Sunday, September 18, 2022

America’s Crisis Questions

John 18.28, 33, 36-38a:
   28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 
   33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
   36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
   37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
   38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.
The question Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” is, I think, the second-most important question in the Bible, hence the second-most important question facing all humanity all the time. The most important question is the one Jesus asked his disciples one day on the road to Caesarea-Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” Unless we answer that one rightly, we will never answer the second one fully. 

Pilate was a politician. He had already answered the first question – who is Jesus – by saying he had been told that Jesus was a pretender to the kingship of Judea. Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world,” which Pilate seemed to take as Jesus’ confession of some kind and, hearing Jesus’ explanation, simply waved it away as irrelevant. 

I think one lesson of this passage is that we should not let politicians define what truth is. 

That we as a nation have been allowing that for many, many years is not bearing good fruit for us as the mid-term election approaches. It does not take a Nobel laureate to observe that America is not today a “United” States. So I should pause now and admit that this is a political sermon, but it is not a partisan sermon. I will neither endorse nor denounce candidates or parties but try to explore what we as disciples of Jesus Christ may do and say that promotes peace and exhibits the spirit of Christ in this tense time. 

I do not think our country is headed toward another civil war as more and more people seem to think. I know something about making war and the idea that two opposing actual armies could form in America today and wage war upon one another I do not find credible. 
That said, I do think that the risk of lethal, destructive violence in our cities after election day is very real, though I pray God I am wrong. So what do we, who profess to follow Christ, do until then? 
I think our beginning point is to look in a mirror. Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he lamented,
The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent, or often vocal, sanction of things as they are.
This we must not do. America will not be better until Americans are better. In the 1830s, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and later wrote, “America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” He attributed America’s goodness to its churches. While we should not ascribe too much goodness to our forebears of 180 years ago, we probably can agree that we will not “make America great again” unless we, not politicians, decide to make Americans good. 

And that, I think, relies on how we church people give answer in the way we live, what we do, and what we say to the two most important questions facing the country today: 

1. Who do we say Jesus is?
2. What is truth?

Today, I will address the second one. 

There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark that makes my first point: 

"Archaeology is the search for facts, not truth. If it's truth you're interested in, Doctor Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall." 

Truth and fact are closely related, of course, but they are not the same thing. People rarely fight over facts. What they argue about is what the facts mean, what is the Truth the facts indicate. Both sides have the same facts, but both arrive at a different "truth."  

Truth is important and so is truth's relationship to facts. Every one of us operates every day on what is known as the "correspondence theory" of truth. For example, when doctors make diagnoses, they correspond symptoms and test results to disorders, ailments, or diseases. So do mechanics when determining what makes the pinging noise under the hood of your car. In either case the decisions about health or auto repairs rely on a correspondence between certain facts and certain conclusions that are true, or most likely true. Correspondence of facts to truths means that some conclusions must be false. Falsehoods don't correspond to facts. 

But two other claims about what is truth are alive and well in Western civilization today. One is relativism, the notion that something can be "true for you" and another thing "true for me." We can each have our own personal truth regardless of facts. But relativism is tolerable only for trivial matters. You may love cauliflower while I despise it. "Cauliflower tastes good," is true for you and its opposite, "Cauliflower is awful," is true for me. And we're both right. But it does not matter. 

However, when the stakes of truth are significant, we all drop all pretense of relativism. Horace and Edna may be wallowing in relativism when it comes to cauliflower, but if Horace is a UT graduate and Edna a University of Georgia graduate, and it's football season, well ... . 

