Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jesus Gave Strong Warnings Against "Affluenza"

We are in the middle of a very serious epidemic in this country. No, the Center for Disease Control has not issued any warnings, and doctors and health care professionals have not reported any outbreak of disease or plague. But the epidemic we face is real, powerful, and very dangerous. It is an Affluenza epidemic.

Affluenza is the desire to possess more and more stuff, and the affluenza epidemic is the spreading of this wanting throughout our culture. And unfortunately, though Christians follow a man of poverty, we too have fallen victim to affluenza.

Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper response to them. Indeed, Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. At the heart of his message was a strong warning against affluenza, or to use a more offensive term, greed.

Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down.

But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept of greed from a discipleship viewpoint. To do so, we need to see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.

The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy, that is when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God. We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. This is what Jesus warns us against when he states that we cannot serve both God and mammon, for one will always come before the other in receiving our devotion.

It is this vertical plane of greed we find convicting, but manageable. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy?

Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.

The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings. Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments, to love both God and our neighbors, are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need. As John rightly asks, “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” John’s rhetorical question implies that one cannot logically say they love God and also withhold aid from those in need.

So, although we can rationalize that we are not greedy because we do not put possessions in the place reserved for God, our hoarding and not sharing with others reveals our true spirit of greed toward others and toward God.

Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more. We fall victim to the affluenza epidemic.

But if we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.

Moreover this view of possessions and the proper use of them can also save us from the horizontal direction of greed. When we see the central value of possessions as meeting our basic needs, we can find the strength to repent of our lives of hoarding and self-indulgence and we can be free to practice lives of generosity through which we seek God’s justice for the poor.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sermons Should Call Us to Radical Discipleship

Perhaps it’s who I am, but when I sit in church trying to follow the sermon, I am often stunned by the blandness of many Sunday morning homilies. By using the term blandness, I don’t mean the lack of excitement and passion, although this is important. By blandness, I aim to say that many sermons I hear are so simplistic and unimaginative because they only scratch the surface of a biblical text, a theological idea, or an ethical question. And in doing so, these sermons miss the chance to challenge us to plunge the depths our faith.

I am an ordained minister who preaches on occasions when I am invited to fill in for pastors who are away on Sundays. In being a supply preacher, I do not face the grind each week of preparing a sermon on top of all the other duties a minister faces. But I have been in such a position before, so I can certainly sympathize with the pressures pastors deal with in preparing a word from the Lord for the congregation each week.

But there is nothing more important a pastor is called to do than to prepare a message that challenges the mind, pricks the heart, comforts the soul, and calls us to seek first the kingdom of God. And most pastors take this call very seriously and work hard to prepare sermons they feel meet the needs of the people of God. Yet, despite a serious commitment to preaching and the hard work many pastors put into preparing sermons, many sermons fall short of confronting our way of thinking about God, human existence, and the world.

There are several reasons why this may be true. For one thing, pastors often do not struggle with the theological questions inherent in the biblical texts, preferring to link together simplistic statements that only scratch the surface of a passage. They approach the text with theological assumptions and read those assumptions into the text instead of allowing the text to challenge their prescribed theological beliefs. All of us are guilty of this at some point, but many sermons use biblical texts only to reinforce assumed theological propositions instead of allowing the text to challenge our theological status quo.

Second, many preachers feel that they are called to provide authoritative answers on theological and ethical issues to their congregation. For sure, ministers must bring a prophetic word each week, but to be stringently dogmatic without considering other valid ideas and interpretations falls short of thought provoking sermons that challenge our assumptions on issues. Even the biblical texts are often not so clear on issues we face in the contemporary world. Indeed, the biblical writers demonstrate their own struggle to find answers to ultimate questions about God and life. Sermons that leave us with more questions are much more powerful because they not only remind us that the will and purpose of God cannot be limited to authoritative interpretations, but they also lead us to struggle to find our own faith.

