Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Radical Inclusion"

            In the early 1960s, racial tensions were at a great height, with sit-ins and demonstrations taking place around the country to protest segregation.  On May 6, 1960, President Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights act of 1960.  Under the new Kennedy administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed on in March of 1961.  In May of the same year, the first Freedom Rides took place in Washington, DC.  Violent white resistance in three southern states prompted President Kennedy to dispatch federal marshals to keep the peace.  It was in this turbulent year that Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) published his lovely little story, The Sneetches, highlighting the pointless artificial separations we create between people who are basically the same.

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches
Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren't so big. They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, "We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches."
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they'd snort
“We'll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!"
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They'd hike right on past them without even talking.

            Star-belly Sneetches left Plain-belly Sneetches out of their children’s games, out of their social events, out of every aspect of life, insisting that Star-bellies were superior in every way.  When a salesman came to town, offering to put stars on Plain-bellies for only $3 each, everybody made the change.  But the originally-starred Sneetches complained because they wanted to maintain their superior status.  So, the salesman told them that it was no longer fashionable to wear stars, and removed all their stars for $10.  But then the newly-starred Sneetches wanted to be like the newly-plain Sneetches, so they had theirs removed.  And on and on it went.

Then, when every last cent
Of their money was spent,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.

And he laughed as he drove
In his car up the beach,
"They never will learn.
No. You can't teach a Sneetch!"

But McBean was quite wrong. I'm quite happy to say
The Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.[i]

            We’d like to say that history, or Dr. Seuss, or somebody, has taught us a lesson, but today it seems we have the same issues with who’s in and who’s out as we did in the early 1960s.  Some of the “in” people have changed, and some of the “out” people have, too.  Many of them have remained the same.  But society and churches still resound with voices of judgment and exclusion, rather than the radical inclusion taught by Jesus.

            In the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel, Some Greeks who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration (v. 20).”[ii]  Like many African-Americans in 1960s America, who wanted equal rights, opportunities, and access—Many Greeks in Jesus’ day wanted to be included in the religious practices of the Jewish people.  These “Greeks” weren’t necessarily from Greece; this was a nickname among Jesus’ people for Gentiles—anybody who was not Jewish.  These spiritually seeking outsiders were so attracted to the Jewish worship of God that they were willing to risk becoming social and political outcasts in order to find the truth.  So they came to Jesus’ disciple Philip looking for answers.

            Most students of most rabbis would have turned these Gentile seekers away, but Jesus was no ordinary teacher, and Philip was no ordinary disciple.  Nearly every time we see Philip in the Gospels, he is bringing people to Jesus.  First, he introduces Nathanael to the Master, and then he is one of two disciples involved in bringing the boy whose lunch would feed a multitude.  So instead of turning them away, Philip thought, “Perhaps Jesus would welcome even people such as these.”  Without another moment of hesitation, he told Andrew about it, and the two disciples told Jesus.

            It’s easy to picture Jesus’ welcoming face as He meets these spiritual seekers, these “outsiders.”  He trusts them by dropping truth about His own death and calling them to abandon all their false priorities in exchange for eternal life.  Then He says a radical thing: Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me (verse 26).”  In a land of Star-bellied Sneetches, Jesus told these Plain-bellies that they were acceptable too, without having to change a thing.  All that’s necessary is that they follow Him and serve Him.  Later, Jesus underscores this radical inclusion by saying of His own crucifixion, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself (verse 32).” In fact, in this same story, God speaks from the heavens and many in the crowd only hear it as thunder.  Only those with seekers’ hearts discern that something supernatural has happened—might these observant people have been the same Gentiles who came to Jesus?

            Paul echoes this radical inclusion when he says in Romans 10:12-13, “For there is no difference between Jew and Greek: The same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on Him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  In addition to ethnic or language differences, Paul adds gender and economic differences to those things that God cares nothing about (Galatians 3:28).  Romans 2:11 (GWT) says, “God does not play favorites”—and neither should we.  To God, Sneetches are Sneetches—people are people.  And when churches and Christian groups say, “all are welcome,” the should mean it—with no exceptions.

[i] Seuss, Dr. The Sneetches and Other Stories.  New York: Random House.  1961.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.  Underlined words are my own emphasis.

