Between Rocks and Hard Places and Safety and Refugees

rock and hard place

This isn’t a post about marriage but about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, that placed him between a rock and a hard place. (see Matthew 19:1-10)

To be more clear, this post is about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage and decided to deal with the thing behind the question about marriage.

In Matthew 19, Jesus opponents sought to test him by asking a question concerning a common debate among them:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

What a question!”For any and every reason?” Seriously? Try to answer a question where “any” and “every” are tied together.

This question was packed with serious heat. In the background of this question we have two schools of rabbinical thought that had argued about the topic of divorce for decades and the battle line seemed to be drawn in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses permits divorce for “anything indecent.” One school emphasized the “indecent” part of the passage, leaving marital unfaithfulness as the only acceptable reason for divorce while the other school emphasized the “anything” part of the ruling, allowing men to divorce their wives for things as menial as burning their meal.

So the question was tricky: “Who are you with Jesus? With the ‘indecent’  group or with the ‘anything’ group?”

The framing of the question left little room for actual discussion, but only just enough room for a quick vote of affiliation.

Therefore, wisely, Jesus moved the discussion “into a bigger room” by not trying to parse a particular passage in the law of Moses, but to a more radical (radical: think not of teenage angst but “root” where the word radical really comes from) vision of relationships: two people leave their families to journey on an adventure together and dwell as one person. Let’s talk about how we can stay together and not how, or if, we can plan to go our separate ways if we lose interest in our original commitment to one another.

Jesus’ opponents followed Jesus into that bigger room where they tested him again with another question. After all, they didn’t want to learn something but they wanted to engage in a game of rhetorical sword-fighting; everyone’s favorite pastime.

Their question was as follows:

“Why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)

This is a fair question. Why did God allow Moses to permit a divorce if God was so adamant about couples not parting ways?

Jesus’ response might be a bit spooky for some of us to consider, because Jesus insinuates that the law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24 was in response to how the Israelite community had developed up to that point. Moses’ law was binding for that time and it seemed to be helpful for the vulnerable women in their culture, a formal way of making restitution for broken relationships in that zip code when faced with their plight. Jesus’ hope was that a more native vision of marriage would be recovered and would replace the (now) unhelpful vision from Moses community.

After this, his disciples chimed in with what could be called the nihilist position,

“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)

Jesus acknowledges that the marriage debate from above isn’t for everyone, including those who were born into or forced into situations where they cannot even have the option to choose to be married. And still others who choose to be exempt because of their religious commitments.

As I read through this passage, I couldn’t help but think about how I have heard recent “discussions” about our national security on the one side and the welcoming of refugees on the other. Yes, if Jesus (and those seeking to follow Jesus) is to be tested today, I can hear the question now:

“Is it lawful for us to deny foreign refugees or to give them safe harbor?”

And we can compare the above conversation between Jesus and his opponents about marriage to how some of our conversations about refugees have gone. For they seem to have the same thing behind their corresponding questions.

The conversation about refugees is trapped in tight spaces, like as tight as a phone booth, where people are forced to give quick and (if they’d admit it) underdeveloped answers to complex situations.

We may struggle to find easy answers to these complex questions. At the end of the day, that might be a good thing. Easy answers usually draw us away from reality and if we are drawn away from reality we are drawn away from the people who are shaped the most by real, hard situations.

May we have the same guts that Jesus displayed here in this passage; with care, with courage, and with patience, understanding that our presence might be more helpful than a Retweet or Facebook Share.


The Stiff-Arm of God

stiff arm

I’m preparing a talk for the weekend and wanted to post a bit about it. It will be some new material, so writing a bit about it helps to sort it out, a bit.

In Mark 5, Jesus and his friends are in a neighboring region called the Decapolis, the land of Tyre and Sidon, where foreigners lived and where (in their minds) bizarre religious practice dwelled.

They immediately encounter a man with many demons, who lives among the tombs, who cannot be bound by chains, who howls at the moon, and cuts himself with stones. Yikes! This guy is in some bad shape, right?

