Category Archives: Redemption

Will the Witness Please Stand Up…

“Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble” (Psalm 107:2, NRSV)

I am a fan of murder mysteries and court room dramas. Two genres of television reigned in my home growing up- westerns and  detective shows. Folks like Perry Mason, Matlock, and of course Law & Order, were staples in my house. My grandmother watched mostly, and I would sit with her and watch just because.

One of the tried and true scenes in a courtroom drama was the moment when the trial turned to the testimony of the witness. Often, the case would hinge on what one witness had to say in the courtroom. In shows like Matlock and Perry Mason, the witness testimony was the show down, the high stakes drama filled with life or death consequences. Even the mundane moment of swearing-in the witness was infused with tension. The moment that always stood out in my mind was when the judge in some courtroom drama would call out “will the witness please rise?”. Since we the audience already knew the stakes at play in the drama, we knew that the last five, ten or fifteen minutes of the show would be defined by this “testimony”.

Well, despite the fact that these were just dramas, the role of a good witness in any trial cannot be understated. Granted,  witness testimony in court cases is often unreliable and needs corroborating evidence, the importance of having someone to verify what happened is always good in relaying the story. And it is to witness verification that our text points.

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This 107 Psalm attributed to David is one that is seeking a witness. It is a call to worship and to praise God for God’s goodness and “steadfast love” toward Israel. David calls the people to worship but tells them to show themselves as redeemed by saying something- “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!”.

Not unlike the bailiff in those courtroom dramas, David is looking for witnesses. Folks to whom God has saved, redeemed and can stand for God’s name in world.

We have, in the Christian church, taken this call for witnesses to be a call of attendance and not clarion call of presence and being. We expect the preacher to read this Psalm and folks to show up/ out in worship for all of the things that God has redeemed them from. Yet, I believe that David is calling on us to witness as redeemed people in a world that is too divided for its own good.

For too long, the “redeemed of the Lord” have been associated with certain political ideologies and a hypersensitive morality. We have been associated with judgmental values and a holiness that was subject to the whims of politics and power. However, the psalmist tells us to speak up! If we are redeemed, then there is a greater standard for us to speak up for; a greater calling to identify with. David is calling us to stand up for inconvenient truths and complicated realities. Being a witness requires us to risk it all when we identify who is really the Sovereign in this world of pretenders to power.

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There is a prophetic responsibility in “saying so”. We cannot just say so when it is easy. “Saying so” means speaking to power and principalities and saying that you are more than just a vote or a constituent. “Saying so” means witnessing to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in body, mind and mouth. “Saying so” means rejecting hypocritical positions and standing up for truth in the face of coercion.   My vision of truth comes when the witnesses of the Lord stand up and testify!

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Following a Different Policy

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel? He said, “I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brothers blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:8-10, NRSV)

This past week a stunning thing took place at a assisted Living facility in Bakersfield, California. A woman had gone into cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing. A nurse (remember that) on staff called 911 and was waiting for instructions. The operator on the line stated quite clearly that CPR was needed and that it needed to be performed immediately. The nurse’s response is bone chillingly inhumane and robotic. The exchange went as follows:

911 dispatcher: Are we just going to wait and let this lady die?

Nurse: Well, that’s why we’re calling 911.

911:  We need to get CPR started

Nurse: They’re refusing CPR. They’re going to let her just die.

911: I understand your boss is telling you you can’t do it but if there’s anybody, a      human being, I don’t…. is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?

Nurse: Um, not at this time.

I must admit that when I first heard this I was struck by the irony of it all. A woman who is a nurse, and is trained to help people, quotes company protocol and policy when someone has a heart attack. In a “Assisted Living” facility no less!!(Worse yet, it has been reported that the deceased daughter is “satisfied with the treatment” her mother received.)

Apparently, the company that owns the “assisted living” facility has a policy that does not assist people in active medical distress other than calling 911. This company has effectively enshrined into company policy the phenomenon that we occasionally see from people in the streets. You see it through the hidden camera footage when people see someone on the streets in distress and then do little to nothing to aid that person. Sometimes they don’t even call 911 or reach out for anyone.

