Richard's Food for Thought

Knowledge Is Food For the Soul-Plato

Food for Thought- #SyrophoenicanWomensLivesMatter — August 31, 2015

Food for Thought- #SyrophoenicanWomensLivesMatter

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I am a lectionary preacher. This means I use the proscribed 3-year cycle of texts (with readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles each week) designed to allow a preacher and worshiping community to encounter most of the Bible in three years. I’ve done sermon series. But I like the lectionary. I like the order it provides and how it forces the preacher to encounter familiar and unfamiliar texts. I think it is important to be challenged with hard texts, texts you wouldn’t normally choose to preach because “you like them” or “enjoy them” or “they spoke to you”. This is the basic logic of being a lectionary preacher. It is also why Mark 7:24-37 is on my mind.

It’s one thing to encounter a “hard text” within the lectionary cycle, such as Solomon and his concubines. You force yourself to come to terms with the political realities of the moment and find something within those words which might preach to a contemporary congregation. It’s another thing to be presented a text causing you to question your faith in Jesus. Mark 7:24-37 has always had this effect on me.

Jesus has left Galilee and gone to Tyre. He’s technically out of the country. He’s in a different region where Jews aren’t the dominate nationality. Being constantly bombarded, Jesus wants some time away. This is understandable. A woman, whose child was sick, hears Jesus is in town and finds him. She, we are told is Greek (of Syrophoneican origin). This means she’s native to Tyre. Jesus is in her country. He says, “I can’t feed you. The children (meaning the children of Israel) have to be fed first. I can’t toss it to the dogs.” She replies, “Even the dogs get crumbs.” It’s a solid comeback. Jesus issues no apology.

Jesus went to another region and said to a local, native born resident, your culture isn’t worth a damn. My culture it’s the best. I can’t help you because you’re not one of my culture. Jesus is in another country and lecturing a local resident about how his culture is superior. I have trouble with a Jesus who would do this. Can you imagine that happening? It happens every day. It’s not only with Americans tourists in Europe. Examine the ways United Methodists approach issues of race and faith. How many people from beyond the AME knew exactly what the AME response to the horrific shooting should be? How many straight people want to tell lesbian, gay, and transgendered people how to feel and be Christian?

I question Mark’s judgment for recording these words of Jesus, someone I believe to be loving and nonviolent, words which were of the most hurtful, racist, sexist kind imaginable . Was the whole story made up? It makes me doubt Mark’s version of the man who said them, so willingly as if to test another human being with their ability to respond to racist language. Is the whole purpose of this story to heal or not heal this woman’s child unless she can withstand his racist quips about eating leftovers from the white’s only table?

It makes me frustrated to hear people say, “Jesus is having a bad day”. It’s usually followed by, “we all have bad days. Jesus was fully human, remember? Now go out and have a Jesus approved bad day.” Everyone around Jesus knew his referral to the Syrophonecian woman as a dog was wrong. He didn’t call her a puppy, even though some Greek scholars make the argument. He called her a bitch. How bad does your day have to be to call a minority (Greek) woman (minority) a dog (a bitch)? There are no racist diatribes reported by any of the gospel writers on the day Jesus was executed. That was a much worse day. It has always seemed Jesus is going out of his way to insult this woman. I don’t like that.  A woman, begging for her child’s health, in order to be heard by a man with privilege isn’t a feel good story.

The Jesus of Mark 7 isn’t the Jesus we want to let into and flow through our lives. We want to keep the Jesus from Mark 7 as far away from our lives and churches as possible. But here’s the thing, my fear is we have more of the Mark 7 Jesus on the loose than we realize. The Mark 7 Jesus is in our churches, right now and you may not know it. Hiding behind the coded language of xenophobic patriotism, race, and theology, we’ve learned how to insult each other, all in the name of Jesus.

#SyrophoenicanWomensLivesMatter

Food for Thought-Every Good Gift (James 1:17-27) — August 29, 2015

Food for Thought-Every Good Gift (James 1:17-27)

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What was the greatest gift you ever received? For me, it’s hard to pin down one specific thing. When I had hair, someone gave me a long, black comb. It was the kind preferred by barbers, the ones which usually rested in a jar of antiseptic. I took this gift for granted. I was unable to fully appreciate the ability to style, move, and adjust the hair on top of my head. Now that I am bald, I see it as one of the greatest treasures ever to be placed in my hands.

