Friday, September 29, 2017

Hating Your Neighbor Makes You Dumb

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
     “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ;  and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
     “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 
     But he wanted to justify himself,  so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”. 
-Luke 10:25-29 (NIV)

Hating your neighbor will make you dumb.
     Maybe I should be more careful how I phrase that. I don’t mean that it is dumb. I don’t even mean that you’re dumb if you do. (Though no one ever admits to hating their neighbor, so I doubt anyone will take offense there. Not yet, at least.) 
     I mean that when you hate your neighbor your mind and heart are clouded. Your vision is obscured. You get tone-deaf.
     The “expert in the law” who questions Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is a good example. In Luke, the confrontation comes right after Jesus has praised God for hiding his work “from the wise and learned” and letting “little children” see it instead. I’m reminded of how kids have to learn to hate. Grown-ups bring everything they’ve learned and know to the table: to be suspicious, to doubt the integrity of others, to presume that their own worldviews are the only ones. They bring their prejudices and assumptions and bitterness over past hurts. Kids have less of that, and so they have to be taught to hate. 
     So this wise, learned “expert” in religion (think seminary professor instead of lawyer) comes to Jesus with a question: “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” The question is reasonable: he seems to be asking whether there’s a way to get around this death thing. It’s kind of the question religion exists to answer, right? Makes sense that he might want to know what Jesus thinks about it — if for no other reason than as a test.
     Because he feels like he knows the answer, doesn’t he? Jesus answers his question by asking his thoughts on the subject, and the guy isn’t at a loss for words. He quotes some Scripture: Love God with an undivided being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. And Jesus agrees: “Right on. Do that and you’ll be in good shape.”
     Reasonable question, good answer. Except that’s not all. There’s more in this guy’s heart. He wants to “justify himself,” Luke tells us. The easy answer doesn’t quite cut it for him. He has one more question, and it’s the hot-button one. No one argues about “love your neighbor as yourself.” What they argue about is what comes next: “Who is my neighbor?”
     Now you know exactly why he asks that. It’s not that he’s there with a notepad and a pencil, ready to jot down a list of neighbors he then needs to go love. He’s asking for the same reason any of us ask that question: he already has a list. And it’s a list of people he’s absolutely not going to love.
     This is what I mean: hating your neighbor will make you dumb. It will make intelligent, capable, and even religious people behave like morons. It will make us unable to see, hear, or feel anything beyond our narrow self-concern. It will make us tone-deaf to the love and grace of God. It will make it impossible for the hurts of anyone else to register on our consciousness.
     You know that’s true from the parable Jesus tells to answer the “Who is my neighbor?” question. A guy gets mugged on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s robbed, beaten, and left injured by the side of the road. Thankfully, someone comes by: a priest, a religious person. Say it with me, though: he passed by on the other side of the road. Then another religious guy, a temple helper called a Levite, comes along. But he does the same: he passes by
     Over the last few years, greater numbers of people are speaking out more definitively about the struggles and suffering of immigrants and minorities in America. People throughout our country, the one many of us think is the greatest in the world, are making credible claims backed up by real experiences that they can’t get fair treatment because of the color of their skin. Some professional athletes, by and large the most well-known people of color in our country, are using their stature to draw attention to this injustice. And you know what I hear the most outrage, passion, and feeling about among whites — even Christians? That they shouldn’t “disrespect the flag” by protesting during the National Anthem.
     I’m thankful for our country, but I’m a Christian first, and I don’t think Jesus would disregard those who were marginalized by telling them that the National Anthem “isn’t the time or place” to protest. That sounds more like what folks said to black students sitting in at lunch counters than it does Jesus. 
     Perhaps our preoccupation with honoring the flag only serves to let us pass by the plight of our neighbors without bending down and getting our hands dirty. Perhaps it serves to justify ourselves in the same way that “expert’s” question did: “Who is my neighbor? Who do I have to love as myself? Surely not them.”
     OK, now is when you can get offended: If you think the thing to be outraged about these days is what grown men choose to do when the flag is waved, then let me suggest as gently and respectfully as I can that you’re passing your neighbor by, too. You’re passing by the real experiences of people of color. You’re passing by the injustice they’ve received; demonstrable, measurable injustice that needs to be known. It’s ugly, I know. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes these experiences will be expressed in ways that seem disrespectful. (That’s what protest is.) We’ll want to pass by. We’ll want to cross the street. We’ll be tempted to justify ourselves. We can’t, though. Not if we want to follow Jesus.
    The punchline of Jesus’ parable, you might remember, doesn’t exactly answer the expert’s question. While he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Who acted with compassion and love toward a human being in need? And it was, of course, the one who had mercy on him. Turns out that neighbor is more a verb than it is a noun.
     Compassion, mercy, and love start with listening. You don’t have to agree in order to listen. You don’t have to affirm everything a person does in order to listen to their stories and care about them. All you have to do is care enough to come to their sides instead of crossing the street. Come and hear their stories without arguing, without correcting. 
     This isn’t about politics. It’s about giving people the respect of listening to what they’re saying. A human being created by God deserves that. You deserve it. So do those around us, even those with whom we disagree.
     So don’t cross the street. Love your neighbor as yourself. Listen to the words of people who have suffered. Get to know their stories. And don’t turn away. Don’t hold them at arm’s length. Who will be their neighbors?