Cain and Abel

This behavior is not new. If we trust the witness of the scriptures, we find the first such incident in our above text. Often called the first incident of murder in creation, the above passage seems bigger than just sibling rivalry gone awry. Likewise, this tale is not merely about what happens when we are not forthright in our feelings. All of those explanations can be found in the text but Cain’s response to God’s prompt seems to be particularly telling.

When God “stumbles” upon the scene of fratricide, God asks,Where is your brother Abel?”, to which Cain offers a stunningly blunt and sarcastic retort, ““I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” The response seems on the surface to be both disingenuous and pompous. At a deeper level, the writers of the passage are placing a double entendre into Cain’s mouth. The retort is both a denial of Cain’s familial responsibility for his brother and is a passive slap in the proverbial face of God. In other words, when God poses the question of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain’s response in our vernacular is, Don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping people isn’t my job, it’s yours!!

More importantly in the passage, Cain’s response reveals a truth of our own human shortcomings. When we fall short of expected behavior and fail to be human in our behaviors to our fellow sojourner, we resort to hiding behind the ‘policies’ we craft for ourselves. Whether it’s Cain hiding behind the witness of God’s character as humanity’s caretaker; the Pharisees being scolded by the Jesus for hiding behind the sabbath; or a nurse in Bakersfield, we use the convenience of policy to cover our ineptitude or inhumane practices to one another.

Beloved, we are made to be connected to one another. We cannot live a part from each other and thrive. We are meant to live in community and even though communities don’t always get along we are called to do it together. Resorting to legalistic interpretations of ‘policy’ stifles what has always been intended for each one of us. ‘Policy’ has a place in so far as it helps us to understand our relationship with one another and the ways we relate to God. However, our heavenly mandate is always answer yes when the question is asked, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”. The 911 operator almost seems to be asking that very prophetic question of the nurse when she simply asks, “is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” In the same way that Cain killed his brother Abel, this nurse willful inaction stole the chance for life for that woman. The nurse’s response to the operator says it all: “Um, not at this time.”

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We are better than what this nurse and this company offered this dying woman. It is insufficient for the company to say that they let all of their residents know of the CPR policy in advance. There is still a human standard, a basic standard or life. This standard applies to all areas of our life together. We can do better in our conversations about guns and violence and not hide behind a policy that “guns don’t kill people”. We can do better in our policies toward war, healthcare, poverty and all the ways that we should be “keeping” our brothers and sisters. God requires more and Abel’s blood cries out for me. We should demand better from each other and from those who lead us.

Getting the lesson from the Cain and Abel narrative without the death of another one of our brother’s and sister is a vision of truth…

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The Scandal of it All…

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that Gods judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that Gods kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4, NRSV)

I must admit that I am a “gladiator in a suit.” For those who are watchers of the ABC hit series Scandal, the preceding phrase is the mantra of ‘discipleship’ in the series. I hesitated in getting on the bandwagon but decided midway through the second season to give it a shot. Needless to say, I am hooked. The show features wonderful storytelling and riveting plots. While those elements of television plots always make for good drama, this is not why I am hooked. The element that has drawn me into the series is its theology.

Scandal is pure entertainment that draws (in part) on the real life ‘fixer’ and PR consultant Judy Smith. Its entertainment value is strengthened by the strong plot and storytelling of veteran producer Shonda Rhimes. Even with the good stories in the plot, there is a strong theology at work. The drama centers on the work of ‘Olivia Pope & Associates’ as legal and political masterminds that help clean up the mess that powerful people can get themselves into. On one level the work of ‘Pope & Associates’ is about covering the sins of people who perhaps are undeserving of such grace. (MESSAGE #1!) The series features everyone from preacher’s wives to potentates seeking to hide their behaviors from the prying eyes of the society that so respects and reveres them.