Maybe the greatest gift I received wasn’t the comb. Perhaps it was the Batmobile. I remember the Christmas when mama and daddy got me a decent size replica of the Adam West-era Batmobile. I’m telling you this car was identical to the one Batman drove on the hit 1960’s television show, only considerably smaller. Batteries from Radio Shack and the Batcave were not included. With those small exceptions, it had everything else. There were seats for Batman and Robin, a phone to call Commissioner Gordon, and a big jet engine to blast out of my yet to be built Batcave.

I loved that car. I loved the idea of having that car. Batman and the Batmobile belonged to me. On good days, we were in partnership together. On other days, I was in charge of the whole operation. We would be, at my discretion, fighting crime in the place where I lived. Before I received the Batmobile, we could only fight crime at certain times of day, usually in the late afternoon at my grandmother’s house, when the show came on television. Between homework and snack, I would fight crime with Batman for about half an hour.  With the Batmobile, I wasn’t bound by the limits of a television show. Batman lived with me in my homemade Wayne Manor. We were friends.

Every facet of Batman’s life, work, and car were mine to look at, recreate, and enjoy. If I wanted to make the car drive up the side of a tree, we drove vertically over bark and limbs. If the car, which had never flown in a single episode, wanted to fly; we would launch ourselves through the air. What I had watched the car do on television didn’t matter. The untapped crime fighting potential sitting in my hand, that’s what mattered most. I didn’t need to see under the plastic hood or kick the tiny tires to know the car would fly. I could simply tell. These unrealized and unseen powers were the most obvious and self-evident qualities of the Batmobile I received as a gift. There were connections, waiting to be made, once I received the gift. I didn’t see the many connections until they were staring right back at me.

Eventually the best gifts we receive, no matter how much we love them wear out, die, fade, and lose their luster. The impact they once had on our lives is no longer there. They no longer matter as they once did. James, in today’s scripture, advances an idea that gifts change our lives on multiple levels. He says, we become emotionally and physically different after receiving gifts we enjoy. Our lives change. We do things differently than before we possessed the gift. The gift impacts what we do and how we live. If you give a middle aged man a convertible Corvette, he will put the top down and reignite his passion for Guns and Roses.  It will change his outlook on life and how he sees himself and those around him. Gifts come with certain inherent and implied responsibilities; especially when the gift comes from God. What are you going to do with your gift from God? Are you going to play with it until you are bored, until it breaks, or your attention wanes and you want to move on to something shiner and offers more thrills? What are you going to do with your gift from God?

The problem is, when you’re talking about gifts from God, you’ve got nowhere to run. James says everything is a gift from God. When he says everything, he means everything; starting with the air we breathe and the bodies we inhabit. Life itself is a gift. If life is a gift from God and gifts change the life of the person who receives a gift, then we need to ask: how does being gifted by God change how we encounter the world with our gift. How is our life different because we received this gift?

James says we see the evidence on multiple levels. Firstly, it’s witnessed in extremely practical ways. You interact with the world in a way that’s not unique to Christians but without this gift it seems much harder for so many people. James writes, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow in anger.” If that’s not the best advice you’ve ever received, raise your hands? That’s wonderful advice. It’s sage wisdom if I’ve ever heard any. As I said, it’s not unique to Christianity by any stretch of the imagination. However, if you believe God has gifted you with life and everyone else around has received the same gift, you’re going to want to treat them in a manner befitting the gift and the giver.

James is writing his letter to 1st century Christians; people who are in the process of forming the early church. At this point in human history, people aren’t sure if church is a good idea. Many of James’ audience already had a default religious practice.  Their status quo (Judaism) was protected by Roman law. No one is being executed for being Jewish. The social pressure to go along and get along with the Roman religious system is enormous. Much like today, people are asking the question, “Who needs church?” The people James is writing to are probably accustomed to hearing, “Why are you going to church?” I’m sure there were more compelling options for their time and resources. James wanted to address this question directly.

Once you’re here, James states, “you must be doers of the word and not only hearers of the word who mislead themselves.” The way to counteract the “Who needs church?” question is to fuse listening and doing. “Who needs church, because all they do is to go there and sit on Sunday morning?” The way to answer this question is to do something as individuals and as the body of Christ. It’s like the front of the bulletin says, Don’t Come to Church-Be the Church. Hear, connect, and apply the Gospel. Make the connections. Hear the word then do the word. Do the word, what does it mean?

“Doer of the word,” notes James. That’s a loaded expression. The “word” is a big book and what James knew as the “word” and we call the “word” are a little different. At the end of today’s reading, James gives us a hint. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to care for orphans and widow in their distress.” For me, that’s always been a good place to start when talking about “doing the word.”

The last thing James tells us is this: don’t let the gift fool you into thinking you’re someone you’re not. “Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away and immediately forget what they were like.”

