardently profess to have. I'd also venture that if we were honest with ourselves, we've probably admit that our positions on important life or social issues probably stem more from our emotional and/or visceral reactions rather than from a faithful discerning out of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
A couple of years ago a group of Finns and Estonians came to visit our Synod (in our Lutheran world, a "Synod" is a larger geographic region composed of many congregations, and is led by a bishop). About 30 came here representing the Lutheran Church from their respective countries. They were here for about 2 weeks or so - not only seeing the sites and learning the history, but also getting a perspective of what life is like here in our congregations and our part of the US in general. What struck me about what they did was every few days or so they would ask if we could give them some space to process what they were experiencing, what they were learning and how this was or was not impacting their spirit's and/or psyches. Maybe how it impacted their faith, or how it impacted their ideas for church back home, etc. Just that they would even take time to do this to me was pretty striking.
To the question - "Why do you attend church?", seventy six percent of respondents in a recent Gallup Poll said a "major factor" was a sermon or talk that teach about scripture. And 75% said a "major factor" that brought them to church was sermons or lectures that hep connect religion with daily life. So, wanting to find some relevance between faith and living is pretty important for a pretty sizable percentage of people.... but it seems we at best either are interested in what someone else has to say about these important issues of our day, or at worse we may want someone (in authority?) to do the discerning for us.
When I stop doing this church work, one of the things I'll miss most is the conscious time I take every week to process life-stuff through the lens of my faith. I'm not sure I'd be as dedicated, as consistent, in doing this if I weren't expected to talk about these kind of things every week. I can't imagine I'd be different from most people in that way.
And without taking the time to process (to think, to discern, to make sense of, to grapple with even) life through the lens of faith, I think it becomes easier for us to confuse our feelings (the first visceral, gut-level response we might have) on any issue with our faith. My experience shows me that sometimes what we feel about something is not necessarily where the Gospel message calls us to stay. But that stretch, that gap -- between what we feel and where our faith might call us to go, in spite of our feelings -- from where we are in the moment, to where the Gospel of Christ calls us to go, often requires us to grapple with not only the texts and our faith, but our own biases, motivations, preconceptions, etc.
And this process isn't easy at all - not just for us as individuals but also for us as a society!
In the 50's and 60's those "trouble-making" Black-activists, and Black-activist churches, brought racial justice issues to the greater church and culture. And this disturbed MANY in the "established" culture (and White church).
I remember in my first semester in Seminary, I was in a class where one of the students started talking about how all the major problems in our society stem from the removal of prayer in schools. (I bet you didn't even question the assumption that this student was White? You're right BTW) The student next to me - the only black student at Seminary that semester - mentioned that -back in the day- while they were praying in schools all across this country, there were public-endorsed lynchings, there was systemic and legal racism (Black people had to sit in the back of the bus, could not drink from the same water fountains, etc). His point was that simply adding prayer into peoples lives did not magically "make things better" for all... it didn't make things "right" or "just"... just because they prayed before class. "Making things better" takes society challenging its own prejudices and biases. And this takes a degree of self-consciousness and self-analysis our society sometimes just does not have... unless it is moved to do so... by "radicals" and "troublemakers".
In the 70's the "radical feminists" brought sex and gender justice-issues to the greater culture - again. (The suffragists did this back in the 20's and 30's). And this disturbed MANY people!
The show "All In The Family" portrayed a conservative Archie Bunker; a crotchety, older-middle-aged man who's seen too much change. The change of life has happened too fast, and too much, and all around him. And he thinks things are going to hell in a hand-basket. "Bunker" is basically where he seems to want to hide.
But his son-in-law... whom he calls "Meat-head", is the vocal and physical representation of all this social change... living in his house! He's SO vocal that it presents itself right in Archie's home and life! Poor Archie just can't escape this social change! Meathead was the voice of society's New Vision... this idealistic view of life.
Back in the 80's and 90's Gay activists THREW )not literally, but for sure figuratively) LGBT issues squarely in the face of the established culture - and it COMPLETELY discombobulated (sp?) it!
Back in the early 2000's a lady in one of my old churches complained, "Why do they have to demand all these extra rights?" I told her I wasn't sure what she meant by "extra" rights, since Gay people only want the same rights non-gay couples have; the right to transfer property after death if there is no will, the right to make legal and medical decisions for their legal spouses... all the legal rights non-gay couples. These same right aren't radical at all to non-gay couples... they are considered normal, reasonable, expected even.
All these things -and others- today seem as if they are "the right thing"; slavery is abhorrent to us today - but back in the day the idea of stopping this practice was a very radical idea! Many made the scriptural case that slavery was if not acceptable at least condoned! It was after all an ancient practice thousands of years old... it was just how things were! But this very same practice today is morally and ethically indefensible!
