Saturday Night Theologian
27 July 2008

1 Kings 3:5-12

A fortune cookie I opened this week gave me really good news: "A good position and a comfortable salary will be yours." On the surface, that sounded great! I already have a pretty good position, but a comfortable salary doesn't sound too bad, I thought. But wait, maybe it means that I'll get a new job, with an even better position and salary! I don't really believe what I read in fortune cookies, but it's nice to dream. Financial security is a nice feeling, or so they tell me. It's the American dream: land a job with a fantastic salary and start living the good life. That the dream of fabulous wealth is thoroughly engrained in the minds of most Americans is evident from their voting patterns and opinions on issues like taxes and health care. A few years ago, Congress passed a bill that gradually did away with the estate tax (proponents of the bill like to call it the death tax). Even though in its current form it affected only about 1% of families, many of the remaining 99% could envision themselves as part of that 1%, and they didn't want any part of their imagined estate going to the government. A similar situation presents itself when universal health care is discussed. Many people with insurance, even those whose lives would be financially ruined by a serious medical crisis, resist the notion of universal health care, either because they cling to the notion that they are specially favored by God and will never be in a position where their current insurance won't cover their bills, or, even if they're not doctors themselves, they worry that their children or grandchildren might become doctors, and with universal health care they might not be able to thrive on the "lowly" salaries doctors in countries with universal health care (i.e., all other developed countries) are forced to live on. In short, many Americans are convinced that wealth is the answer to all their problems. I have to disagree. I certainly wouldn't turn down the money if someone backed a dump truck of cash up to my front door, but it has never been my primary aim in life. The fact that I've spent most of my life involved in acquiring and disseminating knowledge--and hopefully wisdom as well--is a pretty clear indication that I think Solomon made the right choice. His request that God give him wisdom/knowledge (either English term can translate the Hebrew word) was a good one. Why? In the modern world, a good education will benefit an individual more than a good trust fund, at least in the long run. More importantly, an educated nation is stronger than a wealthy nation. Educated leaders make better decisions than wealthy leaders, or at least they make decisions that are better for the nation as a whole. If America, or any other country, wants to improve the lives of its citizens, tax cuts are at best only a short-term solution, and in some cases tax cuts may make the nation weaker. Universal education, like universal health care, is in the best interest of every nation. We need wise leaders, but in a democracy, all citizens are called on to be leaders, so all need wisdom.

Psalm 119:129-136

"America, love it or leave it!" "If you don't like it here, why don't you move to another country?!" "My country, right or wrong!" I hear or read these proclamations, and others like them, frequently. Angry writers fume against the foreign-born editorial page columnist who has the audacity to criticize the U.S. Others proudly back any and all military actions against foreign enemies, no matter the costs or consequences. Some spokespeople for the current administration even go so far as to claim that whatever the president does in regard to the war on terror is, by definition, right. Nonsense. The U.S., like every other country, has strengths and weaknesses. Some of its actions and policies are right, and others are wrong. The true patriot is not someone who goes along with his or her country no matter what. The true patriot is someone who loves his country enough to point out its flaws and to work for positive change. The psalmist says, "My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept." The psalmist has a specific idea of right and wrong, based on his understand of God's law, and he is upset when justice does not prevail. Believers today have a choice to either speak out when they see wrongs perpetrated or to keep quiet as long as they aren't personally affected. Like the psalmist, we should have the courage to speak out for what is right, to speak out for justice, to speak out for peace.

Romans 8:26-39 (first published 24 July 2005)

I was talking last week to a church member about a certain seminary whose leaders are taking it in a strongly Calvinist direction. This discussion reminded of talks between one of my seminary roommates, a staunch Calvinist, and myself, a non-Calvinist. Knowing that the sovereignty of God was a bedrock principle of Calvinist forms of Christianity, I used to tell him that the reason I wasn't a Calvinist was that Calvinists didn't take seriously enough the doctrine of God's sovereignty, because their definitions of sovereignty didn't allow enough room for human free will to operate. My comments were somewhat facetious and designed to rile up my roommate (successfully, I might add), but my idea of God's sovereignty today still incorporates the idea of a large measure of human free will. Can human free will coexist in a universe in which God is sovereign? Today's reading from Romans is one of the classic texts on predestination, another pillar of Calvinism. "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. . . . And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." That people are predestined to follow God is not problematic to me. The problem I have is with the opposite contention, that some people are predestined not to follow God and, by implication, to be shut out of God's grace. That, to me, seems contrary to the nature of a God who loved the world enough to send God's Son. Are those who are born Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or animist therefore effectively shut out of God's grace, since few will ever convert to Christianity? I don't think so! God is at work in many ways in the world, and God's grace is available to everyone. Is God sovereign? Yes. Are our lives predestined? Yes, if by that we mean that God knows all and has a plan for each of us, but no, if we mean that we are operating under the confines of a kind of Greek fate, from which there is no escape. Both the Bible and human experience show us that humans have a large measure of free will, and our notion of God's sovereignty must be big enough to include the real world of human freedom.

Matthew 13:31-33. 44-52 (first published 24 July 2005)

Terrorists struck again in London this week, fortunately with many fewer casualties than their assault two weeks ago. Many of the terrorists would like to create an empire in which Islam was the official religion and Sharia was the law of the land. The medieval crusaders fought under the banner of the cross and hoped to establish the kingdom of God in the Middle East. These visions of the kingdom of God contrast sharply with picture that Jesus gives his followers in today's reading from Matthew. Jesus paints a picture of the kingdom that does not seek conquest, involves no violence, and in fact draws little attention to itself. The metaphors Jesus gives for the kingdom--a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl, a net--are all inconspicuous, but they have great intrinsic value. A mustard seed grow into a bush that offers roosts for many birds. Yeast spreads throughout the loaf and causes it to rise. A hidden treasure and a valuable pearl offer wealth to the one who finds them. A net gathers many different types of fish together for use by fishermen. The kingdom of heaven today is not advanced by blowing up buses or dropping bombs on villages. It will not arrive with troops of an invading army or even with the advent of democracy or free trade. The kingdom of heaven is present wherever God's people are at work doing God's will. When someone offers food to a hungry child, God's kingdom spreads. When a group of people stands up for the rights of the homeless, God's kingdom grows. When people sacrifice their own privileges for the sake of those with greater need, the kingdom of God takes another step forward. The kingdom of God is all around us, and within us. It is not a piece of land or a building or a specific group of people. The kingdom of God is God's effective reign in the lives of people everywhere, for the benefit of others as well as ourselves.