August 5, 2018

BUILDING UP THE BODY OF CHRIST

Ephesians 4:1-16

No matter whether you agree or disagree with this image about the body of Christ that the Apostle Paul presents to us today in his letter to the Ephesians, you have to admit that his vision about the unity of the body of Christ is worth considering.  Of course, we also have to admit that there is the theory and then there is the reality in which we live.  In this case, the theory about the unity of the body of Christ holds true only if we all are willing to be humble, gentle, and patient human beings as Paul suggests.  However, you throw sin into this mix, and we come out with this body of Christ that is all torn apart by our pride, our fear, and our aggression that leads to all kinds of divisiveness rather than the oneness that we receive by God’s grace as the result of our one baptism and the bread and cup that we share every time that we come to this table.

Putting aside this reality of all of our divisiveness for the moment, let’s concentrate on the ideal that Paul presents to us in this lesson for today.  As far as Paul is concerned, we all are called by virtue of our baptism to lead a life worthy of this calling by making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  If we are to honor God’s call to us in our baptism, then every word out of our mouths and every deed that we perform ought to strive for maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  The key word here is the emphasis on maintaining.  To maintain something is to assume that something already exists.  In this case, the unity of the Spirit is a gift that we already have received from God by virtue of our one baptism into the body of Christ.  We are not the ones who create this unity, but we sure as hell are the ones who are called and given the responsibility to maintain this gift of unity in the bond of peace.

Just to be clear, to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is not equivalent to being nice to everyone all the time.  Nice is not a word that you will find in the Bible.  Nice is a concept and a word that we have created to cover up a whole multitude of sins, especially the sin of not dealing with conflicts in our lives and of refusing to speak the truth in love with one another.  Of course, in order to be able to be this honest with one another, we have to trust that the other person is willing to listen to us and to respect what I have to say just as I am willing to listen to what others have to say.  However, given this option, sometimes it is so much easier just to be nice to the other person and pretend that these differences of beliefs and values don’t even exist. 

At the other extreme, as we have witnessed throughout our Christian history, too often we have ignored this kind of honest dialogue and have chosen to wage war against one another in words and deeds in order to demonstrate and prove that my beliefs are more right than yours, that my rights and values are more important than yours, that my life is more valuable than yours, and that the God that is on my side is more powerful than yours.  So much for making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace!

This dividing wall of animosity, enmity, and hostility that exists within the body of Christ today is nothing shy of a tragedy.  In this regard, we could rattle off a whole list of issues that divide the church today—issues like abortion and the right to choose, gay and lesbian rights, racial justice, the role of women, economic inequality, loyalty to our country, justifiable warfare, healthcare for all, immigrant rights, mass incarcerations, gun regulations, climate science, just to name a few.  Just as the Bible was used to support the positions of members of the body of Christ around the issue of slavery in both the North and the South at the time of our Civil War, so today, followers of Jesus Christ often will turn to the Bible to argue their position on many of these issues that divide us.

Lest we think that this division primarily exists between mainline Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and fundamentalist Christian churches, we have to acknowledge that within every mainline denomination there is this continuum of beliefs and values from radical liberalism to radical conservatism that creates all kinds of tensions and conflicts and tempers our ability to address some of the more divisive issues within our society and culture with one united voice. 

For example, the recent battle over the Keystone pipeline at Standing Rock created a real conundrum for members of the ELCA because we had members of our church on many sides of this issue—those who wanted to respect indigenous rights, those who were concerned about their own job security, those who saw a need for more gas to operate their pleasure vehicles, those who had the care of creation in mind, those whose job it was to dispel the protesters, and those who remained silent and could have cared less about this matter of life and death.

I have said it before, and I will say it again, “For those of us who are members of the body of Christ, what often is at the heart of our divisiveness is not our differing positions on various issues, but rather is dependent upon how we view and use Scripture itself.”  For example, during the height of our anti-nuclear war protests years ago, a very devout Christian argued with me by quoting from the Book of Ecclesiastes and reminding me that according to the inerrant Word of God there always is a time for war.  Of course, we all know how 6 passages from Scripture have been taken out of context for decades and used to condemn any kind of homosexual behavior. Let’s face it!  We can prove almost anything from the Bible—all depending upon whether we read it literally or often times metaphorically. 

One of the discussions that we need to be having within the body of Christ as we speak the truth in love with one another is how we view and use Scripture differently, and more importantly, how we view the purpose of the testimony and witness of Jesus, our Christ, the One whom we claim that we are meant to follow.  In order to keep us focused on this discussion, some people in the Church have been gifted with being apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers for the primary purpose of equipping the members of the body of Christ for ministry by building up the body of Christ—not tearing it down and ripping it apart—until all of us come to what Paul calls the unity of the faith. 

