Saturday Night Theologian
23 August 2009

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43

Health care reform has been much in the news lately. President Obama has made it the highest priority of his first year in office. Health care reform has many supporters, and many opponents as well. The insurance industry is making a tidy profit with the current system and is opposed to any substantive changes, particularly if they include a "public option." Many advocates of reform argue that without a meaningful public option, a Medicare for the masses, there can be no real reform. As a sideshow, many protectors of the status quo have gone so far as to fabricate stories devoid of any truth, whose intent is simply to scare the public, or at least the uninformed and gullible public. President Obama used his weekly radio address to once again quash the false stories about reform. No, there will be no "death panels" that make end of life decisions for patients. No, tax dollars won't be used to fund abortions. No, you won't be forced to drop your current coverage. And also this: No, illegal immigrants won't be covered under the new plan. "That idea has never even been on the table," said the president. Cover a group of people already forced to live in the shadows, who are often cheated by their employers, who pay into the system through sales taxes and other taxes but can never take a dime out? Why would we even consider it? Listen to the end of Solomon's prayer in today's reading. "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name--for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm--when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built." In contrast to the attitudes of those xenophobes who hate undocumented workers and their families, and even in contrast to many who would like to see meaningful immigration reform in the U.S. but who are still fine with excluding the undocumented from society's benefits, Solomon's attitude toward foreigners is one of welcome acceptance. If any foreigner wants to come and worship God in Jerusalem, let him! This open and welcoming stance toward all who would join the family of faith is supposed to be the attitude of the church as well, and most churches, in their public documents or in statements by their leaders proclaim a willingness to accept all who come. So far so good. But if we welcome people to sit beside us in the pew, encouraging to give their time, talents, and money to the church, then turn around and tell them, "Look, you're welcome in my church, but once you're outside the doors you're not welcome in my country," what message are we sending? It's not a message of love and acceptance, it's a message of discrimination and inequality. "I'm entitled to certain privileges because I was born here. You're not because you weren't." It's time for Christians to remember that the bond they share with others in the family of faith is more important than bonds based on blood relations, common language, or nationality. Health care reform of some sort will probably become law in the next few months, and I hope it will benefit all Americans. But until the attitudes of Christians in this country are reformed as well, many living among us will still be left out in the cold.

Psalm 84 (first published 24 August 2003)

The church building is an important symbol for the Christian. Some of the most important events of life occur in the church. Babies are dedicated, children are confirmed, people are baptized, couples are married, and mourners gather to remember the lives of those who have died. Along the way sermons are preached, sacraments are performed, hymns are sung, prayers are lifted up, and God is worshiped. Yet for too many people, Christianity begins and ends at church. Bibles sit on the shelf unopened in many home. Prayers are left unsaid. Attitudes that would be condemned in a sermon are commonplace on the job. Why is that? The answer isn't as simple as the word hypocrisy. We're all hypocrites, even if we try to live Christian lives outside the church building itself. There's something about the church building that tends to make us think more about God and about how we should live. The problem is that it's too easy to think of the church as the exclusive house of God, and modern building design unfortunately contributes to that feeling in some ways. The psalmist says, "the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God." I wouldn't advocate doing away with air conditioning or heating in modern sanctuaries, but the openness of ancient places of worship, reflected to a large extent still in some medieval cathedrals, is a reminder that God's dwelling is not in buildings made of stone, brick, or wood. Whereas modern people might see birds in the sanctuary as distractions that need to be removed, the psalmist delights in the blending of the natural world with the spiritual world. He seems to be saying that God welcomes the worship of creatures that humans consider lowly. Furthermore, God is concerned about much in the world that doesn't have anything to do with humans. In the movie Oh God!, George Burns portrays God as a kindly old man, slightly rumpled, who has a simple message: God cares about the world, and everything will be fine if humans will just be kind to one another and to their fellow creatures. Like the psalmist, the film suggests that God has an interest in non-human creatures, and maybe we should, too. This is good advice, and it is biblical advice. Jesus asked his disciples to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. When we do so, perhaps we'll remember that we, too, are simple creatures, dependent upon God for our survival. Far from being superior to nature, we are part of it, and nature is subsumed in God. When we realize this, maybe we will be inspired not only by steeples and church bells and stained glass but also by dragonflies and prickly pears and armadillos. Maybe we'll remember to worship God outside the walls of the church, and maybe others will see God in our actions and attitudes as we go about our daily lives. Maybe, too, we'll adopt God's concern for creation. I read this week that the American pika, a mountain-dwelling relative of the rabbit, is in danger of extinction as global warming reduces its natural habitat atop the high peaks of North America. Unlike larger animals such as wolves and bears that can simply move north as the climate changes, the pika cannot descend from the mountaintop and climb a mountain further north. If God is concerned about sparrows and lilies and pikas, perhaps it's not too much to ask that, as God's followers, we be concerned as well.

