Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“God’s Truth”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Luke 14:25-33[1]

In our study of the Psalms we’ve learned a lot about the torah of the Lord, God’s truth:

• We’ve learned that God’s character is defined by a refrain that echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” God’s character is such that he “raises up the needy out of distress” but he “pours contempt on princes” who bring oppression on the poor (Ps. 107:39-41).

• We’ve learned that God’s justice is the compassion and kindness that creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially the most vulnerable.[2]

• We’ve learned that the kind of faith God seeks from us consists of a commitment to a way of life that is shaped by the commands of God.[3] What God wants from us is not ritual, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s justice in the world.

• We’ve learned that there is something inherently self-destructive about evil. There seems to be something programmed into the nature of life itself that eventually undoes evil. But we’ve also learned that sometimes our self-righteousness is just as destructive.

• We’ve learned that when everything seems hopeless and we feel helpless, the final answer to all our struggles and all our needs is the presence of God.[4] The Psalmists praise God joyfully, not because they are oblivious to the suffering of human life, but because of their confidence that God will never fail us or forsake us, that that God will keep his promises.[5]

• We’ve learned that the ultimate goal of our faith is a world where God’s unfailing love and saving grace define the way we live with each other. The Bible calls it the kingdom of God, and in the long run, it promises that both the evil of the “wicked” and the self-serving smugness of the “righteous” will one day be redeemed in God’s kingdom.[6]

But our Psalm for today does not simply call us to be able to recite a litany of truths. The Psalm calls us to “delight” in the torah of the Lord, in God’s truth. But what does it mean to “delight” in God’s truth? Are those of us who have become so saturated with information and so jaded by the market of competing truth claims even able to delight in God’s truth? When we embrace the ideology that places the highest value on “think for ourselves” and “listening to our own inner voice,” what possible significance can time-tested truths from an ancient book have for us today?

James, the brother of Jesus, described the process of delighting in God’s truth this way: “if you keep looking steadily into God's perfect [truth], the [truth] that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don't forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it” (James 1:25). For him, “delighting” in God’s torah is a matter of carefully studying it, taking it into your heart and mind to the extent that it changes the way you live your life. The opposite approach, the one I’m afraid we take all too often, James describes like this: “if you just listen and don't obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like” (James 1:23-24).

As one wise pastor puts it, “disciples are made, not born.”[7] What that means is that it takes an intentional commitment; it takes the will to persevere, and the courage to swim against the stream to become disciples of Jesus the Christ. I think that is what Jesus had in mind when he warned that those who will not carry the cross and follow him cannot be his disciples.

The truth of God is serious business; it’s not just something we read because we have nothing better to do—like looking at old issues of People magazine in the doctor’s office just to pass the time in the waiting room. As Deuteronomy reminds us, God’s truth is a matter of life and death! Embracing God’s truth with one’s whole heart and obeying it leads to life. Turning away without listening and going astray after the various “truths” out there leads to death.

I can think of no better illustration than my own experience with sleeping disorders. As you know, I was diagnosed with severe Sleep Apnea a few months ago. I used to joke that I had a “terminal case of snoring.” The members of our session will bear witness to the truth of that claim! But in fact, I’ve learned that severe sleep apnea is linked to sudden fatal heart attacks! So I don’t joke about it any more—my grandfather died of a sudden heart attack due in part I think to Sleep Apnea. So how would it be if I went through the sleep study to determine I have Sleep Apnea, learned all about Sleep Apnea and discovered that it could kill me, got a Positive Air Pressure machine, and then decided that I didn’t want to take the trouble of actually using it?

We do that kind of thing all the time, don’t we? I hope that our study of the Psalms has taught us not to do that with God’s truth.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/9/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 86; J. David Pleins, Psalms—Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice, 51; H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 236.

[4] A. Weiser, Psalms, 352; P. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 134, 329; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 52.

[5] Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 357.

[6] W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 85-86.

[7] William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 204.

