NERV: Matthew 25

From the New Evangelical Redacted Version. Matthew 25:31-46.

Lent: It’s not a diet.

For a season ends in darkness at the foot of the cross, Lent sure attracts a lot of attention. But it’s divorced from the emphasis on human mortality, Lent is sure to draw all kinds of “tourists.”

Lent is not a time for the latest diet fad or merelyabstaining from soda or candy then posting about it on social media. It’s really no longer Lent at that point. In fact, Jesus has some pointed words about such a practice.

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Matthew 6:16

When observed in context, beginning with the imposition of ashes (Ash Wednesday) and culminating with the service of darkness (Tenebrae), these 40 days can truly provide an opportunity for penance and transformation.  Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness challenged his very being allowing him to emerge with a calling that would bring Good News to all people everywhere. The Lenten journey is not about self-serving piety but about meaningful self-reflection and sacrifice.

What to “give up” for Lent you ask? Start with something risky and pray (in private) for God’s reign on Earth as it is in heaven. Then do something dangerous and act on it. It’s time we sacrifice hearts of stone for those full of compassion. It’s time we give up our indifference in exchange for Christ-like empathy. It’s time we lay our mere tolerance at the altar and engage in full Christian inclusivity and hospitality. It’s time we stop being idle enablers of injustice and embrace, perhaps for the first time, the Way of Jesus Christ. It’s like the prophet said:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Isaiah 58:8

Advent 2017.2: The Waymaker

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
Mark 1:2-3 

The world needs waymakers just like John the Baptist. We need courageous voices who will speak not just a good word for Jesus Christ, as my former homiletics professor used to say, but a prophetic word. A pointed word. Direct. Clear. Uncompromising.

One such waymaker in 2017 is the Rev. Dr. William Barber, an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Dr. Barber has taken up the call to lead the Poor People’s Campaign, originally began by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. He has brought to the national conversation a message that is biblical, moral, and Gospel-oriented.

The call by the Poor People’s Campaign for a moral revival is as timely as ever in these United States where economic disparity continues to widen, the dialogue is toxic, civil rights are threatened, healthcare is still out of reach among poorest citizens, and racial tension persists. The rotting of the American soul is further manifested in the dehumanizing treatment (especially by President Trump and some congressional leaders) of women, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. This is not the Way of Jesus. In fact, it’s immoral and rooted in evil.

If the Advent/Christmas season is merely a celebration of some magical event in the distant past then the point has been missed. The voice of the first-century waymaker prepared the people for the one who calls us to a wholly different way of life. Holy. Peaceful. Generous. Compassionate. Just

If the voice of John the Baptist is to be heard today, we need to bridge the span of time so his message can “cut us to the bone” (Joseph Donders). That’s precisely why we need more voices like William Barber.

May we be inspired and compelled by those who serve as 21st-century waymakers to go and do likewise.

iu-1
kairoscenter.org

 

 

Christianism: On the Rise or Last Gasp?

I first learned the term “Christianism” in a piece by Andrew Sullivan a few years ago. Christianism is a label well earned by Christianists (inaccurately labeled the “Christian Right” by mainstream media), who are religious fundamentalists in the US that advocate for a political agenda with dangerous theocratic leanings. Christianists now occupy influential political positions and possess unhindered access to all branches of the federal government, as well as numerous state and local governments.  At the risk of sounding paranoid, this is cause for real concern.

Texas is a case study in just how Christianists, if left unchecked, will craft legislation that jeopardizes the freedoms we all enjoy. For example, Texas lawmakers are currently proposing legislation that would give adoption agencies the authority to discriminate at will. This bill, claim legislators, “protects religious freedoms” of private adoption agencies, many, of which, receive public funds.  The truth is this bill is aimed at discriminating against LGBTQ couples who seek adoption.  Further, it opens the door for more forms of bigotry behind the veil of “religious conviction.” This cruel from of governance does not come from “the Christian Right”; It is neither Christian nor right. This is but one of many efforts currently underway to legislate a “religion” that not does not reflect any of the tenets of Christianity.  Rather, this kind of policymaking comes from Christianism (which is just another form of fundamentalism); it is dangerous and undermines our 1st amendment protection from an established religion.

We’re certainly not living in a theocracy, yet. But there’s definitely an unholy alliance between Christianists and the government that is supposed to protect the rights of all who live within these United States. It is important for people of faith and the media alike to identify what Christianism truly is; It is bad for the United States and for the global community.  Whether what we’re witnessing is just he beginning of something or the last gasp of a dying breed doesn’t matter: We must resist all efforts of what looks like a theocracy in the making.

I’m With You Thomas

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,
and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side,
I will not believe.” ~ Thomas, the doubter
John 20:25

I started defending Thomas years ago. His skepticism resonates with me, even if for different reasons. I accepted long ago that doubt is just one part of the faith journey- a necessary part. It has prevented me from being “certain” and ideological.

