Tuesday, October 31, 2006

“Vulnerable Messiah”

Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45[1]

We don’t like vulnerability, not in our dog-eat-dog world where it seems so often that you have to fight to survive. Vulnerability reminds us of two facts that we would rather avoid: other people often have the power to take advantage of us, and we are powerless to do anything about it.

Yet vulnerability is a part of what it means to be human. As C. S. Lewis observed, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one …. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; …. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”[2]

The last thing anyone in the First Century was looking for was a vulnerable Messiah. They expected a conquering hero to come riding in on a stallion—the ancient equivalent of an armored vehicle like a Humvee. They expected the Messiah to be a powerful warrior who would overthrow their enemies and give them back the “good old days.”

But the New Testament insists that Jesus came not as a warrior but as a servant. Jesus came to hope to the hopeless, to bring freedom to captives, to bring healing to those who were “inoperable”, to give acceptance to outcasts, and to bring God to the godless.[3]

We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ vulnerability in the book Hebrews: “while Jesus was on earth, he begged God with loud crying and tears to save him” (Heb. 5:7, CEV). It sounds like Jesus’ experience in the garden of Gethsemane. After his Last Supper with the disciples, he went out of the city to the garden to pray. He took Peter, James, and John with them and said, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me” (Matt. 26:38).

There, the Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed fervently, asking God to take away the suffering he was facing. Some ancient versions of Luke’s Gospel add, “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Lk. 22:44). It suggests that Jesus was so anguished about what lay ahead that he was drenched with sweat!

Of course, that is only one episode from Jesus’ life—a life that was lived under the motto, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). And because he came as a vulnerable Messiah who called into question the hypocrisy of a religion that promised blessing and security and prosperity, they crucified him.

Why would anybody have followed a crucified Messiah? As Paul explained (1 Cor. 1:23), a Savior who was lynched like a common criminal was utterly foolish to the civilized world. And to Jewish people it was nothing short of blasphemy to claim that one who was accursed enough to be strung up was in fact God’s anointed one.[4]

Why would anybody follow a Messiah who was vulnerable enough to be executed? We spend our time running after things like safety, happiness, and status. How can a crucified Messiah possibly help with that? We hedge everything in our lives, from redundant computer systems to insurance up to the neck—all to stave off the inevitable losses of life. How does that fit with faith in a Messiah who calls us to lose our lives?

We follow a vulnerable Messiah because he reveals to us a vulnerable God. [5] As one contemporary prophet puts it, “Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering.”[6] For most of our lives we have revered and feared a God who was so exalted as to be remote, so supreme as to be incapable of personal relationships, so all-powerful as to be untouched by our heartaches and struggles.[7] But in Jesus, the vulnerable Messiah, we see the God who “has moved into … our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, our death”[8] and has overcome them all!

God’s vulnerability doesn’t mean that God is not majestic or powerful. God is exalted, but not remote! God is supreme, but that does not stop God from being supremely capable of personal relationships![9] God is all-powerful, but God is also deeply touched by our struggles.[10] God is not separated from us, but loves us so completely that God is intimately involved with every aspect of our lives.[11] God is both majestic and merciful.

[1] A Sermon preached 10/22/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 121.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 242-45, 248, 276.

[4] F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 70-71

[5] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 15, 17-19; cf. Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, 27, 58, 81-2, 88-92, 94.

[6] Bishop Kenneth L. Carder, “Why Follow a Crucified Christ?” The Christian CenturyAugust 27, 1997:753, accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=655.

[7] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 139-41, 183-84, 187, 242-43.

[8] Carder, “Why Follow?”

[9] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 75, 96, 127, 157, 178, 209-212.

[10] Moltmann, Crucified God, 246-47, 277. Moltmann, Trinity, 38-39, 57, 60.

[11] Cf. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 57.


Hebrews 7:11-25[1]

The movie “Shawshank Redemption” is a story about a guy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. His name is Andy Dufresne. After serving almost 20 years of a life sentence in a literal hell-hole of a prison he disappears. As it turns out, he had dug himself a hole in the wall of his cell, a wet wall in which were housed all kinds of pipes, including a sewage line that ran out of the prison and to freedom.

