Does God Care If I Vote?

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Does God care if I vote?  I think it’s a fair question.  Is God invested in my participation in the democratic process.  I’m not certain.  You’d be hard pressed to find an argument for democracy in scripture.  Monarchy, empires, and dictatorships are all through the Bible.  Nobody gets to vote for anything or anyone.  Individual liberty and freedom aren’t big ideas.  Yes, elements of what we come to identify as the “Judeo-Christian tradition” highlight aspects of personal freedom and individual choice.  When married to the pagan virtues of certain Greco-Roman philosophers, the notions which lead to the American system of governance become clearer.  At best, we are and have always been a mélange Greek thought, Roman practice, and Judeo-Christian aspirations.  Within this long and simmering intellectual reduction, where is God?  Is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; a God who remains silent on voting (and many other hot button issues) present to offer an opinion as to my participation in this year’s election?

Should God’s Testaments be read like an Originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution? If I interpret these words, as the late Justice Scalia would have argued, at face value, I can only come to one conclusion:  there is nothing in the Bible which compels me to vote.  Unlike the arguments for or against the church’s position on sexuality where actual passages about human sexuality are debated and their socio-historical context is argued; voting is nonexistent.

God is not invested in America’s election, Caesar’s hegemony, or Pharaoh’s reign.   If God were on Rome’s side, the empire would have fallen during Diocletian’s persecutions well before 476 and after the Constantinian conversion.  Egypt would have collapsed when Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land.  If we think America is God’s chosen nation, then I fear we’re Rome on the brink of collapse.

To read into a given Biblical text God’s interest in my voting is to add ideas into the Bible which aren’t there.  I am applying my cultural standard and placing my beliefs into the mind.  I’m confusing my will with the will of God.  I can absolutely say I have no proof that God cares who I vote for and most importantly, if I vote.  The evidence isn’t there.

Please don’t tell me I have a religious obligation to vote for anyone.  If I vote for anyone, I am leaving God at the door.  My vote has nothing to do with God.  I have built a personal wall of separation between the God, church, and the state.  God doesn’t tell me how to vote.  Why should God tell me who to vote for when there’s no record of God telling anyone else?

My vote doesn’t change my life.  However, my relationship with God and the work I do for the church changes my life each day.  After I vote, most aspects of my life will remain the same.  I doubt I’ll notice much a change regardless of who wins.  I’ll get up, got to work, see my kids, eat lunch, and do all those things I do.  But my life, the things that give my day meaning, my faith; that’s got nothing to do with my vote and never will.  It’s got to do with God and we’ve got fish to fry, people to feed, lives to help mend, and the remnants of a hurricane all around.

 

Why Is This So Great? Luke 19:1-10

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Why do great works of art stand out?  Or great works of literature, for that matter?  What makes something great, “great”?  What makes the Mona Lisa great? Why does she stand out above all the rest? Have you ever thought about it?  Why is this painting, in a museum far, far away the defining work of art for western civilization? (I’m not picking on her directly.  I could pick from any number of paintings but she is well-known, well-regarded, and pretty important.)

One answer is simple:  she just is.  It’s the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci painted her in 1503, it hangs in the Louvre in Paris, and everybody says it’s great.  We take this knowledge at face value but we don’t know where that knowledge originated.  The knowledge of Mona Lisa’s greatness came from somewhere else, did it not?  Who told the person who told you the Mona Lisa was great?  Who told them?

If you go to the Louvre and line up to see the Mona Lisa, in its climate controlled bullet proof box, you might find yourself asking, “Why is the Mona Lisa so superior to the three other Leonardo’s in the previous room to which nobody pays any attention and lack the protection of bulletproof glass?”

For most of its life, this painting of an anonymous woman languished in obscurity. Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for artists like Raphael and Titian.  The Mona Lisa wasn’t a big deal to anyone.  That was until 1911.  What happened in 1911?  A janitor stole the Mona Lisa.  He put it right under his shirt and walked out the front door.  The Parisians were so offend that something, even something to which they had paid little attention to had been stolen!  So when the museum reopened, they lined up to see the spot where the Mona Lisa had once hung.  Even though they had never cared about the painting, Parisians lined up to see a blank spot on the wall.  Thus, the mythology of greatness begins.  If people will line up to see a blank spot on the wall, what will they do when the painting actually returns?

