Saturday Night Theologian
22 November 2009

2 Samuel 23:1-7

If you knew the approximate date of your death, but you were still relatively healthy, would you live your last days any differently? Would you leave behind a record of your thoughts? Would you try to achieve a goal that had so far eluded you? A new sign appeared on a bus stop near my house the other day. It showed a picture of Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006 and died two years later. When he learned of his diagnosis, faced with his own mortality, he didn't retreat into self-pity or give up on life. Instead, he wrote a book called The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. The sign at the bus stop, produced by The Foundation for a Better Life, cites Pausch as an example of motivation, but to me he is an example of a life well lived, a goal that philosophers at least since Aristotle have been encouraging people to seek. Today's reading from 2 Samuel claims to record the last words of David--not his actual last words, of course, but the last public statement from the greatest king of Israel. In the passage, David speaks of the importance of ruling and living justly. Those who do will be rewarded, and those who don't will be punished. We all know that life rarely works in such simple terms, but the emphasis on the importance of justice in society is one that needs to be trumpeted as loudly today as at any time in the past. One way in which justice is applicable in the U.S. today revolves around the issue of health care. As the Senate begins to vote on its consolidated health care bill, and as it moves from there to the House-Senate conference committee, it is helpful to take a step back and look at the larger picture. There are any number of ways in which health care might be provided to people, but the bottom line is that access to good health care is a basic human right. That almost 50 million Americans currently have no health care is a great injustice and an indictment of us as a people. In Texas, where I live, 25% of people have no health insurance. That statistic should be an embarrassment to every elected official in the state, but amazingly, there are many who seem to see no problem with it. Health care is just one example among many that could be cited which demonstrate how far our so-called Christian nation has drifted from the teachings of both the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and of Jesus. Too many people are more concerned with "holding on to what's rightfully theirs," forgetting that, for people of faith, everything we have is a gift from God. They complain that they've worked hard for what they have and they don't want people who are lazy, or who come from another country, to take it from them, forgetting both the kindergarten lesson about sharing and the fact that it is only by the grace of God that they have their health, fortune, mental capacity, and indeed their citizenship. Somehow the Christian religion in the U.S. has largely forgotten the golden rule of Jesus, to do unto others as we would have others do unto us, and adopted the golden rule of capitalism: he who has the gold makes the rules. What would the country look like if we actually adopted the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus as examples for our lives? For one thing, no one would die because of lack of health insurance. For another, children in the inner city would have access to the same quality of education that children in the wealthy suburbs have. For another, discrimination against people on the basis of their national origin or sexual orientation would be eliminated. For another, there would be no chronically hungry people. For another, our infant mortality rate, one of the highest in the developed world, would drop dramatically. For another, we would more willingly share our good fortune with others around the world, exporting food and technology rather than weapons and war. The list goes on, but the question remains: if you knew you had only a relatively short time to live, how would you live your life? What would you say and do? Once you figure that out, don't wait for a terminal diagnosis. Start living the ideal life now.

Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18) (first published 23 November 2003)

My daughter asked me the other day why Jerusalem was considered a holy city. "Because it's sacred to three world religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," I said. "But so many people have died there because of religion, it seems like people would consider it a cursed city instead of a blessed city," she replied. I hadn't ever thought about it in those terms, but she had a valid point. Can a city where thousands of people have died over the ages really be considered holy? In one sense, the death of many people in one place may make future generations consider it hallowed ground; consider the cemeteries at Gettysburg or Wounded Knee. On the other hand, former Nazi concentration camps in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere are thought of primarily as sites of atrocities, not holy ground. What about Jerusalem? The psalmist sings of the city as the resting place of the ark, the very throne of God. "For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation." There is an exuberance in the psalm that reminds us that worship is a privilege that we too often take for granted. The psalmist and his contemporaries undoubtedly saw Zion as a holy city, just as many today do. Why, then, does the bloodshed continue there? Is violence appropriate on sacred ground? Of course not! On the contrary, holy places should be refuges from the violence and injustice of the world. The problem with Jerusalem is the idea of ownership. Certain factions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims all think of the city as belonging particularly and especially to their own religious tradition. "Jerusalem belongs to the Jews, because it is the city of David!" "Jerusalem belongs to the Christians, because Jesus was crucified there!" "Jerusalem belongs to the Muslims, because it was from there that Muhammed ascended into heaven!" Jerusalem was apparently sacred to a fourth group of people, the Jebusites, as well. Genesis 14 tells the story of Melchizedek, the priest-king of (Jeru)Salem, who blesses Abraham. When David captured the city, it was already considered sacred by its inhabitants. Maybe the forgotten Jebusites provide a key to solving the problem of Jerusalem. Sites considered sacred should be places of worship, not bloodshed. David probably conquered Jerusalem for strategic political and military reasons rather than religious reasons. Nevertheless, his conquest of the sacred city of the Jebusites set a bad precedent that has continued to this day. Religious zealots proclaim their faith's right to own Jerusalem, or at least certain parts of it. But if the land is sacred, doesn't that imply that God owns it? And if God owns it, wouldn't God allow whoever wants to to come to the holy city and worship freely? If we believe with the psalmist that God has indeed chosen Jerusalem as a place that is especially sacred, and if we honor our religious predecessors in the faith who considered Jerusalem special, we should promote the idea of an open city (at least those parts of the city that are considered sacred and are in dispute), not owned by anyone--or rather, owned by everyone. The person who worships in Jerusalem today and tries to prevent another from worshiping there tomorrow has not truly worshiped. Those of us who live in other parts of the world should pray for the peace of Jerusalem, not wanting one faction or another ultimately to control it, but asking God that it might be a place of worship for all nations.

