Saturday Night Theologian
20 November 2005

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

As the summer of 1996 approached, Atlanta officials were excited, for their city had been chosen as the site for the Summer Olympics that year. Many preparations had to made to get ready for millions of visitors. A new track stadium had to be built downtown. A new tennis complex near Stone Mountain had to be constructed. The city had to be beautified with trees and fresh coats of paint. The homeless had to be hidden from sight. That's right, the city council passed an ordinance that allowed the police to round up the homeless and transport them away from the main Olympic venues. New homeless shelters weren't built, nor were jobs or assistance programs improved. No, the homeless were just plucked from their habitual surroundings and dumped unceremoniously in locations remote from the services on which they depended. Many local business leaders applauded the move. Many church and civil rights leaders protested. The homeless problem cannot be solved by hiding it, they argued. Instead of moving people away from their familiar surroundings and the services they needed, the city should have spent some of the hundreds of millions of dollars it had raised in preparation for the Olympics to build new housing, provide desperately needed health care, supply food, and pay for social services for both individuals and families. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., the prophet Ezekiel offered words of comfort and hope for the Jews in exile. In today's reading, he describes God as a shepherd who will gather the scattered flock of Israel from among the nations and care for them. In particular, he says, God has concern for those who have suffered the most. "I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice." While God loves all the scattered sheep of Israel, the prophet says, God singles out the oppressed for special concern: the lost, outcast, the broken, and the sick. What group of people fits this set of characteristics in modern Western societies better than the homeless? They are lost, no longer part of the social structures in which they were raised, because of mental illness, loss of jobs, or catastrophic illness. They are outcast, ostracized by those fortunate enough to have jobs, health care, and supportive families or communities. They are broken, without hope, spirits and sometimes bodies crushed, reduced to begging on street corners. They are sick, suffering from AIDS, tuberculosis, schizophrenia, cirrhosis, emphysema, dementia, infested with lice, addicted to heroin. Who are the homeless? They are the victims of childhood abuse, former white collar workers who suffered a mental breakdown, soldiers who fought for their country, ordinary high school children who developed a mental illness about the time they turned 20, children whose parents can't find or keep a job, infants who are malnourished and susceptible to easily preventable diseases. They are my friend from high school, your sister, someone else's nephew. As we gather with our families this Thanksgiving season, and as we prepare for Advent, let us remember those thousands of homeless who live in every major city and in many small towns. Share from your bounty with those who desperately need it, and commit yourself to work for laws that will help, not punish, the homeless.

Psalm 100

The Rise of Silas Lapham, the best known work of late 19th/early 20th century author William Dean Howells (the "father of realism"), tells the story of the title character, a "self-made man." Lapham rises from nothing and makes a fortune in the paint business, only to overextend himself and end his life where he began, with nothing. Howells, Henry James, Mark Twain, and other American realists wrote about characters who aspired to greatness but who usually succumbed to their own weakness of character or lack of perception. Unlike the earlier romantic authors or the later objectivists (especially Ayn Rand), the realists saw humans as beings of substantial, but limited, potential. They were capable of achievement, but few were capable of sustained success. Despite the popularity of realism for a time in literary circles, it never really caught on in the mind of the general public. The average American wants to believe that he can achieve anything if he puts his mind to it and works hard enough. The fact that the vast majority of people have to settle for something less than their ideal doesn't seem to phase us. We believe we can accomplish anything, we believe we can realize our dreams--we even believe we can win the lottery! That can-do attitude is beneficial when it encourages us to continue striving toward our goals in spite of setbacks, but it is detrimental when it drives us pursue goals that are unrealistic or unattainable. It is even more hazardous when it instills in us a feeling that, when we succeed, we really are self-made men and women. The Masoretic Text of Psalm 100:3 says, in part, "Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and not we ourselves." The psalm probably originally said, "It is he that made us, and we are his," as an alternative Hebrew reading has it. The difference between the two readings is one letter in Hebrew, and the two words are pronounced identically. Since the verse continues, "We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture," the reading "we are his" certainly makes better sense in the context. God is our creator, and because of that, God has first claim on us. We belong to God, and God cares for us, as a shepherd cares for his flock. The standard (kethib) reading of the Masoretic Text may not be the preferred reading of textual critics and translators, but it too has a powerful message for people today. God made us, and not we ourselves. None of us is a self-made individual. Perhaps a better way to put it is this: to the extent that we are self-made, we are in danger of falling apart. However, to the extent that we are God-made, our lives are incorruptible. It is good to set high goals and strive for them, but only if we do so with the knowledge that we belong to God and that every good and perfect gift comes from God. Have you achieved great things in life? Praise God for them. Have you encountered obstacles on your way to success? Ask God to help you overcome them. Have you reached a roadblock in life, and you're unsure which way to turn? Don't feel like a failure because you're unable to achieve all your dreams. God has a dream for you, and God is ready to put you on the road to achieving that dream for your life, if only you will acknowledge that it is God who has made us, and not we ourselves.

