Are we all fundamentalists now?

Fundamentalism is associated with a strict and literal interpretation of Scripture.  It is often associated with the idea that there are only two options available – no gray areas.  You are either right or you are wrong, you are saved or you are damned.  There is no room for mystery in fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism provides answers to all questions and believes that there is an answer to all questions that we can discern.

There are many problems with fundamentalist beliefs.  The first is taking all Scripture literally.  Genesis 1-12 would be a prime example.  So would the Song of Solomon.  So would the parables and many sayings of Jesus.  So would the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Each of these books and portions of Scripture are written in different literary styles and purposes.  To read each one the same is a disservice to the text.  Would you read a comic book in the same way you read a technical manual?  Why would you do the same thing with different books and styles of Scripture?

Second, when there is only two options – a right and wrong way – then there is little room for conversation, debate, mystery, learning.

The initial question is are we all fundamentalists now?  That can be asked in a religious context, certainly.  But the same question can be applied to a political context as well.  Does the foundation of fundamentalism, along with its characteristics, permeate politics and political discourse now in such a way that the question is really this – are we all political fundamentalists now?

Political discourse currently, if we can call it that, is not about discovering truth.  It is solely about being right, having a rabid defense of one’s ideology and ideological figures, demonizing the other, and excusing away the inexcusable.

And for what?

What have we gained when we traded our very souls for a political soteriology – political salvation?  Are we any different from the Israelites leading up to and during the time of Jesus who were waiting for a Messiah to come who would throw off Rome and establish an earthly kingdom and bring retribution on their enemies?

What have we gained in this trade-off?

We gained a tribe to identify with, but we lost a faith that was given to us to live out.  We lost our identity as being children of God.  Is it worth trading in that identity for a political party identity?

We gained a promised dystopian future of constant conflict and perpetual enemy, along with staying on our toes in order to drink in the kool-aid of the latest version of the end justifying the means.

In the end, we gained nothing.

Why are there so many who willingly let go of the message of Galatians 3:28:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Our addiction to a political identity is in direct conflict with what Christ offers us.

Why are there so many who willingly reject the hope-filled promised future of Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

(Revelation 21:1-4, NRSV)

We reap what we sow.  And what we sow is a destructive theology where the ends justify the means, where the strong survive, where our identity is attached to something temporary and destructive.

The good news is that God loves us.  But this comes with a challenge too.  God loves us so much that God will honor our rejection of God and God’s promised future. God loves us so much that God will honor our desire to trade in our identity for an identity that can not ever save.  And God will weep as we willingly do this.

So what is the good news?  Right now I’m leading a Bible Study on the Book of Daniel.  In chapter 7, Daniel has a terrifying dream with vivid imagery.  The angel interprets Daniel’s dream.  The message that comes through is this:

As I looked, this horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, until the Ancient One came; then judgement was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.

(Daniel 7:21-22, NRSV)

What does this mean?  That things get worse before they get better.  People are asking if we have hit the bottom.  I don’t think we have.  And for some, there will never be a bottom.

But Daniel is a hopeful book.  In the end the Most High intervenes and God wins.  There isn’t even a battle when God steps in.  It’s just over.  Like the snap of a finger.

The kingship and dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them.’

(Daniel 7:27, NRSV)

And the writer of Daniel presents a picture that is different – a picture of hope.

In the meantime, we wait.  We wonder why God doesn’t intervene.  But we also don’t understand God’s ways.  We wait, patiently for the Lord.  We wait.  We remain faithful.  We cling to our identity as children of God.  In the face of a fundamentalist political culture, we continue to proclaim boldly of God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  We continue to pray for those that we deem as opponents because their identity isn’t wrapped in a political party, politician, or flag.  Their identity is that as a child of God.  We continue to live out the teachings and commands of Jesus to love our enemies and our neighbors.  We continue to live counter to what the culture offers.  In the end, God wins.

Grace is difficult

The idea of grace is hard for people to embrace.  I mean really embrace.  Grace is the free gift given to us from God.  We didn’t earn it.  We don’t deserve it because of anything we did.

It’s not just a hard idea for people to embrace.  It’s hard to accept in practice too.

In our culture, we start with a belief that something must be earned in order to receive it.  We believe in conditions.

Yet, God’s grace doesn’t play by those rules.

Why is this so hard for people?  Because if we earn God’s love, forgiveness, or grace, then we have some power over God.  God owes us something.  Without earning any of these, God owes us nothing.  And in fact, we feel that we owe God something now.  Oh how many will reject God’s grace because they don’t want to “owe” God something.  Many would rather live the lie that they are in control of their earthly and eternal lives.

But that’s not how it works.  Grace is freely given.  And there’s plenty to go around.  It’s not about control.  It’s about setting us free from the bondage.  That’s how grace works.  Just say thank you.

