Monthly Archives: August 2017

When Nazis come to town….

Last week, I wrote a post called, “I’m sorry” and then I left on vacation.

I wrote about the belovedness of all people, from God’s point of view, as demonstrated by Jesus, and about the churches’ frequent failures to realize that is the starting point, and that without that, what we busy ourselves with is not the gospel.

 

After I posted that and left town…came Charlottesville. The torchlit parade of Nazis!  The counter protest. The clergy kneeling. The sickening sound of bodies being hit by a speeding car. A name – Heather Heyer – memorialized as one who gave her life to tell white supremacists, white nationalists, that they are wrong.  To declare the belovedness of all people.

 

So what about these neo-Nazis? These people who want to declare the “White race” superior, people of color (and Jews) inferior? Who think Heather Heyer was “worthless” because she hadnt bred children for the Master Race? Who literally raised Nazi salutes and shouted “Hail Trump”?

 

Well, theyre wrong. They are not only incorrect but they are immoral, because they deny the first truth about human beings – that we are all made in the image of God. They also deny the Christian hope of the “kingdom of God” to come, where there are no hierarchy distinctions but people of “every nation, tribe and tongue ” will be one in the Lord.

 

Not only that but they enacted hatred and intimidation, the very antithesis of loving one’s neighbor. Everything they did was calculated to scare people, even if you leave out the actions of the one driver who literally copied from the ISIS playbook. These were domestic terrorists.They showed up to make a display of force and they were there hoping for trouble. Why else did some arrive wearing body armor, armed to the teeth?

 

When they encircled a mostly black congregation having a prayer meeting, holding torches in their hands, they were not there to pray.  When they poured lighter fluid on a female in a wheelchair and waved their torches near her, they werent there to explain their point of view.  And anyone who joined their number thinking this was not about terror and at least implied violence,  should have got out of there once they realized what was really going on.  There is no excuse for what happened.

 

Were there others who sought violence?  Yes, there were some who stood against this protest who fought back, or maybe initiated actual fights. But they didnt start the terrorism. The White Supremacists did.  And they’re thrilled with the outcome – look how much attention they got!

 

But that brings me back to my original claim: are even Nazis beloved of God? Even White Nationalists chanting “Jew will not replace me!”?

 

Well, yeah. All people are beloved of God.  All people are made in the image of God.  What we do with that image, how people sully it with hatred and greed and selfishness, among other things, breaks the heart of God. Thats not what we were made for.  God hates that hatred, greed, selfishness.

 

But the nature of the “good news” in Christ is that people can start over.  People can be forgiven and made new. And as much i as i am disgusted by the claims of NAZIS marching our streets, i know it is my job not just to denounce their cause, but to pray for their forgiveness.  For their repentance. For their renewal. And mine.

 

It can feel really good to my “flesh,” to use Paul’s word, to consign them to hell as though i were the judge. But if God’s grace cannot be true for them, then can it be true for me? “There is no one righteous, no not one.”

 

I will make no excuses for their hatred and terror. They must not be permitted to gain any quarter in our society.

 

But i will, and do, pray for their souls even as i pray for protection and peace for their intended victims. I must, because Jesus did.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

As a follower of Jesus for more than 40 years, I realize that for most of that time I’ve avoided – we’ve avoided – the most important aspects of following Jesus.

I’m sorry that I missed that Jesus’ first and continuing lesson, was the belovedness of each human being.  If Jesus came as the manner in which God loves the whole world, how did we continue to see things in terms of who is in or out, just changing the categories?

How is it that we – I – continue to seek out the cool kids, the winners, the upwardly mobile, when Jesus  seemed genuinely not to notice such differences?

I’m sorry that we glossed over the parts in the gospel where Jesus engaged the hated – not just the poor or the “unclean,” but even Zacchaeus who was quite wealthy (as a white-collar criminal in his day) – and by his engagement, they were changed.  Is that what we were supposed to be doing?

I’m sorry that we became so entranced with building “successful” institutions (and did!).  Those institutions, to remain, have to be continually fed with more and more “winning.”

