Thursday, March 30, 2017

Serving Christ in Polarized Times

It is a sad fact that often the church can become bogged down in the political movements of the times.   The reason for this is certain, churches are made up of people and people are political animals.   One recent trend reported by sociologist Robert Putnam is that when there is a conflict between one's politics and the teaching of their religious community, most people will resolve the tension in favor of their political views.  They will leave their congregation and find one where their personal political views can be affirmed.

As one who loves theology and talking about the faith, the fact that for this generation, politics seems to trump theology is distressing.   Yet, looking at how people are coming together these days it is not surprising.   We are all retreating into our bubbles where we all agree that the problems of world are someone else's fault.   There seem to be few of us who want to learn why do other people think differently than us.   Everyone seems to want to talk, prove and sell their point; few want to listen, learn, and change.   Don't get me wrong there are people doing this but they seem not get much press.

Some will advocate that the church follow a hands off rule and never speak of politics ever and attempt to spiritualize everything.  While I certainly understand the impulse, there are two problems with this.   The first is a very practical one, by not speaking up one affirms the status quo.   Now this certainly alright if the status quo is something you feel God is calling you to help maintain.   However, if it comes merely from a wish to avoid any of the hard work of dialog or difficult conversation, one may be actually shut oneself off from where God is calling us all to be.

The second problem is that we are confessing that the Word of God has nothing to say about politics right or wrong.  This reasoning ultimately confesses that God is about the world to come and not about the world we live in now.   This is not what Scripture teaches us,  God's Word speaks to our lives now, it has something to say about our world today. So how do we navigate these polarized times? We do what we always do; look to Jesus.

Historians know that the lists of the names of Jesus's disciples reveal a diverse group of people who likely held opposing political views.  Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot may have been part of groups seeking the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation.  Matthew was a tax collector working to uphold same said Romans.  Phillip had a Greek name so may have been from a cultural accommodationist family.  Johanna the wife of one Herod Antipas' (a Roman puppet ruler) court functionaries helped provide resources for Jesus's ministry in Galilee.  Peter Andrew, James & John were working class fishermen. What brought this diverse group of people together was Jesus and the promise that the kingdom was near.

As we enter into Holy Week and read the accounts of Jesus' last days politics are everywhere in texts. The council wants to get rid of Jesus out of fear of the crowd on one hand, and the Romans on the other.  The Roman governor wants to appease the mob at their town hall meeting.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees try to make Jesus a pawn in their fight for supremacy over each other.   Jesus ends up rising above their pathetic petty power plays to reveal the truth about the love of God.

When Jesus enters into Jerusalem he is at first hailed as a political messiah and then condemned as a political sacrifice to appease the Romans, with an ironic political insult nailed on a sign above his head. But notice how many people Jesus ministers too along the way.  He teaches in the temple about the true nature of God,  he reminds the disciples on the last supper they will never be alone.  He heals the ear of a man sent to arrest him,  he makes sure John and his mother Mary have each other to rely on.

Jesus calls us not so much to rise above human politics as to move beyond them with love.  The heart of the witness Christ is to help reconcile our relationships with God and each other.    This politics can never do, because in the end it will be all about a competition for resources, power, or fame.   In the end we serve Christ in polarized times by holding to proper priorities.   We hold to our relationship with God in prayer, we show love to those who differ from us, and we work to protect the vulnerable.   This can be done by conservatives, as well as liberals, progressives, and libertarians.

As a pastor I can only advise that if your politics are grounded in prayer, thoughtfulness, respect for others, and love, it doesn't matter so much where you come out.  It is the process the counts.   If we have healthy ways of discernment, we can hold together a diversity of political views and identities under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.   The reason for this is if we are connected to Christ we will be humble, because Christ is humble.   If we are humble then we are open,  and if we are open, we may see the solutions God has for us staring us right in the face.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Better than Fairness: Mercy

That's not Fair! 

For all kinds of reasons, when you have children in your house you will undoubtedly hear the phrase "It's not fair!"  Some of the time this phrase is directed at you as the parent, sometimes at teachers, fellow students, and yes like their parents they will take umbrage at some story going on in the wider world. Generally somewhere in the exchange between the parties in the debate a second phrase will follow "life is not fair!"

This is indeed true; human history has a catalogue of unfair events that will never, and can never be righted.  However, the reason for pointing this out is usually not to inform people of some wider existential truth, it is to cut off debate so that the complaining party will get back to doing what they are supposed to do in your eyes.  This common pattern happens in families, churches, towns, schools and yes even nations. Human beings seem to come prepackaged with an innate sense fairness for things we care about, while at the same time an unflappable ability to dismiss the complaints of our neighbors and even loved ones about things if it in any way inconvenience us.

Is God Fair? 

The Bible is quite ambiguous about the concept of fairness. In the Torah fairness for all in the community is repeatedly affirmed.  God will even appeal to Israel's sense of fairness when asking them to do good things.  We read in Leviticus 19:33-34 "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (NRSV)   Paul will also appeal to a sense of fairness when asking the churches he supervises to change their ways perhaps most infamously in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. "(NRSV).

However the Bible will often teach that some things are more important than fairness.   When Paul talks about his own story, he tells of the wrong he did in Galatians 1:13 "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. (NRSV) Yet he will say with confidence in Galatians 1:15-16 "But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me," (NRSV) Paul was not treated fairly; he was given grace.  He was treated better than he deserved and given the gift of being accepted by a forgiving and loving God. 

That fairness is not always the most important thing in life, may be best demonstrated how Jesus responds to the foreign widow who comes to him to have her daughter healed in Mark 7:27-29 (Jesus) said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter (NRSV)   The woman's trust in the goodness of God makes all claims of fairness irrelevant.   As James the Brother of our Lord would later write in James 2:13 "mercy triumphs over judgment". (NRSV)

Better than Fairness: Mercy 

When Christ calls us to love others he is not calling us to treat people fairly;  he is asking us to be better than fair.   He is calling us to show mercy love and grace, just as he has done for us.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:46-48  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NRSV)

Over my 20+ years of ministry I have advocated that we as the church help those excluded by society for example, the homeless, immigrants and refugees.  Sometimes people have pushed back and told me it was not fair.   That may or may not be the case, but my point is that fairness is not the point.  We show mercy to others because God has showed mercy to us through his son Jesus.  I can only say that if I got what I deserved, I would not be blessed, but cursed.   I have been saved by grace, so I hope to be a person of grace.   My confession to you it that my results are mixed,  I have not achieved the perfection Jesus has called me to and that is why I will still need God's mercy each and every day.  If God was just fair, than I would have no hope.  I have hope because God is better than fair, he is merciful. 

Be blessed 
Pastor Knecht