Daniel 8 is good news

At the end of their rule,
when the transgressions have reached their full measure,
a king of bold countenance shall arise,
skilled in intrigue.
He shall grow strong in power,
shall cause fearful destruction,
and shall succeed in what he does.
He shall destroy the powerful
and the people of the holy ones.
By his cunning
he shall make deceit prosper under his hand,
and in his own mind he shall be great.
Without warning he shall destroy many
and shall even rise up against the Prince of princes.
But he shall be broken, and not by human hands.

(Daniel 8:23-25, NRSV)

I posted Daniel chapter 8 because we are in the midst of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah is part of the larger story of Judas Maccabeus rising up against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, throwing him off, reclaiming and purifying the Temple.

The line of Daniel 8 that always catches my attention is verse 25:  “But he shall be broken, but not by human hands.”  This is actually in conflict with what actually happened through the revolt of the Maccabees.

But the sentiment if important.  It is the idea that regardless of what is happening, no matter how bad it is getting, God will prevail.  Always.  No one can prevail against God.  No earthly ruler has the power.  In the end they all fall.

This is good news still today.  It is a reminder that no matter who is in power, their power will only be for a short time.  Then it will pass on to someone else.

Winners and Losers

There are some, possibly many, in this world that believe that there are only two types of people in the world – winners and losers.  This isn’t new.  This idea has spanned time and place.  There is nothing special about this idea.

The draw, I suppose, to this way of thinking is that it is simple.  You fall into one category or the other.  There is no gray, no spectrum, no wiggle room, no possibilities – no thinking necessary.  Just winners and losers.  Supposedly.

The problem with this way of thinking is that in the end, we all lose.  We all are losers at some point.  Even those that were winners their entire life end up losing – because we all die.

Jesus had some thoughts about winners and losers too.  He didn’t use those words exactly.

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

(Matthew 20:16, NRSV)

Jesus spent time with outcasts all the time, the losers of his time.  He spent time with people were of little value in his world or to the winners who ran his world.  We might call these people losers.

The world declares those who are poor and poor in spirit as losers.  The world declares those who mourn as losers.  The world declares that the meek are pathetic losers.  The world declares the hungry as losers.  The world declares the merciful as suckers and losers.  The world declares the pure in heart as losers.  The world declares peacemakers as losers.  The world declares those that are persecuted as losers.

And Jesus had a message for the losers of his world and for our time too:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV)

As you read through the Beatitudes above, add a word – “Loser”.

It might sound something like this:

Blessed are the losers who are poor in spirit.  Blessed are the losers who mourn.  Blessed are the losers who are meek.  Blessed are the losers who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the losers who are merciful.  Blessed are the losers who are pure in heart.  Blessed are the losers who are peacemakers.  Blessed are the losers who are persecuted.

There are those in this world, especially those in powerful positions, who think they get to define who the winners and the losers are.

But they don’t.

They are only here for a short time, and then they go away, most to be forgotten in history, rightfully so.  Losers in their own right.

But God doesn’t forget.  God remembers the losers of this world and cares for them and calls on us to care to.  To love the losers.  To show mercy to the losers.  To forgive the losers.  To make peace with the losers.

Why?

Because God did this for us – losers in our own right.

And so we go to the losers, because we are losers too.  And Jesus offers blessings to us.

Forget what the world thinks is a winner and a loser.  It will pass.  God and God’s reign are eternal.  The Kingdom of God is for the losers of this world.

 

Questions that humble us

The period following their return from Babylonian exile was a period of intense nationalism and isolationism among the Jewish people.  But for that matter, what period isn’t?  And what people are devoid of this spirit?  What sentiment is more common, around the world and through the ages, than patriotism?  What feelings are more easily aroused, around the world in any century, than suspicion and dislike of foreigners and all things foreign?

(Source: Questions God Asks, Hunter Beckelhymer, 1961, pg. 73)

What great questions these are.

When I read this I was reminded of something – there is nothing special about the time we each live in.  Our time is not so special as to be all that different from most of human history.  History didn’t start when we were born and it won’t most likely end when we die.

This is a humbling thought.  It is one that I hear expressed in the words of the Old Testament Bible books of Job and Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes 3 especially speaks about a time for this and a time for that – is this anything new?

What is the desire and draw of nationalism and isolationism?  I’ll be honest, I don’t get it.

Why are we drawn to suspicion and dislike of foreigners and all things foreign?  Again, I don’t get it.

What is amazing to me is that humanity hasn’t changed all that much for several thousand years – as long as civilization has been something that humanity has valued.

