Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fear, Folly, and Power

King Solomon's got it goin' on. (Photo credit Wikimedia)
Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon? I mean, he’s got it all. He comes from the right family—I mean, move over, Daleys. He’s got enough money to look Bill Gates in the eye and seriously play poker with Warren Buffet. And he’s so famous that other world leaders come just to see if the hype is true. The Queen of Sheba looked Solomon up and down and, “Dang, Sol, you got it goin’ on.”

            King Solomon’s legacy even lasted into the incredulous Scientific Revolution. The Freemasons adopted symbolism that connected their fraternal order with the splendor of Solomon. And who could forget that classic Nick Cage movie, National Treasure, where the protagonist discovers King Solomon’s treasure in, um, Manhattan, but where else would King Solomon’s treasure be? That’s just one of many reasons why it’s a classic.

            But setting aside Solomon’s celebrity, let’s get some back story here. A kind of  “behind the music” look at Solomon, you know, like if Bob Woodward worked for VH1. So Solomon is the son of King David, a man after God’s own heart, and Bathsheba, whom King David pursued apart from God’s heart. If you don’t remember that story, after he had become king, David played peeping Tom after Bathsheba while she was bathing, had a child with her while her husband was off fighting in David’s army, then had her husband killed, and finally admitted his guilt once the prophet Nathan called him out. That’s Solomon’s daddy, all right. Now Solomon wasn’t David’s only son, no far from it. Solomon’s step-brother, Amnon raped Solomon’s step-sister, Tamar, and Solomon’s other step-brother, Absalom, killed Amnon in revenge. Then Absalom staged a military coup against David, in which he killed most of his step-brothers, except, obviously, for Solomon, but eventually Absalom’s head got in the way—literally, his head got stuck in a tree branch. If you want the whole story, read it in the Bible. It’s even better than Game of Thrones. So, back to Solomon. He and his mother convince King David, who eventually gets old and dies, you know, like kings do, that Solomon should succeed David to the Israelite throne. David agrees, and then Solomon goes and kills everyone who might oppose him. I think Francis Ford Coppola was reading the Bible when he was directing The Godfather. Now stay with me, we’re almost to the best part about Solomon. He was humble.

            Yes! Believe it or not, Solomon was incredibly humble. See, Solomon knew that the Israelites he was to rule were a great people and were difficult to rule, as evidenced by the deaths of all of his step-brothers. That’s enough to humble anybody, I suppose, even a Kennedy of antiquity like Solomon. But one night after a long day of sacrificing all sorts of things on a high mountain to the Lord God, God comes and asks Solomon what he wants. I kinda bet the first thing that comes to Solomon’s mind is, “I’d like know if I have any more step-brothers who might want to kill me,” but no, that’s not what Solomon asks. Solomon recognizes that God is steadfast in love and mercy, and he asks God for an “understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil step-brothers (no wait, he didn’t mention step-brothers), for who can govern this your great people?” No, seriously, God, who can govern these people, because they are, like, crazy.

            Solomon’s request for an “understanding mind” strikes a deep, harmonious chord with God, and God grants Solomon’s request, along with a bigger bank account than the entire Saudi royal family and more fame than all of the One Direction guys plus Justin Bieber put together. If you don’t know what One Direction or a Bieber is, then blessed are you. I bet you didn’t expect a beatitude tonight. But God does bless Solomon! God blesses Solomon so much! God blesses Solomon so much that Solomon makes a bunch of alliances with the historic enemies of God’s people, and Solomon develops a harem of hundreds of women, and Solomon conscripts thousands of peasant Israelites to build the temple to the Lord, because God blesses Solomon to be a blessing—and a slavemaster. Yes! God. Bless. Solomon. I even bet he made a patriotic song out of it.

            In case you haven’t been able to cut through my sarcasm, let me make this plain. I don’t really like King Solomon. I don’t really like his daddy, either. Honestly, I have a hard time reading a lot of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible. I might enjoy watching House of Cards on Netflix, but I don’t enjoy reading the same plot lines in the scriptures that leads us to salvation and liberation and redemption. Blame it on the highfalutin seminary education I’m getting in Hyde Park, but I can’t read the story of God’s gift of wisdom to King Solomon without my hermeneutic of suspicion leaking out my ears. Of course King Solomon starts out on the right foot! I mean, besides killing a bunch of political enemies, but Solomon is all right to start with. But so was King Saul before God replaced him with David. And so was King David before he had that fling with Bathsheba, Solomon’s mom. I can’t help but recall the prophecy of Samuel, through whom God said,

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Who doesn’t want to be King Solomon?

