This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

            Today is the last Sunday before the season of Advent, which in the Western church is themed, “Christ-the-King.”  For whatever reason, the framers of the ecclesiastical year decided a long time ago to devote this Sunday to the Lordship, Monarchy, and sovereign rule of God in Jesus Christ over all creation, history, and people.  It gives me an opportunity to reflect on something that has been bothering me lately, which is the nature of leadership in the emerging church.
            Bob Dylan once famously sang: “Don’t follow leaders; watch your parking meters.”  By which he may have meant (to the degree that anyone ever knows what Dylan means) that instead of blindly going along with and obeying those we find in authority over us, we need to pay very close attention to both the restrictions on our freedoms, and the disposition of the money our leaders receive from those restrictions.  In other words, he is saying, “Be suspicious of leaders; watch where their decisions touch your lives, your freedom, and your wallet.”
            God is suspicious of human leaders as well.  From the very first, God’s plan is that God be the Ruler of Israel.  In the whole Torah we find rules about the priesthood, but none about any kind of king.  At most, the Israelites are governed by elders selected by Moses who was himself selected by God.  The Israelites have no hereditary monarchy; neither are they told to elect their leaders by popular will.  Instead, the people choose to follow the one with the most profoundly demonstrated spiritual gifts, the one who clearly has the most intimate relationship with the Lord. 
            God presents them with this polity of decentralized tribes, led by charismatic figures whom God raises up when necessary.  When they get to Canaan they are about deposing and even executing kings.  The Torah works to undermine any congealing of economic or political power in one class or person.  When God does grudgingly allow them to have a king, it mostly doesn’t work out.  Chapter after chapter of the Bible is about the failures, shortcomings, excesses, and injustices of the kings of Israel and Judah.
            When Jesus comes he is thoroughly allergic to being called a king or even a Messiah, if people understand these as powerful, leadership positions. Jesus reiterates and fulfills the demands of the Torah that there not be any “fathers” or “rabbis,” in the sense of absolute (usually male) rulers, in the Kingdom of God.  His gathered disciples are a communion of equals.  Even Jesus himself confesses that he only wants to do the will of his Father in heaven.

            The Bible does not propose a leaderless community.  God is not allergic to leadership of any kind.  God is the leader.  God is the King.  God is the ruler on the heavenly throne.  Human beings are all together and equal on the same far, far lower level, compared with God, our only Sovereign.  We, all the peoples of the earth, are one community, under God.
            What happened is that, because of our sinfulness, people slid easily from the idea that “God is our king,” to the lie that “our king is god.”  It’s like: “‘The king is god!’ (I’m the king and I approved this message)”.  In other words, we transferred to human rulers the authority, sovereignty, and power that only truly belongs to God.  And we invented systems which chronically place one person, one class, one family, one race, one civilization, one nation, above everyone else.  This is in direct contradiction to what God is explicitly about or intends.
            God alone is our Sovereign Ruler.  Yet even within God, in God’s very nature, we see not monarchy, not a single Executive, but a community.  For we Christians understand God as Trinity.  At its heart the Trinity is a communion of equal personal elements comprising the One God. 
            The early church referred to the relationships within the Trinity by the Greek term perichoresis, which literally means “circle dance.”  It is a continual exchange, sharing, interaction, reciprocality, dance of joy within God.  It is God.  God is this dance.  The Trinity is one mysterious and unknowable eternal knot of love with three distinct, mutually dependent strands of sharing in perpetual, shining motion.  For Christians, the one God is a set of relationships, a community, a gathering.
            This Trinitarian nature of God as a community is something that God imprints or inscribes or embeds within everything that God makes.  God makes the whole universe, the whole creation, the whole planet, for community, for sharing, for interaction, for this eternal dance of relationship.  And that, of course, includes us.  We’re all in this together.  We all relate to each other.  We’re all participants in the cosmic dance.
            When God enters our world in Jesus Christ, God becomes our dance-partner in a very literal and real way.  Christ does not come into the world at the top, as a king, a leader, an executive officer, an emperor.  For the dance is not about dominance and control and exploitation.  Paul reminds us that the dance is one of self-emptying.  Jesus leads… but he only leads by giving, by making room for others, by welcoming, healing, and empowering others.

