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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Jesus for President

The powerful ones were there that afternoon in the lakeside home of the Missouri millionaire - a couple of bankers, a senator, a rancher from Wyoming. Powerful men. Wealthy men. They declined, however, to think of themselves as “movers and shakers” of society. They preferred Stability and Status Quo to progress and change, unless it was happing in one of those socialist countries in South America or someplace in the Middle East. Shaking there could be turned to profit. No, these men (all men, of course) were assembled to plan for the future. They’d come to discuss their candidate for the next presidential election.

A silver haired and silver tongued Senator welcomed their specially invited guest: “Jesus, we want to thank you for sharing your time with us this afternoon. We know that you’re busy, and we appreciate you willingness to be here as we plan how we can return our country to its Christian heritage. Before we begin, can we offer you something to drink? Some water, perhaps, if you’d like a glass of wine…”

There was polite laughter around the table. Jesus smiled. “No thank you. But I’m glad to be here among you,” he said and made the sign of blessing over them.
“Well, let’s get right down to it, shall we?  We’d like to put your name forward to the nominating committee of God’s Own Party as the presidential candidate with our backing and support, but first we’d like to discuss your platform, your stance on a number of important issues.”

“Wonderful,” Jesus said.

“Let’s start with domestic policy.” The men around the table nodded for Jesus to describe his plans.

“Excellent. One of my first steps would be to announce the cancellation of debts…”

The nodding ceased; a low grumbling ensued. “Excuse me for interrupting, Jesus, what are you talking about?”

“Well, you know. The obvious - student loans, mortgages…”

“Jesus, Jesus!” the silver tongued Senator exclaimed. “You can’t be serious! Why, several of the men in this room own banks that hold those loans, Jesus. Why would you want to do something like that?”

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” Jesus explained. “This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to their fellow countryman. There need be no poor people among you…”

“I’m sorry to interrupt again, Jesus,” said the Senator, who did not look at all sorry to be interrupting, “but where are you getting this policy?”

“The scriptures; that’s in the Law of Moses. Deuteronomy 15.”

“I see. I see. Obviously that’s where the confusion is, Jesus. Deuteronomy? That’s in the Old Testament, right? We thought you’d be guided by the more relevant portions of the New Testament. The gospels perhaps…”

“Sure. Sure,” said Jesus. “How about “…forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…?”

The murmuring around the table became a low grumbling. “Alright. Alright. Let’s change topics for a while; we can revisit this issue later. Let’s discuss military spending.”

“Excellent,” Jesus said.

“And Jesus,” said the rancher from Wyoming at the back of the room, “don’t be bringing up that whole ‘turn the other cheek’ thing. We ain’t pacifist peaceniks here. This is serious business.”

“Right,” said Jesus. “Serious business.”

“Okay then, Jesus.  We think we can get you another 10 to 12 percent, but we need to hear your plans. How much do you plan to increase military spending?”

“Actually, I’d like to reduce our spending to one-sixth of its current level.”

The grumbling exploded into vexed vocalizations. “For the love of God, Jesus!”

“Exactly" Jesus said. "I’d prefer to reduce it further, but this seemed like a decent compromise for the first term. We can discuss further cuts in my second term.”

“And just where did you pull this one-sixth figure?” the exasperated Senator inquired.

“It’s an arbitrary number, yes. But it is grounded in the same kind of policy I gave to my disciples.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Jesus?”

“After the last supper, the disciples said to me, “Lord, here are two swords,” and I said to them, “That is enough…”

The silver haired Senator threw up his hands in frustration. “I told you this would be a bad idea,” he said to the men around the table in a low, curt voice. Then he turned to Jesus and said, “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, Jesus. Security will be here shortly to escort you from the premises.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Make the Kingdom of David Great Again

 In the weeks and months following the death of Uriah the Hittite, the court of King David was in a restless ferment. The sordid details of his involvement in Uriah’s death, and the pregnancy of Bathsheba were not secret. Those who were shocked by the king’s behavior whispered to each other in isolated corners, their hands covering their mouths to mute their conversation, while more cynical individuals spoke about it brazenly.  But whether whispered discretely or vulgarly discussed in the open, no one dared to challenge or condemn the king.

