Monthly Archives: October 2016

There’s always the temptation to look to another human being for salvation.  What’s more, there’s always the temptation to look to one human being for all the answers and for all the solutions to the problems before us.  In many ways, the presidency of the United States has come to signify and represent such aspirations.  The President is looked upon as being the be all end all of all of our country’s hopes and problems.  In this election cycle it’s always fascinating to note what people desire in a president.  More often than not in these discussions the president is assumed to have way more power than he or she will actually have when entering office.  For example, the expectation that Donald Trump will create jobs and Make America Great Again is, I suppose, a nice thought, but hardly as easy as he makes it sound.

In many regards this is all indicative of a continual human problem throughout time and best exemplified in the person of King Saul.  Saul became king because the people of Israel wanted to be like the nations around them who had kings. Bear in mind that the impetus for this desire was the corruption of their judges.  Often, the desire for authority is borne out of an insecurity regarding ambiguity, mystery and responsibility.  Thus, the appeal of authoritarianism in various places in this post-modern age.

Nonetheless, it’s this desire for a king that prompts Yahweh to state that they have rejected him.  In other words, God wasn’t enough for them, they needed and wanted more.  This is the problem we witness in the Garden.  Adam and Eve wanted more and so they (we) wanted to go their own way.  This is repeated over and over again throughout Genesis as Cain builds a city for the sake of his own stability and independence apart from God.  Nimrod, the mighty hunter, becomes a king standing in defiance of God. Finally, we human beings seek to build a tower in order to make a name for ourselves, the epitome of doing things our own way.  We are simply not happy relying on God, we must always go one step further, we must always find something to latch onto that is not Him.  And things inevitably go poorly as it did with Saul and we find ourselves going back to square one.

One surprising aspect to the ministry of Jesus is that he rejects such notions.  Not only does he not want to be made king and even rejects such notions coming from Satan and the disciples, but he also builds up those who come to him.  While he clearly teaches the Way embedded within such teaching is an an-archic way which discredits and calls into question those things which would claim divine authority and legitimacy.  The woman with a bleeding problem was not supposed to touch or approach Jesus, to do so would be wrong according to Torah and cultural standards (Mk. 5:24-34).  Similarly, the leper who returned to give thanks to Jesus was a Samaritan.  Samaritans rejected Jesus, for he was a Jew on his way to the hated city of Jerusalem (Lk.9:51-56).  Despite these standards and norms, they come to Jesus anyway.  And Jesus notes that it is their faith that makes them well.  In many regards the gospels reveal that we have more power than we may realize.  Hence, “if you had the faith the size of a grain of mustard seed…”  Is not the call of Jesus to lose our lives, to pick up our crosses a call to a new way, a new responsibility best articulated in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain?  The woman with the bleeding problem couldn’t help but move her way into the crowd and touch Jesus.  How risky this was considering she was unclean and a woman.  But she does it and she is healed and as Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well: go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Similarly, with the leper who has returned to Jesus, a Jew, to give thanks for healing Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.”

Sinful we are, but one of the things that contributes to this state is social and cultural conditioning.  Often much of what we believe to be right and wrong has much more to do with culture than with God.  A simple reading of the gospels confirms this as we look at what Jesus holds up as good and of worth.  The woman with the bleeding problem would have been told it was wrong to touch Jesus and the Samaritan leper would have been told not to approach Jesus since he was a Jew.  Yet, they did so anyway, their faith made them well.  They went against conventional norms, they went against what the world said was polite, expected and acceptable.

Such is the way of the Creator, of Jesus, of the Spirit.  This is who we are called to rely on and who we are called to follow. Thus, in following we take on ambiguity, we take on mystery, we take on responsibility.

I’m a huge fan of the HBO show The Wire.  The themes, the plots and the character development are great.  For those who don’t know, The Wire was filmed over five seasons covering themes such as inner city drug culture, the war on drugs, policing, post-industrial union struggles, political culture, education and, of course, the corruption involved in all of these things.  In The Wire, there really aren’t any happy endings, at least not according to the normal cop shows and movies put out by Hollywood.  In fact, there’s no strong sense of resolution, things just carry on as usual with new people doing the same old things.  The great part of the show is that the dualism of good guys versus bad guys isn’t really apllicable as it displays the real life complexities of the various characters.  For instance, there’s a fine line, if any, between the elites and the leaders of the drug gangs.  Similarly, the police are often breaking the law in order to enforce the law.  One character, Omar, goes so far as to tell a defense attorney (while in court) that they do the same: rob drug dealers.  One has a gun and the other has a brief case.

The creator of The Wire, David Simon, has said that the show has been a great hit amongst the rank and file police and workers in government. Interestingly enough, he has also noted that the higher ups in the said institutions hate the show.  In large part it’s because it shows that those in the higher echelons of power are more often than not concerned more about their careers and how they look rather than the people they serve.  What we witness is a sort of corrosive force at work on persons who in some instances began their journey with good intentions of helping but nonetheless get swept away.  This becomes quite apparent in the character, Tommy Carcetti, who rises to power as Mayor of Baltimore.