Monday, July 17, 2017

"Kingdom of Heaven"

                Leonidas, King of Sparta, was preparing to make a stand with his Greek troops against the Persian army in 480 B.C. when a Persian envoy arrived. The man urged on Leonidas the futility of trying to resist the advance of the huge Persian army. "Our archers are so numerous," said the envoy, "that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun."
"So much the better," replied Leonidas, "for we shall fight them in the shade.”.[i]

            It was this kind of hero that the people of Israel were looking for as they prayed God would send them a Messiah.  Someone with so much courage that he would stand against Roman tyranny and cast the oppressors out of the Holy Land.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, all of the people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  The people hailed a king, because they had seen much and come to the wrong conclusions.  You might mistake Jesus for a kingly candidate, too, if you had seen what they saw.  Because, like the Israelites of Jesus’ day, we often don’t see Jesus’ kingdom for what it truly is.

            For example, What if you took Jesus’ miracles, and instead of looking at them on a personal level, you applied them on a national level?  What if Jesus were running for President of Israel—I mean, if they elected leaders instead of declaring a king?  What would His platform look like?  That depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?  According to some in Israel, they expected that Jesus would:

  • ·         Provide bumper crops like He supplied a great catch of fish (Jn 21)
  • ·         Tax the fish instead of the people (Mt 17)
  • ·         Throw lavish parties with ever-flowing wine (Jn 2)
  • ·         Provide national healthcare (Mt 15:30)
  • ·         Set right all environmental problems (Mk 4:35-41)
  • ·         Feed an army just like He had fed the multitude (Mt 14, 15)
  • ·         Raise the dead (ensuring an unbeatable military) (Jn 11)
  • ·         Command legions of angels (Mt 26:53) for military and secret service
  • ·         Save them from the Romans (Jn 12:12-19)

But that’s not the kind of kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.  Though He often spoke in terms of God as King, and God’s reign as the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus meant something different by it than what His hearers understood.  They were looking for an earthly monarchy, but Jesus meant nothing of the sort.  In fact, Jesus’ policies would never work on a national level—and that’s one of the reasons the people ultimately turned against Him.  I mean, if Jesus’ Way were turned into law, there would be public outcry.  His agenda would include:

  • ·         Praying for your enemies, and doing good to them (Mt 5:44)
  • ·         Helping your enemies out when they’re in trouble (Lk 10:25-37)
  • ·         Lending, expecting nothing back (Lk 6:35)
  • ·         Practicing unlimited forgiveness (Mt 18:21-35)
  • ·         Putting other people first, and yourself last (Mark 9:35)
  • ·         Refusing to take up the sword (Mt 26:52)
  • ·         Welcoming strangers, feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick (Mt 25:31-46)
  • ·         Refraining from judging others (Matthew 7:1-6)

Nobody would win a national election with a platform like that!  Winners who are good at winning win by telling people that their group is the best, by teaching them how they can defeat their enemies, make a profit, win military victories—and they do so by reinforcing to people that they are in the right and everybody else is in the wrong.  But that’s not who Jesus was.  He didn’t come to rule the nation, but to be a role model for all who would follow Him.  He came not to conquer, but to die in order to demonstrate God’s great love.

The problem is that somewhere along the way—when Christianity went from being a minority persecuted by the Roman Empire, to the majority backed by a converted Roman Empire—religion and the throne married one another.  People were baptized not because they believed, but because it was fashionable and profitable and advantageous.  From that day, religion used the power of the state to enforce itself, and the state used the authority of religion to back its claims.  A new word was born: Christendom was the geo-political designation of all nations that claimed Christianity as the state religion.  People began to confuse the Kingdom of Heaven for every realm on the globe that claimed to be a Christian nation.  They forgot that Jesus didn’t come to establish kingdoms, but to reign in the human heart.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He didn’t gallop in on a white stallion, waving a banner and calling men to arms.  Instead, He came humbly, riding on a donkey.  When he stood beaten before Pilate, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36 NLT).”  Since Jesus said it from His own mouth, Pilate could see no reason to execute Him.  Jesus clearly was not an earthly King.  He did not come to challenge Rome or to change any human government.  Instead, He came to change people’s hearts.  Yet, Jesus’ opponents wanted to maintain their little kingdoms and power structures, so He was executed nonetheless.