Until Nathan. The prophet maintained an adversarial relationship with the king, even as he held the king’s good opinion. This was something of an oddity; everyone else who opposed the king, even in the slightest, usually ended up dead. But the prophet entered the throne room without so much as a quiver and, with a pointed (and not so subtle) parable, condemned the king.

Immediately King David’s supporters in the room stood up and raised their consternation exclaiming, “King David is our king, not our high priest. His moral qualities have no bearing on the effectiveness of his rule.” 

“And besides,” they added in a loud voice, “what about her e-mails!?”

(2 Samuel 11 – 12)

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Even the Sparrow

The little country church of Alula, Iowa (population 543) looked like any other country church in Iowa, and, indeed, like those scattered across the heartland of America.  Pastor Chad stood on the concrete steps, hand on the black iron railing, noting its familiar rectangular shape, its neat spire rising from the roof above the front door, and the tidy graveyard adjacent with headstones dating back to the early 1800s. The chapel exterior, like all other chapels of its type, was painted white with black shutters for the windows.  'And the paint's not flaking away', he noticed; the congregation of this chapel in Alula, Iowa had not let the building fall into disrepair. Which is why Pastor Chad was so shocked when he opened the front door and stepped into the building.

Pastor Chad admired chapels such as this, and he liked to stop and visit them when he travelled. He carried his camera with him and photographed their pews and pulpits, their simple stained glass windows and solid wooden doors. He photographed them both for nostalgia and delight, for historical documentation and aesthetic appreciation. On this trip, Pastor Chad had arranged to be met by one of the local deacons, who would tell him something of the history and charm of this unique, but wholly familiar country church.

The clean and unremarkable exterior of the building however held a surprise. Inside, along the ceiling and tucked into the corners, in the windows and joists were bird nests – wattled walls with twigs and branches and bits of string and straw.  Sparrows and swallows and other birds he could not immediately identify – finches, perhaps, and was that a raven cawing above the altar? – flittered and flew about the room. It was more rookery than sanctuary.

Clutching his chest, Pastor Chad turned to retreat. 

Back outside again, with the fluttering of wings contained discretely behind the doors, Pastor Chad was greeted by the local deacon, dressed in jeans and blue work shirt. He wore a tattered John Deere cap on his head. “Sorry I’m late,” he apologized. “We had some difficulties with one of our cows this morning, but all’s right now. You’ve seen the chapel, I take it?”

“Yes. It’s… It’s…” Pastor Chad stammered.

“It’s really something,” the deacon beamed.

“It’s full of birds!” Pastor Chad exclaimed.

“Just like the good book says.” The deacon’s grin widened.

“Just like the good book…? Whatever do you mean?”

The deacon’s grin faltered a bit; his eyes narrowed. “Like the psalmist says…”

“The psalmist!?” Pastor Chad interrupted.

“Psalm 84,” the deacon explained. “O God, living God, even the sparrow finds her home in your house, and the  swallow a nest for herself where she may put her young, O LORD of hosts, my God and my King.”

Sunday, July 22, 2018

My Mother Is the Stone that Gave Birth to the World

Stones, as you know and I know, are silent; stones keep their peace. Restrained and taciturn. The Rock is ever quiet, age upon age in perpetual silence, until the time comes for her to give birth. Then she will scream; she will gasp and pant in pain. Restrained no longer, the stone screams out and gives birth to the world.

Rain, and dew, and ice – oceans spring forth from her womb. A world of light and life. And what is more, she gave birth to me and to you. Yes. In her womb we have our life, we move, we have our being. We are her offspring. Or have you forgotten?

My mother is the stone that gave birth to the world. What is born of flesh is flesh. What is born of spirit is spirit. I am flesh and spirit and stone – like my mother.

