Saturday Night Theologian
29 April 2007

Acts 9:36-43

Congress this week passed a bill allocating funds for the war on Iraq, but at the same time requiring the president to begin to withdraw troops by 2008. A large majority of Americans are now opposed to the war on Iraq, which once boasted almost 80% popularity. Of course, that was in the days before most people realized that there were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq had not tried to buy uranium from Niger, there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and our invasion of Iraq would result in an Iraqi civil war. Even today, however, a vocal minority of people still support the war, and many of those proudly identify themselves as Christians. The ongoing support for the war by many Christians, coupled with celebrations of the national civil religion in many churches on or near July 4 (and other civil "holy" days), might lead the casual observer to suspect that the highest vocation for Christians was to be a warrior. Now I do believe that Christians can serve faithfully in the armed forces--with the caveat that they must always see their devotion to God, not country, as paramount--but it bothers me that so many churches heap so much recognition on soldiers and so little on people in other equally worthy professions: teachers, police officers, factory workers, laborers, and nurses, just to name a few. In today's reading from Acts, the local Christian community held Tabitha in high esteem specifically because she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. In other words, she lived the life of Jesus among those in her city. Too often we look for heroes in the wrong places, or those in power try to provide us with artificial heroes who didn't really do what some would like us to believe. Real heroes are those who go about their daily business, serving others, ministering to those in need, and reflecting their faith positively--people like the real Jessica Lynch (not the Rambo-ized version of Jessica put forward by the government), the real Pat Tillman (who died as a result of friendly fire, not in a blaze of glory as his family was told), and Tabitha, a cloth merchant from Joppa.

Psalm 23 (first published 2 May 2004)

Who is our enemy? In the 1980s, the Islamic Republic of Iran was the enemy of the United States, and Saddam Hussein was our ally in the battle against a common enemy. At about the same time, the Soviets were our enemies, and Islamic resistance fighters in Afghanistan like Osama bin Laden were our allies. When we invaded Iraq last year, we saw the Sunnis who supported Saddam Hussein as our enemies, while the Shiites were our allies. Today, while Sunnis fight against us in Fallujah, Shiites fight against us in Najaf. The psalmist says that God prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies, but that again raises the question: who is our enemy? Saddam Hussein is not our enemy, nor is Osama bin Laden. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites are our enemies. The only enemies we have are those who are enemies of peace and justice. But don't Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden qualify as enemies of peace and justice? Perhaps, but from their perspective so do George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton. All those who wreak violence on others, regardless of their so-called good intentions, are enemies of peace at that moment. The psalm reminds us that God is a God of peace. God does not lead us on a march to victory over our enemies, but to a banquet, a common meal. Enemies who are invited to battle remain our enemies after hostilities have ceased. Enemies who are invited to the table become our friends. Those who see the world in Manichean terms, dividing people into good and evil, are doomed to abide in a world of warfare and strife. We must learn to see beyond the present difficulties, alliances, and conflicts to a world in which Christians and Muslims, socialists and capitalists, Hutus and Tutsis can sit at table in peace and enjoy the world God has created for all of us in the way God means for us to: together.

Revelation 7:9-17 (first published 2 May 2004)

Shortly after we moved to our present home ten years ago, a couple in our Sunday School class announced that they were selling their house and moving further away from the city. It turns out that the reason they were moving was that an African American family had moved in down the street. Although I was shocked that people professing to be Christians would behave in that way, I've seen other examples of similar behavior over the years. When my older daughter started elementary school, her school was overwhelmingly white. Now that my younger daughter is in the fourth grade, the same school is at least fifty percent non-white. I see the increasing diversity as a benefit for students, since they will be able to come in contact with people with a variety of different cultures, languages, and religious traditions, but apparently many people don't view it that way. It seems to be a common human tendency to congregate among people with whom we share a common heritage: ethnic, linguistic, religious, or all of the above. There is not necessarily anything wrong with spending time with those people with whom we have the most in common. The problem comes when we avoid--either consciously or unconsciously--contact with people with whom we differ in some way. Several months ago I attended an interfaith meeting, in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus gathered to discuss their differences and similarities. In particular, they strove to find ways to live together in harmony, putting aside past differences and grievances and becoming reconciled to one another. I like the picture of heaven in Revelation 7: "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages." If heaven is a place inhabited by a diverse people, it is important for us to begin getting to know our neighbors who may be different in some way from us. While it may be impossible to establish a heaven on earth, there's no harm in moving from where we are now toward a fully integrated, diverse, and peaceful future with our brothers and sisters of all colors, languages, nations, and faiths.

John 10:22-30 (first published 2 May 2004)

The young man waited impatiently in the lawyer's office while the attorney read his grandfather's Last Will and Testament. "When will he ever get to the inheritance?" he wondered as he fidgeted. Finally the lawyer arrived at the bequests. "And to James Earl Montgomery, my grandson, I leave my collection of rings, watches, and pins in the old oak chest in my bedroom closet. I hope he will understand the value of what I've left him." "All right, jewelry!" thought James. "It's probably worth a fortune!" But when he opened the chest, he was sorely disappointed. Instead of the chest full of gold jewelry that he was hoping for, he only saw three or four small gold rings; even though there were many other pieces, everything else was silver. He had quickly looked on the Internet prior to the grand opening, so he knew the approximate evaluation: gold was worth almost $400 an ounce, whereas silver was worth less than $6 an ounce. As he looked dejectedly at his inheritance, he decided that he would go immediately to a pawn shop and get rid of the silver pieces. "Maybe the gold will appreciate in value," he told himself. The next day he walked out of the pawn shop with $4000 in his pocket. "Yeah, I understand the value of what you left me, Grandpa," he said to himself. "All the money you had, and you left me a crummy four thousand dollars worth of jewelry." He took his money and bought a used car with it. Six months later he ran into his uncle, who had inherited a sizeable chunk of money from his father. "I see you're doing well off of Grandpa's inheritance," James sneered. "I wish he'd left me something more valuable than his tired collection of old silver jewelry." "What are you talking about?!" his uncle replied in disbelief. "Dad never owned a piece of silver jewelry in his life. The pieces in his collection that weren't gold were platinum. The whole collection was worth half a million dollars!" Many of the religious people of Jesus' day were looking for a messiah that fit their expectations, and Jesus wasn't it. He preached peace instead of the overthrow of Rome. He ate with the common people instead of associating with those who observed the religious rituals. He taught in ways that were contrary to what they'd always heard. No, they needed to look beyond Jesus to someone else. All too often Christians are the same way today. We're not interested in those wimpy, bleeding hearts who speak out for peace. After all, there's a war on, and we have to rally around the flag! We don't want to hear the message of those who say that the wealthy should share more of their money with the poor. That's socialism, and everyone knows that capitalism is the only economic system for Christians! We don't like to be told to love our enemies. Enemies are there to be hated; only weaklings love their enemies. Besides, loving your enemies doesn't apply in times of war, does it? All the while, we're letting words of platinum pass by us as we trudge down the path in pursuit of tarnished silver.