Saturday Night Theologian
14 March 2010

Joshua 5:9-12

"I realize there's no shame in being poor, but it's no great honor either." So says Tevye, the paterfamilias in Fiddler on the Roof. In one sense Tevye is right. Since we have no control over the circumstances we're born into, poverty is no reflection on our character. Yet, as he suggests in his understated way, there is dishonor associated with poverty. It is not necessarily deserved, but it is there nonetheless. So, contrary to his initial statement, there is shame associated with being poor, simply because society has always treated the privileged and the underprivileged differently. Today's reading from Joshua describes the movement from shame to honor: "Today I have rolled away from you the shame of Egypt." Why was Egypt a place of shame? The Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians, obviously against their will, so it is the Egyptians who should feel shame, not the Israelites. But that's not the way the world normally works. We give lip service to the idea--common to the prophets and to Jesus--that most of the problems in the world are caused by the rich oppressing the poor, and then we turn around and join in the oppression. How else can we account for a TV personality like Glenn Beck telling his audience that they should flee churches that preach social justice? It's bad enough that someone would have such a perverse understanding of the biblical idea of justice as to make such a statement, but what's worse is that millions of people who consider themselves to be Christians will put the words of Glenn Beck above the words of Jesus and the prophets in order to justify their own fear and loathing of the poor, the immigrant, the foreigner, or the oppressed. In our society, which claims to be based on the foundation of Judeo-Christian values, there is shame in being poor, but it doesn't have to be that way. God takes away the shame unjustly associated with enslavement and replaces it with pride in the best sense of the word. Both Christian doctrine and the hard experiences of life teach us that we are all sinners, so some shame in life is well-earned, but God's promise of forgiveness also rolls away shame, if we are willing to accept it. As people of faith who embrace the biblical mandate for social justice, it is incumbent upon us to accept our own status as beloved of God, regardless of our temporal circumstances, and we must share God's love with all those who feel the shame of the world, as we replace that shame with honor.

Psalm 32 (first published 21 March 2004)

After institutionalized racism became a thing of the past in South Africa in 1990, the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, which began operating in 1995. The commission was based on the novel idea of giving people the opportunity to confess their sins publicly and then forgiving them. Some people called for punishment for those who were guilty of countless atrocities against others, saying that justice demanded it. But Archbishop Tutu countered by saying that the nation needed healing, and healing could best be brought about by tempering justice with mercy. However, Tutu realized that a blanket pardon to all wrongdoers would not mend the harm that racial discrimination had inflicted on the society for hundreds of years. Wrongdoers would have to recount their sins publicly in order to receive forgiveness. After more than two years of testimony, in 1998 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report, detailing acts of violence and other criminal behavior by former prime ministers, the head of the national police force, and government scientists, as well as by Winnie Mandela and members of the African National Congress. South Africa had transformed itself from a oppressive regime ruled by a small minority into an open, fully democratic society, through nonviolent means. The wisdom of Archbishop Tutu's approach is now evident to all, and the value of confession for promoting national catharsis is undisputable. The psalmist says, "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,' and you forgave the guilt of my sin." Our natural tendency when we sin is to try to hide it from others, just as Adam and Eve hid in the garden from God. We think that if we can only conceal what we've done, everything will be all right. The problem with our logic is twofold. First, our sins often hurt other people, and we need to be reconciled to them. Second, even if others never find out what we've done, our sins remain a burden on our own consciences until we confess them and receive forgiveness. Unfortunately, even the church does not always encourage confession. Several years ago I did a survey of the psalm passages that were in the responsive readings in my denominational hymnal. Only one psalm, Psalm 51, was included that had words of confession. Those of us in the free church tradition need to learn from those who attend liturgical churches the importance of confession. As significant as ritualized corporate confession can be, however, even more important is individual confession when we have wronged someone else. Confession helps us cleanse ourselves of guilt, and it opens the door to reconciliation with our neighbors, and even with our enemies.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (first published 21 March 2004)