            I grew up with the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even well-meaning people have a really hard time resisting the corruption that often accompanies power. I am a student of major revolutions in world history, and I can get pretty disheartened when I survey them. The American Revolution cast off the bondage of the British crown, but Americans kept African-descended people in bondage for another century after that, and then established Jim Crow and systematic mass incarceration came after that. The French Revolution brought down the Bastille, but after a decade or two of beheading each other, Napoleon warped the revolutionary spirit to conquer most of Europe. The Russian Revolution promised the dictatorship of the proletariat, but instead got secret police, gulags, and Ukrainian famine.  It’s enough to make an idealistic revolutionary leave the Occupy camp, put on a tie, and sit in a cubicle. At least there’s a better shot at good health insurance. Eventually.

            It’s enough to make somebody fear the folly of power, too. I remember during a community organizing training a faith leader shared that he was afraid of getting too much power. Now this faith leader had more musical talent in his little finger than most whole church choirs do, and he had a magnetic personality that sucked you into whatever project he’s working on. But he’s a man of God, and a Christian of undeniable integrity, so he was very nervous about associating with the corrupting nature of power. He didn’t want to be another Elijah Muhammad, who fathered several children by his secretaries while he was leading the Nation of Islam in the 1950’s and 60’s. However, he also wanted to participate in the great missio dei, the mission of God to liberate and redeem all of creation, and, well, what can I say but the missio dei needs powerful people.

            Yes, we may be afraid when we decide to get into God’s mission of liberation and redemption. In fact, we should approach the great throne of God with more than a little fear and trembling, but let’s not let that fear stop us from accepting the liberating power of God. Rather than leading to the worldly folly of greed, malice, and lust, the power of God works in us so that we can have power over the temptations of our culture. Accepting the power of God moves us while still amidst our folly to overcome our fear and participate in the holy missio dei.

            Dear friends, God did not wait for King David or King Solomon to be perfect before God began using them for God’s great mission. And what about Moses before them? While Moses was a prince in Pharaoh’s corrupt court in Egypt, he murdered a man, and yet God still used Moses to lead the Israelites out of their bondage and embark on the great exodus to the Promised Land. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who betrayed all her neighbors to the invading Israelites, but God still used her to help set up the sabbath communities where widows, orphans, and strangers would be cared for. And who could forget how Paul locked up Jesus’ followers and thought it great fun when they were stoned to death. That didn’t stop God from busting into Paul’s life, messing him so much that he blacked out for a couple weeks and then started answering to a different name.

            Our worldly folly does not prevent God from busting a move and delivering us from the tempter’s snare. We get caught up in our security and safety and a life where nothing surprising can ever happen, trying so hard to live out a life that doesn’t need God, turning away the unaccompanied immigrant children, ignoring the disheveled street people, and denying our LGBTQ sisters and brothers the opportunity to marry with the blessing of our church. We are so caught up in playing it safe that we are caught in the same fear and folly that we were trying to avoid.

            But fear not, sisters and brothers! God doesn’t wait for us to get it right to work the holy missio dei in us and around us. God’s love is so great that Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, lived and died amidst worldly fear and folly so that all of creation, even you and me, might know salvation, liberation, and redemption. There’s no mountain too high, valley too deep, or expressway too busy that God’s love in Jesus Christ wouldn’t cross to save, liberate, and redeem all of creation, even you and me. In the words of the apostle Paul, written once he had recovered from that nasty blackout, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even Solomon’s corrupt politics nor his daddy’s crooked wheeling and dealing can stop God’s love from blessing them from blessing the world around them. That is the power of God’s love!