“Pride’s Feast”

Psalm 81; Luke 14:1, 7-14[1]

In our study of the Psalms we’ve seen over and over again that they have a lot to say about justice and injustice. In fact, a whole group of Psalms like our text for today is devoted to warning what will happen if people fail to practice God’s justice. And time and time again, the Bible identifies the central cause for failing to practice God’s justice as pride. It is described in many ways—refusing to listen, having a “stubborn heart,” or a “stiff neck”, “stopping” the ears. But it boils down to the same thing—bald-faced, arrogant, insolent pride.[2]

I think one of the best illustrations of stubborn pride in the face of injustice can be found in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. It’s a story about two FBI agents investigating the deaths of three young civil rights workers in 1964. Film critic Roger Ebert summarizes the theme of the movie: “In a time so recent that its cars are still on the road …, large parts of America were a police state in which the crime was to be black.”[3] The most offensive parts of the film are the depictions of the racist thugs who were terrorizing the black community. And perhaps the worst part is where the film portrays average people—who aren’t directly involved in the violence—perpetuating vicious racist slurs against the black community.

That kind of unmitigated, hateful, insolent, stubborn arrogance in the face of blatant injustice toward human life reminds me of the Nazis sending the Jewish people to their deaths in the name of national security. Mr. Ebert sums up the film well by saying, “No other movie I’ve seen captures so forcefully the look, the feel, the very smell of racism.” It’s the look, the feel, the very smell of brutal, vicious, shameless hatred. Pure, savage, unbounded malice.

Of course, the really disturbing aspect of this film is that it is based on actual events. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were arrested for speeding by the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi—whose county seat is ironically named Philadelphia. They were detained, they were denied a phone call, and then they were released about 10:30 pm. They were never seen alive again. The Sheriff actually claimed it was a publicity stunt, and no less than the governor of Mississippi suggested that the three might be in Cuba![4]

And during the investigation some 31 black churches were burned down by the self-styled “White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”[5] They claimed they were defending Anglo Christian Democracy—one of their ringleaders was actually a Baptist preacher.[6] But what they really were was a group of brutal terrorists. All they knew how to do was to vent their own self-hatred on everyone around them.

But their mistake was that they didn’t pay very close attention to the “Christian” teachings that they professed to be defending. Statements like, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Or, “The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low” (Isaiah 2:17). Or, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

And those who fail to practice God’s justice will reap the same consequences they did. William Shakespeare said it well: “He that is proud eats up himself.”[7] That’s pride’s feast—you devour everything around you and yourself at the same time.[8]

One of the worst mistakes we could make is to think, “How could those people have been so blind?” The fact is that we still have many forms of injustice in our communities today! Just ask the young people what they face every day at school. And make no mistake about it: confronted with the right “threat” we all have the capacity for the same shameless, arrogant hatred as the people of Philadelphia, Mississippi forty years ago. The target of hatred may have shifted, but the capacity for hatred is still there.

The irony is that Jesus’ words of warning offer hope to us all—the just and the unjust alike. The fact of the matter is that the only hope for those who exalt themselves is to be humbled. Only then can they see past their fears and their hatred and receive the grace and mercy of God. Only then can they find true repentance—a thoroughgoing change of heart. Only then can both the violent and the victims break out of the “vicious circles of death” that continually spin downward in a hopeless spiral of exploitation, violence, hatred, and destruction.[9]

We cannot escape God’s truth: Justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive. What God desires from us is to heed his call for justice: justice that consists of compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable—the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, the convict and the mentally ill, the “at-risk” and the neglected, the oppressed and the abused.

Will we listen, or will we go on indulging in pride’s feast?

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/2/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 194-197, for a brief overview of the theological discussion of sin as pride; see also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology II:49-51.

[3] Roger Ebert, Review of “Mississippi Burning,” Chicago Sun-Times December 9, 1988; accessed at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID =/19881209/REVIEWS/812090301/1023.

[4] “If You Try and Don’t Succeed,” Time (August 16, 1963); accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,894564,00.html. This was Paul B. Johnson, Jr., who tried to physically block federal Marshalls from escorting James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

[5] Wayne King, “Mississippi Burning (1988): Fact vs. Fiction in Mississippi,” New York Times December 4, 1988.

[6] Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of his role in the murders in 2005 due to the efforts of Jerry Mitchell, a reporter at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. See Joe Treen, “Southern Man: Klan-Busting Journalist Jerry Mitchell,” Mother Jones (January 24, 2007); accessed at http://www.motherjones.com/news/update/2007/01/ jerry_mitchell.html.

[7] William Shakespeare, “Troilus and Cressida,” Act 2, Scene 3, Lines 154-7.

[8] See Tillich, Systematic Theology, II:59-62; he describes the process as one of “disintegration.”

[9] J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 293, 301-303, 329-335.