David Simon shared that they drew upon Greek works of tragedy when they were creating the Wire.  Instead of the characters being beholden to the whims of the gods (as is the case in Greek tragedy), they are instead beholden to the whims of the “system.”  The system keeps going devouring and building up whoever is in its sights.  It is too big to fail, it must work, it is bureaucratic dehumanization and it disposes of anyone who gets in its ways.  But it rewards those who play by its rules.  It’s about people, it’s about numbers, about looks, about manipulation and currying favor.  Honesty and humility are not valued traits.  What’s more, it continually eats its own.  One witnesses with characters like Tommy Carcetti a man losing his soul to the system as he climber higher and higher.  Always under the auspices that if he gets higher he’ll be able to make a bigger difference.  Unfortunately, the higher (he) they go the more favors they need and therefore the more favors that must be returned.  Sounds like those in Washington and those who run for high offices like the presidency.  Beholden to donors and lobbyists.

The Wire seems to confirm Jesus’ words that he who would save his life will lose and he who would lose his life will save it.  What’s even more apparent is that it would seem to confirm Jesus’ words that greatness will not come from climbing the social ladder but rather by going down that very ladder.  To climb the ladder is to lose one’s soul, is to scandalize as Jesus warns his disciples of in the gospel of Luke (ch. 17).  While those at the bottom may seem inconsequential their souls and their humanity remains intact.  I suppose this is what Jesus was getting at when he said that the last shall be first and first shall be last or that the humbled shall be exalted and the exalted humbled.

 

“When did you get your ears pierced?” “When did you start on your path to becoming a pastor?”  “What’s your favorite kind of music?”

These were just a few of the questions I was asked by our 7th graders after I was done teaching my lesson on the Third Commandment.  We had 12 minutes left in the period so I decided to do something that I had been learning about in my class on youth and young adult ministry at Fordham University.  Let the students ask questions about me: the person, teacher and pastor.

It’s understood that children who are in early adolescence are beginning the process of identifying with those who are significant to them.  It’s called the process of identification and one of the best ways for adults to have an impact on this identity is for them to share and model a way of life.  In other words, it’s important for adults to share their story with them but not in the cliché sort of way where the adult tells them what they want them to know about them.  Early adolescents are beginning their search of who are they are and what they are going to be.  They’re trying to figure out what they are going to take with them from childhood.  What from church, school, friends, family and the world do they want as their own?  They’re asking of these questions is part of that process. They truly want to know more about the adults around them and how they got to where they are.  This can help provide them in discerning their very own calling, whatever it may be.  If they are able to learn and observe positive words and actions from a Christian who has been where they have been that will most likely have a positive impact on their development into adulthood.  Part of this depends on adults being willing to be vulnerable about their own life experiences.  It can’t be as scripted as maybe we’d like it to be nor should we simply see seek to give a sort of testimonial.

One of the strange things revealed about the development of adolescents is that in many regards they are the least controllable age group.  The reason being is that, as I mentioned earlier, they are in the process of forming their own faith and trying to figure out what they believe on their own terms.  What makes this even more challenging is that they are the main target of a consumer based culture and live in the midst of a pluralistic age that is at their finger tips.  Thus, we form them into skeptics and therefore it becomes incumbent upon them to go and search for what is real.  Oddly enough, we need to walk with them and we need to be willing to let them go understanding that it’s on God to bring them back, or at the least, to guide them to where they need to go.  Strangely enough, adolescents may simply serve as a reminder to a church so often obsessed with the latest fad or the most effective way to increase church attendance that we are really not in control, rather God is.

In closing, Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College, Thomas Groome, uses the story of the Prodigal Son as a way to highlight a praxis for serving adolescents.  Groome notes that the rebellious son was actually doing something that is developmentally quite normal.  He needed to strike out on his own, to figure things out and the Father lets him.  Despite the son’s rudeness and audacity the Father graciously lets him leave.  He gives up control.  What’s often overlooked is that he also does this with the older son.  He lets the older son flip out at him and protest the welcoming home of the prodigal.  The older son, like the younger son when he left, acts independently of his Father when he communicated his own thoughts about what had happened.  Similarly, the Father is gracious to the older son.  Maybe the gracious Father is the model for approaching adolescents.

 

 

 

 

These last few weeks I’ve been journeying with the Lukan Jesus to the deep recesses of my soul, mind and body.  He’s made me happy, joyful, relieved, uncomfortable and even frustrated.  This journey has been mostly due to sermon research and preparation but also to my being a gospel junkie.  I’m pretty obsessed with learning whatever I can about the gospels so as to better understand the message of Jesus and how his early communities would have understood him so that, in turn, I can understand him better.  What makes learning from Luke even more powerful at this time is everything that’s going on right now regarding the race for the White House.  The Trump Clinton race has really brought out some interesting reactions, a good portion of which are riddled with the sort of end of the world fear mongering that makes America great (Oops! No pun intended there!). Strange occurrences are happening, like faithful voters who never had a problem with the system until now, chagrined by all that has gone on to the point in which they may not vote or vote for a third party candidate.

