POWERFUL CLAIMS IN SCRIPTURE about the gospel are clothed in thought forms so archaic that most preachers shy away from them. The letter to the Ephesians has much to teach us this month, but what are we to make of the claim that we are called to ensure that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10)?
We moderns assume that evangelism targets human individuals, but the New Testament writers insist that the revolutionary message is addressed to cosmic forces that exert control over our culture and our political institutions, giving them notice that God’s saving intervention in Christ is more than a match for their malign influence. These are the “rulers and authorities” that the writer to the Colossians insists were disarmed by Christ’s death on the cross, where he “made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (2:15). Let us do the hard work of translating these claims into terms that can apply to our own work of evangelism. We may no longer believe in actual heavenly entities that need to be deposed by the good news, but we must bring the gospel to bear on our contemporary equivalents. Don’t we talk glibly about “the markets”—as if they were an impersonal force we can do nothing about? But the gospel debunks this evasion of responsibility about how human beings distribute the good things of the earth.
IN THIS NEW LITURGICAL YEAR, the lectionary’s gospel readings are drawn from the book of Matthew, a story of the Messiah’s return. Matthew was a Jewish follower of Jesus living in the aftermath of the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule. The revolt, which lasted from 66 to 70 C.E., was not successful and ended with the Roman burning of Jerusalem and its temple, the very center of the Jewish world. One era of Jewish history ended, another opened up.
For some Jews, the destruction of the temple fueled their struggle against Rome, and they continued their hopeless revolt. For others—the successors of the Pharisees who led the early rabbinic movement—the fall of Jerusalem prompted them to craft a new Judaism based on the Book, instead of the temple. But Matthew’s gospel, the story of Jesus’ life and his collected teachings, offers a third option, based neither on revolt nor rabbinic tradition.
Roman reprisals after the uprising included the “Fiscus Judaicus”—a punitive tax levied on all Jews, male and female, free and slave, throughout the empire. The proceeds supported the Jupiter temple in Rome, dedicated to the deity that Rome considered responsible for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Humiliation was piled upon profound loss, inspiring virulent Jewish nationalism and rebellions around the Mediterranean basin. But all of the rebellions—led by Jews in Libya, Cyrene, Cyprus, and Egypt—were ruthlessly shut down by the Roman army. A final Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem gave the Emperor Hadrian an excuse to initiate a full-scale assault on Jerusalem and the villages of Judea. The results were decisive: The territory was depopulated and failed to recover.
Writing as a Jewish Christian, Matthew offered an alternative to this nationalist violence: the nonretaliatory teaching of Jesus. For instance, in his account of the temptations in the desert, Matthew concludes with Satan testing Jesus with a vision of the world’s kingdoms. “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). Here is a vision of empire, introduced into the imaginations of the time by the military success of Rome. But instead, Matthew shows Jesus, the Messiah-king, rejecting the option of empire, while linking that choice to another—servitude to Satan.
While the LGBTQ community, the pro-choice community, the liberal community, the environmentalist community, the science community, the atheist community, the Muslim community, and many other communities have been harshly and relentlessly judged, condemned, and even abused by the American church, this same church will remain silent toward Trump — refusing to condemn this idol it continues to worship.
It’s hard to follow through on our commitments. It’s hard to do what we know to be right.
We don’t need Jesus to remind us of all that. Most of us figured it out easily enough on our own.
What, then, does Jesus contribute to our understanding of what a well-lived life looks like? Can he help people of faith be agents of change, people who look at our fouled-up world and make differences that will benefit other people and will give voice to God’s desire for human flourishing?
A Parable and Its Surrounding Story
When we read about a parable Jesus tells concerning two sons -- one who verbally refuses his father’s command to work in a vineyard but later changes his mind and obeys, and another who agrees to toil in the vineyard but does not keep his promise -- we might be tempted to moralize it. We may assume its message is simply “Actions speak louder than words!” or “Don’t be such a hypocrite!” or “Obey your father!”
More serious: how inattentive to what’s going on at this point in the Gospel according to Matthew.
Sharing how he has coped after his son’s suicide last year, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, urged Southern Baptist pastors to let their times of suffering be acts of ministry.
Warren’s son, Matthew, 27, who suffered from mental illness, killed himself five days after Easter in 2013.
“If your brain doesn’t work right and you take a pill, why are you supposed to be ashamed of that?” Warren asked. “It’s just an organ, and we have to remove that stigma.”
Feeling anxious about your tax liability as April 15 nears? The Bible has many references to taxes that will sound strangely relevant at this time of year — beginning with the story of David and Goliath.
Many remember a teenage boy offended by insults thrown by a giant foe against his nation and God himself, who volunteers to go into battle with a slingshot. But did you know that a tax incentive was part of his prize?
Visiting the battlefield, David learns: “The king will give great wealth to the man who kills (Goliath) and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel,” (1 Samuel 17:25).
Throughout Scripture, tax discussions mark many passages, as ancient men and women worried about how they would pay.
Have you ever noticed that society allows fans to do things that, short of fandom, we would deem absolutely crazy? When do grown adults have permission to paint their faces with logos except on the day of the big game? When is hugging perfect strangers acceptable? After a 3-point shot of your favorite team beats the buzzer, it’s expected. Screaming at the top of our lungs is perfectly acceptable when we’re in a crowd of thousands doing the same.
March Madness wraps up this week and a tournament champion will be crowned. Whatever the outcome of Monday’s championship game, we can guarantee that there will be screaming crowds at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (The final may break the record of largest crowd ever to attend a NCAA basketball game with 75,421 attendees.)