“Solid Ground”

Isaiah 58:6-12; Psalm 103; Hebrews 12:18-29[1]

One of my favorite movie lines is found in the 2003 film Seabiscuit. The film is based on the true story of three men who are broken, wounded, and rejected: Charles, Tom, and “Red.” They all find new life and redemption through a horse that was written off as too small and “un-trainable”, but becomes a champion. At one point, when Charles decides to invest in a horse, he meets Tom outside a track in Tijuana, Mexico. Tom had been a top hand on a ranch in Colorado, but was forced to become a drifter during the Great Depression. In Tijuana, he happened to come upon a horse that had a broken foreleg. They were going to “put him down” but Tom stopped them. When Charles meets Tom, he’s well into rehabilitating the horse. When Charles asks why, Tom says, “You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cause it’s banged up a little.”

That’s not a philosophy that I would say is very popular these days. We throw away everything that’s “banged up,” whether its banged up a little or a lot! We are obsessed with what is newest, what has the best “bells and whistles,” and with what is the most fashionable. The personal computer industry has dramatically changed the definition of “new” and “old.” There was a time when a new car was new for many months. A new house was new for several years. But these days, we buy a new computer, and as soon as we take it out of the box, it’s “old” and obsolete. Be honest—how long did you wait after buying your last computer before you started looking at newer ones that were faster and better?

Our “throw away” mentality extends beyond the latest gadgets. It also includes lives. People. We throw them away all the time. Whether it’s a difficult employee, or a handicapped person, or a spouse, or even a parent. We live in a society where it’s much easier to simply throw lives away. And that’s what we do with “our” people; I’d hate to even go into what we do with people who are “foreign” to us!

I’m afraid the action of a broken down old cowpoke to save a hobbled horse from the soap factory looks a bit impractical from the perspective of our world. But that is precisely what’s wrong with our world! We have no “ideal” that we look to for guidance, to provide meaning and direction.

Instead, in our world kingdoms rise and fall based on things like profit, military technology, and propaganda. People are viewed as cogs in a machine. And the “laws of the jungle” are “bigger is better,” “money makes the world go around,” and “survival of the strongest.”

The letter to the Hebrews reminds us, however, that what looks strong and stable may not always have the capacity to endure. Many of the “strong” and the “powerful” have met their undoing because they founded their kingdoms on the “laws of the jungle” rather than on God’s justice. All of the “rich” and the “beautiful” who have clawed their way to the top on the backs of others have met their ultimate demise when death comes knocking!

The letter to the Hebrews uses a metaphor for judgment that is very appropriate—shaking. It says that one day, everything will be shaken. Those things that are built on any foundation other than the kingdom of God will fall to pieces. They may look strong and enduring now, but they will not stand. What will stand is the kingdom of God. That’s solid ground.

Psalm 103 praises God’s essential character as the foundation of his kingdom that will never be shaken: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” In a very real sense, I think the Psalmist invites us to build our lives on the foundation of God’s character, God’s truth, God’s justice.

And the defining qualities of God’s character are mercy, grace, and love. God is compassionate. And those qualities—mercy, grace, and compassion—are the foundation for God’s justice in the world, for God’s kingdom in the world. It is the kind of outlook that says, “You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cause it’s banged up a little.”

There are a lot of lives around us that are “banged up”—some a little, some a lot. If we have eyes to see, we can see all around us the lives of children, families, and senior adults shattered by homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, and poverty. In some respects, they are the victims of their own bad choices. But in every case, they suffer in part because the kingdoms of this world do not practice the justice of God.

Why should we care? The Bible says we should care because God cares for them. We should care because God has shown his care to us, and expects us to extend that care to others. We should care because Jesus made it clear that God intends to redeem the poor and the destitute. It is to them that the kingdom of God belongs, the kingdom founded upon the solid ground of grace, mercy, and love.

But the prophet Isaiah also reminds us that we should care, and should put that compassion into action, because it is only as we get outside ourselves and share God’s compassion with others that we ourselves find life. As Jim Wallis puts it, when we share God’s grace and mercy and love with those around us who are hurting and struggling, “we all get healed.”[2]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/26/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jim Wallis, “We All Get Healed,” a sermon preached Nov. 21, 2000; accessed at http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/wallis_4416.htm.