Through a brief and unusual interaction with Jesus, the man is freed from his plight and is seen as “in his right mind,” or as N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament renders it, “stone-cold sober.” (v.15)

This man has received new life, or what we might call in Christian environments, “born again.” We can only imagine what possibilities lied ahead for him now that he was in his right mind.

The nearby residents didn’t like the way in which this miracle was conducted and what it cost them to have the local eye-sore set free, so they revoked Jesus’ visa and demanded that he leave the country.

As Jesus and his disciples prepared to leave, the man-formerly-known-as-the-tomb-dweller asked if he could join Jesus and his friends.

Jesus stiff-arms him. And tells him to,

“go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (v.19)

The man did as Jesus asked and,

“all the people were amazed.” (v. 20)

We should be a bit struck, initially, at how Jesus resists this man coming aboard the boat and joining his band of disciples. The man was left by his own country people among the tombs and now has a reputation to be in league with Jesus of Nazareth, whom they just deported. What’s the chance that anyone would embrace him in community?

Wouldn’t it have been more kind of Jesus to allow him to climb in the boat, hang out with them for a while, until he got back on his feet?

It must have been a challenging call for Jesus to make. He was potentially asking this guy to go back to an impossible situation.

But, part of our development sociologically and psychologically is to experience a gap, even from those who we look up to and admire. As early as 18 months to 2 years old, our primary caregivers set this pattern within us and we recognize it for the first time: we are not them nor does their whole world revolve around us.

This “stiff-arm” is important, for it helps us to develop a sense of self and a way to engage the world in a more healthy way. The man from among the tombs experienced both this lack and the blessing from it, for he was able to face the uncertain world with confidence and maturity.

Jesus returns to that same region later in Mark’s gospel and the residents of that land embraced Jesus instead of rejecting him. (see Mark 7:31-8:10) Perhaps it was the direct work of this one man, formerly the eye-sore-of-the-community-turned-messenger, who helped to pave the way for that great work.

The Thing About this Red Cup

red cup

Yeah, I guess I’ll go there, mainly because we’ve all heard about it. If you have not, here’s a post that has links to a representative from Starbucks and the link to Joshua Feuerstein’s original video. There are some conspiracy theories out there, trying to make light of it. Along the way, it seems like people have just chalked it up to a media frenzy and have stayed rather indifferent by it.

Feuerstein is unmoved and thinks that this “campaign” has caused Starbucks to think twice:

“I think Starbucks has gotten the message that the Christian majority in this country has awakened and are demanding that our voice be heard.”

The Christian majority has “awakened,” because of a red Starbucks cup? Really?

Feuerstein’s protest is already hijacked, though. Here is the logic:

  • Starbucks sells coffee; a lot of coffee.
  • Feuerstein wants to confront Starbucks by having people go buy coffee and insist that their name is “Merry Christmas” and by doing so “tricking” Starbucks into saying Merry Christmas.
  • Starbucks makes the same money no matter what name is on the red cup and is enjoying the outcry of disappointed people continuing to buy their coffee so the customer can put a picture up on Instagram where most of his/her followers already agree with their political/religious/consumer choices.

Don’t mind us, watching world, for nothing is really changing, here.

Feuerstein’s “religious expression” is occupied by consumerism. To play his game, you need to spend your money. Here is the irony: Christians are bemoaning about how Christmas has been reduced to consumerism in recent days. Joshua is asking people to consume more for the sake of Christmas.

I guess that I’m not surprised that this is awakening much of anything.

A couple of books were released a few years back examining the way a culture moves from point A to point B. Each of them compelling in their own right:

Andy Crouch’s Culture Making

James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World

Each of these illustrate just how difficult and complex it is to predict when seismic culture change happens and how one might even suggest that they can “start a movement,” as Feuerstein suggests this could do in his video.

All of us, yes even those who take home videos with smart phones, are a small part in the complex connection of gears that move our cultures forward. To suggest that a video and words on a cup can be the pivot of change is a bit strange to imagine. This may “lionize” Feuerstein’s congregation or friends list, it might get him some air time on the media for a week, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be changing much.