Some people think that the truth of a statement is related to whether it "works." So a religion may be true for Horace if he sees some benefit to it, but false for Edna if she sees none. The danger of thinking truth is whatever works is that the perceived benefit might really be bad. "Cigarettes are good" works in the sense that many smokers report a soothing or relaxing sensation when they smoke, but the fact remains that cigarettes can kill. 
Vladimir Lenin refined the Marxist idea of Revolutionary Truth, which means that any claim that brought the Revolution closer or more successful was truth, even if it contradicted an earlier statement. Nazi propaganda was the same way. Surely nothing more need be said about that understanding except it is sadly alive and well in American politics today. 
Christian faith and practice rely on correspondence, not relativism or utility or the idea that truth is whatever supports our cause. On the first Easter morning, the women went to the tomb and observed certain facts: the stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, they saw Jesus alive. So they told the disciples, "He is risen!"
Yet more than corresponding facts to truth is necessary. As the apostle James pointed out, even the demons know that Jesus rose from the dead, yet demons they remain. John Wesley admonished that we may affirm the truth of one, twenty or a hundred creeds and yet have no saving faith at all. 
Life throws us many ways for us to affirm what we think is true. But the majority of them do not challenge us to live transformed lives. Acknowledging propositions is one thing, probing what we believe and for what we will stand firm is quite another. How do we discern what we believe, whether in religion or politics or other endeavors? What we believe is crucial because what we believe impels what we do. Belief, like truth, should correspond to facts but in believing we seek not only to know what is true, but who and what we can trust. 
But there is such a thing as a moment of truth, when we have to confront what we trust and are compelled to decide how deeply we hold our beliefs.

Pilate told Jesus, "Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Such a bald statement of power would certainly have been a moment of truth for me. Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above." It was not a diplomatic statement but a naked challenge to Pilate's power and authority. No one, Christian or not, can doubt that Jesus believed completely what he had claimed about himself and trusted that God would deliver.
Moments of truth are fraught with risk, forcing is the issue: What do we believe? Who do we trust? What shall we do? What shall we risk? What do we fear? What do we love? And I think that as a nation, those questions loom before us disciples of Jesus Christ this political season.
Bonnie Kristian, a columnist at Christianity Today, wrote before election day two years ago,
[Disciples] should proactively “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14), but making peace is not a project that begins when battle lines are already drawn. Ideally, it begins in time to keep us from drawing them at all. The word Jesus uses for “peacemaker” in the Sermon on the Mount appears just once in the New Testament, but its [root words] show up together one other time, in James 3:18.

“Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness,” James says, and to be a peacemaker is to live with the “wisdom that comes from heaven” (v. 17). This wisdom rejects “bitter envy and selfish ambition,” which lead to “disorder and every evil practice.” It is “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (vv. 14, 16–17). In worldly politics of animosity, selfishness, domination, disdain and rotten fruit, prejudice, and bad faith, that is the wisdom we need.
What do we believe, we Americans? Do we really believe that the truth is self-evident that all persons are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that governments are properly instituted to secure these rights, as our Declaration of Independence says? Do we say that this declaration corresponds to facts about the nature of God and God's purposes in creation? Do we trust that this American experiment will endure and indeed expand?  

Yet even mounting apathy and dismissal of the American idea is not my greatest fear. Revelation chapter two records the words of Christ as revealed to John: 
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: . . . 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate the wicked, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” (Rev 2:1a-4)
Sometimes I wonder whether we American Christians often treat our religion as a mere commodity, to be swapped in or out of our lives according to what suits us at the time. Have we adopted religious relativism, where niceness and tolerance are prized more than truth and faithfulness? Has politics itself become America’s main religion? Could it be that Christ holds something against us, in spite of our good works, because we have forgotten that he is to be our first love? 

John 21 records Jesus and his disciples one morning not long before Jesus died. 
 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." 16 A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." 17 He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." 19 ... And after this he said to him, "Follow me."
My greatest fear is that we will not feed or tend Christ's sheep, and that when he leads, we will not follow. I think that is why Jesus asked Peter three times whether he loved him. He was setting Peter up for a crisis moment when Peter would have to confront what he believed about Jesus and his love for him.

We all have the same challenge. So here are the things I try to remember in this political season:
1. Jesus does not endorse any candidate. To my fellow Christians who will vote this November I say: Vote for the candidate of your choice. Vote your conscience. Vote your convictions. But do not pretend for one second that it is even possible to vote the Gospel this November.
2. My enduring purpose must be to glorify God, not politics or politicians. 
3. I must get the plank out of my own eye before I worry about the speck in others’. Am I promoting peaceful resolution and reconciliation, or am I part of the discord and anger engulfing our country today?
4. Do I pray fairly and inclusively for all? I may not urge God to crush the other side of my political aisle! 
Finally, let us remember John Wesley’s advice to the people called Methodist in October 1774.

