Month: August 2011

Sermon: Developing A Kingdom Mindset

As a young child, my mother would tell me to “Put on your thinking cap” when I had to solve a problem.  Jesus says something of the same thing to Peter, but much more directly.  How do we develop Kingdom thinking?  This brief look at the an encounter between Peter and Jesus might give us some clues.

Developing A Kingdom Mindset

Matthew 16:21-28 NIV’84

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  — Matthew 16:21-28 NIV’84

From Demonstration to Decision

During these summer months we have been looking at various passages from the Gospel of Matthew, thinking together about the Kingdom of God; or, as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven.  We have looked primarily at the words and actions of Jesus that demonstrated the kingdom of God.

We have seen Jesus teach about the kingdom.  Matthew in chapters 5-7, records the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon is the compendium, the substance, of the Jesus’ Kingdom teachings.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to lay out the ethical and spiritual distinctives of the Kingdom.  These are characteristics that distinguish the Kingdom of God, which he has come to both announce and inaugurate, from the current practice of first century Judaism.

But Jesus does more in Matthew’s Gospel than just teach about the Kingdom.

We have seen him demonstrate what life will be like in the Kingdom of God by healing the paralyzed man by first forgiving his sins.

We have seen Jesus call disciples to follow him, to learn from him, and to embrace life in this Kingdom, which will stand in contrast to the world in which he and they now live.

We have seen Jesus describe the Kingdom of God using parables like the sower and the soils, the wheat and the weeds, and the treasure in the field.

We have seen Jesus demonstrate the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven by feeding 5,000, and then on another occasion by feeding 4,000 people.

We have seen the King of the Kingdom, Jesus, exercise his dominion over the created elements by walking on water.

And last week we saw Jesus prod the disciples to verbalize who he really was.  And it was Peter who got it out first with his confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

So we have seen Jesus gently, yet persistently teach, demonstrate, and clarify the ideas and actions of the Kingdom of God before his disciples.

But today we come to the hinge point of Jesus’ ministry – the point at which he moves from demonstrating the Kingdom of God for his disciples, and begins to push them toward their own decision regarding their place in the Kingdom.

As I just mentioned, Peter’s confession of Christ was the first public acknowledgement by the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ.  But an acknowledgment is one thing for even Satan recognized who Jesus was.

No, Jesus needed for the disciples to do much more than acknowledge him as the Christ.  His teaching and demonstration of the Kingdom was to lead them to a point of decision, a point of commitment that heretofore they had not made.

I am sure the disciples were intrigued with Jesus.  I am sure they found his teaching amazing in its clarity and stunning in its restatement of the Law.

But, they needed to do more.  They needed to decide for themselves not only that Jesus was unique, but that they would link their lives with his, that they would follow him not only on the dusty roads of Galilee, but in the way they lived their lives, too.

What does that have to do with us today?  Just this – it isn’t enough to believe that Jesus is extraordinary, or even to believe that he is the divine Son of God.

In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religious Life reported that their surveys indicated that 92% of Americans believe in a higher power, a being that most would call God.  But, is that enough?  Is it enough to believe that God exists, or does that knowledge, that belief lead logically to the next step – a decision to live in accordance with God’s will?

That’s why this passage today is so important.  It is the point at which Jesus pushes the disciples past the stage of acknowledgement, past demonstrations of the Kingdom, to a point at which they must make a decision regarding their place in the Kingdom themselves.

Exposing Peter’s Mistaken Mindset

But before Jesus can push them to a decision about the Kingdom, he first has to expose the earthly mindset of the disciples.  Peter, as we might suspect, gives Jesus that opportunity.

Matthew says that after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the conversation changes:

“21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Now Jesus begins to explain what is going to happen to him.  He is headed to Jerusalem and there he will have a showdown, a power encounter with the religious rulers of first century Judaism.

I think it’s interesting that Jesus says that he will “suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed…”

In truth, it is the Roman Empire that imposes the death penalty on Jesus, and carries it out.  But Jesus recognizes that the Roman Empire, with the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate as its representative, will only be carrying out the desires of the leading religious leaders of his day.

Jesus will be dealt with as they have already dealt with others who challenged their authority and power – they will marginalize him, and failing that, they will eliminate him.

So, we see repeated attempts to discredit Jesus.  They come at him with trick questions; with implications that he and his disciples are not following the Law, the Torah; and, finally, with charges of blasphemy and speaking against the Temple.

