Saturday Night Theologian
13 May 2007

Acts 16:9-15 (first published 16 May 2004)

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink:
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
The sailors in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" are stranded in a becalmed sea, desperate for a refreshing drop of pure water. Many people today feel like those sailors, anxious about their circumstances, looking for help, but without much hope. When the Macedonian appeared to Paul in a dream, he implored him, "Come and help us!" Why hadn't Paul had the idea earlier to cross the Aegean Sea into Macedonia and Greece, rather than continue to travel in Asia Minor? Probably it was because Paul himself was a native of Tarsus, a city in Asia Minor, so his heart was there. He was excited about the gospel, and he wanted to share it with his compatriots. However, his venture into Europe proved to be providential, and some of the cities where he preached the gospel--Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth--became leading centers of Christianity over the next several decades. This passage tells us that many people live their lives with a sense of longing, a feeling that something is missing, even a sense of desperation. The good news of Jesus Christ offers hope, meaning, and peace to all these people, if it is presented in a bold yet sensitive manner, and if those who are seeking can observe the positive impact that Christianity has had on others. Unfortunately, Christianity in the West is often too closely associated with one particular economic theory (capitalism) and one particular approach to international problems (militarism), so the gospel message is blunted. Progressive Christians need to take a stand against so-called Christian behavior that projects a sense of moral, religious, and cultural superiority; whose words betray a lack of respect for the concerns, and sometimes even the lives, of others; and whose motivations appear to be more nationalistic or tribal than Christian. The world is in dire need of good news today, and true Christianity offers hope for those in need.

Psalm 67 (first published 16 May 2004)

One of my former pastors used to say, "You can't take it with you. You never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer." God blesses us in this life so that we can be a blessing to others. The psalmist asks for God's grace and blessing, "that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations." Proponents of the health and wealth gospel claim that God's blessings of his followers will make others want to join their ranks so that they may experience the same success. I can't think of a more perverse distortion of the gospel message than the idea that greed should motivate someone to become a Christian. On the contrary, Christians should be characterized by a spirit of giving, having concern for the needs of others, not just themselves. It is true that if people equate Christianity with the wealth of the Western world, they might want to abandon their faith and adopt Christianity--along with Western values--in the hope that their luck will change. However, the most effective form of evangelism is one in which non-Christians see Christians showing them love and meeting their needs to the best of their abilities. When the people in parts of the world that are largely non-Christian begin to see Christians not as self-righteous, cultural imperialists but as caring people respectful of the beliefs and concerns of others, then and only then will "the nations be glad and sing for joy" because of the blessings of the Lord.

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 (first published 16 May 2004)

Many books and movies over the years have offered pictures of an ideal world, though there is almost always a serious flaw of some sort. Pleasantville pictures a world that is almost perfect, but hopelessly provincial. The Stepford Wives (1975 movie, due for a comic remake in 2004) portrays an ideal town, if you happened to be a sexist, insecure male. In Lost Horizon, people only grow old very slowly, and there is no disease, but they are doomed to stay in Shangri-La forever. In the book The Giver, artificial families live happy, care-free lives; sexual urges are controlled by drugs; pollution is eliminated; and even the climate is regulated. The problem is that only one person in the town is able to experience any pain or sorrow, and he experiences it for everyone. Just because utopian dreams often turn out to be much less than ideal doesn't mean that people should stop imagining a perfect world. Today's reading from Revelation describes the new Jerusalem in utopian terms. It descends from heaven in unimaginable splendor, replete with walls of jasper, foundations of precious jewels, city gates of pearl, and streets of gold. Its inhabitants are pure and holy, there is no night, and numerous trees of life offer people eternal life. Earlier in the chapter the author offers another characteristic of the new world: there is no sea. For John, who described himself as exiled to the island of Patmos, the sea made his island a prison, so its absence reflected freedom. The absence of night symbolizes the perpetual presence of God with the inhabitants of the city. The trees of life represent not only an end to the problem of death but also a return to the primeval paradise of the Garden of Eden. Christians have occasionally tried to create an ideal city on earth, often with unfortunate consequences (e.g., Calvin's Geneva or the Anabaptist's Münster). However, if not taken to extremes, utopian models can be a positive influence here and now. For example, many people would reject the notion that the ideal world should be landlocked, but the bars of injustice and limitations on responsible human freedom that the sea represented to the author would not be part of an ideal world. Precious gems might not be an appropriate building material for an ideal world, but the fact that wealth belonged to all, not just a select few, suggests the principle that basic human needs--including housing, food, and education--should be provided for out of the wealth of the community. We can't eliminate death, but the trees of life in the city remind us that excellent health care is a basic human right. The word "utopia" literally means "nowhere"; there is no perfect city on this planet. Nevertheless, the people of God can work together to create a world that more closely approximates that perfect city. It is our sacred duty to do so.