“The Price of Peace”

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Luke 12:49-56[1]

In our study of the Psalms we’ve talked a lot about ideas like justice and righteousness, mercy and peace. It is clear that this is the goal of faith—a world where God’s unfailing love and saving grace define the way we live with each other.

And the primary way in which the Bible speaks of a life that looks like this is with the word shalom, peace. In the Bible, peace is the wholeness that comes from knowing God genuinely and living the life God intended for us. Peace is what happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. It includes all that God is working toward in this world. It is God’s salvation that brings reconciliation with God and humanity.[2]

And so it comes as quite a shock when, contrary to everything the Bible teaches us to expect, we hear Jesus saying he has come not to bring peace but strife!

Part of the problem is with the whole shape of our faith. We take something that essentially subverts our cultural values, our selfish desires for prosperity and happiness, and we turn it into one great mechanism to fulfill all our wishes![3] It’s called “cultural religion.” And the values of that kind of faith are things like conformity, keeping up appearances, material success. It’s the outlook that insists on maintaining the status quo at all costs. Those who are invested in “business as usual” are interested in a different kind of peace than what the Bible has in mind.

Jesus confronted that kind of religiosity head-on![4] He says, somewhat ironically, that he has not come to bring peace, but strife. This ominous declaration stands as a warning to all those who are invested in maintaining the status quo no matter what. It challenges those who care more about keeping up appearances and preserving “business as usual” than promoting God’s kingdom and God’s justice. Jesus brings conflict, strife, crisis to those whose faith is defined by those conventional values.[5] As one commentator put it, Jesus says to those whose faith is locked into the status quo, “I have come to bring crisis because business as usual means injustice and death.”[6]

We’re familiar with the story of Nelson Mandela, the South African black activist who spent years in jail for his protests against Apartheid, the government-sanctioned official state policy of separation between the races. We may not be as familiar with the story of Stephen Biko. He was also a leader in the struggle against racism, but his story didn’t turn out so well. Biko was arrested and tortured to death by South African police. His story was told by another South African, white newspaper editor Donald Woods. Woods exposed the inhumanity and injustice of Apartheid and as a result he was forced into from his homeland. Their story was dramatized in Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film, Cry Freedom.[7] There is peace today in South Africa—at least more peace than there was for Stephen Biko—but that peace came at a high price.

True peace, God’s peace that brings wholeness and life, always comes with a price. The truth behind our Gospel lesson for today is that Jesus does come to bring a different kind of peace, but it is peace that will only come from confronting injustice, especially the injustice that benefits the privileged few. It is a kind of peace that will only come from exposing the untruth that sustains the status quo which perpetuates the brokenness of our world. It is a peace that can only come through the strife and conflict that God’s justice and God’s truth provoke among those who are comfortable with “business as usual.”[8]

As I have said before, from Moses to Amos to Jesus, practicing justice is the defining quality of those who claim to know God! Justice is about living life the way it ought to be lived in relationship with God and others. It’s about the mercy and love and kindness that make for “life abundant.”[9] As I have said before, the Bible insists time and again that those who love God and will love others, and they will show it by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute.[10]

And that is the reply to the plea from Psalm 80: “Why have you broken down the walls of your vineyard?” The immediate answer is that the Lord of Hosts came to his vineyard Israel and “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed” (Isaiah 5:7). But the ultimate answer comes from Jesus—who came to break down the systems of injustice and untruth that rob people and nature of life through oppression and exploitation. But his intention was not to destroy, but to clear the way for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, for God’s peace that brings life to all creation. As the late pope John Paul II put it, “If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. It you want life, embrace the truth–the truth revealed by God.”[11]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/19/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.”

[3] Cf. J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 38, this kind of “Christianity” “becomes the religious fulfillment of the prevailing social interests.” Cf. also ibid., 58.

[4] Indeed, one might say with Moltmann, Crucified God, 37, that Jesus’ cross is itself the contradiction of all cultural values.

[5] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 18-19: The promises that the hope inspired by the Gospel makes “must stand in contradiction to the reality which at present can be experienced,” which is a reality of suffering and death. Cf. also ibid., 103, 118, 225-226, 330. For this reason, he says (p. 324) that “Christians must venture an exodus and regard their social roles as a new Babylonian exile” in which they must proclaim the hope of the Gospel and work for the transformation of society. Cf. also Jerry A. Irish, “Moltmann’s Theology of Contradiction,” Theology Today 32 (July, 1975): 21-31.