Blessings may be upon those who “hear and believe”, but sometimes “seeing” goes a long way in restoring confidence to the doubtful.

Perhaps, one doubts the fundamental faith claims made by the church, like the resurrection of Jesus. I experienced such a faith crisis in my early 30s. I knew then my understanding of what it meant to proclaim “Christ is risen” needed to change. Later, a mysterious encounter with the divine at the funeral of a man I never met would reassure, for me, the promise of resurrection- but with new understanding.

Others need to see the church do something other than bully people, foster hatred, or abuse. There are a many congregations in our world that are authentic centers for sanctuary, healing, forgiveness, mercy, and acceptance.  The world needs to see- and hear- less of the brutish preachers (let’s not name them- they get enough media attention) and more of the fiercely loving communities that embody what Christ called his followers to do. “They will know we are Christians by our love,” as the old song goes.

So, Thomas, in my book, and I’m sure others, you get a pass- not that you need my stamp of approval.  I just hope others who share your doubt will embrace it, because, contrary to what some might say, it actually strengthens one’s faith.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-1602, , Sanssouci Picture Gallery; Potsdam, Germany

One Christian’s Voting Guide

imagesChristian bloggers, clergy, and laypeople everywhere are blowing up social media with angst over which candidate to vote for in the upcoming general election.

But people make it more complicated than it needs to be. Part of the problem is many Christians limit their criteria to one or two wedge issues that are never even mentioned by Jesus.

Make is easy. Open up to Matthew 25 and get reacquainted with the works of mercy that, according to Matthew, Jesus uses as criteria for the Last Judgment:

  • Feed the hungry: Which political candidate is about food safety and security for all?
  • Give drink to the thirsty: What about the indefensible water crisis in Flint, Michigan?  How about the rest of the U.S. water supply?  Which candidates are fighting fracking and the pollution of ground water?   Which candidates are fighting to make safe this necessary compound for sustaining all of life?
  • Clothe the naked: How about a wage fair enough to buy some clothes? How about Oregon and that $14.75 minimum wage? That’s economic justice.
  • Shelter the homeless: Don’t complain about Section 8 housing if you’re going to call yourself a follower of Jesus.  Even the least of these deserve a roof over their heads. Which candidate supports such endeavors? For this issues one must turn to local leaders.  For example, look for local candidates advocating for the homeless.  There many creative initiatives seeking to alleviate this chronic issue, such as the tiny home village taking shape in Dallas, Texas.
  • Take care of the sick: Healthcare and all that that implies. For all.  That means everyone. This is a no brainer.
  • Welcome the stranger: For Jesus this included the foreigner and the “other.” Xenophobia has no place in the heart or actions of a Christian.  Study the candidates.  Which ones display xenophobia and bigotry, or worse, stirs the “shit pot of hate?” Don’t vote for that one. Period.
  • Visit the imprisoned: The U.S. has one of largest populations of incarcerated people worldwide. This is a human rights issue. Further, the high school to prison pipeline remains fully supplied by dropouts, fostered by a less than engaging education system.  Which candidates offer a plan to simultaneously fight poverty and improve education.

A lot of Christians like restrict these marks of faithfulness to the work of individual congregations, contending that the government should play no part in such matters.  I suspect that argument is popular for these Christians because Matthew 25 doesn’t play into their efforts to legislate an ideological, and unbiblical, morality, forcing it onto the wider population. But this has only created animosity toward Christianity.

The acts of mercy in Matthew 25 are inconvenient for sure, even for those who try to live them out faithfully. Individual congregations cannot afford, due to dwindling giving and church participation in the U.S., to realize these acts in a vacuum that transforms the wider culture. There has to be a partnership with other faiths, and even secular institutions.  That’s why it important for Christians to vote and keep in mind the matters that Jesus declare to be most crucial.

It’s fine if one disagrees that Matthew 25 should inform a Christian voter.  Just don’t claim to be casting a vote in the name of Jesus, otherwise.

Pope Francis on Walls and being Christian

Today Pope Francis reminded the world that building walls isn’t Christian.  Donald Trump took this personally.  But Pope Francis got it right.  The Judeo- Christian texts are filled with instances of God breaking down walls, removing barriers, and lifting veils.  Nothing- not even the powers-that-be, as the Apostle Paul reminds us-  can separate us from the love of God.  This is not metaphorical for Paul.  The Christian faith is about community.  We can’t have authentic community when barriers stand between us, especially those built by fear mongering politicians.  Putting up a wall between nations, especially in the 21st century, runs counter to all our ancient texts proclaim.