Here is where we often get bogged down, because we can have different understandings about what this unity of the faith actually means.  Growing up in a doctrinally-based Lutheran Church, I learned that the unity of faith meant that we all were supposed to believe that Mary actually was a virgin when Jesus was born.  Given the charismatic influence of my college friends, I was led to believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit would guarantee that more of my prayers would be answered according to the strength of my faith as the result of some charismatic experience that was meant to unite us as one.  Of course, prosperity theology today emphasizes that the amount of your earthly possessions is an actual sign of how much faith you have in God, and the unity of faith has to do with giving God credit for all of your accumulated wealth no matter how you have obtained it.

In order to experience this unity of the faith that Paul espouses, we are to be on our guard that we are not led astray by every wind of doctrine, by every popular theology, by every TV evangelist who asks for a donation to ensure God’s favorable response, by every attempt to align our religious practice with our national allegiance, or by every promise that my personal salvation directly correlates with how faithful I am in this life.  One of the primary responsibilities of those who are gifted to be leaders in the church is to equip the members of the church for ministry, not to make sure that everyone believes exactly the same way.  Besides, when we talk about faith in this context, we are talking about the relationship that we have with God as revealed in Jesus Christ and how much trust we will put in this God to guide us in the way that Jesus has called us to follow.

For this reason, Paul talks about Jesus Christ as being the head of this body—a body in which everyone is gifted with a certain and special role and responsibility to ensure that the whole body is functioning together properly and that each part is contributing to the growth of the entire body.  We accomplish this cooperation and growth by building up this body of Christ in love.  To be honest, this body of Christ is filled with all kinds of diversity, differences of opinions, a vast range of gifts and talents, and so many opportunities even to disagree with one another—all of which do not have to lead to any kind of divisiveness or division if only we would concentrate on building each other up in love.

Jesus Christ is considered to be the head of this body because he was the one who modeled for us what this beloved body or community would look like and how it would function so that everyone from the least to the greatest would be included in this beloved community and no one would lord themselves over anyone else.  We cannot maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace if I think that I am better than you, more powerful than you, greater than you, more important than you, or more righteous than you. 

If we have anything to learn from the way that Jesus chose to live and die, it is this—that with all humility, gentleness, patience, and love, we can use whatever gifts that we have been given by the grace of God to build up this body of Christ so that all the world will notice and will marvel at how we have love for one another and then perhaps also give glory to God.  We can only hope for this kind of global response as long as you and I are willing to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Amen.           

July 22, 2018

ALL THE KING’S MEN

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Jeremiah starts out our lesson for today by lamenting how the shepherds have destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture.  “Woe to you shepherds who have scattered my flock, have driven them away, and have not attended to them,” says Jeremiah.  The term “shepherds” in this context is a metaphor for the kings of Judah and Israel who are the nemesis of Jeremiah’s prophetic confrontation.  Except for King Josiah, all of the kings with whom Jeremiah had a relationship during his lifetime did what was evil in the sight of God and failed to execute justice and righteousness throughout their land.  Consequently, Jeremiah had just cause to hold these kings accountable for their unfaithfulness, and to warn them of the impending consequences if they continued to act contrary to God’s will.  As you listen this morning to a description about the plight of the Judaic people under the rule of these kings, you might want to make the connection with our current political and economic situation because not much has changed in 2700 years.

When Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet, Josiah was the king who ruled over the land of Judah.  While in office, Josiah attempted to correct many of the terrible policies and practices that had been instituted by the kings of Judah before him.  With the aid of his supporters, Josiah was able to eliminate most of the cultic practices affiliated with the worship of false gods, including the practice of child sacrifice.  He also abolished the royal tax, instituted the cancellation of debts and the release of slaves, made conscription into  the king’s military more selective, and reduced the size of the military in order to relieve the people of such a financial burden.  Unfortunately, with the sudden death of Josiah in the throes of battle, all of the kings who succeeded Josiah did what was evil in the sight of God and the economic and social dimensions of Josiah’s reforms soon faded into the past.

These kings would gather men around them who not only would serve as their advisors, but also would serve as the priests and the prophets of their royal court.  Consequently, the royal priests would establish religious policies and practices that would endorse and support the ways of the kings who were viewed as being rulers who could do no wrong because supposedly they were agents of God Yahweh.  The prophets chosen by these kings would tell the people that everything would be just fine throughout the land, when, in fact, people were suffering and dying as the result of the king’s decisions and actions.  The wealthy landowners also were strong supporters of these kings because they were the ones who benefited the most from the laws that were established by the kings who did what was evil in the sight of God.

Once Josiah had been killed and the kings who followed him restored most of the unjust and violent ways of the kings who had preceded Josiah, Jeremiah’s role as a prophet of God Yahweh kicked into high gear, not only in pointing out the unrighteous and unjust ways of these kings, but also in addressing the royal priests and prophets, and the wealthy landowners and merchants, and exposing their complicity in oppressing the widows, the orphans, the slaves, and the sojourners throughout the land.