But Andy not only delivers himself; he also delivers his friend Red. A few years after Andy’s deliverance, and after serving 40 years of his life sentence, Red gets paroled. The problem is, he’s an “institutional man”—he had lived longer inside prison than on the outside. And the outside world terrified him. But before he escaped, Andy had made Red promise to find a box he had hidden in a nearby field. In the box was enough cash to take him to the paradise on the Mexican coast of the Pacific Ocean where Andy had vowed to go when he got out. Red could have backed out, but his faith in his friend Andy inspired him to take the risk. And Red found his friend Andy working on an old boat on a white sandy beach in front of the bluest ocean you can imagine.

What is salvation? The best we can do is come up with analogies. For me, I think spending an eternity on a beautiful beach by the Pacific Ocean with my best friend would come pretty close. The church has tried to articulate the meaning of salvation in many ways. The “official” view that most people live by today was developed by Anselm in the 11th Century. Anselm used the analogy of the medieval feudal system to explain the meaning of salvation. He said that human sin had offended God’s honor, and that the only way for God’s offended honor to be satisfied was for a penalty to be paid. Anselm went on to say that Jesus paid the penalty for us so that we would not have to.

That sounds a lot like the letter to the Hebrews. But there is a different analogy for salvation here. The author appeals to the sacrificial system of the OT to explain the meaning of salvation. He acknowledges the sacrifices that were established as a means of forgiveness for sins. But he points out two things—the sacrifices were not permanent, and the priests were just as flawed as anyone else. By contrast, Jesus’ death on the cross is presented as a sacrifice that is both perfect and complete. It is perfect in that it effects permanently what the other sacrifices could not—forgiveness for sins. And it is complete in that it never needs to be repeated; because he lives forever “he is able, now and always, to save those who come to God through him” (Heb. 7:25, TEV).

Talk about the offended honor of a feudal lord that is satisfied by the penalty being paid may have worked a thousand years ago, but today it carries some implications that don’t fit the Gospel. It suggests an image of God as strict, exacting, and punitive; a God who keeps track of every little mistake we make and refuses to forgive even the slightest failing. I’m afraid the same can be said about the precise logic of the letter to the Hebrews—analogies of salvation based on the fine points of the Jewish sacrificial law fall on deaf ears these days.

In all fairness to the author of Hebrews, however, there are some interesting clues that there is more to “salvation” than just some kind of heavenly balance sheet. He speaks of true freedom (Heb. 2:15), lasting rest (Heb. 4:9-10), secure hope (Heb. 6:19), and open access (Heb. 10:20). He says (Heb. 8:8-12) that Jesus brings the better covenant of Jeremiah 31, where the prophet promises in the name of the Lord that God will change the people’s hearts and forgive their sins. In that same chapter, Jeremiah also promises that “their life will be like a watered garden” (Jer 31:12)!

Those analogies speak more to me than talk about penalties and punishments. The good news is that God is out to make right whatever it is that is wrong with humanity. Whether you call it alienation, fragmentation, or selfishness; violence, greed, or falsehood; there is something about our lives that just doesn’t seem to be right.[2] It keeps us from being our true selves, it keeps us from relating to others in a healthy way, and it keeps us from the life we were intended to live.

But the message of salvation is one of deliverance: God is working to set us free from all that. God is working to heal the wounds, to right all wrongs, and to restore the beauty of life. God is working to overcome violence with peace, to end all forms of oppression by establishing true justice, to expose all the lies with the truth that sets us free. God is working to restore all creation to the point where everything is “very good” again.[3] God is working to establish his reign, which will bring “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.”[4] God is working to reunite everything and everyone with God’s own rich, joyful, loving, eternal life.[5]

That’s what salvation is about—freedom, peace, beauty, and life. It’s about deliverance. Whether your image of that is a thriving garden or a white sandy beach by a beautiful blue ocean, the good news is that God’s grace will prevail.[6]

[1] A Sermon preached 10/29/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 47-55, where he speaks of sin as “estrangement” under three headings: God, self and others.

[3] Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope, 61; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:187; Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, 37.

[4] Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at http://www.pres-outlook.com/HTML/guthrie030602.html. Cf. also Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, vol. 2: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 299.