Deuteronomy 32:18, Job 38:8, 28 – 29, Isaiah 42: 14, Acts 17:26 - 28

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Amos Says, “Screw Your Sacrifices”

It was a time of peace and prosperity. It was a time of luxury, even, of affluence and delight. The statesmanship of King Jeroboam II had “made Israel great again,” had brought back the glory and opulence of the rule of Solomon. King Jeroboam II had waged aggressive military campaigns to “recover territory from the Pass of Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah” (2 Kings 14:25). He’d forced Damascus and Hamath to return to their promises of allegiance to Judah and to Israel (2 Kings 14: 28). “By our own strength,” he boasted, “we captured Karnaim” (Amos 6:13).

And with the expanded borders and this peace secured through superior firepower came an economic boom. The people of Israel were buying both summer and winter houses, fine ivory houses and splendid mansions (Amos 3:15). They lived in comfortable confidence on the hills of Samaria (6:1). They slept on carved ivory beds and plush divans. They dined on stall-fattened veal, drank wine by the bowlful, oiled their skin with fine oils, and relaxed to soothing melodies played on the lyre (6: 4 – 5).

“We are rich,” they proclaimed, “and we are strong.” And they believed that this was of God. And why wouldn’t they have thought this was true? After all, “Blessings are on the head of the upright…” (Proverbs 10:6). Yes?  And “the wealth of the rich is their stronghold, while poverty is the undoing of the weak” (Proverbs 10: 15). Their wealth was a strong wall around them (Proverbs 18: 11). They remembered that “In the house of the upright there is no lack of treasure…” (Proverbs 15:6).

The people of Israel went to the city of Bethel - to the “house of God’ – to worship. They brought sacrifices and offerings each morning. They brought their tithes every third day (Amos 4:4). They made oblations and burnt offerings, they attended solemn assemblies and exuberant festivals (Amos 5: 21 – 22).  All was well in Israel, or so it seemed.

Amos came from nowhere, from obscurity – without pedigree or college degree – to challenge and condemn the houses and people of power in Israel. Amos was a migrant worker, moving between tending sheep (1:1) and cattle (7:14) in the high hill country of Tekoa where the shepherds eked out a subsistence existence on the stony slopes of the limestone hills, and tending the sycamore-fig trees of the low Jordan valley (7:14). He was not a trained prophet or a member of the brotherhood of prophets (7:14). He spoke by intuition and inspiration (and maybe those are the same thing). He saw visions of Israel and her impending doom.

It was true, of course, that King Jereboam II ruled in a time of peace and economic prosperity, just as it was true that the people of Israel made a show of their faith at the temple in Bethel. But this was all veneer. Beneath this beautiful and laudable exterior the Virgin Israel was a dead woman, a rotting corpse (Amos 5: 1 – 2).

Amos came up from Judah to Israel to make an announcement, for the prophets seldom engaged in debate or argument. They did not entreat or exhort; they announced; “Thus says the LORD” (Gowan 343). He began his announcement by listing the sins and offense of Israel’s neighbors, the war crimes of the surrounding countries. The Aramean city-state of Damascus had cruelly threshed the region of Gilead, completely suppressing it. Gaza, a Philistine city, had sold an entire population into slavery, as had Tyre, a wealthy Phoenician trade port, in spite of a covenant of brotherhood. Edom was condemned for pursuing his brother with a sword – a reference to the familial heritage between Israel and Edom going back to the book of Genesis (Genesis 25: 23, 3:1). Ammon had “disemboweled the pregnant women of Gilead” in order to expand their borders. And Moab had desecrated the grave and the bones of a king (Amos 1: 3 – 2: 3). Amos continued by condemning the southern, brother nation of Israel, Judah despising Yahweh’s law and for failing to keep his commandments (Amos 2: 4 – 5).

This rapid fire denunciation of Israel’s neighbors may have rallied the people in Bethel to excitement. “Yes. This Amos fellow really tells it like it is.” But before their schadenfreude glee could be fully realized Amos turned his gaze on Israel and launched into a most uncivil criticism.

Israel had sold the upright for silver,
                sold the poor for a pair of sandals,
                crushed the heads of the weak and powerless into the dust of the earth,
                thrust the rights of the poor aside (2: 6 -7)
                They had crammed their palaces full with violence (3:10)
                and exploited the weak and the poor (4:1)

They had despised the man teaching justice at the city gates just as they had loathed anyone speaking the truth (5:10). They’d trampled on the poor man and taxed his wheat in order to build their own storehouses and to plant their own pleasant vineyards (5:11).