Why are we drawn towards tribal identities?  Why are we drawn towards separating others from ourselves, instead of seeing the similarities we share with these “others?”

Why do we start with the belief that we are the norm and anyone else who is different is the odd ball?

I don’t expect to get a lot of good answers to these questions.  And really, that’s not the point.  Because the answers would never really satisfy the questions.  Of course there are answers, but when we dig into those answers, they just seem really lacking, missing some important elements that seem far more important than what the answers offer.

 

Trust

I read an article yesterday that focused in on one of the underlying challenges we in the US face – a lack of trust of one another.

The author started with a question – why do so many people mistrust experts?  The author went from that question to talking about how it flows through mistrust of institutions and what we are willing to see in common with others, if anything – especially with those we disagree with.

In some sense, trust has been in decline for some time now – decades.  Congress has had a low approval rating for as long as anyone can remember.  It doesn’t help when we elect politicians who turn out to be corrupt and then actually serve jail time.  It erodes trust in our political system.

Religion is no different.  With sexual abuse scandals as well as financial scandals, the church has been its own worst enemy when it comes to trust.  Why trust an institution that isn’t looking out for the most vulnerable?

We can look at other institutions too.  The story is the same.

How does a society, or an institution, survive without trust?  It can’t.

When we don’t trust one another, then we start to be concerned with basic survival – will this person I am encountering cause me harm, or even death?  We put up walls and barriers.  We become defensive and assume the worst.  And with each encounter, we spiral further into mistrust.

How does a follower of Jesus live out their vocation in such a time as this?  Jesus’ entire way of life is about love – vulnerable love, self-emptying love, trusting love.

To be a follower of Jesus is to be counter-cultural.  It is risky.  It is proclaiming that the mistrust of the world is not the foundation of life.  Being a follower of Jesus is about community, relationship, love, peace, forgiveness, mercy, grace.  How do you have any of these things if you don’t trust anyone else?

Without Jesus and his way, then the world descends into a state where we value winning at all costs because no one else matters.  Without Jesus and his way, the world lives by the ends justifying the means because we don’t trust others and their intentions.  Without Jesus and his way, we live in a world that is awfully lonely, painful, and full of suffering – a world we are experiencing.

The way out isn’t by making truth into an idol.  It isn’t by force.  It isn’t by strength.  It is by humility, humbleness, and vulnerability.  These are the marks of trust.  They are also the way of Jesus.

Regardless of what others may do, let those of us who claim the label of follower of Jesus live this way.  Let us risk trusting one another.  Let us risk listening.  Let us risk loving.  Let us risk it all.

Corruption and alternatives

People cannot rise far above their religious concepts.

When religion is corrupt, behavior will be corrupt.

(Source “Questions God Asks,” pg. 55)

These two sentences caught my attention.  It got me thinking about religion in America. It got me thinking about how this plays out in 2018.

What are our religious concepts?  What do we believe about God?  Are we limited by our conception of God?  Do we mirror what we believe about God?

If we believe that God is first and foremost wrathful, then do we follow suit?  If we believe that God is first and foremost love, then do we follow that instead?

How is religion corrupt?  Religious institutions have been corrupt many times in the past, and some continue to be corrupt.  The Catholic church was corrupt for many years – more concerned with worldly power and riches than with the Gospel.  Recently we have also learned that the corruption of the church bled down to abuse of children.  And the Catholic Church isn’t alone in this matter – there have been Protestant pastors who have done terrible things to children too.  Televangelists have been corrupt – some even going to jail.  And there is the other type of corruption – telling people that Jesus wants the televangelist to get another private jet, so send in money.

When religion is corrupt, behavior will be corrupt.  I think there is a lot of truth in that.  When religion is no longer about making disciples and spreading the Gospel, then it exists for other reasons.  It becomes just another human institution.  And it often becomes corrupt – consumed by money and power.

But the good news is that religious concepts aren’t always established very low.  The good news is that not all religion is corrupt.

The good news is that we don’t have to follow this path.  There is another way – God’s way.  God raises our concepts higher towards God.  God cleanses us and our institutions.

When God shows up, things change.  Lives change.  And for the better.

Our brother’s keeper

As I mentioned last week, I’m reading a book published in 1961, called “Questions God Asks” by Hunter Beckelhymer.  The chapter I read deals with the question “Where is your brother?”