I wasn’t Batman. The man in the convertible Corvette, he’s not the most interesting or sexiest man in the world. Sometimes gifts (especially gifts we give ourselves) can cloud our understanding of who we think we are. Hearing the word and doing nothing is like taking a selfie in front of a mirror and immediately forgetting what you look like so you have to do it again and again. You have no identity other than the identity this illusory gift creates for you.

And yet, on the other side of the coin, we have no identity other than the one God’s good and perfect gift gives us. What is the greatest gift you have received? What are you going to do with that gift? Hear about it, talk about it, or do something with it?

Food for Thought-The 14th Amendment to the Torah-Mark 7:6-8 — August 26, 2015

Food for Thought-The 14th Amendment to the Torah-Mark 7:6-8

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Jesus at work among the people of his day casting out stupidity demons

In the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, a group of lawyers have gathered around Jesus. These Pharisees, legal scholars. and avid constitutionalists are starting to bat around the idea of changing the 14th amendment to the Torah. Do you know about the 14th amendment to the Torah? It’s the one that says, “no matter where your parents are from; be it Persia, Rome, Cyprus, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Egypt, or Guatemala City, if they make it across the borders of Israel and are born here, you’re part of God’s kingdom.” The lawyers gathered around Jesus, the legal scholars, those who understand the fine points and nuances of scripture do not agree with, like, appreciate, or enjoy Jesus’ open ended interpretation of the 14th amendment to the Torah. “It’s got to be harder to get into the kingdom of God,” they say. “Eternity can’t handle all self-righteous people who’ve gone in ahead of us!”

To the lawyers, legal scholars, and avid Torah constitutionalists a working knowledge of tradition mattered. The rules which governed religious and social practice formed the intricate web belief only they understood. To the newcomers, new arrivals, and new kids in town the kingdom of God was an ever expanding expression which seemed to include the whole world. For Jesus’ nitpicking observers, it was about washing your hands. It was also about mortal flawed people, deciding who God loves and who God hates.

The lawyers, legal scholars, and Torah constitutionalists observed Jesus’ disciples on many levels. They saw them heal the sick, preach, and how they remembered the fine points of religious and social etiquette. When you can’t condemn someone for their ability to heal and preach, you can call them nasty. Jesus’ disciples came from the rough and tumble world of Galilean fisherman. These utensil rules, while “old school” and rooted in interpretations of Biblical tradition, matted not at all to these guys. If they were going to eat, they were going to eat.  Even if it meant eating with their hands in front of ultra-religious people who were certain to deem their actions sinful.

Jesus calls the lawyers, legal scholars, and Torah constitutionalist out on the dusty carpet. He says, “You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to rules created by humans and handed down to you.”

In other words, you are creating religious rules (attributing them to God) which make it harder for people to worship and serve God in authentic, loving ways. You’re changing rules as you go along, to fit the needs of your unique and narrowly defined understanding of God. If the Kingdom of God is too big, let’s make it narrow again; that’s what man made rules like these suggest.

The Pharisee’s argument is simple: if you’re not washing your hands correctly, according to our standards, dipping your dishes in the water, or born in the right place at the right time, you do not have a claim to God’s love or a place in the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus means when he says to the Pharisees, “You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to rules created by human hands handed down to you.” When we honor God’s commandments, widows, orphans, and immigrants go first.  When we honor God, common sense, love, and compassion should override the desire to be cold hearted, minutiae obsessed bigots.

When we remember the words of Ezekiel 47:22, “You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel,” we hear a call to honor God’s commandments. Each time you hear someone use the word “anchor baby”, read the words of the Ezekiel. When we honor God’s most basic commandments, there are no border crossings or national boundaries in the Kingdom of God.

Food for Thought-Where Would We Go? (John 6:56-69) — August 22, 2015

Food for Thought-Where Would We Go? (John 6:56-69)

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John 6:65 No one comes to me unless it is granted him by the Father.

Simon Peter asks a simple yet profound question. In my mind, this is the most important question Peter has asked or will ever ask Jesus. In the midst of the confusion, the dusty roads, the misunderstood teachings, and the hard to fathom reality embodied in the idea that God has come among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; Peter asks, “Where would we go?” What would we do? Who would we be without you? Lord, where would we go?

There is another, unspoken and underlying question preceding Peter’s query. Simon Peter, the Rock, is also asking, “Lord, where would we be?” Inherent in asking the question to Jesus, “Where do we go tomorrow?” is another question, “Where would be today?” Because, brothers and sisters, the premise is the same, “without you, there is no me”.

