Saturday Night Theologian
22 August 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10

The big issue in the news this week is the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" that is proposed to be built a couple of blocks from the former site of the World Trade Centers. Right-wingers and Islamophobes have tripped all over themselves to condemn the project, but that's pretty much par for the course. What's more disturbing is the relative paucity of voices on the left, at least among elected officials, who have had the courage to speak out for religious liberty and tolerance. President Obama did say that Muslims had the right to build on the site, but other Democratic leaders like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New York Governor David Patterson have either opposed the plans outright or waffled in their support (i.e., suggesting that it be built somewhere else). The moral cravenness of politicians is, unfortunately, not something that's unexpected, but it's still disappointing to witness. Too often ordinary citizens, too, are afraid to stand up for what's right in the workplace, the community, or even the virtual community, fearful of what others might think of them. The prophet Jeremiah had an assignment from God that was much more difficult than simply standing up to standard issue purveyors of racism and religious fanaticism. He was charged with telling his people that God was bringing judgment on them and that they would fall to their enemies. Such a message is never welcome, either in Jeremiah's day or our own. But God offered Jeremiah this encouragement: "Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you. . . . See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." Almost everyone prefers to be seen as communicating words of hope than words of doom. Even those preachers who are thought of as doom and gloom preachers, messengers of hellfire and damnation, are really negative only in a very narrow, and socially acceptable (within their religious tradition), sphere. Just look at the trouble that another Jeremiah, Jeremiah Wright, faced with his relatively mild criticisms of the U.S. He was condemned by many on the left as well as the right. Why? Because most people really only want to hear a message that makes them feel good about themselves. They don't want their sins and failures pointed out, nor the structural sins of their beloved country. Sometimes, though, God calls us to speak out against injustice that most people can't see or haven't noticed. God calls us to stand with an unpopular group of people, because it's the right thing to do. God calls us to sacrifice the comforts of anonymity and take up the mantle of a prophet. If God is calling us to do that, we can be sure, as with Jeremiah, God will stand with us.

Psalm 71:1-6 (first published 22 August 2004)

A common recurring dream that many people have involves them standing in front of a crowd or going to work or school, when they suddenly realize that they aren't wearing any clothes. Regardless of the exact meaning of such dreams (Freud said they were "exhibitionist" dreams, related to a desire to return to the innocence of childhood), the sense of shame that people feel in these dreams is nearly universal. You can probably remember a time from your childhood when you were embarrassed and felt shame. Maybe you tripped and fell on your face in front of a group of friends. Maybe you said something mean about someone, then realized they were standing right beside you. Maybe you wet your pants in class. Sometimes we feel shame not because of our own actions but because of the actions of others with whom we identify. Maybe your pastor, whom you admired, was discovered to be involved in criminal or unethical behavior. Maybe your denomination has taken a public stand that you believe to be contrary the teachings of Christ. Maybe your nation has acted arrogantly and belligerently, imposing its will on weaker countries. I have frequently felt a measure of shame, either because of my own action or because of the actions of others, but I have never been ashamed of God. The psalmist prays, "In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame." Religious leaders fail us, political leaders fail us, community leaders fail us, even parents and siblings sometimes fail us, but God never fails us. In a world full of uncertainties, it's nice to be able to count on the fact that God will never let us down, will never lead us astray, will never cause others to act in ways that are contrary to God's divine plan. Since that's the case, it's up to us to do all we can do to make sure that we don't bring shame on other people or on the church of God.