The disciples have witnessed this tension between Jesus, whose popularity is the only thing that has kept him from the hands of the Pharisees, Saduccees and other religious authorities.

So, when Jesus begins to lay out for the disciples, now that they have acknowledged who he is, that these very same religious leaders are going to cause him great harm, even to the point of taking his life, Peter can’t take it.

Matthew says that Peter takes Jesus aside.  That’s interesting because Peter ususally just blurts out whatever he has to say, just as he did with his great confession.

But, Peter takes Jesus aside to privately chastise his own teacher.  We miss the point of that because we don’t understand the reverence with which teachers, rabbis, of the first century were accorded.

It was kind of like when I was in the fifth grade at Johnson Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia.  In the fourth grade, I had a wonderful teacher who everyday after lunch read to us from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s prairie book series.  She was a kind and gentle teacher, who mothered her fourth graders with great care and concern.

But fifth grade was an entirely different story.  My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Cooksey, and Mrs. Cooksey believed it was her duty to take innocent fourth graders and prepare them for the rough-and-tumble work of junior high school.  Never mind that we didn’t get to junior high until seventh grade; Mrs. Cooksey was determined to make us grow up, fast and in proper form.  Needless to say, she did not read Little House on the Prairie to us, or anything else for that matter.

To her credit, Mrs. Cooksey was a good teacher.  I learned a great deal in her class because I had to.  I was too afraid to find out what would happen if I didn’t!   But she was stern, no-nonsense, and definitely not our mother.

I would no more have contradicted Mrs. Cooksey than I would have the principal of the school himself.

So, when Peter takes it upon himself to set Jesus straight, he at least has the consideration to take Jesus aside and rebuke him privately.

After he had Jesus alone, I am sure Peter repeated what he thought Jesus had said.  Something like this, I imagine –

Peter:  “Lord, let me get this straight.  Did I hear you right?  Do you think that when we get to Jerusalem that the religious leaders are going to give you a hard time?  Why that’s nothing new, they’ve been doing that to us for almost three years now.

But, this business that they’re going to kill you, I can’t believe you said that.  I’m not sure what all that business about rising on the third day was, but you’re not going to have to rise from anywhere on any day!  Wouldn’t that be better?

No, this will never happen to you!  I promise you that as long as I’m around nobody will do you any harm.”

At this point, I am sure that Peter is feeling pretty good about himself.  After all, he’s the only one, again, with the boldness and courage to knock this silly notion that Jesus is going to be killed by a bunch of effete, soft-handed religious leaders.  What match would they be for a fisherman, or a bunch of fishermen for that matter?

But unfortunately for Peter, Jesus response comes as a complete surprise.

Jesus: “Peter, I’ve just called you the Rock, but now I call you Satan.  Get out of my sight, quit blocking my way on the road to Jerusalem.  You’re thinking the wrong way, you’re thinking like they think, like the religious leaders I’m challenging.  All they know is power and force and violence and threats and intimidation.  No, you’re thinking like they are.  You need to think like you belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Of course, that is the Warnock Revised Version, but I think you get the point.  Peter has failed to grasp that what Jesus is about is not bringing in the Kingdom of God like the religious leaders of his day, by collaborating with the most powerful military juggernaut on earth, the Roman Empire.

Jesus is again telling the disciples how different life is in the Kingdom of God, and how Kingdom living requires Kingdom thinking.

Developing A Kingdom Mindset

Listen again to what Jesus tells the disciples.  I imagine that Peter hasn’t taken Jesus so far to the side that Jesus can’t turn and address them all.  I also imagine that Jesus has emphatically made his point with Peter, so much so that the firm and commanding tone of his voice has already gotten their attention.

Jesus must have turned and addressed them all:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life[h] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 

That is definitely not the way the world thinks.  First, Jesus might have pointed to a man hanging on a cross to issue his challenge to them.  When the Romans put down a minor rebellion in Jerusalem during Herod’s reign, they crucified 2,000 men, lining the roads into Jerusalem with their crosses on which they left their bodies to become food for the vultures.

So, the image might have been graphically before them.  “Here’s what happens when you follow me,” Jesus might have said.  “You take up a cross and follow me, because that’s my way.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, contains Bonhoeffer’s comment that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Bonhoeffer would give his life in a German concentration camp only shortly before the Allies would crush the Third Reich and liberate that Nazi death camp.

