Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.

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Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

Text:  Mark 6:13-29
“I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.”

The back half of chapter 6 of Mark’s gospel is a recap of the demise of John the Baptist.  He had called out Herod for marrying his brother Philip’s wife in violation of Leviticus 18.16, a ballsy move given that Herod had his brother assassinated, which was typical of his ruthlessness.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t Herod who had it in for John but Herodias, the widow of Philip who married Herod.  To make a long story a short, she asked for John’s head on a platter and literally received the same.

As we read through and past the soap opera we are witness to an account of  much of the worst that can happen when power is horrendously abused.  John had been arrested and imprisoned for no reason other than he had angered Herodias (v.17).  That she manipulated his execution for the same reason is reprehensible, but the way it all went down is chilling and horrendous.  During a feast attended by the movers and shakers around Herod, Herodias’ daughter danced and delighted Herod such that he offered her whatever she wanted as a reward.  Prompted by her mother Herodias, she asked for John the Baptist’s head an a platter.  Surrounded by guests who witnessed his offer to Herodias’ daughter, Herod complied in order to save face.  We don’t know whether he was gutless, sociopathic, or callous to the life of another human being.  Regardless, the all too casual execution of John was a horrendous abuse of power.

It might be a little easier to deal with if we could indict Herod of some form of bigotry that would have distorted his morality.  But Herod, who had John’s life in his hands, disposed of him on a triviality.  Herod was driven more by a narcissistic concern over how he would appear to others should he renege on his offer to Herodias’ daughter than by consideration for a human life.

The account of John’s death should call us to vigilance, keeping an ever watchful eye on those invested with power, especially when they exhibit narcissism (and a near constant need for positive affirmation)  or when much that they do is self-referencing (they perceive the world with themselves at the center of all things).  When a ruler’s power becomes self-, instead of other-serving, the likelihood of abuse is high.

Text:  Mark 1.40-45
“Moved with compassion / deeply moved / incensed / splagchnisthais . . .”

No, the last word in the quote above is not a “covfefe” accidentally typed as I fell asleep at the keyboard.  It is a Greek word based on the noun splagchnon, which refers to the inward parts of the body and metaphorically to the heart, love, and affection.  In its verb form it describes a feeling that is heartfelt or ‘from the gut’.  Typically translated in Mark 1:41 to “deeply moved” or “moved with compassion”, I like “incensed” used by the Common English Bible.  To say that Jesus was “moved” seems a bit weak—“moved” how?  Although more paraphrase than rigorous translation, I think “incensed” better captures Jesus’ reaction when approached by a man with a skin disease.

To describe Jesus’ reaction to his encounter with the man by using the word “incensed”  necessitates a careful reading.  A casual reading might imply that Jesus was angry with a begging man with a skin disease.  But this is not the case as implied by the other translations of splagchnisthais, as imprecise as they seem to be.  Jesus does indeed have a strong reaction, but it is not to the man but his situation as defined by his skin disease.  This is why “incensed” works so well to capture his reaction.  When Jesus looks upon a man reduced to begging for help, who, due to the socially alienating nature of his condition was surely used to begging to make a meagre living, he has a knee-jerk reaction.  He becomes enraged that the man on his knees before him suffers physically from a disease that distorts his appearance, socially and economically from the stigma others placed on his condition, emotionally from stress and isolation, and spiritually, since his skin disease made him “unclean”.  In other words, Jesus gets pissed-off at the brokenness and the evil that afflicts the man.

We usually think of an angry God in terms of God’s just retribution for sin, especially idolatry.  Images of Sodom and Gomorrah in flames, the Pharaoh’s army swallowed by the sea, and the slaughter of the priests of Ba’al tend to characterize our view of God’s righteous anger unleashed.  But God’s anger is also present when Jesus looks down at the begging man hoping Jesus would heal his physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually disabling skin disease. Jesus was incensed at what the disease had done to the man and in part because he could do something about it . . . and he did.

Jesus healed the man of his skin disease and sent the man to the nearest priest so that he could be declared “clean”.  Without a doubt, Jesus acted not just from anger but also from love and compassion.  He raged against the brokenness of God’s creation focused in the man’s skin disease but ministered to the man in all his humanity and human need.

. . . Something to think about as we as Christ-followers experience anger-inspired response to the brokenness of our world, for that brokenness always has a human face and a life created in the image of God that is hurting and needs not just social or political advocacy but love and compassion.

Text:  Mark 4:21-23    “Everything hidden will be revealed.”

Light.  It’s a common image in the Bible, from God’s word as “a lamp before our feet and a light for our journey” (Pss. 119.105) to Jesus’ proclamation that he is “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5) and even we who follow him are also “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14).  Light, be it the physical phenomenon or the metaphor for truth, is unambiguous, unequivocal, unbiased, and terrifying to anything that wants to remain hidden, obscured, or obfuscated.  Light does not allow for the negotiation of what it reveals.  It simply exposes what it illuminates without pretense, prejudice, or guile.