            That’s what leadership is, according to Jesus’ example.  It is not a top-down, command-and-control organizational system.  If it were, then the Jesus Movement certainly would have died out upon his death.  Jesus’ movement isn’t organized in this way.  He distributes power and authority.  He gives it away.  He enables his disciples to do what he does.  Finally, he gives his own life away to us so we can share it with the whole world.  We his people become his Body.
            When Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, questions Jesus, Jesus says that his kingdom is “not from this world.”  Meaning that it is not a kingdom according to how the world normally defines, understands, and experiences kingdoms.  His proof of this is that his disciples are not acting like violent revolutionaries trying to overthrow Pilate’s kingdom by force and replace it with another.  His is not a kingdom characterized by violence and domination.  It is not from this world.  It is not that kind of kingdom.
            Christ’s kingdom is different.  It is a kingdom where God alone is the King.  And in Jesus Christ we see more of what that means.  Because in him it’s not just the literal written words of the Torah that are important.  Jesus sees that people have cynically learned to interpret the law for their own ends.  They could technically follow the letter of the law and still end up imposing on people a corrupt, unjust, dominating regime like that of Pharaoh, which the law was given explicitly to prevent.
            Jesus reminds us that God intends a flat, distributed, non-hierarchical, decentralized, open-source, communal – even tribal – polity for the people.  That’s what God gives them in the Torah; that’s what Jesus restores in a transfigured way in his ministry.  His intention is to undermine the legitimacy of Caesar by gathering among the people, in the villages, an alternative network of small communities.  In these gatherings, Jesus’ followers would share in forgiveness, healing, acceptance, blessing, mutual support, prayer, and love.  They would be the community of peace/shalom that God originally intended not just in the Torah, but in creation.
            In these communities, God, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would be the only Sovereign and Monarch.  And discerning God’s will by listening carefully together to God’s Word and Spirit, and reflecting together on our own experiences of God’s love and the effectiveness of our own witness, would be the purpose of gathering.
            The leader in the church who most follows Jesus’ example is the one who exhibits authority and power, not by bending others to her or his will, not by getting their agenda accomplished, not by having the most connections and influence, not by winning… but by losing.  The true leader in a Christian community is the biggest loser.  The leader is the one who shows true power by giving power away and empowering others, and true authority by giving authority away and authorizing others.
            So we can even identify a healthy gathering of Jesus-followers by noticing how equally shared is the power.  There is not one person who is the focus, but the focus has been distributed around to everyone.  Everyone is valued.  And the ones with the greater gifts have therefore the more to give, and they do so.  And the ones with lesser gifts or who are not as far along on the journey are not second-class participants.  But they are allowed to grow in their faith because of what they receive.
            This is the church we see in Acts and the rest of the New Testament.  This is the church we see in some healthy movements in history, like that of Francis of Assisi.
            And this is what Jesus does.  He keeps back nothing for himself.  He is the fullness of God and he is continually dispensing healing and acceptance and forgiveness and empowerment to others.  The most complete picture of Jesus is when he is on the cross, because that is the final self-emptying in which he gives us his all.  He gives his life for the life of the world.  He is the perfect conduit, the most free channel of God’s love.  God’s love is poured into the world and into our lives through him.  
            And Jesus Christ is God.  This self-emptying and dying and giving of his all… this is not something Jesus does while God watches as (at best) a spectator from his throne in heaven.  Jesus Christ makes visible what God has always invisibly been.  God has been giving and emptying and blessing forever, beginning with creation.  Taking on our flesh as a historical, mortal human being is the most radical manifestation of God’s self-emptying for us in love.  But God has been loving and losing for our sakes since before the beginning.  In every moment of every day, God has included the whole universe, including each one of us, in the endless, eternal circle-dance of love.
            I do not believe God even wants the church to have “leaders,” as we understand the term.  God wants disciples.  God desires obedient followers.  God comes into the world in Christ so that people may imitate him.  Christ teaches that people strive must first for God’s Kingdom.  I think that means living in a gathered communion of people giving away all that God has given them to others, and so receiving from others all that God has given them.  We live in an extension of God’s circle-dance; our sharing, our giving and receiving, our welcoming and our forgiving, our gratitude and our grace… these are extensions of God’s love, even God’s self, into our world.

            I hope we strive first and foremost to be disciples.  The Kingdom of God is made of disciples, people who know themselves to be equals under the sovereignty of God.  In my view we have enough leaders and people trying to be or wishing to be of conniving to be leaders, both in the church and in the world.  What we really need are followers of Jesus.  Let’s focus on that.  Realizing that God is our only sovereign, and that we are all equal under God, and God’s will is for the emancipation of all, let’s focus on following Jesus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Psalm 16.