[5] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 181; cf. also Paul Tillich, “Salvation,” in The Eternal Now, 114; Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 166-67, 177-180. See further Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 178, 244; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38-39, 57, 151; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 76, 85.

[6] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120; see also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 190, 216; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1, 411.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

“Sympathetic God”

Hebrews 4:12-16[1]

I must confess that I am one of those people who have trouble with a male image of God. When I think of God as a “he,” God feels distant, disconnected, unconcerned, and uncaring.

So I understand it when people talk about needing to find an alternative image for God. One of my favorite images is from the 1996 movie “A Family Thing.” It’s a story about a 60-year-old man from Arkansas named Earl whose mother dies and leaves him a letter where she reveals that she’s not his real mother. As it turns out, his father had impregnated a young black woman who worked for them. Earl’s mother wants to tell him the truth and to tell him that he has a half-brother in Chicago.

So Earl piles into his beat-up pickup truck and drives to Chicago to find his half-brother, Ray, who is played by James Earl Jones. But when he gets there Ray isn’t very happy to see Earl. You see, he had known the truth about Earl all along, and he had hated him because their mother died giving birth to Earl. Ray was raised by Aunt T., who still lives with him even though she’s getting up there in age.

Ray and Earl finally have it out, and Earl decides to leave. But Aunt T. will have none of it! Because Aunt T. is blind, she says “I don't have the blessing of being able to separate people out by looking at them no more.” And she insists that her stubborn nephew Ray become as color-blind as she is. She doesn’t care what kind of racist her nephew Earl is; he’s flesh and blood and that's all that matters. “I loved my sister,” she tells Earl, “and you her boy, so I love you, too.”

Aunt T. is my image of God. She’s a big black woman with white hair, she’s blind, and she walks with a cane. And here’s this scrawny redneck from Arkansas who shows up on their doorstep after all these years. And when the chips are down, Aunt T. embraces him as her nephew, as family. It doesn’t matter that she’s black and he’s white, because Earl is her sister’s boy, and that’s all that matters for Aunt T. And that means that she loves Earl with a love that will not let him go. What’s more she will take on anyone who tries to get between her and her nephew.

I like that image of God. It reassures me to think of God as someone who loves me with that kind of fierce love.

Through the ages, I would think that there have been many images for God and many ways of describing God. I doubt that “sympathetic” has been on the “top ten list.” Although many will describe God as “compassionate,” I dare say that the way they imagine God doesn’t turn out to be very compassionate. You know, the God who picks some and rejects others. Or the God who smites people just for the heck of it. Or the God who sends a tsunami to punish a whole continent for not being Christian!

For generations, no—for centuries, our image of God has been one of a remote and distant tyrant who can be benevolent at times, but who more often than not is harsh and cruel. Through the ages, men and women have viewed God as someone to stay away from, someone who is dangerous so you don’t want to get too close. We don’t typically view the throne of God as a throne of grace that we can boldly approach to find mercy. In some cultures, a person who approached a king on his throne without being invited was subject to be killed!

But the letter to the Hebrews tells us about a different God—a God of grace and mercy, a God who empathizes with our struggles and sympathizes with our plight, a God who shares our pain and our suffering.[2] And we see that image of God reflected most clearly in Jesus, who in his capacity as our redeemer has “passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14—or better TEV, “gone into the very presence of God”). But more importantly, this Jesus who is our redeemer “understands our weaknesses” because he “faced all of the same temptations as we do” (Heb 4:15, NLT).

I think it is high time to make a final break with the image of God as distant, dispassionate, unconcerned, and uncaring.[3] The image of God revealed by Jesus Christ, the crucified savior, is one of sympathy, caring, and understanding, a God who is intimately involved with us and who cares deeply about us.[4] Because God understands everything we go through, God empathizes with our experience.

This has always been the image of God in Scripture, from the Creator walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, to the strange guest who debates the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with his friend Abraham, to the one who sees the plight of the helpless and hears their cries for relief, the one who heals the brokenhearted and defends the widow and the orphan.[5]

And I think that it’s perfectly legitimate to use whatever image you need to be able to see God in this light—a God of “overflowing love”;[6] a merciful, gracious, and sympathetic God.

