Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Blazing Christ

Revelation 1:13-16 “I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.”

Today begins the Advent season. It is New Year’s in the Christian churches as we go back to the beginning of the Christian story by preparing the way for Christ’s birth. In this season, it’s hard to get Jesus out of the manger, which is actually quite handy. The baby Jesus doesn’t talk back, doesn’t tell us to sell all we have and give to the poor, doesn’t embarrass us by hanging out with the riff raff, and doesn’t make strange predictions about his own death, the destruction of religious establishments, or the end of the world. If you believe the carols, he doesn’t even cry. He just makes cute baby sounds and looks lovingly at the sheep whose feeding trough he occupies.

How different is our Christmas Jesus from this image in the book of Revelation! And yet as events in the world unfolded on this holiday weekend, I found it was this formidable Jesus, the one with the double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, that I wanted. Three days of terror in Mumbai with gunman shooting everyone and anyone. And here in the US shoppers at a New York WalMart actually knocked down a door to get into the store, trampling a worker to death so that they could get a deal on a big screen TV or some other wanted sale item. They not only killed the young man, they obstructed the medical help. Finally, when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that someone had been killed and that the store would be closing for a few hours, they complained! “But I’ve been in line since yesterday!” one woman griped.

Perhaps it is just my unforgiving soul. But when those shoppers got home, angry at their thwarted desires and unconcerned that someone had died because of their greed, I didn’t want the baby Jesus waiting for them. I wanted the burnished bronze, double-edged sword guy there, just to add a little perspective. While they’re not in the same league as the shoppers, that’s also the guy I want waiting for the Mumbai terrorists and the guy that Osama bin Laden sees in his dreams. For the oppressed, for the brutalized, for the babies that Herod massacred in Bethlehem and the babies being raped today in the Congo; for all of them, a cooing baby in a feeding trough is no use. They need the one whose face shines with such force that it hurts to look and whose voice thunders like the waters of Niagara.

Of course the Bible is clear that the nature of God, even the blazing, sword-speaking version, is love. I don’t know about you, but I get a much better sense of how God’s mercy might also bring justice from the image in Revelation than I do from the baby in the manger. And that brings it’s own sense of comfort. There will be justice as well as mercy, even if I never see it.

I often wonder if balancing the good-shepherd Christ from our Sunday School days with the blazing Christ from Revelation might stop us from thinking we need to take justice into our own hands. Maybe we wouldn’t think we needed capital punishment, torture, or rendition if we trusted in the fiery Christ as well as in the one who spoke not a word on his way to the Cross. Maybe we would be more likely to trust God to handle it. I know I am.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Luke 6:21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

I may have used this story before, but I think it bears repeating at Thanksgiving time, especially a Thanksgiving coming in a time of economic crisis and global turmoil. I’m not going to comment on it except to say this. The Bible is full of talk of blessings, and when we count our blessings we tend to think of the good things that have come to us. But when Jesus describes blessings in what we call the Beatitudes (in Matt. 5:1-12 or a bit differently here in Luke 6:20-26), he doesn’t list things that would be at the top of our list of things we’re thankful for—things like hunger and weeping and persecution.

The story below comes from an ancient Chinese work entitled “Lessons in Human Life,” in “Huai Nan Zi” and compiled by Liu An (179-122 BC) in the Western Han Dynasty. That means it was around more than a hundred years before Jesus was born. Did the story travel from the Far East and reach the ears of Jesus? Maybe a story told to Mary and Joseph by one of the Wise Men? Whether Jesus ever heard the story or not, there is something of its perspective in Jesus’ teaching about blessings. Here is the story. Apply as needed.

There once was an old man who lived at the northern border of the state. He was skilled at raising horses. One day he discovered that his horse had disappeared into the neighboring state of Hu. Neighbors felt sorry for him, but the old man said, "Who knows if this will turn into a blessing?"

A few months later, the missing horse suddenly returned, bringing back a fine horse with it. Neighbors came to congratulate the old man on his good luck. But the old man said, "Who knows if this will turn into a disaster?"

His son loved riding the fine horse, and one day he fell off the horse, broke his legs and crippled himself. Neighbors came to comfort the old man, who replied, "Who knows if this will turn into a blessing?"

A year later, the neighboring state of Hu invaded, and all the young and strong men were drafted to fight the war — nine in ten ended up being killed. The son, being crippled, stayed home and his life was spared.

Blessings can become disasters, which can then transform into blessings. The change is never ending, and its mystery is forever unrevealing.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Special Calling

Exodus 13:19 “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’”

Christian theology is incarnational, which means that it is very tightly tied to physical bodies and what happens in and through them. Our faith is built around a God who decided to come to earth in the flesh (in carne, is Latin for “in the flesh”) and unlike gnostic sects who see the body as a prison to be escaped, we see the body as the place where God is made manifest. While the Jewish faith does not share our conviction of the nature of Jesus, it too has a heavy emphasis on the body. For both Jews and Christians, bodies and what happens to them matter.

From that belief in the importance of bodies springs a heavy emphasis on justice and compassion for those who are hurting in this bodily life. It also creates a reverence for the physical body even after God’s life-giving spirit has left it. That is why Joseph wanted his bones brought back to his homeland one day, and that is why, four hundred years after Joseph’s death, Moses and the Israelites picked up those bones as they fled Egypt and did just that. It is also why I want to tell you about Linda Abrams.

