Category: Global issues

Podcast: A Story We Might Like to Forget

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Last Sunday I preached on the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the family of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). We spend a great deal of time on the Isaac story — the promise of God to make Abraham the father of a great nation — but, we often overlook the Ishmael story. God also promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. And, Ishmael as part of Abraham’s household is circumcised as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. In addition, Isaac and Ishmael never fight, and both attend the burial of their father Abraham. What does this Ishmael story say about our attitudes toward the descendants of Ishmael, the people of the Arab countries? Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:

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Feed the Homeless to Turn Night into Day

Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.
Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.

Yesterday the city of Raleigh, North Carolina chose to make feeding the hungry a crime. The mayor and city council of Raleigh ought to read today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah 58:9b-14. Isaiah instructs Israel to stop oppressing people, to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the marginalized. Then Israel’s light will rise and their difficulties which seem like a long night will turn to the glorious light of day. Here’s the audio from my sermon today:

 

5 Issues Your Members Will Talk About in 2012

The flood of articles predicting what’s going to happen in 2012 has begun, so I thought I would throw in a small church perspective.  Interestingly, I think 2012 will bring us to a unique intersection of faith and politics.

Here are the top five issues your members will be discussing in 2012:

Religious pluralism.  Your members may not use that phrase – “religious pluralism” – but their conversations will be sprinkled with talk about the rise of other, non-Christian religions in the United States.  With Mitt Romney and John Huntsman running for the Republican nomination, Mormonism has moved into the public consciousness.  Do we take the position that Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, took when he publicly labeled Mormonism a “cult?” Jeffress was condemned roundly for his intolerance by other Republicans.  Your members will want to know about Mormonism — particularly if Romney is the Republican nominee.  Of course, Muslims are also a hot topic as Christians struggle to understand how we should love our neighbors, some of whom wear hijabs.

Extremism.  Many in media acknowledge that the popularity of conservative talk radio and TV news commentary has moved the country further to the right than it has ever been.  Extreme views are now becoming mainstream views.  Some of your members will applaud the rhetoric about arresting sitting judges, isolating our nation from international conflicts, and ending entitlement programs.  Ron Paul’s blatantly racist 20-year old newsletters will continue to be an issue.  Some will see no problem with them, while others will believe those views disqualify him from nomination.  Extreme views are often fear-based, and designed to get media attention, but they find resonance in the frustrations of those who feel marginalized.  As church leaders, our task is to let the Gospel inform our civic dialogue.

Social economics.  This year, politicians are not only touching the previously-fatal “third rails” of Social Security and Medicare, some are proposing ripping them up.  Churches need to have conversations about the role of government and the local church in caring for the poor, hungry, sick, and incarcerated.  Matthew 25 might be a good place to start because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for those who do not care for the “least of these.”  The question for Christians is not should those on the margins of society be helped, the question is how and by whom.  Your members will have a variety of opinions, and all of them strongly-held.

Immigration.  Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, and other states have passed tough anti-immigration laws.  But in Alabama and Georgia farmers are complaining that their laborers have left the state out of fear.  How does the story of the good Samaritan square with the actions of these states and of popular opinion?  Some of your members may want to “fence them out,” but the Bible does have a great deal to say about “the stranger within your gates.” Balancing the rule of law and Christian hospitality can be tricky business.

Hierarchy of beliefs.  In 2012, evangelicals will face the challenge of having to rank their beliefs in a hierarchy of importance when making political choices.  Which is more appealing to evangelical Christians – voting for a candidate who has been faithful to his marriage vows but who is a Mormon (or liberal Christian in Barack Obama’s case); or, electing a repentant serial adulterer and former evangelical-turned-Catholic? Of course, I’m not the first to point out the contrast between Romney and Gingrich, and some evangelical leaders have made their choices public.  But, there are other areas in which we are being forced to choose one value over another, and these cut across party lines.  For example, is President Obama’s use of drones to assassinate individual terrorists more or less acceptable than using U. S. troops in traditional combat roles, both of which result in loss of life?  Does the sanctity of life extend from the issue of abortion to capital punishment, or is a convict’s life not included in that which is sacred? Your members will want to know if some of our Christian values should take precedence over other values when making decisions.

These five issues provide church leaders with opportunities for discussion and Bible study.  Of course, these are hot-button issues and emotions can run high even in church conversations, so tread carefully.  But if we do not offer our members the resources to explore these issues in order to make decisions informed by their faith convictions, then we are missing an important opportunity.  Happy New Year!

A Critique of the Film “Divided”

I recently was asked by a church publication in Taiwan to respond to the controversial film, Divided.  Here is my response. I would be interested in yours.  If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the link to the film’s website.

A Pastor Looks At the Film “Divided”

The recent film, Divided, has attracted national media attention for its critique of age-based church ministries, targeting youth ministry in particular.  But despite the film’s message that families should be more involved in faith development in their own children, the film makes questionable connections in its attempt to discredit any and all age-based church ministry, including Sunday School.

Despite its message that family is the basic unit of faith development, the film’s weaknesses overshadow its main point.  Apparently it isn’t enough to suggest that age-based ministries might not be effective.  The filmmakers not only attempt to discredit youth ministry, Sunday School, and other forms of age-based ministry, but they seek to demonize them as well.  By linking Plato, Rousseau, and Robert Raikes, the founder of Sunday School, into a “pagan” conspiracy to rip children from their parents’ influence, the film fails in intellectual and historic honesty.

Demonizing those who differ with us has become standard practice in politics in the United States, and now apparently it is standard practice in discussions about church ministry as well. The film seeks to equate age-based ministry with public education, the welfare state, and other public institutions that have fallen out of favor politically in the United States.

The film also speaks of “the church” as though the only expression of the church was in the United States of America.  And, despite the appearance of two African-American pastors as interviewees, the film seems to direct its critique of church ministry toward white, middle-class American church congregations.

Completely lacking in the film is acknowledgement that the church of Jesus Christ is a multi-faceted, multi-cultural body that finds unique expression within the cultural contexts in which it exists.

While there is no doubt that church attendance in the United States has been declining, the film Divided does not provide an answer to that decline.  Credible church historians and academics see multiple reasons for the decline in U.S. church attendance, and none have suggested that age-based programs are the reason.

The film and its producers could have done the church in the U. S. a great service.  Instead, they have produced a film that supports one questionable perspective on church life in white middle-class America, which will be largely irrelevant to other expressions of church in other nations and cultures.

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.