     The ones who show them mercy.     

Friday, September 22, 2017


  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
     For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
     Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
     In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.. 
-Romans 6:3-11 (NIV)

Please forgive me for saying so, but baptism is kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?
     Now, before you get mad at me, hear me out. I still believe what I was taught since I was a child: that baptism is important, that it “washes away sins” and connects us with Jesus and that it’s the place where the Holy Spirit descends on us like that dove did Jesus in the Jordan River. Every Sunday I have the privilege (and I see it as one) of inviting people to be baptized into Christ. Every now and then, someone will even take me up on the offer. So I’m definitely on board with the concept.
     It’s the execution of it that can be, well, a little embarrassing.
     First of all, baptism usually necessitates a clothing change. That in itself is a little awkward. Then there’s the whole thing of dunking someone in a tank of water. (No one ever looks photo-ready when they first come up.) Folks who practice infant baptism have solved those problems; those of us who practice believer’s baptism still wrestle with them.
     And then there’s this: baptism has always seemed to me to be a little…anticlimactic. We look at it, and rightly so, as a big moment. We look forward to and pray for people to decide they want to follow Jesus and come for baptism. And then when it happens we ask them if they believe in Jesus and want to follow him, we send them to the back for the aforementioned wardrobe change while the rest of us sing a couple of songs, and then when it’s time the baptizer speaks a sentence or two and then — splash — it’s over. Literally takes a few seconds.
     Imagine you brought a visitor to church on a Sunday when there's a baptism. They know nothing about Christianity. In whispers, you explain to this visitor what’s about to happen: forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, new life in Christ, etc. And then the baptizee and baptizer are in the tank…and then it’s over. 
     You would understand, wouldn’t you, if your visitor turned to you and said, “That’s it?” Your explanation would have taken much longer than the event itself.
     See what I mean? A little embarrassing. Am I the only one who thinks so?
     If I’m not, then maybe what’s missing is a little imagination.
     Imagine the Holy Spirit hovering over the primeval waters, preparing to create a new world. There’s nothing but darkness and chaos. And water. But there’s about to be light and life.
     Imagine for example that God, frustrated and fed up with the horrific way human beings were treating one another and the creation with which he had entrusted them, flooded the world. In a catastrophe of, well, biblical proportions, he opened the clouds and the springs and submerged the mountains.  Every living thing on earth except the family huddled in a homemade cruise ship and the animals God had put in there with them died. Only this family was saved. Saved through water.
     Or how about this: imagine that God took an ethnic group that existed merely as slave labor and set them on the way to nationhood by promising them a land of their own. Now imagine that he led these people out of the land of their captivity through a sea on dry land, between walls of water stacked up on either side of them. And imagine that he wiped away those who would have kept them in slavery by bringing the water down at their heels, engulfing the army following them. Imagine a generation later that he led their children and grandchildren through a river in the same way as he finally overcame their sin and resistance and brought them to the land he had promised them.
     And imagine, if you will, two young men wading out into that same river that God had brought Israel through millennia earlier. Imagine one of them baptizing the other in that murky water. And imagine a voice booming from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”
     Yep, maybe my problem is a failure of imagination. I forget what God does with a little water. 
     He creates order out of chaos, light in darkness, life in desolation.
     He judges sin and saves those who trust in him so that they can go on to begin a new world.
     He destroys everything that would enslave and dehumanize us and leads us on to the new life of freedom he always intended for human beings to have.
     He announces the pleasure he takes in his sons and daughters who put their trust in him.
     When you think of it that way, baptism isn’t really all that embarrassing at all, is it? It’s a small act, but it brings us into contact with something infinitely large. Maybe that’s the point, really: it’s a small act. Not much for us to do, wardrobe change and wet hair notwithstanding. It’s not our power or initiative. All we do, quite literally, is get wet. And yet it puts us in touch with the power of God that creates and recreates worlds, that tears down oppressors while setting free those they oppress, that removes the sins that compromise our identity as God’s image-bearers, that makes alienated human beings into sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of one another.
     What God didn’t accomplish in the flood or in the Red Sea, he accomplishes in baptism. He sends his Spirit to us. He changes hearts. He destroys the power sin and death have over us. He unites us with Jesus in new life.
     Such a small little act. You would understand that it would take great faith for someone to see it and believe all that was going on. 
     Which is, of course, the point.
     So the next time you see a baptism, don’t be embarrassed. Think about creation. The flood. The Red Sea. The voice that called Jesus “son”. Think about all that God has done in and with water. 

