“Love your enemies” [in so far as…]

I must confess it took me a while to get to to the point of believing that love for our enemies should have no limits.  Like so many I’ve always seen confines to Jesus’ words to love our enemies.  As I commented elsewhere it’s hard for us to get beyond our Western presuppositions that see church and state as pure separate entities (or the other extreme of theocratic thinking).  As a result we tend to perceive Jesus as separate from the state and from the real world of evil men.  Therefore His teaching can only go so far.  It’s only applicable in so far as we’ve exahusted all options (although we rarely do this).  This is ever apparent to me as we have just celebrated Memorial Day.  Facebook was chock full of posts that commemorated those who gave their lives for our country and for our “freedoms”.  I’ve always got the sense from these posts and the things people say in support of military action that to speak out or disagree with such sentiments is a grave sin.  More specifically, it always seems to be Christians that are the most supportive of such things as Memorial Day.

We have been taught that non-violence does not work and that violence always works but the evidence stands greatly against this belief (Gandhi and King are but the beginning of the evidence).  Less people have died using non-violent resistance than violent resistance and force.  But the reality is that violence is part of our sinful flesh, it’s where we automatically go when someone has harmed us in any way.  We’ve all felt the desire of wanting to physically harm someone thinking that it would work.  Just think of how we all felt right after 9/11, we all wanted blood and we got it but at the risk and the reality of creating another generation of terrorists.  And so the cycle continues.  And this brings me to the words of Jesus.  Something that is lost when we read the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 is the context in which Jesus says these remarkable words.  And it’s this context that should give us reservations about supporting violence because it brings light to the falsity of so many claims today.

The Galileans of Jesus’ day had good reason to want to take up violence against the Romans.  In fact, two decades before Jesus spoke these words of the Sermon on the Mount to a crowd of Galileans, over 200 of their countrymen had been crucified by the Romans along roadsides in the area.  What’s more, some of the inhabitants of Sepphoris (Which was 3 miles north of Nazareth) had been sold into slavery for aiding the Jewish Insurrectionists’ assault on the Roman arsenal there.  Clearly, this should repulse us because such brutality is inhumane.  Clearly it must have angered the Galileans which is why they were expecting and hoping that the Messiah would rid their land of the Romans.  If anyone had justification for the use of violence it was these people, for their hatred of Rome was very personal.  And yet Jesus still says to these crowds, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  This should give us pause anytime we support violence.  After all, Jesus was well aware of these dynamics and probably saw them play out in his town and amongst his family and friends.  Maybe he knew and remembered some of the men who had died just like any of us New Yorkers knowing and/or being connected to someone who died on 9/11.  And yet he still says, “Love your enemies…do not retaliate the one who is evil.”

You see love for enemies does not ignore the truth and it does not seek to excuse it rather it seeks to deal with enemies in a humane way.  A way that acknowledges the enemy’s humanity, putting him or her on the same level and violence doesn’t do that.  In order to kill we must dehumanize the other and ourselves.  Hence, training men and women to be “killing machines”.  Just speaking the truth can cause great change, look at what Jesus did despite the disciples’ actions and the Sanhedrin and Rome putting him to death.  To speak truth is to love.  And this is hard, in fact it’s way harder than using force or the cowardice of backing down and walking away.  This way of truth involves vulnerability and investment, it takes time and effort, it takes being human with another person.  This should also inform our ministries as well, truthfully serving and truthfully loving others as they are and not as we want them to be.  Besides the state doesn’t need to tell us we are free. Rather we are already are free because we are in Christ.  We are free to love, to be vulnerable and to be honest.

Love,

Scott+

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“Sabbath for the man or man for the Sabbath?”

In our American context we often times misunderstand the dynamics of sin.  We tend to see sin as a problem between ourselves and God.  When it comes to others it’s usually very superficial.  I personally think this has to do with the Lutheran understanding of justification which sees sin as something that is purely individualistic in the Western sense.  This, in my opinion, is why we often put concepts of right and wrong, of good and bad above human beings so that the law becomes a means unto itself.  What I mean is that the law becomes a thing that takes on its own life and in turn no longer serves, helps and protects but rather burdens and hurts.  The fundamental problem here is that our humanity is completely ignored in order to uphold rules that are seemingly unfair and ridiculous.  I think a lot more injustice happens under the guise of the law, under the guise of institutionalism than people realize.  As a pastor, I have heard countless stories of injustice at the hands of a system that purports to be just.  When a law impedes our ability to love and treat our neighbor properly then we have a serious problem, when the law becomes a justification for mistreatment and even abuse then we have a serious problem.  But when the law is seen in a radical individualistic way this is but the outcome for it rarely goes beyond “me”.