In the beginning of our country the only people that could vote were land-owning males. The idea here was that 1- only men had the mental -and divine- "ability" to vote and 2- only landowning males had enough political and economic investment to responsibly bear the rights and obligations of being an informed voter!
Then this right was bequeathed to all WHITE males... then to ALL males... then to women as well. But each step in this change was not easy - just remember how dramatic things were in the 20's during the Suffrage movement! And yet today none of us would consider removing this right to any of the above mentioned groups! Today this just seems normal and totally acceptable.
So when we ask the question "What is the Gospel message to us today?" we have to be willing to grapple with some pretty heavy and hard issues in our lives in the here and now! We have to be willing to identify our biases, or reservations, our preconceptions, our -isms... and hold them up to the Gospel message. And this takes a degree of reflection we seem to not be used to... and time and space to do these reflections.
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A trip to the past... to Judea.
First a question: Do you know the difference between "Judea" and "Judah"?
"Judah" was the Israelite name of the territory where Jerusalem was in.
"Judea" was the Roman name for the very same place.
The Romans ruled Judea from just short of the end of the first century BCE until the early part of the second century CE. The Romans were in charge! And boy, were they!
They came storming in to the area, took it over pretty easily (since the Israelites weren't much of a match for the greatest army of its day) and set up a deal with the conquered royalty/nobility/aristocracy/leaders (what they did with all conquered peoples): "You present loyalty to Rome, keep your people under control, make sure we get our taxes, do not make trouble, etc., ... and we for our part will not kill you."
Wasn't exactly the deal, but that was the general idea. Rome let the 1% keep their titles, power, etc., so long as they paid homage to, "worked for", and controlled the other 99% for the Roman occupiers.
Actually the Romans did a lot of killing (especially under Pontius Pilate!... don't let the Gospel of John fool you, the historical Pilate would NEVER have asked the Israelites who they would have wanted to free that Passover day). And one of the most favorite ways of killing people was crucifixion.
Crucifixion served a few pretty big purposes; first, it dealt with the "criminal" (they paid for their crime), then there was the public statement this made (Rome has the power to do this!). Rome crucified a certain type of person - the type of person that challenged Rome in any way - through instigation of or acts of revolution, rebellion, insurgency, insurrection, sedition, etc. So, anyone even smells like they want to fight Roman power... got crucified.
And the crucified were often left in a place the general public, especially travelers, could see them... on roads leading into Jerusalem for example... or on a hill not far from the road into Jerusalem (Golgotha). This way, any and all could see both how the Roman Might dealt with opposition, but also that it did deal with opposition! The message was pretty clear: DO NOT MESS WITH ROME!
The cross was a symbol of execution for sure. Contrary to what many people think, it didn't start out as the symbol for this new religious movement. The cross came into use more and more after the decades passed, after the shock value of the symbol began to wane a little. Someone said it would be like if today the symbol of our faith were the Electric Chair... today many of us might have a visceral reaction against this. Same with the Cross the decades following Jesus's death.
But the Cross and the Electric Chair are perfect comparisons; they both are representations of State Power to take life. Crucifixion was a symbol of the strength and might of the Roman Empire. The Electric Chair is a symbol of the power and might of the State to take life.
When our wonderful Sunday School teachers taught us about Jesus back when we were kids, they told us how much Jesus loved children, and how he healed people. And when we were kids, this was perfectly appropriate to learn. But often the problem is as we grow up, the story doesn't grow up with us. Hate to break it to you, but Jesus wasn't killed because he hugged children and healed people... he was executed by Rome (remember crucifixion was a ROMAN for of death) for fomenting sedition against the system that kept Rome in control.
"Stand up - your sins are forgiven!" (-Jesus). Sounds pretty, well, non threatening. "Your sins are forgiven".. don't we expect that from Jesus?! But in the historical context of his day, this was a pretty radical statement. One went to the temple to get one's sins forgiven. And since the days of David and Solomon, the temple cult had gotten a lot more complicated, cumbersome... and expensive.
The cynical perspective could be that the temple leaders (the priests) at some point learned they had a lock on "God". The way they believed in God, if you wanted to be forgiven, the temple was the only place to do this. And there grew a whole slew of issues that required temple forgiveness, and/or cleansings. And as we humans are want to do... this became a vehicle for more and more power and control. Again, this is the cynical perspective. There is another, more spiritual/theological perspective. This other perspective did indeed exists. But we also cannot forget of the human propensity for manipulation and control either that did play a part in the temple cult.
And this power and control is an expression of EMPIRE - "Empire"... the "powers that be" having their way with people, violating what we might consider inalienable rights, denying what we might see as matters of justice. "Empire" can do that! It can do that because... well, it just can. That's why it's called Empire! The Roman empire could do that because... it could.