Much like Jesus’ own opponents, Christians today get far too caught up in worldly kingdoms, and lose track of the true Realm of Heaven.  Some of our worldly kingdoms are political—like our egocentric belief that government should reflect Christian values rather than what’s good for people of all backgrounds.  Just like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin who became too embroiled in the politics of Israel and Rome, Christians get too tangled up in the matters of this world, forgetting that “our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20 NIV).”  Other kingdoms are the little territories in our own lives that we seek to control, at work, at church, in our families, and in our other occupations.  We become possessive, manipulative, and deceitful, engaging in the kinds of intrigues one might normally expect from government officers and spies.  We fancy ourselves as heroes like Leonidas, rather than remembering that Jesus calls us not to be lions, but lambs.  Instead of fighting for our little kingdoms, or even for some idea of governmental Christendom, the Spirit of God calls us to model our lives after the One who saves through sacrifice.  Just like Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand, neither will the people around you.  But you’ll be living the life of a prince or princess in the Kingdom of Heaven.  You’ll be living a life of peace.

[i] Today in the Word, November 4, 1993.  June 15, 2017.

Friday, July 14, 2017

"Give and Take"

                If you’re like me, then periodically you take a look at your money, to figure out where your spending, saving, or investing is on target, where you might be underspending, and where you might be overspending.  According to a Mental Floss article by Lucas Reilly,[i] “Last year, Americans spent $10.7 trillion shopping. With that much dough, you could buy over 2000 aircraft carriers, 300 private islands, and still have money left over for a latte. Here’s a taste of the things we bought—and how much we spent on them.”

  • ·         Beer: $96 billion
  • ·         Over-the-Counter Teeth Whiteners: $1.4 billion
  • ·         Pet Halloween Costumes: $310 million 
  • ·         Romance Novels: $10 billion
  • ·         Chocolate: $16 billion
  • ·         Perfume: $4.2 billion
  • ·         Gambling: $34.6 billion
  • ·         Coffee: $11 billion 
  • ·         Tattoos: $2.3 billion
  • ·         Tattoo Removal: $66 million
  • ·         Golf Balls: $500 million
  • ·         Girl Scout Cookies: $800 million
  • ·         Taxidermy: $800 million
  • ·         Video Games: $17 billion dollars
  • ·         Soft Drinks: $65 billion
  • ·         Bottled Water: $11 billion
  • ·         Fast Food: $117 billion
  • ·         Professional Sports: $25.4 billion
  • ·         Ringtones: $5 billion worldwide

Certainly, there are areas of extravagance in your own life that you look at and consider justifiable.  Recently, I spent a considerable sum on travel, and it was totally worth it!  Then, other times, you evaluate your spending and determine where to cut back on your opulence.  How we determine our priorities involves a little give-and-take within our lives and budgets.  John 12:1-8 (NLT) gives an example of two opposite approaches and attitudes to our personal finances, and the way we give to God.
 Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Mary’s attitude toward money came from a perspective of gratitude.  We know that the Master frequently visited their home in Bethany.  In Luke 10, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to receive His teaching, and Jesus defended her right to do so.  In John 11, Jesus raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead.  So her extravagant giving reflected her gratitude for what God had done for her.  Seeing that God had already provided her needs, she had faith that God would do so again.  This faith prompted her to spend and give from an attitude of abundance.

Judas, on the other hand, came from a perspective of scarcity and greed.  These two go hand in hand.  Because a person believes in a limited amount of good, greed says they have to hoard it all for themselves and not let others have it.  Judas’ objection had nothing to do with real charity, but was truly motivated out of greed because he stole from the common purse.  Rather than wanting the poor to be blessed, or even for Jesus to be honored with Mary’s lavish gift, Judas wanted to line his own pockets.

When faced with a choice as to how to spend, save, invest, and give, we need to check our attitudes and see whether we are really grateful for God’s provision and therefore generous, or whether we have a scarcity perspective and are therefore greedy.  Our attitude will either make us like extravagant Mary or thieving Judas.  Yes, it’s possible for us to cheat God and therefore cheat ourselves, if we have the wrong attitudes.  In Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT), God says:

 “Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me!
“But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’
“You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me.You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!
These verses have been misused by Prosperity Gospel preachers who say you can get rich by giving to the church.  While they don’t promise that, they do indicate two things.  First, that a Mary-like perspective of abundance enables you to be generous with God and with other people.  2 Corinthians 9:6-7 says, “Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”  Because you reap what you sow, when you give blessing into the world, you also reap blessing.  So through Malachi’s voice, God offers a challenge—to test God in this and try generosity as a way of life.

The second thing Malachi says is that it’s possible for us to be like Judas, who dipped his hand into the purse.  You might not be literally stealing from the offering plate, but you could be robbing God by withholding generosity from God or from people.  Your church has budgetary needs, and Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you.”  God asks believers to support good work.  Greedy, grasping hands like Judas’ might deprive the church and its ministries (like benevolence) of sustenance.  If you have an attitude of scarcity, you might unwittingly be cheating God, others, and yourself of blessing.

