Why Work to Change the World?

"God might be there, out among the vines." Photo via mythja/Shutterstock.

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!”

How boring.

How ineffective.

More serious: how inattentive to what’s going on at this point in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Rick Warren to Pastors: 'There Is No Testimony Without a Test'

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren on a panel on religious liberty at the SBC's Pastors' Converence. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

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.

“Behind every publicly successful ministry, there is private pain,” Warren said at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference. “Pain is God’s megaphone. There is no testimony without a test. There is no message without a mess. There is no impact without criticism.”

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.”

Even Jesus had a Tax Man

Taxes are due April 15. Courtesy Shutterstock

Taxes are due April 15. Courtesy Shutterstock

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.

Palm-Powered Protest

Courtesy Odyssey Networks

Palm-powered protest. Courtesy Odyssey Networks

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.

Has Drone Firepower Conquered Christ's Love?

Keith Tarrier and spirit of america / Shutterstock

Obama has personally ordered drone strikes. Keith Tarrier and spirit of america / Shutterstock

For centuries, followers of Jesus have wondered how they should relate to states and governments. Recent documents from Amnesty InternationalHuman 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.

Discipleship and Strangers: A Cup of Cold Water

Cup of cold water, Gunnar Pippel /

Cup of cold water, Gunnar Pippel /

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.”

Here I Am!

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.

Matthew 25 -- Why We Went to the White House

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.