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A second theological motif centers on the persons of Olivia Pope and the dysfunctional married President of the United States, one Fitzgerald Thomas Grant III (or ‘Fitz’ for short). These two characters are involved in a mind-numbingly complicated and incredibly passionate love affair in which both seem to think more with the Freudian ‘Id’ than with the intellect that both of them are effective at wheeling. The audience falls in love with the intelligence, power and will that both Olivia Pope and Fitz exude while at the same time abhorring their choice of behaviors that make them so reckless and chaotic. (MESSAGE #2!) They conduct trysts in the most obvious of places (to include the Oval Office on Inauguration night!!) demonstrating their careless blind love/lust.

These two characters (in particular) are trapped by the sum of their choices and their wild reckless abandon toward each other, forsaking all the rules of life. These are very same rules that make each character so powerful, so able and so confident in themselves. Each week, we ‘gladiators in suits’ are addicted to the potential nobility in moral living while at the same time witnessing the hypocrisy that is so often caused by selfish desire and unbridled passion. All of the characters are so much more complex and poly moral than any television show should ever portray. It so often allows for us to take the moral high ground in denying the truth of what we see each week.

 

Fitz and Olivia

Our text for today highlights the irony of our attempts at comparison and competition before the holiness of God. Paul, in writing to the church at Rome, reminds the Romans of the power of our human desires and willingness to compete and compare our behaviors and beliefs to achieve a moral relativism. Our morality is always insufficient in comparison to the righteousness of God. Most pointedly he asks, “Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” In other words, do you not see that your behavior is of consequence in God’s economy just as much as your neighbor’s?

Paul’s admonition points to the fact that we always see how bad our neighbor’s behavior is (in spite of our identical behavior), simply because it’s our neighbor that acts in that way. Our morals can be relative to our experience. We compare our behavior to the lowest common morality to make ourselves better than the next person. We subsume God’s righteousness into our own morality and make gods of ourself in the light of another’s behavior. We neglect the scandals of our life in order to shine the light on the scandals of others.

We watch television and compare ourselves to fictional characters and say how much better we are in living (“At least I don’t do that” or “I would never do that” syndrome). However, ‘Pope & Associates’, ‘Fitz’, and the entire cast of ‘Scandal’ are not the worst of human behavior, but reflections of it. They are the personification of our most conflicted, confused and complicated selves. We so often do exactly what many of these characters do (except our behavior is real). True we are not conducting an intense extra marital affair with the POTUS, but we do so often make decisions around what makes us feel good and not what makes sense. True we never rigged a national election to get our candidate elected, but we have rigged the truth to portray ourselves in a positive light! True we never exploited a relationship with an US Senator in order to further a goal for our client. We have exploited our friendships and relationships in order to further our own desires.

Scandal of the Cross

We are Olivia Pope, Fitz, Huck, Cyrus, Hollis and Mel. We seek to enact our will and live out our passions in the most complex of moral circumstances. Behaving in such a way as to be scandalous in all the ways that Shonda Rhimes so effectively displays each Thursday night. This week’s post is not merely about how “bad we are” in our “sin”. Instead, the vision of truth this week is about recognizing ourselves in the behaviors of others. We are no better than our neighbor in the sight of God (nor are we any worse).

Indeed we are scandalous…..but thanks be to God there is a “Gladiator in a suit”who died for you and for me.

 

 

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Lessons in the ‘tween time…

But Joseph said to them, Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones. In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21, NRSV)

The above passage comes from the saga of Joseph. Joseph’s tale encompasses the later half of the book of Genesis and is deeply disturbing for its fratricide, conspiracy and injustice. Joseph’s life is shaped by all of these horrible acts in his life. He is left for dead (by his own brothers), sold into slavery (by his brothers), taken into Egypt, accused of rape by his Master’s wife, locked in a prison and forgotten. The writers of Genesis overwhelmingly show the heartache and pain that occurs in the life of Joseph.

The truth of the matter is that Joseph’s story (although heightened and intense for all of the above factors), is not that far removed from the tumult of our own lives. There are times in our life that we feel assaulted by the circumstances and situations that bombard us. Sometimes they are family related and other times they are financial. Sometimes they are psychological and other times our health is under attack. However the trials of our life unfold, we like Joseph, feel totally beaten down and wounded as a result of the vicissitudes of life.