            This Psalm is a kind of confession of faith expressing a profound trust in God.  It begins with an affirmation of God’s  protection; the worshiper takes refuge, finds shelter, flees for protection in God.  We have a classic hymn that refers to God as “Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”
            The image here is one of shielding yourself against a hurricane wind… we know what that’s like.  It is retreating to a place of safety where the powers of evil cannot harm you.  When a tornado comes the family runs to the basement; when it is an earthquake you get out of the house, or you stand in a doorframe, I think.  When it is war, you take refuge with the other refugees, and move to someplace far away from the fighting.    
            Where do we take refuge?  Where do we find shelter when the challenges and assaults of life come at us?  We all take refuge in something.  Often it is determined by our personality.  Some take refuge in anger and throw a temper tantrum; that’s the way they deal with the stress of existence.  Others withdraw into themselves, sometimes even disappearing into literal refuges: a safe place.  Some run away.  Others may deal with stress by eating, or drinking, or self-medicating in some other fashion. 
            We may exercise; we may be consumed by sports on TV; we may go into our room and play really loud music to kind of create an aural barrier against whatever is assaulting us.  We may get prescriptions for tranquilizers or anti-depressants.
            Life has always been stressful.  It is particularly stressful today.  We live in a time of tremendous, cataclysmic, tectonic change.  The economy, the climate, the family, the church, our nation, even our history… these are all changing.  Much of the world today is nearly unrecognizable compared with what some of us knew 50 years ago.  My 18 year-old son’s life is almost unintelligibly different from when I was 18.
            I am not saying this is always necessarily a bad thing.  A lot has improved!  People don’t get lynched anymore.  We’re not breathing DDT.  Women have exponentially more opportunities.  We have cable!  We can watch movies on our phones!
            But change itself is often disorienting and uncomfortable.  It is actually painful and it makes us insecure because we don’t have any reliable sense of what tomorrow will bring.
            Sometimes I would like to attach myself to “bedrock,” something solid and weighty that won’t move, that won’t shift with the wind or get swept away by the tide, something even a tsunami won’t budge.  But even that image – bedrock – is somewhat unsteady because, as a geologist will tell you, even bedrock, the crust of the planet itself, is always moving.
            Jesus tells us to build our houses on the solid rock of his teachings; and yet we see that even his teachings and the way we interpret them seem to be as changing and malleable as, well, rock. 

            So what does it mean to “take refuge” in God?  Especially since we know that being a Christian and coming to church and praying doesn’t exempt you from any of these changes.  How is it a “refuge” then?  Where’s the “shelter from the stormy blast”? 
            The Psalm says, “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.’”  The Lord is our refuge.  The Lord.  God.  Nothing else.    
            Sometimes we automatically make unwarranted assumptions.  The Psalm does not say that God makes the storm go away.  God provides a refuge in the storm, shelter from the storm, protection against the storm.  We do not get to decide how God is going to be that refuge.  If we think that “refuge” means “preserving things just as they were,” well, then I’m not quite sure what god you have in mind.  For if we know anything from Scripture, we know that God does not preserve things just as they were.
            If that were God’s agenda, the Israelites would still be in Egypt.  The universe would still be nothing but the endless waters of chaos.  The Messiah would never have come.
            So we have to be deeply thankful that God is always entering our world to change, to transform, and to renew.  And we have to realize that what God is doing is good.  In truth, it is our only good, as the Psalm says.  When we make the living God our refuge, we are affirming that we are only safe, secure, and protected when we are in tune with and riding along upon the changes God is bringing into the world.  Indeed, we have to become ourselves the change God is bringing into the world.
            Part of this change is a rejection of popular leaders who led the people after gods other than the Lord, and towards goals other than the establishment of God’s holy regime of equality and justice.  These are the forces that want to keep things as they are, because they are benefitting from the present order of injustice and exploitation. 
            The Psalm rejects their blood offerings, which so often require the blood of the people, at least figuratively, and too often literally.  They multiply the sorrows of others; therefore will their sorrows also be multiplied, in the end.  They demand that we make them famous by talking about them… but the Psalm refuses to give them the attention they crave. 
            They need us to maintain their power; when we cease naming them they become irrelevant and powerless.  When we do not let their names and images pervade our perceptions, they lose their hold over us.  They are a distraction from our real work, which is following the Lord of love and living in God’s holy, forward- looking, change-bringing, transforming emancipated community.

