Sunday, February 8, 2009

Snakes on a pole

2 Kings 18:4b “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”

You may recall that after the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering around the desert, forging both their faith and a nation. This wasn’t easy, especially for poor Moses who had to try to lead them. Life was hard and it wasn’t long before even some of God’s greatest miracles were taken for granted and, instead of offering God gratitude, many simply offered a constant stream of complaints. So, in one of the few instances where God does what I might have done under similar circumstances, God sends them poisonous snakes. It’s all there in Numbers 21.

Now they really have something to complain about and they holler for Moses to do something. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks at the bronze snake will be healed. It works.

I’ve written about the meaning I find in that text before, but what I have been reflecting on this week is what happens to that bronze snake over time. Apparently, what began as a good gift from God became an idol. By the time of King Hezekiah almost a thousand years later, the thing has become an idol and a snare to the faith of Israel. It even has a name, Nehushtan. As part of a program of reform, Hezekiah takes the thing that God commanded Moses to make and destroys it. The bronze serpent Moses made was nothing without God’s power working in and through it. It was a vehicle for God’s healing, not the source. But over time that got confused and the crude bronze snake was worshipped as a god. It became an idol and the good it once did had become spiritual harm.

What I see is that the way idols are made hasn’t changed much across the millennia. We begin with something that is good—holy, even. Maybe it is even something that God has commanded that we do or have. It might be a thing, like a Bible or a rosary. It might be a family member or special person that God has brought into our lives. It might be a virtue like duty or service. We begin to relate to that gift or responsibility remembering its context, its source, and its purpose. But in time we often come to forget that such things are merely a means to the end of true worship and relationship with our Creator. Idols are not usually bad things in and of themselves. The harm comes not from the thing but from our improper devotion to it.

Churches are full of idols. Often they, too, have names affixed with a brass plaque. Pastors discover the power of such idols when they suggest moving them to the other side of the chancel. Sometimes it is the sacred pew, the King James Version of the Bible, a certain creed or style of music, or even the church itself—either as a building or as an institution. When discussions over the times of worship or Christmas decorations cause people to fail in their love of neighbor, you know you have an idol on your hands. When a congregation can’t put money into missions because the roof has to be fixed first, or can’t open a food pantry because it might make the church look messy, those are signs that idols dwell in your midst.

But of course it’s not only churches. After all, WE are the church. We are the ones who are prone to idolatry in both our personal and public life. I think it’s fair to say that idolatry brought down Wall Street. They don’t call it the “almighty dollar” for nothing. Like the ancient Israelites, we make our offerings to the wrong gods. We demand that our leaders or those we love have no flaws, that they be divine in their perfection. If they accept that role we say they are arrogant. If they defy our request and admit failures, we say they are weak and change gods. We deify national symbols, “family values,” “the good old days,” self-sufficiency, and particular interpretations of Scripture. The list goes on and on.

Lent is around the corner. It’s a good time to start taking an idol inventory in our lives, in order that the season of fire and ashes might break apart our Nehushtans. What causes you to violate the love of neighbor because of your devotion to it? It’s time to let it go.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Fair Balance

2 Corinthians 8:13-14a “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”

Friday night I was at an event co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society and the Boston Faith and Justice Network. It was called “The Gratitude Economy” and featured three people who told about the ways they have adjusted their lives to increase their giving for the poor.

One woman explained that she has joined with a group of thirty other women who all pledge to give 1% of their income (over and above their tithe) to a cause they would select jointly. That group gives $35,000 - $40,000 per year, living frugal lives to enable their giving. The next speaker was moved by a photographer’s exhibit of 70 orphans to render those photographs as oil paintings. He painted 70 oil portraits and sold them for $70 each, money that was contributed to services for orphans. More than that, each purchaser was required to pledge $70 per year for the remaining years of his or her life to that same cause. All 70 were sold and so he painted another 70.

The third speaker, a well-paid technology executive, told of his family’s decision to live on the income of the average American household and to give the rest away. When they began, that average income was $38,000. Today it is closer to $50,000, but he makes $200,000. They give away about $150,000 per year, and live in a poor area of one of California’s poorest cities to make ends meet. They find themselves in ministry in many ways in that setting, from leading Bible studies for gang members to taking neighbor children to school.

The most notable thing about the evening, however, was not the stories of any of the speakers. It was the audience. We were in a room at a local Lutheran church with about 80 chairs set up. Not only was every chair filled, but people lined every wall and were jammed in so tightly that some couldn’t even get in the door and strained to listen from outside. This to hear about how to live simply and give more. But (as they say in cheap advertising) wait! There’s more! Not only was the crowd spilling out the door, I was one of only about 5 or 6 people in the room over 30. That’s right, it was young people, many of whom have joined economic accountability groups themselves through the work of Boston Faith and Justice in order to address the concern Paul speaks about above—the “question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” When the third speaker cited a Bible passage, about a third of the young people there pulled out Bibles.

As I sat there in the midst of this sea of young faces, I thought of the many, many churches that have trouble attracting people under 60, let alone under 30. In fact, even churches with healthy numbers of 30-50 year olds have significant gaps in under 30. “What do they want?” our committees moan, often spiraling down into conflicts about whether or not to change the worship style. While worship styles are not unimportant, Friday night’s event taught me that the under-30 crowd wants relevance. The world they are inheriting is spiraling out of control and it will be up to them to right it. They organized in massive numbers to bring change to government, and they are taking seriously the need to live balanced and just economic lives. Maybe there wasn’t a bigger over-30 crowd because we might feel too threatened. We make too much.

The Bible has much to say on this topic. In fact, if you cut out all the economic passages in Scripture, you would be left with tatters. The passage above is just part of two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians that Paul devotes to urging the churches across Asia Minor to support an offering for the poor of Jerusalem. While his goal is specific to the time, his urging is straight from the prophets. There is abundance in God’s economy. God has created a world where there is enough for everyone. But if some of us keep more than our fair share, others will experience scarcity. While we have seen through history that legislating that balance leads to abuse, the way of God is different. These two chapters in 2 Corinthians are where you find Paul’s famous statement, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7)

Our economic crisis has already caused great pain. But it also provides great opportunity for people of faith to get back to our roots in God’s economics. It is up to each of us to figure out “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” We need the help of our religious leaders and institutions both to learn what that means and to have the courage to live it out. Our young people, at least, are hungry for it.

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