Tag Archives: liberalism

Friendly Persuasion

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As we look over this week’s and the next few weeks’ texts, I want us to keep in mind that Peter is writing to some people that are experiencing some very scary things. Fear was the main tool that the Roman Empire used to keep its subject peoples in line, and they were brutally effective at instilling fear in conquered territories. Fear was a part of daily life in the Roman Empire, and fear is still used by entities in our time to control others for power and profit. The sad thing is that fear mongering is effective. We see people from all walks of life driven by fear of others who are different from them, or who live by different principles, or who they think might want what they have. This fear creeps its way into my life, and I am sure yours as well, until suddenly God opens my eyes to the fact that I have been operating from fear. When I began the recording process for Friends ministers there was a fear that I hadn’t recognized until someone said that they thought I should go to seminary before I was recorded. I kind of lashed out a bit because I was afraid of those snobby educated types. I was afraid that my lack of education would make me look foolish and that I would be looked down on. These were fears based on the experience of watching others with access to education look down on the folks from my neighborhood. These fears of our neighbors are used to manipulate us and to generate conflict that draws our attention away from what is important. It almost drew me away from God’s call on my life to be a pastor. Into our fearful society Peter’s words speak with surprising relevance:

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats[or what they fear]; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 2:13-17 NIV)

Peter starts out with what might first be considered a rhetorical question, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?” Well, the Wednesday night bible study came up with a fairly depressing list of all sorts of people that could fit into that category. Needless to say what all of the categories had in common was that there are some people who stand to gain in one way or another from others who are not eager to do what is good. Kathy pointed out last week that some of those who benefit from our accepting a broken role in our families will lash out at us when we reject a bad relationship and enforce boundaries that are healthy and good. Peter doesn’t gloss over the brokenness of the world or of the various institutional and personal relationships we have to navigate.  I would say that every culture, nation or relationship has some form of brokenness built into it, so when we go about our daily lives maybe we can keep our eyes open for the opportunities to repair things. The good work of repairing what is broken exposes us to the jagged edges of raw emotion and occasionally we will get hurt by those edges, occasionally we will suffer for our repair efforts. Peter reminds us to not let our fear of pain, rejection, and loss stop us from doing the good work we have been given. The work of healing broken relationships is worth a little pain and suffering, isn’t it? Especially when we get the blessing of seeing a broken relationship with God healed.

This section of the letter is about witness, and Peter’s instruction is even more relevant to us than those to whom he wrote. Christianity has a bit of a PR problem. There are people who claim to follow Jesus as their Lord that picket funerals and attack people who are hurting rather than extending healing hands. There are people who claim the name of Jesus that do not act lovingly at all times, and to my great sadness I have to admit to being one of them. God has chosen to reveal himself through broken people like me who still have large imperfections and flaws that in their clumsy attempts to bring healing instead cause harm. When I was in my discernment process for coming here and was feeling unsure about the call, one of the elders of my church asked me what I was afraid of. I thought about it for a minute and said that I was afraid that my mouth would move ahead of my brain and I would hurt someone and not realize it until it was too late. My elder looked over at me with a chuckle and said “Don’t worry about that Gil. I guarantee you that it will happen, the only question you need to keep asking yourself is will you keep yourself ready to do what you must to make things right.” Following Jesus and revering him as Lord means paying attention to the fact that some of the brokenness I have to work on is in me, that some of the broken relationships I am called to repair were broken by me.

This is what I think Peter is referring to when he speaks about being prepared to give an answer to the hope we have with gentleness and respect: we must acknowledge our brokenness in order for others to ask us why on earth we would have any hope, and we must be sympathetic to the brokenness in others, not passing judgment, but carrying the fragile light of hope into someone’s personal darkness. We as the church and me personally have gotten this dead wrong all too often, and I can only speak to my own condition here, but I mostly get it wrong when I allow fear to set my agenda. It is a natural thing for us to be afraid of what is different from us. We have had thousands of years to set up mental structures that tell us who to be near and who to avoid, and the people who are most like us fall into the category of people to be around. Unfortunately for this tribal imperative Jesus teaches that the people who God loves tends to not fit into those neat categories. Keeping a clear conscience in God’s sight then leads us to look beyond the surface impressions and false identities and see the beloved child of God in each face we encounter no matter how unlike us that face appears to be. Jesus taught about this in a parable:

25Just then a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures tried to trap Jesus.

Scholar: Teacher, what must I do to experience the eternal life?