            The Psalm proclaims, against these principalities and powers, that: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup.”  Choosing the follow the Lord is not an arbitrary decision.  It is not a matter of mere taste or sensibility.  It is not just an intellectual, or aesthetic decision.  Neither is it simply adherence to the traditions of our ancestors.  We don’t choose our family… but we do have to choose which god we will follow.
            That is, in choosing a god, we choose which world we will live in.  Will we live in the world that is shaped by these other powers, invented by human beings, who serve to reinforce regimes of inequality, bondage, injustice, exploitation, and violence?  Will we adhere to the values and practices and habits and relationships defined by Pharaoh, under whom the people were slaves in Egypt?  Will we continue to have the many work to enrich the few? 
            Or will we participate in the values, practices, habits, and relationships of the Promised Land?  That’s what the Psalm means when it talks about “boundary lines.”  When the land was portioned out under Joshua, each tribe and each clan was given a fair share.  These were gifts from God; they were not doled out by a king to his favorites.  Neither did the people have to work for and earn their share in the open market.  They each got a share, liberated from the grip of petty Canaanite tyrants, just for being a part of the people of God. 
            God’s intention is that the boundaries, that is to say, the portion given to each family or nation of the earth, be fair in the sense of adequate to support all the people living there.  This is God’s will, the desire of the Creator: that we all have a goodly heritage, a delightful inheritance.  The other gods were concocted and propped up to support hierarchies and social classes, with a few rich at the top, and everyone else down below.  In the Lord’s plan, resources are distributed equitably.  And when the distribution ever gets out of balance, they were to stop and redistribute it, according to Leviticus 25.
            The planet as God made it can sustain all of us in abundance.  What it can’t sustain is a small minority hoarding most of the resources, leaving the rest to subsist on what’s left, or starve.  Taking refuge in the Lord means relying on God’s will, as we see it in Jesus Christ, that everyone have what they need.  Those will little are given more; those with too much are strongly advised to share what they have taken.
            To take refuge in the Lord, therefore, means to participate in changes like these.  It means to be an agent of the transformation the God is bringing to life.  It means choosing to live in God’s world, God’s Kingdom, God’s commonwealth of equality, and rejecting the inequalities and injustices inherent in the following of other, invented gods, gods who are just mascots for the ones calling the shots.           
            Taking refuge in God means witnessing to God’s revolutionary truth and living in a community where this truth is embodied in practices of sharing, healing, acceptance, joy, and service.  To the rest of the world that looks like too much change too soon.  The world prefers the illusions, fairy tales, and lies it has come to depend on to cope with or avoid uncomfortable change.  The world would rather be sick and secure, than take the risks of transformation.
            But those who love and bless the Lord, the God of love and liberation, find wisdom and knowledge.  We find real security in participating in God’s changes.  When we keep the Lord at the center of our attention, when we rely on the Lord Jesus and put his teachings to work at every opportunity, then, the Psalm says, we “shall not be moved.”
            It means we shall not be diverted from our true direction and orientation.  Our purpose and resolve will not be shaken because we know that what we follow is the true essence and trajectory of the universe.  Justice, liberation, and equality are the nature of things; these values have been embedded into God’s creation from the beginning.
            And if it has been embedded into creation, that means it has been embedded into us, into our bodies, which are parts of creation.  It is interesting the way the Psalm recognizes this by mentioning body parts.  We don’t get it in English because it’s been cleaned up.  But in Hebrew, in verse 7, it literally says, “in the night also my kidneys instruct me.”  English replaces kidneys with heart, because I guess the translators couldn’t imagine being instructed by their kidneys.  (I know there have been times when my kidneys gave me very direct instructions… but that’s probably not what the text means.)
            In verse 9, the word translated “soul” could even mean “liver”!  My point here is to show that for this Psalm discipleship is far from being just a matter having to do with your head, your mind, your intellect, your opinions, what you think.  God is with us in our very guts; God is part of our material makeup; God works through the cells and sinews of our bodies. 
            This is important because the Psalm proceeds to address the central threat and fear of death.  If God animates and works through your physical body, then not even that dimension of us is separated from God in death.  If God’s love reigns in our very organs, we can’t die. 