Crowds change social norms. Whether they are for sport, political protest, or public worship, gathering with thousands inevitably changes our mood and actions. I have never felt as alone as in a rival team’s stadium filled with thousands of home-team fans. I rarely feel as important as when I’ve gathered with others to protest unjust laws or call for social action. I get Goose bumps when I’m able to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a few thousand other worshipers.
Next Sunday, April 13, 2014, is known as Palm Sunday. Around the world Christians will gather to wave palm branches.
For centuries, followers of Jesus have wondered how they should relate to states and governments. Recent documents from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations bring such concerns to the fore, highlighting the cruel collateral damage of many of President Barack Obama’s personally ordered drone strikes — strikes that according to the president, are legal and in accord with international law, use technology that is precise and limit unnecessary casualties, eliminate people that are real threats, and prevent greater violence.
Rather than considering the humanity of our (perceived) enemies and seeking reconciliation and restorative justice, we default to catching and killing. In doing so, we give the widest berth possible to Jesus's teachings and examples of self-sacrificial enemy love. In both Matthew 5 and Luke 6, Jesus tells us that to love our enemies is to be children of God, for radical love and kindness are his nature and his perfection. Loving enemies is essential to anyone who would claim God as his or her Father. Jesus said, "Love." Not, "Love unless you happen to be the ones in charge and in possession of firepower. In that case, kill the bastards."
We are charged with loving our world indiscriminately, self-sacrificially, and with great humility, and that should always inform our relationship with the state and government.
During this time of Lent I’ve been meditating anew what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Interestingly, the only Gospel to contain the word ekklesia — church — is the Gospel of Matthew. Also in Matthew is an interesting take on the call of the disciples. Matthew 10 begins with the premise that as disciples we are all are potentially homeless in a world that has radically different values. Immediately after Jesus calls the 12 disciples, he warns them that they will be misunderstood, mistreated, and often on the road. Then Jesus gives a particular imperative for discipleship. I call it the “cup of cold water” discipleship test. Part of the discipleship marker is hospitality. A cup of cold water is a reprieve, a welcome, a new start.
A cup of cold water is the minimal requirement for what the Scripture calls hospitality or in the original language, xenophilia — love of the stranger. Jesus says that whoever gives a cup of cold water to these nomadic disciples will not fail to receive their reward. Hospitality is a Christian virtue. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for some have entertained angels unaware.”
The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, 'Here I am, for you called me.' Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, 'Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3.8-9)
I am in a profession where the term "call" is used frequently. When used as a verb, "call" is about feeling that tug between you and God toward something that at first may not seem practical, desirable, or even expected. When used as a noun, "call" can be synonymous to a job, occupation, ministry, or church -- hence the term "seeking a call."
For me, "seeking a call" simply means trying to figure out what to do next. And lately this task has felt like an impossible mission. I have always admired -- or if I'm to be honest, jealous of -- those that seem to have a clear sense of their calling. Take my husband for example, he feels very called to be a pastor. Although there are times when he struggles with the type of church or ministry he feels called to serve, he has certainty that his call is that of a pastor. I wish that was the case for me. I have always felt called to a place, such as seminary or my current congregation, but I have never felt confirmation or an affinity to my call as a pastor. This may not make sense or may seem odd, but welcome to my life.
I have always loved the story of Samuel being called.
Today is another intense day of politics at the White House. The debt default deadline is fast approaching. The stakes for the nation are high as politicians can't agree on how to resolve the ideological impasse on how to reduce the deficit before the nation defaults on its financial obligations.
Yesterday, before Congressional leaders were due at the White House for critical negotiations, I, along with 11 other national faith leaders, met with President Obama and senior White House staff for 40 minutes. We were representing the Circle of Protection, which formed in a commitment to defend the poor in the budget debates. Sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, we opened in prayer, grasping hands across the table, and read scripture together. We reminded ourselves that people of faith must evaluate big decisions on issues like a budget by how they impact the most vulnerable.
Several weeks ago (right before I left for my sabbatical), I joined with six other pastors from around the country -- in partnership with Sojourners -- to draft an open letter to Congress and President Barack Obama regarding the budget and the proposals to cut certain programs that aid the poor in our country. Our hope was to invite at least 1,000 pastors to join us in signing this document.
As of today, we've had nearly 5,000 pastors and Christian leaders from all 50 states join us in signing this open letter, and we hope to keep adding voices and signatures. As a pastor and Christian leader will you add your voice to let our political leaders know that you stand with the poor?
My friends and I can be stupid. Add explosives to the equation and the idiocy quotient increases exponentially. Such was the case every 4th of July during high school. A group of about 20 of my friends and I would get together to barbecue and play with illegal fireworks. At any unsuspected moment while taking a bite out of a burger, an M-80 could be lit under your seat, a sparkler thrown at your chest like a dart, or a mortar could be shot like a bazooka, catching bushes on fire. These chaotically stupid memories simultaneously serve as some of the most fun I can recall experiencing. So for me, Independence Day equals fun.
However, there's a deeper reality to this holiday. Only about three years ago did I realize that in celebrating Independence Day, I'm also glorifying the roots on which this nation was founded: an unjust war. The "rockets red glare" and "the bombs bursting in air" remind us not of the day God liberated the colonies, but of the moment in history when our forefathers stole the rhetoric of God from authentic Christianity to justify killing fellow Christians. There's two reasons I'm convinced that celebrating Independence Day celebrates an unjust war.