[6] Teresa Berger, “Disturbing the Peace (Luke 12:49-56)” in The Christian Century, (August 10, 2004):18; accessed at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle. asp?title=3116 .

[7] Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Review of “Cry Freedom”, accessed at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=6091

[8] Cf. Moltmann, Crucified God, 39, where he speaks of the necessity of “the painful demonstration of truth in the midst of untruth.” Cf. also ibid., 71, 145, 212.

[9] Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48 (April, 1991) 16.

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

[11] John Paul II, Homily at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, January 27, 1999.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

“Justice Calling”

Psalm 50; Luke 12:32-40[1]

The 2005 movie The Constant Gardener, based on John Le Carre’s novel of the same title, is a story about two people, Justin and Tessa, who are fighting injustice. Justin is a rather quiet and shy member of the British Foreign Service in Kenya. His wife, Tessa is a fiery human rights activist concerned to expose government exploitation. Tessa discovers that a pharmaceutical company called KDH is testing a drug called Dypraxa on the poor as an antidote to Tuberculosis. The problem is that they are conducting their trials by coercing poor Africans in exchange for health care. If they take the Dypraxa, they get heath care. If not, they don’t get health care. The other problem is that the medicine they’re testing is in some cases fatal. And, as Tessa rightly suspects, they are conducting their tests and covering up the deaths with the approval of the British government.

In the final scene, Tessa’s cousin explains the situation in this way, “So who has got away with murder? Not, of course, the British government. They merely covered up, as one does, the offensive corpses. Though not literally. That was done by person or persons unknown. So who has committed murder? Not, of course, the highly respectable firm of KDH Pharmaceutical, which has enjoyed record profits this quarter, and [and will] continue testing Dypraxa in Africa. No, there are no murders in Africa. Only regrettable deaths. And from those deaths we derive the benefits of civilization, benefits we can afford so easily... because those lives were bought so cheaply.”

The film is a study in contrasting characters. At first Justin is quite content to do his job and to tend his garden, empathetic but for all practical purposes oblivious to the suffering all around him. Tessa, by contrast, has a heart full of compassion, and seeks to reach out to help everyone she meets. In one particularly telling interchange, Tessa and Justin are traveling back to the city in their Land Rover, Tessa sees 3 young Africans she knows, and she asks Justin to stop and give them a ride. Justin objects, “We can't involve ourselves in their lives, Tessa.” Tessa asks, “Why?” Justin replies, “Be reasonable. There are millions of people, they all need help. It’s what the agencies are here for.” To which Tessa answers, “Yeah, but these are three people that WE can help.” Justin refuses, saying, “I have to think of you first.”

After Tessa is murdered to keep her from revealing what she knows and creating the scandal for KDH and the British government, Justin begins to investigate—first, to satisfy his own doubts about his wife, but then to carry on her work. In the process, he finally begins to see the people of Africa as people, and he feels the same compassion for them that Tessa had. At the end of the film, Justin is begging a pilot to take a young girl aboard a plane escaping from a band of marauding tribesmen, using almost exactly the same words Tessa had used with him—“this one is one we can help.”

In a very real sense, I think you could say that in the process Justin finally opens his eyes to the injustice around him. Or perhaps it’s better to say that Justin finally heeds the call of justice through the people who are being exploited all around him. As we’ve observed several times in our study of the Psalms, from the biblical point of view justice means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the strangers have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. It means that those on the margins of social power not only have someone who advocates on their behalf but also someone who takes concrete steps to make their lot in life better. Simply put—justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive. Of course, when you look at the problems in the world, it can be overwhelming. There are so many millions who need help who are beyond our reach. There’s nothing we can do about that, but there are some we can help here and now.

This is the kind of call that the Psalmist speaks of in Psalm 50. God the Lord calls out to us all to put God’s justice into practice. What God wants from us is not ritual, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s kingdom and God’s justice in the world—to “pay our vows to the Lord.” It is the same message the prophet Micah had: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Throughout the Bible, what God desires from us most of all is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the alien are most frequently named in the Bible, but we could add others to the list, like the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill.[2]

In a very real sense, as we look at our world with all of its desperate needs, we might say that it is Jesus who is calling us.[3] “I am hungry, will you give me something to eat? I am a stranger, will you take me in? I am suffering, will you come to me?” The Bible makes it clear that we cannot claim to have a relationship with the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ if it does not lead us to identify with and work on behalf of “those he came to free and for whose salvation he died.”[4]

Justice is calling; what will our answer will be?

