Saturday Night Theologian
4 November 2007

Isaiah 1:10-18

The nineteenth century was a time of great expansion of the Christian church, as thousands of people left their comfortable homes in Europe and North America and traveled the world to bring the gospel message to the masses who had never heard it. It is an era rightly celebrated as the Modern Missions Movement. What is not as well known to students of church history is the fact that the Modern Missions Movement was closely tied to another movement not nearly as highly regarded by most people today, neocolonialism. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of missionaries who went into lands without a strong Christian heritage went to the very places targeted by the great powers of the world who were interested in the economic exploitation of the people. It is no accident that the areas most targeted by missionaries--India, Burma, China, sub-Saharan Africa--were also places where neocolonialism was most rampant. It's not that the missionaries were complicit in the effort to exploit the masses in Asia and Africa, it's just that European and North American military might in the regions in question made taking the gospel there easier. At the same time, many missionaries undoubtedly saw their efforts to "Christianize the heathen" as fully consistent with other efforts to "civilize" and "modernize" the inhabitants of those dark, backward lands. The gospel was another commodity, alongside capitalism, commerce, and Western civilization, that would improve the lives of the natives. Not surprisingly, the "natives" were restless, and many rejected the gospel, seeing Christianity as simply another prong in the assault on their culture. They saw missionaries as people with the blood of their family and friends on their hands. The first chapter of Isaiah provides an overview of many of the themes of the book. Among them is the statement, "When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood." Christians need to be aware of how their actions, even if well-intentioned, are perceived by others. Similarly, we need to be cognizant of our associations. It is all well and good to say that we were doing Iraq a favor by ridding it of Saddam Hussein, but Iraqis whose lives have been destroyed over the past several years are not likely to take our good intentions to heart, nor are they likely to have an open mind when we tell them about the good news of Jesus Christ. We say that Jesus came to bring peace, not a sword, but they see a Christian nation that brought war to their doorsteps. We say that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, but they hear soldiers refers to Iraqis as rag-heads and hajjis and worse. We say that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but they see Christians as purveyors of a way that includes both lies and death. Our hands are full of blood, and our sacrifice will remain unacceptable to God until we cleanse ourselves of guilt: guilt of prejudice and nationalism and xenophobia and hated, and guilt of association. It is time for Christians to take a strong stand, as Isaiah urged, against evil, the evil that is in our own midst that spreads war and hatred and death around the world. If we would stand for justice, we must stand for the oppressed, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, both within our own borders and around the world.

Psalm 32:1-7 (first published 21 March 2004)

After institutionalized racism became a thing of the past in South Africa in 1990, the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, which began operating in 1995. The commission was based on the novel idea of giving people the opportunity to confess their sins publicly and then forgiving them. Some people called for punishment for those who were guilty of countless atrocities against others, saying that justice demanded it. But Archbishop Tutu countered by saying that the nation needed healing, and healing could best be brought about by tempering justice with mercy. However, Tutu realized that a blanket pardon to all wrongdoers would not mend the harm that racial discrimination had inflicted on the society for hundreds of years. Wrongdoers would have to recount their sins publicly in order to receive forgiveness. After more than two years of testimony, in 1998 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report, detailing acts of violence and other criminal behavior by former prime ministers, the head of the national police force, and government scientists, as well as by Winnie Mandela and members of the African National Congress. South Africa had transformed itself from a oppressive regime ruled by a small minority into an open, fully democratic society, through nonviolent means. The wisdom of Archbishop Tutu's approach is now evident to all, and the value of confession for promoting national catharsis is undisputable. The psalmist says, "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,' and you forgave the guilt of my sin." Our natural tendency when we sin is to try to hide it from others, just as Adam and Eve hid in the garden from God. We think that if we can only conceal what we've done, everything will be all right. The problem with our logic is twofold. First, our sins often hurt other people, and we need to be reconciled to them. Second, even if others never find out what we've done, our sins remain a burden on our own consciences until we confess them and receive forgiveness. Unfortunately, even the church does not always encourage confession. Several years ago I did a survey of the psalm passages that were in the responsive readings in my denominational hymnal. Only one psalm, Psalm 51, was included that had words of confession. Those of us in the free church tradition need to learn from those who attend liturgical churches the importance of confession. As significant as ritualized corporate confession can be, however, even more important is individual confession when we have wronged someone else. Confession helps us cleanse ourselves of guilt, and it opens the door to reconciliation with our neighbors, and even with our enemies.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 (first published 31 October 2004)