Jesus’ call to me to come and follow him as a minister of the gospel came in the form of a jarring revelation of the world as illuminated by God’s light of truth.  For anyone familiar with the movie The Matrix, it was like taking the red pill.  For the first time, I was beginning to see how self-centered “powers and principalities” conspired to operate in the shadows and keep us blind to all but what was being marketed to us for our consumption and their profit at the expense of the common good, be it consumer goods and services or a political party’s ideology.  Exposed by the light of Christ, I was beginning to see what I can only label as systemic evil or sin using deceit and misdirection as its primary tools.

Whether an ad for beer on a beach somewhere or a politician espousing relief and help for the middle-class, I now reflexively listen through the words, sorting out the marketing and manipulation in order to discern what the advertiser or politician wants me to do, what they will get out of it should I accommodate their intent, who will benefit, who will be harmed, and whether it is right based on the ethos of God most clearly seen in Jesus.  This is why I am skeptical of advertising and politicians of all stripes.

Truth can be heartbreaking and hard.  If you don’t want to deal with it then turn off the light and don’t take the red pill.

Text:  Mark 2:23-3:6

“The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.  This is why the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.”  (2.27-28)

Jesus confronts us with a question.  Which is most important: ideology or people?  My first impulse is to say, “people!”  If I say, “ideology matters most” and even rephrase it as “I stick to my principles,” I run the risk of trading compassion for slavish adherence to rules.  But if I say, “people matter most,” then I’m likely to stumble over the cliff and fall into moral relativism.  Even when rushing one’s pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth, ignoring stop signs and lights is a bad idea.  There is often a strong tension between keeping faith with our convictions and beliefs versus compassion for others.

Jesus lived among a people who defined their identity through Torah–the law given the Israelites by God through Moses and beginning with the 10 Commandments.  To be an Israelite and, by Jesus’ time, a good Jew, was to be a person who lived by Torah.  At the identity-defining center of Torah was the Sabbath law.  Observing a day of rest given to God marked one as a Jew as much as circumcision.  So when Jesus’ disciples were seen casually plucking heads of grain while crossing a wheat field on the Sabbath day, he was asked, in effect, “Why are your disciples violating the Sabbath law? Don’t y’all know better?”  And when Jesus was approached, on the Sabbath, by a man with a deformed hand, his critics watched to see if he would himself break the Sabbath law by healing the man.

Jesus’ critics cared more about the rules.  Jesus cared more about the people.  (Without spending time in dissertation here, I believe that Jesus was faithful to Torah, although not in the slavish manner espoused by his critics.)

As I write this, I am listening to a brief interview with the governor of Kentucky, who has applied to the federal government to place a work requirement as a qualifier for receiving Medicaid.  The ideology behind this is that able-bodied people who can work should not receive assistance if they don’t work lest they fall into a state of dependence that is both unnecessary and an unwanted burden on taxpayers.  Although there are exemptions that allow Medicaid for non-working disabled people, I haven’t heard how people who are unable to find work will fare.  If I heard Kentucky’s governor correctly, it sounds like being unable to find a job is no excuse–no work, no health care.  To me, this is draconian and a good example of elevating ideology over people.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to a question that Jesus implied when he sparred with his critics about the Sabbath:  Who or what is our God?  If we ideology is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  If humanity is everything to us then we commit idolatry.  But . . . if we love God above all things, value as sacred and cherished all who bear God’s image in their creation (i.e. all people), and value God’s will most clearly expressed through Jesus Christ, then we will indeed find a way to be faithful to God’s will yet practice compassion in a way that transforms people’s lives.

Text:  Mark 2:13-17   “Why is he eating with sinners and tax collectors?” (v.16)

Today’s text, picked from the daily lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer is amazingly topical today.  The president of the U.S., yesterday, bemoaned immigration from Africa and Haiti with a vulgarity, in effect giving voice again to his prejudice against non-white, non-European, mostly poor people.  Closer to home, my own town’s city council has been waffling on using an empty nursing home unit of our local hospital as a transitional shelter for homeless women and children in a way that gives the impression that some council members are struggling with the notion of housing “those kind of people” here.

Both situations distill down to this question:  Who is worthy of compassion, consideration, and respect?

To the Pharisees who witnessed Jesus at a dinner hosted by Matthew, those worthy of Jesus (or any other “good Jew”) were not the tax collectors and “sinners” with which Jesus was breaking bread.  Because of their prejudice, all they saw was a faceless, less than fully human group unworthy of Jesus’ attention and respect.  Jesus would later answer one of his critics by reminding him that all it took to be a “good Jew” and fulfill the Law was to love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves, to which the critic responded by asking who qualified as his neighbor.

Today’s reading hits the ground fast and hard as I imagine the following dialog:

Pharisee 1:  “Jesus, why are you eating with poor, useless, probably criminal immigrants who don’t look like white, middle-America?”

Pharisee 2:  “And Jesus, why do you want poor women and children around?”

Jesus:  “Remember the Greatest Commandment: Love God with all you’ve got. And the second is like it–Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Pharisees 1 & 2:  “Fine, but surely my neighbor is not Haitian, African, or a poor woman with a child.”

Jesus:  “You don’t get it, do you. . . .”