Great sermon by Brian Zahnd on Isaiah 56:1-8, Acts 8:4-32, & Galatians 3:28. Exclusion is legalistic, the Gospel, grace, love, & mercy are all INCLUSIVE.
This past Sunday was “Trinity Sunday” in most churches. The Gospel lesson at ours was Jesus’ theological discussion with a member of the council of priests in Jerusalem, a Pharisee named Nicodemus.
I was struck hearing this discussion found in John 3 by how much Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit before the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In verses 3-8 He talks about being born in the Spirit.
Jesus isn’t talking about having to be “born again” emotionally or intellectually before choosing to be baptized as Fundamentalist Evangelicals or Baptists talk about. Nor is He talking about a baptism in the Holy Spirit or an “anointing” of the Holy Spirit as many Charismatics and Pentecostals talk about.
Jesus doesn’t separate the baptisms. He says we should be born of water AND Spirit. Not “or” or “then.” Maybe that’s why the Nicene Creed only mentions “one baptism…” it’s not we who do the work in this rebirth, it’s God the Holy Spirit.
Only God can resurrect a dead body as He did with the “first born (Colossians 1:18, Revelations 1:5) and only God can give new birth to a soul with His Spirit (breath, truth, essence).
Maybe God helped me make this connection because I’d been teaching Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address these last few weeks of school in my Civics class.
Did you just hear that needle scratching a vinyl record as the turntable abruptly stopped? Yeah, it was when you spat out whatever beverage you were sipping on with that epic “spit take.”
I know, how can I switch gears so fast from theology to American History. Hear me out.
In his famous two minute speech at the dedication ceremony of a veterans memorial cemetery, “Father Abraham” was using an Ancient Greek format for elegies at funerals. One that a learned scholar in Hellenistic, Roman occupied Palestine, like Nicodemus and Jesus (as the only begotten Son of the living God ) would probably have been familiar with.
The format was this; 1) Life, 2) Death, and 3) Rebirth.
For Lincoln, his speech followed the format like this:
1) America was founded on liberty and equality
2) The Civil War might just kill that dream of a country “so conceived and so dedicated.”
3) To give that country a “new birth of freedom,” we must become dedicated and devoted to a great cause, unfinished work- that same “proposition that all men are created equal.”
What good would it be if the Union had won the Civil War but not ended slavery with the 13th Amendment? Those who died that this nation might live would’ve died for nothing (“died in vain”) unless we the living aren’t devoted to “that cause to which they gave their last full measure of devotion,” namely the “proposition that all men are created equal.”
Likewise, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand three truths:
1) God creates us to be in His image; Love. In relationship with Him as our God and in relationship with our neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:4), however
2) Sin & selfishness have left us spiritually dead. Incapable of loving God or our neighbors. We can’t see past our own desires, we’re blind even to our own needs and helplessness (Romans 3:23). There is nothing we can do ourselves to change this. Dead people cannot rescue themselves from death.
3) But nothing is impossible with God. He loves us enough to send his only begotten Son to save us (John3:16). He didn’t come to condemn us but to save us (John 3:17).
Yet what good is a savior if we rejectHis salvation? When we refuse His love & grace & mercy, we stand condemned already, we remain spiritually dead (John 3:18).
Also- What good is having the very Son of the creator of the universe teach us the Beatitudes if instead we continue loving only our friends and hating our enemies?
I realize that MLK Day was a couple of weeks ago but this blog post has kind of been nagging at me ever since then.
Everyone knows him from his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech from 1963 and as an important civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. But how many of us have ever took the time to really read, study or digest that speech?
History buffs and civil rights advocates may know more about him. They may know that he’s also remembered for his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ for leading protests there and a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to draw attention to state discrimination in voting rights.
They may credit him with helping to put pressure on President Johnson and Congress to pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They know that after fighting so long against legal segregation and political equality in the South, he had begun campaigning for economic justice nationwide.
But we forget that he was a pastor, a theologian, an intellectual, a husband and father, a reader, thinker and writer. “Rev. Dr.” means that he was ordained and had a PhD. He wasn’t just a gifted speaker, activist and organizer. He was a ridiculously prolific writer.
He’s one of my personal favorite writers.
As a History/Social Studies teacher, I think his most fascinating piece, in therms of political science, sociology and philosophy has to be his 1967 speech ‘Beyond Vietnam.’