When I was young, my mother used to tell me stories about my grandfather, who was a Baptist preacher in rural East Texas. He had a great compassion for people and a great boldness for God. My grandfather died when I was about seven, and he was sick for the last several years of his life, so I never knew him when he was full of vigor and life. Nevertheless, my mother's stories created a great respect in me for him, as well as a certain awe. I sometimes thought about the possibility of God calling me to the ministry, but I was sure that that wasn't in the cards for me. For one thing I was scared to stand up in front of people and talk. For another, I didn't feel worthy to be a preacher or missionary or anything else along those lines. Several years later when I began feeling that God was leading me in the direction of full-time Christian service, I struggled again with feelings of unworthiness. It's not that I felt worthless--I suppose I've never had problems with self-esteem--but I just didn't feel worthy of such a high calling. When I finally made the decision to pursue a vocation as a Christian minister, it wasn't because I had overcome my feeling of unworthiness--more than twenty years later I still haven't--but because I came to realize that God's call alone was sufficient grace to make up for my intellectual, spiritual, moral, and emotional failings. Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians that he is praying for God to make them worthy of the divine call and to give them the strength to accomplish good works. Paul knew what took me awhile to figure out, that no one is worthy--not himself, not the Thessalonian Christians, not me, not my grandfather. Only by the grace of God, who calls us to service, can we attain the worthiness to work for God's kingdom. One things I've come to understand over the years since accepting God's call in my life is that God calls people to all different kinds of service, not just full-time Christian service. I believe that God calls doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, social workers, bus drivers, and others. Sometimes God calls us to follow a new career path. Sometimes God leaves us where we are but gives our lives a new focus. I believe that God is calling all who will listen to a new life, a life of challenges and surprises, a life of successes and disappointments, a life in which we can make a difference in the lives and fortunes of others. None of us is worthy of God's call, and woe be to those who think they are, but all of us become worthy by the very act of God calling us to follow wherever God leads.

Luke 19:1-10 (first published 31 October 2004)

Those of us who grew up in church know the song about Zacchaeus: "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree. And he said, 'Zacchaeus, you come down! For I'm going to your house today. For I'm going to your house today.'" When we think about the story, we picture a short man, unable to see above the crowds, climbing a tree in order to see Jesus. The focus of our storytelling is often on the first part of the story, where Zacchaeus overcomes his height disadvantage and has an encounter with Jesus. The real focus of the story, however, is the second part, where Jesus dines in Zacchaeus' house and Zacchaeus promises to give half of his possessions to the poor, as well as refund those he defrauded four-fold. As I read this familiar story this week, I wondered about the impact of the gospel we preach on people of means. Do we directly challenge the wealthy to use their riches--a large portion of their riches--to benefit others? Do we indirectly preach a message that is likely to convict people about their need to meet the needs of the less fortunate? At election season I often think about taxes, and as I reflect on what has happened to the tax rates in the U.S. over the past four years, I realize that the message of Jesus isn't getting through to those in power, which is also usually those with money. The highest marginal income tax rate was lowered by the president and Congress from 39.5% to 35%, near the 70-year low of 31% achieved by Bush's father, but far below the historic average of 61%. The lowering of the top brackets shifts more of the tax burden onto the poor and middle class. The president and Congress also passed a bill calling for the gradual elimination of the estate tax, another boon to the superrich. The state of Alabama had a chance to reform its tax codes, which are some of the most regressive in the country, but even though encouraged to do so by popular, Christian, Republican governor, the measure was soundly defeated at the ballot box. Many Christians today think it is their Christian right to horde as much money as they can and pay as little in taxes as possible. It's a gospel of me, me, me. However, when Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus, he felt compelled to share his riches with the poor. For Zacchaeus, the gospel was all about you, you, you. Which gospel are we preaching today?