Saturday Night Theologian
25 November 2007

Jeremiah 23:1-6

We hear many stories today about pastors and priests who are poor shepherds of their congregations. Sometimes these leaders are involved in sexual misconduct, such as abusing children, carrying on adulterous affairs with people in their congregations, or consorting with prostitutes. We also hear of leaders who embezzle money from the church or live lavish lifestyles on money purportedly raised for ministry. Still others get lost in the power and prestige of their jobs and bully members of their congregations, neglect their ministerial duties while seeking fame, or make power plays within their respective denominations. All religious leaders who engage in such activities--and thankfully they are the great minority of ministers--deserve the reprobation they receive when their deeds are made public. Another way in which many modern Christian leaders do disservice to their congregations and their callings is, ironically, by focusing too much on religion. Too be more specific, they put too much emphasis on preaching doctrines that are not at the core of the faith, some of which are open to a variety of different interpretations and some of which are clearly wrong. In today's reading from Jeremiah, the prophet, speaking in God's name, says, "It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord." The Protestant Reformation had many positive features, but one of its greatest negatives was the fact that it resulted in a bewildering number of Protestant denominations with different beliefs and practices that called the validity of each other's commitment to God into question. The problem was not the different beliefs and practices. Rather, it was their failure to accept the idea that those with whom they disagreed might be faithful Christians as well. Thankfully many denominations and faith traditions now explicitly acknowledge Christians of other denominations as brothers and sisters in Christ, but there are still far too many who do not. Their leaders, who teach them this message of divisiveness, are leading them astray. In a similar way, shepherds who lead their congregations to reject central tenets of accepted science, such as the Big Bang theory or the theory of evolution, push their congregants toward anti-intellectualism and discourage educated, thinking people from joining the church. If Christian leaders have problems with the findings of modern science, be it evolution or gravity, they should certainly voice their objections, but they should not do so in a way that erects a wall between science and Christianity. Christians have always had differences of opinion on matters of doctrine, ethics, and the world around them, and Christianity is big enough to embrace many different views and practices. It is the modern Christian leader's job to guide the faithful to put their faith into practice, working alongside other people of faith and goodwill, whether Christians or not, in order to make the world more livable for all.

Psalm 46 (first published 21 November 2004)

In an analysis of the recent presidential elections, many pundits claim that voters who were interested in moral values swayed the election in favor of the Bush administration. More than 20% of voters told exit pollsters that they cast their votes on the basis of moral values. Moral values are certainly important, but which moral values are most important to rulers and their subjects? In Psalm 46 the psalmist praises God's strength and ability to deliver, two clearly important characteristics in a leader. Every nation wants a leader who is strong and who can protect his people, but these characteristics are not enough. The psalmist goes on to describe God as one who takes away fear. Citizens want leaders who can protect them from their fears. Ironically, that sometimes means that leaders generate false fears, or exaggerated fears, and then promise to protect the people from them. The classic example of that is Adolf Hitler, who drummed up fears of the Jews and other non-Teutonic races, then was elected to office on the basis of his promises to protect the German people. Protecting people from legitimate fears is a good ability for a to leader have, but it is not enough. The psalmist describes God as one who is powerful. Everyone wants a leader who is powerful and decisive, not weak and wishy-washy. Strength comes in different forms, however. Some people are physically strong, while others have intellectual or moral strength. Which of these types of strength is most important to people? Interestingly, intellectual strength often takes a back seat to moral strength, and even sometimes to physical strength (hence the attempts by candidates to portray themselves as being in robust health). Strength of character is indeed important, though strength of mind is as well, but various manifestations of power are not enough. Finally, the psalmist describes the effect of God's work on the world: "He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire." God is one who brings peace to the earth. Since the psalmist describes God as exalted among the nations, he clearly does not have in mind a peace that is kept at the point of a sword. No, God's reign is one in which weapons are not even needed to maintain order. After all the talk about God's strength and ability to protect, it turns out that God's greatest strength is his ability to make peace. When we seek leaders in our world today, do we look for those with access to the greatest military? Do we seek someone with great intelligence? Do we look for somebody with impeccable moral credentials? Do we search for the person who can quell our fears? There are many good characteristics in a leader, but regardless of what other characteristics he or she might have, a leader without a commitment to make peace does not deserve to be called a good leader.

Colossians 1:11-20 (first published 21 November 2004)

Electromagnetic force, gravity, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force--these four naturally occurring forces are found throughout the universe. They attract and repel charged bodies, bend the fabric of space-time, bind the nucleus together, and cause radioactive decay. Without these forces the universe would fly apart, descending into chaos, and life would cease to exist. Powerful as they are, though, all of these forces (with the exception of a small range of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum) are invisible. We can see the result of the forces as they act on matter, but we can't see the forces actually working. However, no one doubts that the forces are real, because there is too much evidence to deny their existence. Paul describes Christ as the image of the invisible God. As the Gospel of John says, no one has seen God at any time, so how do we know God exists? How do we know God isn't just a fairy tale passed down for generations? We know because we've seen the evidence. Christ is the image of the invisible God, the visible manifestation of the unseen deity. We can observe the teachings of Jesus and know that they are more than just simple human wisdom. We can look at the compassion of Jesus and know that something more than selfish ambition drives him. We can look at the death of Jesus and understand that he endured all he did through the strength of a higher power. When we want to see what kind of God we serve, all we have to do is look at Jesus. Christianity strays from its moorings when it distorts the simple message of Jesus: love God, love your neighbor, even love your enemy; care for the outcast, care for the poor, but care for the wealthy as well; feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, minister to those in prison. Jesus' message is simple, but it is also profound, because its truth comes from the depths of the divine well. Many people today crave a sign to show them how to live or what decision to make, but they overlook the only sign they need, the example of Jesus.

Luke 23:33-43 (first published 21 November 2004)

Christ the King Sunday marks the end of the Christian year, which began on the first Sunday of Advent a year ago. It may seem strange to visit the cross just one week before we begin our four-week journey toward the manger, but Jesus' remarks from the cross in the Gospel of Luke remind us of the kind of king Jesus is and the kind of kingdom he came to establish. The first remark comes in verse 34: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." This statement is missing in the earliest and best witnesses in all the ancient text-types, but it is included in other early and diverse witnesses. It is likely that this saying of Jesus was not original to the gospel but was added at an early point in the process of transmission of the text. Maybe it is an example of a saying of Jesus that floated about in popular stories about Jesus and was added to the gospel at some point. Whether original or not, it clearly expresses Jesus' compassion even for his enemies. It reminds us that we too must forgive those who do us wrong, showing love in return for hatred. In so doing we might be able to win over some of our enemies. The type of king Jesus is is also reflected in verses 39-43. Despite his suffering, Jesus recognizes the need of the thief on the cross and offers him both forgiveness and salvation. These words of Jesus remind us that no matter our circumstances, we should always be ready to minister to the needs of others. What kind of kingdom, then, did Jesus come to establish? In part, he came to establish a kingdom whose inhabitants forgive the wrongs done to them, one whose inhabitants are not so focused on their own needs that they neglect the suffering of others. Terrorists attack, we hit back harder. We hurt so deeply that we can't see the hurt that others are suffering as well. These may be excused as human nature, but they do not represent the kingdom of God. As we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, let us remember the kind of king Jesus is and the kind of kingdom he came to establish.