Saturday Night Theologian
9 March 2008

Ezekiel 37:1-14

We had a series of lectures and discussions about immigration this week at school, and a majority of the students seemed to resonate with the presentations, which advocated seeing immigrants as people in need of ministry, as strangers to be welcomed, and definitely not as "illegals." There were some, however, who clearly rejected the overall tone of the lectures, advocating a "fortress America" approach to immigration issues. These students used Romans 13 as their premise, the passage in which Paul encourages Christians to obey the government, a favorite passage of supporters of state repression from the American South before the Civil War, to the opponents of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., to the pro-apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980s. There were other students, probably a larger group, who are simply unsure how to react to the issue of immigration, and to the larger issue of how the gospel affects our interaction with the world. For too long many Christians have been told that the only part of Christianity that's important is its teachings on personal salvation and that it's wrong to mix Christianity with politics, except perhaps on certain well-defined issues regarding human sexuality in one form or another. As progressive Christians, we must let our fellow believers know that the gospel speaks to all areas of life, that it is good news for everyone, and that our commitment to the kingdom of God outweighs our commitment to human institutions. Ezekiel saw a vision of dry bones in a valley, bones, he said, that were very dry. Could these bones come to life again? Not unless the Spirit of God blew over them and "inspired" them. Many people who go to church regularly are like these dry bones. They are going through the motions of Christianity, but they are devoid of the vital energy needed to live authentically. Safe in their own private sanctuaries, separated from the real world, they await the breath of the Spirit of God that will allow them to live prophetically. This passage teaches us that even the driest of dry bones can come to life again, so there is hope for the church. It is up to us who have felt the breath of God's Spirit to share our vision, counteract the spirit of blindness, and energize the moribund church into action on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and the stranger among us.

Psalm 130 (first published 13 March 2005)

For failing to stand against oppression,
for joining others in ridiculing another person or class of people,
for seeking money more earnestly than I seek your face,
for doubting in the face of so many examples of your grace,
for having a hard time forgiving others, though you've so often forgiven me,
for prayerlessness and restlessness and inattention to your wonders,
for neglecting to make full use of the gifts you've given,
for feelings of cockiness and pride,
for hardness of heart,
for ignoring the suffering of others because I was too focused on my own problems,
for not seeing your face in the smile of a poor child or in the roar of a waterfall,
O Lord, forgive!

Romans 8:6-11 (first published 13 March 2005)

When dealing with our understanding of reality, there are two primary schools of thought, materialism and idealism. Materialists believe that everything that exists is in the physical world, which includes things like rocks, fish, stars, atoms, and the physical properties that relate different physical objects together, such as gravity, electromagnetic energy, and quantum mechanics. Idealists believe that the ultimate reality is not physical but rather related to the mind or spirit. Most idealists accept the concept that material objects and properties exist, but they think that there is something more, something real, beyond the physical. God, truth, beauty, love, and meaning are not purely abstract notions or artificial constructs to the idealist but constitute a reality that is, if anything, more real than the objects we touch, the air we breathe, and the physical laws that hold the universe together. In today's reading from Romans, Paul says, "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." Clearly Paul was an idealist. He saw the "things of the spirit"--whether the Holy Spirit or the human spirit or spiritual realities in general--as key to authentic Christian living. Sometimes Christians get worked up about theories like evolution or the Big Bang because they think that these theories negate the possibility of God. While it is true that some people who hold these theories are philosophical materialists, many others who accept them are committed idealists. We idealists who accept the findings of modern science without qualms do so because we see truth in the vastness of the universe, with its clusters of galaxies and its constantly expanding space-time. We see beauty in chaos theory and fractal analysis. We see truth in the seemingly illogical notions of quantum mechanics. And we see an incomprehensibly wise and powerful God behind the Big Bang and the theory of evolution. Instead of fighting one another and other people of faith, Christians must learn to embrace those with whom we disagree, even dyed in the wool materialists! Rather than attacking others, we need to learn to listen attentively and with respect, but we also need to learn how to articulate our understanding of reality--a reality in which truth, love, beauty, and God exist and in which there is meaning in life--in ways that will make those with a different view want to hear more.

John 11:1-45 (first published 13 March 2005)

People die every day, sometimes as a result of a long illness, sometimes in accidents, sometimes in natural disasters, sometimes as a result of other natural causes, and sometimes as a result of crime. These people do not come back from the dead. We hold memorial services and graveside services, we bury them in the ground or sprinkle their ashes in the wind, and they are gone, except in our memories. When Jesus visited Mary and Martha after Lazarus had died, the sisters were experiencing the sorrow that comes with losing a loved one. Such sorrow is real, and attempts to minimize the sense of loss because of our Christian faith are misguided. We see Jesus' reaction to their distress in the short but powerful sentence, "Jesus wept." Despite his intention of performing a miracle, which is clearly evident from the beginning of the narrative, Jesus expresses a very human emotion. This emotion is all the more surprising because it appears in the gospel of John, the gospel that most vividly paint the picture of a divine Christ, who even on the cross does not give voice to suffering. In this gospel, Jesus doesn't weep or cry out in pain on the cross, but he does weep to see the suffering of his friends, and perhaps he weeps out of a sense of his own loss as well. As Christians, it is not our duty to try to talk people out of their sense of loss but to travel the road of pain and sorrow with them, as Jesus did. We know, however, that sadness and pain are not the end of the story. Jesus tells Martha, "I am the resurrection and the life." There is hope yet for Lazarus, as there is hope for all who die. Although Jesus may have raised Lazarus from the dead, he was destined to die again, just as our loved ones who have passed on have died, never to return in this life. But that's the key phrase: "in this life." Whereas Job complained that his days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and come to an end without hope, we do have hope. The eternal life that Jesus offers begins now, and it continues even beyond the grave, as we follow him into other planes of existence beyond resurrection.