Saturday Night Theologian
15 March 2009

Exodus 20:1-17

Ever since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and especially during the 2008 campaign season, it became popular for politicians to wear American flag lapel pins whenever they appeared in public. In some circles it became more than popular, it became a mandate. Those who forgot, neglected, or refused to bow to the pressure to wear American flag lapel pins were castigated as unpatriotic and worse. Ironically, the more people wore the flag pins, the less meaning those flag pins actually had. They had been reduced to the status of an idol, toward which one must genuflect regularly, regardless of whether the person felt any real devotion. Christianity was able to defeat Roman paganism because the Roman religion had devolved into a series of relatively meaningless gestures. The Jews understood the danger of idolatry, because the warning against it was preserved in the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." If true worship is the meaningful outward expression of heart-felt inward devotion, then idolatry is the meaningless outward expression of pretended inward devotion. The problem with idolatry is not that no one who worships idols has any real feelings of devotion. Undoubtedly some do. No, the problem with idolatry is that it is an external show, one intended more to prove one's devotion, to compare one's own devotion to that of others, so that devotion becomes a competition between people rather than a seeking after God. The flag of any country can be a powerful symbol, and it can invoke feelings of pride and patriotism, but we must never forget that it is just a symbol, and not even a sacred symbol at that. If a person wants to wear a symbol of his or her devotion to country, that's fine, but wearing such a symbol should never be confused with actual devotion to one's country, which has nothing to do with whether one wears the symbol or not. Moreover, for Christians, devotion to country (whichever country) might be a good thing, but it can never supplant one's ultimate devotion to God.

Psalm 19

Earlier this week President Obama gave a speech in which he pledged both the federal government's support of science and the freedom of science from political oversight. Unlike the previous administration, which opposed even acknowledging global warming for ideological reasons, which minimized the dangers in EPA reports for the sake of protecting favored businesses, and which promoted outmoded scientific models of the age of the earth in order to woo support from the religious right, the current administration says it will support the work of scientists and will promote the dissemination of teaching about the scientific consensus. Some Christians seem to think that science and religion are incompatible and that religion should trump science. The psalmist of Psalm 19 would disagree. The psalm begins, "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." It is the universe that proclaims God's glory, the psalmist says, not ignorant theologians or uninformed political activists. Our understanding of the universe has changed over time, for example from an earth-centered to a sun-centered model of the solar system. Some things that scientists believe today will undoubtedly be challenged and even overturned by future discoveries and new understandings. However, scientific revolution will be spurred by scientists themselves, not by reactionary purveyors of bygone religious dogma whose ideas are no longer relevant in the modern world. Not that religion itself is irrelevant--far from it! In fact, much work is currently being done by both scientists and religion scholars as they investigate the connection between religion and science. Some scientists believe that religion today is irrelevant, just as some religious people believe that science is a great deception. More and more people, though, find themselves somewhere in the middle, committed to integrity in both the scientific study of the universe and in the religious pursuit of knowledge about both the mundane and the supramundane.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

As the U.S. marched toward war with Iraq six years ago this week, the majority of Christians around the world, if not in the U.S. itself, stood in strong opposition to launching the war. Some noted that the traditional Just War criteria for going to war had not been met. Others criticized the very notion of a Just War, stating that all war is unjust, including the one being contemplated by the Bush administration. Still others pointed out that Jesus' command to love one's enemies was a central tenet of Christianity, so supporting war was, in effect, opposing the teachings of Christ. Supporters of the war responded by claiming that the war was in fact just (what war was ever launched whose leaders did not claim the same?) and that Jesus' call to love one's enemies was in any case an unworkable paradigm in the modern world. Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, said this: "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Purveyors of war might imagine that if Jesus' disciples had only been properly trained and armed, they could have prevented his crucifixion. They might be right, but that was not the path that Jesus himself chose. He entered Jerusalem as the prince of peace, and he went to his death forgiving his enemies. It was a stupid way to go, by human standards, but God's standards aren't the same as ours. Most humans throughout history have thought that the solution to violence was more violence. Consequently, the world has been in a constant state of war in one place or another ever since the inventions of weapons. Now that weapons are deadlier than ever, what's to stop us from destroying ourselves? Nothing, other than the teachings and example of Jesus and others who preach a message of nonviolence. Look what Gandhi and Martin Luther King were able to accomplish through nonviolence. Similarly, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu brought about change in South Africa largely through nonviolence means. Peace came to Northern Ireland only when opposing sides chose to lay down their weapons and make peace. Aung San Suu Kyi continues to resist her Burmese opponents with nonviolence, as does the Dalai Lama. In the eyes of many, nonviolence is foolish, weak, and ineffective. But how often has it really been given a chance to work? Those of us who approach life from a Christian perspective must be guided in our thoughts by the person whose name we claim. Peace may be foolish to the world, just as the primal Christian proclamation of the cross was foolish, but in both is the hidden power of God to effect real, meaningful change in the world.

John 2:13-22

The Jewish law said that three times a year every Jewish man was supposed to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem with a sacrifice. Because taking an animal tens or hundreds of miles to Jerusalem was unworkable for many people, the law allowed them to sell the animal at home, then travel to Jerusalem with the money and buy a sacrificial animal there. Over time, the selling of sacrificial animals became a profitable business for many people. It was good for the merchants, and it was good for many travelers as well. When Jesus saw what was going on in the temple, however, he was not amused. The Gospel of John reports that Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and drove those selling animals out of the temple. What was the reason for his fury? "Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" he shouted. The reason for Jesus' fierce opposition was not that he was opposed to commerce in general. If merchants were taking advantage of the poor in their transactions, Jesus would certainly have opposed their methods, as Amos and earlier prophets had done, but that doesn't seem to have been the main problem. Rather, the problem Jesus had was that commerce had apparently usurped the proper business of the temple: the worship of God. Churches today are involved in many worthwhile activities: fundraising for new buildings, wholesome entertainment, financial management seminars, family enrichment activities, etc. The problem that some modern churches face is not the activities they are doing but the activities they are neglecting. Every church should be centered on two activities: loving God and loving people. A new building might be important, but so is rebuilding broken lives of people in the community. A mission trip to an exotic locale might be important, but so is sharing God's love with people living in the shadow of the church or across town. A musical extravaganza might be important, but so is helping poor kids buy musical instruments so that they can be involved in activities that will keep them off the streets. In short, there are many good things that churches can do. Jesus' actions in the temple remind all of us that we should not do what's good and neglect doing what's best.