Jesus was political

This Sunday, the lectionary has Jesus telling his disciples the following:

So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

(Mark 10:42-44)

Most people in the pews will hear this and not think much about it.  It sounds like the Jesus we are used to – service to others, putting yourself second to others, etc.

But read it again.

Specifically verse 42 where Jesus says – “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

This is what we call a political statement – a very political statement.

Yes, Jesus got political.  And it cost him his life for doing so.  In this statement Jesus was saying that the norm in human governing is a person who is ruthless over their subjects.  He is not being respectful of government – he is ripping those in charge a new one for being abusive.

But his disciples don’t yell: “You’re being too political Jesus!  Stick to religion.”  As if the religious and the political realms don’t ever cross over.  Politics tramples over the lines of religion all the time and complains when religion steps over the line, especially when religion raises the cry of injustice for the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, the foreigner – the people who Jesus said God favors.

Political and partisan are not the same thing.  Partisan is choosing sides in the power struggle that goes on.  Political is the decision-making system established by a society.  It can have parties or not.  Jesus was political, but not partisan.  We are called to the same thing.  Following Jesus isn’t just a personal thing.  It is public, and therefore political, in nature.  Following Jesus has an impact on policies.  Following Jesus impacts how we talk with and work with those that are opponents.  Following Jesus impacts policies affecting the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the foreigner.

 

Sell your stuff

Mark 10:17-22 reads as follows:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

I heard a sermon from a friend of mine yesterday who addressed this passage.  It was a great sermon.  He posed this question:

If Jesus came into your sanctuary during worship and said: “You lack one thing; go, sell your stained glass windows, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” how would you respond?

Seriously, how would you respond?

What if Jesus said: “Go, sell your building, and use the money to serve the poor.  Then come, follow me.”

Is the building off-limits?  Even to Jesus?  Are we so attached to our buildings that we can’t imagine selling them, using the proceeds for ministry, and still being church in other ways?  Or is that just too radical?  Since when did following Christ become a focus on being safe?

Would we respond the same way that the man in the Gospel did?  Would the passage written about Jesus’ encounter with our congregation be written like this: “When the congregation heard this, they were shocked and ushered Jesus out the door, for they loved their building.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people proclaim that the church isn’t the building – it’s the Body of Christ.  Yet, so often, churches seem to ignore this.

Am I, a pastor of a congregation, suggesting that we sell the building?

The answer to that question doesn’t really matter and I’m not going answer it either.  I’m not going to give you something that is a pressure valve release from the question that is asked to each one of us – including you.  The real question is this – are we willing to follow Jesus?  Are we committed to him?  When Jesus tells us to leave it all behind to follow him, do we do just that?  Or do come up with excuses as to why we can’t or won’t?

Keeping or selling the building isn’t the real issue here.  If Jesus’ command to put him first above all else bothers you, makes you put up resistance, makes you want to walk away grieving…well…then we need to talk.  We need to be seriously open and vulnerable with each other.

Following Jesus isn’t easy – Jesus never claimed it would be.  Following Jesus isn’t comfortable – often, it’s extremely uncomfortable and costly.  Following Jesus pushes our limits and forces us to make decisions we would rather not make.

Jesus said:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

(Mark 8:34-38)

Jesus plays for keeps.  He calls us out when he sees that we have placed something as more important than him.  He calls on us to pick up our cross.  He calls on us to die.  He calls on us to reject the lie that we are in control.

And in this, we are called to new life with him.  This is what faith is about – life, death, resurrection.

Divided we fall

We are a nation divided.  We have had candidates, elected officials, and former public officials using violent words and pushing supporters of their parties toward violence of the other party.  We have politicians and candidates who scapegoat and denigrate groups of people.  This isn’t new.  The question is this – what do we do about this?

Where do we start?  With voting?  With criticism?  With blame?  I don’t think so.

The only place to start is with self-examination.  Yes, looking at ourselves in the mirror.  Do these actions and words appeal to us at a base level, especially when violent words are directed at the other side?  Do you get any satisfaction at all from demeaning words of the other side?  Why?  We are we so concerned with creating and maintaining an us vs. them system which ends up destroying lives?

Second, what is it that we really want?

How do we want to be acting and interacting with others, especially those we oppose?

Do we have a religious faith that we follow?  Or only a faith that we claim to follow, but really ignore when the going gets tough?  What does this faith tell us about how to behave towards others?  Especially our enemies?  Are we following our faith, or do we dismiss our faith when it is inconvenient?  Why?  Why do we claim to be a follower of a certain faith and ignore what it teaches?  Or, if you are a Christian, how would answer Luke 6:46 with Jesus asking the question:  “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but do not do what I tell you?  How would you answer Jesus?