Two of my favorite books aren’t political speeches or editorials though, they’re sermons, devotions and essays on spirituality, love, and King’s trademark non-violence. Strength to Love from 1963 and The Measure of a Man , from 1968.
Without having open copies by my side, or a tab open to search for quoted from MLK, I want to share some principles I’ve gleaned from Doctor King’s writings that I try to apply as life lessons. Full disclosure; I’m a white male that grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Phoenix in the 70’s (‘Leave it to Beaver,’ only not in the 50’s).
Maybe that’s the point though- while as a progressive it ticks me off to see right-wing extremists and conservative Republican pundits and politicians try to co-opt Dr. King’s quotes or use his image to try to evoke pretend inclusion or phony compassion- much of King’s teaching really does transcend race, gender, and era.
King made no secret that he was influenced by Mahatma Ghandi, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther, and Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I bet he was also influenced a lot by Mahalia Jackson and Cloretta Scott-King too. What positive role models? We could all use some role models like those today.
When I read King, I see much of his ideas and beliefs echoed in secular authors like Viktor Frankl and Christian authors like C.S. Lewis. white And in white evangelicals like Tony Campolo and black activists like John Lewis and Cornell West. Most of all, I hear echoes of Saint Paul and of Jesus.
If I could pass anything on to my children or my students, I wish I could plant these lessons in their hearts and minds, but I know they have to read Kings books for themselves, listen to his speeches for themselves, study history, read scriptures and encounter God all for themselves. I can’t do it for them. Be that as it may, here are some things I learned from Dr. King.
Off the top of my head, & from the well of my heart-
Lessons I’ve learned from Doctor King
- Meet physical force with soul force
- Peace isn’t just an end, it’s a means to many ends
- Forgiveness is hard, but it shouldn’t just be a habit, but a way of life
- Be a thermostat, not just a thermometer
- Better to be tough minded and soft hearted than hard-hearted and soft-minded!
- Never give up hope, seek to become a prisoner of hope
- Undeserved suffering is redemptive
- ALL of our destinies are inextricably tied together
- Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE
- Never stop; if you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run, walk, if you can’t walk crawl- but keep moving forward.
- Hate can’t drive out hate, only love can do that
- Just a sneeze can change history
- Just because something is a law doesn’t make it just and unjust laws sometimes may even need to be broken to draw attention to the fact that they ought to be changed
- Change comes from faith, prayer, love, community, and sacrifice
- Words are powerful
- It’s one thing to claim to believe something, it’s another to live out the true meaning of those beliefs
- Love others, even your enemies
I don’t know about you, but this election season it’s been driving me crazy whenever presidential candidates or their supporters accuse each other of ignoring the Constitution or promising to stand for the Constitution in ads and stump speeches but then support proposals or policies which are diametrically opposed to Constitutional principles or worse, flagrantly violate people’s Constitutional rights.
So if you’ve got a minute, here’s a quick review of some of your Constitutional rights as explained by an Eighth grade Civics teacher. Now, if you don’t trust me or come to this blog with your own set of political perceptions, by all means, I urge you to read the amendments for your self- here’s a convenient link to let you do so.
Two quick things before we begin- Let’s face it, people of good conscience are allowed to disagree; keep in mind at all times that individual voters, politicians, their parties, Constitutional law professors and the U.S. Supreme Court all have different interpretations of all of these rights and amendments. Also it’s important to remember that Amendments ARE part of the Constitution. To amend is to alter or change, so when we’re talking about the amendments we’re talking about Constitutional rights, not something separate or different or in addition to the Constitution, this stuff IS the Constitution.
- The 1st Amendment- includes freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly & petition
- Lots of people get confused by the religion part, perhaps because it’s so important or perhaps because everyone seems to not want others to tell them what they should believe but at the same time everyone also seems to want to tell everyone else what they should believe. It’s a control issue. Here’s how it breaks down:
- The “Establishment Clause” says that the government is not allowed to endorse any one religion over another. There is no official religion of America. Taxes don’t pay to to support churches and public schools aren’t supposed to take advantage of their captive audiences to try to convert their students. After eons of religious wars in England and Europe, Americans thought they might give pluralism a try. So in a way, there is freedom from religion.