I hope that Joshua starts using his name on his cup soon. Mainly because, it’s a good name. A name that his parents chose out of the list of possibilities when they lifted him in the air when he was born. And, to be honest, giving energy to building lives in our families and communities seems to have a more lasting impression than much of anything else these days.


Theological Dictionary Roulette: Perfectionism

Each Friday, I’ll add a post on the blog that tries to highlight theological words from my Christian heritage. I’ll do this by taking out my copy of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. I will open the book to a random page, close my eyes, and then point to a word. I will then make a short post about that word. I call this “Theological Dictionary Roulette.”

Today’s word: Perfectionism

Perfection is a Bible word, showing up in the OT and even in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says,

“Be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

The original language of the Bible sketches a startling idea about perfection, that it has less to do with “making every free throw or ace-ing every test.” The word means, “integrity, uncalculating, sincere, simple,” values that people crave even in our modern, advanced, hyper-connected world.

In NT Greek it carries a similar meaning to telos, or “reaching an end or goal.” Perfection is about reaching a desired end, even if there are bumps along the way while we get there.

Perfectionism as a theological idea has had a checkered history. On the one hand, Christian Platonists, Monastics, and Pietists sought to follow Jesus whole-heartedly, taking the Matthew 5:48 command seriously. For the most part, this pursuit has been pure and at other times, some unneeded restrictions had been placed on the Christian life that we chuckle at now. The heart was in the right place but the application could get wonky, at times.

On the other hand, others in the Christian tradition rejected the thought of perfection, insisting that the Christian is deeply flawed, even after an experience of regeneration. Jesus command in Matthew 5:48, then, is not meant to be kept but serves as an impossible standard to remind us that we don’t measure up and that we rest on God’s sheer grace is Christ.

The question remains, then, is there a way to inspire a Christian to a depth with Christ without unrealistic (and helpful) demands and without insisting that the Christian is one his/her own in working out their salvation? (Phil. 2:12-13)

I have found it helpful to look at the issue of holiness/perfection with the idea of “wholeness.”

We should ask ourselves, “Am I a whole person? Would my inner and external life be congruent? Would people in every area of my life sketch a similar picture of who I am? Do I have one self or multiple selves, some of which would not get along if they had to run next to one another on the treadmills at the gym?”

The process of wholeness takes both effort from within ourselves and help from God. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we embrace an axiom that says, “Work as if it depends upon you, but pray as if it depends on God.” Such ideas are probably inspirational, but ultimately short-circuits itself.

I’d rather rely upon Dallas Willard’s claim, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” For I am convinced that the grace to give the effort is first a work from God and that God delights in our thoughtful intentions of following in the way of Jesus.


The Spooky Jesus

This past week, I was invited to teach a Sunday School class that has been making their way through Luke’s gospel. I was asked to cover the “Rejection of Nazareth” narrative in Luke 4. Although I was familiar with the passage, I wanted to take extra time to observe something about the text that I hadn’t captured in prior readings.

Comparing Luke’s use of the parable to the other synoptic writers proved to be important. Luke places this scene earlier in the gospel than Matthew and Mark. Unfortunately, we cannot interview Luke to discover why he does this, but can play with some thoughts why. If you’d like to hear mine, let’s get coffee sometime.

What preaches or “spooks” in this story is the sheer irony of it all. Jesus is least welcome in his hometown. Perhaps the local crowd is a bit put out by Jesus’ great claim: that God’s wonderful season of Jubliee, that great celebration awaiting ahead in their future is at last bursting into their present. I’m sure some of the local folks were skeptical, the local village didn’t even have a bath, after all, and there seemed to be a gnawing embarrassment to be a Galilean in general and a citizen of Nazareth, in particular. Just ask Nathaniel (see John 1).

Perhaps the reason for the rejection was that Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in showing his miracle signs in his hometown as he did in neighboring villages. That’s at the heart of Jesus’ counter-critique to the crowd. A critique so strong that they were inches away of throwing Jesus of a nearby cliff.

