“How long, O Lord?” asks Isaiah. “How long, O Lord?” must I fruitlessly prophesy to your people. And God tells him that he must prophesy until the cities lay in ruins and the land lay devastated. And, still, Isaiah goes where God sends him. (Read Isaiah 6 here.)
This is a discouraging story. The descriptions of the people turning away from living in accordance with God’s requirements, their obstinate refusal to listen to the prophet warning of the pitfalls of their chosen path, and, still the voice of Isaiah calling to them, is reminiscent of an apocalyptic movie. Love of neighbor (Mark 12:29-31) be damned!
I have seen some horrible things as an educator and as a pastor. I’ve been privy to some of the worst of what humanity has to offer. I’ve often felt like following God’s requirements “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB) is futile. Too often I felt beaten down by shortsighted bureaucrats or politicians more concerned with bombing and killing others than feeding our own children! My words of “you are God’s beloved” seem too little when the church — THE CHURCH! — spews hatred and rejects children of God.
In the face of an incoming president who has made fun of a disabled reporter, bragged about sexual assault, who has a racist history, and who blames and threatens to discriminate against all Muslims — our sibling Abrahamic religion — while claiming the Christian faith, I am discouraged. Does our faith even matter? On the morning following the election I was counseling multiple people who are terrified that their rights and personal safety are at stake now. One young woman said to me, “I am scared for my personal safety!” An individual one step removed from me was the victim of someone yelling, “Trump! N****r!” as he journeyed to work on public transit.
I imagine Isaiah saw some of the same underbelly of humanity happening all around him. God does not seek prophets when humanity is loving neighbor and caring for the least of these (Matthew 25:44-45). God saw the state of the world all too clearly in the time around King Uzziah’s death, in Isaiah’s time.
Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.” Isaiah 6:8 CEB
Isaiah volunteered to take God’s message to the people! His response reminded me of a little girl who, as Hitler was spreading through Europe, wrote in her diary:
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank).
Just as Isaiah responded to God’s call to a seemingly fruitless task, we must not give up on God’s call to be the realm of God in the world. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must stand on the margins of society as Jesus did. We must strive to manifest extravagant love. We must protect the vulnerable now and especially if our president-elect continues to empower hatred.
Isaiah said, “How long, Lord?” And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” Isaiah 6:11 CEB
And I suppose that’s the Good News, even when we don’t deserve it, even when the only thing that remains is a holy seed, God does not give up. As faithful people we must not give up either.
I struggled to keep my eyes on the freeway as I drove westbound. Across the Columbia River on the Washington side, I could see flames rapidly advance across the drought-parched grasses. That was a mere ten-days ago.
Because of diligent firefighters, the fast moving fire was fully contained within a week but not before over 4000 acres burned including a large portion of the familiar trails of Columbia Hills State Park.
As I traveled those trails yesterday, the smell of burn filled my nostrils. The monochromatic ground contrasted with singed trees. Familiar locations looked alien to my eyes. Were it not for the memories of the shape of the earth, of the scalded yet surviving trees, I would not have known this place.
Is it any wonder that dualistic thinking imagines a Hell filled with fire and its destruction? The wrath appears final. The color removed, life can seem hopeless after a fire.
But hopelessness and permanence are not the nature of the earth.
The Heaven versus Hell crowd fail to observe the world as it is. Creation reflects the energy, the creator, the divine spirit I call God. Creation and Creator are not binary or unchanging.
Quite the contrary, the burnt landscape I traversed yesterday will undergo a resurrection in the spring. If the Rowena Fire from last year is any indication, the resurrection will begin before the end of the year. (See The Lichen and Leaves of Hope.)
The nature of the One who connects all that is with all that is, the nature of the divinity within and between us all is not binary or dualistic at all. The nature of God is not about harsh judgement, angry retribution, Heaven and Hell, and certainly not about eternal damnation.
The nature of God and creation is about a path that begins at birth and continues through death to resurrection. This is the lesson of the Christian narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus — the biblical witness. Love overcomes even death. Love does not condemn creation or humanity to fiery Hell. It can’t; if it did it wouldn’t be love but hate.
I’ve done it in the car. I’ve done it in a restaurant and on a boat. I’ve done it in the bedroom. I’ve even done it in the sanctuary of a church! Today, I saw someone else do it while hiking the snowy alpine trails of Mt. Hood.