We have come this far. Oh yes, we have come this far. At this point, the disciples see the challenges are going to increase, the level of difficulty will skyrocket, and what they imagined discipleship to be isn’t the lived reality. Jesus has been teaching and feeding, both literally and metaphorically. In his old synagogue at Capernaum, perhaps the closest thing to going back to his old high school, Jesus says for the umpteenth time: the bread you got from Moses was different. I am the bread giver and the bread. Jesus knew this would stir people up, make them angry, offend people, and turn many people against him. Yet this was who he was, this was his message, his consistent message. Jesus wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t said countless times before in synagogues up and down the country. But, there was something different about doing it on “home turf” in Capernaum.

It was like laying down a marker. This is who I am, Jesus said. If he can’t say it there, where can he say it? So he does. John tells us the disciples were grumbling about his sermon. Some English translations take the lazy, watered down approach to the Greek and say, “they murmured” about Jesus’ sermon.

This is Richard’s Excedrin headache number 4271 on how we lose the impact of the language when translators play fast and loose with the language to protect our feelings. The word, gonguzousin, literally means to grumble. Don’t be a gongusouzin(er)!

The disciples were grumbling at Jesus. How do you think Jesus feels about the disciples grumbling at his sermon (material they know and have even preached before) while in his hometown synagogue? Do you believe he’s feeling positive, upbeat, affirmed, loved, supported, over the moon, encouraged? Essentially Jesus says, “What more do I need to do reveal to you guys to get you to see the big plan? You’ve seen me feed 5000 people and still you’re moaning?”

You’ve either got it in you to do this or not. At this moment, Jesus is past the point of grand miracles and elaborate arguments. You either want to come along or not. That’s what he means, when he says, “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” Jesus is not saying I am the only way for anyone to enter heaven. I don’t believe that. Nor do I believe that’s what his verse means.

My reading of this passage (in context) simply doesn’t support the “the only way to get to Heaven is through Me” interpretation. Take the verse out of context and you can run with the “everyone but Christians are going to hell) ball all day long.  I do not believe this is what Jesus meant. He’s saying to those disciples and to us, if you want to go with him and do his thing, we have the free choice to go with him. We also have the choice to do something else. We have the choice to make a journey. We do not know how or when that journey will end. This is good enough me. I believe that God is part and parcel of our journey whether we’re aware of God’s presence or not. In today’s reading, Peter has become hyper-aware.

Yes, we can do something else. But as Peter’s question reveals, there is no something else. Where would we go? What are our options?

We are not forming an exploratory committee, like some long shot presidential candidate to see if it’s feasible to be a disciple if the money’s right and the focus groups say yes. We do not have an option. Where would we go?

We are not sitting at the breakfast table watching Jim Cantore tell us the story of a developing hurricane, its potential paths of destruction, and deciding if we might leave, if we might stay, and await the mighty force of nature to descend upon us. We don’t have a real option. There are no choices. Where would we go?

We are not leaning over the back of a fishing boat, holding an expensive rod and reel, pulling and fighting with the biggest fish you’ve ever seen, when dark clouds form on the horizon, the waves start to roll, and the captain says do you want to get back to Silver Lake Harbor? We don’t have a choice. Because where would we go?

When we have come this far, where would we go?

Look to Jesus-not the antiseptic, deodorized, whitewashed Jesus of popular culture. I’m talking about the Jesus we meet in the Bible. Look at Jesus, right here in John 6. Jesus, who was called offensive and harsh because he said controversial things like life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jesus was called harsh for asserting life exists beyond reality as we know it and that love can change the world beyond life as we know it. It sounds crazy to us that people would come down on the Son of God; Jesus of Nazareth for saying life exists beyond reality as we know it. But here’s what’s crazier, we do the same thing today. In ways large and small, we take the blessed realities of Christian and love and condemn them as unworkable, unfeasible, and unnecessary plans.

When we have come this far, where would we go?

We don’t give up, we don’t give in, and we keep going. Because where would we go?

But to Jesus

Because where we’re going, the nightmare of human brokenness is being shattered by God’s dream of human goodness. The frayed fibers of humanity, the torn patchwork quilt of human civilization, can go nowhere but to a loom, a loom that heals and welcomes all colors, shapes, and sizes of fabric. Where would we go?

We’ve come this far, where else would we go?

Food for Thought-Let’s Stir Things Up — August 21, 2015

Food for Thought-Let’s Stir Things Up

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1. If you worship a resurrected man on Sunday mornings, you’ll know scars, bruises, blood, and struggles matter.  But not if you worship a body-less God who lives only in our imaginations and old paintings and never lived as a human being.