     And then think about how this tops them all.   

Thursday, September 14, 2017


   Therefore I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.  Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,  because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. 
     Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus — that I appeal to you for my son  Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. 
     I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave,  but better than a slave, as a dear brother.  He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. 
-Philemon 4-16

I was re-reading Philemon this week. That doesn’t take long; the “book” (letter) is only 25 verses long. You can read it in five minutes, probably. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
     Philemon’s so short that you could miss it if two pages in your Bible stick together. It’s in some ways an odd little letter, stuck between Paul’s longer letters to Timothy and Titus and the much longer anonymous “letter” to the “Hebrews”. It’s probably Paul’s most personal letter. He isn’t trying to correct bad theology or practice in a church, as he usually is in his letters. He’s just writing to a man named Philemon, a man of high social standing, on behalf of a man named Onesimus who he’s met.
     The story, as nearly as we can reconstruct it, goes something like this. Philemon is a householder, probably in the area of Colosse (compare the name “Archippus” in Philemon 2 and Colossians 4:17). He owes his conversion to Christ to Paul, who seems to have met him personally and brought him to the Lord. A church meets in his house, which means he is wealthy enough to have a good-sized home. Paul considers him a “partner in the faith,” has been encouraged by reports of Philemon’s love for the church and his faith, and compliments him on how he has “refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”
     But Paul and Philemon have a mutual acquaintance: a man named Onesimus. Paul considers Onesimus his “son” and “his very heart.” Onesimus is “dear” to Paul and has become “useful” to him in his current circumstances: he is in prison. In his day, that would have meant that a friend or family member would have to supply his food and other needs, and that seems to be what Onesimus has been doing for Paul. 
     At some point during Paul’s relationship with Onesimus, he has brought Onesimus to Christ. And the story has come out: Onesimus owes Philemon a debt. He is an escaped slave. He has perhaps even stolen some of his master’s money. In any case, he has violated the law by running away. No doubt trying to hide in whatever city Paul is imprisoned in, he has met the apostle and come to Christ. And, together, they have come to a difficult decision: Onesimus should return to Philemon. 
     This letter isn’t just about the relationships between these men. Primarily it has to with the question of what demands the gospel makes on the way we deal with one another — especially in the church. It may seem strange to us that Paul sends Onesimus back. Wouldn’t it be better, more compassionate, to hide him? Maybe in the short term. But you’d also be sentencing him, wouldn’t you, to a lifetime of hiding? Pretending to be someone else. Not to mention that the gospel calls us to repentance. How else can Onesimus repent of this crime of defrauding Philemon besides returning — especially now that Philemon is not only his master but also in Christ is his brother?
     But that’s also true for Philemon. Paul wonders in the letter if God wasn’t at work in these events so that Philemon might “have [Onesimus] back forever — no longer as a slave, but…as a dear brother.” Paul doesn’t sanction Onesimus remaining a runaway. But neither does he sanction Philemon keeping him as a slave. The clear intent of his writing Philemon is to plead for Onesimus’ emancipation. Based on their relationship as “partners” in the gospel, he asks Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” That is, not with a set of chains, or punishment for his misdeeds, but with the same love Paul has heard that he has shown for other believers.
     Paul sends Onesimus back in the end, because, dear as he is to him, he is “dearer to” Philemon “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” He’s “dear” to Philemon as the embodiment of the idea that the gospel creates family and equalizes status. 