I’m sorry, because Jesus appeared to have rejected that sort of thing.  It seems like many people – even his own brothers – wanted him to amend his game so he could play at a higher level, but he just walked on in his one robe.  I know it wasn’t because he had some sort of self-esteem problem; on the contrary, it was because he knew all our  posturing comes from fear.

I’m sorry, because now I see at least this much: that we were straining at gnats while swallowing camels, so to speak, fighting over disputable issues in our own camps while leaving aside what we could have been doing as Spirit-filled Jesus-followers, if we just would have seen other people through Jesus’ eyes.

I understand more, at this stage of my spiritual development, why this happens.

I’ve talked about it a lot at church but still have so much more to learn myself about how to live this way.

I’m talking about what Paul calls the difference between living “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit.”

Living “in the flesh” is pretty much just living like everyone else.  It’s living this life as though this life is all there is, and being fully engaged in the battle for survival, whether survival means getting daily bread, or safeguarding one’s position at work.  It’s a life of fear and anger and defensiveness, of tribes and clans and warfare.  It’s building earthly “towers” and defending them.  It’s protecting what’s most dear to me, the heck with anyone else.  We don’t always see it because we are engaged in what’s dear to us – but let us perceive a threat and “living in the flesh” will become clear.

But Jesus called us to his kind of living.  It’s not an ideal – it’s a real way of living in his presence.

It’s what he was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount, where one’s heart is fully engaged in loving others, refusing to use others, trusting God to do the defending.  It’s that life that where everyone is beloved, and I can take the chance of loving others because I am so safe with God.

This is Spirit-empowered living.

With this power I can, if I am willing, transcend all the petty fighting in my “flesh” and override my defensiveness and fear and become friends and fellow travelers with anyone, as Jesus did.

That’s the way it is supposed to be.  But it mostly hasn’t been that way.

I can’t say “I’m sorry” for everything.  It’s true that in any church there are individuals at many levels of spiritual development (including “none”!).  If a church is a hospital for sinners, then it is foolhardy to expect that one can enter a church and never encounter someone who is rude, petty or hateful.  If the door is open to everyone, then certainly it is open to…everyone!

There is no church on earth where there are no sinners.

But I am so very sorry that so much of our history has been wasted, chasing the wrong things.

We were not meant to build cathedrals (much as I love their beauty).  We were not meant to become culture warriors.  We were not meant to become fortresses.

We were meant to be lovers of others, the breakers of barriers, the pursuers of reconciliation, just because we are so well loved by God in Christ.

For every new barrier we built, I’m sorry.

For every new rift we created, I’m sorry.

For everyone who felt especially UNloved by us, I’m desperately sorry.

Please forgive me.  Please forgive us.   We have a lot to learn, but I hope that we are learning.

If you have anything to say to us in that regard, please do.

Trinitylivingstonpastor@gmail.com

I’m OK as long as I know I’m better than somebody else

Jesus came to do some very important things, but up there in the top 3, was showing us what God is actually like.

This is very important because we all have a tendency to imagine God either in our own image, or to specs that meet our imaginings.  And our imaginings are often not quite as easy for us to figure out as we’d think.

But Jesus routinely blew the minds of the religious folks around him, in the way he talked about God – and God’s real attitude toward people.

Consider that famous parable Jesus told, the one called “The Prodigal Son.”  It’s about a father and two sons.  One son, the younger one, has grown impatient at living under his father’s thumb and so he decides to seek greener pastures.

He decides the best way to fund this, is to ask his father for his portion of the inheritance he’d get when his father died.  So excited is he about his prospects that he maybe doesn’t notice how incredibly hurtful to his father it was, to ask for his inheritance, as though his father were only worthwhile to him as a dead man.

But the father, for whatever reasons, gives this boy the money.  And he goes, Jesus says, to a “far country.”

He doesn’t handle the situation well.  He spends all the money in living without boundaries, and just at the point where he finds himself without funds, a famine hits the land where he lives.  He has no way to survive, except to hire himself out to a local farmer to feed that man’s pigs.