I met Linda yesterday, as she was the featured speaker for the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. She is a forensic genealogist. Since 1988, in fact, Linda Abrams has been THE forensic genealogist for the United States military. When human remains of soldiers are found, anywhere in the world, from any United States conflict, the Pentagon calls Linda with a guess at who the remains might be, based on where they were found, the list of those missing, etc. It is Linda’s job to find the next of kin so that the remains can be identified through DNA and interred. If the next of kin is a spouse or another person who does not share the DNA of the deceased, Linda must also find a relative of the deceased who can provide a positive identification of the remains through a DNA test.

Linda has provided positive identification for over a thousand soldiers. There has not been a single case she did not solve. For the first 12 years she did the work as a volunteer, even when she racked up over $800 per month in phone bills, cold calling every Carter in Nebraska to find the right family. Now she is paid hourly up to 30 hours, even though she works as much as 200 hours to solve a case. From the Civil War to Vietnam, she searches, navigating the minefields of adoptive parents with states who will not reveal the name of the birth mother and scant or non-existent records for African American soldiers in World War II. She drives from her home in Massachusetts to Indiana and flies to Bermuda or Europe to look at records. She soothes the high emotions of mothers who always hoped that their sons were still alive somewhere, families who are overwhelmed by a loved one’s remains being put to rest at last, skepticism about a strange woman calling out of the blue and wanting your DNA to match your great-grandmother’s sister’s grandson, who you’ve never heard of. She coaxes family members who are embarrassed about unwanted pregnancies to reveal those family skeletons so that the real skeletons can be identified and laid to rest.

On the one hand it doesn’t sound like religious work, although Linda is a Christian. Linda is obviously good at what she does, but it is equally obvious that for Linda this is more than a job. It is her calling. She can hardly tell the stories of her work in a public talk without being overcome with the emotion of bringing a soldier home. It is clear that she will not rest until they do. She is the foster mother cradling every son until he can again be reunited with his family. She is the pastor who stays with every body until it is lowered into its proper grave and who comforts grieving families. She is the advocate who fights state governments for the rights of the dead and their families.

We often think of God’s calling as only being religious work—a calling to the ministry or to church music or to the mission field. I lift up Linda Abrams as an example of the myriad other ways that God calls us, using our own gifts and passions to serve not just the souls, but also the bodies of God’s children. Like Linda Abrams, each of us has such a calling. What is yours?

Help us, God, to honor the bodies you have given us and to find the calling you have for our lives. Amen.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Spreading the Wealth

Matt. 19:21-24 Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

One of the things still sticking in my craw from the presidential campaign is the way that “spreading the wealth” suddenly became code for evil socialism. Aside from the fact that “socialist” was used as a smear when every other developed nation but ours has some form of socialized medicine, the “spreading the wealth” contempt hit me well beyond any political preferences. When Obama raised that concept to “Joe the Plumber,” he was not speaking from his inner socialist. He was merely voicing what his Christian faith had taught him.

Spreading the wealth is nothing more than the Golden Rule applied to economics. Do to others what you would have them do to you. It could equally be seen as an economic consequence of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If the notion of the wealthy sharing resources with those who have less were some obscure part of the Bible, then I could understand why so many might have thought the concept came from some political philosophy. But in both the Old and the New Testaments, such a notion is front and center. Jesus talks more about the use of money and possessions than anything else except the Kingdom of God. And if you read the opening chapters of the book of Acts you will see that the immediate result of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Yes, they spread the wealth around.

Of course that experiment didn’t last a long time. While God tells us in no uncertain terms that sharing resources is the way God’s people are to live, we resist it mightily. It is much easier on both our wallets and our consciences if we pretend that spreading the wealth is some discredited form of government practiced by less discerning nations. But in order to do that, you will have to chop out huge sections of Scripture. The Gospels and the Prophets would be in tatters.

The passage I quoted above is in the story of the Rich Young Ruler, who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. He told Jesus that he already kept all of the commandments, and Jesus seems to have believed him. Notice that Jesus is so impressed with him that he invites him to take the final step and become a disciple. “Then come, follow me.” This is the only story in the Gospels of a disciple that refused the call. The fishermen gave it all up. The tax collector who authored this Gospel gave it all up. But the Rich Young Ruler just couldn’t do it. He came seeking eternal life but when he learned obtaining it and following Jesus would involve “spreading the wealth,” he “went away sad.”

It is not surprising that those with great wealth, or even those with moderate wealth, would resist giving it away. It is not surprising that we would do all in our power to name the concept something else, so that we could pretend that Jesus has nothing to do with our economic lives, either individually or collectively. We want our money and our Jesus, too. But that’s not the way it works. In the Kingdom of God you can only receive if you give.

With the economy of greed collapsing around us, it is time for Christians to reclaim Kingdom economics and to talk openly in our churches about the teachings of the Bible regarding money and possessions. It is time for Christians to stop wanting to be popular and to stand up for the ideas of the One we claim to follow. When a fellow Christian takes such a stand, allowing others to condemn it as “socialism” while we stand silently by is tantamount to being ashamed of the Gospel. I’m not saying it’s easy. Nothing Jesus asks of us is easy. But according to Jesus, it leads to eternal life.

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