     Paul could use his status as Philemon’s older partner in the gospel, suffering in chains for Christ, to compel him to free Onesimus and even send him back to continue to minister to Paul’s needs, but he doesn’t want to force Philemon into anything. He wants whatever favor Philemon might choose to do him to come from his experience of the gospel, from a transformation in his heart of the way he sees Onesimus through the cross of Jesus. He wants it to come from Philemon’s understanding of “every good thing [they] share in Christ”. He wants it to come from his longstanding love for Paul and a newly discovered love for Onesimus that comes from their new status as brothers in Christ.
     I’m reminded in this little letter that a gospel that doesn’t change the way we see the people around us is no gospel at all. 
     If it doesn't cause us to liberate people from the chains of our prejudices and selfishness, then perhaps we don’t understand it. If it doesn’t lead us to see others as family in Christ or as fellow human beings, it isn’t the gospel of Jesus.
     If we can hold grudges for offenses others have committed against us, then maybe we don’t grasp it
     If we can worship and serve with people in a church for years and not come to love and care for them, then perhaps the gospel hasn’t really done its work in our hearts. If, especially, we can’t listen to believers older than us with love, respect, and deference, then I wonder if we’re partners in the same gospel that Paul experienced and spent his life proclaiming.
     The gospel, when believed, experienced, and turned outward, should “refresh the hearts of the Lord’s people.”

     May we refresh the hearts of the people around us in an oppressive world of brutality, bitterness, prejudice, and slavery.

Friday, September 1, 2017


     Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ — their Lord and ours…
-1 Corinthians 1:1-2 (NIV)

There are a handful of words and phrases I’ve heard all my life that always tell me that there’s a good chance the speaker or writer is from “my” tribe of Christians. Maybe every denominations or fellowship of churches  has such words, little shibboleths that only insiders understand or grasp the full significance of. I suspect so. But I know mine best. So if any of these ring a bell with you, then I’m guessing we have something in common.

  • “Guide, guard, and direct us.” Used exclusively in public prayers right before the next phrase.
  • “Bring us back at the next appointed time.” Comes right before “in Jesus’ name, amen.” Almost always used in the closing prayer. 
  • “The Lord’s Church.” It’s the phrase we use to identify ourselves to one another: “a congregation of the Lord’s Church,” “a member of the Lord’s Church,” that sort of thing. Used so we don’t have to say awkward things like “Church of Christ church” or “he’s Church of Christ.” Or, God forbid, “Campbellite.”
  • “A ready recollection.” Prayed so the preacher doesn’t forget his sermon and subject us to 45 minutes of wandering in the wilderness.
  • “Separate and apart from the Lord’s Supper…” Used so that we know that the offering is not part of the Lord’s Supper, but indeed separate and apart, not just one or the other. It comes right after the Lord’s Supper only for “convenience”, since the guys who served communion are already there to pass the offering plates or baskets.
  • “Sick and afflicted.” The folks we pray for. Sometimes they are said to be “the sick and afflicted of this congregation,” which sounds like we might be doing more harm than good.
  • “…while we stand and sing.” The go-to ending for sermons. (I still say it most every week.)
  • “Gospel Meeting.” Not “revival.” That’s the Baptists. Gospel Meeting.
  • “Invitation.” Not “altar call.” That’s the Baptists. Invitation.
  • “Brother,” “Sister,” and “Brethren.” Usually an honorific reserved for people older than you. You can also call the Preacher/Minister “Brother Jones” or “Brother John.” Never “Pastor,” though.
  • “Auditorium” used for the room that folks in other groups would call the Sanctuary or Worship Space. (Which sounds like you’d be weightless.)
  • The song number 728b. This one only applies to some of us who before the days of projected songs used a particular songbook, Songs of the Church. (And not that new edition.) If you know what I’m talking about then I don’t need to explain it. If you don’t, it probably wouldn’t make any sense anyway.