That we are our brother’s keeper is more than an inescapable fact and a moral obligation, however.  It is also a potential blessing.  God means us to accept responsibility for others not only to save our skins, but for the good of our souls.  Bearing one another’s burdens is not simply an expedient for survival–it is the way to a life infinitely richer than we know.  Cain needs Abel not just as a customer for his produce, nor his good will just to avoid costly and dangerous warfare.  Cain needs Abel in order to be fully Cain.  So, too, you and I are lifted out of our pettiness and triviality by the breadth and depth of our relationships with those who share this earthly life with us.  God gave Cain and Abel to each other.  And their relationships to each other, their mutual responsibilities and shared enthusiasms, were meant to be a rewarding thing to them both.  So, too, the neighbor next door, the strange and unpleasant peoples in another part of town, indeed the very enemy at our gate are not just problems to be solved.  They are opportunities for us to become more fully human, and whether they know it or not we are the same opportunities for them.

(Source: Questions God Asks, pg. 40)

Opportunities to be more fully human – both for them and for us.

Wow.  That’s a concept that speaks volumes.  What if we saw the asylum seekers this way.  Or people who have different political views.  Or people who we don’t know.  People in our neighborhoods, or work.  Visitors to our churches.  The homeless, the single parents, the LGBTQ+ person.

Really, anyone.

What if all the people are opportunities for each one of us to be more fully who we are.

I wonder how that would change the world.

Are we better than this?

America is shooting tear gas at people at the border.  Some reports claim that rubber bullets are being used as well.

Yesterday I learned that we have been doing this since 2010. I had no idea. Let me be clear – it wasn’t right in 2010 and it isn’t right now.

The question I have seen in response to the most recent use of tear gas is: are we better than this?  Apparently not.

If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, can you support shooting tear gas at people seeking asylum?  Apparently.  I don’t know how though.

We just celebrated “Christ the King” Sunday in church. It’s the Sunday when we proclaim that Jesus is king, not anyone or anything else.  It’s a declaration that the empires of the world, and all they stand for, are empty and pretty unspecial.  The reign of God is what we seek instead.

Being king means that you have control and authority.  A king gets to determine what people do, claims their loyalty, and gives commands.  A king gets to have say over people’s money, their politics, who is an enemy and how they are treated, and so much more.

If Jesus is king, then it means he is in charge.  If Jesus is king, then those of us who claim to be his followers listen to what the king says and follow orders.  When a king speaks, he is not to be dismissed and his words are not to be taken lightly.

This is what we are claiming when we proclaim Jesus as king.  In light of this, I have a few questions regarding our use of tear gas on people at the border.

If you support shooting tear gas at people at the border, tell me how your theology supports this action.  Tell me how this action assists us in following Christ the King.  Tell me how it is a command of Jesus when Scripture tells us Jesus said “welcome the stranger.”

Tell me how you are following Jesus’ commands to love your neighbor and love your enemy when you support the shooting of tear gas at people at the border.

Tell me how you are following Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger when you support the shooting of tear gas at people at the border.

How is America following Christ the King when we ignore, and too often reject, Christ’s commands, whether now or in 2010?  How exactly are we a Christian nation when we think we know better than Jesus?

We shouldn’t be shooting tear gas at people.  We should be shedding tears.  We should see the humanitarian crisis that is at our border and on the hemisphere – a crisis that we helped create.

Are we better than this?  Good question.  Our actions proclaim to the world if we are.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Right now I am reading the book “Questions God Asks,” by Hunter Beckelhymer.  It was written in 1961.  Except for the a few words that were commonly used to label people and God (labels that have changed since then), you might not realize the book is that old.  I’m going to quote a couple of pages of the book on one of the questions God asks – “Where is your brother?”  Pg. 37-39.

(I’m quoting it word for word here, so you’ll have to excuse the gender and race  language.  These are the author’s words – read for the point being made, and don’t get caught in the details of the language from a bygone era).

The Lord said to Cain, ” Where is your brother?” And in the riven relationships of our tortured humanity God addresses that same question to us.  Where is your brother in his search for a decent human life, and in his efforts to feed and shelter himself and his family?  How is your brother making out in his search for the technical knowledge that will open to him the gates of plenty, and for deeper knowledge that will give meaning to his life and efforts?  Can your brother read and write?  Why not? Where is your brother in his struggle to gain the dignity, and rights, and opportunities which you daily enjoy?  Where is your brother finding sympathy and friendship, if he is?  At what strange idolatrous altars does your brother bow; before what god or gods does he prostrate himself?  If these questions do not haunt us, they must.  For they are addressed to all men by the Father of all men.