When I look at the things Americans overspend on, I find my own spirit convicted by some aspects of that list.  Do you?  How can you add a little give-and-take to your budget, so that you increase your giving and decrease your taking?  Like Malachi, I challenge you to pray about it—and test God in it.  See how you can be less like Judas and more like Mary

[i] Reilly, Lucas.  “By the Numbers: How Americans Spend Their Money.”  Mental Floss.  

Monday, July 3, 2017


             On this Fourth of July week, we celebrate American freedom, and remember the history that made her great.  One of the hallmarks of the American experience is our belief in religious freedom.  But is that freedom all that the history books have reported?  Smithsonian Magazine’s Kenneth C. Davis writes that the storybook version we have learned may contain fact, but that it also neglects some key points of history. In 1620, pilgrims from the Mayflower settled in Massachusetts, fleeing religious persecution in England.  But far from creating a bastion of religious freedom, they became intolerant of anyone whose views differed from their own.  Davis says:

The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished following disagreements over theology and policy. From Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning to the city to stand up for their beliefs.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.” [i]

Let me step outside of the American experience and look at the violent history of our own faith on a global scale. From the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine enforced Christianity with the sword, and made heresy a crime punishable by death.  In the Middle Ages, crusaders were guaranteed salvation if they marched to Jerusalem and took it for Jesus—because as the pope said, “God wills it!”  Millions of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered in the name of Christ.  Then there were the tortures and executions of the Spanish Inquisition, and the extermination of Native Americans by the Conquistadores in the New World.  Violence perpetrated by Christians in the name of Jesus is a horrible scar on our faith.  This is why we must not define a “Christian” as someone who is baptized, who is a member of the church, or who signs a creed on the dotted line.  Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples (John 13:35[ii]).”  So we must ask ourselves, How Christian is the history of Christianity?

You see, we Christians have a bit of a martyr complex.  Certainly, we have been the victims of much persecution and violence, but we need to come to terms with our own history of violence in God’s name.  As we say in the South, “we come by it honestly,” meaning that we inherited this legacy through many generations.  Even in Jesus’ day, religious people persecuted other religious people who didn’t see things the same way.  In John 11:45-57, the high priest (who should have been the most godly man in the nation) conspired with other religious leaders to put Jesus to death.  Jesus had to go into hiding and stop His public ministry because of their persecution.  John 12:9-11 tells us that they not only planned to kill Jesus, but that they wanted to kill Lazarus too, because he was evidence of Jesus’ claims.  Violence perpetrated by religious people for the sake of religion is all over the Bible—and it seems that Jesus’ followers have learned from this example.

How different this is from the character of Christ himself—who never wielded His word as a weapon, and who spoke against violence and advocated peace.  “Those who use the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said (Matthew 26:52).  The problem is that many Christians who have learned about the “sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17)” have forgotten that the Bible is a weapon against demonic strongholds (Ephesians 6:12), and have instead used physical or verbal violence against people for religious ends.  In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.”  But we have taken up the sword instead of the cross.  Instead of laying down our lives for others as Jesus did, we choose to sacrifice others at the altars of our own spiritual smugness and religious egos. 

We do this every time we degrade others because of their ethnicity, gender identity, nation of origin, their faith, or lack of faith.

We do this whenever we deny others the same rights we enjoy, because they follow different convictions from our own.

We do this whenever we insist that our way is the way it ought to be, because we happen to be in the majority. 

What if one day they (whoever they are) are in the majority?  Do we want the religious views of the majority to be the law of the land?  Or do we want a land that is governed by equality, where people of every faith, and no faith at all, stand on level ground?  Those who stood opposed to Jesus decided that verbal and physical violence was the way to accomplish their goals.  Too often, Christians have learned from biblical violence and become persecutors instead of peacemakers.  Jesus told Saul on the road to Damascus that when he persecuted others, he was persecuting Jesus Himself (Acts 9:4).  Jesus said whatever we do to others, we do to Him (Matthew 25:40).  So, when we marginalize others for the sake of our religious convictions, we marginalize Jesus too.  Jesus’ Golden Rule teaches us to do to others what we would have done to us (Matthew 7:12).   What could be more plain?  Why can’t Christians just treat others nicely, even if they have different views?  Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  This Fourth of July weekend, as we celebrate our freedom, let’s never let our religious liberty be a stick we use to beat others with, and take away their freedom.  Instead, let’s show we are Christians by our love.