But to help them understand the significance of what he was telling them, Jesus added,

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 

In other words, the more we try to hold on to our lives, the more we seek to save ourselves, the more we operate as this sad world operates, the less chance we have of actually finding life, of being the people that God created us to be.

Kingdom thinking does not start with “I.”  Rick Warren began his mega-million seller, The Purpose-Driven Life with these words, “It’s not about you.”

Kingdom thinking, a Kingdom mindset, starts with Jesus.  If Jesus is not worthy of our lives, then we are not thinking Kingdom thoughts.

If we gain the whole world, and here I think Jesus meant all that the present life in this existence has to offer – fame, money, material possessions, friends, family, and so on – but have failed to understand that all of that is temporary, fleeting (a vapor as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it) then we have failed to understand the purpose for which God has placed us on this earth.

Kingdom thinking is not conventional wisdom.  The reason Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” was because they had always heard “an eye for an eye.”  The reason Jesus said, “Go the second mile,” is because they had practiced the art of obedient hostility toward the Roman soldiers who could compel an able-bodied Jewish man to carry his pack for  one mile.

The reason Jesus said to “love your enemies” was because they had heard they were supposed to “love their neighbors and hate their enemies.”

But the response to this is and has always been, “But that will never work in the real world.”  And yet, the individuals in history who have captured our imagination have been those who have showed kindness in the midst of hostility, love in the midst of hate, and who have given their lives for causes most of us think are impossible and pointless.

Mother Teresa who started a home for the dying, so those dying in the streets of India could die surrounded by those who loved them.  She captures our imagination because we would not do what she did.  We might start a hospital to help cure them, or give funds to those who build houses, but those who are dying are dying anyway, why waste time and attention on them?  And, that is the difference in our conventional thinking and Kingdom thinking.

So, how do we develop a Kingdom mindset?

First, by realizing that the life and teaching of Jesus is the basis for the way we live our lives.  Jesus said to the disciples that “…the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”

I don’t think that means that Jesus is going to reward folks for doing a few good deeds. What I think Jesus means is that your reward will be based on what decision you have made, what you have done, in order to live your life by Kingdom values.  And, the first thing you must do in order to think Kingdom thoughts is to let your life be transformed by the King of that Kingdom.

Secondly, we must realize that there are times, quite a few of them actually, when the words of Jesus and the thinking of this world system in which we find ourselves will not agree.   Our decision then has to be to stay with Jesus.  Against the opinions of our friends, our family, our political party, and our neighbors.  Why?  Because conventional thinking, like Peter’s, is not Kingdom thinking.

Finally, we must remember that the Kingdom of God has already begun. We are not waiting for death to usher us into the Kingdom.  The Spirit of God has already done that when by the mystery of God we were, as Paul said, transferred from the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light.

We must admit things have gone terribly wrong in this world.  I don’t think I have ever seen a time in my life when there is so much violence, so much discord, so much conflict, so much poverty, so much hatred, so much discontent around the entire globe, as there is today.

Without faith in Christ, without a commitment to a different way to live, one would have to despair for the future.  But, there is another way to think.  Not the way that Peter was thinking.  But a new way to think.

That’s what Jesus meant when he would say, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you….”  You’ve heard the old way to think and act, but there’s a new way, a Kingdom way, a way that is hard, involves sacrifice, and may lead to your losing everything.  But that is the only way you’ll gain anything.

If you want to enter the Kingdom, learn to think like the King.

Sermon: Rethinking Our Ideas About God

Just when we think we’ve got this business of faith and doctrine all figured out, Jesus comes along to challenge our ideas about God.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow about a woman who wasn’t supposed to get in on the Kingdom of God, but who claims her place through faith.  There’s a lesson here for all of us as we rethink our ideas about God.

Rethinking Our Ideas About God

Matthew 15:21-28 NIV84

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Today’s lectionary gospel reading actually has two passages that at first glance might seem unrelated.  In the first passage, Matthew 15:10-20, the Pharisees ask Jesus why he lets his disciples break the law and practice of ceremonial hand washing before eating.  Of course, it is a good thing to wash your hands before you eat, and some folks go a bit further by applying that sticky anti-bacterial stuff to their hands.  You can’t be too careful today!