Ephesians 6:10-20 (first published 24 August 2003)

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, 
with the cross of Jesus going on before. 
Christ the royal master leads against the foe; 
forward into battle see his banner go.
Although this hymn speaks of spiritual warfare, all too often in history Christians have taken up arms and gone literally to war against their enemies, and often against one another. Abraham Lincoln noted the paradox of Christians fighting one another during the Civil War: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other." Anyone who reads the New Testament in even a cursory manner should be aware that warfare is contrary to the teaching of both Jesus and the early church. Nevertheless, warfare imagery is found frequently in the New Testament, from Jesus' comment, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," to the frequent image of violence and warfare in the book of Revelation. Perhaps such imagery was benign in the context of the broader teaching of Jesus and the socially powerless position of Christians for the first three centuries of their existence. However, with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, everything changed. Suddenly the church was a powerful institution, and warfare was no longer merely spiritual: real enemies--pagan, schismatic, Muslim, and even other orthodox Christians--soon fell victim to the sword of the church. The Crusades forever ingrained the image of the church militant on the Muslim world, and many Christians even today continue to see no conflict between Christianity and the violent repression of one's enemies. In light of this tragic lurch of Christianity from its original mooring onto the path of violence, how we treat passages such as today's reading concerning the armor of God is important, both in what we say and in how we are perceived by those inside and outside our religious tradition. First, we must be clear that all talk of weaponry is strictly metaphorical. And who is our enemy? Not other people, even people who do bad things, but evil itself. Ephesians talks of the devil, cosmic powers of this present darkness, and so forth. For those who believe in a literal devil, that's straightforward enough, but if (like me) you don't take such imagery literally, the enemy is rather evil itself and the influence it wields in our world. Some people find it comforting to think of evil as personified, either in a fallen spiritual being or in people we identify as bad (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein), but I think personifying evil is just an excuse to avoid our own sins and to draw false dichotomies between the good (us and people like us) and the evil (them, those who are different from us). If evil is real but is not personal, it is harder to deal with, but it is not impossible. In fact, I would claim that dealing with "realistic evil"--as opposed to "idealized (i.e., personified) evil"--is what Christians and other concerned citizens of the world need to do to address the greatest problems of our world: poverty, war, famine, hatred, overpopulation, destruction of natural resources, etc. With all this in mind, how can we apply Ephesians' admonition to "put on the whole armor of God"? First, note that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against cosmic powers of this present darkness. Just because evil can't be personified doesn't mean it isn't real. In fact, because it doesn't dwell bodily in Satan, his demons, and the people he infects, but rather in every person, and even in the structures and customs of society, evil is a pervasive, enduring problem that must be addressed directly and courageously. Osama bin Laden has committed evil acts, but he is not the personification of evil, nor are his antagonists, whether the Saudi royal family or presidents Clinton or Bush I and II. When people characterize their enemies as evil, discussion necessarily comes to a halt. How can you negotiate with Satan? Instead, we should begin by recognizing that there is plenty of evil that can be associated with both the West (e.g., the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran in 1953 and the installation of the ruthless Shah) and Islamic militants (the events of September 11, 2001). Hatred, poverty, racial prejudice, and religious intolerance are all evils that lead to terrorism, both by individuals and by states. How can we deal with an evil that is so entrenched and so intractable? The first weapon at our disposal is the belt of truth. We need to shine the light of truth on all the problems of the world, regardless of the embarrassment or shame it might cause for anyone. Evil loves the darkness and lives in a world of lies and disinformation. The truth is sometimes painful, but without it, evil cannot be fought, and healing cannot begin. This lesson is evident in the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led for many years by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The second weapon we have is the gospel (good news) of peace. Isn't that interesting: using peace as a "weapon" against evil! The Colt .45 was known as the "peacemaker" in the Old West, but it only brought about peace through violence. The good news that God loves everyone and that God wants people to repent and love one another as well may not seem as effective as a gun, but in the long run, it's the only way to overcome hatred and prejudice. The sword did not bring about reconciliation between the houses of Capulet and Montague in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet; only love, and the tragic deaths of the lovers, could do that. The third weapon is the shield of faith, faith that God will prevail over evil, and faith in the efficacy of joint human efforts in the name of peace. Just as Germans and Americans and Japanese were reconciled to one another after World War II, so should we have faith that humans in conflict today can be reconciled to one another. Forty years ago this month Martin Luther King delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in which he described his vision of an America in which people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The world he lived in was far from that ideal, but he had faith in God and in the power of God to change human hearts. The fourth weapon we have at our disposal is the helmet of salvation. This tool is not to be wielded in such a way that people are divided--I'm saved, you're not--but so that people are united. The term salvation has acquired too many theological overtones today; it originally meant deliverance. Because we have been delivered from our sins by our encounter with Jesus Christ, we are free to help others achieve a similar deliverance. Their deliverance might not look exactly like ours; in fact, it might be radically different. However, all of us who have experienced God's deliverance have been humbled by the recognition of our own failures, and at the same time we've been energized by the realization that no one is beyond the reach of God's mercy and love. Finally, we are charged to carry the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Contrary to a common misinterpretation, the word of God in this context is not the Bible, which after all didn't exist in its present form in the first century, but probably the prophetic proclamation of God's will, inspired by the spirit of God. The Old Testament prophets often claimed to speak by the power of the spirit. For example, in Micah 3:8, the prophet says: "But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin." As Christians who see ourselves as standing firmly in the prophetic tradition, we too must have the courage to speak out against injustice and evil. We have powerful, effective weapons that we can wield in our continuing fight against evil. Onward Christian soldiers!

