Tables of Thanksgiving

What are you thankful for? I am thankful for such great church leaders!

Think of this as a sort of extension of last Sunday’s sermon. I told you all about the experience of visiting Ruth Lobato last Saturday night as she went into hospice care. It was so deeply meaningful as I went to minister to her, and found myself ministered to. Turns that whole “least of these” thing on its head and reminds us that we all have moments of being “the least of these.”

Early this morning, Tanya, Lola, and myself went to do communion with Ruth. Thankfully, Ruth has improved just a bit and was able to receive communion.

As I arrived at the hospital, I started wondering—What scripture should we read? I’m not preaching this Sunday, which is what I would ordinarily pick. However, I remembered that in two weeks I am preaching on Isaiah 61, and Tanya and I read it together as we rode up to the room in the elevator:

“1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion…”

Tanya and I immediately turned to each other and realized this was exactly what we all needed to hear this morning. Sure enough, as we gathered around the bed this morning to receive the sacrament of communion and heard those words, there was no doubt of the presence of Christ’s spirit being upon us all. What is so beautiful is that this is the Reformed understanding of communion to the T! It isn’t about the substance of the bread or the juice becoming the flesh and blood of Christ. For us, it is about being brought into the presence of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As Tanya read those words about the Spirit of the Lord and about comfort for those who mourn, I watched Ruth’s wizened face crack in to an almost imperceptible smile.

As we partook of communion I was holding back tears because of the intense power of the moment. Of course, we finished communion and Ruth immediately started ministering to each of us in turn, talking to Tanya about teaching, greeting Lola, and asking about my family. What a Saint of the Church!

I am supposed to be on vacation this week, and one might be tempted to ask, “what are you doing going on hospital visits.” Vacation is supposed to be a time to refresh and rejuvenate. Let me tell you, there is nothing more nourishing to the soul than what happened this morning.

I hope you all have moments like this to be thankful for as you gather around your various tables this Thanksgiving. Remember—The Lord’s Supper in Greek is Eucharistos—Thanksgiving! As you partake tomorrow, take a moment to think of the tables you gather around and give thanks. Remember the table that those disciples and our Lord gathered around long ago, and take time to invite Christ into your presence this holiday.

Bigger Goats to Fry

So here it is, the last Sunday of the church calendar. What better way to spend it than to talk about the Final Judgment (I feel like there should be some terrifying organ riff played every time I write that).

Matthew 25—The Sheep and the Goats, is the only place in The New Testament where there is a description of the so called, “Final Judgment.” And it creates all kinds of theological problems—where is the Grace of God if we are all sorted into eternal pens of punishment and life depending on how we treated “the least of these?”

Theologians have tried to sneak around this passage in all sorts of ways. Notably a Greek phrase is played with to try to work grace back into the picture—panta ta eqnh which can be translated in several ways. Part of the problem, is that all of those translations are fairly faithful to scripture and tradition.

First, we could take that phrase to mean “ALL the nations.” As in every individual goes before God for this judgment and sorting. The problem is, that this flies in the face of Christian traditions around grace and appears to support a kind of “Works Righteousness.”

Second, we could take that phrase to mean “all the gentiles.” eqnh means both gentiles and nations so this too is a fair translation. In this case, the theological move is to say that this is for all the outsiders—those who are not Jews or disciples of Christ. The nice part of this translation is that it allows for grace for God’s “chosen,” and still allows for a means for those outside the traditions to be granted eternal life. Many progressive theologians like this move. However, it sounds rather elitist to me—we get to skip the sorting line because God loves us more than them. Sounds like exactly what this passage speaks against—its not what you do for the people you like, but “the least of these.” So how come the liked people get to skip the line?

The other way to look at all of this is to say that God has extended grace, and acceptance of that grace looks like living a life that takes care of the least of these. This seems a bit more reasonable, but you still have the problem that this is not ultimately about what God does, but about what we do—do we choose to accept the Grace or not? In my mind, that is taking too much out of God’s hands and putting it in our own hands. Not to mention, this passage is pretty explicit about who is doing the sorting—THE SON OF MAN.