But, while hygiene may have been a problem in Jesus’ day – and I’m sure it was – that’s not what this passage is about.  The Pharisees, as they often did, were trying to bring any kind of accusation against Jesus to discredit him.  They tried trick questions, they dared him to heal someone on the Sabbath, they even were lying in wait for Jesus and his disciples as they walked through a grain field on the Sabbath and caught the disciples helping themselves to a little homemade granola – a few heads of grain rubbed in their palms – as a tasty snack.

After a long rebuttal to the Pharisees, whom Jesus calls blind guides, he then calls the crowd together and says, “Look, it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him.”  Being “defiled” in Jewish life was a bad thing – it meant ceremonial uncleanness, and prohibition from participating in Temple worship until the proper offerings were made for restoration.  So, being defiled was not a good thing to be, and you certainly didn’t want to be defiled by an activity as common as eating.

But Jesus tells the crowd that he has gathered that day that what goes into a person is not what defiles him, including food eaten with unwashed hands.  Of course, mothers down through the centuries would disagree with Jesus here, but Jesus is now speaking spiritually, not as a health expert.

“Rather,” Jesus says, “it’s what comes out of your mouth that defiles.”  In other words, what you say confirms what is in your heart.  To illustrate Jesus quotes from Isaiah by saying,

8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.”’  — Isaiah 29:13

Jesus wraps up the conversation by explaining to his own disciples what he means:

17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”  – Matt 15:17-20 NIV84

So, that was the first part of the Gospel reading for today, but the scene shifts quickly to another area, as Jesus and the disciples make their way into the region of Tyre and Sidon.  Jesus has been in the region of Galilee, but now makes his way northwest to the coast, where the cities of Tyre and Sidon are found.

In that region, a Syro-Phoenician woman according to Mark, or a Canaanite woman according to Matthew, cries out to Jesus for help.

“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

Jesus appears to ignore the woman, who apparently keeps on crying out to Jesus to help her daughter.

The disciples become disturbed by this woman’s pleas, and approach Jesus with their plan.  Here it is –

“Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the disciples with this same plan when it came to feeding the 5,000.  Apparently, this is the only plan they have – get rid of people, send them away.

After all, people are a nuisance, they’re messing up the schedule, they’re sick, they’re demanding, they get hungry, they complain, and when Jesus does something for them, they seldom remember to thank him.

But this woman is even worse than the Judeans or the Galileans they are used to dealing with.  She’s not even a Jew.  She’s a woman from that region, of Syro-Phoenician descent, a stranger, a gentile, and she’s bothering Jesus and making a fuss on top of all of that.  What else is there to do other than send her away?

But when the disciples make that suggestion, Jesus doesn’t answer them directly, but turns to the woman (I’m imagining this is the scene now), and says –

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

I’m sure the disciples think, “Well, that will shut her up.”  But of course, it doesn’t.  Now a quick aside for a moment.  I read several commentaries on this passage and almost all of them said that this passage makes Jesus look bad because he seems to give her the brush-off.

But, what I think is happening is that Jesus is saying the words the disciples expect and have suggested, but Jesus knows that what he is really doing is engaging the woman, not brushing her off.

And, that’s exactly what happens because this woman, whom Matthew describes as a Canaanite woman, comes closer to Jesus, and kneels before him, and then continues her request by saying –

“Lord, help me!”

Now the situation has gotten worse, I’m sure the disciples are thinking.  Now the woman is even closer to Jesus than before, and now she is just begging for Jesus to help her.

Okay, hit the pause button right there.

Matthew describes this woman as a “Canaanite woman.”  So, we’ve got to be sure we get what’s going on here.  One source said that this term is used for merchants, because Tyre and Sidon are coastal cities, and engaged in trade and commerce as seaports.  But I don’t think that’s why Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman.

I think Matthew is trying to convey that this woman is not a Jew, and therefore not entitled to an encounter with the Messiah.  After all, Matthew’s primary theme is that Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and that God has anointed Jesus as the Messiah of that Kingdom, which is exactly what “messiah” means – the anointed one.

So, this is a woman who has no claim to citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  If anything, she is to be excluded because her ancestors were the hated descendants of the son of Noah, Ham, and his son, Canaan, whom Noah curses with a curse in the book of Genesis.

But it is the Canaanites, and several other pagan tribes that the nation of Israel is to displace as God gives them the land of promise, the land flowing with milk and honey, the land of Canaan.

Okay, beginning to get the picture?  Back to our story.