2. If you worship a man brutalized by violence on Sunday mornings, you’ll condemn violence everywhere (at Planned Parenthood, on Death Row, in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan, perpetuated by Americans, by bad policing, and senseless criminal acts-violence perpetuated by anyone). But not if you worship a God who is violent.

3. If you worship a poor man, an impoverished Galilean carpenter, on Sunday mornings, you’ll see the injustice of poverty all around you. But not if you worship a God of wealth.

4. If you worship a Middle Eastern man, a man who was a person of color, brown skinned, born of an unwed teenage mother, on Sunday mornings; you’ll be outraged, bothered, frustrated, annoyed, disturbed, left off kilter, and moved when people who look like Jesus (persons of color, people with brown skin, children of single mothers, children of color) are regularly killed on the dusty altars of our angry civilization. Of course, if you worship a white God, this won’t happen.

Food for Thought-The Text is Political 1 Kings 8 (Solomon Continued) — August 17, 2015

Food for Thought-The Text is Political 1 Kings 8 (Solomon Continued)

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When you’re a middle-eastern dictator, your concept of God is limited and flawed. To see this, simply turn on your television. It’s the same political story playing itself out with Solomon in 1 Kings. The stories of David and Solomon are political sagas and should be preached as such. In many ways they tell stories which mirror the world we know today. What stops us from preaching the politics of King Solomon? Is it because, when you get right down to it, he sounds like many of the people running for office? Yes.

Solomon wants to do right by God but he can’t do right by a God he doesn’t understand or truly respect. Let me remind you about the wisest man in the world.  His wisdom isn’t all it has been cracked up to be.

Solomon, the child of King David and Bathsheba, liked foreign concubines. To be blunt, he loved foreign sexual slaves and prostitutes. These were not Israelite women. Most were young girls, forcibly taken from their homes and forced into sexual slavery at his court. Why should I use fancy preacher language and twisted rhetorical logic to make the ethically wrong and socially unacceptable fit middle-class Protestant sensibilities? I shouldn’t. I won’t. Sexual slavery and human trafficking are wrong. They are barbaric practices and I’m sickened they are given any degree of legitimacy in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.

What wisdom, wisdom gained from the Israelite God, did King Solomon use to justify their captivity, bondage, and rape? Modern historians and scholars may tell us, “this is simply the way things were done in ancient societies.” If the passage of time can be used to justify the most extreme examples of human cruelty, often in the name of religious devotion, what will Christians be asked to accept next? How did the parents of the 300 concubines come to terms with King Solomon’s undisputed mandate from God when he kidnapped their daughters?

When Solomon’s devotion to the God of Israel began to run cold (assuming it was ever “hot”), he built shrines to the despised foreign gods of Chemosh, Molech, Astarte, Milcom on the outskirts of the capital. It is likely he endorsed or engaged in the most despicable practice related to these foreign deities; child sacrifice. David was bad. Solomon is in a whole other axis of evil.

The excesses were seen on all fronts. While he oversaw a peasant population, making a living from subsistence farming, Solomon lived like all great dictators: fat and happy. An ordinary dinner for Solomon included a thousand measures of flour and meal, ten oxen, twenty cattle, one hundred sheep, and ample sides of deer, gazelle, roebuck, and fatted fowl. His people starved. Solomon had ample food, sex, money, and an unquestioned line to God’s ear. Solomon lived very well. This is the wisest man on earth? Really? I’d be far more comfortable identifying him as a blueprint for the excesses of wealth, politics, power, and corruption we’re still wrestling with in the Middle East today.  Since 2001, thousands of American women and men have died to remove men like King Solomon from power.  You think Donald Trump is politically incorrect?  Try making that comparison from the pulpit.

This week’s scripture finds Solomon trying to find a permanent home for the 10 Commandments. Will Solomon be the one to build a temple for the Ark of the Covenant which no one has yet been able to complete? Knowing what we know about Solomon, his history, his reputation, and his ego; is this temple building exercise about God’s legacy or Solomon’s legacy? Does he really want to build a place for God to be worshiped or where Solomon will be remembered?

I don’t trust Solomon as far as I could throw him. Look at the number of times the word “I” or “your servant” appears between verses 27 and 30. Four times. Who’s this about? Solomon or God?

The key to understanding this passage may be in verse 27. It’s not clear if it’s an inside thought or something that Solomon meant the crowd to hear. Regardless, it’s a good question and gets back to what I said at the beginning, Solomon doesn’t really get it. His concept of God (as is ours) is flawed, narrow, and incredibly narrow. “But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple I’ve built contain you?” How could God live on Earth and how could a building contain God? Those may be the best questions he’s ever asked and if he were truly the wisest man alive, he wouldn’t need to ask them.

