Saturday Night Theologian
28 August 2005

Exodus 3:1-15

Have you ever had an experience of the divine that was so real to you that you were left breathless, filled with awe, or broken down in tears? If you've had such as experience, how did it affect your subsequent behavior? I've known people who claim to have had profound encounters with God, and their lives changed for awhile, but fairly soon thereafter they were back in their old patterns of living, that is, living primarily for themselves. I've also known people whose lives changed forever after an encounter with God. I can't say whether one experience was real while the other was imagined, or even whether both were imagined on some level, but I can take note of lives that have changed for the better. Moses' encounter with God took place not in a cathedral or temple, not at a religious festival or a time of sacrifice, but in a remote place, "beyond the wilderness," at the foot of a mountain. Some people find special significance in specific places, believing them to be sacred sites. I respect their beliefs, but for me, God can appear anywhere, in any form, so everywhere is potentially sacred ground. Mt. Horeb was sacred to Moses because he experienced God there, but I have places that are sacred, or at least special, to me, because I have experienced God in those places. In fact, some of the "places" aren't really places at all, but rather phenomena, like a thunderstorm rolling in over the hills. I think it's good for us to have sacred places of our own, places where we have experienced God before, perhaps not as vividly as Moses' experience with the burning bush, but real just the same. However, our focus should not be on the sacred site per se but instead on the message that God conveys through an encounter with us. The central message that comes from Moses' encounter with God is that God is faithful to those who trust in God. The statement "I am who I am" suggests God's consistency in dealing with humanity. So does "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Just as God has demonstrated faithfulness in the past to Moses' ancestor, so God will be faithful in the present to Moses' people. In what way will God be faithful, and why is God appearing to Moses in the first place? "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them up out of that land." God is concerned about justice, and God plans to act to bring it about. Throughout the ages oppressed people have cried out to God, and God has delivered them. It is no different today. The powerful who oppress the poor and think they are exempt from God's judgment because of their wealth or their military might had better think again. God is opposed to the oppressors and sides with the oppressed. How does God's preferential treatment of the poor and oppressed tie back into our discussion about sacred places? God says to Moses, "This shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." When God chooses to appear in a theophany, God speaks to those who are part of the divine plan, especially those who have already been faithful in the past or those whom God intends to integrate into the divine plan. Sacred spaces, then, are for the faithful people of God. The poor and the outcast find refuge in those places where God's presence is felt most strongly: churches, temples, mountains, seashores, and other places. By contrast, those who opposed God's work in the world cannot hope to find comfort in sacred spaces, only admonishment and a challenge to repent. Not all churches are sacred spaces, for not all churches proclaim God's message of hope to the outcast, but all churches--and synagogues, mosques, and temples--have the potential of becoming sacred places of worship and refuge. It isn't holy water, or traditional ritual, or sacred words pronounced over a site that make it holy, significant as those acts may be. A place becomes sacred when people can encounter the divine there in a powerful and life-changing way and then go from there to continue God's work in the world.

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c

When my family lived in South Africa for a little more than a year in the late 1980s, I had my first experience of being a stranger in a strange land. First, the color of my skin (white) made me a minority in a country where more than 80% of the people had black skin. Second, our accents made us readily identifiable as Americans, so we often got strange looks in stores and on the streets. Our experience in South Africa was very good, and people were very hospitable to us, but we could never completely shake the feeling that we were aliens there. If we felt that way, I can only imagine how our black friends there felt. They were born in the land and grew up there, yet they were marginalized and denied equality, so they were in effect aliens in the land of their birth. There are many reasons for people to become aliens in a foreign land. Some leave their homeland to search for better economic opportunities for themselves and their families. Some emigrate in search of greater freedoms. Some flee their homeland to escape punishment or persecution. Some go to a new land because they prefer its culture, its natural resources, or its ambience. Psalm 105 says that "Jacob lived as an alien in the land of Ham." Ham is used as an element of synonymous parallelism to correspond to Egypt in the first half of the verse, just as Israel corresponds with Jacob, but it also carries the connotation of the "curse of Ham" from Genesis 9:20-27 (actually the curse of Canaan in the present form of the text, though an earlier tradition probably referred to Ham instead). The effect of this verse upon the hearer or reader was that it conjured up negative feelings toward the Egyptians among whom the Israelites resided as aliens. Of course, they had good reason to have negative feelings, given the oppression that ensued when "a king arose who didn't know Joseph." However, we must also remember that Jacob and his family voluntarily sought refuge in Egypt, and the Egyptian king honored them and gave them some of the best land available. The interaction between Israel and Egypt, then, is complex, just as is the interaction between citizens and aliens today. Citizens like to be able to hire aliens for substandard wages, and they also like that taxes that aliens pump into the system. Citizens don't like losing their jobs to aliens or their descendants, and they are often opposed to tax revenues being spent to support aliens who need help. On an interpersonal level, aliens often blend in with their community, particularly when a large number of citizens from the same country or ethnic group live nearby. When they don't blend in, bad things often happen. This week a fire in a residential hotel in Paris killed at least 20 people. Because the hotel was inhabited almost solely by immigrants and other foreigners, and because of a similar suspicious fire several months ago, some people suspect arson motivated by anti-immigrant prejudice, perhaps directed especially African immigrants (the large majority of the immigrants in the hotel were from Africa). In contrast, Israel has always welcomed Jews from other countries with open arms, though their treatment of Israeli Arabs and Palestinian workers has been less than welcoming. Australia has traditionally welcomed immigrants, but anti-immigrant feeling is growing there, particularly among people of European descent, who are wary of the growing number of Asians moving into the country. The lesson I would like to draw from this reading is that citizens of a country should welcome immigrants like brothers and sisters, like fellow children of God, which they are. Whatever their reasons for coming, they undertook a difficult journey, and they deserve our support, not our opposition. Rather than lining the border between Mexico and the U.S. with vigilantes with guns, Christians should welcome those seeking a better life with open arms. The principle behind this approach is obvious: if we were immigrants in a foreign country, how would we want to be treated?