Once we have done self-examination, we can start to move outward to others.  We must set aside our desire to blame others.  If we continue on our current path, it will only be a matter of time until there is physical violence.

When we look at others – especially our opponents – do we see their humanity?  Or are they just an opponent, an enemy to be defeated, someone to blame, a mob, a leftist, a trumpster, etc.  If we don’t see the humanity in the other, especially out opponents and enemies, then we are really no different from the Nazis, the Communists, the Slave holders, any empire that ever existed.  Think that’s a bit extreme?  None of these folks saw the humanity of their opponents, or the property (slaves) that they owned.  We are no different because we will become them and live out their values, which demonize, enslave, and destroy.  And their paths all lead to the same end – death.  Death is the idol they worshiped and dehumanization was their sacrament.

I challenge you to look inward – to ask why violent rhetoric against your opponents appeals to you.  And I challenge you to pray for your opponents – genuine prayers.  Pray for your opponents by name.  Pray for their well-being.  Lift your opponents up to God.  In prayer like this, we will see the humanity of the other person.

Only then will we move to a more civil discourse.  Only then will we move away from injustice as a society.  Only then will we start to have more humane policies.

Pain and church

Yesterday I read an article on the idea of how people respond to pain – most people try to avoid it. Here’s the part that caught my attention:

Most people are driven by the avoidance of pain, not out of achieving their true desires.

Rarely does a person decide to act from their true desires, unaffected by the fear or rejection or looking stupid. Fear can dominate your life, if you let it. As a result, most people more often work out of desperation, running away from pain instead of focusing progress towards a goal.

The ordinary decision is to remain like this — to not take the steps and action to change from ordinary to extraordinary. This is fine, not everyone needs to work hard to become an extraordinary version of themselves. Not everyone wants this life.

But if you’re not satisfied with living a life characterized by anxiety, pain-avoidance, and stress, it’s time to take the actions necessary to upgrade.

What struck me was that this doesn’t just apply to individuals, but to churches as well.

Churches are facing difficult times and have been for a couple of decades.  There are decreases in membership, attendance, participation, and money to fund ministry.  Changes are necessary if churches are going to adapt and not only survive, but thrive.  And those changes are often painful.  The pain comes from doing something a different and unfamiliar way.  There is the pain of making a mistake or error that could be costly.  There is the pain of a belief of failure – the idea that change automatically means that what was being done is a failure, and by default, those doing it are too.

Usually what happens when a change is made – there are some who will resist, raising their voice in opposition.  Churches are made up of people and if the article is true, which I think it is, most people are driven by the avoidance of pain. And so what often happens is that the change is rescinded to avoid the pain of conflict.

The problem with this is that the church is ignoring the longer term pain – a slow, painful death.  Living organisms and organizations change.  And those changes are painful.  And so we have to choose which pain we will deal with and adapt from – the pain of maintaining the status quo or the pain of change.

Behind all that is the belief about the pain of failure.  Change doesn’t automatically mean that what was done, and worked, is a failure now.  All it means is that what was done, and worked before, no longer works – circumstances have changed and adaptions to those changes are necessary for survival and thriving. Organisms that adapt to changes in their environment survive and have the potential to thrive.  I believe that churches should do the same thing.

 

Words from Jesus

Jesus:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

(Luke 14:26, NRSV)

Us: Wow Jesus.  That’s quite a statement. Maybe you should tone it down a bit Jesus.  We don’t like it when you say uncomfortable things Jesus.  I mean, come on, really – hate.  That’s a strong word don’t you think?

Jesus:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

(Luke 9:23, NRSV)

Us: I forgot about that one.  Ok, so you had a couple of difficult sayings, but really, you don’t mean it do you?

Jesus:

‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not do what I tell you?

(Luke 6:46, NRSV)

Us: Well…um…Hey, look at the time, I have to go.  Bye.  Talk to you later Jesus.

Ends and Means

I’ve written often of my disdain for the belief of the ends justify the means.  I have said that the very idea run counter to the teachings of Christ, who cared very much about the means, not just the ends.  Many of Jesus’ parables deal with the means being important.  Which makes sense – it’s not just salvation that he talked about, it was also how we are to live and to follow him.  Those are the means.

The ends justify the means is an ideology based on theology.

The conclusion of the ends justify the means is not pretty.  If you take the ends justify the means to their logical conclusion, then you can argue that all laws and morals can be set aside.  Laws and morals govern the means – the way we live.  But if the ends are what is most important, then there is no need to govern how we get there – the ends justify the means after all.

When the ends justify the means, then murder eventually can be excused.  When someone disagrees with you and the ends justify the means, then it makes sense to remove them if they don’t comply.  Think that’s an extreme example?  If you support the idea of the ends justify the means, then I challenge you to argue murder being wrong but stay within your ideology of belief in the ends justifying the means.