Solomon has all the power he can handle and then some. He’s wealthy, he’s got women, food, an army, and the apparent connection to God which makes it all OK. Power has surrounded him like seagulls flock to a person with an unlimited supply of bread. This exercise, I would call it “publicly showing off for God”, is Solomon’s way of saying, “I can give you some of what I have”. Solomon, still in the halting voice of a gangster, says “We’ll make it real nice like God, I’ll have people watching over it all the time, it will be real good like God, just like you promised my fada, David.” Solomon is going to set God up real nice. Let that sink in for a moment. Does God need to be set up? Is Solomon a corrupt real estate agent? Put questions of worship aside. Solomon wants his own private confessional so God will hear him when he sacrifices children to Babylonian deities.

This is not about giving God something. God says Solomon needs to be more focused on listening to the people who are coming to Israel (based on his supposed wise reputation), who have no power, status, or standing in society. God’s direct words to Solomon, “Do everything the immigrant asks.” Tell me those aren’t political words.   Those are the most politically charged words which can be uttered in America today.

If you are a Biblical literalist, will 1 Kings 8:41 make your top 10 list of verses to be interpreted literally?   Listen to the people without power so will recognize the power of God in all that you do. The counter intuitive wisdom of God as opposed to the awesome wisdom of Solomon. Apparently they’re not the same. One is very political, offensive to many, controversial, and calls the self-serving narcissism of Solomon into question. One is safe and talks about the generic wisdom of man who was invented by history. One is truth. Our text is political, the world is political, and our God has taken sides. Will we?

Food for Thought-The Koch Brothers Would Love 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 — August 13, 2015

Food for Thought-The Koch Brothers Would Love 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14

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This is the kind of passage Donald Trump would love. Even better, the Koch brothers would adore this story: a young, up and coming politician coming before a super wealthy, ideologically driven political donor who offers this new king fortune, fame, and glory. If you buy into the premise such men read the Bible, this would be their kind of story. I’m convinced Donald would see himself as the modern day King Solomon. The Koch brothers would read themselves into the narrative as God. For this reason, I’m skeptical of a text claiming to be scripture which equates God with the acquisition of wealth, earthly wisdom, political authority, and social privilege. I believe I am reading a biased account of human history seeking to give divine legitimacy to Solomon’s rise to power. This is the story of an ancient middle eastern tyrant asking for a blank check from his God. It may be in the Bible but it’s certainly not God’s word.

In 1 Kings, God comes off like a glorified version of Aladdin. The creator of the universe appears to Solomon in the dream and says, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it you.” What’s wrong with that? How could anyone take exception with God saying, “I’ll give you whatever you want”? Shouldn’t we want and expect everything we can get from God? Perhaps, if you view your relationship with God as a narcissistic partnership built on someone being left out of the blessing you are going to receive. Solomon doesn’t live or preside over a democracy. His people aren’t equal and have no say in his role as a leader. He is the wealthiest, most powerful man alive. Everyone below him is dirt poor, starving, and through passages like this encouraged to embrace this crushing poverty because God ordained him to be rich, smart, beautiful, and wise. Getting what you want, in the Solomon paradigm, means using your own understanding of God to justify your wealth and everyone’s misery in the name of religion. That’s not scripture worth emulating.

What would you say today, about any political leader, of any political persuasion who came to their electorate (kingdom, dictatorship, etc.) and said, “God appeared to me and told me I could have anything I wanted in a dream. I have been given the gift of unsurpassed wisdom. I’m now the smartest man who has ever lived.” You’d easily dismiss this leader as megalomaniacal, crazy, and on par with the leader of North Korea. Yet this is exactly what we’ve been presented in this week’s lectionary text; a man who had done just this. In many places in the English speaking world, the text will be read and these words said in reply, “this is the word of God for the people of God.” I’m not sure that’s the best response. “This is the story of political corruption, systemic economic oppression, and lies told in God’s name all to the people of God.” That would be a much better reply.

Solomon’s faux sense of humility while talking to God is nauseating. “You showed so much kindness to your servant, my father David.” The dialogue is stilted. It has the air of two organized crime figures trying to get down to business on the day of their daughter’s wedding. How much respect does Solomon really have for David’s treatment, especially in the later years? Does Solomon give a damn about David? It gets worse from there. “But I am young and inexperienced,” Solomon says. How much deference and respect does Solomon need to show before he gets what he really wants, the keys to the kingdom?  Suddenly, Solomon is captain obvious.  Does he honestly think God doesn’t know he’s inexperienced?  Why these rhetorical games?  Because you and I, middle class white people in the southern United States, playing the lottery and riding golf carts, this passage wasn’t written for us.