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/12/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[3]J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 126-130.

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 287.

“Open Hands”

Psalm 107; Luke 12:31-21[1]

The 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street is a story about Bud Fox, an ambitious young stock broker who tries to make a multimillionaire corporate raider named Gordon Gekko his newest client. To get his business, Bud calls him 39 days in a row, and then presents him with a box of Cuban cigars on the 40th day, his birthday. Gordon agrees to take Bud on as a protégé, and Bud agrees to take shortcuts he knows to be illegal in order to reap the benefits of success.

Perhaps the high point of the movie is when Gordon addresses a shareholders’ meeting of the latest target of his hostile take-over tactics. In an eloquent effort to convince them that he really has the company’s best interests at heart, he says, “Ladies and gentleman, greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

I can’t think of anything more characteristic of “the moral bankruptcy behind today’s money society” than that statement;[2] nor can I think of anything more blatantly contrary to the truth of the Scriptures. The sad thing is that this fictitious speech is based on an actual commencement address given by one-time financier Ivan Boesky on May 18, 1986, at the School of Business Administration, University of California, Berkeley. He said it this way, “Greed is all right, by the way... I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” Incidentally, Boesky was later convicted of insider trading violations, and agreed to pay $100 million in fines. Maybe he didn’t feel so good about himself after that!

Even more sad is the fact that in 1998, John Stossel devoted an episode of his ABC show “Give Me a Break” to the topic of greed. Stossel did stories about various people, from the “robber barons” like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and the Mellons to “America’s toughest boss,” a man who lays off employees to keep his profit margin is strong—while enjoying his multimillion-dollar salary!

But greed is not good, it is a thief. Psychologist Erich Fromm said it this way—“Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”[3] The point is that greed robs us of life! Greed is not good, it is a poison. Charlie Chaplin said, “Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.”[4]

Greed is not good, it is a slave master. Jesus said it this way: “Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Now I dare say that there’s not a soul in this congregation who would argue that greed is good. I would even venture the opinion that there is probably not a single person in this town who would claim to support “greed.”

But just to make sure we don’t miss the point of what Jesus is saying, he tells us a story. It’s a story about a man who has a great windfall, and takes what we might otherwise think of as the “prudent” and “wise” course of making provisions for his continued security. But Jesus says that his actions are foolish, because he has stored up riches for himself, but he was not “rich toward God.”

What is Jesus trying to say, that we shouldn’t plan for the future? I don’t think that’s the point. I don’t think Jesus is talking about saving for the future; what he’s talking about is the way the “stuff” of this life has the potential to seduce and enslave us. We’re used to hearing that from slick TV preachers who want us to give all our “stuff” to them! But Jesus wasn’t interested in our “stuff”; he was interested in people and their hearts. He was representing God’s claim on our lives—on all that we are and have.[5] And he makes it clear to those who would follow him that seeking an “abundance of possessions” has a way of turning into hoarding everything we can get our hands on. It turns into the attitude of “I’m alright Jack, keep your hands off my stack”![6]

But the Psalmist reminds us that an attitude of hoarding “stuff” is completely inconsistent with God’s character. The Psalmist defines God’s character as “steadfast love”—a love that never lets us go. God’s character is such that “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9). God’s character is such that “he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron” to set the prisoners free (Ps. 107:16). God’s character is such that “He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Ps. 107:35). God’s character is such that he “raises us the needy out of distress” but he “pours contempt on princes” who bring oppression on the poor (Ps. 107:39-41).

Yes, God is the one who “pours contempt” on the robber barons and the corporate raiders and the CEO’s who throw people out of work to ensure they get a good dividend on their investment!

But I think, more importantly, the Psalmist also tells us who we are. We are not the strong, self-made individualists who have pulled ourselves up by our own boot-straps. The Psalmist reminds us that “We are the hungry and thirsty who have been fed. We are the bound who have been liberated. We are the sinners deserving death who have been given life.”[7] When we look at it that way, it puts things in a whole different light, because it means that we cannot do otherwise than to give the same to others.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/5/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Review of “Wall Street” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, accessed at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=6095 .

[3] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 136; accessed at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Erich_Fromm .

[4] Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator, 1940, in a speech given as the Jewish Barber who has been mistaken for the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynckel (a parody of Adolf Hitler); accessed at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Charlie_Chaplin #The_Great_Dictator_.281940.29 .