For centuries, political hopefuls have co-opted the Good News, corrupted it, disembodied it, and gutted it of its economic and social implications in order to posture themselves for more power.  Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are merely the latest in a long line of offenders.  But they didn’t get where they are on their own. They had help.  They have been aided and abetted by “Christian” leaders and their followers for a very long time.

The Gospel of Jesus is, both, spiritual and social.  They cannot be separated. God’s justice is for all. It is distributive. It is not limited one faith over another.  And it certainly isn’t about this business of building walls.

If the question is whether or not Pope Francis as any business calling out potential world leaders for misrepresenting the Christian faith, the answer is: absolutely he does.  In fact, a leader in his position had better call them out or further risk the integrity of the church universal.

There are seismic shifts occurring in religious communities everywhere.  People of all faiths are tired of their religion being used as a justification for terrorism, or a shield for some to stand behind, while they deny the civil rights of other, or as an excuse to carry out xenophobic and oppressive policies.

So, a word of gratitude for Pope Francis and those like him who muster the courage to spoke for the voiceless in our world and calling out those who misrepresent the Good News.

**I recognize the Pope lives behind walls as do many people.  The point is that bridges send an entirely different signal than barriers.  Our world needs a different kind of leadership.  I think the Pope is expressing, in part, what that kind of leadership looks like. 

Rumi: On Jesus

Rumi was a 13th century Sufi mystic.  A poet. A theologian.  A Muslim.  I’ve often thought he understood Jesus and the task of the church better than most 21st century Christians.  These words from Rumi about Jesus are among my favorite:

IMG_0368

“Where Jesus is the great-hearted gather.

We are a door that’s never locked.

If you are suffering any kind of pain, stay near this door. Open it”

The Essential Rumi, Trans., Coleman Barks

Lent 2015.2: Jesus and the “Have Nots”

Democrazia-in-movimentoAfter Jesus emerges from his fasting he spends a great portion of his ministry  afflicting the “haves” and comforting the “have nots”.  He seems to have no use for an economic system that allows greedy “tax” collectors, for example, to prey upon the most fragile.  This focal point of Jesus’s ministry cannot be ignored during one’s Lenten journey . . .or after.

 For the Christian, and non-Christian, poverty is a moral issue.  It’s sinful no matter how we look at as it is created and perpetuated by humans.

Decades ago the United States declared a “war on poverty”.  Here is what Stringfellow had to say at the time on the matter:

. . .a war on poverty has been declared, but as of now, it seems more an appeasement of the conscience of the prosperous than empathy for the sufferings of the poor.  Poverty  cannot be undone in America by appropriating a nickel where five dollars is required.”  William Stringfellow, Dissenter in a Great Society.

Stringfellow’s could have easily been written in 2015.  Everyone, Christians included, as Stringfellow later explains, are part of the political process whether we want to be or not,  Poverty is not only a moral crisis, but it is also a political one: it is sinful and it is a matter of life and death for those who live it day in and day out.

For us Christians in the United States, as part of the church and part of the political process,  there really isn’t any question as to how we are called to act upon the matter.

Why I’m Not Giving Up Beer for Lent

My Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with updates from friends and acquaintances announcing what they are doing for Lent. Some are using it as a time of sacrifice, while others are being moved to action. 

Curiously, I meet more and more folks who are drawn to the season of Lent; some aren’t even Christian. Maybe it’s the appeal of a designated time for self-reflection. Christian or not, it is appropriate to enter the next few weeks with an awareness of Lent’s significance to the Christian faith.

The season observes the roughly forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by the “evil one” and immersed in self-examination. We have limited testimony to Jesus’s words and thoughts. But his was a journey that helped refine his identify and purpose for this world.

Jesus emerged from his wilderness wandering transformed; he was ready to challenge oppressive paradigms, reach out to the the poor, and offer grace and forgiveness to those labeled “unclean” by others. He taught people how to pray and what people should really be praying for: daily food, justice, and forgiveness. He refused to take part in violence. He refused to give in to conventional forms of power and greed- and he had sharp words for those who did. He radicalized what it meant to be a neighbor. His embrace of the “other” was wide and his love for the unloveable deep. He ate meals with the unwanted. He didn’t even put up a fight when he was falsely accused, convicted and given the death penalty. This was the life he modeled.

Lent, particularly for Christians, is a spiritual journey to the foot of the cross. It begins with the acknowledgement of our mortality: our limited time. The hope is that the journey is a transformative one: that we each come out on the other side changed, renewed, and ready to respond to the one who beacons, “Follow me.”

Whatever your reason for choosing to observe Lent, I hope you made a commitment that will challenge and transform your inner being. May that transformation result in a greater self- awareness and a deeper sense of compassion and justice.

Oh, right, you started reading this because you wanted to know why I’m not giving up beer for Lent. That’s easy: St. Patrick’s Day. I’m parting with red meat instead.  There are a couple of other commitments but those are between me and God.

Cheers!