Much later, the illiterate people who Solomon governed would hear stories of their wise king prostrating himself before almighty God.  This would confirm what they had already been led to believe.  The wealthy dictator who led them was in really good with “the man upstairs”.

In the official press release (1 Kings 2: 3-14) of this story, we’re told it pleased God how wise Solomon was with his requests. It always looks good for the people you’re ruling to know the God they are worshiping and the God you have an inside track with is happy about how you make decisions. Especially when the people on the ground, those without wealth, privilege, power, and wisdom, can’t question the Holy man running the show.

Food for Thought-4 Ways to Talk About Jesus Without Sounding Crazy — August 11, 2015

Food for Thought-4 Ways to Talk About Jesus Without Sounding Crazy

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1. Talk about the things which mattered to Jesus without ever mentioning Jesus by name.  Jesus spent his time talking about money, health care, mental health, and people’s overall sense of spiritual well-being. You can talk about Jesus by discussing the things that mattered to Jesus before you ever mention his name in a conversation. Many people are afraid of church, organized religion, the name of Jesus, and the idea of God. We’ve given them good reason to be frightened of our habits, culture, and ideas. Why not disarm their fears and misconceptions?

2. Encourage people to spend time in prayer, meditation, and listening to the wider world. You can do this without mentioning Jesus’ name or talking about organized religion. Remember, Jesus wasn’t a self-involved, name dropping narcissist. We can mark our days with silent prayer and meditation, just as Jesus did, without mentioning Jesus personally or coloring the conversation with religious overtones or expectations. Jesus knew it was important to get away and process the events of our busy days and hectic lives. Silence and listening are the first steps on the road to understanding our purpose. We know this as well as the people in 1st century Galilee. For Jesus, reflective prayer was a way to talk about God common to the most basic human desires to know why and how life is as it is.

3. Coffee wasn’t only for closers. In other words, Jesus wasn’t pushy. Jesus wasn’t perpetually trying to close the deal on anyone’s salvation experience. His conversations, parables, and reflections weren’t high pressure religious sales pitches designed to create emotive, guilt ridden moments where sinners confessed all and came to him begging for forgiveness. The gospels are full of regular moments. Jesus is a regular person talking with ordinary people about their lives. In the Bible, we never see Jesus standing in a circle, holding hands with anyone, praying, “yes, me, yes, myself, oh yes, me”. The people Jesus meets fully expect to be judged and condemned. Jesus is more interested in listening to the story of their lives than telling them a systematized plan of salvation. Jesus listens far more than he speaks. We can listen more than we speak. When the time is right, like Jesus, we can speak of our foundational belief in Israel’s God of liberation. We can shock those who expect us to be judgmental prudes and become listening people who affirm God’s freeing love.

4. Chill. Chill out and let God speak about what’s happening.  We’re called to be in the conversations occurring in the world around us. While discussions of vulgarity and tone dominate the Republican primary contest, United Methodists need to think about how we sound. Whose voice is speaking? Are we allowing God to speak through us? Are we putting our words into God’s mouth? Jesus stepped into a theological environment where everyone spoke on behalf of God. Jesus wanted to let God be heard without the usual filters. How do we remove the filters which alienate us from our communities? We can use less inside baseball, churchy language (paragraph of the Book of Discipline…point so and so…), less conformist language (Father God, We Just Want Thank You So Much for Formulaic Contemporary Style Prayer), less sociological clichés (i.e. understanding millennials is the key reaching unchurched people in the next decade…) and simply talk to people in the unfiltered language of right here, right now.  Would we have anything to say if we didn’t talk like this?  I think it’s a good question to ask.

Food for Thought-Paper Towns, New Testament Style (A Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-29) — August 5, 2015

Food for Thought-Paper Towns, New Testament Style (A Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-29)

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Paul didn’t know anything for sure. That’s what Peter and the others said. For Paul, Jesus was a paper town. He was someone who only existed on paper; in the words and ideas of others. If you claimed you knew him, you be proven to be a liar because you couldn’t have known him. Paul wasn’t there. For Saul (or Paul as they called him now), Jesus never really existed. Or did he?