[1] A Sermon preached 10/15/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39; Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 413.

[3] As Jürgen Moltmann insists, The Crucified God, 215.

[4] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 14-19.

[5] Genesis 3:8; 18:16-33; Psalm 10:14, 17-18; 146:9; 147:3; Deuteronomy 10:18; Isaiah

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 15.

“Nothing to Fear”

Hebrews 2:5-15[1]

Fear is a powerful force in our world. It affects just about every area of our lives. Politicians use fear to get people to vote for them and not their opponents. We use fear of punishment in our schools and our homes to keep our kids “in line”—i.e., acting like we want them to act. I dare say many people would say that they pay their taxes only for fear of getting caught! It should come as no surprise that fear takes root in religion as well. For many in our world, the only reason they practice their faith is the fear that if they don’t they will suffer eternal punishment.

One of the best illustrations of fear can be found in the “Lord of the Rings” films. From the very beginning until the end, fear casts a tangible shadow over much of “Middle Earth.”

Of course, the very source of fear in this tale is Sauron the dark Lord. Sauron is at least twice as tall as any tall man. The power of his one ring enables him to brush the fiercest warriors aside as if they were so many toy soldiers. Then there is Sauron’s army of Orcs, a race of tortured and mangled Elves. They inspire fear just by their very appearance—they embody violence itself. They are brutal and vicious and they destroy everything in their path. Sauron’s commanders are the Ring Wraiths, men who fell under his spell and became half-dead, half-living. They utter a scream that renders even the bravest leaders of men helpless, scurrying for cover like frightened insects.

I think the widespread and seemingly indestructible power of fear in Middle Earth makes the significance of what the heroes of the Lord of the Rings accomplish stand out all the more. As Sauron’s army is defeated, the cloud of fear begins to roll back so that the light of day can shine through again. After the ring is destroyed, all Middle Earth is finally freed from the terror that Sauron had imposed on them. As they gather to crown Aragorn king of all the free men of Middle Earth, the sun is shining brightly, his people standing tall and free in the fresh air, not a hint of fear on their faces.

That’s what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says Jesus did for us. By taking on our sufferings and by his death, he set us free from fear. The Scriptures say he set us free from the “fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). In the biblical world-view, the fear of death is the most potent of all fears. In a very real sense, the Bible views death as a kind of cosmic power that holds us all in its grip—just as it does sin or evil. Most of us probably don’t view death in that way. There are some of us who fear a lot of things more than they fear death. But point of the promise that Jesus set us free from the “fear of death” is that he set us free from all fear.

This is what the incarnation of Jesus was all about. He came as one of us; he took on flesh and blood and all that goes with them and shared our humanity. He did not hesitate to relinquish his claims, rights and position to become like us. Jesus took on the burdens of our existence in order to set us free from the chains that bind us—to break the power of fear over us.

Because of Jesus’ life and death, sin holds no more power. There is nothing you can do to make God love you any less; there is no sin you can commit that can separate you from God’s love. And because of Jesus’ death, death itself holds no more power. Where once death meant being cursed to a kind of non-existence and brought only despair and grief, Jesus’ life now inspires us with hope and joy.

Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we get a taste of God’s new world right now! And this not only means that we get to experience a new kind of life. The fact that Jesus breaks the power of fear and death means that God’s new world is already breaking into this world.[2] There is a sense in which Jesus’ life and death rolls back the cloud of fear and death and sin not just for us but for all creation. All the powers of evil that have held humanity enslaved are broken. Because of Jesus, we have nothing left to fear!

Unfortunately, for many that good news falls on deaf ears. Fear has become so ingrained in our religion that they simply cannot accept the idea that we have nothing to fear! They acknowledge that God loves us and that Jesus died to save us. But they still live in fear that they if they somehow fall short in their Christian living they will fall into the hands of an angry God!

That is not the good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ! The good news is that we have nothing to fear! The good news is that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less! We can live our lives in the light of a new day, breathing the fresh air and standing tall as we follow the steps of our Savior and Lord, doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God!

[1] A Sermon preached 10/08/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 182.