            This doesn’t mean we physically live forever, of course.  But our mortal death doesn’t separate us from God or from our true selves in God.  We are not given up to Sheol, the vague, shadowy Hebrew realm of the dead, much less a place of condemnation and extinction like hell.  But our death is just another part of our transformation.  It’s another change in God’s plan of renewal.  It brings us closer to the truth, to God, to reality. 
            Our time here on earth is all about life!  God is all about life!  God shows us the path of life, the Psalm says.  In God’s presence there is joy and even pleasure!         
            The Psalm realizes that it is the fear of death that is so powerful in our experience that it drives us to invent false securities.  Fear is how the principalities and powers maintain their hold over us.  Fear of death is what moves us to concoct gods and prop up leaders and do violence to each other, in a vain attempt to stave off death or substitute someone else’s death for our own.  Fear is how empires keep their grip on us.
            The fear of death makes death our master here and now.  But the Lord is the God of life who reveals to us the path of life in Christ Jesus.  And the path of life in this world has to be the path of change.  It has to be the path of transformation.  It has to have to do with the old world perishing while the new one, which is really the original, created world, is being born.
            In our gospel reading Jesus talks about various cataclysms leading up to the fulfillment of time.  But these do not represent the destruction of the earth.  Jesus refers to them as “birth pangs.”  Birth is the coming of new life!  The emergence of new life is the point.
            The reign of death has to be ended.  But that’s just a side effect of a larger, more profound and powerful movement in which God’s new heaven and new earth, which is to say, heaven and earth liberated from the gravitational pull of extinction, emerge.
            The God who is our refuge is the God of that movement from death to life.  When God calls us to be disciples, God calls us to be this movement.  God calls on us to be people who have turned their backs on the empire of death, and who are being reshaped, changed, transformed into participants in God’s kingdom of life.  That is a kingdom characterized by equality, peace, healing, justice, welcoming, compassion, love, and joy.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who Owns It?

            The PCUSA General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission has rendered a ruling on a case originating from the Presbytery of San Francisco, about the terms under which a congregation was, at its request, dismissed from the denomination with its property.  The GAPJC was apparently unhappy that the presbytery took so little account of the value of the congregation’s property, and urged presbyteries to do a better job of assessing the financial impact on the denomination of a church’s departure with its property.  In fact, the decision appears to take issue with the idea that it is the congregation’s property at all, agreeing with the statement that “the church property in question was in fact unequivocally owned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
            The GAPJC does not repeat this affirmation in its own words in the decision, but they don’t contradict it either.  So, does the PCUSA “own” all the property of local churches? 
            On the one hand, if they do, they are not functioning like any other landlord I ever heard of.  It is the people of the local church, not the landlord/denomination, that pays for everything, from utilities, improvements, and maintenance/repairs, to the salaries of pastor and staff, to the mortgage. 
            On the other hand, I suppose, the congregation is permitted to use the denomination’s property “rent free,” as it were.  The denomination does ask for congregations to support its administration and mission, but this is voluntary. 
            I could understand the logic here if the denomination started out with all the property and then graciously allowed churches to manage it for missional purposes.  But if a congregation has title to some property which it has purchased, and then pays 100% of the expenses in acquiring and keeping up that property, in what sense can a larger body of which that congregation is a constituent part claim to “own” it? 
            (I have interpreted the denomination’s interest in a local church’s property as more like a “lien” than outright ownership.)
            Of course, agreeing to the “Trust Clause” is part of being a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation.  To some, and apparently the GAPJC is among this group, this is a sign of our connectionalism.  We are not, after all, Congregationalists.  Our congregations are not independent.  We are all part of a larger body, and we express that mutual commitment by voluntarily adopting this language about all property being held “in trust for the denomination.”  It’s like the congregations choose to relinquish some of their own sovereignty for the sake of this witness to our unity.
            Or it’s just a somewhat cynical way for a denomination to bind congregations to it by claiming some right to their property, holding the threat of legal action over their heads.  I’m just saying.
            The church of Jesus Christ is not properly held together by either fear of litigation or a desire to retain real estate.  It is joyful faithfulness to a common mission in discipleship to a common Lord that ought to bind us.  Christianity existed for its first three centuries without owning property at all, and grew like kudzu the whole time.  It was the idea of the Roman Empire that we should worship in large buildings… held, no doubt, in trust for the Empire…. 
            I am not saying the denomination should relinquish all interest in the property of its congregations.  And some kind of due process is beneficial.  There are cases where people have joined unsuspecting churches with the purpose of gaining a majority and voting to take the church out of the denomination, thus acquiring the assets for their own purposes.  We need to protect against such shenanigans.  But that does not require an assertion of ownership on the part of the denomination.  The procedures we are now developing at the presbytery level, based on the understanding that the presbytery has a kind of lien, should suffice.  After all, if we can trust presbyteries to administer ordination standards locally, then why not trust them to make decisions about property locally?    
            We slew one sacred cow of Presbyterianism when we ditched the denominational ordination standards of the old G-6.0106b.  It is time to slay the other one: the “Trust Clause” has to be reimagined so it is clear that the denomination does not “own” the property of local congregations.  Rather, we are bound together in love to advise each other in how best to use our property in witnessing to Jesus Christ.  In the end, that’s who the real owner is!  (Psalm 24:1)
            Either that or Louisville can tell me where to mail my bill for 30 years of mowing “their” lawns and shoveling “their” driveways….