This was the problem with Pharisees that Jesus encountered throughout his ministry.  For them the Law had usurped humanity, it
became more important than love and justice.  In effect their law was dehumanizing because care for one another was impeded by requirements that were void of common sense but derivative of the Scriptures by way of their traditions.  The Pharisees and Jesus clash because Jesus seeks to uphold humanity as created in the image of God whereas they could care less so long as they did what was right in their eyes no matter if they stepped over someone in the process (Good Samaritan anyone?).  Remember that they criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, for eating with prostitutes and tax collectors and for his disciples not washing before a meal.  Better yet, Jesus criticizes them for their abuse of the people, for laying law burdens upon them that they could not bear and not lifting a finger to help them, for devouring widows houses and seeking the best of the best of their culture at that time.  Basically it was the humanizer vs. the dehumanizers.  To Jesus, their laws meant nothing in so far as they oppressed the people, in so far as they ignored true justice and righteousness.  And that’s key in understanding why they put him to death.  They put Jesus to death because he was a threat to their being and their system.  In turn the Pharisees broke the Law that they claimed they represented by wrongfully accusing him and murdering him.  What’s more, Rome did the same thing as well.  They, the purveyors of great justice, put an innocent man to death which could be nothing further from justice.  When face to face with the authorities and powers of the day Jesus’ life makes a complete mockery of them and shows them for what they really are – systems propped up above humanity and thereby dehumanizing.  Systems that are said and understood to be good failing to be just that.

I think that this subtle understanding that Jesus fights and stands against is very prevalent in the church and government today (and probably always has been).  And I think it has to do with our western presuppositions that inform how we understand justification as well as relations between church and state.  If justification before God is only understood as something that’s between me and God then of course the sins that we are aware of in ourselves are not going to be understood in a collective sense.  We live and breath the individualistic philosophy of John Locke.  Hence, the “giving my heart to Jesus” and the wanting to do good and live morally in relation to me and mine (prosperity Gospel).  Going further, if who we are in Christ is only relegated to the church then the far reaching aspects of sin aren’t seen as being as far, as not reaching into the left hand realm in the same way.  For example, the realm of politics is incredibly antithetical to the way of Jesus but if we understand the way of Jesus as only being truly relevant in the right hand realm then playing by Caesar’s ways is all of sudden okay.  Hence, American Christians’ usual support of the state in all of its wars thus limiting Jesus’ command to love our enemies.  And so such ways and means creep into our psyches.  Before we know it we take on the “elementary principles of the world” playing their games and thinking their thoughts somehow believing that it’s okay because that Jesus stuff only counts over “there”.  Such thinking was how the Nazis rose to power with the support of the churches in Germany.  For them it was simple, Hitler and his pals were the state and thereby willed by God as the authorities so to stand against them would be to sin against God.  They do their thing and we do ours.  But to go back to my initial point, I think these issues and problems stem from a larger problem which is our failure to see and perceive sin for what it really is, that it’s more than just me and God but rather me, God and everyone as well as creation.  That it goes so much deeper than simple right and wrong, than simple morality but rather has to do with our inability to speak truth and bring our lies and ways into the light.  When we fail to do this it results in injustice and dehumanization.  When ideas,morals and systems impede our ability to love our neighbor properly we have a serious problem.  Take a look at Luke 10:25-37 and you’ll see.

We all fail to love our neighbor but this could be lessened if we understood what love for our neighbor and for God really meant.  You see when Jesus comes on the scene he speaks nothing but Truth, he lives in the light and he does not play by the world’s games.  This infuriates the authorities because it inevitably calls into question their being and their purpose.  His Truth is not relegated to only over “here” but rather to everything.  There is no division in his thinking as some would claim, rather his Truth is for all and for all facets of life.  We fallen human beings love to make excuses and to hearken to the “real world” but Jesus doesn’t do that he just speaks and lives out the truth of God.  He lives in the reality of God always.  He truly acknowledges who God is and what he is capable of, that He actually is the God of the living and not of the dead.  This understanding sees people as truly human and not commodities or consumers or potential members of our church.