John 5:1-9

Blue laws are pieces of legislation that prohibit certain activities on one day of the week, usually Sunday. In Georgia, for example, no alcoholic beverages can be sold on Sunday in retail stores. In Texas, a similar restriction prohibits the retail sale of hard liquor, though not beer and wine, on Sunday. Blue laws were created to safeguard the observance of the Christian Sabbath, and though they have been expanded in some places to offer merchants a choice of restricting sales on either Saturday or Sunday, most states in the U.S. have outlawed blue laws because of their goal of enforcing or encouraging religious (i.e., Christian) behavior--or, strictly speaking, Puritanical interpretations of Christian behavior. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that certain blue laws do not violate either the Establishment Clause or the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, their reasoning is suspect, and it is hard to see the claimed secular purpose of most blue laws as anything but contrived. When Jesus encountered the lame man alongside the pool of Bethzatha (or Bethsaida), he learned that the man had been lying there every day for thirty-eight years awaiting a miraculous cure. Jesus offered him a cure on the spot, and the man picked up his mat and began to walk. However, there was one catch: since it was the Sabbath, the man was prohibited from carrying his mat, according to the religious leaders. Jesus' healing of the man set up a confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders over the legality of carrying a mat on the Sabbath. The religious leaders were wrong, of course, and Jesus was right. Doing good deeds, helping someone in need, trumps laws that, while often perfectly acceptable, serve to oppress people in certain circumstances. In this case, the man had been waiting for healing for thirty-eight years. Making him wait another day was not only unnecessary, it was unthinkable. And what guarantee did he have that Jesus would return on the following day? He was offered a chance for healing, and he took it. If we were in a similar situation, we would be stupid not to do the same. It is our duty as Christians to minister to people when we encounter them in need, regardless of their situation, even if it means we have to violate an ultimately unnecessary rule. This is not to say that all rules are unnecessary, but some rules were meant to be broken. The city council in Farmer's Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, has recently enacted several ordinances directed against undocumented workers. For example, it is now illegal to knowingly rent an apartment to illegal aliens in the city. Is this a rule that Christians should obey? No! It is in conflict with God's command to care for the poor and homeless, and it contradicts Jesus' example of meeting the needs of everyone, regardless of their social status. But what about Paul's statement in Romans 13:1 that Christians should subject themselves to governing authorities? This is the argument that was used by the racist South African government in the days of apartheid, and it is used today by people like Lou Dobbs to oppress the undocumented. What neither the white South African government nor Lou Dobbs understood was that Paul's exhortation to obey the human law was not absolute. It was contingent upon the human law not being in conflict with the law of God. The law of God, which always trumps human law, requires God's people to care for the poor and the sick, to stand against oppression and injustice, and, above all, to love one's neighbor. What about when two of God's laws appear to be in conflict? Jesus told the man to pick up him mat and carry it home, in direct violation of the law, which was based on a human understanding of God's law concerning remembering the Sabbath. When two of God's laws seem to contradict one another, the law that supports justice, performs healing, promotes peace, or shows love to another human being ultimately has priority.