“It Takes a Community

James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50[1]

The 2001 film “The Shipping News” is another of my favorite films. I empathize with the main character, a man only known as Quoyle. He’s been drowning all his life—ever since his callous father threw him in the water to teach him to swim. When we meet Quoyle, he’s drowning in a dead-end job and he’s drowning in a sham marriage. If ever there was someone who needed a community, it was Quoyle.

But things change dramatically for Quoyle one day, and he gets a second chance a life. His “wife” sells their daughter and runs off with one of her many boyfriends, only to die in a car crash. His father calls to tell him that he and Quoyle’s mother decided to “put an end to it”—life, that is. When his Aunt Agnis comes to pay her “respects,” she invites him to move to the ancestral home in rugged Newfoundland, where the stark contrast between the beauty and the deadliness of the sea makes everyone at least a little eccentric!

At first Quoyle continues to drift. But soon he embarks on a journey of self-discovery that challenges him to determine not only his own identity, but also that he very much wants to embrace life. At the end of the film, Quoyle has found himself; it closes with his words: “If a piece of knotted string can unleash the wind, and if a drowned man can awaken, then I believe a broken man can heal.” For me that is the crux of the film.

But Quoyle couldn’t have healed without the community that embraced him. He needed his Aunt, hard but strong. He needed Wavey, a single mother who loves him and his daughter. He needed Jack, the eccentric owner of the local paper who makes him a reporter. And he needed his reclusive cousin Nolan to help him reclaim his past in order to become whole again. It takes a community

I think that’s why James closed his letter with some unusual instructions about confession, forgiveness, anointing and healing. I think James knew a very important truth that too often gets swept aside in our transient world of mobility [which means dislocation]. There is a “gospel” out there that promises if you say the right words and go through a few motions of a spiritual encounter, then you will be made whole—sort of a spiritual hocus-pocus! But James knew that forgiveness and healing come only through a community. He knew that it takes a community.

Not in the theoretical sense, of course. It’s theologically true that our forgiveness and healing are completely and finally established through Jesus Christ. But theoretical theology needs human flesh in order to translate into real transformation. The only way any of us finds wholeness in this world is through our community. Something about the way we’re put together as human beings makes it so that we just cannot grasp such high and holy truths as atonement unless someone is there to show us the grace and mercy and love of God in action. It’s the only way we can truly become whole.[2]

That’s where our Gospel lesson comes in. Mark reminds us that it is our commitment to care for even the “little ones” who believe in Jesus (not necessarily a reference to children) that defines us as a community. It is our commitment to show the grace and mercy and love of God to others so that they too may experience wholeness that makes us like “salt” in this world. Our adult study actually coincides with this week’s Gospel lesson. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does not say that we have to become salt, or that we should strive to have salt, but rather that we are salt—and light.[3] Our calling is not primarily to impact our world! Our calling is first and foremost to follow Jesus the Christ in discipleship. As we follow him, as we demonstrate the grace and love and mercy of God to others, we will be like salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world trapped in darkness.

But Mark’s Gospel has a rather harsh comment about salt—if it looses its saltiness it becomes useless. Bonhoeffer takes that quite literally and says that if “the disciple community … ceases to live up to [its] mission, [it] is itself irretrievably lost.”[4] I don’t agree with that. That doesn’t seem to be consistent with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere. The reality is that, Jesus’ challenge about salt is there to remind us that, unlike the salt, we do have a chance to recommit ourselves to following Christ and to being intentional again about living our lives as “salt” and “light” in this world.

Our observance of World Communion Sunday reminds us of our community. Our community is here at First Presbyterian Church. But it is not just here; it is not just our denomination; it is not just our fellow Americans. Our community is the whole world! They need us to be a source of forgiveness and healing, and we need them to enrich us with diversity and vitality.

[1] A sermon preached 10/01/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] See Jean Vanier, Becoming Human; see the excerpt at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/excerpts.php?id=11748.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 115-119.

[4] Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 117.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

“Shades of Grey”

James 3:13-18[1]

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of movies. And, of course, one of my favorite genres of movie is the Western. One of the reasons why I like Westerns is that they present an interesting case study in the development of our culture. For some reason, Westerns have a way of taking on all the cultural values of the time in which they were made.