The early Christians were able to convert the Roman Empire not by way of force, political posturing or aggressive rebellion but by the simple way of prayer, non-resistance and the overarching believe in the Lordship and power of Jesus Christ.  For them Jesus was and is Lord.  For them his kingdom power was and is alive and that thereby they had nothing to fear not even death itself.  For they saw that their Lord died and rose again.  Death did not have the last say.  By not playing by the world’s games they could truly seek to love and to uphold humanity.  And look at what happened.  We don’t need the world’s approval, all we need is God’s because He is in charge not some president, not some seminary, not some church body and not some “justice” system.  Putting God first and then one another before anything else is but an outcome of the Gospel.

Peace,

Scott+

Grow or Die!

I’m the pastor of a very small Lutheran church.  We have 30 members on the rolls but average around 18 a Sunday which is actually a big deal when compared to what the church was averaging a few years ago.  But as you can probably guess such numbers can’t sustain a pastor for all that long.  We are quickly running out of money and it’s very scary.  I’ve been here for three years, we’ve had new members come and go because of the economic downturn as Colorado is a fairly expensive place to live.  Furthermore, Lutheranism is completely foreign to many of the people here.  The largest congregation in our valley is a prosperity Gospel congregation.  So it’s challenging and of course my immediate thought from a self preservationist perspective is “we just need to get more people and we’ll be fine.”  But I’ll admit that makes me uneasy when I really sit down and think about it.  Manna is not god, Jesus is.  People are not god, Jesus is.

You see I want to grow but there’s also something about growth that makes me uneasy.  You see no matter what the church in America says the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hard to swallow.  Jesus is very clear about the costs of discipleship and of ruining and destroying our lives for His name’s sake.  Going further, the end of John 6 always sits in the back of my pesky mind.  That’s when many of Jesus’ disciples leave him because they found his teaching to be too hard.  And lest we forget Jesus is killed for speaking and embodying the truth, for standing up to the cultural norms and ways and in effect saying “this is not okay!”.  There’s really nothing that makes sense about the Gospel because it is completely antithetical to the ways of the world.  And so while I hope for growth and I also feel a certain level of anxiety because growth may not always be a good thing.  I don’t want to compromise the Gospel so as to make others comfortable.

To be honest, I’ve always had an aversion to all things pop culture and that comes from my hardcore punk background.   And I must confess that this also plays into my mindset as a Christian as well.  The culture is always so quick to label something as being good when in reality it lacks substance and heart.   I think, we the church, tend to do the same thing as well.  Think about how often we look for validation from the culture whether in the form of our support of the state or in our methodical way of trying to be hip so as to convert the “lost”.  We substitute the way of Jesus with the way of conventional wisdom.  The idea that Jesus is Lord is relegated only to what we do on Sunday mornings or whenever we worship.  A truly substantive understanding of Jesus doesn’t seem to be the framework for doing ministry in America and if it is, well, it might not go all that far.

In an effort to better understand the community I serve I checked out the sermons of the big church pastors in our community and in many regards they weren’t biblical.  Really, they just preached conventional wisdom with a bunch of bible verses thrown in between.  It has caused me to really ponder if that’s even church.  Quite honestly it’s scary to me.  It’s scary to me because it’s void of Jesus of Nazareth.  Instead it’s a good pep talk with Jesus on the side.  And yet they’re all growing with their American Gospel at the front and center.

And so like I said I still want to grow but maybe throughout these last three years it’s really been me who’s been dying.  The Gospel seems entirely different to me now than when I first started as a pastor.  And being faithful to the Gospel is downright ruinous in the eyes of the world.  Honestly, I’m not sure what’s ahead, maybe I’ll become a worker-priest, maybe we’ll grow by leaps and bounds.  One thing I do know is that our God is faithful and Jesus is Lord.  And I honestly do believe God is at work amongst such a small congregation although it may appear to be foolish and unappealing to the eyes of the world.   I often recall Bonhoeffer’s words from Life Together – “What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God”.

Peace,

Scott+

“For I was hungry and you gave me food”

Every third Saturday of every month the members of Holy Cross Lutheran Church feed those in need a warm meal.  We started doing this in November of 2010 and haven’t stopped since.  Depending upon the month we’ve had upwards of 45 people come through our doors in need of a meal.  As a result we’ve fostered relationships we those who are considered to be on the fringes of society to the point in which they are now incredibly comfortable at Holy Cross.  The difference from when they first started coming is amazing.  It was here that I began a relationship with Steve (previous post) and with many others that have become a genuine part of my daily life here in Glenwood Springs.  Not a day goes by in which I don’t run into someone I’ve met at our meals.

