Tuesday, June 10, 2008

bread and circus

Came across the orgin of the phrase, Bread and Circus, as I was reading Richard Horsely's 'Jesus and Empire.' It was meant to describe the oppulence enjoyed by the minority elites 'Bread' and the parties and parades that the emperor cult employed to keep them happy. Meanwhile the vast majority of the peasantry lived in extreme poverty. Why would anyone care as long as they got to eat good food and go to great parties. Shocking we say.
Bread and Circus, does this phrase apply to America as well?

Monday, June 09, 2008

One Lord One Faith

Recently I have been engaged on a blogging discussion on the Gay Marriage debate in California. you can view it at http://www.theolog.org/blog/2008/05/gay-marriage-in.html#comments
if you so desire.

toward the end you will see a posting by 'Walter' who suggests that those on opposing sides of the 'Gay' issue should just admit that we are not 'in communion,' a very Anglican type view. He even suggests that we are not practicing the same religion.

Baptists historically have not based their 'communion' with one another based on creedal affirmations as would Anglicans or Presbyterians. We associate with each other practically for education and mission. And historically we allow each other 'Soul Freedom.' This is interesting. I have no problem considering myself in 'communion' with Walter because I both expect and respect the exercise of Soul Freedom. God has given both Walter and I a brain to use in discerning and applying the scriptures. Diversity should not frighten a Baptist, we should expect it. I can still be in communion with someone who disagrees with me about one issue or another. Apparently for Walter we must agree to be in communion.

Paul addresses this idea in Romans 14. The Roman church(es) are in disagreement about dietary restrictions (staying kosher or eating meat sacrificed to idols) and about the correct day to worship (saturday sabbath or sunday sabbath). Paul expect diversity and instructs the church to allow each to do as s/he feels lead as long as they do so 'for the Lord.' Paul expects and respects a diversity of understandings of the scripture and instructs the church to be open to such a thing.

so I consider myself to be in communion with walter, even though we disagree. It seems to me that we as a world-wide church would be making a much more effective witness to the world if we would value communion over agreement, engage in spirited debate and then affirm each other as sister and brother in Christ.

'You may say that I'm a dreamer...'

What Jesus Taught: Economics

This past sundays sermon follows.
The content is all my own based on reading Warren Carter and Richard Horsely.
The format of the sermon was inspired by a sermon delivered by The Rev. Terry Hamilton that I found at the following website. I like the simple and direct approach that she took in dealing with a difficult and controversial issue that I decided to use the format myself.

Luke 7:36-50
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus* to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Money is a taboo subject for churches. The reactions of the church to applying the gospel to economics and finance seems to fall into camps in my experience. One, a dogmatic approach which focuses on tithing, giving ten percent of one's income to the church. This falls short of what Jesus taught in two ways; giving in concentrated on meeting a requirement, which the Pharisees did, and Jesus criticized. One is not giving from the heart, but to meet a demand. Second, it focuses on institutional giving. Jesus wasn't talking about giving to an institution, but to the poor in general.
On the other hand, some churches tend to ignore the topic altogether. Discussing one's finances in public is not polite. There is the obligatory fall stewardship sermon, but otherwise the topic is generally not brought up. This ultimately fails too. Again, Jesus' teaching is focused on supporting an institution, not subversively created justice in an unjust system. And it allows us to divide our lives before God... Jesus can have my heart, by my wallet is mine.

I have three points I hope to make today about what Jesus taught about Kingdom Economics.
First: the Gospel Favors the poor; Jesus sought out the poor, particularly those enslaved to debt and his message was meant specifically for them as well as a criticism of the wealthy elites.
Second: The way we think of wealth in America today (in many churches) is not really connected to the Bible because we assume that wealth in the property of the individual without connection to a larger community.
Third: Jesus urged his disciples to think of wealth in terms of the community as opposed to the individual. Wealth was a tool for communal good instead of individual right or good.

1. The Gospel Favors the Poor
As we saw a few short weeks ago, Jesus began his ministry in Luke chapter four by proclaiming good news to the poor, the forgiveness of debts and the year of the Lord's favor. Strange we have missed the economics of Jesus message, for when we start to look and listen with open ears, we hear economics everywhere. Jesus began the sermon of the Mount or the Beatitudes with the proclamation of blessing to the poor. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he specifically mentioned debt; 'forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'
Some of our favorite Jesus stories have economic themes; the Young Ruler who seeks eternal life in Luke... which leads Jesus to encourage him to 'sell all you own and give to the poor.' the Good Samaritan, in which an unlikely foreigner becomes the hero, pays money out of his own pocket to care for the injured Israelite he finds on the road-side. The story of Zacchaeus, who has grown wealthy by collecting taxes for the Romans and defrauding his neighbors. When he meets JEsus he offers to repay those he has defrauded four times what he took and then to liquidate half of his wealth to distribute to the poor. This, Jesus calls salvation. Jesus would describe the Kingdom of God in terms of a King who forgives debt in Matt 18.

