Friday, January 20, 2017

Jesus' Inaugural Address

At one point in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. While Matthew and Mark place this scene later in Jesus’ ministry, Luke has Jesus in Nazareth’s synagogue early in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s Gospel, these are Jesus’ first public words. One could say that this is Jesus’ inaugural address in Luke, where he lays out his agenda as the Beloved Son of God who brings in the rule of God.

What is interesting about Luke’s version is that Jesus actually takes the scroll, finds the reading from Isaiah, and reads that portion:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19)

But, what is important about this reading from Isaiah is that Jesus is not going rogue here; he situates his agenda within the prophetic tradition of Israel that emphasized the eschatological salvation that God had promised to bring about; an eschatological salvation that would bring about a reversal and a turning upside down of the norms of a society that favored the rich and powerful over the poor and oppressed.

In other words, Jesus understood Isaiah’s prophetic words as coming to fulfillment in his own coming and he understood his own agenda in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy. In that sense, Jesus centered his agenda on the Jewish Scripture, but not just any Scripture, but the one that placed emphasis on the reversal and turning upside down of the norms of a world that placed authority in the hands of a few and that treated the poor, the sick, the lame, and others with disdain, suspicion, and oppression.

While we should not push Jesus’ use of this particular reading from the prophet as giving us a full picture of how Jesus read and interpreted Scripture, I do think it is important, at least for Luke, that Jesus’ reading of this particular passage and his application of the passage to himself at the beginning of his ministry tells us something about what the author of this Gospel was saying about Jesus. Jesus’ agenda would side with the poor over the rich, with the oppressed over the oppressors, and with the sick over the well.

Indeed, if we jump over a couple of chapters in Luke we find Jesus saying these words:

Looking at his disciples, he said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-21; 24-25)

Jesus’ inaugural address at Nazareth, and his agenda that he sets forth there, challenges the powers that be. It challenges the status quo of a world that is built on authority that favors the rich, powerful, and influential and forgets those on the margins of society. Indeed, in all three accounts of this event in Nazareth’s synagogue, the people are perplexed, offended, and in Luke, enraged at what Jesus has to say.

But why? Why would they be enraged to the point of wanting to cast him off a cliff?
Perhaps the simple answer may be the one that still rings true for us when we hear Jesus say certain things. As Mark tells of the response of those who hear Jesus in the synagogue, he says they took offense at him; literally they were scandalized by Jesus. And so are we.

We may not want to take Jesus to the edge of a cliff and toss him off, and we may not speak ill of Jesus when we consider the words he spoke and the actions he carried out concerning the rule of God, for that, for us, would be sacrilegious, even blasphemous. No, we would not do these things. Instead, we just ignore what Jesus says or try to explain it all away.

What I think Jesus’ inaugural address confronts us with is our own unwillingness to take up his agenda instead of our own. Our agendas are filled with self-preservation instead of self-sacrifice. Our agendas are filled with superiority instead of humility. Out agendas are filled with power instead of empathy. Our agendas are filled with fear of the other instead of faith in God. Our agendas are filled with the Jesus we create instead of the Jesus that comes to us through the Gospels.
Our Jesus is our ally in the face of our enemies.  He is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, even complacent, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness. 

This Jesus we create in our own minds and answers to our demands and specifications. He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions in the name of cultural security.

This Jesus is the one who gives us easy teachings that fail to challenge us to think outside our own insular lives. This Jesus, and indeed, this form of Christianity, settles on the simplistic answers that comfort our minds, but that fall short of calling us to authentic discipleship. Yes, this Jesus, the easy Jesus is the one we prefer; the one we can affirm and worship.

But this is not the Jesus we find in Luke 4 or in other parts of the Gospels.  

This is the Jesus that calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him.   

This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender and all the other socially constructed ways we have created to divide humanity.  

This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing.   

This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world. 

This is the Jesus who set forth his agenda in his Nazareth inaugural address; an address that set forth not his own agenda for himself, but the agenda that he called his followers to live and fulfill.

For those of us who are Christian, we must always remember that we can be both faithful to the kingdom of God and good citizens of our country; indeed we must be both. But, our ultimate allegiance must be to Jesus and his agenda of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and setting free the oppressed.
Today, a new President of the United States will take the oath of office and take his place as the new leader of our country and the free world. He will set forth his own agenda through his inaugural address. Let us listen closely to see how much his agenda cares for the least of these, and more importantly, that his actions in the coming days demonstrate a commitment for justice- the kind of justice for which Jesus gave his life.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Jesus and God’s Economy

It is often said that Jesus had more to say about money than any other subject. From his statements about wealth and possessions, to his parables about agriculture and land, to his calling his followers to invest in treasures in heaven, Jesus’ teachings are replete with the theme of wealth and possessions. We might say that Jesus was, to some extent, an economist.