     If any of those sound familiar, then I’m guessing you could add to the list. And that’s OK. Phrases like that are sort of a verbal shorthand. They come into use because they’re helpful in communicating a group’s values without having to articulate them fully over and over. As long as they aren’t used in a way that excludes others, they’re not a problem.
     But exclusion is exactly the problem I have with one word I heard sometimes in sermons and Bible classes growing up. The word “Sound.”
     It doesn’t mean something you can hear. I’m thinking of the word because I heard it this week, again, in a phone call. It’s the same phone call I’ve received numerous times a year over the last 23 years. The caller explains that he or she will be visiting in Chicago over the weekend. Sometimes they have a son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter starting college. They’re looking for a church. But before the conversation goes any farther, they want to know one thing: “Are you a sound congregation?”
     It comes from Paul’s pastoral epistles — first and second Timothy and Titus. Paul refers to “sound doctrine,” “sound teaching,” and being “sound in the faith.” The word it translates just means “healthy,” and it refers to teaching and lifestyle that fits with the gospel of Jesus. Continuing to proclaim the gospel without alteration is “sound.” Various forms of sexual immorality, lying, perjury, and slavery are not. Leaders in the church should “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught,” which will encourage the church and refute those who oppose the gospel. Paul warns that there will always be those who won’t “put up with sound doctrine,” but will instead listen only to what they want to hear. 
     “Soundness,” in Paul’s terminology, has to do with fidelity to the message of Jesus. Stay true to the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and its implications, and you’ll be “sound in the faith.” You’ll be able to teach others to live lives of faith. You’ll be able to resist those who would teach something else as a basis for hope and redemption. 
     None of that, however, is what these callers want to know. In their mind, there are specific practices, traditions, and values that make a church “sound.” Check those off, and you qualify. Fail to check them, and you aren’t “sound.”
     I wonder sometimes if anyone bothered to check the church at Corinth for “soundness” when visiting there. Your church might be messed up, but do you have anyone sleeping with their stepmother? Do you have the divisions they had over favorite teachers and whose spiritual gifts were more important? Have anyone who refuses to share the peach cobbler at the potlucks? Chaotic worship services? Doubt about resurrection? I doubt if my caller did his homework on Corinth he’d show up. 
     I don’t mean to be unfair. He’s trying to please the Lord. But I can’t help but think that, if Paul called the mixed-up, bickering, arrogant, immoral Christians at Corinth “sanctified” and “holy people,” if he recognized that they and him and all the other churches called Jesus “Lord” together, then maybe we need to stop trying to find reasons to exclude each other. I can’t imagine that the Lord would consider the kind of sanctimonious fault-finding that some of us seem to quick to engage in very healthy — sound — for his followers to spend their time on.
    If I indulge those callers, make them feel good about themselves because they’ve found a “sound” church, then I feel like I contribute in some way to their exclusionary mindset. I feel like I’m selling out those churches that are faithful, loving, serving, Jesus-following communities, but wouldn’t check all my callers’ boxes. 

     Maybe, instead of worrying whether or not others’ are sound, let’s make sure we are. Let’s make sure our faith and morality and ethics are healthy, that we follow Jesus and look more and more like him. And then maybe, if we find ourselves sometime in some church that really is unsound, we’ll be able to help heal them.