Saturday Night Theologian
22 June 2008

Jeremiah 20:7-13

What drives a runner to complete a marathon? What gives a social worker the strength to continue working with troubled families? What pushes a student to bypass parties and good times and instead focus on her studies? The answer to all these questions varies from person to person. Fame, the satisfaction of a job well done, compassion, self-determination, a desire to please others, competition, and even the desire for personal gain are all possible motivating factors. The one things that all these potential motives have in common, though, is that they are viewed by the one striving for excellence as essentially positive factors on a personal level. The prophet Jeremiah seems to have had a different motive for his actions, at least at times. In perhaps the best known of his "complaints," Jeremiah claims that God has tricked him, even forced him, into becoming a prophet, and the results are not something that Jeremiah relishes. He has opposition on all sides, and he has even become a laughingstock. Wanting to quit, he cannot do so because he feels something like a burning fire shut up in his bones. Undoubtedly the language is metaphorical, and opposition to the prophet was evidently less than total, but Jeremiah nevertheless felt that following what he perceived to be God's plan for his life was not working out for him. I can understand the feeling, because I've felt that way myself at times, and I've known others who felt the same way. When we were younger, we felt God calling us to lives of service. We set aside dreams of earning large salaries and achieving fame and fortune in order to pursue the life to which we believed God was calling us. Along the way, however, we ran into stiff opposition, sometimes from adversaries, but sometimes from those who purported to be our friends as well. How does one respond in such circumstances? One possible response is to continue fighting a lost cause until one is driven forcefully from a position that was once viewed as the greatest job in the world. Another response is to abandon one's calling altogether and turn one's back on an entire field of service. Many people who find themselves in such a predicament, however, opt for a third choice. They persevere for as long as seems feasible, then leave of their own volition to pursue other areas of service. This is more or less the tack that Jeremiah took. Forced out as advisor to kings, he took his message to the people. He had lost his hope of delivering the nation from divine punishment, but he had not lost hope that God would ultimately deliver the nation through divine punishment. Why are some people who feel called by God compelled to suffer indignities at the hands of those who should be their strongest supporters? There are a lot of possible reasons--jealousy, prejudice, shortsightedness, lust for power, or even simply a different vision of the future--but in the end the reason for opposition doesn't really matter. Those who feel called, who feel God's fire in their bones, will find ways to continue to serve, even in the face of stiff opposition.

Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18

There's something a little troubling about this psalm. The writer of the Gospel of John associates Jesus' cleansing of the temple (at the beginning of his ministry in John) with a portion of this psalm: "Zeal for your house will consume me." However, in none of the gospels is opposition to Jesus based on any purported fanatical attachment to the temple or excessively pious behavior that would be noticed by others. On the contrary, Jesus is criticized for eating and drinking too much, not for fasting too much, for neglecting to follow the strictest possible interpretations of the laws, not for an ascetic attachment to them. A pious lifestyle can be good, but too often piety is worn as a mask to hide inner contempt for those whose views and practices differ from those who see themselves as pious. Genuine persecution of believers does exist is some parts of the world, but those who complain the loudest about persecution often, ironically, live in places in which their religious tradition is the dominant one in the society. For all the wails and moans that some Christians express over the supposed plot to replace the phrase "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays," I've never experienced any persecution when I tried to celebrate Christmas, unlike the situation during the protectorship of Oliver Cromwell in England, when the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas. Again, despite the outrage about California's recent legalization of same-sex marriages, I have never felt that my own opposite-sex marriage, much less my right to practice my religion freely, has been threatened by such court decisions. There are times when it makes sense to cry out to God from deliverance, as the psalmist does in Psalm 69. There are other times when those who cry to God for deliverance need to be delivered primarily from their own self-righteousness, intolerance, and sense of entitlement.

Romans 6:1b-11 (first published 19 June 2005)