I heard the young couple before I rounded the bend with its cluster of shrublike trees. I recognized the sound of people enjoying a private conversation. As the couple came into view, I witnessed a shared kiss — a peck really — between the two women.
This should be unremarkable and certainly not blogworthy. People kiss everyday. People, especially young people, kiss in public places and I don’t give it a thought. But I was disturbed by this experience. The kiss itself didn’t bother me but the look on the young woman’s face when she saw me has stuck with me. On her face I saw the surprise of being witnessed. Her expression revealed concern, maybe even fear of my response. I smiled what I hope was a reassuring smile and nodded my head as I continued on my way.
Driving away from the trailhead, I played her expression and response through my mind. I felt angry at a culture that would make someone fear kissing the one she loved. I felt ashamed at my own Christian faith that too often implies the love of these two young women is sinful or repulsive. Love is never repulsive. Love is never something to be discouraged but something that should be encouraged. Love is the language of the divine.
In my passionate musing about the encounter, the divine spirit renewed my resolve to lead my rural, eastern Oregon congregation to officially and publicly become open and affirming of people “of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” (1) The love represented by this couple’s kiss is sacred and should be celebrated.
I smiled. Once again I met God on the sacred mountain.
I am weary of being accused of manipulating the biblical witness or being a tool of the Devil.
The implication of literalism when applied to those of us who study the Bible using historical-critical and literary methods is that we are at best naive and at worst lack integrity.
I do not have the answer. I am not sure that there is one right answer. Just as self-identified literalists, I begin my biblical reading as a human being with my own assumptions and biases.
My weariness lies in what feels like accusations of having biases by those who pretend they do not. Yes, as a human being I read the Bible through my own experiences of God. We all do.
I assume, and assume is the correct word, that it is ancient literature inspired by God. It is a collection of various writings by ancient people seeking to understand, explain, or express their experience of the Divine. This assumption is based on prayerful and rational reasons.
Others, those who self-describe as literalists, assume the writings in the Bible constitute the “literal, inerrant word of God.” Just as I make a decision about what the canon is before I ever turn a page, the “literalists” do the same. Both decisions are extra-biblical, meaning we decide what the Bible is based upon our personal and cultural experiences.
Just as I have well-thought out, prayerfully considered reasons for my approach, literalists have reasons for their approach. While I do not agree with their approach, I do not question their faithful desire to be true to God’s intentions. We are both seeking to be faithful to the One we describe as God.
But here is where my weariness of literalism’s proponents comes in. I grow weary of the accusation of bias when my interpretation of the Bible is different from their interpretation. The accusation that I have bias comes with an implicit (and sometimes explicit claim) that they approach the text without bias.
This is simply not true nor is it possible.
The arrogance of “rightness” and having the one right approach feels like judgement to me. It closes off discussion despite our need for one another. It makes it harder for all of us to hear and act upon the Divine persuasions to love our neighbors as ourselves. (See Mark 12:28-31.) It separates us from one another and severs the body of Christ.
My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. (James 2:1 CEB)
Don’t show favoritism. Favoritism is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Favoritism is a sin.
If you like folks who get right to the point, you gotta love the writer of James. Unlike Jesus who tended to favor parables that often had to be explained to his disciples, James doesn’t mess around.
Don’t show favoritism.
Writing between the years 60 and 80, James is writing to Christians and non-Christians alike. We don’t know who he was for sure. The tradition that tells us he was Jesus’ brother is doubted by most contemporary scholars.
James’ primary audience included two groups: the extremely poor and the working poor. The extremely poor were the folks who barely survived. They had to beg just to eat. If no one took mercy upon them, they would die.
The working poor were the folks with jobs but not very good jobs. They were typically taken advantage of by their wealthy employers. When they were not paid wages due — which happened too often — they did not eat. Too many days without pay and they would be in the same position as the extremely poor. They, too, would be facing starvation.
In this passage, James is not speaking to the extremely poor. Nor is he speaking to the wealthy oppressors. (Though he will have words for them as we move through James’ letter.) James is speaking to the working poor. He’s speaking to the near-slaves or what Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias described as day laborers.
Hear James as he speaks to this group about their favoritism:
But you have dishonored the poor. Don’t the wealthy make life difficult for you? Aren’t they the ones who drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who insult the good name spoken over you at your baptism? (James 2:6-7 CEB)
James is appalled that rather than siding with the oppressed, the extremely poor, some of the day laborers, the working poor, are siding with the wealthy. In contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, they show favoritism to the wealthy. Recall, the wealthy are oppressing not only the extremely poor but the working poor as well.