- The “Free-Exercise Clause” on the other hand says that the government may not prevent you from believing what you believe, how you believe it or exercising your faith whenever, wherever, however. I tell students to feel free to discuss their faith and even to pray, I just can’t initiate or lead the prayer since I’m a public school teacher and just like any other topic, if I try to facilitate the discussion, it’s just going to be to make sure it’s pertinent to what we’re learning about and doesn’t pose a substantial disruption. The establishment clause doesn’t preclude the exercise clause and vice versa.
- Like all the other rights I’m about to talk about, the best way to protect your rights is to protect the rights of others. If as a Lutheran. Methodist or a Catholic, I don’t want Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 7th day Adventists or Mormons telling me I have to believe everything they believe, I kinda have to allow Jews, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Muslims, Amish, secularists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and even Satanists to believe what they want to believe. That’s the hard thing about living in a pluralistic society. As a Christian myself, I tend to lean on Jesus’ parable of the weeds and wheat growing in the same field (see Matthew 13:24-30) to help me with this one. Like so many other things in life, it’s all about control, I don’t want you trying to control me, so I guess I’m better off not trying to control you. If I really believe God is in control, does He really need my help? See, that whole omnipotent thing kinda puts me in my place… anyway-
- Freedom of Speech- does not mean say whatever you want, however you want to whomever you want whenever you want. The First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your tactlessness and it can’t protect you in a civil suit if you’re accused of slander (deliberately spreading lies about someone in order to hurt their reputation). However, it DOES mean, that you ARE free to speak your mind on political, social, economic, cultural and religious matters without fear of being locked up, exiled, or otherwise punished or persecuted by the government. We ARE allowed to criticize public figures and officials and their positions, policies, and programs. We’re not necessarily allowed to incite violence or bully or harass people.
- BTW FYI over the last couple hundred years the Supreme Court has really expanded “Speech” into “Freedom of Expression,” so yard signs, bumper stickers, hair styles, music, piercings, tattoos, clothing, holiday decorations on your house, yadda yadda yadda pretty much all covered.
- ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM- Campaign finance reform, Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super Paces, & “Dark Money”- in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court declared that money IS speech and that corporations are at least “associations of citizens” so Republican candidate Mitt Romney wasn’t just talking out of his a** (pardon my French) when he told one voter at the Iowa State Fair back in 2012 that “corporations ARE people, my friend.” The problem with this decision is that while at one level it is logical to conclude that campaign contributions are a way of expressing one’s beliefs and therefore protected by the First Amendment, it ought to be glaringly obvious to anyone that some people have a helluva lot more freedom of speech then others making this decision horrifically unfair to the vast majority of Americans. Meanwhile state governors like Minnesota’s Scott Walker and others work to revoke collective bargaining rights of public employees and undermine unions so that wealthy investors have power in numbers through corporate investing or interest groups, but most poor, working class and middle class people don’t have the means to pool their resources. Sorry for being so blatantly nonobjective on this one, I hope that even if you disagree with obvious bias, I’ve helped explain the controversy with ‘Citizens United’ a little.
- Freedom of the Press- This is incredibly important not just so that we have the right to publish what we think, feel & believe, but perhaps even more importantly, so that we can have access to a variety of ideas and opinions. Mark Twain once said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” One might paraphrase this today to say that the person who only gets their news from one news source (say a TV network) but refuses to listen to any other outlets and doesn’t want to be bothered by looking up anything to read about the issues is pretty much allowing themselves to be brainwashed. Oh, um, sorry, got a little carried away there. Got that subjective momentum going in the last paragraph and it can be hard to turn off. Point is this- in a participatory representative democracy like ours, voters need to be informed in order to make the best decisions. If you have a vast buffet in front of you but all you eat are hot dogs, you’ll end up malnourished.
- PS- Time and technology have probably evolved this right as much as the Supreme Court has. Let’s face it, in 1791 freedom of the press was for publishers who ran printing presses. Today we generally assume that “the Press” is synonymous with the media. But these days all of us are self- publishing every time we blog, micro-blog, comment, post and perhaps even when we text and email.
- Freedom peaceably to assemble- Like speech and press, this has been expanded to mean freedom of association. In other words, it’s not just about attending a protest march or a sit-in. It also means belonging to a union, a political party, a movement, a special interest group, caucus, club, organization or religion. So as a matter of fact, as much as some of us may not like it, Americans DO have the right to be Communist, or Muslim or White supremacist. The Tea Party, the #OccupyWallStreet and the #BlackLivesMatter movements are all covered by this right, but so are the NRA, the AARP, the NAACP, and the 4-H and FFA.