The 2004 presidential election was all about moral values, or so we've been told. Gay marriage, abstinence education in sex ed classes, stem cell research, and issues surrounding the beginning and end of human life were center stage in the news. Strangely, though, issues like alleviating poverty, providing universal health care, confronting the AIDS epidemic in Africa, addressing global warming, ending the corrupting influence of money in the political process, and waging peace rather than war around the world were largely ignored by many of those who claimed to be voting on the basis of moral values. It is evident that for many people, the only sins that are worth worrying about involve either sex/reproduction or a breach of the criminal code. Paul preached a message of freedom from the law, but some people were using his words as a license to do whatever they wanted, under the assumption that their relationship with Christ absolved them of the penalty of sin. Paul contradicts that interpretation of his message in no uncertain terms. "Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!" He argues that when Christians are baptized, their baptism joins them to the death of Christ. Therefore, just as Christ died in the flesh, so Christians die to the flesh. Baptism also joins them to Christ's resurrection. Just as Christ was raised to glory, "so we too might walk in newness of life." Issues involving sex and reproduction certainly need to be discussed, and sexual sins ought to be included in any discussion of moral values. However, if we stop at sins related to sex and don't address sins related to other areas of life, we will have grossly perverted the gospel message. People who are offended by sins involving sex (as they interpret them) should be even more offended by the war on Iraq, the AIDS crisis, and global poverty. After all, gay marriage never killed anyone. Beyond these individual sins, Christians must learn to see the structural sins that allow injustice to flourish and contribute to the feeling of hopelessness that fuels resentment and sometimes even terrorism. Just to give one example, Saddam Hussein didn't come to power or remain in power for decades in a vacuum. He was supported by Western powers, especially the U.S., when our government believed it was in their best interests to do so, regardless of the best interests of the Iraqi people or their neighbors. U.S. foreign policy (and the foreign policy of other countries as well) in part led to the rise and reign of terror of Saddam Hussein, and we apparently haven't learned our lesson, since our government is currently coddling the murderous dictator Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan on the morally indefensible grounds that he is "helping in the war on terror." Sin is a much broader issue than sex, and it reaches beyond the individual into corporations, communities, nations, international bodies, and the guidelines and structures by which they relate. In theory, Christians have died to all these sins: we have no right to criticize others for one type of sin when we are guilty of another. I like Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch" translation of the first verse of today's reading, because it captures in no uncertain terms Paul's attitude toward the idea that Christians can pick and choose the sins they will commit and the sins they will oppose. "So what are we advocating? 'Let's wallow in sin, so more grace may pour forth'? Hell, no!"

Matthew 10:24-39 (first published 19 June 2005)

Shhhh! (whispering) I have a secret, but if you'll come close, I'll let you in on it. I'm a follower of (looks left and right, then continues, in a barely audible voice) Jesus! (back to original whisper) In the early days of the church, people were sometimes put to death for being Christians. Even today, in some countries, following Jesus can put you at risk of losing your job, your freedom, or even your life. I don't live in one of those countries, but you can't be too careful. I read my Bible almost every day, and I even go to church pretty often. Since I want to remain anonymous, I go to a big church and try to blend into the crowd. If the government ever starts arresting Christians, I don't want to be too easy to identify. I try to live a good life and follow biblical teachings. I especially like the Ten Commandments: (excitedly) I can do that! (realizes he's talked too loudly, glances about nervously, and returns to a whisper) Like I said, I can follow the Ten Commandments without too much of a problem. I don't have anybody I want to kill. I don't shoplift. I don't lie in court--heck, I've never even been to court. The coveting thing is a little tough, but it's awful hard to prove (smiles mischievously). To tell you the truth, I have the hardest time with some of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, but he's never met my neighbor! He works on cars in his driveway at all hours of the night, and he doesn't take good care of his lawn. (in a mild frenzy, hissing) His weeds are invading my yard! (calmer) And what's all that stuff about praying for my enemies? I could never pray for terrorists, because they're evil. If God didn't want Jeremiah to pray for his own people, he'll understand if I don't pray for my enemies. I know that Jesus said that I'm blessed when people revile me and curse me and say all sorts of bad things about me on his account, but he never said I have to act in ways that call attention to myself. As I said, I'm a secret follower of Jesus. It was easy enough for Jesus to tell his disciples to have no fear of those who could kill the body but not harm the soul. I like my body, and I'm not done with it yet! No, the Ten Commandments are good enough for me. I'm not interested in following the Sermon on the Mount or the example of the Good Samaritan, and I'm not about to sell all I have and give it to the poor. I mean, get real! They'd just waste it, but I have big plans for my money (laughing). You know, it's a good thing that we can all interpret the Bible pretty much however we want to, because I just don't agree with some of the sermons I've heard about taking up my cross and following Jesus. I've heard preachers say that taking up the cross means a total, life-changing commitment to Jesus, a lifestyle that runs the risk of offending friends and family because I oppose the sin I see all around me. No, my motto is "Go along to get along." My way of applying the verse on taking up my cross is to wear a gold cross necklace everywhere I go. That's a pretty good witness to other people, and it gets me off the hook with some of the more difficult sayings of Jesus. I'm a Christian, but I like to blend into the crowd around me. They're pretty good people, and I don't want to come off as holier than thou. (stops, looks around, then lowers his voice until it's barely audible) Like I said, I have a secret. I'm a Christian, but on my own terms, and I don't want too many people to know. Oops, someone's coming--I've got to go. Maybe I'll see you in church sometime, or maybe not. Bye.