During the moments of trial and challenge, we as Christians do what I believe Joseph did…pray for meaning and purpose. The struggle for meaning is an existential truth, it is ever-present. It’s just most strongly felt during times of trial and great pain. We seek to know why we are facing these challenges, and what we can learn from these trial moments. That struggle often times leads us to peculiar places: “God is punishing us”, “the devil is busy,” or “God is enacting” become our mantras to find meaning.

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Despite the nature of these struggles, the above text gives us insight as to how we wrestle with meaning. For if it is true that God is in charge and has control of all aspects of life and the universe itself, then what happens in our life is not devoid of meaning. Nor are the trials we experience merely reflections of God’s wrath or the devil’s ingenuity. Those answers are ‘one dimensional’ and don’t convey a real struggle in faith to find God’s wisdom. (It isn’t that these explanations are ‘true’ or somehow ‘lack faith’. These explanations are just insufficient.)

Instead, struggling in faith seeks God in the midst of the struggles of life. Joseph states a most profound truism in the faith: “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” At the end of the day, our faith believes in the goodness of God and God’s plans for our life. Life itself is messy, confusing and complicated, but that doesn’t mean that God plans those evil acts and destructive machinations for your demise. Faith screams that “in the messiness of life, God is up to something!” It is through the messiness that goodness is still felt and sought by the faithful. Life’s circumstances can muddy the waters and complicate the issues, but God’s good plans are enacted in that messiness.

Praise God that the messiness is not eternal (no matter how continual the assaults of life occur)! In the moments of life’s interlude between the storms is the space we find for reflection and examination. Brief and fleeting though they may be, these ‘tween’ times are spaces and places for faith seeking understanding. When the storm calms down, the ‘tween time is the ‘midnight hour’ or the prayer closet moments that serve to promote clarity in the midst of storms or just before the challenge. It is in the ‘tween’ time after being elevated in Egypt, that Joseph arrives at some meaning for his struggles. Through reflecting on all of the experiences of Joseph’s life that he finally arrives at the true purpose of the trials and tribulations of life. All of it was designed for him to live into the purpose of his life. (in Joseph’s case, it was to be in the position of power to enact mercy to the nations during times of drought and famine.)

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I submit that only through the careful reflection, in ‘tween times, on the trials and circumstances of life can we arrive at the meaning (not the reason) for our difficulties. The reasons for our difficulties are never as clear to understand and filled with infinite possibilities of choice and change. However, the meaning for our pain is only understood in retrospect and often is singular in understanding. Through struggle, you recognize that the struggle of faith is not in vain and full of meaning. That meaning almost always serves to lead us toward our purposes.

God is busy enacting his good plans in our life. God’s busy shepherding us through the messiness of life to arrive at our destiny. Simply to begin the work we are charged with performing, we may have to rely on the vision of truth in God’s word and the prayers of the righteous just to make it through those trials. But when we do, we find purpose meets opportunity yielding the power of our destiny.

SELAH

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Newtownian Understanding (Part 1)

Jesus wept. (John 11:35, KJV)

The simplest verse in all scripture, (and the one that is easily remembered during games of scriptural recall), is the above passage. In all of the Biblical witness, the profundity of scripture is so often found within its deep phrases and careful construction of the narrative. Understanding the nuances of the story and all of the subtleties of a passage of text, so often exposes the deepest meaning and truth for application. John 11 verse 35 captures all of that in two simple words……..Jesus……wept. It is the most provocative and deeply profound statement in the Bible.

John’s understanding of Jesus as the “Word made flesh” means that this Jesus is God realized and revealed in humanity. John’s Jesus is independent of the disciples and ready to engage all of the tasks of human existence because of the confidence of the relationship he has with “his Father.” The relationship is so connected and so intertwined that we understand John’s Jesus as fully God in the moment. So what Jesus does, so God does as well. When Jesus acts, God is at work. Jesus speaks, God is speaking. They are “one.”

So then, the moment when Jesus comes to the tomb of his deceased friend Lazarus, is an eye-opening moment in the life of Jesus and all of us. For in this moment, despite all of the power Jesus possesses to rectify the situation……..Jesus cries. God cries. Its earth shattering and provocative. It challenges all notions of divinity but yet it is witnessed to right there in the text. The fullness of divinity expressed the deepest and fullest moment of humanity…….grief.