What am I talking about?  It reminds me of a story John Green relates in his novel, “Paper Towns”. In the 1930’s the General Drafting Company was making a map of the state of New York. It was their cartographic practice to draw a fictional town on their maps. In this way, if subsequent mapmakers or publishers copied their maps their plagiarism would be easily discovered. Sometimes called a copyright trap, these towns, only existing on paper became known as paper towns. One such town was Agloe, New York. Using the first letters of the names of the two draftsmen who created the map, Agloe was placed in rural Delaware County, New York north of Rockland. In the intervening years, general store sprang up at the Agloe intersection. The Agloe cross road, along with its store and gas station began to be identified on gas station maps as a town. It was then in the late 1970’s, when Rand McNally, inheritor of the original copyright, tried to sue the gas station and their maps. They thought they might win some huge legal victory. The gas station (printer of the new maps) countered, “There is a town, there is a place, and something’s been there all along.”

Jesus was the Agloe, the original paper town. For the disciples, the ones who had drawn up the first maps (our ideas about theology, God, worship, etc.), they believed they knew where to draw the substance of their faith.  Other places, distant crossroads in distant lands, did not warrant the physical presence of Christ or the church.  They believed they held the copyright on who said or did anything with Jesus’ teachings. Paul knew different. In the intervening years, he started putting paper churches all over the eastern Mediterranean. According to those who knew best in Jerusalem, paper towns like Ephesus, Philippi, or Corinth didn’t need to be on the Christian maps.

Where the disciples had claimed, like Rand McNally, there was nothing, Paul shot back, “there is something.” What some disciples claimed was a fantasy became a living reality to Paul. If it could become real to him, could it not become real for those living in the paper towns of Asia Minor?

How do you go somewhere and have it become more than a place on a map? You create a new world right where you’re standing. You reinvent reality. Take a spoke out of the wheel of conventional wisdom and start again. As in Agloe, build your general store and gas pumps. Paul does this by telling the paper town of Ephesus to start their town from the bottom up, “Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying. Each of you must tell the truth to you neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body. Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.”

That’s a new town, by any reasonable standard. Imagine asking someone in this day or the first century, to find a place, a town, a city, a village, anywhere on a map where people aren’t lying and deal constructively with their anger. Good sir, please locate for me the town where people speak for each other’s edification and build each other up and don’t tear each other down. Where is that place, might you show me? “Such a place doesn’t exist on any map,” they will say. It must be one of those paper towns, meant to fool cartographers and catch mapmakers in violating copyright laws. It might be right there, forming under your nose and despite your best intentions to the contrary.

Food for Thought-What I Learned from Dean Richard Hays — August 4, 2015

Food for Thought-What I Learned from Dean Richard Hays

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In December of 1983, my maternal grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. His death was a long, slow, and painful. Although I was young, I remember it clearly and the toll it took on those in my family who arranged for his nursing care and attended to his needs when nothing more could be done. It was a devastating illness. These early memories came to the fore recently when I learned of Dean Richard Hays’ diagnosis with the same illness. Dean Hays has been a with the Duke University community for many years, a scholar or the early church, and shepherd of the growing divinity school community. My heart sank.  Medicine and treatment have changed much in the intervening years. Hope and healing are realities which people of faith willingly embrace. We do what women and men called to witness and serve have always done; we remain hopeful through our prayers and re-telling the stories which define us as a people.

Dean Hayes taught me to tell and re-tell the story of Jesus. Despite the costs or collateral damage, people like me needed to tell the sacred story of Jesus Christ. Richard Hays taught me that Jesus’ story is one in which we participate. A participatory story best told in community where our ethics and morality are best shaped by the retelling of Jesus’ final meal with his earliest disciples. The dichotomies and divisions plaguing the Church (who’s in and who’s out) can be unified by the very story of Jesus’ life (and death) itself. For me, after each lecture, I kept hearing this question, “Will we take these ideas to their logical conclusion?”

Richard Hays takes the Gospels and their greatest interpreter (Saint Paul) to their logical conclusions. He taught me what Jesus meant and what the earliest church knew he would become: the definitive moral standard for how faithful people live in community. When it came to violence, there would be none (on our part). The whole community of believers, the entire body of the faithful was called to embody his practice of loving one’s enemies. If you’ve truly given all authority under heaven and on Earth to Jesus, turning the other cheek makes all the sense in the world. We are participants in Jesus’ story. Richard Hays taught me this.

The world is not yet redeemed. Despite the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes on Ocracoke Island I am not ready for redemption. I relish the continued opportunity to work in the kingdom being built around me. As we wait and work, we participate in the ongoing acts of redemption, love, and witness to God’s faithfulness in our world. This is how Jesus’story continues to be told. It’s what I think Dean Hays wants all of us who’ve been through his classes to keep doing, as best we can.

Get Well, Dear Brother in Christ.

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