Suppose, like Cain, we say, “How should I know? That’s his business, not mine. Am I my brother’s keeper?  I believe in live and let live.  I believe in enlightened self-interest.  I have nothing against the Negro so long as he stays out of my neighborhood.  I want the Japanese people to live, just so their products don’t compete with American-made things.  I want world peace, but we don’t dare negotiate with the Russians while they’re ahead in the armaments race, and when we’re ahead we don’t have to negotiate.  I believe in the work of the church, but not in the foreign missions of it.  (There’s plenty to do right here at home.)”  Suppose our answers be such as these.  Can we not hear the judgement of the Eternal – with a vertical orange cloud for an exclamation point – “Henceforth when you till the ground it shall no longer yield to you its strength.  You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer upon the earth.”

What must we do to be saved?  We must accept now, if we have not yet done so, that we are our brother’s keeper.  It has always been true.  Men haven’t always recognized it as true, and that is one reason there have been so many fugitives and wanderers in human history.  Today the world in which we live cannot and will not tolerate any other attitude.  It is all too vitally interdependent.  Self-interest – in the usual sense of that term – is suicide.  National interest – in the usual sense of that term – is sure doom.

It is literally true that our own interests and the interests of our brothers in the long run are essentially the same.  America’s health and the health of the world are inseparable.

It was true in 1961.  It was true before then.  It’s still true today.

God asks us today – Where is your brother/sister?

God askes us today – Where is your LGBTQ+ brother/sister?  Where is your African-American brother/sister?  Where is your Latino/Hispanic brother/sister?  Where is your homeless brother/sister?  Where is your poor brother/sister?  Where is your asylum seeking brother/sister?  Where is your brother/sister who speaks a different language?

God asks us the question – Where is your brother/sister?

What are you going to say to God in response?

What is hell?

I’m not going to quote Scripture here.  My intent isn’t to scare the crap out of anyone either – mostly because I don’t believe that God is out to scare the crap out of people.

When you ask most people to describe hell, they most commonly give you some variation of Dante’s Inferno where people are suffering punishment actively pursued by God for people’s sins.  It is usually something that involves great pain and torture.  It involves fire and demons.

That makes for a great movie, but I don’t think that’s what hell is at all.  I think it’s time for us to let go of Dante’s poem as a description of hell.  Most people don’t realize that Dante wrote in many of his opponents into the poem – guess what their fate was.

You want to know hell is?

It’s the belief that when someone’s life is out of control, they must exert more control in order to straighten things out.  The problem though is that the person is already over controlling their life, and it is leading to ruin or keeping them in ruin.  This exertion of control separates and pushes people away.  It creates walls and divides – shutting others and God out.

I see it often in people who are abused, addicts, homeless, poor, hungry, etc.  There are those who reach out to help these people – to pull them out of their hell.  Yet…Yet, they reject the help.  Why?  Maybe its fear.  Maybe it’s because change is an unknown – the victim knows what to expect and so it gives a sense of control.  Maybe grasping that hand means admitting defeat or admitting they aren’t in control.  And that can be scary for people.

Hell is the desire to be in control of your own life.  It’s the old line that the serpent gave Eve in the garden.  Hell is separation from God.  Sometimes its self-imposed.  Other times it is imposed by others.  But too often we choose to remain in our hell.

Hell is rejection of God’s love.  Hell is rejection of being vulnerable.  Hell is being an island that is untouched and not on the map.

God is love.  When we reject God, we are rejecting love.  I think that because God is love, God lives the attributes of love – being patient, kind, not forcing itself on others, etc.  So when someone rejects God, I think God honors that – and at the same time continues to pursue the person, always offering grace, forgiveness, mercy, love, and peace.

Hell isn’t God actively punishing a person.  Hell exists because God is love and God loves creation so much that God allows people to reject God and love.  Hell is self-torment.

God doesn’t need to actively punish us – we do a fine job of that to ourselves and to others.

Look at the world and see what kind of Hell we impose on ourselves and others.  Mass shootings, excuses, lies, rejecting strangers, separating people, corruption, violence, war, broken relationships, greed, pride, exploitation of people, materials, and the planet, materialism, consumerism, nationalism, racism, and all the other -isms that exist.

Yet, in the midst of this, God’s reign, God’s kingdom breaks in.  And God invites us to participate in the unfolding of God’s reign.  Love is invitational.  Hell separates and divides.  Love doesn’t force its way on anyone.  Hell controls and manipulates.  Love is patient.  Hell can’t wait and demands unwavering compliance.

God’s kingdom is unfolding in our midst – right in the midst of Hell itself.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it.  We are called to be light to the world.  Forget what others will do – because we follow God, we follow love.  Love doesn’t force itself on others.  It invites others to participate – always.  There will be plenty who reject this invitation. So be it.  Keep doing it.