Jesus (answering with a question)26What is written in the Hebrew Scriptures? How do you interpret their answer to your question?

Scholar: 27You shall love—“love the Eternal One your God with everything you have: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind”* —and “love your neighbor as yourself.”*

Jesus: 28Perfect. Your answer is correct. Follow these commands and you will live. 29The scholar was frustrated by this response because he was hoping to make himself appear smarter than Jesus.

Scholar: Ah, but who is my neighbor?

Jesus: 30This fellow was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho when some robbers mugged him. They took his clothes, beat him to a pulp, and left him naked and bleeding and in critical condition. 31By chance, a priest was going down that same road, and when he saw the wounded man, he crossed over to the other side and passed by. 32Then a Levite who was on his way to assist in the temple also came and saw the victim lying there, and he too kept his distance. 33Then a despised Samaritan journeyed by. When he saw the fellow, he felt compassion for him. 34The Samaritan went over to him, stopped the bleeding, applied some first aid, and put the poor fellow on his donkey. He brought the man to an inn and cared for him through the night. 35The next day, the Samaritan took out some money—two days’ wages* to be exact—and paid the innkeeper, saying, “Please take care of this fellow, and if this isn’t enough, I’ll repay you next time I pass through.” 36Which of these three proved himself a neighbor to the man who had been mugged by the robbers?

Scholar: 37The one who showed mercy to him.

Jesus: Well then, go and behave like that Samaritan. (Luke 11:25-37 The Voice)

The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable proved himself to be a friend to the victim of the robbers, and Jesus tells this scholar, a Jew raised to despise the Samaritans as half-breeds who taught all kinds of wrong things about God, to emulate the Samaritan in this story. If we would persuade the world around us of the truth of the hope we bear, we also must behave like the Samaritan. The Samaritan didn’t check to see what faith the wounded man was, what class, race or anything else. The Samaritan simply saw someone who was wounded and dying.

Our culture is mired in a culture war that is creating scores of wounded and dying and I wonder if God may not be calling us to lay down any arms and jagged edges that we may be carrying and minister to the wounded rather than fight. As a pastor I have felt pressured to take sides in the culture wars and I will say this: my job is to minister to the wounded not to create more wounds. I will fail at this, but by the grace and mercy of God I will try my hardest to bind up every wound that God brings before me no matter what. It cannot matter to me whether someone agrees or disagrees with what I believe the only thing that can matter is that there is a beloved child of God in front of me that has been wounded and may be in danger of dying. That must be my top priority, not making sure everyone is saying the right words or doing the right things, but that the sick, wounded and dying are being healed, that by my friendship, compassion, and care I might witness to the hope that comes from knowing Jesus as my king. If we are to imitate Jesus we must remember that it was by his wounds that we could be healed and be ready to stand in the gap for others so they might be healed. There will be a price for being conscientious objectors in the culture wars but if we truly befriend the wounded and become as a body a “hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” the good of planting those seeds of God’s kingdom is, and will be, worth the cost. As we enter into open worship let us listen for the direction of the Holy Spirit, giving him the space to speak to each of our souls. Let us ask that God open our eyes to how we can be Jesus’ hands and feet, binding up the wounds of the fallen and persuading people by our friendship that they not only have a good friend in us, but the best possible friend in Jesus.


Holding Plans Loosely

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Is there anyone here who has made a plan for a long term project and had everything happen exactly as they planned it? Yeah, me neither. My favorite example of this involves technology. We were upgrading the computers in our New York office and had budgeted two weeks to complete the changeover. On day 2 we encountered the infamous blue screen of death on each computer we had set up the previous day. That significantly changed the plan for us, and it took a month and a half instead of two weeks. I am sure that each of us has our own horror stories about plans that went awry on us due to some variable we hadn’t considered in our planning. At some point we have to recognize our inability to account for every possibility. As the leader of the Jerusalem church James must have seen the plans he made fall by the wayside more times than we can count. As Jesus’ brother he saw Jesus’ plans change a few times when people were just that crazy. From those points of perspective James must have been awfully frustrated with people who made their plans and figured that God would follow their plan.

13Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. James 4:13-17

James was seeing people make plans about the future without even consulting the one in whose hands the future rests. God has a mission, and God’s mission has a church. James is reminding us that we need to be looking for God’s plans, for God’s activity, especially if we want to have what we do make any kind of difference beyond our lifetime. Planning as a follower of Jesus requires us to ask: “Does this plan show that I love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind and strength, and love my neighbor as myself?”