Weeping

The events of this past Friday are so disturbing and numbing that it really defies words to attempt to explain. I, like many others around the world, was shell-shocked and stricken by the horror and evil visited on elementary school teachers and students. Much of my crying came from watching my own children play, oblivious to what was taken place in the world and how the parents of those twenty children could no longer do so. It hurt to see the pain in Connecticut while seeing the joy and innocence in the eyes of my children, knowing that the world we live in will one day jade those eyes and cause them to produce many tears.

These situations have become all too common in our country and frankly, a form of this type of violence occurs in neighborhoods and cities across this country everyday. Mothers and fathers are nearly constantly weeping because of the loss of a child to gun violence and assault. News images and reporters cover a fraction of the violence that visits many neighborhoods and communities. In America, we have sadly learned to cope with mental illness, gun violence and the tragedies of mass public killings. By the way, if we have found a way to cope with the killing of our children at the mall, in movie theaters and at schools, we have developed our own level of mental illness in society.

Each time this horror visits us (be it in Tuscon, Aurora, or Newtown), we as a nation quickly move from sadness to debate about fault, illness, or theological/philosophical distraction to satiate our desire to understand or make sense of these situations. People say things like “God needed another flower” or “its all part of God’s plan”. (In fact, if you read the John passage closely, you will discover that Jesus makes his own theological assertion about the death of his friend). In my experience, these assertions and claims, do little to provide the ‘help’ and understanding that people think they do. In some cases, it causes harm and pain. It is not constructive to try and comfort without first wrestling with your disturbance. That means taking time for self-reflection and processing. Some might argue that theological assertions and policy debates are ways to grieve and process our emotions in periods like this. This might be true, however, while there is no ‘right’ way to grieve, there are constructive ways to grieve. Constructive grief means dealing with the hurt your have experienced in ways that continually allow you explore meaning and feeling about a situation. This is very difficult and shouldn’t be done alone. Sadly, many do not know or are unwilling to go through the hurt to Process their emotional health. Rarely do we take the time to process our own emotions in light of these situations. As a result, we learn little from these horrific moments and become broken people ignoring the cracks and fissures of our neighbors and friends, because we don’t want to expose our own brokenness.

Memorial Newtown

In the days and weeks ahead, my vision of truth is that we take time to grieve constructively, together. We seek to understand ourselves in the light of this confusion. We weep. We write. We pray. We do the things as families, communities, neighborhoods that restore wholeness in our lives together. Constructive grieving is done privately and publicly and experienced individually and collectively, so that no one is simply alone and no one is delusional about their hurts and pains. We live together and grow whole……..together.

There is an interesting conclusion to the pericope of Jesus weeping. Jesus weeps and then orders the stone be removed and does something. After he weeps, he takes action. After crying, he addresses the situation. Quite simply, there is a time to cry and then there is a time for action……. (Part II will turn out attention to that action)

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Kingdom Living

THIS IS A RESEND FROM LAST WEEK!

Now after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:14-15, ASV)

The last month of public discourse has been interesting. As it relates to the election and the future of global affairs, there has been much speculation and forecasting in regards to the way current events have unfolded. Amongst the chatter are reactions to the Petraeus scandal, fiscal cliff negotiations, election recap, GOP talk, economic rebounding, Middle East Peace and all manner of other prognostications. While most of the discussion is rooted in an attempt at analyzing the facts, there has been some prognostication by certain Christians that infuriates me.

This group typically reacts to the overanalysis and intense scrutiny of real world facts by appealing to an otherworldly escapism.  I have heard, on more than one occasion, these Christians excuse their lack of needed participation in controversial and relevant actions by claiming their citizenship to “another kingdom.” Specifically, this statement, (as they use it) is implied to mean that they don’t have to engage in the realities of this present life (realities like the election, ending poverty, seeking human rights, eliminating economic disparity, etc.). There should be no engagement in those activities because “when Jesus comes, all of this stuff will be made right by him”, I was told by one person. Another person justified their failure to vote in the election as “not participating in a world that is going to be condemned by the coming kingdom of Jesus.”