Pigs.  Remember, Jesus is Jewish.  Jews don’t eat, or raise, or even get very near, pigs.  In Jesus’ storytelling, this guy can hardly slip any lower.  And then, Jesus says, it dawns on him a) that the pigs are eating better than he is and b) that his dad treats HIS hired men better than he is being treated.

So this younger son decides to go home.  He knows he has blown his father/son relationship, but perhaps his dad, who is a principled and good man, will hire him on as a farmhand.  It was worth a try.  On his way home, he rehearses his speech.  “I have sinned against God and against you….let me work as one of your hired men…..”

Now if this were a soap opera you know how it would go next.  In great dramatic fashion, the father would bar the door, call the authorities and proclaim that he would never help that ungrateful son who would have to learn the hard way about hurting people and misusing money!

But that’s not what happens in Jesus’ story.  Jesus says, that while the son is on the road home, the father, who makes a habit of scanning the horizon looking to see if his boy is coming home, sees him.  And turning his back on his dignity, he picks up his robes and runs to meet the son, and wraps his arms around him in an embrace.

The son begins his rehearsed speech:  “I have sinned….” But the father is not even listening.  He is already celebrating!  Even though the boy is hardly repentant, even if you listened to his speech!

In the culture of his day, he sends his servants out to gather up what this boy is going to get: the clothes and shoes of a son of the household.  And a party!  A great big celebratory feast because, as the father said, my son was dead and now he is alive!

 

Jesus says, the Father in his story, is God the Father.  And that boy is any of us who thought we knew better than God about what would make us happy, who celebrated our freedom FROM God by using everything up and finding ourselves at the bottom of things.

Maybe like him, we thought God would require some groveling from us, perhaps a demotion in status and maybe we’d be turned away.

But look what Jesus shows us!  God’s glad to have us back.  Notice the Father didn’t ask that child for a thing.  That doesn’t mean the son didn’t do wrong – he did!  But the Father is literally paying that son’s debts, because he has him back.

Jesus is telling us that God the Father wants us home, and he will even pay the price owing for  us, that we can come.

Some people like to make it sound like God waits on his throne looking for the ones he might throw into hell, but that’s not how Jesus showed it to us.

Instead, God’s the dad on the porch, hoping against hope that TODAY is the day his beloved child might come back into relationship with him.  Those folks who want to make God sound enraged and ready to punish, haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

 

But, there is another son.

There is the older son.  That son did everything the way he was supposed to do it.  He never dreamed of leaving his father’s land and going to far countries.  He would never have broken his father’s heart by asking for his inheritance now so he could get away from his father.  He was absolutely dependable, and he did what his father wanted him to do.  He checked all the boxes.

And when that younger brother showed up and was welcomed home, this older son stood outside the house and seethed.

Why, after all that boy had done, would he be welcomed like that?

Wasn’t it clear who here was the GOOD son?  If anyone around here is going to be honored, shouldn’t it have been him?  If that kid was going to come home, wouldn’t it have been the right thing to have humiliated him?  Or even turned him away and sent him back where he came from?

What is the reward for having been so very good, and OBVIOUSLY better than his brother?

While the party goes on inside, this guy stands in the outer darkness and stews in his resentment.  Until the Father comes out to him, and begs him to come in.

The older son says, you’ve never even given me a small party with my friends, and I slave all day for you!  And this son of yours comes home and you throw a huge celebration!

But the Father replies, Everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad:  this brother of yours was dead, and now he is alive; lost, and now he’s found!

There’s so much going on here.  On first glance it’s obvious that the older son doesn’t have his Father’s heart.  He never feared or worried or cried over his lost brother, and it didn’t mean that much to him that he was back – but it was not so for the Father.

And then, there is the matter of what motivates this son.  He regards himself as so much superior to the younger brother, because in every way he has met the outer obligations of his station in life, but he has just made it plain that he was never any more in tune with his father’s  heart than his brother was.

Every day he SLAVED for his father?  And his father GAVE HIM NOTHING?  He is no less of an ungrateful mess, even though on the outside he looks like the good boy.