After this woman begs Jesus for help, Jesus’ reply to her is also puzzling to us:

Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

The “children” in this case is the nation of Israel, and the “dogs” in this case are everybody else.  Ta ethne’ or the nations, as they are often called in the New Testament.  The Gentiles, everybody not a Jew, that is.

What is the world is Jesus doing here?  This doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know.  What happened to the Jesus who healed everybody?  What happened to the Jesus who fed everybody?  What happened to the Jesus who looked on the crowds and had compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd?

Well, that Jesus is still there.

Okay, a quick illustration to help us get what I think is going on here.  In the world of email and texting (for those of you who do not know what “texting” is, it’s using your cell phone to send short written messages to other people), in that world, it’s often difficult to tell if a person is joking or mad or happy or serious.

To solve the problem of giving emotion to words in the text, so that the receiver knows “Hey, I’m just kidding” – someone, probably several someones, starting making little symbols with the punctuation marks available on a keyboard.

The most frequently used is probably the happy face, which looks like this:  🙂

The second most frequent one used is probably the sad face, which looks like this:  😦

There are endless variations – the mad face, the amazed face, and so on.  You get the idea.  These little symbols made from punctuation marks, etc, are called “emoticons” because they help the person you are texting know what emotion you are trying to convey.

My point in relating all of that is that Matthew didn’t use any emoticons to help us know what Jesus was trying to do.  But there are no instances of Jesus turning anyone away except the religious leaders of his day.  There are no instances of Jesus refusing to heal or cast out demons.

So, this passage leaves us with a dilemma:  We either think Jesus was a) joking around; b) being incredibly rude and insensitive; or c) drawing the woman’s faith out for the disciples and all around to see.

Which is exactly what I think Jesus was doing.  He was giving this foreign woman an opportunity to express her faith, but he wanted others to see her faith, too.  I’ll tell you why in a moment.

So, Jesus has just said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”

 One thing you did not call someone in that part of the world, was a dog.  Still today, that term is an insult.  Similar phrases are just as insulting today in the Western world.  I’ll not give you an illustration of that.

But rather than turn away in an indignant huff, the woman meets Jesus eye, and says clearly, “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

 Bingo!  She said exactly what was in her heart – even I, a Syro-Phoenician woman, even I am privileged to benefit from the blessing of God through the nation of Israel.  Even a person like me, and my daughter, who are not first in line to receive God’s blessing, even we can stand in the overflow and receive the love of God in all its glorious expression.

Because you see, this is what Jesus had been talking about earlier, in the first passage.  Here is a woman who is not religiously “clean” according to the Law.  She eats with unwashed hands, at least ceremonially according to Jewish law.

But there is something in her heart, and it comes out of her mouth.  Her faith in Jesus, whom she calls “Lord,” is expressed in her confidence that she has a right to ask and receive.

Which brings me to the sermon title today – “Rethinking Our Ideas About God.”  This woman makes us rethink our ideas about God.  She certainly made the disciples rethink their ideas about God because Jesus says to her –

“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” 

Matthew tells us that from that hour (meaning instantly) her daughter was delivered from the power of the demon which plagued her.  “She was healed” is what Matthew actually says, which is another way of saying, “She was saved.”  Health, wholeness, soundness of mind and body, were ways in which the idea of salvation was described in Jewish life.

So, what ideas of God do we have to rethink today?  Perhaps the same ones that the disciples had to rethink as they watched this dramatic dialogue between Jesus and a Canaanite woman.

We need to rethink the idea that God belongs to us.  That we are more special to God than other people, nationalities, races, or cultures.

We need to rethink the idea that we know exactly whom God loves and whom God doesn’t love.  Because most of the time you and I would not go home with the tax collector Zacchaeus, or eat with sinners, or be caught in the company of coarse fishermen and their families.  Most of us would rather have been with the regally-robed Pharisees, eating the finest food, Kosher of course, and hobnobbing with the best of Jerusalem’s  citizenry.

We need to rethink the idea that we have it right, this business of faith in God, because that sounds an awful lot like the Pharisee who prayed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

We need the humble persistence of this Canaanite woman, who just knew that Jesus could help her daughter, and that he would.  And I think she knew that she and Jesus were engaged in a public conversation, a dramatic bit of street theater, to show everyone around that it wasn’t just the Jews, or just the disciples, or just the people in Galilee or Judea whom God loved.  God also loved a Syro-Phoenician woman whose descendants were despised for their lack of understanding of God’s plan.

After all, it’s what comes out of our heart that counts.