Let us pray both as citizens of America and of the Kingdom of God that we will hold fast to what is true and good. May we have courage, resolution, commitment, and wisdom as a nation, but especially as ones to whom Christ has said, "Follow me."

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Right People for the Wrong Crowd

Luke 15 begins:

1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

When you read the gospels, you discover that wherever Jesus was, there were usually a lot of the riffraff of society right there with him. One of the remarkable things about Jesus is that he accepted and even sought the company of people considered socially undesirable. In fact, Jesus once even invited himself to dinner at a hated tax collector’s house. 

Then, as now, the influential and powerful people didn’t like the wrong crowd and they didn’t like the way Jesus hung out with the wrong crowd. They thought there was a character defect in a man who would welcome sinners and eat with them. 

Usually we set up the Pharisees as the bad guys of the gospels. After all, Jesus criticized them frequently. But I will tell you: the closer my children got to high school the more I became like the Pharisees. I examined their friends closely. I wanted to know who they spent their time with and what they did together. I remember my own parents wanting to know these things and warning me not to keep bad company.

None of us would ever say to our children, “Go downtown and hang out with the drug pushers and shoplifters.” And if our kids did so, we’d certainly think they had gone terribly wrong. We are socially a lot more like the Pharisees than Jesus. We try to keep the wrong crowd at arm’s length or out of sight. 

The Pharisees wanted to avoid the wrong crowd. That’s not inherently a bad thing. The Pharisees believed that the separation of good and bad was necessary for the well being of the community. We believe that, too. It's why we have jails, after all.

But the Pharisees went too far. In their eyes, the people Jesus welcomed were beyond the margins of proper society and were to be scorned and rejected. And Jesus even ate meals with them! The Pharisees objected strenuously. So, Jesus told them parables about three lost things: a sheep, a coin, and a father who had two sons. He started this way:

4 “Which one of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go look for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 Returning home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, telling them, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need to repent.”

A shepherd has a hundred sheep counts only ninety-nine. So, he leaves the ninety-nine to find the lost sheep. He brings it home and calls his friends to rejoice with him. "Just so," Jesus concludes, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

Then he told of a woman who lost a coin and tore her house upside down to find it. When she did, she threw a block party to celebrate. “Just so,” Jesus said, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 

This is a play in three acts, and the third act Jesus told was a story of a young man who demanded of his father his share of his inheritance now. Dad gave it to him, and the young man moved far away. But he went broke and wound up slopping hogs for a living, which for a first-century Jew would be as far down the ladder as you could get. He remembered that even his father’s hired men lived better than that. So, he set off for home to ask for a job as a ranch hand. 

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 

But the elder son refused to join the party. The father went to him, but the elder son said, 

"Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has wasted your property on prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

When we hear these stories, we imagine that we are the lost sheep or the wayward child. Sometimes we feel lost even now since we can still move away from God. We are comforted by the image of a God who keeps looking for us no matter how far we stray. All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. When you are on the receiving end of the God who seeks you out, these parables are good news. 

But we should hear these parables with a cautious ear. Something strange is going on. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you find it?” 

Now, our usual reaction to Jesus’ question is a sort of warm, mushy feeling as we envision a kindly shepherd searching high and low and gently bearing the lost lamb back on his broad shoulders. But that’s simply ridiculous! Which of you, having a hundred one-dollar bills in a crowded park, and losing one of them, would leave the other ninety nine on the park bench and go after the one that is lost until you find it? No one!

No shepherd would leave the flock to be easy prey for wolves for the sake of one lost sheep. A shepherd’s livelihood can survive the loss of one sheep, but not the loss of the many which would be killed if he abandoned the flock. It seems silly for the woman to throw a big party for finding her coin. Surely the party cost far more than the value of the coin. 

These parables make no obvious sense. There is no moral lesson for the lost. The sheep and the coin are found not because of anything they do but because someone is determined to find them. A lost sheep doesn’t know it is lost. It’s quite likely to wander away again. The coin is just an inanimate object. The son returns home to a place of honor, which reveals deep rifts within the family. What’s going on here?