Ephesians 1:15-23

In the movie Kingdom of Heaven, which is set in the aftermath of the Second Crusade, Christians stream from all over Europe toward the Holy Land, intent on finding forgiveness for their sins, attaining wealth, or fighting the Lord's battles. Along the way the crusaders are accosted by an itinerant preacher, who advises them that killing the godless (i.e., the Muslims) is not murder but rather a glorious act of obedience to God. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they find the city ruled by a good but terminally ill king, but threatened by foolish Christian troops intent on picking a fight with Saladin, leader of the Saracens. They eventually succeed in provoking Saladin, but they are destroyed by an army that has superior numbers, weaponry, and leadership. After the crusader's army is defeated in the field, Saladin proceeds to Jerusalem and captures it. The movie ends with Balian, the fictional main character in the film, having escaped Jerusalem and returned to his home in France. He meets the English King Richard the Lionheart, who is headed to Jerusalem to fight the Third Crusade. The history of the Crusades is a tale of great (though misplaced) idealism and courage, but at the same time it is a tale of wickedness and foolishness. The people who had the vision for the Crusades wanted to see the church triumphant in the land of its birth, but they lacked the wisdom to imagine a solution that involved something other than wholesale slaughter of their enemies. Today's reading from Ephesians says, "I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him." God's revelation, a vision of what God wants in the world, is useless unless it is accompanied by the wisdom to interpret and implement the revelation. The laudable Christian vision of a worldwide church daily living out God's kingdom has too often devolved into bloody fights with the church's perceived enemies, or even with other Christians. In the Fourth Crusade, Western Christians sacked Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christendom, and established a Latin kingdom there that lasted almost 100 years. The Children's Crusades of the early 13th century are perhaps the best examples of the folly behind the whole concept of the Crusades. Spurred on by the belief that God's enemies would be defeated by the innocence of children, tens of thousands of children, encouraged by child preachers, began to march toward the Holy Land to confront the Muslims. None of them made it; they were all either sold into slavery, placed in brothels, or killed along the way. The lack of wisdom is evident today in the foreign policy of nations that seem to believe that waging war will be blessed by God because of their national righteousness (or the rightness of their cause, which amounts to the same thing). In this regard they are no different than the regimes that they seek to overthrow or the terrorist organizations that are led by self-righteous megalomaniacs. The vision of a better world is good, but without the wisdom that comes from God--a wisdom characterized by love of one's neighbor (including one's enemies), a desire for peace, and a commitment to justice--the vision is too easily perverted into a nightmare of evil and suffering. It is time for Christians to stop fighting the Crusades. The cross is not a symbol of war but a reminder of innocent suffering caused by war and other forms of injustice. May God give us wisdom to interpret and implement our visions of the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 25:31-46

Martin Luther was a tortured soul. He longed to be worthy of God's eternal reward, but he was terrified that he would be found worthy only of God's eternal reprobation. As he struggled with these feelings, he ran across a verse in Romans that filled him with hope: "the just by faith shall live." For Luther, the understanding that no one can be justified by good deeds was a life-changing, even a life-saving, revelation. Justification comes only by faith, Luther said, and even faith is a gift of God. The doctrine of justification by faith has continued to be the centerpiece of Protestant soteriology through the ages. Somewhere along the way, though, too many Protestants and their spiritual descendants have neglected another major teaching of the New Testament, a teaching attributed to Jesus himself, that says that Christ's followers will be judged by their deeds. How to reconcile the idea of justification by faith with the principle that we will be judged for the way in which we treat other people is a matter for a longer theological discussion. However, in brief, I don't think that the two concepts are incompatible, particularly if we pay attention to the admonition of James: "Show me your faith without works and I'll show you my faith by my works." Our gospel reading for today is Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (the third of today's readings that deal somehow with sheep). The scene is the final judgment, in which the Son of Man sits on his throne and judges the people. The criterion for the disposition of each case is simple: how did the person in question treat the needy with whom he came in contact? There is no question to which church the person belonged. Fine doctrinal points are not mentioned. Regular church attendance is irrelevant. All that matters in the parable is the way the defendant treated others. It is especially noteworthy that the person who is condemned to eternal punishment is not accused of actively persecuting the poor, the homeless, or the prisoners. The accusation is that the condemned did nothing explicit to help those in need. We often pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves for being such good people, but are we really? We don't persecute others, but do we take a public stand against those who do? We don't turn the sick away from medical treatment, but do we do anything to help those who are turned away by others? We don't steal the limited resources of the poor, but do we replace what was stolen by the immoral people and structures of our society? Faith is important in Christianity, but so is meeting the real needs of the most desperate members of our society. Some people might dismiss these claims as the liberal rants of a fanatic, but that's OK. Jesus has been called worse.