Hebrews 12:18-29 (first published 22 August 2004)

For decades the U.S. Forest Service had firefighters on standby to fight recurring summer forest fires. A fire would start, perhaps caused by a lightning strike or by an unattended campfire, and firefighters would be called in to squelch the blaze. Over the years, however, Forest Service officials noticed that the fires got worse and worse, and eventually there were too many fires of large magnitude to handle properly, the results of which were serious property damage and often loss of life. Only in the past few years have resource managers realized that not all fires are bad. In fact, some fires are essential to the health of forests. Fires clear away the underbrush and allow certain types of seeds to germinate. They also rid forests of dead trees, clearing space for new growth. The author of Hebrews describes God as "a consuming fire." That's not necessarily the way we like to think of God. We'd rather think of God as a loving parent, a strong rock, or a shelter in a time of storm than a consuming fire, unless we're calling on God to consume our enemies! We don't want the scorching heat of God's fire to get too close to us. Yet, like the overgrown forest, we sometimes require God's cleansing fire in our lives. What habits have you developed over the past few years that are detrimental to your spiritual growth? Do you spend your time in ways that are ultimately counterproductive to your mission in life? Is your faith wavering from lack of use? There are many reasons why we might need God's fire to blaze through our lives from time to time. The hymn writer asks God to send the Pentecostal fire on the people of God, as well as on unbelievers. Evangelistic revival meetings are far less common today than in past days, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, since many of those I personally witnessed focused too much on emotion and guilt and not enough on real change in people's lives, believers as well as unbelievers. However, even if we set aside evangelistic revival meetings, we shouldn't set aside the idea of regular repentance and divine cleansing, because we all need it. Some Christian groups, such as the Catholics with their sacrament of penance, integrate confession and repentance into the fabric of the Christian life in ways that keep the need for God's cleansing ever at the forefront of people's minds. Others weave the need for confession and cleansing into the liturgy of the church, and still others have times of special emphasis on repentance. All of these ecclesiastical attempts to remind believers of the importance of confession and cleansing are good, but none is sufficient in and of itself. As individuals, we must each recognize the need for cleansing and must willingly submit ourselves to the divine fire on a regular basis. Only by doing so will we continue to be effective in our Christian lives.

Luke 13:10-17 (first published 22 August 2004)

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!
There are many, many images of the devastation and human suffering that the people of Iraq are suffering because of the war, and in comparison to a lot of them, this one is very reserved. Yet it captures the sense of loss, the feeling of hopelessness, and, one can imagine, the anger and frustration of being in a such a terrible situation. The caption on the picture is an ironic recognition of the fact that wars like the one in Iraq threaten to mute the gospel message almost entirely. WHAT YOU DO SPEAKS SO LOUDLY that I can't hear what you say. In our gospel reading for today, Jesus encounters a woman who has suffered a crippling illness for eighteen years. Jesus has compassion on her and heals her, only to be reprimanded indirectly by the religious authorities. "Don't come for healing on the Sabbath," they said. "Come back another day." Jesus reveals the hypocrisy of their statements: they were more concerned for rules and regulations than they were about real people with real problems. Too many religious leaders supported the unwarranted invasion of Iraq, and too many continue to support the continued atrocities and missteps that America and Britain make. The Iraqi people suffered for twenty-six years under Saddam Hussein, but rather than counsel peace, these leaders advocate the affliction of even more hardship and, in many cases, even worse suffering. In this way, they are similar to the religious leaders who sent the suffering back to their homes to suffer some more. Recent political commercials have featured the Iraqi Olympic soccer/football team, claiming that because of the war on Iraq, the country is free to field a team. On the contrary, according to Ahmed Manajid, Iraqi midfielder on the Olympic team, the war on Iraq has made the situation much more difficult for the players and their families (some of whom have been killed by coalition forces). If he weren't playing soccer, he says, he would join the resistance against American and British forces. When we see suffering, how do we react? Do we berate those who are suffering and inflict further pain and degradation on them, like too many political and religious leaders of both the past and the present? Or do we follow the example of Jesus and offer hope and healing? God does love us and have a wonderful plan for our lives. Are we getting that message across to the people of Iraq?

2010 update: The war on Iraq came to an official end this week as the last U.S. combat troops crossed the border into Kuwait, allowing President Obama to fulfill one of his campaign promises. About 50,000 troops still remain in the country, ostensibly for training purposes, so the potential for further violence involving Americans is high. Still, it's a welcome "end" to an unjust and shameful war.