But that may be just it—maybe it has nothing to do with divine sorting of people, but has everything to do with “The Son of Man.” Ever notice that is kind of a peculiar title—Son of Man. In particular, it is only really used in the gospels and in the Hebrew Bible books of Ezekiel and Daniel. In Ezekiel, the term is often used to emphasize the role of human beings in relation to God. God is in charge! In Daniel it seems to play a slightly different role. “The Son of Man” in Daniel 7 is an apocalyptic figure that ties into Daniel’s vision of the final judgment. Sounds appropriate, right? Daniel’s vision is all about politics—go read the story it is wild and crazy with bizarre beasts and battles. In this case, the beasts are the symbols of various empires that have dealt with Israel in the past (Lion=Babylon, Bear=Medes, Leopard=Persians, Dragon=Greeks). Then we have the entrance of the “Ancient of Days” and “One Like the Son of Man.” Daniel 7:13-14: “13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” Sound a little like our passage in Matthew 25? It should. Jesus is retelling a political vision from Daniel that confirms that those imperial powers—those beasts—will fall. God is ultimately in charge, not powerful empires. Daniel is all about nations, politics and systemic sin. Trying to read this as being about individuals or being a “literal depiction” of the last judgment will just give you a headache.

If we understand these ancient politics, we understand that Jesus is taking Daniel’s vision to the next level. Not only is this about the powers of this world being brought low, but they don’t even get to maintain the image of beasts anymore. They are nothing more than sheep for the slaughter (Another Hebrew Bible Reference, Psalm 44). In this case the political message is clear—the way the empire and the religious elite of Jerusalem act in the very next chapter of Matthew will determine their fate. Since chapter 26 includes the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, it is fairly easy to conclude that those powerful beasts have just locked themselves in the goat pen.

Here is the important part of all this—not every part of scripture is about us as individuals. Sometimes, God has bigger goats to fry. Sometimes, it is about the larger political realities of empires, and not about whether we, individually, are destined for eternal punishment or eternal life. It is about the ultimate demise of nations before the sovereignty of God.

This is, however, a reminder for us who live in a nation that is governed “by the people.” We have a responsibility as a nation to care for the “least of these.” How are we doing on that one? In which pen are we setting up camp?

So often, the Hebrew Bible speaks about the realities of corporate and systemic sin—were the Israelites as a people being faithful? And if we extend this to ourselves, the results may very well be troubling. If we take Christ’s vision seriously, the question isn’t whether we are a “Christian Nation,” that is whether there are a lot of people that believe in Christ. The question is, how are we treating as a nation treating “the least of these?”

No Matter What…

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is an interesting one. We have always liked to read it with the understanding that God is the wealthy landowner and wants us to use our talents to God’s service. However, if we read this parable that way God doesn’t come out looking so hot. The “Wicked” servant says that the landowner takes what doesn’t belong to him and is a harsh man who treats others badly. Rather than deny this, the landowner confirms it. So if this is the description of the landowner, why is it we read God into that place? Doesn’t that run against our tradition and the entirety of scripture?

Let me suggest another way to read this parable. If you go back to Matthew 23, you will note that Jesus is heavily critiquing the Pharisees for their hypocritical ways—Jesus is absolutely brutal in his angry rant against them. The reason Jesus is so angry is that the Pharisees teach the law of Moses, but then turn around and set a bad example. Not only that, but they use the law to exclude others and to gain wealth and prestige for themselves. 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” Jesus rails against them for casting people out of the Kingdom as well as for casting people out of society. The next few chapters are a series of parables and prophecies that talk about their kingdom and Christ’s kingdom.

Here is the trick: some of these are Christ’s visions, and some of them are what the Pharisees mistakenly say are the ways into the kingdom. If you look at the beginning of chapter 25 (this weeks text) you find the Greek phrase “Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be compared to…” as if someone else is doing the comparing. Note that it doesn’t say, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” or “I tell you that the kingdom of heaven is…” This isn’t what Jesus is saying it is, it is what others say it is. The ten bridesmaids story that follows emphasizes being wise, being prepared and hoarding—Does that sound like Pharisee actions or Jesus actions? If this is about God’s Kingdom, where is the Grace? We have to be wise, prepared hoarders to get in the gates? Then we have the parable of the talents that emphasizes making profits, ruthless business practices, and seeking the favor of the powers that be—Does that sound like Pharisee actions or Jesus actions? If this is about God’s Kingdom, where is the Grace? We have to be ruthless, overachieving, successful businessmen to get in the gates?