Romans 12:9-21

Pat Robertson this week called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Although he later retracted his statement and apologized for it, one has to wonder from what dark corner of the Christian religion he drew his inspiration for his remark. Certainly not from today's reading from Romans 12, which contains a litany of ethical charges for Christians, not one of which has anything to do with the cold-blooded, calculated murder of another human being. On the contrary, Paul offers admonitions like these: "Love one another with mutual affection. . . . Live in harmony with one another. . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . . If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. . . . If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink." The people of God should be distinguishable from the people of the world on the basis on their behavior. It's not enough to believe all the "orthodox" doctrines. In fact, it may be a detriment, if it leads to pride: "Do not claim to be wiser than you are." If orthopraxy doesn't accompany orthodoxy, than the orthodoxy is worthless. A so-called Christian leader who calls for the assassination of an enemy is no different from a so-called Muslim leader who issues a fatwa against someone like Salman Rushdie, who expressed opinions that some think to be anti-Muslim. Both the Christian and the Muslim who call for violence richly deserve the condemnation of the faithful, and they should be called to repentance. Robertson's religion seems to be focused more on the centrality of the American gospel of capitalism than on the Christian gospel of love. The two are not the same, and to a large extent they are incompatible. Paul's list of suggested behaviors presents a Christian ideal that is far from the Christianity of most Western Christians today, but it is something toward which we must strive. Abraham Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy" (quoted from Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait). Similarly, as people of faith we need to say, "Whatever differs from this ideal, laid out by Paul, to the extent of the difference, is no Christianity." All of us have said things that we wish we could take back, and Pat Robertson is no exception. However, it is incumbent upon those with a public platform, like the 700 Club, to take great care not to profane the name of Christ or sully the cause of Christianity. Robertson has made many such outrageous comments before, and many consider him more of a caricature of right-wing Christianity than a serious, thoughtful Christian leader. His missteps should cause us to evaluate our own lives to see whether some of our words or deeds reflect poorly on the Christian faith. How willing are we to show hospitality to strangers? Do we live in harmony with one another, or is it more like cacophony? Do we associate with the lowly, or do we stick with our own socioeconomic class? Above all, do we make every effort to live peaceably with one another? If we will live up to the ideals that Paul sets forth in his letter to the Romans, we will do more to advance the cause of Christ than even the most thoughtless televangelist can undo.

Matthew 16:21-28

There's a Wizard of Id cartoon that shows the cowardly knight Rodney about to go on an undercover mission. The courtiers make sure he has his armor, his disguise, and his spear. Then one of them offers him a suicide pill to take in case he's captured. "Don't bother to give him that," says that Wizard. "He'll never be captured." Like brave, brave Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Rodney is the type who will run away at the first sign of danger. We're often a lot like Rodney and Sir Robin. We're fearless when planning our battle strategy, but when it comes to implementing it, fear sets in. Jesus' disciples were just like we are. They liked the idea of following a royal messiah, but they didn't want him to become a suffering servant, primarily because of the implications for them as disciples. Jesus understood their hesitancy, but he was never one to beat around the bush: "If any want to become by followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me." Jesus doesn't call us to carry his cross but to carry our own crosses. The Christian walk is characterized by joy, but it's also fraught with danger. It's easy to live parts of the Christian life, particularly in a country that thinks of itself as Christian. It's hard, however, to be a Christian when our co-workers are ridiculing us or when our neighbors are questioning our positions on burning social issues. But Christianity isn't about partial commitments or half-hearted obedience. As Bonhoeffer said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." It is probably that few of us will be called upon to die because of our beliefs, though it is possible, but it is quite likely that our beliefs, when they are translated into action, will make us unpopular or perhaps even hated. If we're not ready for that, we're not ready to follow the call of Christ.