Graduate It!

                  “Faced with an imminent $28.6 million deficit in its healthcare plan, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Board of Pensions unveiled at its Oct. 27 meeting here [in Hilton Head, SC] a new dues structure that for the first time could result in plan members sharing the dues cost of their healthcare coverage.”
                  “Under the proposal, member dues beginning in 2014 will be 19 percent of effective salary. Those mandatory dues would also cover 65 percent of dependent coverage, which would be optional. (Dues for 2013, which include family coverage, are 21 percent.)
                  “A fixed premium/flat dollar amount would be added to cover the remaining 35 percent for dependent coverage. Members may choose from among differing levels of coverage for dependents: member plus partner, member plus child(ren), and member plus family (partner and children) . Dependent coverage would be paid by the employing organization, the plan member or a combination of the two.”
--Presbyterian News Service, November 2, 2012 
            Ok, when did Paul Ryan get on the Board of Pensions?  Because his basic approach, which is that if there is a deficit anywhere it is poor people who should be made to pay it off, is precisely what it sounds like the Board is currently contemplating.
            The dues system itself, because it is “flat” (that is, every church pays the same percentage of a pastor’s Total Effective Salary into the plan), is regressive.  The people and churches who are least able to afford it have to pay the same percentage into the system as churches and pastors who make considerably more money.
            Of course, we are told, the richer churches pay more, which is technically true in terms of actual dollars: eg. 32% of $100,000 is more than 32% of 50,000.  But these are the same kinds of arguments we hear from secular “flat tax” advocates.  A flat tax would be a windfall for the wealthy, as it would hammer everyone else.  To pay 10% of a $25,000 income in taxes would mean having to live on even less: $22,500.  But someone who makes $250,000 a year can pay 10% ($25,000) in taxes and still have $225,000 to squeak by on.
            This is not Jesus’ kind of math.  In Jesus’ way of counting, a poor widow’s single penny is “more” than the larger amounts donated out of the excess of the wealthy (Mark 12:41-44).  It’s not quantitatively more; but it is morally more.
            So the flatness of the Board of Pensions premium was always unfair.  (It was even more unfair when there was a cap, of all things, on premiums, giving high salaries a break.  The point to that is beyond me.)  The proposal to lower the premium will force lower paid members to pick up the slack themselves because their churches won’t be able to afford it.  But ministers making higher salaries will be in a better position to make up the difference, but it is more likely that their rich churches will simply do it for them.
            We already have a growing crisis of compensation inequality in our denomination.  This proposal will only exacerbate it.
            Instead of solving this deficit in the medical side by sticking it to young, poor ministers, especially those with children, we need to preserve and improve the community nature of the plan.  Why not simply graduate the premium.  If you make a higher salary, you should pay a higher percentage than someone making a lower salary.  Ministers making the minimum, especially in small churches, can pay the proposed 19%, and retain full coverage.  But the percentage would increase with a pastor’s salary, so that the top rate might be like 23%.  Thus we will have retained fair benefits, and increased the income to the plan from the people who can most afford it.
            (This would also make up for those years when there was that idiotic cap.)
            Some will not like this.  We will get into ugly arguments about the “viability” of small churches versus large ones, and the need to pay high salaries “to attract the best talent,” or some other such anti-biblical, self-serving, corporate-minded “reasoning.”  Some will threaten to reduce their per capita and/or mission giving, or whatever.
            But to ask young and poor ministers, and those with families, to bear the brunt of making up this deficit is wrong.  If more has to be paid, why not ask those who have more to give more?   

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Two Widows.