Two years later, an Italian carpenter was caught trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  The French public was electrified.  To the Italians, this man was a national hero trying to return the Mona Lisa to its rightful home.  From that moment on, the painting becomes the symbol of western culture.  Newspapers around the world reprinted the image, it goes into textbooks, and art critics tell you how the eyes will follow you around the room.

The Italian carpenter didn’t repatriate the painting but he did make “the” cultural icon.  We now know that the Mona Lisa’s unique status is not entirely attributable to its brushwork and the famous “follow you around the room” eye effect is seen in many Renaissance paintings.  The Mona Lisa has value because someone told us it has value.  We inherited someone else’s opinion and didn’t question it.  It just is valuable.  And it is because a janitor stole a painting.  I feel a little cheated.

Sometimes it’s that way with the Bible.  We’ve inherited paintings in the form of stories and parables and we don’t know why they’re great, what they mean, or what to do with them.  Take this story we read this morning, the story of Zacchaeus.  We know this story. At least we think we do.  The song helps.  Yes, we once sang songs in church that mocked those who were vertically challenged.  Over the centuries, the church has confessed many sins but I don’t think we’ve adequately repented for making children sing songs about greedy short people.

This is one of those stories which we inherently visualize.  Luke is recounting an event and we see it as a painting or picture.  It becomes a painting in our mind.  We saw it in Vacation Bible School and Sunday School.  You see the crowd, Jesus and his disciples coming into Jericho, the tree (probably large and near the center of the scene) a small man making his way toward the top of the tree, then perhaps out on a limb hanging over the road itself.   Jesus is approaching the tree.  He may or may not be in conversation with the man in the tree.  One man’s face is bemused; the other’s is fearful and strained.  This is the basic image we all carry of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus.  Our minds fill in the rocks, houses, walls, dusty roads, earth tones, greens, blues, and browns until we see the painting.

Again, like the Mona Lisa, we know this painting well.  Were I to offer you a blank sheet of paper and ask, “On one side draw you best likeness of the Mona Lisa” you could do it.  If I asked, “On the other side, “Draw you best Jesus meets Zacchaeus,” I think you could do that as well.  You know this story.

You know the image.  What I want to know is simple, why is this story great?  Why is value attached to Jesus and Zacchaeus?  Is it simply because we’ve done it so much, talked about it from our childhood and youth?  Or did someone steal it, bring it back, and attach value to it?

Does it have something to do with Jesus meeting with (or going to the home of) a tax collector?  Jesus meets with tax collectors all the time.  That no longer strikes me as unique.  It’s like the eye technique.  It’s happening all over the place by this time in Jesus ministry. I spoke last week about how people felt about tax collectors.  People grumbled when Jesus did much of anything out of the religious norm, even people who supposedly “liked” him.  This is par for the course.   This picture is not great because people get self-righteous over him eating with a tax collector.

Is this painting great because Zacchaeus gets religion and suddenly becomes a generous dude?  That’s always a favorite place of the art critics when looking at the painting.  Let’s look a little closer at what he says in regards to his generosity. The translations, particularly the NRSV and others do Zacchaeus wrong.  They say “will give” and “will pay back”.  As in, “now that I’ve met you Jesus, I will do the right thing because up to this point in my life, I’ve been doing the wrong thing.”  That’s not what the Greek says it all.  It’s like someone retouched or cleaned the painting to convey a certain kind of message.

In Greek it’s real simple.  Zacchaeus say, “I give” and “I pay back”.  It’s not a future tense. It’s present tense.  He’s already doing it.  He wants to tell Jesus, “Look, Jesus, I am right now giving my stuff away and have an active plan which pays back people if they get defrauded.”  We try to turn this into a story about a man who “WILL” get right with the Lord after his dramatic roadside conversion.  He is ALREADY right with the Lord.  We think we’ve inherited a great story of conversion, a life changing event when it’s really great because Jesus gets to say, “Awesome job, and keep up the good work.”  That changes the whole picture.  The face of the man in the tree is now smiling at the bemused man on the road.  The painting changed right before your very eyes.  That’s how quickly life can change, for the better.