Third, some sermons take on a quasi-psychological tenor, serving as nothing more than self-help sessions that do not provoke us to think of Jesus’ call to discipleship. These kinds of messages serve only to address our emotional conditions and solve our narcissistic needs. But the Scriptures witness to a God who loves the world, and Jesus framed his holistic healing of the hurting around his understanding of God and how God’s rule had come. Sermons are not primarily for the purpose of meeting our self-serving needs; they are to confront us with Jesus’ call to seek God’s kingdom through service and sacrifice.

Finally, sermons should construct a symbolic world through which believers see and experience the rule of God. If we believe that God’s rule has come in the incarnation of Jesus, then we must take seriously the symbolic existence Jesus created through his teachings and healings. Indeed, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a good model of what it means to construct a symbolic world. A symbolic world is an alternative way of existing in the real world as we follow Jesus’ call to radical discipleship. Such a symbolic world does not remove us from life in the real world; however it does impinge on our real world by creating an alternative way of existing that will challenge our ways of living in the world and cause us to rethink the compartmentalization of our lives.

Paul declared that we should not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Ministers have the responsibility and the opportunity to bring a word from God that can renew the minds of those who have ears to hear. Sermons that cause us to think, struggle, and ask questions about what it means to follow Jesus in radical discipleship may not be entertaining, but they can be transformative.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Suffering Raises Questions about God’s Justice

I was sitting on my porch this past week reading the Monday edition of our local newspaper, enjoying very much an article about a married couple who spent their lives traveling the U.S. driving trucks. It truly is a great story of love and partnership between husband and wife.

In the middle of the article there is this wonderful quote by the gentle lady, “I emphatically believe that God was riding with us.” In her own words, she was giving credit to God for her wonderful life and the blessings God had showered upon her and her husband. Her perspective about the blessings of God should serve as an example to all of us to thank God for the grace we experience each day.

As I sat on the porch finishing that particular article, I flipped the paper over only to see this headline: “Cyclone death near 4,000 in Myanmar.” As most of us are aware by now, a devastating cyclone hit the Southeast Asian country on Saturday. As I write these words, media outlets are reporting that as many as 100,000 might be dead. The human suffering is surely overwhelming.

Seeing these two stories on the same front page of this newspaper raised for me once again the question concerning evil and suffering and the belief in a God who is just. Indeed, tragic events like the devastation in Myanmar, if we are honest with ourselves, ought to cause us to ask serious questions about God and the problem of evil, or what theologians call theodicy.

Theodicy seeks to reconcile how God can exist as a loving, knowing, and powerful being while evil and suffering persist. While this is a philosophical question, it is also a very existential question, one that has an impact on each of our lives. How can a God who is so loving and powerful bless my life while I watch thousands suffer in a country far away?

Obviously I cannot answer the problem of theodicy in this column; I cannot answer it period. But I do think Scripture gives us a guide to working our way through the messiness of these questions, although the Bible does not give us the answers we want. Indeed, the writers of Scripture often struggled with this very question, never reaching a definitive answer.

One canonical book in particular addresses this question through poetry. The book of Psalms is a collection of poems from Israel’s history that speaks in honest language about God and human life in relationship to God. Walter Bruggeman, a biblical scholar and theologian, has written on the Psalms and offers a way of seeing them as expressing the “flow of human life”.

Bruggeman categorizes the Psalms under three general themes: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of reorientation. These themes also express human existence as we find that our lives move from one theme to another. It is the psalms of disorientation that seek to address the problem of pain and suffering.

By disorientation, Bruggeman means that we enter a season of life when we experience pain and when we question God. We move from a world of order and goodness, into a world of chaos and evil, whether we experience it personally or see it in the lives of others. It is these times of disorientation when the psalms of complaint and lament speak to us about how honest we can be with God and ourselves.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” “How long will you hide your face from me?” These are the opening words of Psalm 13 and they express the honest pain the psalmist feels as he questions the love and providence of God. He takes his anger to God in a bold and honest prayer of accusation, blaming God for forgetting him, for hiding from him, for not loving him. Is this right? Is this acceptable? Is this faith?