The working poor have turned away from their Jesus-taught obligation to God’s justice. They have instead turned toward the values of this world. Writes scholar Aaron Uitti,
“Their favoritism for the wealthy aligns them with the world and places them at odds with God (4:4)… [but] it is not possible for them to have it both ways—to claim the faith of Jesus and to discriminate against the poor.” (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1578-1584)
In the words of James,
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin. (James 2:8-9a CEB)
There’s a bumper sticker. (I used to have one on my car ten to fifteen years ago.) The sticker reads: “If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention.”
James should make us squirm.
If the western church doesn’t squirm, we’re not paying attention to James’ indictments. In James’ age, the church was still made up primarily of the poor: the extremely poor and the working poor.
It makes sense when you read the gospels. Jesus and the writers of the gospels lift up the dignity of those at the edges of society and offer hope. One out of every ten verses in the first three gospels deals with poverty and social injustice. In Luke, it is one out of every seven verses. (Feasting On the Word, loc. 1657).
Theologian Elsa Tamez reminds us that,
“For James poverty is the result of a scandalous act of oppression.” (The Scandalous Message of James, p. 23)
If the Bible is the authority through which we primarily hear God, then it is clear that we ought to be more concerned about poverty and social injustices. If we claim to be followers of Jesus, that means more than believing the “right” things. It means heeding the lure of the Holy Spirit and being Christ and doing God’s work in this place.
And, frankly, I don’t think American Christians in the twenty-first century are doing such a hot job: We worry about saving our old buildings. We worry about our denominational structures. We worry about attracting young folks and the right folks.
We worry about those inside the church more than those outside.
You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin… (James 2:8-9a CEB)
We favor ourselves at the expense of the poor and those living on the margins.
Consider that how we spend our resources — our money, our time, and other wealth — reflect what we value. For example, in this very church, we spend thousands and thousands upon thousands for building maintenance and heating.
We spend thousands on a building that is empty most of the time and we sent less than $250 to One Great Hour of Sharing.
Yes, we do other things. We gave land for the memory care unit. We open our building to AA. We sent seven emergency buckets to Church World Service. We open our building at minimal cost for the Senior Meal and more.
This example is not the whole picture but no matter how we slice it, our expenditures imply we are more concerned about maintaining the institution known as Condon United Church of Christ than we are about anything else.
If you’re not squirming, you’re not paying attention.
While I know that not every one in this room lives in the lap of luxury and some of us do struggle financially, I also know that there are plenty of folks in this community who struggle under significant burdens of class and poverty who are not here.
Where are they? Where are those of poorer socioeconomic status?
We are not totally homogenous in this room but we are far from reflective of the demographics of Condon or Gilliam county.
Somehow, we are sending the message that we are not as open and welcoming to the poor and near-poor as we’d like to think we are. I have had more than one non-middle class person confide in me that when they’ve visited here, they’ve felt uncomfortable and excluded.
Now, I know that you all are loving and caring folks. Absolutely.
I feel it. You feel it. That is real.
I am not implying that we mean to exclude others…
Somehow, however, we are not always as welcoming to everyone as we mean to be. Somehow, we favor those like us more than those different from ourselves. Somehow, we have at times inadvertently excluded others.
If we are to respond to James’ indictment to avoid favoritism, something has to change.
For starters, We must confess that we have sinned. We have excluded others — whether intentionally or unintentionally. And we need to pray about it, talk to one another, and begin to reach out to those who make us uncomfortable.
There are plenty of organizations that reflect the values of the world but we are called to reflect God’s values. The church — Christ’s church — is called to be a reflection of God’s realm on earth. As church, we are called to reflect the diversity of God’s people in this place.
We live in a very different world than the first readers of James’ letter. Still, James’ God-inspired words have something to say to us. God uses James to speak to us across the millennia.
The question is how will we respond to those words?
I shared this sermon with the Condon United Church of Christ on Sunday, May 18, 2014. The text for the sermon is James 2:1-13.
I came across this blog from Rebecca Barnes, who is also taking the SNAPChallenge this week. She is including her family in the experience. I teared up reading this c
omment from her blog,
“Last night, I actually pretended I couldn’t read my sweet girl’s pantomime of wanting a drink from the snackbar, during her second game of the evening for which she was working hard as a cheerleader. I thought, I should have made her take a water bottle. I should have planned better, even though earlier she said no, she didn’t want to take her water bottle. I can’t afford to go buy her a drink. But, she’s standing there, thirsty, and I’m looking away. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.”