Without a doubt in my mind, Jesus meant to be talking about wealth and finance. Debts was not a metaphor, but a real concern for Jesus and he purposely challenged the wealthy elites who grew rich on the labor and oppression of the peasantry. He purposely challenged his disciples to care for the poor and put their very salvation in economic terms.

2. We assume our wealth is our own.
This is a popular concept in our culture, perhaps a bedrock belief. We tend to admire those who build wealth, attian impressive houses, cars, clothes, and retire early to florida or arizona. They have worked hard for their money and deserve to reap the benefits.

Luke 12 tells a story of Jesus in which he tells a parable of a successful businessman. He is so successful that he cannot find enough room for all his harvest. So he goes on an expansive building project to protect his wealth and plan an early retirement. In our cultures terms, he is a success. He did what we see people do with their wealth all the time, expanded, invested, and used for his own benefit. 2000 years ago Jesus told a success story for today... except that JEsus does not let it stay a success story. He has God call this man a fool. He has only considered himself in this parable and the use of his wealth for his own benefit. His view of wealth, which I suggest is not so different from our own... God labels foolish.

Luke 16 contains the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man eats wonderful food and dresses in the finest clothes. We are not told that he was cruel or injust. We are not told that he exploited anyone for his wealth (although it was rare in those days to grow rich without exploitation.) Lazarus sits outside of his gates and waits for the scraps from his table. Both men die. The rich man lands in torment and Lazarus at Abraham's side. The rich man's sin, as I see it anyway, was woeful ignorance of the suffering of the poor. He thought of his wealth as his own and the poverty and suffering of others as having no connection to him. This view of the world lands him in torment. I think these two stories show us that Jesus did not condone a personal and private view of wealth. Both characters in these stories are punished because they only thought of themselves and their wealth. Our money is not simply our own when we pledge ourselves through baptism to the Kingdom of God.

3. Wealth as Communal Salvation
So how did Jesus expect Jesus to think of wealth? Lets get back to our original story in Luke 7. Jesus is eating with a Pharisee, who would not be an elite, a part of the richest in society. But a pharisee would have been much wealthier than the peasantry, wealthy enough to throw a banquet for his friends. These banquets as I understand them were meant to both gain the Pharisee honor among his socio-economic peers, as he impressed them with the fruits of his wealth. This would also perhaps be a chance to gain the eye of someone in the elite class, who he could serve and gain more honor, prestige and wealth. The woman's presence is an offense because she cannot contribute to his honor or his wealth. this dinner is only for the wealthy and influential. His wealth is not meant to benefit her.
But notice that in Jesus story, the character with the highest honor and wealth, the King, is willing to sacrifice his own profit, his own wealth, in order to enable the poorer retainer to survive. Honor and status is gained through generous, even sacrificial sharing of wealth. this is the challenge to the pharisee, who sees his wealth as his own and his honor as tied to his disconnect from the poor. Jesus tells a story in which wealth is shared and honor ascribed to those who associate with and care for the poor.
The Zacchaeus story fits into this economic ethic as well. He gives half of his wealth and pays back four times what he has defrauded. He has put his own wealth and honor in jeopardy in order to benefit his neighbors and his community.
I think even Matthew 25 fits into this ethic. Salvation is given to those who have fed the hungry and clothed the naked. These actions presumably would stake a certain claim on ones own wealth. It would cost those who fed and clothed, and this ethic of sharing for the benefit of the community brings them into the kingdom and the very presence of Jesus.
God Bless You All

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Its the End of the World as We Know It

Strange how strange topics seem to converge in any given week. a couple of weeks ago I had a rash of questions about the issue of the GLBTQ community and the church/bible. I got invited to participate in a Pride Worship service and was told that I was going to hell because I accept and affirm the GLBTQ folk.

