Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Divine Generosity -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A

Matthew 20:1-16 New Revised Standard Version

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

                What does the Kingdom of God (heaven) look like?  What are its marks?  Is it a spiritual entity?  Is it something that will emerge in another age, but not now?  Is the church an expression of the kingdom?  We hear a lot these days that Jesus didn’t come to establish the church, but rather the kingdom of God.  The church is therefore the poor imitation of the real thing.  Jesus speaks regularly of the kingdom – the basilea theou – usually in the form of parables.  Parables by their design both reveal and hide.  Parables are also culturally defined.  That is, they are rooted in the culture of the original audience.  We must therefore translate not only the words but the meaning if we’re to understand its message for today.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Jesus Goes to Washington (Doug Miller) -- Review

JESUS GOES TO WASHINGTON: His Progressive Politics for a Sustainable Future. By Douglas J. Miller.  Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock, 2013.  215 pages. 

            Years ago Jimmy Stewart starred in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the story of an idealistic young man appointed to the Senate.  Although he runs into political corruption, he doesn’t back down, and fits the good fight for what is good and right.  Truth is, of course, that more often than not idealism quickly turns to realism.  After all, politics is the art of the possible, and that requires a good deal of horse-trading.  Indeed, one of the reasons why very little gets done these days in Washington is that too many people refuse to “compromise.”  Besides that, with the elimination of earmarks, there’s not much to trade.  Politics isn’t necessarily dirty, but it’s also not for the faint of heart!

            What would happen if Jesus went to Washington?  How would he engage the political sphere?  Would he be corrupted, or would he stand on principle?  Many have tried to envision Jesus as a politician or at least speaking to political themes.  There is enough material in the Gospels to provide the foundation for a number of political platforms, including progressive ones.  As one who embraces a mostly progressive political agenda, I’m always pleased when I think I’ve found support for my views in the Gospels! 

            But what kind of politics did Jesus embrace, and how does that translate into modern contexts?  After all, Jesus’ ministry took place in the midst of a series of client states that owed their ultimate allegiance to Rome.  Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom was clearly not the same thing as Rome’s empire.  So, what was Jesus’ political agenda?

            Christian ethicist and retired Baptist pastor Doug Miller (a colleague of mine when I was in Santa Barbara) has written a challenging and complex book that seeks to answer that question.  Doug forthrightly declares that Jesus preached a notion of the kingdom that offers us a progressive political platform that foresees a sustainable future for humanity.   In his view, Jesus was very much a political person.  So, utilizing an interpretive scheme that makes use of the imperial ethic understanding of scholars such as Richard Horsley and John Dominic Crossan, Doug envisions Jesus offering us an eco-spirituality.  Miller’s understanding of ancient reality assumes, I think correctly, that religion and politics were not separate entities.  Therefore, in proclaiming the kingdom of God, he was offering an alternative politics.  If so, then how does that translate to the present?

In the ancient world the dominant political system was that of monarchy.  If Caesar ran one empire, Jesus was in essence setting up an alternative empire.   Bringing that vision into the present, Doug takes the Greek word basilea, which we usually as kingdom and reinterprets it as Good Governing.   It’s an intriguing idea, and yet there is something troubling about this usage.  In fact, as we progress through the book, at times it’s difficult to decipher the role that God plays in this vision.  While he makes it clear in the end that he doesn't see any government, including the United States, fully embodying this vision you get the feeling that what is expected of us is to put our eggs in the nation’s political basket.  If somehow we can elect enough Mr. Smiths, who are incorruptible, and embrace Jesus’ “eco-spirituality” all will be good.   

While I was reading Doug’s book, I started reading Scot McKnight’s newest book – Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Brazos, 2014) – which argues that kingdom mission is church mission and therefore social justice activism, though good and right isn’t the same thing as the kingdom of God.  While I have my problems with Scot’s vision, I find Doug’s equally troubling but for completely opposite reasons.  In Scot’s vision, kingdom and church are essentially synonymous (I’ve yet to finish the book, so these are preliminary thoughts).  In Doug’s book there really doesn't seem to be much of a role for the church.  Kingdom work appears to be largely political in nature.    