I wonder, how much of the time did that older brother power himself merely on the mean pleasure he took at being the better son, the superior boy, the heir who merited everything, while he imagined his brother’s humiliation at losing everything?

How important to him was it, that he was the superior son?  And did that have anything to do at all, with his relationship to the Father?

How many people live their lives finding their own meaning, solely in being superior to someone else?

 

Now, it’s a parable.  Jesus is telling us about God’s heart.  God loves both sons, and both of them have missed the point, lost the plot, and don’t deserve what they hope for.  He welcomes the younger one home; he begs the older one to come into the party and join the celebration.  What makes it a party, is the joy in the Father’s heart, to have his sons there.

 

So, if we imagine that God loves us better because we are good and follow the rules, well, we’ve missed the point.  God loves, because God loves!  God loves the “good” kids and the “lost” kids and every  one in between and he wants us  all to come home.  Of course he wants holy lives from us – but we can’t even begin to live a holy life, until we are back in relationship with our Father.

If we imagine that God ought to bang the door shut on those who aren’t as good and righteous as we are, well – we’ve missed the point.  God didn’t think either one of those boys was “good” – but he gave both of them a new opportunity to start over.

If we imagine that our sinful self is a special case and God definitely wouldn’t invite us in to the party until we have saved a life or something and thereby made ourselves acceptable, well – we’ve missed the point.  It’s God who makes us acceptable, by accepting us in Jesus.  God wants us home.

And, if we imagine that we are better than both those sons because we already know this story and we know why Jesus died on the cross and we get it, well – maybe we’ve missed the point again.  One thing to know about Jesus’ death on the cross is, that the ground is level there.  In other words, there is no hierarchy.  There aren’t the best people and then those who are still very good but a little lower, etc.  No.  We are all in need of God’s love and grace, and Jesus demonstrates that God freely gives it to us.

Rather than measuring ourselves by what we imagine God’s standards to be, it is imperative that we examine in this parable just what Jesus shows us God’s standards ARE:  he wants us home, he’s willing to WAIT for us, and he sent Jesus to make the way home for us.  And he hopes that when we come home to him, our hearts will thaw, and we will look at one another the way he does, and see everyone else in his celebration as a beloved of God, in need of grace, receiving what God has to give.  In fact, that is what the party is about!

“Send them away, Jesus”

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away!” – Jesus, John 6:37

Did Jesus ever turn anyone away?  Did he ever reject anyone who sought him?

This is something I’ve been wondering about, because I’ve noticed before that the disciples frequently offer that as a solution:  “Send them away, Jesus!”

When the crowds are demanding or the needs are too big or someone is very annoying, they say, “send them away!”

I confess, there are times I think I probably might have, too.

After all, we all run out of energy.  We all run out of resources.  I know I need time alone to recharge (and it looks like Jesus did, too – those all night prayer meetings with his Father on the mountain!).  It is good to know our limits and it is also good to have wise boundaries.

Then again, sometimes we send people away not because we are tired, but because we reject them.  Sometimes we even think that God wants us to reject them.  We think that makes us holy.

But did Jesus do it?

I looked.  The answer is, no. Jesus did not send people away without meeting them in their need.  No matter what.

Now, it’s true that after Jesus  fed the 4,000 in Matthew 15,  it says right there that he “sent them away” – but that was after a full  day of teaching and then dinner!  That phrase does not indicate that they were in any way rejected.  (Matt 15:29-39)  It was just time to go home!

And then, we have that story of the Canaanite (non-Jewish) woman who came to Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, but, quite out of character, he told her he only came for the lost sheep of Israel. (Matt 15:21-28)  But if we’ve read the gospel, we know that he had already healed the Roman soldier’s servant a couple of chapters before.  What’s going on?

It seems clear that Jesus was putting his disciples to the test when this woman showed up:  would they understand what was needed here?  (Their first response?  “Send her away….”)  In the end, he heals her daughter and compliments her faith (I suspect the disciples were embarrassed). We sensed they were supposed to know by now what Jesus was here to do…and that Jesus doesn’t send people away!