            So let us seek power, dear friends, not the power that leads to folly and fear, but the power of God’s love which organizes us for the holy missio dei. With the power of God’s love organizing our lives, fear and folly lose their corrupting power. With the power of God’s love organizing our church, no walls can exclude any of our sisters and brothers from Christ’s body. With the power of God’s love organizing our world, all widows, all orphans, all strangers, indeed all of God’s creation will be reconciled and redeemed back to God and to each other. Praise God almighty! Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Weeding the Kingdom of God

Crabgrass: the demon weed from the 7th circle of hell.
(Photo credit Michigan State University)
Let me tell you a golf story. Well, at least it takes place at a golf course. The summer after I graduated from college, I worked for the maintenance crew at a resort and golf course close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was primarily raking leaves for six weeks when my boss gave me a new assignment: weeding. Now being the son of a self-employed landscaper, I know the ins and outs of weed removal, but this was a different brand of weeding. See, there had been an infestation of crabgrass in the first cut of grass around couple of the greens—it’s called the “fringe”. My boss was baffled at how the crabgrass had snuck into the fringe of several greens, but she sure didn’t want it there for the big tournament in the middle of August. However, she also didn’t want any holes in the fringe where the crabgrass used to be. The first commandment in golf course maintenance is to keep greens smooth so that the golf ball can roll naturally. That meant that I had to remove each piece of crabgrass individually with a pocketknife and fill in each little hole that I had created with sand and a bit of grass seed.

         I spent almost two weeks doing this—kneeling on the fringe, using a pocketknife to remove individual blades of crabgrass, filling each little whole with sand—so that golfers would never know that somehow the crabgrass had been there. There was one day I spent 12 hours doing this. I called that number 11 fringe “the seventh circle of hell”.

            A landowner sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well...

            If I started with a story about golf, then this parable from Matthew 13 is a story about weeds, which means, of course, that it isn’t. Jesus knew that to get through to his audience in 1st century Palestine, he had to talk about agriculture. And he knew how to tell good story, too. When he told this parable about the wheat and the weeds, I can picture the people, many of whom are migrant farmworkers, cringing at a story about weeds among the wheat. They’d especially cringe at the mention of this kind of weed, too. See, the word which is translated “weeds” or “tares” in English can also be translated as “darnel”, which looks an awful lot like wheat. In fact you can’t even really tell the difference between the two until they produce grain. It’s pretty important that you don’t mix the grain of wheat and darnel, too, because darnel has the tendency to attract a fungus that quite noxious when eaten by humans, even fatal at times. So you see, the landowner had quite a problem on his hands, and the poor slaves would have been the ones to painstakingly separate the noxious darnel from the useful wheat. Perhaps with a pocketknife, going plant by plant, for maybe 12 hours a day, for acres and acres in the hot sun. Yes, cringe I’m sure Jesus’ audience did.

            But you know what? Sometimes you just have to pull those weeds, you know what I mean? You can’t have crabgrass on the fringe around number 11 green, and you can’t mix darnel with wheat. You just gotta do what you gotta do.

            Let’s look at this allegorically, a little like Jesus did. Sometimes we can’t leave the children of the evil one among the righteous. After all, scripture also says not to associate with nonbelievers and people who are just gonna bring you down. In the church we call some moments like this “reform”. Martin Luther was a master metaphorical weeder. He was obsessed about whether he was a child of the evil one or one of the righteous, and the church as it was in the 16th century couldn’t resolve his anxiety. There are stories about how Luther as a young man would do confession with his priest, think, “Wow, that was a great confession,” and then immediately run to the back of the line so that he could confess the sin of pride.

            Of course Luther also looked around his beloved church and saw extreme corruption. See, back in Luther’s day the Vatican was building St. Peter’s Basilica off of people’s anxiety about the eternal life of their loved ones.  For a price, folks could get priests and monks and nuns to pray for the souls of specific people, thus shortening their time in purgatory and getting them into heaven faster. They were called “indulgences”, and it was the snake-oil fraud of the 16th century church. Luther saw indulgences for what they were, and so he boiled down Christian doctrine to his slogan “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia”. That is, scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone, and that’s how the Reformation began with some theological weeding.

            Methodists were metaphorical weeders when we began, too. John Wesley experienced a severely watered-down faith at Oxford in the early 1700’s, and so he too went back to the basics. Wesley often said that he was trying to emulate the early Christian communities of Acts and the New Testament epistles with the Methodist societies he helped organize. Like Luther, Wesley loved his slogans, too. Probably the most famous were his “3 Simple Rules”: do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God. And Wesley wasn’t afraid to weed out folks who weren’t putting a good faith effort into the Methodist way of life. Back in the day, if you wanted to go to a class meeting, you had to have a ticket, and I’ll be darned if you could get past good ol’ John Wesley if he had taken away your ticket. Call it Christian accountability, if you will. I, being a landscaper’s son, might call it Wesleyan weeding.