Maybe the central point about these stories is not the lost sheep or coin or the wayward son. Maybe the stories tell us practically nothing about the lost ones, but an awful lot about ourselves. Jesus speaks of repentance in the first two stories but not the third. The wayward son is never said to repent, though he does have a carefully rehearsed, syrupy, and probably insincere speech. He starts to give it to his father, but his father interrupts it and tells his servants to prepare a banquet. 

Why does Jesus talk about repentance in the first two parables but not the third? No repentance is even possible for a coin or a sheep. And yet Jesus said at the end of each that all heaven rejoices when a sinner repents. So: who’s the sinner and what’s the repentance? 

For Jews of Jesus’ day “repentance” meant, “a fundamental change.” Who else could that be true of other than the shepherd and the woman? Whatever they had planned for the day got discarded because they lost count of what was valuable to them. So, they made a fundamental change to make the count include everything. Maybe that is what heaven celebrates: those who make a fundamental change about what counts. 

The older son, angered by the mercy of his father and the inclusion of his admittedly dishonorable younger brother, scorns the celebration. After all, the younger brother’s return is not characterized as repentance at all; it might be nothing more than a quest for free meals. The older son followed all the rules, did everything right. He neither asked for nor received dad’s favor. Now he feels cheated. And the father botched being a father because he didn’t remember, apparently, how to count to two sons, not just one. He never tried to find his wayward son, he just waved goodbye and good luck. Unlike the stories of shepherd or the woman, there was no fundamental change by anyone in the third parable. There is no one to admire in this parable. 

Nothing comes together for that highly dysfunctional family even at the end. We do not learn whether the rifts between the father and his sons, or between the brothers, will heal. The only redeeming fact of this story is that the banquet is well justified, because there was one who “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” 

[All] The parables end with a party. Jesus doesn’t invite us to be rescued by God, but to join God in recovering the things God treasures. The parables reject the idea that there are certain conditions the lost must meet before they are eligible to be found, or that there are certain qualities they must exhibit before we will seek them out [New Interpreter's Bible]. 

Here is a true story: One winter when I was about twelve years old, two orphaned brothers walked from their temporary foster home to my neighborhood to ride their homemade sled down the steep hill near my house. My neighborhood group was at the hill riding our store bought Flyers. The two orphans’ sled had wooden runners and it tore the snow up. Frankly, we didn’t want to play with them. They were a rough pair, kind of crude and brash and obviously poor. They were the “wrong crowd” for us middle-class kids. I dropped several hints for them to go tear up some other hill with their lousy sled. Lunch time came, so I went home. While my mother was fixing me a sandwich, there was a knock on the front window next to the door. There stood the younger orphan boy, peering inside my house. My mother opened the door. “Can I have a sandwich?” the boy asked.

My mother brought him inside and took his wet outer clothes and put them into the dryer. She sat him at our dining room table and gave him my sandwich. “I’ll make you another one,” she told me. She heated some chicken soup—which she had not offered me—and set it before him. I wasn’t very happy about all this. I didn’t want to come to the table where that beggar sat. I retreated to the kitchen. My mother followed. I told her, “You gave him my sandwich! You didn’t heat any soup for me, but you did for him!”

My mother said, “Don’t be a stick in the mud! Come have lunch.”

Jesus said, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…. . For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Jesus invites us to become shepherds who seek the lost because they are precious to God and are worth being found. Restoration and wholeness become possible when we treat others according to how they are valued by God, not according to what the world says they are worth. The canyons that separate us—good from bad, worthy from unworthy, lost from found—are bridged by a searching love which embraces us all and invites us all to celebrate. 

Jesus asked the Pharisees to join the search and host the party. He wanted them to think about who counts and who’s counting them. He urged them not to write the wrong crowd off, but to be the right people for the wrong crowd. He challenged them to care deeply about all the people they had given up on and to be willing to take risks to find them. We cannot classify people according to what we think they are worth. The value of a single sheep or a lost coin or a wayward child cannot be computed according to conventional market standards. 

We know who the wrong crowd is, but we also need to know, thanks be to God, that we are the right people for the wrong crowd. 

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people t...