This worldview is not new, nor is it only present in times of intense crisis. This worldview forms the foundation of many movements, the most prominent of which shapes the theology of Jehovah Witnesses. At its core, this approach to life carries a sense of anticipation and expectation at the coming reign of Jesus Christ. While that anticipation is shared by all Christians, this view defines one’s social engagement through the lens of Christ’s coming reign. Known academically as Millennialism and Dispensationalism, practitioners believe in the reign of Christ as future event distinct from this present time. Developed in the 19th century reading of the Biblical text, Millennial and Dispensational theology hinges on the destruction of all present systems of the world so that Christ’s reign can be truly “new.” In many cases, the hermeneutic (lens for interpretation) includes Christian Zionism, the Rapture and a literal (or even Fundamentalist) interpretation of the text. (The Rapture is not even mentioned or outlines in the Bible.)

What these ideas (and their adherents) fail to engage is the critical analysis of the teachings of Bible, the Christian ideas of the end of time, and (above all) the work of the historical Jesus. The above passage taken from the opening of Mark’s Gospel offers a different view from some of my Christian friends. This passage occurs at the conclusion of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness experience. Jesus steps onto the scene in Galilee and begins his formal ministry with a simple, yet earth shattering pronouncement, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the gospel.” 

The kingdom of God is at hand? You mean the very first thing Jesus does is make a pronouncement of what is taking place and not what is going to come? Every act, every sign, every moment of betrayal and trust, joy and pain, miracle and madness, are all part of the kingdom? Yes! According to Mark’s understanding, Jesus’ presence and mission ushers into the world the very kingdom which we now speak of in escapists terms. For Mark’s Jesus, the role of the Christ births the new kingdom and gives humanity entrée into the love, hope, trust and peace that this kingdom creates.

Most interestingly, for my millennial Christian compatriots, the work of Christ, follows his pronouncement of the kingdom. He makes the pronouncement and then he proceeds to perform the work for which the kingdom is to be known. In other words, the Jesus that pronounces the kingdom, then demonstrates the kingdom by caring for the needs of the blind, the sick, the bound and even the dead. Jesus does not merely talk about the kingdom of God as a futuristic reality, but makes it real in the lives of the people that are present.The idea that we take no action because of what Jesus will do is simply a form of lazy escapism. This view makes a mockery of what Christ has done! The active work of the church and her disciples is to “go and make new disciples” or at the very least set the standard for what God’s continual kingdom of love, hope, trust and peace looks like in the 21st century.

The kingdom of God hasn’t gone anywhere, its subjects just stopped believing in the power of that kingdom to make the crooked nations straight, heal the sick of the world, open the blinded eyes that further oppression, and liberate the captives of our economics and social policies. Instead of engaging the ‘principalities’ of systemic oppression and subjugation that plague this world, some of us use our energy to escape to a place and a day that may be long in the coming (or may be tomorrow).

The Christ gave us one more command while we anticipate his return and we no longer have a vision of the truth, we will know it then. He said “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” Beloved, it’s still day, and there is still work to do….

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The Question of Intent…

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah… (Matthew 1:1-6, NRSV)

The Christian faith is built upon many different tensions. Seemingly contradictory, traditional Christian tenets hold a tenuous grasp of polar opposites. The story of the faith is built on God becoming human, bringing the dead back to life and saving all of humanity to eternal life by dying. Christian disciples are both free to exercise their will, within the confines of God’s will. Christians carry within them all the promises and power that God conveys to God’s children, yet we often act with all the values of people who are not yet disciples of Christ.

One of the strongest tensions present in the Christian worldview is that of God’s intent and humanity’s exercise of free will. Beginning in the garden of Eden and working all throughout the biblical narratives humanity seems to so often get it wrong, and yet somehow, God’s will is enacted in creation. Many times, despite humanity’s best efforts to the contrary, God’s overarching plan is realized for the betterment of creation.