By saying that Jesus was an economist, I don’t mean that Jesus was an economist in the sense that you and I think of an economist. Jesus did not earn a degree in economics. He was not a major investor in the Roman economy. And, he wrote no book on the issue of financial success. But, he had a great deal to say about economics, and specifically how he envisioned God’s economy.

But what do we mean by God’s economy? Our modern word, “economy”, really has more to do with profits and losses and wages and benefits. It is concerned with trade deficits and budget deficits. It is focused on unemployment and welfare, and a host of other issues. All of these are legitimate concerns in a modern day economy like our own, but this is not exactly what is meant when talking about God’s economy.

Before we move to unpack what we might mean by God’s economy, we need to dispel some fallacies that I think are ingrained our cultural subconscious. First, while the idea is popular among religious conservatives, Jesus was not a capitalist, and his teachings should not be interpreted as being specifically supportive of capitalism.

It is hard to believe that Jesus even would have been a capitalist since he sided with the poor over the rich, and he gave up worldly possessions and called others to do the same. So, when some Christians want to argue that the Bible and Jesus support capitalism as God’s ordained way of doing economics, they are sadly mistaken.

Second, one can be a follower of Christ and be a capitalist or a socialist. Following Jesus is not about one’s concept of the best form of modern day economics, despite those same religious conservatives saying the opposite in recent years. We should never equate any political or economic ideology, such as capitalism or socialism, with being Christian or non-Christian.

Again, this is not to say that Jesus was not concerned with economics, for he clearly was. So, in considering what Jesus said and did that defined God’s economy, perhaps the idea we should dispel the most goes back to the word economy, and what exactly this word means. 

The Greek word from which we get our English word economy is oikonomia. The word means house-law, or perhaps better, house rules or management. It would have been used to talk about a family managing their household. But this would apply to more than simply managing the finances of the home.

If we consider, then, that Jesus was concerned with the economy, that is managing the household, we should ask exactly what this means. We could take it as Jesus talking about individual households and families taking care of their own business and managing their own affairs. But this seems a bit limiting, particularly when Jesus does not appear to be concerned with the financial success of individual families.

What if we consider Jesus to be talking about all of creation as God’s household?  This, at least from my reading of scripture, seems to make sense, and I think the story of creation from Genesis captures this idea wonderfully. We are told that the representatives of humanity were to care for the garden in which God had placed them. They were charged with caring for God’s household, and specifically with caring for each other.

And this, it appears, is how Jesus views God’s economy; an economy that is not so much concerned with profits, but with the welfare of all.

Economic systems that are focused on profits are inherently inconsistent in the effects on the lives of people within a society, for they create the haves and the have-nots. But God’s economy, as envisioned by Jesus, confronts the economies of the world with their inherent inconsistencies toward humanity that caused some to be rich and others to be poor, and judges them as unjust.

What is needed to move our economics in line with God’s economy is more fairness and equality.

When Paul was writing to the Corinthians to ask them to share with those in Jerusalem who were experiencing famine, he based that appeal on what Christ had done for them by becoming poor so that they could become rich. Paul was, of course, speaking of a spiritual richness.

But, he also understood that the economy of God was about justice and fairness, and in calling the Corinthians to give up some of their wealth for the benefit of others, Paul said,

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Cor. 8:13-15)

Both Jesus and Paul understood that God was concerned with more than the spiritual welfare of people, and Jesus’ message was certainly more about economics than we often admit. But they also understood that God’s economy was about fairness and justice, particularly towards the poor.

Christians can disagree as to how we create an economy that is more just and fair, but we cannot deny that Jesus was very clear about what constituted God’s vision of a just and fair economy. It was not the greedy accumulation of wealth that left others poor and destitute. It was the viewing of wealth and possessions as that which God graciously gives to some so that they might share with others.

The test of faithfulness is always in how we treat the vulnerable of society. Christians who seek to follow Jesus in authentic discipleship should strive for the fulfillment of God’s economy in which the one who has much does not have too much, and the one who has little does not have too little.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Unexpected Guests: An Epiphany Reflection

Today on the Christian calendar is Epiphany. Epiphany is the culmination of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas. This day is also known as Three Kings’  Day, which tells us that the purpose of this day is to remember and celebrate the coming of the Magi to see and pay homage to the Christ Child.

Of course, we are familiar with the traditional images of the Magi. We mostly see these guys in Nativities that blanket home and church yards at Christmas, and we experience them in Christmas productions, sometimes with elaborate fanfare that surely surpasses the original story. But what do we really know about these Magi?