1 Kings 17:8-16.

            The prophet Elijah is engaged in a protracted war with the King of Israel, Ahab.  Ahab was the worst of the many bad kings that Israel had.  His greatest sin was introducing into Israel the formal worship of the god, Baal, and its consequent falling into terrible injustice, as indicated by the story of how the king basically murdered a guy named Naboth in order to get his vineyard.  He did all this under the strong influence of his wife, Jezebel, a fervent Baal worshiper from Sidon, the kingdom just to the north. 
            The consequence of such injustice is always eventually some kind of disaster, and Elijah proclaims this disaster himself: the region would suffer a terrible drought.  And it doesn’t rain for like three years.
            This doesn’t improve the relationship between Elijah and Ahab; most people blame the king when the economy tanks.  And in this case the drought is an indirect result of Ahab’s policies.  The king tries to blame the prophet, and he puts out a warrant for Elijah’s arrest, forcing the prophet into hiding where God feeds him by means of birds.
            The God commands Elijah to go to Sidon, the kingdom of the evil queen Jezebel herself.  In those days, deities were often considered to have their own territory.  Gods had power when they were in their own land where the people worshiped them.  But they had less or no power in other places.  The Lord was the God of Israel; but it was the opinion of many that the Lord’s power would be reduced and relatively ineffective outside of Israel.
            Furthermore, Elijah would be seen as carrying the battle into Baal’s home turf, and Jezebel’s.  Here is God making the point that God is the God of the whole world, not just the little corner of it where the Israelites live and worship.  It is an in-your-face move, somewhat equivalent to wearing a Red Sox cap in the South Bronx.  Only way more so.
            God indicates that he has commanded a widow in a village called Zarephath to feed the prophet.  So he is told not just to go to the enemy country, but to make his home with some of the poor people of that country. 
            Whenever the gods of economic inequality take over a nation, the people who suffer the most are the poor.  In the Bible, the term “widow,” of course, means a woman whose husband has died.  But it is also almost a euphemism for poor people generally, so common was it for widows, having lost all income and rights, to be destitute.  “Widows and orphans” is a term often used in Scripture to refer to the poor in society generally.

            So God sends Elijah, not just to the land of his enemy, he is sent to live with those most harmed by the queen’s religion and economic policies.  It is as if he is saying that the Lord is God, not only of this foreign country, but the Lord can also be the liberator of poor people here.  The monotheistic values of the God of the escaped slave nation of Israel – mainly equality and justice – can be activated even in a country where the Lord is not worshiped.  In other words, God does not want the poor of Sidon suffering under Jezebel’s predatory Baalism any more than God wants the Israelites to be oppressed.  Israel’s God is the liberator as well of the Sidonians, and everyone on earth.
            Elijah meets the widow as she is gathering kindling for her fireplace.  He tells her to get him some water.  And she goes to get him some, even though there is this drought and water is extremely precious.  While she is going, he calls after her, “Oh, and some bread too, while you’re at it.”
            Her service and generosity to Elijah are remarkable.  Elijah sees this.  He notices that she, in her extremity, is even willing to help this presumptuous stranger from a foreign land and a foreign religion.  But being asked to provide food is too much… she doesn’t have it.  And about this she is apologetic.
            Seeing that Elijah is an Israelite, she swears by the Lord his God, and says she has nothing baked.  In fact all she has left in this disaster is a handful of flour and a few ounces of oil.  Her intention is to make some flatbread with it, which will be the last meal of her and her son.  It is the last food she has any hope of having.  In other words, she doesn’t have enough for her to give him his last meal, too.
            We don’t know how politically aware she is.  Does she know she was speaking to the guy who declared the drought in the first place?  Maybe.  Maybe we can hear a little bit of bitterness, here, like “Excuse me, but my son and I are going to have a final scrap of bread and then starve to death, thanks to you.”  Did she know that the Lord was responsible for this disaster? 
            What she does know is that the god who has failed in his job here was Baal.  Rain was Baal’s thing.  Baal was a thunderstorm god.  Baal was the god the government said to pray to for rain.  But much heartfelt prayer to Baal had gone unanswered. 
            Elijah feels for her.  People at the bottom are the ones the Lord loves the most… but they are also the ones who suffer the most when the rulers’ injustice generates a natural disaster.