If you watch a classic like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” you see the culture of the 50’s reflected—the good guys are good and they all wear white hats, the bad guys are bad and they wear black hats. All the lines are clear and there’s no mistaking who’s good and who’s bad. But if you move forward a few years, you see how much things changed. In “Once Upon a Time in the West,” you begin to see the lines blur. It’s hard to tell who’s good and who’s bad—you can no longer rely on the color of their hats! By the time you get to the early 70’s, movies like “The Outlaw Josie Wales” or “High Plains Drifter” seem to revel in mixing things up—you have the bad “good guys” versus the good “bad guy”

Keeping Up Appearances. I suppose the lesson of those genre-bending Westerns from the late 60’s and early 70’s is that we live in a world where appearances can be deceiving. I think that was what fueled the sweeping cultural changes of that era—an awareness that the good guys weren’t always all that good, and the bad guys weren’t always all bad. The effort to “keep up appearances” in our culture did a poor job of concealing the reality that lay underneath—prejudice, hypocrisy, dishonesty, greed, selfishness. Just ask African Americans about how good the “good old days” were. Or people who embraced a socialist political agenda. Or people who grew up in alcoholic homes. Or homosexual people. Or women who had to suffer abuse in silence. The cultural upheaval that came in those days was so forceful because so much injustice had been covered over by “appearances.”

Unfortunately, all too often those who are so worried about “keeping up appearances” are the very ones whose hearts and lives betray their falsehood. James says that they are the ones who undermine peace through jealousy, selfishness, arrogant pride, and backbiting. As Gene Peterson translates it, “Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats”! (Jas. 3:16, The Message).

Making Faith Real. It should come as no surprise that James has no use for “keeping up appearances.” I think he was following his brother in that. In fact, they were both following the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. I think we tend to get confused about that. When we think “wisdom” we go to Proverbs and get lost in all the details. It is all too easy to think that “wisdom” in the Old Testament concerns picky details that are just as trivial and useless as the purity laws!

But in reality, “wisdom” is about taking faith and making it real in daily life.[2] That may not be your first impression after scanning the book of Proverbs. I would suggest you read it with a note pad by your side and just jot down themes as you come to them. You’ll soon begin to notice a pattern—wisdom is about living in trust and reverence for the Lord, heeding God’s word, practicing humility, integrity, kindness, patience, gentleness, peace, and justice. Sounds to me like, “By their fruits you will know them”!

So we really should not be surprised when James insists that we take our faith and make it real in everyday life. He’s following his brother, his Lord, and his Savior. He’s following the heart of the Old Testament wisdom tradition. The life of faith is not about “keeping up appearances,” but about practicing meekness, humility, integrity, mercy, peace, and justice. James puts it this way: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (Jas. 3:17).

Seeds of Peace. The Christian gospel is that we don’t have to work to earn God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean that the Christian life doesn’t involve work. It takes a great deal of concerted effort to make our faith real in everyday living. It happens over the course of months and years of embracing the teachings of Scripture, opening our hearts to God’s Spirit, and submitting ourselves to God. That was one of the things Jesus consistently stressed—delighting in God’s word to such an extent that it redefines how you live (Luke 11:28; cf. Psalm 1:2). [3]

As James knew very well, a life that is characterized by delighting in God’s word is one that produces good fruit. The wisdom that comes from God produces peace that lasts.[4] Or as Gene Peterson translates it, “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor” (Jas. 3:18, The Message).[5] May it be so among us.

[1] A sermon preached 9/24/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Paul Tillich, “On Wisdom,” in The Eternal Now, 167-72.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 41-42: “It is from [Scripture] that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and will of the Lord and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness … but because the Lord reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.”

[4] Cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 289, 291-92, where he describes the church as the sign of Christ’s increasing lordship in this realm, which means that the church is a fellowship of peace, freedom, and service.

[5] See Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 124-125, where he talks about how difficult human relationships are. Cf. his Reaching Out, 46-78, where he describes the process of moving from hostitility to becoming open to others in hospitality.