There are times when Jesus so thoroughly challenges someone who comes to him, that they leave of their own accord.   There’s the “rich young ruler,” whom Jesus instructed to give away his wealth and come follow Jesus if he wanted eternal life…and the young man went away sad.  He did not choose the Jesus way.   (Matt 19:16-22)  But Jesus didn’t reject him.

There are the people whom Jesus challenged to let their parents go and come follow him (“whoever doesn’t hate his mother and father…”) (Luke 14:26; Luke 9:59-60).  Some of them left him, too.  Was Jesus really so cruel?  No, we have to understand:  the man who said, “let me bury my father first,” didn’t mean his dad had died and they hadn’t had the funeral yet.  He meant, “my parents will never approve of me following you, so after they have died I will come.”

Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Jesus is saying, that’s an excuse.  You might have conflict with your parents, but if you have found the Son of God, if you trust him, then you are going to have to risk it.  There is no waiting for an easier moment!

No, Jesus didn’t send them away, even though some of them found his challenging teachings too much.  Jesus did not sugarcoat following him.  He was calling people out of death into life – if they wanted to put it off, it was clear they didn’t yet understand.  But there was room for them to come tomorrow if they did.

I am interested in this because it seems like there is a strain of “religion” that likes the idea of sending people away, as though that makes the religious folks holy.  As though we know they are not called by the Father.  As though that were up to us!

We get some strange ideas going, sometimes – like our job is creating and preserving a church full of righteous people who behave as they should, as a gift to God.  But Jesus didn’t tell us to do that.

Jesus sent us out to rescue the “sinners”!  Jesus, who walked right up and touched lepers, who went and ate with the tax collectors (those who collaborated with Rome, considered traitors) and reprobates…Jesus, who would have gone home with the Roman centurion to heal his slave if he wanted him to, understood that he brought holiness and cleansing where he went.  He was not infected by sin or disease or “uncleanness”; he spread healing and new life.

“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” Jesus told us.

“Whoever comes to me, I will not drive away,” Jesus said.  (John 20:21)

Now, I don’t mean to say that Jesus was too far the other way, overly concerned about being popular and keeping up his celebrity.  No.

Jesus did not trim his teaching to make it popular and easy to swallow in order to keep the crowds coming.

No, the crowds said he taught “like one with authority.” (Mark 1:22)  He told them about God’s love and about the kingdom of God, but he called them to holiness.  “It is what comes out of your hearts that makes you ‘unclean,’” he said. (Matt 15:18)  Everyone who came to Jesus needed a heart transplant, which he would provide, if they would trust him.  But following him entailed a cost – one’s own life!

Thus did he require that  the “rich young ruler” give away his money, because it was an obstacle to his wholehearted devotion to God and his new kingdom.

In the same way, he confused the group that followed him the day after the feeding of the 5,000, who wanted more free food and were trying to manipulate Jesus into producing it.  “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” he said.  We know what he was talking about, but most of those folks that day hustled home.  He had confused them and freaked them out.

That’s followed, though, by one of my favorite passages – the confession of Peter’s faith.  Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “You don’t want to leave me, too, do you?”  And Peter says, “To whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”

Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about that day, either – but he knew Jesus was trustworthy, and so he trusted him.  He knew Jesus was trustworthy because he heard him teach, and saw him heal people and set them free, and heard what Jesus said about the kingdom of God – he trusted all that Jesus taught him.

 

A lot of people are talking about “Evangelicals” these days in contemptuous tones.  It has to do with politics but it also has to do with the experiences some people have had, who felt that they weren’t welcome in an evangelical church, because they did not seem to meet the standards, or fit in the group.  They were “sent away.”   Or at least, they felt like they were.

But if JESUS didn’t send anyone away from him, why on earth would we think he expects that of us?  Who are we to drive away someone, whom Christ is calling to himself?  Jesus sent us out to love and to tell the good news from God – where did we get the idea it was up to us to be the gatekeepers?

Let God do what  he is going to do in others; this is  a hospital for sinners, and the doctor is Jesus.  Open the door.  God is sending the wounded.  May we do as Jesus taught us.