You might be surprised to know that much of what we believe about the Magi has developed through tradition and is not really found in the Gospels. There exists a manuscript from the 8th century, which could possibly be a copy of a text that originated in perhaps the 2nd or 3rd centuries, that claims to be an eyewitness account of the visit of the Magi. And while this text, called the Revelations of the Magi, offers interesting details about these men and their visit to Jesus, it is highly unlikely that we can take it as historical.

Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli (1475)
Nevertheless, the Magi have taken on a bit of mystique of their own that is perhaps unequaled by any of the characters we associate with Jesus’ birth. But, there are some things that we have traditionally believed about the Magi that are certainly up for debate. For example, we do not know how many there were, from where they actually traveled, what exactly the star was, how long it took them to arrive in Bethlehem, and exactly how old Jesus was at the time of their visit.

All of these questions are certainly intriguing, and these are somewhat important issues for historians, but whether their travel to Bethlehem is a historical reality or not, for most of us who desire to find great meaning in this story about these mysterious visitors to Jesus, we are left to read about their visit from Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew's Gospel is the only Gospel to include this story, and in doing so, he must have had some purpose in telling this tale about these unexpected guests; a purpose that perhaps offers something of significance to modern readers.

The story can be read as having various intentions and layers of meanings that could lead readers to different understandings of this narrative. For one thing, these are the first Gentiles to receive the news of Jesus’ birth, which says a great deal about what the author of Matthew believes about the scope of God’s love for the world.

Moreover, the stark difference between the Magi’s response to Jesus and that of Herod says something about Jesus as a polarizing figure even before he becomes an adult.

Yet, I find one element of the story to be both intriguing and also relevant to the question of what God thinks about those who seek places of power.

In reading Matthew’s story about the Magi, we should note with some curiosity that when these men arrive in Bethlehem, they visit first with King Herod instead of making their way to Jesus. This seems to me to be a strange twist in the story. After all, if the star has led them this far, why does it not lead them directly to the place where Jesus is, without them having to stop by to visit King Herod?

Of course, these "wise men" eventually see the star again, and it does lead them to the exact spot where the Christ Child is, but not before they stop off at Herod’s Palace to see what he knows. Is Matthew perhaps saying something through this little narrative twist? It is certainly not the case that Herod has information about the birth of Jesus, so what purpose does Matthew have in telling us that the Magi go to Herod before they find Jesus?

To get at the answer to this question, we need first to understand who Herod was. Herod was the appointed king of Judea; appointed to this post by the Roman authorities. His rule over Judea, however, was illegitimate in the eyes of many Jews, and, at least from the perspectives of both John and Jesus, he was also not legitimate in the eyes of God.

From the narrator’s point of view, it seems that the purpose of the Magi’s visit to Herod may have been more than just to inquire into the whereabouts of Jesus, the one who is the born king of the Jews.

Indeed, by their very mention of one who is born king of the Jews, these Magi serve as mouthpieces for the narrator, who speaks from God’s point of view. Their declaration to Herod, the so-called appointed king of the Jews, is that his time on the throne is coming to an end. One who is born as king is certainly a more legitimate king than one who has been appointed. Herod’s response is one of fear, and rightly so.

We should also notice that when the Magi come to Herod, Matthew twice calls Herod, “king”. But, after the prophecy about the ruler from Judah who will come from Bethlehem to shepherd God’s people is read, Matthew drops the title “king” from Herod’s name. He is simply Herod.

This switch in the way the narrator refers to Herod seems to be no accident. By dropping the title king from Herod’s name, the Gospel writer is demonstrating that Herod is no longer the king of the Jews; indeed he really never was. Even though he still acts as a ruthless ruler, his kingship is illegitimate in the eyes of God.

The Adoration of the Kings by Niccolo di Massio (1423)
Thus, these Magi are unexpected and unwelcomed guests in Herod’s Palace, for they bring him news that his time as the ruler of the Jews is coming to an end, for the one they seek by the sign of the star is the born and legitimate king of the Jews.

Moreover, the prophecy that Matthew mentions speaks of a ruler who will shepherd God’s people.  The image of the shepherd should not be overlooked at this point, as it carries with it rich meaning throughout the biblical narrative.

The long standing command of God to those in leadership over God’s people was for leaders to be shepherds over the people, which meant that they were to lead and guide with compassion and justice. It meant that rulers were charged with making sure that those on the margins of society were cared for.

Israel’s leaders, however, like Herod, did not always heed the command of God to lead with justice. At times they ruled for selfish gain, failing in their God-ordained role as shepherds over the people. I am reminded of Ezekiel’s prophecy against the rulers of Israel when he declares that they had failed to be shepherds, and thus they had fallen under the judgment of God.

The visit of the Magi reminds us that the rulers and powers of this world are not the true authorities over God’s cosmos, and this is particularly true for governments, kings, dictators, and anyone who seeks to rule with illegitimate, unjust, and oppressive power.