Why else might this painting be great?  Is it great because Jesus stops to talk to Zacchaeus?  Yes, that’s one of the reasons we’ve been told its great.  Jesus stops to talk to the diminutive sinner in the sycamore tree.  Does that interaction, in the center of the painting, make this story great?  If you said yes, you’re on the right track but you need to change perspective.  Perspective is very important in art and faith.  It’s not Jesus talking to Zacchaeus you need to notice.  Flip the script.  Look at Zacchaeus speaking with Jesus.  You can’t track dialogue in a painting.  It’s not like film or a narrative.  From our picture we don’t know that Jesus spoke first.  We take Luke’s word that Jesus said, “Come on down from the tree.”  In reality, it’s not important who spoke first.  In our painting, it’s the conversation itself that matters because that’s all we see.

And now, for the reason we missed in Bible school, rarely gets highlighted in Sunday School or Sermons, is a reason for greatness: our painting is great because Zacchaeus is talking to Jesus.  He isn’t praying, begging, asking, or doing anything else other than having a normal conversation.  How many times do you see that in scripture?  Jesus and a normal person are simply talking about eating dinner.  He’s usually dealing with sick people, angry people, begging people, hungry people.  Here, it’s a guy glad to see him.  Can you imagine; a regular person, a person like you and I having conversation with Jesus?   That’s what makes this great!

What would your “real” conversation with Jesus look like?  If you could talk to Jesus, from a tree, by the roadside, or across the dinner table; what would you say?  Zacchaeus had a wonderful opportunity to talk with Jesus.  We often use that same language “talk with Jesus” when describing prayer.  However, this isn’t prayer.  Zacchaeus is talking to Jesus the way we’re talking now.  Here’s what I want you to think about, if given the chance to talk to Jesus, what would you say?  What would your Zacchaeus moment be like?  You might end up incorporating these ideas into your prayer life.  Or, it may help you think more clearly about those great moments we might have missed from the great stories we’ve been taking for granted.

How To Be A Better Trick or Treater

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Yes, I hate Halloween. But I’m going to tell you how to be a better trick or treater, should you find your way to my door, this Halloween.

1. Don’t be over the age of 13. If you’re over the age of 13, you’ve out grown this time honored tradition. Find a new hobby. Grow up and move on. Escort a younger child, sibling, or friend. Dude, you’re too old. If you look 13, have a pre-pubescent mustache, play JV anything, or your voice is starting to change; I’m going to ask you to leave by the gate which you entered.

2. Make sure the light is on. Don’t go to people who aren’t participating. That’s rude.

3. When you get to the front door, ring or knock once. I hear you.  I’m coming.  No need to go all crazy on the bell.

4. When someone answers the door, own it! That’s right! Let them know what you are there for! Trick or treat! Say it loud and proud! I don’t care if you’ve been out for 90 minutes and your feet are tired. When you get to that door, state your purpose with vision and clarity. You are there to receive candy.  Speak for yourself.

5. Do not go grabbing into the candy container. Allow me to pick out the candy for you. I have shopped for this candy and made careful decisions about what candy to purchase for our neighborhood. I will choose which candy and what amounts to give.   I do give out raisins.   Do not become a grabber.

6. Once I have placed the candy in your basket, bowl, sheet, pillowcase, or whatever, you will then say “Thank You”. Do not run off to the next house. If your mother is forced to remind you to say thank you, I will take my candy back.

7. If I hear complaints or negative comments about my candy, I will select another member of your party and give them additional candy with the instructions, “they are not to share with you.”

8. If you are crying when you reach our door, please stop. There is no crying at Halloween.

9. If your costume requires you to wear a helmet or carry other accessories to be fully assembled, put it on. I do not give candy to people who aren’t wearing their complete costumes.

10. If you are not having a good night, if you have no candy by the time you reach my house, all you need to do is ask: “Can you show me how these rules work?” I will go with you door to door for a cut of the candy.  It’s all in my plan to Make Halloween Great Again.

Why I, Richard Lowell Bryant of Ocracoke, NC, Hate Halloween

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1. It’s tacky. Not that the world isn’t tacky enough.  If we’re going to condemn it in our elections, let’s condemn it in our pointless holidays.  I’m sick of the double standards.