This week it has been end times stuff. The local Seventh Day Adventist Church has really been pounding the prosyletizing pavement with the end of the world pitch which has caused some questions, doubts and fears among some. Another local congregation has been hyping up the end-time preaching (because of tornados I guess) and that has caused a stir scaring some kids I know. Growing up in a fundamentalist environment I was subjected to "The Late Great Planet Earth' movie craze of the late seventies/early eighties. Rapture was a regular topic of sermons as was the Tribulation. It was absolutely traumatic for me. Here are some basics when debunking the end-times rhetoric.
1. Rapture isn't even in Revelation (John the author reports being taken up to the heavenly realms for a vision, but this is a regular theme in the prophetic genre. there is certainly NO reference to Christians flying toward heaven. AND when 1 Thess. is quoted 'we will go to meet (Jesus) in the air, that doesn't mean we'll fly away. It was a regular social norm for cities to go out and greet victorious leaders back from battle outside the city gates to ESCORT THEM BACK!!! So Paul isn't trying to tell us we're leaving, he's trying to tell us that Jesus has returned to stay.
2. Read the end of Revelation, say 20-21. The point of all that comes before is that God is coming back to be with humanity and make earth the Eden God intended it to be. this isn't supposed to be scary and God isn't destructive. This is re-Creating going on.
3. God is a God of both justice and mercy. This end-times rhetoric only present one vision of God, the angry wrathful vision. Read Revelation with the entire Bible in mind. God is merciful, God is forgiving, God is creative. Those who preach end-times are not presenting a full picture of God.
4. Apocalyptic Literature (which Revelation is one example of) is symbolic and it is politically subversive. The writer didn't literally expect the end of the space-time continuum. Jewish thought regarding the return of God or the advent of a Messiah, as diverse as it was, never included the expectation of the destruction of the world. It did, in some cases expect the vengeance of God on injust oppressors (Seleucids or Romans for instance) but not the wholesale kind of violence that Tim Lahaye has turned Revelation into with his fiction, I REPEAT, FICTION books, Left Behind. Revelation isn't about the end of the world, its about the beginning of Gods actual presence which heals the world and makes it whole.
5. This interpretation of Revelation (Now is the End-Times) is incredibly America-centeric (not to mention ego-centric. 'Look at how bad things are' they will say, with 9/11 and rising gas prices and increasing numbers of tornados. They are only looking at the world through American eyes. We only see a fraction of the suffering that goes on in the world, but because things have gotten a challenging in the US as of late, NOW Jesus is coming back. What about the African dying of AIDS throught the 1990's or Stalins reign of terror in the 40-50's, or the treatment of Natives by the American Government in the 1700-1800's or the plagues? I'm not saying that there aren't some frightening things happening around us right now, but no more frightening than some of the trauma's experienced down through history and certainly less than some have experience in other parts of the world. Why would God let those things happen and not intervene, but then send out the heavenly troops when the USA has a few extra tropical storms and an economic down-turn?

That is my Revelation rant I guess.
I'm going to start a Bible study for curious folk.
Revelation is challenging to Christians and frightening, but not because of the wrath of God or the tribulation. It challenges us to make the Kingdom the first priority in our lives and it shows us the way we sell out sometimes as Christians and that scares me.

The Bible on Authority and Power III

I Sam 8:4-22
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, 'You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.' But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, 'give us a king to govern us.' Samual prayed to the Lord, So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, 'These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousand and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and given it to his offecers and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of cattle and donkeys and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you on that day.'

Notice two things; (1) there are voices in the Bible regarding political authority other than Paul's, and (2) these voices do not assume that politcal authorities wil rule justly, as a matter of fact, most often they assume the opposite, that authorities will be injust. Israel is warned that political authority will lead to economic exploitation; their crops will be taxed, their wealth claimed, collect and redistributed to the 'elites' (the Kings allies. If you are keeping score, this is the system of economic 'growth' that Rome put in place in Palestine at the time of Jesus.) Taxes were not used to reinvest in infrastructure like roads, schools and civil servants as we are accustomed. Taxes made the elites wealthy. Also notice that political authority will lead to violence. Sons will be conscripted to fight in the Kings army. In Agrarian societies (farming based economies) economic growth was limited to the production of the land. One could really only gain more wealth by gaining more land. One could only gain more land by taking it from someone else, hence, war. the King will claim your wealth and even worse, your life and leave you a slave. Notice here that God is not concerned with 'foreign' authorities oppressing Israel as in the Exodus story, but with Israel's own leadership. I Samuel pushes to not only look at the injustice of others, say Iran, Iraq or China, but also to look with open eyes and hearts at the injustice that may stem from our own system of government.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Jesus on Authority and Power II

Exodus 3:7-10

Then the Lord said, 'I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

This passage is so well known not only to Christians, but in our popular culture. The Exodus is not only the key story and symbol which was a key to Israel's identity through its existence which lives on today in the lives of those who observe passover. It is also a symbol of the identity of the United States. Thomas Jefferson proposed that the great seal of the United States depict Moses leading the people out of Egypt. (Horsely, Jesus and Empire). Curious that Jefferson understood the political implication of this story better than the modern church seems to. Rarely do we speak of the politics of this story as often as it is recited, taught and preached. this story lies at the heart of Biblical concepts of political authority. Pharoah conscripted a foreign people in the minority as slaves to construct his kingdom (a practive later employed by the Caesar's and the Herodians in Jesus' day.) Not only were the Israelites exploited economically, working not for their own profit, but to build the wealth and opulence of the Egyptians, they were also the object of state-sanctioned genocide. Pharoah ordered that male children of the Israelites should be killed. It is because the Israelites are dehumanized and killed and their labor used to create wealth for elites, and that this is a state sanctioned and legal reality, that God intervenes in the person of Moses. Governments that sanction violence, oppress the vulnerable, and economically exploit their subject or the 'alien in their land are an affront to God according to this story. Moses is a revolutionary, not in the sense of violence or terror, but in the sense of demanding not only freedom, but justice for his people. Which causes one to wonder; if this was the position that God expected of Moses in the face of violence, oppression and exploitation; to resist (non-violently) and act to bring peace, freedom and justice, what position does God expect of us?