John 6:56-69 (first published 24 August 2003)

Many movies, from Full Metal Jacket to G.I. Jane to Starship Troopers, depict the rigors of training to be in the military. Many begin the process, but not all complete it. Many turn away because the challenges seem too great. Following Jesus is likewise difficult. Claiming the name of Christ is easy; following in his steps is difficult. There is always a temptation to substitute our personal prejudices, the teachings of popular religious figures, or the morés of the dominant culture for the message of Christ. Because of Jesus' tough, difficult words about being the bread of life, as well as his radical claims of a special connection with God, many turned away from following him. Jesus was saying things that troubled them. The path of least resistance for many was to return to their former way of life, with comfortable doctrines accepted by family and friends. Jesus called his disciples to a more demanding life, one fraught with challenges and the potential of rejection by family and friends. Jesus gave people a simple choice: follow me wherever I lead, or stay right where you are. While many turned away, others continued to follow. When Jesus asked them why they didn't leave as well, Peter answered, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." How seriously do we take Peter's words? Are the words of Jesus really worth staking our life on? Is it worth it to follow Jesus if our neighbors ridicule us? Will we continue to follow him if our family rejects us? Can we hold fast to the words of Jesus if our co-workers oppose us? Can we stand against government policies when we're labeled unpatriotic for doing so? Can we take a stand for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation when the crowd around us calls for war, retaliation, and slaughter of our enemies? Jesus calls us away from the crowd. The life to which he calls us will not always be easy, and it will rarely be popular, but it will be honest, authentic living, empowered by the Spirit.