This past Saturday the members of Holy Cross served over 40 men and women lunch.  This go around we ran out of food because we weren’t expecting such a large crowd but we got around that by going out and buying more food.  What’s really cool to witness is how grateful the guys are for the meal.  But what made this month’s lunch even more unique than the previous months is that we had only a handful of members there to help because of everyone’s busy schedules.  Still, it worked and it worked out very well.  The members who weren’t able to be there brought food the night before and the members who were there worked their butts off.

As pastor what’s been most amazing about feeding the needy every month has been witnessing how the congregation I serve has taken ownership of the event.  You see, some members were rather apprehensive about feeding the homeless when I first brought the idea to them.  In fact, my wife and I made the first meal since it was our crazy idea in the first place but since then the members have taken charge.  Now every month most of them are there ready to serve those in need a warm meal.  Honestly, it’s been very touching for this pastor to witness.  One of my wife’s professors at Concordia Irvine mentioned that we ought to document these occurrences as they are not the norm in the LCMS.  That a small congregation would serve such people and then be worshipping with a few of them the next day.  In fact, one of the people that we got to know through the meals is now a member of our congregation.  It’s Matthew 25, pure and simple.

I want you to know that this is a very small congregation (25 members) that I serve here in Glenwood Springs and they’ve been through a lot.  In fact, they’re still healing from the wounds of the past but they’ve got a lot of heart and a lot of love.  By worldly standards they shouldn’t be here, they should have been shut down a few years ago but they, we, are still here.  It’s a testament to the power and foolishness of the Gospel that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians.  It’s a testament to the faithfulness of our God.  There’s not any flash to the ministry here, we don’t have any of the resources that mission starts usually have, when we worship our music is that of a recording, our sound system is broken, I have no secretary, in fact I am my secretary.  But we’re here and we’re ready to give just like I recalled to you.  We are weak and foolish and yet because of Christ we are strong and wise.

Peace,

Scott+

New York Novelty

I grew up in Yonkers, New York in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood known as Woodlawn.  It’s a fairly working class residential neighborhood.  Hearing an Irish accent was just part of my life growing up – it seemed normal to me.  Yet I found out later that I grew up in one of the many “multicultural” neighborhoods in New York.   I never realized how different such an environment was to most Americans until I went to seminary in St. Louis and was surrounded by mostly Midwestern people who, like myself, were all of northern European descent.  But going further, I also didn’t realize how different my upbringing and experiences were from theirs especially in relation to experiences with people of another color skin.  I went to school with Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and, lest I forget, poka dotted peoples.  In many regards that was normal for me and my brother and my sister.  I never saw it as being that big of a deal until I got to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 2005.  I think it’s fair to say that many Americans grow up around only white people without really having much contact with those of a different skin color.  At least that’s what I garnered from my classmates at the sem.

Every year Concordia Seminary sends a group of their students to the area where I grew up for their “cross cultural module”.  One of
the churches and neighborhoods that they visit is my home congregation and neighborhood.  I never thought where I grew up would be a cross cultural place for seminarians to visit but clearly it is.  For me it’s what I know, for them it’s something completely new. To think that the blocks and the streets that I grew up on and walked around on and played on are a cross cultural experience is so weird.  While I was at the sem no one ever asked me to recall my experiences growing up on the edges of NYC to a class of students. Heck I would have!  I would have told them about Billy the neighborhood watchdog who was locked up when he was 16 for almost killing a homosexual man down in the village, I would have told them about the Italian guy who once chased all of us with a baseball bat because we hit his car with a football, I would have told them about the Nereid Ave bridge recalling how that is the bridge that separates the white neighborhood from the black neighborhood.  I then would have gone into the complexities of the relationship between the two neighborhoods so that they could better understand racial tensions and not judge the situation by the things they learned from a textbook, I would have told them about the fights throughout the years between Yonkers (Italians) and Bronx kids (Irish) or Woodlawn kids and Riverdale kids, I also would have told them about what it was like to grow up as a German Lutheran in an Irish Catholic neighborhood and on and on the list would go.  And lastly, I’d have them talk to my mother and father who have stereotypical New York accents so they could truly hear such accents in real life and laugh.

Anyways, I totally understand why the seminary sends guys to NYC for a cross cultural module and I think it’s a good thing.  But as an aside, and as someone who grew up in a “multicultural” place, I sometimes think that those who haven’t grown up in such places make so much more out of “multiculturalism”.  Sometimes it appears to be a badge of honor and pride for those who are transplants to the NYC area.  But the reality is that it’s not that big of a deal for the natives and I think that gets missed a lot by many outsiders.  Like any people in any part of the country or world they’re just going about their daily lives.  No matter where one goes people are people with the same concerns and struggles.  The lead singer for the band Sheer Terror once said something during one of their sets at CBGB about the novelty of living in a “multicultural” neighborhood in NYC that I think really brings home the point.  He said, “Nowadays, people are all about wanting to live in a multicultural neighborhood which really just amounts to living on a block that has a bunch of Puerto Ricans hanging out on the corner.”  The guys on the corner are just hanging out just like the suburban kids are hanging out at the mall.  Not as much novelty there as we’d like to think.