Revelation 1:4b-8 (first published 23 November 2003)

I am who I am - God
I think, therefore I am - Descartes
I am what I am, and that's all that I am - Popeye
Existence is powerful, but it is also tenuous. Because human bodies are frail and our lives are relatively short, we fear death. Nevertheless, we sometimes feel so overwhelmed with life that we think we cannot go on. Hamlet considered the pros and cons of existence and nonexistence in his famous soliloquy: "To be or not to be, that is the question. . . ." Some suicide bombers are absolutely convinced of a reward after death, so their act of self/other-destruction cannot be considered an embracing of nonexistence. Other suicide bombers are supremely frustrated by the situation in which they find themselves, so they conclude that it is better to end it all, while taking a few others with them. These people indeed seek nonexistence, but only as a remedy for a miserable life. Descartes sought proof of the reality of human existence, and he found it in self-reflection. Assuming that thought indeed proves one's existence, what then? OK, I exist--now what? That question of meaning is just as important as the question of existence. Where can I find meaning in life? Popeye is content with himself as an individual. He accepts his limitations. But does he give up too easily? Is the meaning of life totally enveloped in our own persons? The message of God in the reading from Revelation suggests that meaning comes primarily from the outside, from God who as the ground of being provides meaning to life. God is described as "him who is and who was and who will be." Perhaps it is significant that the description begins with the present. Regardless of the situation we find ourselves in, no matter how hopeless it looks, God exists now. God stands beside us, ready to enlighten, encourage, comfort, or rebuke, depending on the situation. "God was": God has a track record. You can look to the past and see God at work in your own life, as well as in the lives of others. "God will be": God has a future, or maybe it would be better to say, "God is the future." Without God, our future would be empty. With God, we have hope, and life has meaning. The threat of nonbeing is scary, but so is the threat of non-meaning, or nihilism. Because God exists in the eternal present, past, and future, the threat of nonbeing is less intimidating, and life can be valued.

John 18:43-47 (first published 23 November 2003)

Suppose Jesus had tried to set up an earthly kingdom. Suppose further that he had successfully driven the Romans from Israel and had passed the authority over his kingdom to his successors. Those who claimed to be his followers would be perfectly justified in attempting to set up temporal kingdoms wherever they found themselves around the world. As it turns out, however, Jesus explicitly denied his intention to create an earthly kingdom. "My kingdom is not from this world," Jesus told Pilate. Yet Jesus' followers throughout the centuries have often tried to set up kingdoms based to some extent on his teachings (usually a fairly small extent). Even today we have people who would vote to establish a theocracy in their city, state, or nation if they were given a chance. These proposed kingdoms (even if they are democracies) fly in the face of Jesus' explicit wishes, and they disrespect the beliefs of those of other faiths. Jesus says that his kingdom is characterized by truth. "What is truth?" Pilate asks. That's a question that both Christians and non-Christians have frequently asked through the ages. It's not an easy question to answer, but it is easy to see that some answers are wrong. For example, truth is not the teachings of one particular sect of Christianity. In fact, truth is not the teachings of Christianity as a whole. Yes, there is much truth in Christianity, but human weakness ensures that we fall short of the mark of absolute truth. Nor is truth absolute certainty. It's been said that a person who is always certain is certainly wrong. Truth encourages exploration and questioning, not dogmatic assertions and precepts chiseled in stone. Finally, truth is not an unchanging list of rules and principles. To be sure, many expressions of truth endure throughout the ages: "You shall not kill," for example. Others, though, change as society itself changes. What does "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" mean today? The role of women in society and the church has changed a great deal of the years, particularly in the last hundred years or so. Truth is something that is ultimately beyond our grasp, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to reach it. We should be cognizant of our intellectual and cultural shortcomings, so that in our attempts to expound the truth, we don't ever mistake our pronouncements with truth itself. The question Pilate asked continues to be valid. It is a question that Christians must continue to ask as well.