If the ends justify the means, then sexual harassment and abuse are fair game because it is the ends that matter – sexual dominance and gratification.  The other person exists to serve the dominant person’s needs – how dare they stand in opposition. The ends justify the means after all.

If the ends justify the means, then there is no need for environmental stewardship – it all exists for our use with no consequences.  It is the end – our comfort – that matters.

But this ideology and belief system is wrong and sinful.  It is in complete opposition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  You can’t be a follower of Jesus and believe and practice the ends justifying the means.  The ends justifying the means is what killed Jesus, not what brought salvation.

The ends justify the means is a narcissistic theology – a belief that you are god and get to determine what is right and that the rules don’t apply to you.  It is the belief that you can cheat on your spouse and there will be no repercussions.  It is the belief that we can ravage the planet and there will be no repercussions.  It is the belief that you can treat people inhumanely and there will be no repercussions.  It is the belief that you can lie and there will be no repercussions.

There are repercussions.  There always are.  How we live matters just as much, if not more, than just the end result.

Amos

This Sunday, a portion of Amos 5 is appointed as the first reading.  Verses 10-15 read as follows:

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

It is easy to look around and conclude that Amos was written specifically for us today.  It sure seems like the time is evil.  It sure seems like the poor are trampled and all that they have is taken away from them.  It sure seems like the righteous are afflicted and there are plenty who are corrupt.

Yet, this is not new.  There is nothing special about this time or the people who do these things.  The prophet Amos was active in 760-755 BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel.  It was a time of relative peace and prosperity.  Yet, his message shows that peace and prosperity for what it really was – a fraud.  Is it peace when the poor are trampled?  Is it prosperity when there is corruption?

If anything, Amos’ message is comforting in that it shows that humanity hasn’t changed in 2700 years.  In fact, it’s pretty predictable.  And in the end, those who abuse power fall.

So for us, there remains a few questions:

What does it mean to establish justice in the gate during an evil time, as Amos claims?

What does it mean to establish justice when the poor are trampled on and what they have is taken away from them?

What does it mean to establish justice when there are those who afflict the righteous and take bribes?

How can we do that?  How can we establish justice when those in charge oppose the establishment of justice?

How do you establish justice when there are entire systems designed to prevent justice from flowing?  When the needy are pushed aside?

How do we establish justice in an evil time?

Has there ever been a time that wasn’t evil?

Quick check in – Love your neighbors

This is a quick check in.  Jesus said “Love your neighbor.”  He also said “Love your enemy.”

Here’s the heart of this – are they different?  Why?  What if they were the same people?  Can an enemy be a neighbor?

If you look the parable of the Good Samaritan, you come away with the idea that your enemy is your neighbor.

In other words, as a follower of Jesus, you and I are called to love people, regardless of how they respond.  All people.  Even those who hate you and who you hate.

Imagine what the world would be like if we stopped treating people with hate and rather with love.

Jesus calls on us to love those we fear and those that fear us.

So, who do you hate?  Who do you fear?  Why?  Name these people and groups.  Why do you hate and fear them?

Lately I’ve been wondering how Jesus would retell the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Would he retell it as the parable of the Good Republican or the Good Democrat, depending on the audience he would be with?  What would the parable of the Good Republican sound like to a Democrat?  What would the parable of the Good Democrat sound like to a Republican?  I think it would be just as shocking today as the parable Jesus told.

The parable is based on the question of “Who is my neighbor?”  Who is your neighbor?  Certainly the ones you love and live with.  What about the other people?  Yes, even those people, the ones you hate or fear, they are your neighbors.  Yes, those MAGA-hat wearing people, they are your neighbors.  Yes, the “mob” the president called the Democrats, they are your neighbors.  Yes, those white nationalists, they are your neighbors.  Yes, those immigrants, especially the children put in cages and separated from their parents, they are you neighbors.  Yes, MS-13 gang members are you neighbors.  Yes, Muslims are your neighbors.  Yes, Brett Kavanaugh is your neighbor.  Yes, Dr. Ford is your neighbor.  Yes, those NFL players who are kneeling during the National Anthem are your neighbors.

In other words, yes, everyone is your neighbor and if you claim to follow Jesus, then your call is to love them.  That isn’t easy.  That’s not mushy gushy love either.  It’s hard love.  It’s love that you may not prefer to carry out.  It’s costly love too.  And it’s a love that is given regardless of what the other person does in response.  It’s not about earned love.  It’s not about what love a person deserves.  This kind of love isn’t about expecting others to earn our love first.  Just as we can’t earn God’s love either.  It’s about giving and being loving in spite of who a person is and what they do.  That’s the kind of love we are called to.  Because that’s the kind of love we have received from God.