“An American Story”

James 2:1-10; Mk. 7:24-37[1]

In the 1997 movie, “The Devil’s Own,” Brad Pitt plays an Irish terrorist named Frankie McGuire who comes to the US to buy missiles for the IRA. He’s provided a cover identity and hooked up with an honest, Irish-American cop named Tom O’Meara, played by Harrison Ford. When the cop begins to put the pieces together and figures out who McGuire really is, he decides to bring McGuire in alive. At the tragic ending, McGuire tells him, “Don’t look for a happy ending. It’s not an American Story, it’s an Irish Story.”

It’s not an American story. We like happy endings, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. We like it when the underdog rises up to succeed against all odds. What that means, I think, is we assume that poverty is not a truly American story. We assume that anyone can pull themselves up with enough hard work, and that anyone who is poor just hasn’t tried hard enough. That may have worked at one time, but the reality of urban life in the new millennium is that it doesn’t any more. There are millions of hard-working people who live in poverty.

Unfortunately, our visions of what God is doing in our world tend to be utopian rather than concrete. In part, focusing on those “other worldly” dimensions of God’s Kingdom lets us off the hook. When we keep our thoughts on streets of gold we don’t have to worry about the streets of asphalt around us. Jesus didn’t take that approach to the Kingdom of God. He proclaimed God’s reign—here and now, not just in the sweet by and by. And he made the Kingdom scandalously concrete—it means justice for the oppressed, mercy for the poor, and release for the captives.

Why this emphasis on the poor, on mercy, and on justice? One of the major points of Jesus’ ministry was to call the people of Israel back to God’s design for living life. That’s what justice is about in the Bible. Justice is not about making laws, keeping laws, and enforcing laws. It’s about living life the way it ought to be lived in relationship with God. Over and over again, the Bible insists that those who love God and will love others, and they will show it by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute.[2]

Jesus’ expectations for those who claimed to have experienced the blessings of God’s kingdom were no different. What was new was that Jesus said God had begun to establish his reign once and for all, which means that God had begun to do something restore life to the way it ought to be—right here and right now.

The crowds who followed Jesus were mostly made up of common people. They didn’t know where their daily bread was coming from today, let alone tomorrow or next week. They literally had one set of clothes—an inner and an outer garment. They crammed an entire family into a room the size of my bedroom at home. They were disenfranchised and disempowered and hopeless. They were beaten down and constantly deprived of basic human dignity.

The disenfranchised and disempowered are still with us. 80% of the world’s population lives at a level below $2000 per year. Most of own something we don’t absolutely need that costs that much! In the US, the census bureau says that a family of 4 living on less than $20,000 is living in poverty. By their measures, there are about 40 million people living in poverty in this country. Who are they? Seniors who cannot work and only receive a meager income from social security. Children living in households run by single mothers. Couples who work but only make minimum wage (2 people working full time at minimum wage of $5.15/hour would not bring home $20,000 a year!).

Why should we care? The Bible says we should care because God cares for them. It says we should care because God has shown his care to us. It says we should care because Jesus made it clear that the poor and the destitute are the ones whom God intends to redeem. Jesus offers no theoretical basis for practicing mercy and justice. He doesn’t talk about social contracts or categorical imperatives. The basis for Jesus’ demand for justice is not “fairness.” Fairness presupposes that everyone is on equal footing socially and economically. It tends toward an ethics of “let me take care of myself and you take care of yourself.” I don’t think Jesus would have been satisfied with that.

The basis for the kind of justice Jesus demanded was own life. He set a concrete example of that kind of life by living it out for us. Why should we try to follow his example? There are all kinds of reasons, but ultimately it’s because that’s the way God intended for human life to be.

Part of the problem is that we’re essentially selfish people, interested in our own welfare. We even practice our piety for our own sakes, so we can feel good about ourselves. At root, we have to make a fundamental change to orient our lives toward the welfare of others. Only then will justice become a heart-felt passion for us.

Then we can see the poor as human beings and not look down on them. Then we can see how the tragedy of homelessness is such an affront to God’s justice. Then we can see how our luxuries may mean others are deprived of basic necessities. Then we can see the suffering of those who are oppressed by the power structures that give us preferential treatment. Once our eyes are opened, and we see things from a biblical perspective, it becomes like a “fire in our bones” that cannot be put out unless we do something about it.