According to Jeremiah, the kings ultimately were responsible for everything that was going on throughout Judah that would be contrary to God’s will.  Given this caveat, according to Jeremiah’s own words, the wealthy landowners had become rich and grown fat and sleek by taking over the land of those who were less fortunate and forcing them into slavery.  They made their neighbors work for nothing and did not give them their wages.  Consequently, they built their houses by unrighteousness and their upper rooms by injustice because their eyes were only on their unjust gain.

The royal prophets prophesied false dreams in order to make the king look good in the eyes of the people.  They led the people astray by their lies and their recklessness crying out “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace throughout the land.  Similarly, the priests encouraged the people to burn offerings to false gods and did not lead the people in keeping the Sabbath Day.  As far as Jeremiah was concerned, these prophets and priests did not speak honestly, dealt falsely with the people, and were ungodly. 

Of course, the kings received the brunt of Jeremiah’s critique because the kings did not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, did not defend the rights of the needy, and did not inquire of God in terms of how to govern the people.  Any attempts that they did make to stand before God were a sham.  They declared that everything was well when it was not.  They shed innocent blood, practiced oppression, and did violence to their own people.  Any prophet who challenged the ways of the king pretty much could count on being killed by the king. 

All of this unrighteousness and injustice was made worse by the fact that the kings, the priests, the royal prophets, and the wealthy landowners refused to be ashamed for what they were doing to their own people.  As Jeremiah says, “Those who do wrong do not know how to blush.”  They showed no contrition or fear of God, and would not repent of their wickedness.  Meanwhile, they tried to put the blame on God for all that was wrong throughout their land, and make God Yahweh out to be the one responsible for all of their woes.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book, “The Prophetic Imagination,” describes the role and responsibilities of prophets like Jeremiah.  Prophets are people who nurture and evoke a consciousness and perception that serves as an alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture in the land.  Prophets help the people to see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.  Prophets have the responsibility to cut through the numbness that the people are feeling and to penetrate the self-deception of the king.

As Brueggemann indicates, denial is the great sin of a king who wants to maintain control over the people by keeping up the pretense that everything is alright and that there is no need for any real criticism or grief.  Rulers who like to dominate cannot tolerate serious and fundamental criticism, and will go to great lengths to stop it.  When a king who does what is evil in the sight of God claims to be the necessary agent of God’s ultimate purpose, the people have every reason to be afraid and to grieve.  At one point in this profound book, Brueggemann points out that Jeremiah is a good example of a prophet who knows how to grieve and lament.

Jesus has this same capacity as we hear in our gospel lesson for today, because he is living in a time not unlike the time of Jeremiah when the Roman governors were doing everything that they could to keep the people in line, when wealthy landowners were keeping the vast majority of people in poverty, and when the religious leaders were more concerned about their pious rituals than the plight of their own people.   As a good prophet does, Jesus came along, looks at the great crowd of people, and has compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd—that is, without a ruler who has their best interest in mind.

Brueggemann points out that compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, because compassion announces that the hurt in a society is to be taken seriously and that the hurt that the people are experiencing due to the oppression and violence of the king is not to be accepted as normal and natural, but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanity.  The one thing that the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion—the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order.  The dominant culture can manage charity and good intentions, but it has no way to resist solidarity with the pain and grief for which it is responsible.

Jesus’ compassion extended to all of the people who were sick and sought him out to be healed.  As we hear today, “Wherever Jesus went, into villages or cities or farms, the people laid the sick in the market places, and begged Jesus that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak.  And all who touched it were healed.”  Looking beyond the miracle of these physical healings, every person that Jesus healed also was another form of criticism of the religious institution of his day because the people were taught that their sickness was the direct result of their sinfulness for which they had to make animal sacrifices as sin offerings.  Consequently, every person that Jesus healed meant that much less business for the animal sellers and money changers who were ripping off the people and much less income for the religious establishment that benefitted the most from this pietistic sacrificial system.  Jesus was a source of hope for these people not only because of their physical healing, but also because of the economic liberation that they could experience as the result of being healed by Jesus.

According to Brueggemann, offering hope to the people is one of the primary idioms of a true prophet—not the false hope that royal prophets like to espouse, but the real hope that we do not have to accept the reading of reality that is being perpetuated by all of the king’s men who are motivated by their own pride, fear, and greed.  In contrast, Jesus entered this world and modeled for all of us an alternative way—the way of humility, love, and generosity, grounded in a compassion that he held within his being for all people even as we witness in his prayer on the cross, when he said, “God, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Jeremiah offers this same kind of hope to his people today as he speaks on behalf of God Yahweh, and says, “I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where they have been driven, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will raise up faithful shepherds for them so that they will have no need to be afraid or be dismayed.  The shepherds that I raise up for the people will deal wisely with them and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days, your nation will be saved and everyone will be able to live in safety because I am a God of righteousness.”  In this same hope for our corporate future as a nation, let us all give thanks and praise to this God of just and right relationships as revealed in Jesus, our Savior.  Amen.