- And finally the right to petition the government for redress of grievances– These words are eighteenth century legal jargon that in plain 21st century English mean to ask the government to help make things right. Petition= to ask or request. Redress=”to correct (something that is unfair or wrong*).” Grievance= feeling like you’ve been treated unfairly. (*see http://www.merriam-webster.com).
- More bias on my part- it’s pretty hard to ask the government to help you if you dismantle that government. I agree to a degree with limited government, but I don’t agree with eliminating it or making it so powerless that it can’t help you. A lot of politicians use fear to get us to vote for them. Not just fear of terrorists, but fear of the government, as if it is an entity unto itself and that entity is our greatest enemy. But WE are our government- thus the words ‘We the People.’ Government itself is an instrument, apparatus, infrastructure- a TOOL for people to collectively work together toward common goals. That’s why I get irritated when politicians tell us that you can’t trust government- they’re saying that they don’t trust US! Don’t they agree with President Lincoln that government is OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people?
- So BEWARE most of the time when people start talking loudly about the Constitution, they actually would be opposed to the Constitution if the Constitutional Convention were held today. Whether it’s to protect corporations & the wealthy from regulation, promote what they see as states rights or personal liberty or justify their latent bigotry- most of them could actually be classified as anti-federalists or even pro confederacy. Maybe they even THINK that they support the United States or the Constitution, but anyone who is opposed to equality, civil rights or social contract theory are actually opposed to the most basic Constitutional principled. It may be hyperbole to accuse them of treason or even of lying- but I think that when they tout their allegiance to and reliance on the Constitution, as Inigo Montoya in the ‘Princess Bride’ might say, “you keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Frankly, if they’re opposed to Constitutional principles, I wish they’d just own that and be honest with themselves and the rest of us about it.
Once again, my “quick” examination has gotten a lot longer than I intended (and this time, WAY more opinionated that I had intended) be that as it may, I hope it’s gotten you thinking about some of the things that politicians claim to be talking about, when they pretend to be upholders of the Constitution. Next time, Amendments 2-26.
Sometimes sound theology & philosophy is found easier in the Hymnal than in the pulpit. Here’s a couple of examples from the Missouri Synod Lutheran hymnal no less, of God exhorting us toward more progressive, “left-wing” social action.
“Grant us hearts, dear Lord, to give You Gladly, freely of Your own, With the sunshine of Your goodness Melt our thankless hearts of stone Till our could and selfish natures, Warmed by You, at length believe and more blessed to give than to receive.
Wondrous honor You have given To our humblest charity In Your own mysterious sentence, ‘You have done it all to Me.’ deign for alms to sue, Saying by Your poor and needy. ‘Give as I have given to you’?” ~’Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us’ verses 2 & 3 LSB Hymn # 851
“As You, Lord, have lived for others, So may we for others live. Freely have Your gifts been granted; Freely may Your servants give. Your the gold and Yours the silver, Yours the wealth of land and sea; We but stewards of Your bounty Held in solemn trust will be.
Come O Christ, and reign among us, King of love and Prince of Peace; Hush the storm of strife and passion, Bi its cruel discords cease. By Your patient years of toiling, By Your silent hours of pain, Quench our fevered thirst of pleasure, Stem our selfish greed of gain.” ~’Son of God, Eternal Savior’ verses 2-3 LSB Hymn # 842
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Today’s scripture in our Lutheran churches was 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.
Ironically, the conventional wisdom among American Christians is to use this passage to indignantly boast about how we’re right and the rest of the world is wrong; about evolution, climate-change, gay marriage, abortion, etc. etc. You name it. Or perhaps it is tied with John 14:6 where Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” to reinforce that all other world religions are wrong wrong wrong.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe what Jesus says about Himself in John 14:6. I’m not a universalist, but I also believe that God doesn’t want ANYONE to perish (2 Peter 3:9) that’s WHY He sent His Son (John 3:16).
But I wonder if we Christians are missing the point God is trying to make to us through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when we presume to use this passage to support our theological, philosophical, cultural and political biases. Especially when you consider who/what/when/where the early church was compared to who/what we are today.
Of course 1st century Jews wanted a sign, some kind of proof that this upstart sect were following the true messiah. They had been God’s chosen people for thousands of years already. Of course the gentiles are going to scrutinize a group who worships someone who allowed Himself to be crucified. Why would that make sense? Their philosophy, technology, jurisprudence, economy, and military might had conquered and civilized the known world at the time.