[1] A Sermon preached 9/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 451.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

“Real Faith”[1]

James 1:17-27

America is into “reality.” Or so it would seem, from a quick glance at the television lineup. The show “Survivor” started it all off a few years ago. It was so successful that it spawned a whole new genre, “reality TV.” Now we have “Wife Swap”, “Fear Factor,” and “American Chopper.” It seems there's no end to the possibilities for “reality TV.” The irony to me is that it seems that, more than ever before, Americans are turning to “reality TV” precisely to escape reality. I would say there’s precious little “reality” in “reality TV.” We may see people as they really are, but how many “real” people do we see?

I think this problem crosses over into the spiritual aspects of our lives as well. Being a “real” person isn’t easy. We have to face our demons; we have to come to terms with our dirty laundry; we have to come clean with ourselves.

One of the basic teachings of Scripture about faith is that it must be real. According to James, there’s no such thing as faith that’s a sham. It’s either real or it’s not faith. And if it’s not real, the only person we’re fooling is ourselves.

The Bible consistently demands that faith be real. According to Scripture, real faith is about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live.[2] From the very beginning, God’s amazing grace has demanded of us that we not simply respond by saying something, but by doing something.[3] God has always expected those who profess faith in him to show that their faith truly makes a difference in the way they live.[4] Otherwise, it’s no faith at all; as Jesus said, it’s just “lip service” (Mk. 7:6-7; quoting Isa. 29:13). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, only those who are obedient believe![5]

Now it may seem strange to people raised on Paul's gospel of “justification by grace” through faith to hear this. When James says that “true religion” is to bridle your tongue, care for widows and orphans, and keep yourself untainted by the world (Jas. 1:27), it sounds like he’s making a new set of rules to follow. It sounds like he’s trying to set up a “religion” in the institutional sense of the word rather than promoting Christian faith. But when we look more closely at Scripture, we find that James’ demand for faith that changes the way you live stands right in the mainstream of biblical teaching.

The interesting feature of James’ contribution to this line of biblical teaching is the way he gets specific. James is not content to state the principle that we demonstrate real faith by how we live. He characteristically goes right to the heart of the matter by finding concrete illustrations. It should come as no surprise that he pinpoints these three specific areas—how you use your words, how you treat the powerless and destitute, and how you view “holiness.” A quick overview of Scripture will show how often they show up as indicators of real faith or the lack thereof!

If you think about it, these three areas of our lives are precisely where the lack of real faith shows up. How easy is it to turn from our “Christian life” to cursing, slandering, and condemning another person! How easy it is to make ourselves feel less impotent in this world by mistreating someone who has no voice! How easy it is to rationalize and justify our failure to “do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” by wrapping ourselves in a mantle of false piety—we and people like us are “holy,” but those who are different aren’t.

It seems to me that is precisely the problem with American Christianity. In our society religion is a cultural phenomenon—it enforces the norms and standards of the status quo and uses the Bible and church as tools to that end. But since God’s word challenges all societies and cultures to recognize their profound failures, we must ignore it. That means justifying the way things are by presuming that we’re holy and those who differ from us are unholy (and therefore they’re to blame for all the problems). If we are going to support our culture as it is, then we must become “merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas. 1:22).

What about that part where James talks about keeping yourself untainted from the world? It sounds like James would fit right in with our self-justifying version of holiness. But that’s precisely not what James is saying. He’s echoing what Jesus said—it's not the so-called cultural “sins” that defile you, that render you “unclean” or impure in God's sight. You know what I’m talking about here—those ways we define people who are different from us as “less than” us regardless of their true character! For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day it was washing your hands the right way. We have different ways of defining people as unholy, but they are just as culturally motivated.

But Jesus says that it is what you do that defiles you. The list that Jesus makes has some things in it that I think we'd all agree have a unique ability to poison your soul—taking what you want, refusing to tolerate any rival, blowing your own horn, using others for your own gratification. Jesus presents us with a choice. The reality is that if we choose to live the life of real faith, we will have to turn our back on sham religion that justifies our sin. Real faith is about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live.

[1] A sermon preached 9/3/06 First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, 116, speaking of God claiming us for his kingdom through his love.

[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Doing the Truth,” The Shaking of the Foundations, 114-117.

[4] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 187-206; Brian McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 249-51.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 63.