So, although my own politics are similar to Doug's and my theology is similar as well (I base this judgment in part on my conversations with Doug during our years serving together in Santa Barbara), I must confess to finding the starkly political language to be distracting.  It’s not just the translation of “kingdom of God” as “good governing,” it’s also the attempt to contrast too starkly Progressive politics, which is almost always portrayed in positive light, against Conservative politics, which is almost always portrayed negatively.  For one thing this plays into the contemporary American political divide and forces Jesus to choose sides, rather than seeking to understand the vision of Jesus and choosing his side.  In this portrayal, everything seems too black and white.  Jesus is a Progressive and his enemies are Conservatives.  There’s no room for gray here.   My sense is that these terms have become so polarizing they will make Doug's message of justice, peace, ecological concern, unattractive to those who might otherwise embrace them. In other words, though Doug doesn't want to identify Jesus with the Democratic Party, it will be difficult for many readers to distinguish the two. 

So, what should we make of a book that explores ecology, affirmative action, living wages, judicial activism, health care, and many other topics in spiritual terms?  In as much as Doug has lifted up the key issues of our day and has called on Christians to consider how their faith relates to it then Doug has done us a great service.  He has outlined a political vision that calls for compassion and grace, while pursuing the common good.  I embrace this platform.  At the same time, I’m concerned that he has enmeshed the message of Jesus in partisan politics.  The point that he makes here is that for Christians Jesus’ message is politically relevant!  The question is: how will Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God be present in our world?  With this book, Doug offers a provocative suggestion as to how he sees it, and it is worth considering.  

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Border Crossing -- A Sermon for Pentecost 15A

Exodus 14:19-31

We cross borders all the time.  Crossing the border into Canada is relatively easy, as long as we have the proper identification.  If you’re trying to cross from Mexico into the United States without documentation, it can be incredibly difficult and dangerous.   The plight of the children fleeing the violence of Central America and the status of young adults who came here with their parents as small children and who have known no other world but America has raised important questions about the nation’s immigration laws. Many are asking whether they are fair and just and appropriate. 

Then there’s the border dividing Detroit from its suburbs.  While no one has to present their papers to cross the divide that 8 Mile Road symbolizes, in the minds of many Detroit and the Suburbs are two different worlds.  In fact, crossing the border can be frightening for many – on both sides of the divide. 

We cross borders every day of our lives as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world.  The borders can be economic, cultural, religious, generational, ethnic, gender-related, or related to one’s sexual orientation.  Reaching across these borders can be difficult.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Funerals and Priestly Roles of Clergy

Yesterday I presided at the funeral and committal service of one of our beloved church members.  Yesterday, I also posted (re-posted from his blog) a brief essay written by Keith Watkins about how he learned to lead funerals back when he went to seminary some sixty years ago.  Having spent the week with the family in preparing for the funeral and then leading the funeral, I decided that I would reflect some on my experiences as a pastor serving in this role.   In actuality I served in several roles, from providing pastoral care to helping answer questions about the funeral process.  Although I don't always go to the funeral home, my presence was requested so I went with the family.   The week culminated in going with several members of the family including the husband.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Funerals the way I learned them 60 years ago (Keith Watkins)

Today I will be officiating at a funeral for a long-time church member.  I have done many of these over the years.  Sometimes I've not known the person for whom I am leading the funeral.  At other times, the person is someone I have had a close relationship with.  The question that we face as clergy when it comes to funerals and memorial services is focus and demeanor.  In recent years the focus has increasingly been placed on the person, with much celebration and laughter.  In some cases funerals turn into roasts. Very little of the religious/spiritual is present. 

 Today I am reposting the second of a series of posts written by my friend and mentor Keith Watkins.  It is a month since his own wife passed away, and that event has stirred his thinking about death and funerals.  In this piece he shares what he was taught sixty years ago.  He notes that he was taught to keep it short and keep it focused on the religious.  Indeed, little emphasis was to be placed on the deceased.  One needn't even mention the person's name.  For me that is much too impersonal.  I can't imagine standing today before the congregation and not say anything about Joanne's life.  So, how do we find that balance?  Invite you to read Keith's essay and invite you to go to his blog and follow his journey.