From a native New Yorker now pastor in Colorado,

Scott+

I live on stolen lands, how about you?

I enjoy watching TED videos especially when I’m putting together the bulletins on Saturday.  The two things that really stuck with me in regards to this video were the Lakota’s reference to us as “the people who take the fat of the land” and President Lincoln’s participation in sentencing 38 Lakotas to death right after signing the Emancipation Proclamation.  Here’s the video: America’s native prisoners of war

A Homeless Friend

This is Steve.  Steve is a very good friend of mine and he’s homeless.  He’s a very familiar face around Glenwood Springs and the Roaring Fork Valley.  Before we first met in November of 2010 I used to see him around town all the time.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw him walking by the church when I came to Glenwood Springs in the summer of 2009.   The reason why I’ll never forget it is because of the way he dresses.  Steve wears a Yamakah, has long hair that’s dyed black and blonde down to his shoulders and dresses like a cowboy.  Just by seeing him you know he’s a character and I remember thinking “I’ve got get to know this guy”.  Eventually I did when the church I serve started feeding the homeless every month.  It was there that Steve and I sparked up a relationship and it has grown vastly ever since.  A week doesn’t go by without Steve and I speaking at least once.

Now here’s some really interesting background information about this man.  Steve came to Glenwood Springs after living in Dallas, Texas for many years.  While in Texas he was one of the state’s best Social Security lawyers.  Before moving to Texas to practice law Steve practiced law in the Marines and was also one of the best military lawyers at the time.  Interestingly enough, I found this out from another homeless guy who is a Marine who is also very good friends with Steve.  Steve also has a family, he is still legally married and has 5 daughters and 22 grandchildren.  Yet, he hasn’t seen his wife or daughters since 2003 and hasn’t met any of his grandchildren.  Steve left all of this behind because he claims that since he was a baby he has been called by God to be a “Viceroy for Jesus”.  He claims that it all began when his car flew him from Dallas to Abilene, Texas.  From there he went to Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Glenwood Springs.  He lives here because this is where the Lord wants him.  Actually, he claims that when Jesus returns he will first appear on Aspen Mountain which is why he spends so much time down there as well.

For many years Steve has lived up on the hill behind the Target in our town.  Recently he, along with some of the homeless, was kicked off of the hill by the city despite their very good behavior.  One of the reasons Steve slept outside was because of a vow he made to the Lord about sleeping outside.  Unfortunately, because of what happened he has had to break his vow and hops around Glenwood Springs sometimes staying at our church and sometimes staying at the Methodist Church but he still sleeps outside when he’s down in Aspen.  To the right is a picture of the tent that we helped him set up on the hill last September.  Unfortunately, the police came through and took all of his belongings and threw them in the trash.  This was rather frustrating for me because I had put a lot of work into stabilizing the tent so he could sleep in it without having to worry about the wind or snow…grrrr (P.S. please don’t report me to the police or use Romans 13 against me).

Anyways, Steve has become a big part of our lives here in Glenwood Springs.  We often have him over for dinner and drive him around town when he needs to get things done.  In fact, what’s really cool is how he’s become apart of our church family as well.  He always attends our Sunday morning bible study but never worship because he has a vow against that.  And the members have taken him in and treat him as they do each other which is really great to witness.  Right now Steve is helping the church put in a garden as he has quite the green thumb.  He and I spent part of the day running around town and getting supplies for the garden.  In fact, he also has a little garden that he takes care of at the Methodist church as well as plenty of different flowers and plants all around town at different stores and restaurants.

So this is Steve, a homeless friend or as he says “a wayfaring man” who is our friend.  He’s on a mission for God and he’s a “Viceroy for Jesus”.  He helps to make Glenwood Springs a great place for my wife and I and he’s someone who I’m sure we’ll never forget.  Becca and I look forward to the days when we have children and they know him as “Uncle Steve”.  Just as he is apart of our lives now we hope he will be apart of children’s lives too.  We hope that they see it as normal to have homeless people over to our house and break bread with them.

Peace,

Scott+