In the midst of all of this comes a stark contrast: the Lukan Jesus and his teachings.  Candidates and their supporters invest in their journey to become the most powerful person in the world.  In contrast, the Lukan Jesus makes it pretty clear that this is simply not true.  While there is campaign to get to the top, to this most coveted position in the world, the voice of the Lukan Jesus reminds me that I must go in the opposite direction.

In Luke 17 Jesus warns his disciples against scandalizing “these little ones” and to pay attention to themselves and their community so that they continue to follow Jesus’ teachings.  Jesus’ disciples were often seeking after the same things that the Pharisees had been seeking after.  Namely, wealth, honor, status.  In their living the Pharisees had caused the little ones to stumble which is one of the reasons for Jesus’ condemnation of them in the parallel passage found in Luke 11, the good ole’ Woes section.  Instead, the disciples were to become like a grain of mustard seed, to have the faith of something as small and insignificant as that.  Then, we learn, trees could be uprooted and planted.  In other words, what Jesus is getting at is if the disciples are going to do amazing things it will begin not at the top but at the bottom.  We disciples today might as well call out to the Lord also and say, “Lord, increase our faith!”

That’s what’s so powerful to me.  It’s rather stunning.  We are raised being told that success is defined in terms of wealth or power or both.  Donald Trump, because he has billions, is a symbol of monetary success.  Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, senator, secretary of state, can easily be held up as the pinnacle of success because of the positions she has held.  To become the President of the United States is to truly be at the top and to truly be able to make a difference.  Instead of journeying in such directions the Lukan Jesus is clear: we must go in the opposite direction.  And he goes so far as to claim that by doing so you or I will do great things. Talk about counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, illogical and destructive.

Maybe my motto for these days or all days should be, “Lord, increase my faith!”  Because this certainly doesn’t seem like a good time to be messed with or maybe it is.  Last evening I turned on the Vice Presidential debate near its end and in that brief period I certainly witnessed the power of the divider’s schemes.  Both Tim Kaine and Mike Pence are avowed Christians.  Yet, neither, because of political considerations are truly pro-life.  Kaine explained that, while personally pro-life, he was pro-choice because he respects the courts and a woman’s right to choose.  One wonders, though, why a devout Roman Catholic would stop there considering his social justice concerns.  If the courts ruled that certain persons were unequal in comparison to other persons would he respect the courts then?  On the flipside, Mike Pence said he was pro-life all while being the running mate of a guy who has gone on record and said he doesn’t need forgiveness and denigrates all kinds people made in the image of God.  It’s scary but both of these men reveal the compromises of the faith needed when in the higher political realm.  These are great examples of what’s lost as human beings climb the social ladder.  In order to become palatable to such a large constituency as the American public convictions are things that can easily be molded, expended or ignored. Sure, they do plenty of good, too, but the question that needs to be asked is: at what or whose expense?

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke the devil tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world.  In so doing he says something that is often overlooked and not given much attention by pastors and theologians.  The devil says, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.”  Jacques Ellul notes that Jesus never disputed this point made by Satan. Revelation seems to agree with this claim by Satan as well.

No matter what, this line should give us pause as we evaluate the race for the White House.  Is climbing the ladder to that final rung that gets one to the top truly worth the cost?   Jesus words that he who would save his life will lose it seem ever poignant at this moment.   We can talk all we want about vocation, but the reality is that sin scars and hardens and compartmentalizing and categorizing things in such a way can hurt more than it can help.  Thus, Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Luke 17 about not causing scandal.  I think of the Academy Award winning movie Spotlight and the justification given for the Roman Catholic Church’s cover up of the clergy child sex abuse rampant in Boston and elsewhere.  The argument was that because they (the Church) were doing so much good, in the form of organizations like Catholic Charities, bringing to light all corruption would be bad. What was overlooked in this effort to do good was the very evil and damage that had been done and continued to be done to the victims in the form of suicide, addiction, depression and instability.  The least of these were caused to stumble so that the Church could continue on unabated.

As we get closer to Election Day it might be good for those who bear the name Christian to keep in mind what Jesus said to the Pharisees a few verses later in Luke 17.  They asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come.  To this Jesus responded,

“The kingdom of God is not coming through organization.  They will not say, ‘Look here!’ or ‘Look here!’ for the Kingdom of God is within you.”

Maybe the answer lies to closer to us than we realize.

 

Parts of the Luke 17 translation taken from Luke Kammrath’s “Father, Into Your Hands”: The Way According to Jesus.