Reconciliation doesn't come through the barrel of a gun. Reconciliation isn't visible through a bomb sight. The one-year anniversary of the start of the war on Iraq reminds us that it's easier to kill your enemies than to be reconciled with them, yet God calls us to be ministers of reconciliation. Reconciliation is hard enough between groups of people whose ancestors were at odds. It's harder still to be reconciled with someone whom you have personally harmed or who has personally harmed you. But it's not impossible. On October 12, 1984, a bomb went off in the hotel in which Harvey Thomas, public relations director for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was staying. Buried in the rubble for several hours, he emerged bruised but not seriously injured, though five others were killed, some of them his friends. The IRA bomber, Patrick Magee, was captured and put in prison. Several years later Thomas sought out Magee, who had been released from prison, and offered his forgiveness. The two spoke at some length in Magee's home, and soon thereafter Magee visited Thomas and met his family. Today Thomas travels the world speaking of the power of reconciliation, and Magee is also involved in bringing former enemies in Ireland together to talk and find common ground. Paul says that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself. We, too, are to be ministers of reconciliation, healing rifts between people and other people as well as between people and God. Paul also calls us ambassadors for Christ to the world. The role of an ambassador is to communicate messages between one party and another. The ultimate goal of an ambassador is to achieve and maintain peace. Ambassadors are not crusaders. Ambassadors do not shoot or drop bombs on those to whom they deliver their message. The strongest weapons they use are words, and their desire is to choose words that will communicate effectively. Human nature drives us to react violently toward those who have harmed us. How can we be ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for Christ when we have the desire to kill our enemies? Paul answers that question: we must become new creations and realize that the old ways have passed away and been replaced by the new. It pains me when I realize that the United States, whose citizens are perhaps the most church-going of any in the world, so often acts as a nation in ways that are completely opposite to the teachings of Christ. It is incumbent upon us who are progressive Christians, who stand for peace, justice, and reconciliation, to speak and act and pray and work to change our government and ourselves so that we more nearly reflect the ideals which Christ taught and for which he died. For our sake God made him (Christ) to be a sin offering (or sin, the same word in Hebrew and the Greek Septuagint) who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. If Jesus sacrificed everything to forgive our sins and bring about reconciliation with God, the least we can do is to suffer a little inconvenience in order to forgive our enemies or reconcile those who are at odds with one another. If we would be imitators of Christ, we must do so.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (first published 21 March 2004)

As difficult as reconciliation between citizens of rival nations or different ethnic groups is, sometimes the problems between members of the same family seem the most intractable. Because families spend so much time together, particularly when children are young, they naturally tend to develop close relationships. When those relationships are severed, the breach between the aggrieved family members sometimes seems like a chasm that is too wide to cross. In the first Home Alone movie (the only one that was worthwhile, in my opinion), Kevin talks to his next-door neighbor, a lonely old man who had a fight with his son several years earlier and no longer speaks to him. Though the man longs to be reconciled to his son, he lacks the courage to initiate the contact with him, because he is afraid that his son might reject him. Kevin suggests that he go ahead and call his son. Maybe he'll want to get together as well, and if not, at least the man would know and not have to worry about it any more. That's pretty good advice from an eight-year-old. In the story that Jesus told about the prodigal son, the son, after having demanded his inheritance early and wasted it on profligate living, longs for the comforts and relationships of home. However, he is worried about how his father will respond. "Maybe he'll reject me altogether. Maybe he'll let me come home but despise me. Maybe he already considers me to be dead." These were probably some of the thoughts going through his head, yet in desperation he resolved to go home anyway, regardless of the consequences. Sometimes wisdom is found in acts of desperation. Contrary to his expectations, his father runs to greet him and welcomes him with honor. However, even though he's been reconciled to his father, he is still at odds with his older brother, who resents him. The way Jesus tells the story, it is evident that he is equating the older brother with many of those who are listening to him. "You are basically good people," he tells them. "You love God, you keep his commandments, and you play by the rules. Yet you have a problem accepting those who aren't like you. But if God accepts them, so should you." I'm lucky enough to get along pretty well with all of my family, but I've known children who were estranged from their parents and people who hadn't talked to their siblings in years. Sometimes disputes among family member erupt over the stupidest things. There was a story in the paper this week about a local couple who went to see The Passion of the Christ, got into a theological argument on the way home, and began beating each other when they got home. Both husband and wife called the police on their spouse, and the police arrested both and charged them with assault. Few of us would think about getting into a heated argument with a total stranger over a fine point of theology, but we might do so with our closest relatives, even if we forego criminal assault. Sometimes disputes arise between family members over lifestyle choices, or choices of a marriage partner, or even theological leanings. I knew a very religious father who couldn't forgive his son for leaving the church and "living a life of sin," as the father described it. God gives us family to love and support, even when we don't agree with them. In the movie Lilo and Stitch, Stitch says, "Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten." And that's pretty good advice from a space alien.