The Real Lottie Moon Story

While many individuals are held in high esteem in our denomination, Southern Baptists have only one saint and her name is Lottie Moon.  Of course, we don’t refer to her as “St. Lottie,” but the legend that has arisen around her life story qualifies Lottie Moon for the highest regard in Baptist life.

After all, who but Lottie Moon set off to serve alone as a single woman to China in 1873?  Who but Lottie Moon worked with Chinese women and children, leaving the preaching  and mission politics to men?  Who but Lottie Moon starved herself to death because she gave all her food and money to feed the Chinese around her?

Those questions comprise the legend of Lottie Moon as generations of Southern Baptists have come to know her.  Unfortunately, none of the above statements is completely true according to Regina D. Sullivan’s new book, Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China In History and Legend.

The author of this new groundbreaking book grew up Southern Baptist, and is now a professor at Berkeley College in New York.  Sullivan contends that many of the hagiographic details of the “Lottie Moon story” were embellished by others in a misguided effort to bolster missions funding, and to camouflage Moon’s advocacy of women’s rights in SBC life.

Contrary to both the policies of the former SBC Foreign Mission Board which appointed Moon in 1873, and the current SBC International Mission Board, Sullivan also contends that Moon believed in and lobbied for an equal voice for women on the mission field.  The historical record shows that Moon worked not only with Chinese women and children, but also preached to and taught Chinese men and boys when the situation demanded it.  And here in the United States, at Moon’s urging, Southern Baptist women organized themselves into the Women’s Missionary Union, despite the opposition of many SBC pastors in the late 1800s.  In short, Moon was an egalitarian when it came to women’s service in Baptist life.

Regina Sullivan has done Southern Baptists a great favor by pulling back the curtain of misinformation that has surrounded Lottie Moon’s story since her death.  Working from primary sources which have never been surveyed comprehensively, Sullivan researched SBC archives at current SBC institutions, but also expanded her inquiries to other institutions such as the University of Virginia, Drexel University, Yale Divinity School, and many other non-Baptist sources.

Sullivan’s Lottie Moon is not the typical Baptist biography of Moon, like Her Own Way or The New Lottie Moon Story.  Rather, Sullivan has positioned Lottie Moon in the ranks of significant Southern women. Impeccably footnoted and referenced, the endnotes, bibliography, and index comprise a quarter of the book’s volume. The publication of this book by Louisiana State University Press in its “Southern Biography Series” speaks to the quality of her research, and the integrity of Sullivan’s work as an academic.

The significance of this book for Southern Baptists is that the real Lottie Moon story is better than the myth.  After the Civil War, at a time when women in American society were advocating women’s political rights, Moon was a pioneer in her advocacy for women’s rights within the religious culture of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Sullivan skillfully weaves the details of Lottie Moon’s life, the struggles of SBC Foreign Mission Board, the emergence of the Woman’s Missionary Union, and the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention into a single compelling story.  At the center of it all was Lottie Moon, a force to be reckoned with in the late 1800s, and after her death a legend to be exploited for fundraising.

Moon’s defiance of the SBC Foreign Mission Board when she moved alone from the established mission compound in Tengchow to pioneer work as a single woman in Pingtu is an historical fact that cannot be ignored or rehabilitated to fit Victorian or contemporary notions of a woman’s “proper place.”  Had the Foreign Mission Board been prescient enough to anticipate Moon’s entrepreneurial approach to mission work, the FMB would never have appointed her.  For the same reasons today, Lottie Moon would not be eligible for appointment by the current International Mission Board.

But the current IMB website continues to perpetuate the myth of Lottie Moon with statements like these:

“Lottie served 39 years as a missionary, mostly in China’s Shantung province.  She taught in a girl’s school and often made trips into China’s interior to share the good news with women and girls.”  —

The truth is that Lottie Moon started some of the schools in which she taught, and established and ran the Pingtu mission singlehandedly.  While she did teach women and girls, she also taught and preached to men and boys out of necessity, and in defiance of SBC Foreign Mission Board rules for female appointees.