I’m not teary because of this child; we know that the SNAP Challenge her family is taking is a contrived learning and advocacy experience. I cry because too many mothers and fathers and too many children live like this every day in the wealthiest nation on the planet.
“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?And, that, THAT is a sin for which we are collectively responsible. Luke 11:11-12 CEB
When we place mothers and fathers in the position of giving their children scorpions when they need fish, we sin. We live in the wealthiest country on the earth. When children are hungry, we have failed. All of us. We have all sinned.
She was a free-thinker talking about perceived “energy” and looking to eastern practices. She was avoided by others because she had challenges within. Some said she could choose to be different; others had more empathy. No one completely trusted the woman with the challenges within that made her a little more than different.
And, so, she had few friends. Without a supportive network she embraced the marginal ideas of various faiths, living and thinking at the edge of town. In the fertile soil of rejection and avoidance, suspicion took hold of her. The challenges within took control.
He was attracted to the novel. He grew up in an era of change in a place that resisted the new. He was ridiculed in school because his hair was too long. Some said he must have drugs within; others had more empathy. Because their parents told them to avoid long-hairs, the boy with long hair and no drugs within was pushed to the edge of fifteen-year-old society.
Rejected by the faithful, the healthful, and the stable, he grew cynical, angry, and found that indeed a few drugs within could actually ease the pain. In the fertile soil of ostracism and judgmentalism, the drugs within took control.
Her mind was not as sharp as it used to be. Her family noticed her memory beginning to fade long before she could admit it to herself. Some said it was God’s mysterious ways; others were more empathetic. Because of her fading memories within she was pushed to the edge of her circle of friends.
Eventually, they stopped coming.
Rejected by all but her dutiful husband, she lived near the tombs and ruins at the edge of town. She lived locked up in a box to protect her as the memories within continued to fade. In the fertile soil of loneliness and unfamiliar surroundings, her memories within faded during her so-called golden years.
Needing certainty in her life, she steered clear of the questions. She found a church that provided absolute answers because having questions within tormented her too much. Some said she could be harsh as she excluded from Christianity those from churches that embraced the ambiguity of questioning; others were more empathetic.
Rejecting all but those whose answers were the same as hers, she lived on the edge of the community. She kept to those who thought like her and believed like her and lived like her. But the questions within never went away completely, they simply gnawed at her in the quiet hours before drifting off to sleep.
In the fertile soil of sameness and uniformity of opinion, the questions within took control and caused her to doubt her own worthiness.
He was running naked around the ruins. He was shunned by the townspeople because he had many monsters within. He had a legion of monsters. Some said the monsters were self-inflicted; others had more empathy. No one wanted the man with monsters within living within their community.
And, so, he was homeless. Without a safety net he barely survived, running naked among the tombs and ruins at the edge of town. In the fertile soil of rejection and oppression suspicion took hold of him. The monsters within took control.
Perhaps, Jesus perceived the monsters within the man as he gazed across the lake at sunset. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit lured the “carpenter’s son turned rabbi” to row across the lake. Perhaps, God’s extravagant love could no longer be contained within the promise YHWH, the god of the Hebrew people, the One we worship today, made so many centuries before.
Whatever the reason, in an act of expanding love, Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake. They crossed the lake that divided Jewish lands from Gentile lands. Rabbi Jesus and his ragged band of followers were accustomed to healing and teaching at the edges of polite society.
This time, Jesus and the disciples moved outside of Jewish society altogether to carry the Good News to the Gentiles.
Jesus’ feet had barely touched shore when the man who had monsters within accosted him. Recognizing God within Jesus, the monsters feared for their demise. The monsters within,
“shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!’” (Luke 8:28b CEB)
The monsters were right to be afraid of Jesus. Jesus is the One who breathed in the Divine and breathed out God’s extravagant love. God’s relentless love does not abide monsters within anymore than God lets evil or hardship have the final say.
God’s relentless love overcomes even death! Love heals and teaches our monsters or sends them packing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean our monsters will make it easy on God or on us as we participate in the unfolding realm of God on earth.
Our love — God’s love — will be met with suspicion and hatred from those still battling monsters within themselves.
As happened to me this week, we may be told that our denomination — our church — is not Christian because we embrace divergent opinions on complex social issues and because we embrace our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We may be told that when we go to the margins of society that we ourselves are not Christian.