2. It’s over-sexualized. Have you seen a costume that’s not “sexy nurse, sexy teacher, sexy cop, or sexy anything”. Again, the tackiness we decry in our over sexualized presidential candidate seems to be cool in adult Halloween costumes. Where do our cultural double standards begin to take hold?  I can think of one place.  I vote for Halloween.

3. Does “Big Sugar” need one more night to take hold of the metabolisms of American youth?  Diabetes is going to kill us, along with heart disease.  Isn’t that frightening without the stupid costumes?  I want to die in my own clothes.

4. Jack-o-Lantern’s are visually impaired, dentally challenged vegetables. I hate being forced to participate in a ritual which makes something normal look mentally ill. I hate it.

5. Our current version of Halloween has nothing to do with evil. I like fighting Satan. I hate answering the door. I loathe getting off the couch. I hate pretending you’re not the eighth Spiderman costume of the night.

6. If I do give you candy, don’t judge my selections. I don’t care what they gave you down the street. I put thought into this. You’ll be a better person because I gave you raisins. I hate candy judgment.

7. It freaks my dogs out. My beloved black labs, the sweetest dogs on earth, are freaked out by the constant door knocking, bell ringing, and people in the yard. They bark like they’re dying. I hate that bark. I love my dogs. As such, I hate Halloween.

8. Nobody gets the porch light message anymore. If it’s off, stay away. Didn’t anyone teach you any manners?  No light means “we’re out of the honoring death by dressing up in cheap costumes business”.

9. Halloween parties for adults are an Introvert’s worst nightmare. Sure let’s gather in a confined space with loud music while drunk people judge your clothes (costume) and encourage you to participate in dancing. Dancing in uncomfortable clothes.  Hell on earth! Paging Dante!

10. Why do we need to have a celebration of “fake death and horror”? Anybody been to Haiti recently?

*If this offends you,  because you’re so invested in Halloween as an American institution, help is available.  Therapists, counselors, and clergy are standing by.

For Jordan, My Daughter

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Grandfather and Granddaughter (author not pictured)

I wish,
I could outline the edges,
Of an unknown map,
For you to follow,
From this day forward,
A journey for you to take,
Where you will not be alone,
Or ever bored,
And someone will find you,
Because you make great sticky buns,
Not because they’ve spotted your hair,
Or want to play your Xbox one,
I want to draw a map,
That leads people,
To turn right,
To you,
Because you are you.

–Richard Bryant

Tragedy, History, or Comedy (Luke 18:9-14)

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I want to take you back to English class for a moment.  Do you remember the First Folio?  Have you heard that term? The First Folio was and is the definitive collection of the works of William Shakespeare.  Compiled some seven years after his death by a group of his friends, it contained all his plays because as Ben Jonson said, “the man’s work deserved to be remembered”.  There are 233 known copies of the First Folio in existence today with 82 residing at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  It’s one of the world’s most important books.  One of the many reasons the Folio is so important is the way it characterizes Shakespeare’s plays.  When Jonson and company first gathered Shakespeare’s manuscripts, they were the first to decide, “well, these are all tragedies and they should be together, these are all history plays, and these are comedies.”  Up until then, some people called King Lear a history, others said it was a tragedy.   When they printed the folio, they made a definitive call that’s stood the test of time.

So, you find yourself asking, how does this early morning detour through Shakespeare relate to the parable in question?  Everything, it has everything to do with the question at the heart of the First Folio.  For if we want to understand the question Jesus is asking us to consider, we must know what is it that we are reading.  Is this parable of two men praying on the steps of the temple tragedy, history, or comedy?

Remember, Jesus’ parables go to wild extremes to make points that we should be able to see on our own.  Parables redirect our attention to ideas that are right under our noses.   For us to see what’s right in front of our faces, Jesus tells stories of God’s outlandish love among deplorable people.  You know the one about the kid who runs away from home with his dad’s money? That’s definitely a tragedy.  Or the one about a worker who paid the people who started at 5 pm the same money as the people who started at 9 am; what kind of comedy was that?