It is no coincidence that James brings money and business into the picture. How many of the business decisions that we make involve any kind of consultation with God? From my experience, and to my own personal chagrin, I am going to have to admit that less than 10% of the business decisions I made involved any kind of prayer or seeking after God’s will. It is so easy to allow the faith in our lives to be compartmentalized and cut-off from the rest of life, and that is why these reminders are in our scriptures. Every single one of us is under pressure to make our decisions and order our lives according to the ways of the world. We are taught to do the best we can to make as much money as possible so that we can be comfortable and secure, and that the God stuff needs to stay on Sunday and really doesn’t have anything to do with “real life”. This is a consequence of the modernism that underlies both liberal and conservative thought. Both of those movements come from a cultural context that has sought to create and enforce arbitrarily assigned categories, which we call labels, and then used the categories to determine which label we can apply to lump groups of people together. I have had the privilege of spending time with both liberals and conservatives and want to tell you that the rabbit hole of labeling seems to have no bottom; each culture continually develops more and more labels to compartmentalize themselves and others into. Nobody seems to be asking the questions of what these labels serve to do or if it is appropriate to assign labels to people we don’t know. Maybe we can start asking the questions, at least of ourselves at first: Does using these labels affirm or deny the image of God in others? Am I using a label as an excuse to not love my neighbor? While modernism did not exist in biblical times, I think we have something we can pull from this text as an important reminder here that anytime we allow the tribal influences of the culture we are part of to rule our decision making and planning process we are putting ourselves under a different master than God, and that master does not have our best interests in mind.

This text has something to say to that myth of individualism, that pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality, as well. Namely it says that we are not the masters of our own destiny, that we do not have the ability to control events around us, or whether or not we succeed. Indeed, we can’t even know if we will be alive tomorrow. We are told from the very beginnings of our lives we have the ability to set the course for our life and keep it on the pathway to success, happiness, fulfillment, and that those who don’t have those things made bad decisions to get there. Many of you now know that the reality is much more complicated. Sometimes making good decisions have bad consequences. Sometimes bad things happen to us because of other people’s bad decisions. Believe it or not Friends because we live in a broken world being honest, truthful, and ethical will sometimes negatively impact our worldly success. I used to work for an engineering firm, and one day the owner asked me to bring a brown bag lunch to the building inspector who was doing the final inspection on a project. The bag seemed a little large and heavy to hold a lunch, and I refused. This did not do well for my promotion prospects, or my continued employment, and I ended up moving back home to start again. One of the variables we forget to account for is our and other people’s brokenness. God has a much better understanding of this and uses the writings of the prophets, the words of Jesus, and other New Testament writers like James to remind us to avoid arrogance by depending on God. God is truly the source of our life and worldly success is definitely not an accurate measure of faithfulness. Indeed, some of the writings in the scripture can be read to suggest the opposite. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that things are not hopeless and this is not a call to fatalistically give up on making plans. That would be a grave misinterpretation of this text. James is not attacking plans, he is going after the attitude of triumphalism, that just because we are Christians making plans they will go exactly as planned since God has a vested interest in making us appear prosperous. Ummm…No. We are called to make plans with humility, knowing that a time may come when we are shown an action that is the right thing to do which will set our plans back or even make us give them up because we see a much better way than our plan. Being humble in our planning means having clearer vision when we are trying to carry them out, because we are less emotionally invested in a specific path and we then open ourselves up to seeing our plan improve. This way when we see something right that we absolutely must do to remain faithful we can let go of our plan, place ourselves in the hands of God, and avoid working against God.

Getting ourselves to this point is not going to be one of those “3 easy steps to a new you” plans, but is going to require some intentional work on our part. If you are anything like me there is no way you are going to go from less than ten percent to 100 percent overnight. We have to begin exercising our spirits to keep ourselves aware of God’s presence in our days. One way to start is to pray every time you look at the time. Ask God into the decisions of the hour to come, into the relationships at work, home, school, and running errands. Welcome God into the joys and sorrows of daily life, knowing that God is right there with you as you feel. As we hold this presence in our minds, and as the awareness of our loving God’s presence grows to fill more of our days we will find it much easier to invite God into our decisions and  trust him with our futures. Join me in our time of open worship to absorb these words, to hear new words, and to initiate the communion that can be part of every hour of every day of our lives.