And, though it hurt me and disturbed me when I was told to my face that I and my church family are not Christian, I refuse to create a monster within me to respond to someone else’s monster. Rather, I will turn the other cheek, I will seek to have empathy for the threatened. I will seek to love as Jesus taught me.
Because I know from reading the biblical witness that our ancient kindred and especially our Lord and Savior Jesus, experienced the same and worse when they loved those on the edges of society. I know from the biblical witness that monsters within others may recognize the love within us as a threat.
But the love within us must not return anger to those who exclude and disdain us. Instead, we must allow the relentless love of God to guide us. We must listen to the still-speaking love and act as we are called. To do this, we must send our own monsters packing, allowing Jesus to heal us.
Healed of our own monsters (partially or fully), we must do as Jesus told the man he healed in today’s gospel lesson, we must
“tell the story of what God has done for [us].” [We must go] throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus ha[s] done for [us]. (Luke 8:39 CEB)
We must tell the story of what God has done for us to those who make us uncomfortable. We must go to where they live and think at the edge of town. We must love them and include them in our circles. We might even learn from them.
God’s relentless love may not only send their challenges within packing, God might heal some of our own challenges.
We must tell the story of what God has done for us to those who turned to drugs or to anger when they were ostracized and judged harshly by mainstream society. We may find that the church — as happens too often — participated in the sin of judgmentalism and ostracism.
We may find that some of what they are angry about are things that Jesus would be angry about, too. Perhaps, we need to apologize for what we or our church-kin have done. Maybe we need to love at the margins of society as Jesus did.
God’s relentless love may not only send their drugs within packing, God might send our monsters within, away.
We must tell the story of what God has done for us to those whose memories within are fading. We must be God’s loving presence with their caretakers as well as with those whose memories fade. We must visit those within our church community rather than waiting for the pastor to visit.
For I know this, fading memories within do not take away the essence of a person. That person’s soul is intact.
In our presence with those whose memories within are fading, lucidity often increases when we pray with them. I have been with those who seem so far away that I wonder “What’s the point?”… I have seen them become fully aware and cognizant while receiving Holy Communion or praying the Lord’s Prayer with me.
In those moments, I am blessed by the Love of God flowing through them.
God’s relentless love may not only temporarily restore their memories within, but God sends my preconceptions, my doubts about the importance of presence…God sends my monsters within packing.
We are called to be Christ’s healing love in this community. Rather than going to church, we’re called to be church. We are church when we get on the boat with Jesus and the disciples and cross over to the other side. When we get there, we may be greeted by a homeless man begging at Biggs Junction.
We may be greeted angrily by a man who lost his family after years of drug use.
We may be greeted by a man struggling with the care of his wife who has Alzheimer’s Disease.
We may be greeted by a woman who is too frightened to embrace the still-speaking love of God.
We may be greeted by a man with a legion of monsters within.
And we may even come face-to-face with our own monsters. The Good News is this: with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, love can send the monsters within away. That’s the story we should be telling. Everyday to everyone we meet, we should be telling people what God has done and continues to do for us.
Kevin Daugherty raises important questions for progressive Christians in “Is Progressive Theology Elitist?” Here is my initial response.
Yes, your worries are warranted. I have heard the argument before that the only path to God is through intellectualism. It was called seminary. Though I do not intend to give up my brain and my ability to reason through things, I am equally (more?) committed to the experience of God that is inexplicable.
In my previous career as an educator, intellectualism manifest in focusing on academics with children to the exclusion of their emotions, social skills, and physicality. The absurdity of this approach is that hungry children or sad children do not focus well on academics.
But God creates us as whole human beings with brains, bodies, emotions, and spirituality. The intellectualism thatunderpins much of progressive Christianity reflects a disdain for the Holy Spirit and the mystery. This approach is as neglectful of the whole Imago Dei as what you term “anti-intellectual” faith. We need to embrace our whole humanity: physical, cognitive, social-emotional, and spiritual. Too much of progressive and mainline Christianity has spent generations seeking to reason to God. In the process we have — as you imply — separated ourselves from the “least of these.”
Though some of my more conservative Christian kindred frustrate me at times, I know that I need them. We are one body. I also know that arguably Jesus and certainly Paul were more concerned about love and pragmatics than systematic theology. To the extent that our theology separates us from anyone, I tend to think it has failed.