“In 1912, during a time of war and famine, Lottie silently starved, knowing that her beloved Chinese didn’t have enough food.”  —

This carefully worded IMB statement tries to perpetuate the Moon myth, but  carefully de-couples the connection between Lottie Moon’s death and the famine in China.  The truth is that in her last days Lottie Moon suffered from an abscess behind her ear.  This condition led to bouts of dementia and delusions, which included her refusal to eat solid food.  Moon was taking liquids until she slipped into unconsciousness on December 23, and died aboard a ship in Kobe, Japan,  at 1 PM on Christmas Eve, 1912.  The legend that she starved herself to death because she gave all her food and money to feed the Chinese is not correct.  That account appears to have originated with articles written after her death by those who were not present with her on the mission field, and for the purpose of raising additional funds for missions work.

Why spoil such a wonderful story?  After all, Lottie Moon has been a role model for Baptist mission work and sacrifice for almost 140 years.  And, largely because of her story, Southern Baptists have given over $1-billion dollars to international mission work through the SBC Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

But Moon’s story is even more wonderful because she was a true pioneer.  Lottie Moon was a woman who grew up in a family that educated its girls, expected them to excel, and gave them room to grow into intelligent, thoughtful young women.  Moon’s sister, Orianna, was the first woman in Virginia to study medicine and be granted a medical license.  Moon’s family encouraged their young women to find their own place in a rapidly changing society.  Moon’s sister, Edmonia, preceded Lottie to China as a missionary, and Lottie joined her  and others there in 1873.

It is important that the real Lottie Moon story find as enthusiastic an audience as the mythological story did.  The real Lottie Moon was an articulate, forceful, determined, and visionary woman who reshaped and probably saved Southern Baptist foreign mission efforts in China.  Moon did this by writing compelling articles for SBC and other missions publications.  Not only did she plead for more money and more missionaries in these articles, Moon also argued for women missionaries’ right to vote on mission matters; the necessity for women missionaries to lead worship and preach in the absence of men on the field; and, for dropping the pejorative use of “heathen” when referring to the Chinese people and their culture.

By reading and acknowledging the real Lottie Moon story over the myth we have long embraced, Southern Baptists will be giving the legacy of Lottie Moon its true and rightful place in our history and heritage.

We make people into the heroes we want them to be.  Unfortunately, Lottie Moon’s wisdom, fortitude, perseverance, and convictions have been altered in to a “politically-correct” caricature that she would not recognize.

We do not need to beatify Lottie Moon.  But we do need to embrace her for who she was, what she did, and the manner in which she lived her life.  In her case, the real Lottie Moon story is much better than any we could create.  We’re indebted to Regina Sullivan for uncovering the real story of Lottie Moon that we in Southern Baptist life have been unable, or unwilling,  to see previously.

Lottie Moon:  A Southern Baptist Missionary To China in History and Legend, by Regina D. Sullivan.  Published in 2011, by Louisiana State University Press in its “Southern Biography Series,” Andrew Burstein, series editor.   253 pages.  Also available as an ebook through Amazon’s Kindle books.

Disclaimer:  I purchased both the Kindle edition and the hardbound printed edition from Amazon, and this review was written solely by me.  I received no incentive to review the book.

The Echo Chamber of Religion Leads To Extremism

The strange case of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ leader, ended today in Jeffs’s conviction for child rape.

We wonder how it is possible in the 21st century for hundreds of men and women to be deluded by Jeffs’ bizarre, perverted religious expression.  Jeffs and the FLDS are the extreme result of religion unmoderated by common decency and the wisdom of the greater culture.

Put differently, isolated individuals tend to believe what their leaders tell them.  Cut off from media and outside contact with non-FLDS acquaintances, the FLDS compound reinforced daily that the word of Warren Jeffs was the word of God.

The nation was riveted to news coverage when authorities raided the FLDS “Yearning For Zion” compound near Eldorado, Texas, in April, 2008.  The isolated FLDS women and girls drew comments for the homemade, plain-style dresses they wore.  But, the real oddity was that this break-away sect of the Mormon Church had refused to give up the practice of polygamy and child marriage.  Jeffs was their leader, and his word was regarded as divine by his followers.

The clincher in the case was an audio tape found in Jeffs’s possession when he was arrested as a fugitive. The tape reveals sexual encounters with three underage girls, which Jeffs characterized as “heavenly comfort” sessions .  The  earthly reality was that a jury found Jeffs guilty of sexual assault on these poor girls, ages 12-15 years.  The conviction carries a potential life sentence.