Now there’s today’s story, one about two men praying on the steps of the temple.  People I trust, people who know about the temple in the first century have made a convincing argument that people didn’t pray outside on the temple steps.  We’ve all seen protestors at churches and government buildings. People protesting outside churches is disconcerting.   I saw the Westboro Baptist Church people lining the road to Edenton Street UMC for Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral.  It was awful.  That’s why I believe those who say the temple authorities wouldn’t look to kindly on public displays of piety on the steps of such an important religious building.  You never knew when things would get out of control and when the Romans would swoop in with their militarized policing.

When Jesus talks about two men outside the temple, I believe he’s speaking in one of those extreme metaphors.  It’s not so much about the men themselves as what their jobs and personalities represent.  The steps are a stage for a play with two characters, with two histories, and two prayers.  Welcome to the Tragedy of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

On the surface, this is a sad story; two men reduced to justifying themselves before God in public.  If your idea of religion is reduced to such gross displays of public piety, something is beyond wrong.  The entire premise of the parable is tragic, don’t you think?  I read it, I see it on the stage of my mind and want to ask, “How did you two get to this point in your lives?”   One is judgmental, one is self-loathing, and nothing seems right.  It’s hard to read or see this parable and want to go eat your Wheaties.  Part of this is because we’re conditioned to dislike both Pharisees and Tax Collectors, right?  Pharisees are the bad guys who opposed Jesus, aren’t they?  Tax collectors are the sellouts who worked for the Romans and were the first century equivalent of the IRS.

To a first century Jewish audience, a Pharisee wouldn’t have been a bad guy.  We’ve had 2000 years of negativity programmed, I know.  But to Jesus’ listeners, the Pharisee would have been the guy they naturally would have looked up to.  The Tax Collector was the traitor.  He sold out and collaborated with the occupying Romans to squeeze tax money from people who couldn’t afford to pay one extra shekel.

The real tragedy occurs when the guy who is supposed to be the leader, the religious superstar, turns on his own people.  Which, funny enough, is how Shakespeare does it too.  It’s awkward and uncomfortable for me to hear him tell about how he fasts and gives his 1/10th.  Yet those are facts, simply stating them isn’t wrong or a sin.  I don’t know how socially acceptable it is to be so vocal about one’s piety.  But they are only facts.  The real tragedy is in the transition.  “Thank God I’m not like everyone else,” he says.  Then he names who he’s grateful he’s not like:  crooks, evildoers, democrats, republicans, adulterers, and even tax collectors.  Those are not facts; those are judgments about human beings.  This is the tragedy of the parable.

Here’s one of the insidious aspects of self-aggrandizing piety; whether uttered in public or in the silence of our minds:  it often leads us to judge other human beings.  When you say those two words, “at least” you can go in a couple of different directions.  You can take the course of the Pharisee and say, “at least I’m not like the people I despise, hate, and preferred God rejected outright.”  Or, you can take a different path and say, “at least I’ve been blessed to a point that I can help people who need help.”  At least, you might say, “I have a roof over my head and food on my table can I do something for someone else.”  There are different ways of saying at least, ways which do not turn our faith into a tragedy.

Like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, there are two main characters.  Jesus’s audience would have felt torn.  They wanted to love and respect the Pharisee but he had judged them to be faithless.  Now, the writer of the play, asks them to take a second look at someone they have been bred to hate.  You don’t get better drama than this.  This is pulling at people’s souls.  Jesus, you’re asking me to look at something so repulsive that I can barely even give it a name.  This is the tax collector.

He knows who he is, what he is, and how people feel about his work.  There is a distance, both physical and spiritual between he and the Pharisee.  Because of his work, his fear, the Pharisees’ judgment, and society’s condemnation the Tax Collector is cut off from the physical manifestation of God on Earth-the Temple. Do we see the absurdity of this moment?  We, human beings, created by God have created hoops by which others we deem unworthy may or may not connect with their creator?  I ask you, as I think this parable does, what sense does that make? Is it our purpose to decide who is worthy of God’s love?  Is it our place to put people in their place, as we see their place?

Jesus is saying, that which is “wholly other” to us is “us”.  Without that which is different, there is no us.  The body of Christ is built on difference, which as the tax collector says, begins with a recognition of the need for mercy.