There are people across time that not only questioned "Empire" but challenged it. Jesus was one. "Stand up... your sins are forgiven." This challenged the Empire of the temple system of control. And challenging the temple system also challenged the Empire of the people in charge of the system... and this in turn challenged the status of Rome as the Empire.
The priestly class might have said: "If anyone could just proclaim God's forgiveness willy-nilly, then why have the temple? And if there's no temple, then what will keep order (and control)? And then how could we prevent a rebellion that might threaten our status of position under Roman rule?"
John the Baptist forgave people in the Jordan, remember? He came "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4) And not too many chapters into the story, John is arrested and executed. For...??? Take a guess. Usurping the "empire of control" the temple had.
Jesus starts out his ministry with the very same cause - proclaiming a Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A continued threat to this empire of control.
When they try and trick Jesus by asking him whether they should pay taxes to Rome, Jesus asks them whose image is on the coins. "Why Caesar, of course." "Then give to Caesar what is his, and give to God what is God's". Ahh- to us modern Christians this is an obvious appeal to Christian Stewardship -pay your tithe to church. Right?
To the first century listener, this was a challenge to Caesar directly. In the Roman mind, Caesar WAS God! But Jesus is saying there is only ONE God... and Caesar isn't him.
Throwing the money changers out of the temple to us seems to be pious act of religious zeal and passion. But to those in control, this was not only an act of religious zeal - for sure, but also an act of Israelite populism against the power and empire of temple control... The temple of God should not be a place of commerce! It is here to help the people access God... do not hinder this!
There's more examples of Jesus challenging the "Empire of Control" these systems had over people. These "empires" had a stake in keeping the systems as they were of course... and challenges to this were dealt with!
In our centuries, people did step forward to not only challenge Empire, but raise up a mirror to the people behind the systems of control. Gandhi challenged the literal British Empire of control in India.
It was the Power of Empire that murdered - executed - Emmet Till in 1955, after he supposedly either made some comment or whistled to a White woman. He was lynched by White people who had the power to do that. They could do that by virtue of the "Power of Empire"! And they did it to present a message to any other Black person who had any thoughts of changing this system... DO NOT CHALLENGE THE WHITE EMPIRE!
Martin Luther King challenged the this Empire... and was murdered by it. Archbishop Oscar Romero, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador during the late 70's, also challenged the Empire of control of his day... and was murdered by it.
And yet... these people, and many, many others, have helped us as people move towards a more just and equitable society!
But alas, we are free of Empire in our day! Free from the sinful control and subjugation of "the power of Empire"!
Really? Does it not outrage you that for decades our national leadership has been looking out for Wall Street more than Main Street? Does it not outrage you that in our country - a country that started out as a Republic with a vision of Rights of the Human Person so central to its founding, many specifically enumerated in the founding documents... a country that developed the technology to achieve tremendous things... THIS country... still cannot and will not make it a priority to provide basic health care as fundamental to being a citizen? This great country of ours still has citizens that cannot receive affordable basic health care. What does it say about us as a nation, as a people of faith, that we cannot see to it that everyone here gets at least the basics of affordable healthcare as part of our social compact with the citizenry?
I spoke with a friend this weekend - a guy who is retired, who did a career in the Foreign Service, a graduate of Georgetown University - who shared he was happy his son not only got a good job, but that he was able to get one with good healthcare coverage... and he said it was terrible he had to say this. He was happy his son was able to get a good job with good medical coverage... because the assumption is that good medical coverage isn't standard... in our country... in the 21st Century.
The US has the best medical system... money can buy. But if you can't afford it... you're SOL. The US ranks highest in the cost of medical care on the list of OECD countries, but we also rank highest (or almost) in the poorest medical outcomes. So for all the benefits of our system of medical coverage, we pay more for it, and get the worst results of all the developed nations.
Qui bono? The corporate Empires of Insurance, pharmaceuticals... and congressional lobbyists I assume as well. So the question of Jesus remains; is this just? Is this right? Is this what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like here? Is this how we measure up to our call to be a people that care for the marginalized, the outcast, the forgotten? The answer is no. It is not.
The journey of our Gospel call to challenge Empire in all its guises isn't over, it never will be, because we will always have to face our own versions of "Empire"; our own version of control and subjugation of one peoples for the benefit of others that control the power.
May God help us...
And I believe God will...
And perhaps as a part of Gods help, we will all be challenged to look at where the control and power of "Empire" rears its evil head in our lives, society, country and world... and with God's help we'll be able to work to challenge it, change it, and help to give birth to the Kingdom of Justice and Right-ness of God.