Jesus on Authority and Power I

Romans 13:1-7
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement upon themselves.

This passage tends to be the primary source for Protestants who are thinking biblically about their relationship to 'the state' and their allegiance to both Kingdom and country. Paul is very clear about the relationship of the Christian to Empire in this passage. Submit because the authority of Empire is authority conferred by God. Notice what Paul is assuming about the political leader(s) 'he is God's servant to do you good.' This particular sentence needs to be carefully weighed in applying the scripture to our lives and world. We could sit and rehearse a list of a number of political leaders who did not live up to Paul's asusmption that the leader 'do good.' Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, could start the list and it could go on. These leaders did not 'go good,' but instead did great harm. I cannot imagine that Paul would encourage Christans to submit to governing authorities who did harm. Pual is speaking for the perspective of expecting the immediate return of Christ. the early church anxiously awaited the return of Jesus any day. Paul does not want this church to be careless in applying this belief of immediate return, into rebellion. the line Paul draws here is a fine one. While Paul is clear about the Christians stance toward governing authorities, we must be clear about his assumptions, that the state be a representative of the leadership of God. Paul, in this passage is not addressing a situation in which the governing authorities fail to 'do good.' It is also a strong possibility, in mentioning rebellion, that Paul holds the same belief as Jesus, that battling unjust authorities was the responsibility of God. Do not rebel, Paul is saying. But this does not mean that we blindly submit when authorities are injust or cruel

Monday, June 02, 2008

Thoughts on the Lord's Prayer

A few weeks ago I was asked to lead a round-table discussion on worship in the American Baptist Tradition (in Rhode Island, I suppose.) I expected a vigorous debate between those who advocated traditional worship (music) and those who were trying contemporary forms of worship (music.) There was some good respectful discussion on these topics, but i was not shocked or challenged by it. What surprised me was the apparent number of churches that are leaving behind the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in the sunday morning liturgy. 'They don't understand what they are saying, so why keep saying it,' seemed to be the collective reasoning behind this decision. In fairness, this discussion only happened in one hour, so unfortunately we could not reach great dept in our conversation.
I am concerned with transition which leaves behind tradition for three reasons.
First I wonder if we need to 'understand' the Lords Prayer for it to be an important part of our worship? I am reminded of something that I C.S. Lewis once wrote (I cannot remember where) about liturgy. I am paraphrasing the thought here, of a much more sophisticated thinker than I. But I believe he suggested was that one of the strengths of a liturgy, was that we didn't have to think to be a part. the liturgy would be the spirit praying for us when we did not know what words to pray ourselves. this is my experience of the Lord's Prayer. Personally given to bouts of depression and anxiety, intercessory prayer, where I 'talk' to God, can cause a case of sever fixation and intrusive thoughts that made me feel worse instead of better. Should prayer always make me feel better? No, but for me, this experience didn't allow conviction that leads to action. Just futher depression. I pray the Lord's Prayer in this situation, because it calm my mind and body, allows me to fix my mind and heart on something outside myself (my anxieties) and allows me to move into prayer where I can talk without 'spinning' or listen for and to God.

Second, if people don't understand it, why not explain it? I still lead the Lord's Prayer in worship at the church I am blessed to serve. I have noted that even slowing down my recitation, which many people do tend to listen too, helps get people out of a mindless recitation and into a mindful recitation. Other versions of the Lord's prayer, that remain faithful to the spirit and intent, but which change the language is another way that we can lead people into a more mindful recitation of the Prayer. I fear leaving behind things that people don't understand. It seems to me that Sabbath has been severly misunderstood in our culture for some time and now it has become an antiquated idea that many do not know about or understand. Instead of growing silent and allowing the Lord's prayer to become extinct, why not teach and preach it?

Third, I am increasingly convinced that the Lord's Prayer is as much a manifesto of Kingdom Ethics as it is simply a prayer. Hallowed be Thy name reminding us of our ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom of God as we negotiate our modern world. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, reminding us that our politics are oriented toward the Kingdom as presented by the life of Christ, instead of democrat, republican, conservative or liberal. Forgive us our debts, reminds us of Sabbath/jubilee economics, Give us this day our daily bread, the gospel present in concrete acts of compassion and service. Here is a summation of what the Kingdom of God is meant to look like and act like. If we stop reciting this prayer, will we forget who we are and why we do what we do as a church? This is my worry.