Of course, this is the activity of a cult, we tell ourselves.  But looking more closely, it isn’t hard to find examples of those who live in their own echo chambers, listening only to their own voices.  There are many sad examples of those who cut themselves off from the corrective conversation that engagement with others provides. And, examples come from both the right and the left of the religious spectrum.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he found himself embarrassed by the sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Wright’s fiery pulpit presence and his condemnation of America was understood by his parishioners within the context of his own church sanctuary.  But the sermon in which Wright called on God to “damn America” did not play well in the wider culture.   No explanation of the context, or the tradition of the church, or any other disclaimers mitigated the uproar over Wright’s sermon.  Obama eventually disavowed Wright, distancing himself from a pastor who was understood by his constituency but who was not ready for national media coverage.

Media experts tell us the internet enables us as never before to listen to media personalities who reinforce our own positions.  This “silo effect” insulates those who only watch Fox News or Keith Olbermann, for example,  from legitimate challenges to their ideology.

The same effect is present in the religious community.  The most strident opponents of other religions are usually those who listen only to their own voice.  Rev. Terry Jones, the vitriolic anti-Muslim pastor from Florida, represents the same extreme dressed up in evangelical garb.  Of course, Jones’s ministry is more like that of another cult figure, Tony Alamo, who also isolated his followers, compelling them to work long hours for no pay in order to enrich himself.

But the tendency to one-sidedness tempts all of us.  In his new book, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts, Douglas Noll, a lawyer-turned-peacemaker and international mediator, cites one of the primary reasons international peacemaking fails — opposing parties will not listen to each other’s stories.  Noll also adds “group identity,” with its “us-versus-them” mentality, to his list of peace impediments.  In other words, the failure to listen to each other, and to value one another as human beings prevents the resolution of many conflicts.

When religious leaders whip their constituents into a frenzy with exclusivist claims that “we have the truth and no one else does,” they do a grave disservice to the common good.  When we listen only to ourselves and those like us, we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters who might feel and think differently than we do.

To those who object that we must hold up the banner of truth, and keep ourselves apart from “others,” Jesus had a story to tell.

It was about a Jew who set out on a journey, got beaten up, robbed, and left for dead.  Those like him, devout religious leaders, passed him by.  But a man from Samaria, whose religious beliefs were anathema to the Jews, and who were engaged in a centuries-old feud with Jews, stopped to help the Jewish man.  He gave first aid, carried the man to the safety of an inn, paid for his lodging, and left money for the victim’s recovery.  In a rhetorical end to the story,  Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man who was beaten?”  The obvious answer was someone unlike him in faith and practice, someone despised  and reviled by the victim’s people, someone who should have had nothing to do with the victim.

Conversation with others who are not like us, religiously or culturally, tempers our own tendency to isolation-induced arrogance.  Interfaith dialogue, racial reconciliation, tolerant conversations, and engaging with a diverse culture helps us see our common humanity, and serves the common good.

Does the President Need a Prophet?

Isaiah the prophet

Normally, I don’t write about politics because it’s a sure way to alienate at least half of your readers.  But I just read Wendell Griffen’s article titled, Obama Protects the Powerful Over the Poor.

Griffen contends that President Obama needs a prophetic voice in his circle of advisers, one who will speak for the poor and the disenfranchised in our society.  He critiques Obama’s calculated preference for the banks over homeowners, the powerful over the poor, and political expediency over the moral courage.

Does the President need a prophet?  Do pastors need a prophet to call us back to concern for society’s marginalized, especially in this economy?  I thought the article deserved a mention here, and I hope you’ll take time to read it.  Rev. Griffen’s sermons are also posted on, and he’s a powerful preacher with a unique insight.

If you don’t know Wendell Griffen, he was the first African-American appointed to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Currently, Rev. Griffen is pastor of the New Millenium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and CEO of Griffen Strategic Consulting.

I had the opportunity to spend an hour in conversation with Rev. Griffen last year.  We talked about reconciliation and how to help communities come together by building what he calls “cultural competency.”  Through Griffen Strategic Consulting, Griffen’s unique approach to racial reconciliation helps communities and corporations recognize the differences in diverse populations, but also finds common ground for cooperation and understanding.

A New Nominating Process

On another political note, if you’re tired of politics as usual, you might be interested in a non-partisan movement to select a presidential and vice-presidential candidate via the internet. is the first open presidential nominating process using the internet to tap into the growing disconnect between the two dominant political parties and regular folks.  You may or may not be interested, but I find what they are trying to do a refreshing approach versus the two year-long primary process that has already begun.  Visit the site because I think this is glimpse of the future of the American political process.