 

In contemporary life, we struggle with the realization and exploration of Gods will versus our own wants and desires and more specifically, how these two tensions are experienced for us. We hear that struggle whenever we hear a preacher or congregant talking about “staying in God’s will” or “waiting to see what God is going to do”. Many of our churches have preached that people ‘be in the will of God’ at the same time they say “God has empowered them to take action” without understanding inherent contradictions in those statements.

The working of God’s intent and design in humanity cannot ever fully be understood. Nor can the gift (sometimes perverted) of human intent and action in the world (free will) ever be fully appreciated theologically. However, an example of where we get it wrong is found in the comments of Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock a few weeks ago. The gist of the story is linked here. Mr. Mourdock argued at a debate that,

“I know there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view, but I believe that life begins at conception,” Mourdock said at a debate with Democratic opponent Rep. Joe Donnelly and libertarian Andrew Horning. “The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother.” Mourdock added: “I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” (Taken from an article entitled ‘Richard Mourdock under fire for rape remarks’ on www.politico.com)

Now, parsing his words, I believe that Mr. Mourdock was referring to the life of the child that results from pregnancy and to not the rape itself. While life is indeed a gift from God, Mr. Mourdock’s statements relegate women (and all humanity) to mere backdrops on the stage of creation. No matter how life comes into the world, we should be grateful for it and ignore the means of conception? No matter how painful or complicated or unintended or unlawful that conception might be? In other words the extension of this argument is that the ends justify the means. Rape results in life and therefore (fill in the blank). While the latter statement, Mr. Mourdock never said, I am using the extension of his argument to illustrate a point. (It also should be noted that I do not believe politicians should be in the business of doing theology.)

According to this theology, the free exercise of human will only serves to enact God’s will. We act and regardless of what we do, God’s ends are always served. As good as that might sound, the implications of this theology means that acts of violence like rape are what God has always intended. Everything from the murder of Abel by Cain to nuclear war, the Holocaust and genocide are all God’s will in the end. You see, in this theological frame, you cannot distinguish human action from God’s sovereignty. Despite the abhorrent implications of this theology, many serious God-fearing Christians (as given testament to by Mourdock’s statements) believe in this kind of warped orthodoxy.

Our text for today offers us a more genuine theological perspective. This text is the opening of the gospel of Matthew and is known as the genealogy of Christ. Contained in the heritage of Christ is every manner of human experience and relationship. Some children are produced by traditional marriage (ancient marriage), others are products of rape and incest, while others still are counter to cultural practices and have suspect origins. Peculiar that the savior of the world comes down and through many of the same experiences that all of us have in our family tree?

With all of this abounding soap operatic history, the writers of the gospel make a subtle distinction when speaking to human intent and God’s will in relationships in verse 6b. The writer recognizes the parentage of Solomon but makes clear, that Bathsheba was never lawfully David’s wife; she was “the wife of Uriah”. If you are familiar with the story of David and Bathsheeba (2 Samuel 11), you will discover the machinations of David to get his way with another man’s wife. (It should be noted that if this incident had taken place today, David would have been considered a statutory rapist for using his position to coerce sexual activity).

 

Despite this failure of David, the point of the writer in Matthew’ geneology is that we cannot ever, from our limited vantage, distinguish God’s intent from our human action. The biblical witness and story convey that our only real vantage for understanding is in reverse: seeing how God can redeem the actions that we perform. And God CAN redeem our mistakes and mess-ups! We make huge mistakes, we are violent towards one another. We steal, we cheat we murder, those acts are not God designed or God intended. They are the results of the perversion of the gift of human will. It is within the power of God to redeem our horrible acts toward each other to find moments of grace and healing. It isn’t as easy as it sounds nor is it as simple as exchanging pain for healing. It takes time, effort and mercy and sometimes takes a lifetime to adjust to. Some victims never reach that point in survival. Just ask any victim of sexual assault and violence.

The truth is always more complicated than any politician (or any human being) can ever really understand. In the end, speaking for God is always problematic and risky. Let the works and intent of God be revealed through experiences in the life of God. Somewhere in the midst of human trial and God’s design we can find a vision of truth that moves us closer to healing.

 

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