The answer to all of these is yes. And the reason we can call out to God with such raw and honest language is that God is the only one to whom we can bring our prayers of protest that call out to God for help, particularly when the pain, the suffering, the loss is so overwhelming. Even Jesus called out to God in protest, “My God, my God. Why have your forsaken me?”

Theodicy will continue to remain a conundrum. Some have sought simplistic answers like “it’s because of sin” or “it’s God’s will” or “Just have more faith.” Others have been so confounded by the problem that they have abandoned a belief in God. While I have not reached the point of losing my faith, I am often confused by God’s justice and I can only cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Jesus Defined Life as Living in the Presence of the Living God

Jesus consistently engaged in debate with Israel’s two main religious-political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups, both important to first century Judaism, were similar in many aspects, but they did differ on several issues. One crucial theological point on which they certainly disagreed was the idea of resurrection. While the Pharisees did hold to a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not believe that such a resurrection would occur.

In Luke 11:27-38 we are specifically told that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in being told this, we know exactly why this group of religious leaders come to debate theology with Jesus. They come to argue with Jesus not in an attempt to discover theological truth. They come to Jesus for the sole purpose of entrapping Jesus by forcing him to answer a conundrum about brothers, marriage, death, and resurrection.

When I read about these encounters Jesus has with religious leaders, encounters he surely knows are motivated by aims of trickery, I often wonder why he would even give them the time of day. After all, was his mission as the one sent from God to waste time debating with theologians who remained embedded in their traditions and who refused to believe that God could speak and work outside of those traditions? Was not his mission toward the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the oppressed, and if so, why does he spend any time debating and arguing with either the Sadducees or Pharisees?

There is a fundamental question that underlies every debate Jesus had with any group of religious leaders. Every discussion, every debate, every argument, whether instigated by Jesus or the religious leaders, centers on this one question: Who speaks with the authority of Israel’s God? And over and over every one of the debates raises the next logical question concerning the nature of God. Whether the debate is over the Sabbath, purity laws, or paying taxes to Caesar, the underlying argument is over who speaks for God and who defines the nature of God.

I think this helps us see why Jesus engages in debates and arguments with these religious leaders when he certainly had better and more important things to do with his time. He argues with them about the nature of God, because for him, God is the ultimate reality that gives meaning to human existence.

Let’s suppose Jesus did not believe God to be the ultimate reality that defines human existence. Suppose he was just another good person with certain powers to heal people, which he chose to do frequently. Yet, in healing these people, what life would he be offering to them if he was not also offering them the essence of what it means to be human? In other words, while his healings would have been physically beneficial to those who were sick, if such physical healings did not also encompass the reality of God as the one who gives, sustains, and blesses life, such healings would fall short of the restoration to full humanity.

And this is why this particular debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is so important. They have not come to discover theological truth from Jesus. Nor have they come with open hearts and open minds. Indeed, they have come only to trap Jesus into admitting there is no resurrection. Yet, in a turn of events even they could not foresee, Jesus offers a rebuttal to which they have no answer and which defines the true meaning of life.

The problem in this debate is a disagreement over definition. While the Sadducees defined life as living as flesh and blood humans in this world until death ends this life, Jesus defined life in terms of relationship to God. For the Sadducees, life ends at death. But in their preoccupation with the dead, they have missed the theological truth that God is not the God of the dead; God is the God of the living.

When Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, he is not saying that God has stopped being God to those who have experienced physical or spiritual death. He is saying that God cannot be God of that which is dead, for God is not dead; God is living. Likewise, God is not the God of the living because the living are alive. God is the God of the living, because God is the living God.

Jesus once stated that he had come to give life more abundantly. In other words, he defined his mission not only as imparting life to all who believed, but also as imparting a life of fullness and wholeness. And for Jesus, who believed and followed the God of the living, this meant not only the absence of death, but the presence of the living God in the life of the believer.