As someone familiar with his setting, Jesus was able to diagnose a hidden cynicism within his culture. His diagnosis was powerful, it seemed to hit the nervous system.

Jesus’ reference to Isaiah should have been good news: God’s delightful mercy would be extended to all, especially the vulnerable. The folks from Nazareth, however, wanted it all for themselves.

Here is how Biblical Scholar George Caird summarized the sad encounter in Jesus’ hometown:

 “The people of Nazareth felt that, if the son of Joseph had anything to offer, his own home town should have had the first benefit of it. But those who stand upon their rights and insist on preferential treatment are not likely to appreciate one who offers the chance to spend and be spent in the service of others and a gospel which leaves no room for privilege. The stories of Elijah and Elisha should, indeed, have taught them that with God charity begins wherever there is found human need to call it forth and faith to receive it, irrespective of class or race.”

Jesus spooked his home crowd, exposing the ghosts that they had hidden among them. It’s a ghost that we must wrestle with, too, as people seeking faithfulness to Jesus. If the gospel is going to be good news, it needs to be good for others, not just for us. And we have to do the extra work of examining whether or not even our best intentions are power plays or are shaped with elitism that refrains from looking across the room towards those still sitting in shadows.

Do we have the guts to face those ghosts like the early Church did, over and over again? Or, would we rather “throw the prophet” down a ditch so we don’t hear his voice?

May we call the Good News that which is both “good” and “news” to all.

Something More from the Sermon, 11/2 – Feeding of the 5000

sack lunch

I’m adding a Monday special to the blog where I take 500 words and add something from the sermon from the previous day. A point or two that I didn’t have time or space to develop further during the message.

Yesterday we gave the opportunity to our people to pledge a financial commitment for our ministry in the next year as we reflected on John 6, the feeding of the 5000. The punchline was clear: a person’s offering to God may not be much but it transforms in the hands of a generous God.

I suggested that the feeding of the 5000 was not just one meal at one time for the crowd in Galilee that day. Hungry people who get fed will be hungry again soon. Perhaps Jesus had a bit more in mind when enacting this miracle, then.

I suggested that it was a wild idea for a broken, poor, oppressed people to eat a meal in leisure where they could, “have as much as they wanted.” (John 6:11) Their Roman oppressors would’ve been annoyed when they saw a bunch of people who were tax to starvation and worked to exhaustion eating a picnic meal without a care in the world.

The result of the meal was staggering: the crowd wanted to make Jesus king, by force. (John 6:15) Jesus resisted them and went on his way. But the idea is powerful: Jesus miraculous feeding unleashed a rush of creativity and imagination among the crowd. “Imagine what Jesus could do if he was in charge?” They must have considered with great delight and hope and expectation.

An idea that we struggle with in contemporary, Western Christianity is how related religious ideas and politics were in Jesus’ culture. Jesus’ reference to a generous God who could provide food from next to nothing immediately held sway a political idea among that crowd.

Some would rather have politics and religion separated from one another and others seek to use religious frameworks to influence their political agenda. It’s interesting how both left and right will look to the Christian faith as a means to their political end, not recognizing how the Christian faith runs against another part of their platform. Politics is yet another way we can pick and choose for our own ends.

Jesus envisioned a concrete kingdom, a work of God here in the space-time universe that we live in today. Over 90% of Jesus’ references to the kingdom were present-tense, not future or a long way off.

It takes guts to envision Jesus working in our world, especially when we see so much that doesn’t resemble his hopes and faith for God’s new world. It takes great faith, accompanied with prayer and a whole lot of love to see it through.

A friend showed me a video from Moldovan farmers that helps to frame the type of protest it takes to begin to dream of God’s new world. Moldovans are among the chronic poor in Eastern Europe and have seen numerous set backs in the development of their country. Even in pleasant harvest seasons, regional tyrannies have stolen from them or have damaged their crops to keep them down.

This video is so de-centering. Moldovan farmers singing, “Show Must Go On” by the rock band Queen in the English language. In essence, they are saying, “You can try to harm us… we’re still here. We’ve got hope.”

Enjoy and may we plot our own goodness in our own time and place.