            The slaves said to landowner, “Then do you want us to go and gather the [weeds]?” But he replied “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”

            Now, hold up. When Jesus breaks down his own allegory he identifies the landowner as the Son of the Man, which means Jesus. So that means Jesus is telling folks not to weed. Just when I had my pocketknife and bucket full of sand together, Jesus comes and tells me that should leave that crabgrass in the number 11 fringe. I’m honestly pretty happy about that because I hated that job, but what gives? Everybody knows that you can’t have crabgrass on the fringe, and it’s downright irresponsible and dangerous to have darnel among the wheat. So come, on, Jesus. What’s your game here?

            I’m gonna confess something here, friends. Sometimes I get a little over-exuberant about weeding. It’s just that I focus on one task at a time; I do that one task really well before I move on to the next task. So sometimes when I get to weeding I start yanking up every last little plant that seems just a little out of place. It’s my job, right? But here’s the thing: even though I’m a landscaper’s son, I didn’t plant this flowerbed. I don’t know exactly how it’s supposed to be, so that means I need be quite careful about weeding in someone else’s flowerbed.

            Dear friends, we are merely stewards of God’s great garden of creation. In the second creation account in Genesis, God put the first human in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. But the human didn’t plant the garden; God did. The human didn’t know what was supposed to be in the garden and what was a weed; God had to tell the human what to eat and what not eat, specifically that one tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even though our mythical ancestors were driven out of that first garden, we still inhabit God’s garden today. That means we better be careful about how we weed God’s garden.

            That means we better be careful when we go to further and further lengths to extract fossil fuels from deep within the earth. We build our oil rigs further into the ocean, and somehow we are still shocked when something goes wrong and 4.9 million barrels of oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. We develop new technologies that hydraulically fracture shale formations, that is intentionally causing mini-earthquakes, to collect natural gas, and we are somehow still perplexed when people’s tap water becomes flammable. More people than ever before are burning these substances and emitting all kinds of gases into the air, and then we still argue about whether our climates are changing because we raced past the scientist-recommended 300-parts-per-million ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We better be careful about how we are weeding God’s garden.

            Now Jesus specifically says that his allegory is about people, so we better be careful when we start weeding out people, too. In Gaza the Israeli army is currently trying to weed out Palestinian militants by shooting missiles and marching in heavily armed soldiers. In the United States many people are trying to weed out undocumented immigrants, including unaccompanied children who showed up at our doorstep to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries. In our churches, many people are trying to weed out LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks, from leadership and from marriage. Dear friends, don’t we know that when we are weeding out people we are violently wrenching our fellow children of God from God’s garden of life? Or are we so blind that we insanely dig and tug and yank every last weed we see in God’s garden even though we cannot see the things that make for peace? Let anyone with ears listen!

            Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

            The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…what? A weedy field of wheat? A mustard seed? Maybe some yeast? Come on, Jesus, speak plainly! I don’t have time for these parables when there is so much darn crabgrass on the number 11 fringe.

            So let anyone with ears listen. When God gave the Israelites the laws in Sinai, God told them to especially care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger. We’ve got some widows in Gaza today and we’ve got some widows on the South and West Side today. We’ve got some orphans who are traveling to our borders for the hope of a better life. We’ve got 11 million strangers who live among us without any official documented status. How are we caring for them?

            And when the disciples tried to shoo away the little children who wanted to see Jesus, Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. And when Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last. And Jesus shocked the disciples by saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…but with God all things are possible.

            So you know what? Let’s freely admit that we don’t know exactly what the kingdom of God looks like. It doesn’t make sense to us. It runs counter to so much of our middle class, American dream, and if I can’t just pull some crabgrass out of the fringe of the number 11 green, well, I don’t know what to do. Maybe we should just let the weeds grow up with the wheat and let God sort it out, because I just don’t know what to do. It’s such a big mess that only God can clean it up at this point.

            And so Jesus says, “Yeah, that’s the start of what I call repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”