These two parables are followed by the story of the sheep and the goats. Jesus sorts his sheep and goats into two pens. The sheep are not the wise, prepared, hoarding, ruthless, overachieving successful people. The sheep are the ones who took care of the least of these. Matthew 25:35 “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ …”Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Doesn’t really sound like the two previous parables now, does it? If these are the sorting criteria, I am guessing that those 5 wise and hoarding bridesmaids and that wealthy landowner won’t be in the sheep pen.

So what is this really all about? I think this is pointing to the fact that we really have a hard time with grace. We don’t like the fact that there are no requirements placed on God’s love, so we rewrote these parables to uphold capitalist ideals, instead of Jesus’ teachings. We want to emphasize how important it is to be prepared and wise, to be wealthy and successful, to be ruthless and powerful. We have a hard time hearing that in the end—none of that will matter. God loves you, and me, and everyone—no matter what!

Leaving Scripture and Faith Behind

You have heard me rant before about “Rapture” theology and the other nastiness that goes with it. You have also heard me target popular culture references like Left Behind. I figured if I were to be truly fair about this, I had to actually go see the movie instead of just take shots at it. So that is what I did yesterday.

I went in with a totally negative attitude, and though there was certainly enough within the movie to justify that negative attitude, I was also determined to come away with something positive to say. And there were two redeeming elements.

First of all, I loved the spunk of the teen girl “Chloe Steele.” Her take on religion seemed to start in a sensible place. One of her main issues was that she could not believe in a God that used hurricanes and earthquakes to show God’s love for humanity by destroying the bad people. Now of course, the fact that she is left behind points to the bias of the writers that being sensible and religious don’t go hand in hand.

Secondly, there were some nice moments of people realizing they needed to do something more meaningful with their lives. I would disagree with the writer’s premise that it just simply meant believing in Christ, but I do like the fact that characters were turning away from the things that had become obstructive to more meaningful relationships with other people.

Here is the problem—both of those silver linings point to the greater theological problem of this kind of theology. The God that is represented in the larger picture of scripture is not a God that would single out these people who were making meaningful changes in their lives for some kind of eternal torture. God has a history of raising sinful people like Moses, Elijah, David, Paul, Noah, Rahab, Mary to become heroes of faith. In this movie, and in this kind of theology, those are exactly the kind of people that are Left Behind. Not only that, but there were many demonstrations of these being genuinely good people, but the point was made in this movie that it doesn’t matter if you’re good, it only matters if you believe this very limited and absurd theological premise. I found it particularly disgusting that the movie took the Muslim character and made him into a great person, only to drive home the point that God hates him because he doesn’t agree with the mean-spirited theology of Tim LaHaye.

Beyond the theological problems, the movie just wasn’t very well done, so that made it even more painful. However, I did learn something important. If I am going to stand up in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and rail against something like this, I need to actually spend the time trying to understand it.

I believe that the reason this kind of theology has gotten so much attention is because it offers something to Christians who are feeling abandoned by the larger culture. The opening scene of the movie was quite telling, when a fanatical conservative Christian woman accosts a man because he doesn’t believe what she does. This scene becomes the metaphor for what many Christians have been feeling. They see that the power they once had to influence is slipping away, and they desperately want someone to listen to them. I think you could even go one step further and say that part of what is happening here is an identification with the stories of oppression and violence towards God’s chosen people in scripture, and the need to find an oppressor so that primarily white, wealthy, privileged peoples can find a means of identifying with the victims of the past and claim their place as God’s people.

It speaks to deep seeded needs we all share: The need to feel that we are heard…The need to feel that we are going the right way…The need to know that we are special…The need to know that we are loved.

However, I am convinced that the true beauty of the gospel is that it reminds us that God can fill those needs for each of us, without putting other beloved children of God down in the process. I suppose that what I see as the darkest part of this theology is that it completely lacks faith and hope. It lacks a faith that says God has enough love for all of us. It lacks hope that God’s kingdom is coming even amidst the devastations of the world around us.

Perhaps what is most telling is that this theology is built upon this passage of 1 Thessalonians 4 that says Christ will come again and will gather us all up in the air with him. What it doesn’t pay attention to, is that this whole passage of scripture begins reminding the Christians at Thessalonica that death is not something to fear—that the troubles they face are not something to fear. Ultimately, they are not to fear because they have hope. This kind of theology sucks all hope out of the Good News of the Gospel. For that alone we should know that this is not the Good News of Jesus Christ, but a farce.