[5] Hans Küng, in On Being a Christian, 246, puts it this way: “The time for relativizing God’s will is past. … [God] demands man’s heart. He wants … not only good fruits, but the good tree; not only action, but being; not something, but myself—and myself wholly and entirely.”

[6] Pink Floyd, “Money” from the album The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.

[7] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 347.

“Rightness Springs Up”

Psalm 85; Luke 11:1-13[1]

I think I would have say that I can think of no more persuasive argument for peace than the horrific destruction of Hiroshima. I understand that event probably saved millions of lives, both American and Japanese. But that does not lessen the horror of an entire city of people destroyed in an instant. Hiroshima stands today as a monument against the violence of our world and as a witness to the hope for a better world—a world without war, without injustice, without oppression, without strife and hatred.

Of course, some might say a world like this can only be some kind of unreal utopia, the kind of ideal world that we can only dream about. That, however, doesn’t stop the Psalmist from doing just that. In our text for today, the Psalmist looks for the day when God’s rightness and God’s peace will spring up from the ground as naturally as wildflowers on a Texas roadside. The Psalmist looks for the day when God’s unfailing love and grace rain down from the sky like the summer showers we’ve all been “enjoying” lately. The Psalmist looks forward to a world where God’s unfailing love and saving grace define the way we live with each other. The Bible calls it the kingdom of God, and in the face of all evidence to the contrary, it persistently, even stubbornly continues to insist that God’s reign is the true reality in this world.[2]

And the primary way in which the Bible speaks of a life that looks like this is with the word shalom, peace. In our day and time “peace” is what diplomats broker between warring parties. But the shalom of God’s kingdom is much, much more than that. The “peace” of God’s kingdom is the only thing that can transform us and heal us. In the Bible, peace is the wholeness that comes from knowing God genuinely and living the life God intended for us. Peace is what happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. It includes all that God is working toward in this world.

This kind of peace not only changes us wholly, it also changes all of life—individuals, families, and nations. It is God’s salvation that brings recon­ciliation with God and humanity. It brings the reversal of sin’s effects on human life. Ultimately it renews the whole of creation. In a very real sense, the peace of God’s kingdom represents a return to God’s original design for human life, the Garden of Eden.

In his model prayer Jesus instructed his followers to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Can you even imagine such a place? A world where life is ordered by God’s rightness and peace and love and grace and not the petty scheming of selfish people? A world where God’s salvation is complete? Where not only God’s people but all people experience the peace and joy of new life?

Like the prophets before him, Jesus looked forward to the time when God himself would come to reign over all the earth. At that time God would set things right, he would redeem and restore the people of Israel, and draw all humanity into the covenant relationship with him (cf. Isa. 2:2-4). Jesus was looking for the peace of God’s kingdom. From this perspective, the Lord’s prayer points us in the same direction as the Psalm—to a world in which everyone can enjoy life as God intended for it to be from the very beginning. But the difference is that, while others were waiting for some apocalyptic catastrophe to reveal God’s kingdom, Jesus “saw it growing up among them” already.[3] Jesus saw the Psalmist’s vision of God’s salvation “at hand”; he saw God’s unfailing love raining down from the sky and God’s peace springing up from the ground.

And as a result Jesus called those who would follow him “peacemakers.” This may seem to be a strange way to describe the work of God’s kingdom, but if you look at Jesus’ life, it fits perfectly. In fact, I think everything Jesus did—from preaching the gospel, to healing the sick, to feeding the hungry, to dying on the cross—could be called “peacemaking.” Jesus met human needs with genuine compassion. When a crowd came to him right after he narrowly escaped a lynch mob in Nazareth, “he laid his hands on each of them and he cured them” (Lk. 4:40). When Jesus withdrew for rest and the crowds followed anyway, he fed them because “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk. 6:34).

In Jesus’ ministry “sal­vation” meant relieving suffering and providing for those in need.[4] Some might think that should come after the “real” work of the Kingdom—saving souls. But Jesus’ whole purpose in life was to “make peace”—to carry out God’s plan to renew life completely. And he continues to call us to follow him as his disciples, to “bring God’s redemp­tive purposes to bear in all of our broken society”.[5]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/29/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 30-31.

[3] W. Rauschenbush, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 56-71.

[4] Joel Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 97.

[5] Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount, 107.