            Elijah says gently to the woman: “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.  For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”
            That is good enough for her.  She does it.  Her hospitality, her generosity, and her trust in the man’s words, are sufficient. 
            Here is a poor foreign woman feeding the Lord’s prophet, responding to his need, welcoming him into her home.  She is demonstrating a selflessness and a community spirit that embraces even this foreigner.  In so doing she is showing that, even though she is not an Israelite, she is one of the Lord’s people.  Her welcoming, generous, serving heart identifies her as one of God’s daughters, even if she never formally worshiped the Lord at all.
            And consequently, in response to this show of trust in the Lord, we see the Lord miraculously feeding a poor, foreign woman.  Here is the Lord’s prophet, finding a home in her house.  And the message is that if God’s Word finds a home in your home, and in your heart, you will be fed.  If you give shelter to and feed the truth, the truth will provide for you.  Feed your faith by trusting in God, and God will feed you.  Show your own hospitality and generosity, and you will discover the generosity and hospitality of God. 
            The Lord comes to us in our poverty; both our poverty of spirit, and our actual material poverty.  The Lord comes to us, or we are able to receive the Lord best, when we have no other means of support, when we are not distracted by other concerns and responsibilities, when we have nothing to lose or worry about losing.  That’s when we are most open to God’s saving presence.
            But we should not over-individualize this or make it something that only happens within the heart.  The widow and her son are fed real food.  God nourishes our bodies.  And, while we may not expect the canisters of flour in our kitchens to be miraculously refilled whenever we deplete them, we may expect that living in communion with God and God’s people will create a culture of sharing and generosity, and we will be fed.
            Jesus enacts a similar miracle with loaves of bread and pieces of fish.  He does not create bread from stones when Satan tempts him to do that; but when he is gathered with others on the mountainside, he does.  Neither Jesus nor Elijah materialize bread for their own individual use.  But for the sake of others, for a community, for hospitality, they do.  The Word of God is never empty and isolated; but it always appears in relation to others. 

            Both the prophet and the Messiah are vehicles through whom God’s grace and blessing pours into the world.  All it needs is a world that will receive it by passing it on.  Those who welcome others will be welcomed by God.  Those who feed others will be fed by God.  Those who give away what they have will receive more from God than they could imagine.  Those who lose their life will save it…. 
            Elijah travels deep into Baal and Jezebel’s territory and establishes a beachhead for the Lord there in a small community where the consequences of injustice are mitigated and people are fed.  In the middle of the kingdom of death, life is preserved.  We see this even more in the following story, where Elijah brings the widow’s son back to life after he had died.
            Even in the middle of this horrible, punishing drought, people’s faith and togetherness, their hospitality and generosity, enable them to be fed.
            In the gospel reading for today we see another poor widow.  She too gives the last of what she has to the Lord.  In her case it is the two tiny coins she drops into the receptacle in the Temple.  Jesus is there and he witnesses this.  And he also witnesses the well-dressed, self-important, pompous, wealthy leaders, who conspicuously make a show of giving large amounts of money to the Temple.
            Jesus knows this is not generosity, but the buying of access and influence, and power.  And it positively disgusts him.  “Beware of the scribes,” he says, “who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”
            By Jesus’ time, the Ahabs and the Jezebels had taken over again.  Only now they have a fa├žade of faithfulness to the Lord.  In reality, they worship Baal without knowing it.  How do they devour widows’ houses?  Any number of ways: high interest rates; fixing high prices; maintaining low wages; refusing to hire at all.  And here: making them pay a fee for the upkeep of the Temple and the payment of Temple staff, consisting in part of these overpaid, ostentatious scribes.
            These people had reduced Judaism to a mere religion, a set of rites and beliefs, an institution.  Jesus knows that faith in the Lord is a way of life to be expressed in individual righteousness and social justice and equality.  There aren’t supposed to be rich and poor.  That kind of a society is Baalism.

            This struggle between the Lord and Baal is a fault-line running through all the Scriptures and all Christian history.  The church, and every believer, is faced with a choice every generation and every day. 
            Will we follow the Lord who creates us and gathers us together in a holy community of love, characterized by sharing, generosity, blessing, hospitality, service, and equality?  Or will we follow Baal – and even call it Christianity – by our exclusion, judgment, inequalities, and violence, allowing poverty and disease and despair to spread among the people, and not particularly caring about it?  Will we be a welcoming community, or a place of rejection?  Will we be known for our forgiveness and healing?  Or for forcing others to live up to our “standards” and demands?  Will we be people of compassion after the model of Jesus?  Or will we haughtily look down our noses at those who don’t exercise “personal responsibility” to our satisfaction?  Will we be people who humbly and simply share what they have?  Or will we be takers, extractors, parasites who get fat off of others’ labor?
            Too often the church has capitulated to the powers that only want to use it to enforce social classes and conformity.  But, as with Elijah, the Lord is never without a witness to the truth.  There has always been a remnant, a community of those who are chosen to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Even in the throes of an apocalyptic drought; even in the regime of violence and injustice; there has always been a witness showing us that it doesn’t have to be this way.
            If we open our hearts to what God is doing in the world, if we share what we have, welcoming the destitute and the stranger, the sick and the disabled, if we pass God’s saving grace and blessing along to each other and expand that circle… then I know that “the jar of meal” that sustains us will never be emptied, and neither will “the jug of oil” that binds us together ever fail.