Sure, its great to think of yourself as special, exceptional, and best of all “right” when the rest of the world is out of control, confusing, complicated, rapidly changing, even insane. But I contend that this passage is not about us. It’s not about Christians. It’s not about being right or being wise or being ridiculed or persecuted or made fun of or marginalized. It’s not about these things, because it’s not about us. It’s about God.
God is Love- “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8 And “LOVE is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
How often do we pine to be proved right, to be vindicated. To win an argument with the unsaved world by having God walk up behind us and corroborate our correctness. We want to win. Win the culture wars, win the elections, win the battle for the most ratings, win win win. But stop and think about how Jesus won our salvation.
Yeah, by giving up His sovereignty, His glory, His authority, His comfort, His safety, security and tranquility. He won us, He once and for all brought about peace and cessation of hostilities between ourselves and God the Father by allowing Himself to be spat on, tortured, and executed unjustly.
Jesus is completely counterintuitive. We want to have the world punished and banished. He wants to love THEM and gather THEM under His wings.
Are we like the resentful older brother in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 or the workers hired first in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20? Like Jonah, are we going to be mad as Hell if/when God doesn’t go ahead and smite Nineveh after all?
What if when we read 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, instead of assuming that it’s about Christianity, what if we read it through the filter of the Cross and Christ crucified? When I think about God using foolish things (verses 27-28), I don’t think of a mighty prophet like Jonah, so much as a humble worm that ate Jonah’s shade (Jonah 4:7).
When I consider Christ, I don’t think of crusades or defending the faith, or maintaining traditions. I think of compassion. Welcoming little children, healing the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, providing justice for the stranger and alien, stilling the storm. Sitting with tax collectors and prostitutes, not condemning the adulteress, and chasing the money-changers from His Father’s house, so that it might be a house of prayer.
If you want control, influence, or authority, you probably aren’t going to pursue altruism, humility, servanthood, mercy, patience, kindness, vulnerability or trust. But if you want relationships, you really should consider all of those things, but be prepared to surrender control, influence, and authority.
Understandably, many Christians are impatient with our government for not lowering more shock and awe onto the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria which call them selves the “Islamic State (ISIS).” But before we start thumping the drums of war, we should remember 2 Corinthians 10:3 “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” How does Jesus wage war? In Matthew 5:44 Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He tells us in Romans 12:20 and Proverbs 25 “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Love, prayer, kindness and generosity are our weapons if we’re genuinely following Christ’s command, not money, propaganda, or drone strikes- love.
Paul tells us in Philippians 2 just how Jesus waged war-
“6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
That’s NUTS? Jesus must be some kind of a NUT!
But what if more non-Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists encountered this truly Christ-like attitude among those of us who call ourselves “Christian?”
I bet they’d be confused. WOuld they be as afraid of us as we seem to be of them?
“18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” 1 John 4:18-21
Christians often see Romans, chapter 1 as an indictment of the “world” & it’s self indulgent sinfulness. Conservative Christians like to wield this chapter as proof that homosexuality is wrong.
I just read the second chapter of Romans and I have to say that I see it as a pretty clear indictment of the judgementalness, hypocrisy & myopic sense of arrogant superiority & entitled “tribalism” of many of us “Christians.”
Paul’s warning against being a Jew in name but not at heart applies to us today too. Aren’t we also quick to judge non-Christians, meanwhile deluded about ourselves because we’ll go so far as to oppose the very things Christ did & would have us do as well? Self-righteous about our “family values” and being “true Americans,” but apathetic about injustice, strangers, orphans, widows, and the poor?
Don’t we make our own opinions, ideologies, comfort, convenience, security & above all our pride into our false idols, even as we judge others for doing the same?
How often do we look down at those who use drugs but can’t wait to have some drinks after work or on the weekend? Pose gay marriage but on our second divorce? Indignant about people living together, but spend plenty of time looking at porn? Appalled by burglary, but look for every way possible to avoid paying taxes? Offended by profanity but can’t get enough gossip? Horrified by neopaganism yet check our horoscopes frequently?
I think if we’re serious about following Jesus,we’ll read, review, and reflect on Romans chapter 2 frequently. If we do, we’ll see ourselves very differently. We’ll also see “the world;” humanists, agnostics, skeptics, secularists, non believers, and members of other faiths dramatically different too.