Herod had failed as king, for he was simply the appointed king, placed there as the illegitimate king by an illegitimate empire. He was no shepherd over God’s people, and his rule was one of injustice and ruthless power, which Matthew represents through his story of Herod ordering the killing of all male children under the age of two; an event that cannot be verified, but a story that nevertheless illustrates what the author thought of Herod as king.

For Matthew, the one who has been born, the Christ Child, is the legitimate king of God’s people. He is the Good Shepherd who will shepherd God’s flock.

Whatever we might think about the historicity of the Magi’s visit, from the perspective of the only Gospel writer that tells of their journey, these unexpected guests were not the bearers of good news to Herod. They were messengers of doom for Herod and any ruler that does not rule with compassion and justice.

(This is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/5/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to an audio version here.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dreams and Decisions: The Story of Joseph and the God Who Risks

As is well known among even the most casual readers of the Gospels, Matthew’s story about the birth of Jesus differs from Luke’s. While Luke focuses on Mary, the beginning chapters of Matthew’s Gospel focus on Joseph. What might we learn from what Matthew tells us about Joseph?

First, Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, and he tells us this in the context of Joseph discovering that his betrothed is having a child that is not his. Joseph’s discovery of this leads him to believe that Mary has been unfaithful to him. But, what makes him righteous?

Joseph is righteous because he is obedient to the law, and that law directs him to take one of two actions in regards to Mary. He can either have Mary stoned or he can divorce her. Joseph chooses to divorce Mary.

But notice that he chooses to do so quietly, not wanting to bring shame on Mary. His continual love for her and his just character causes him to decide that a quiet, non-public separation is best. Yet, he is still resolute to dissolve the marital contract.

All of this changes, however, through the visitation of an angel to Joseph in a dream. The dream that comes to Joseph, and the message delivered by the angel, speaks about God’s quickly approaching future. The angel says,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph’s dream forces a decision. Does he continue his plans to divorce Mary in secret, or does he believe that God is doing something new, now that he has heard this unbelievable story from the angel? And for that matter, why must Joseph take Mary as his wife? The reason this plot line is important may be found in the way the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David.”

This title eventually becomes an important title for Jesus, but it becomes very important here in relation to Joseph and his role as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ future proxy father. To understand this, we need to back up to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel where the author begins with the genealogy of Jesus.

What is important in the genealogy for what the angel tells Joseph is the emphasis on David within the lineage of Jesus. Matthew is very concerned to narrate his story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, and particularly as it relates to the prophecies that the messiah will be in the line of David. But how is this possible if Joseph is not the father of Jesus, which, according to Matthew and Joseph, he is not?

It is possible because Joseph does take Mary as his wife and when she does give birth, Joseph names the baby just as the angel instructed him to do. When Joseph names Jesus, he takes on the role of father and he becomes the one who cares for and protects Mary and the child.

Think about this for a moment. If Jesus is the messiah, the son of David, then it is imperative that Joseph take on the role of father of Jesus. If he does not, then Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus crumbles and Matthew’s whole narrative about Jesus falls apart. And if Joseph does not take Mary as his wife, this places God’s plan at risk and the promises of the past may not be fulfilled.

All that Matthew has said, all that the gospel promises, hinges not just on the providence of God, but on the decision of Joseph in response to that strange dream.

This story involving Joseph, a mere and unknown mortal, critiques our traditional and accepted understandings of God, causing us to consider God’s vulnerability. To me, this narrative tells of a God who risks.

We could even look at this whole story of Joseph and Mary and ask, “Why these two?” Why this unknown couple, about whom we still no very little, except that they were part of the lower class of Israel?

I’m not sure I have good answers to these questions, but perhaps the best answer is found in what the angel tells Joseph about the coming child.
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Perhaps in making this statement about the name Emmanuel, the angel is saying to Joseph, and to all of us who hear this story, that God does not simply desire to intervene in our world like a master, but that God desires to interact with us in loving relationship.

Moreover, maybe God so desires to be with us that in choosing to come as one of us, God took on the most vulnerable existence. In being Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus would get his start in a pregnancy that carried great social stigma, in a home of an impoverished couple, and in the frailty of the first century Roman world. Not the start that any of us would want for any of our children, but God chooses this path of risk and vulnerability, and God chooses and takes a chance with this little known man named Joseph.

That should make us all pause and reflect on whether or not we are open to the improbable that God wants to do through us.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Incarnation Redefines Human Existence

The season of Advent is almost over, and the anticipated arrival of Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, is coming. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, for centuries Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus existed in a human body. The problem is whether we accept his humanity.

In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

There are obstacles to our accepting Jesus in his humanity, and I think two are significant. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and dreadfully evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from accepting Jesus’ humanity.

The key to solving this, I think, is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, our bodies are good. This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good; we are still made in the image of God. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God became not only human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle.
Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loved the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.