Yes. They slept on carved ivory beds and plush divans, and dined on stall-fattened veal. Yes. They drank wine by the bowlful, and oiled their skin with fine oils – but for the ruin of Joseph, for the ruination of the poor and the low – they cared nothing (6:6). They were swindlers and cheats, generating their fortunes by force and by fraud, tampering with scales and exploiting loopholes in the law so that they could buy up the poor as slaves to further increase their gains (8: 5 – 6).

This is why Amos called them “fat cows of Bashan” (4:1) and Virgin corpses (5: 1 – 2): in their mistreatment of the poorest of the people they had forgotten Yahweh, God Sabaoth, the Lord of the Angel Armies.

“But,” they objected, “we bring our tithes and offerings to the temple. We make the ritual observances. We sing the hymns and recite the prayers.”

“Screw your sacrifices,” Amos answered speaking for God. “I hate, I abhor your festivals and assemblies. Your sacrifices do not please me, and spare me the execrable din of your incessant chanting. Your piety is worthless without justice” (5: 21 – 23).

“Let justice flow like water.
Let righteousness flow like a never failing stream! (5:24)
This is what I want.”

“Who can ascend to the mountain of Yahweh,” the psalmist asked. “Who shall stand in his holy place?  Only the clean of hand and the pure of heart. Only the one not set on vanities. Only the one who does not lie and deceive (Psalm 24).

“So go ahead and go to the sanctuary, to the temple in Bethel” Amos said, speaking for God. “Go ahead and go to Bethel and sin, sin all the more. Take your sacrifices, and your tithes, burn your offerings if it makes you happy. But I’ll have none of it” (Amos 4: 4 – 5).

Now this was all too much for the Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. It was uncivil. It was rude. It was treasonous. So he sent a message to King Jeroboam II: “the man Amos is conspiring against you in the heart of the House of Israel. The country cannot tolerate his speeches. He threatens you with a sword, and says that Israel will be taken away into captivity” (7: 10 -11).

And to Amos Amaziah said, “Get out of here you so-called seer. Go back to Judah where you belong. Prophesy there, if you like, but never come back to speak in Bethel. This is a sanctuary, a national temple” (7: 12 – 13).

There’s little arc in this brief narrative nestled in among the words and visions of Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa. There’s no introduction and no conclusion; it’s all second act and no denouement. We do not know what happened to Amos. Did he return home to tend the sheep and pluck the figs having proclaimed his message of imminent doom? Was he arrested and put to death by the religious and political forces he’d offended in Samaria and Bethel? We do not know.

But the words and visions of Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, were recorded and preserved as the earliest part of the prophetic tradition (though he himself declined that title.) Maybe he isn’t quoted as often as the prophet Isaiah. Maybe he isn’t as famous as the anti-prophet Jonah. But his indictments and challenges stand: religious ritual is not enough and displays of worship are grotesque parodies of faith without a commitment to justice and righteousness. His warning that a people held enthralled by military might and economic prosperity while exploiting and abusing the poor and powerless are despised by God should cause us to tremble – even if his announcements and threats were not addressed specifically to us. His instruction to “seek good and not evil so that you may survive” (5:14) is just as relevant to the USA in the 21st century AD as it was to Israel in the 8th century BC. 

“Hate evil, love good,
and let justice reign at the city gates” (5:15).

This is, and not our nationalistic displays of empty worship is what God wants. How we treat the poor, the immigrant, the widow, the orphan, the minority, and the powerless is a better signifier of our faith than our grand churches and worship services. We may claim to be a Christian nation, founded in the values of the word of God, but if we do not protect and serve the poor, it is a lie. Our wealth and power are not indicators of God’s unequivocal blessing.

“Hate evil, love good,
and let Justice reign at the city gates.”
This is what God wants.

Gowan, Donald E. “The Book of Amos: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VII. Nashville, TN. Abingdon Pres. 1996.  

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