We aren’t called to change minds.  We are called to live out the love we have been given. Our lives will show how God encounters us and changes our lives.  Those who see this and want it will come – all are welcome.  Others will criticize and reject our means.  So be it.  Keep doing it.

We aren’t called to win arguments.  We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and those in prison.  Others will criticize us and hate us for doing this.  Many will say that what we are doing is dangerous and risky.  Many will say that these are worthless or not human.  So be it.  Keep doing it.

We aren’t called to change society or be the culture police.  We are called to love our enemies, especially when it is not deserved.  We are called to be peacemakers in the midst of violence and war.  We are called to show mercy especially to those who lack mercy.  Many will say that we are not patriots.  Many will say that the way of peace doesn’t work.  Many will say that might makes right and that the ends justify the means.  So be it.  Keep doing it.

The way of a disciple of Jesus is not popular.  It does not match with the ways of this world.  It is in contrast to Hell.  It is acknowledging that we are not in control at all and that we can not control others.  They will do what they will do.  So be it.  Keep doing it.

The way of a disciple of Jesus leads through the same path that Hell offers – death.  The difference is this – Hell drives people with fear of death, forcing those trapped in it to grasp onto life – even a hellish life.  The way of Jesus goes through death also.  But it is a stop on the way to resurrection.  It is letting go of life as we know it and try to control it.  One must go through death in order to experience resurrection.  Resurrection is death defeated.  Resurrection is Hell destroyed.  Resurrection is out of our hands and out of our control – completely.

At some point every one of us will experience actual physical death.  Jesus promises resurrection.  In baptism we are called to die daily so that we might experience resurrection daily.

Hell proclaims that death has the final say – and that we must do everything we can to avoid it.  Except we’ll never win that battle.  We can only delay it.

Jesus proclaims that death doesn’t have the final say – it is a step on the way to resurrection.  We can’t avoid it and there is nothing we can do to prevent it.  Instead, let go.  Loosen your grasp.  Step out in faith into the unknown.  God has done everything that needs to be done.  And God invites us into right relationship, into love.  God invites us out of hell and into God’s reign.

 

What kind of Jesus do you follow?

There are many types of Jesus.  Which one(s) do you follow/worship?

There’s Comfy Jesus.  He’s got a nice comfy blanket, doesn’t bother anyone, and doesn’t want to be bothered.  Comfy Jesus doesn’t like conflict and certainly respects the old adage that when in polite company, you never talk religion or politics.  Comfy Jesus doesn’t have political views or an opinions about policies.  And Comfy Jesus would never ask you to get your hands dirty with the homeless and poor.

There’s Partisan Jesus.  He’s got an R or a D after his name and he knows that the party is far more important than anything he has to say.  Partisan Jesus turns a blind eye when others who have the same R or D after their name do stuff or say things that conflict with him.

There’s Nationalist Jesus.  He’s all about the nation.  He sleeps with a flag wrapped around himself and knows that the promised land is right here.  Nationalist Jesus rips out the portions of the bible that talk about welcoming the stranger.  Nationalist Jesus knows that John 3:16 is really about the nation first.  Nationalist Jesus sees nothing wrong with violent language and dehumanizing.  Nationalist Jesus has friends who question his background because he’s got darker skin and he might be a foreigner.

There’s Weeping Jesus.  Even though we’re told that Jesus weeps only once in the Gospels – for the death of Lazarus his friend, weeping Jesus does more weeping.  Weeping Jesus is busy while he observes the fear, anger, and divisions in the world.  Weeping Jesus sheds years when he hears and sees scapegoating, dehumanizing, and violence.

There’s Dead Jesus.  Dead Jesus doesn’t do anything.  He doesn’t speak up.  He’s safe for his followers because Dead Jesus doesn’t ask them to do anything.  He’s dead.

There’s Cross Carrying Jesus.  He’s a tough one.  He calls on his followers to carry the very thing that will kill them.  Cross Carrying Jesus isn’t interested in whining and excuses.  He’s too busy carrying the sin of the world.

There’s Angry Jesus.  He’d flipping tables and asking why people call him Lord, Lord, but do not do what he tells them to do.  Seriously.  He’s not happy about what’s going on.  He’s upset by how people are treated, especially the poor, the stranger, the outcast.

There’s Resurrection Jesus.  He’s chill.  He’s done all the work.  Death has been defeated.  He calls to us, shares the Good News, and sends us out – even when we aren’t ready.