Friday, September 28, 2018

Jesus and Women: "Go...and Leave"

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
     “No one, sir,” she said. 
     “Then neither do I condemn you,”  Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” 
-John 8:10-11 (NIV)

As I write this, a nominee for Supreme Court Justice is being scrutinized for alleged assaults on women when he was a teenager. A formerly-beloved sitcom star and children’s show creator is in prison, convicted of drugging and raping women. A powerful Hollywood producer has been outed for using his position to coerce sex from aspiring young actresses. The CEO of a major entertainment company has resigned after allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation against women who worked for him. The lead pastor of a megachurch has retired after allegations of sexual misconduct by several women, and his replacements and the entire elder board of the church have resigned over the mishandling of the allegations. 
     Those situations are the ones making the headlines, but they’re far from isolated occurrences among politicians, entertainers, or pastors. It seems that everywhere, in every walk of life, men are being called to account for their mistreatment of women.
     Obviously, there’s a problem in our culture: a problem that goes back a long way and reaches into every part of our society. 
     To be clear, the problem is not that men are being required to answer for past wrongdoing. Yes, everyone probably has something in their past that they’re ashamed of. But there are men who have managed to make it to adulthood without sexually assaulting or harassing women.
     The problem is not that women are speaking out instead of just accepting that a culture of misconduct and abuse is the way thing are, and playing along.
     The problem is not that women are uptight or oversensitive about these issues. 
    The problem is not even that a man’s reputation and life could conceivably be ruined over a false allegation. That’s possible, of course, but women’s lives and reputations have been ruined for a long, long time over lies told by men. While false accusations would be tragic, and care should be taken to expose them as such, that danger is no reason to resent or resist the needed correctives.
     And correctives are needed, because for a long time now women have been defined in our culture, by men and sometimes even by other women, by what they can do for those in control. They’ve been defined strictly by their roles in the home as wife and mother. They’ve been defined by their attempts to reach for something resembling equality. They’ve been defined by their smaller size. They’ve been defined by their physical appearance. And, as our news feeds tell us nearly every day, they’ve been defined by the sexual pleasure they can provide. Or, what — every woman who has ever told a story of being victimized made that story up? They just misunderstood? They were too sensitive? Come on.
     Here’s a corrective: let’s make sure that Jesus is the model for how to treat the women in our lives.
     One that comes to mind for me this week is the woman who the gospel of John says was “caught in the act of adultery.” A sin? Definitely. But the men accusing her aren’t really all that interested in her. They aren’t really even interested in the Law they claim to be so concerned about, the Law that they said compels them to stone her. (If that was really what they cared about, they would have known that the Law also said that the man she was with should be stoned.) What they’re interested in is in finding justification for the attitudes they already hold. The woman is just a convenient instrument.
     Jesus, though, has real interest in this woman. Not as a sexual partner, as the man she was with apparently had. Not as a way to trap those he disagreed with, as the Pharisees and legal scholars had. What he sees is a person, a creation of God, who’s been mistreated, used, and abused. You see that in the way he deflects the accusations against her. Has she committed a sin? Yes. Is she responsible for it? Yes. (More on that in a minute.) But the sin is only part of the story. 
     That’s why he writes on the ground. Everyone’s always interested in what he wrote; John doesn’t seem to care about that, just the fact that he did. It’s a strange thing to do, which is the point. One thing it definitely does is draw the hostile crowd’s attention to him and off the woman. You can imagine the whispers, can’t you? What’s he doing? What’s that he’s writing? He’s giving the woman a chance to breathe. He’s giving everyone a chance to reflect.  
     And then, of course, the classic one-liner: “Whoever hasn’t sinned should be the one to throw the first stone.”
     They get the point. Now they see this woman a little more clearly. She’s more or less like them: flawed, imperfect, a sinner — but no more deserving of the treatment she’s getting than they are.
     But don’t overlook what Jesus does after that, after they’ve all gone home regretting their past sins. He treats the woman with gentleness and care, sure: “Neither do I condemn you.” But there’s something more than that: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” 
     I think that’s really important, because it tells you that Jesus doesn’t just see this woman as some poor, fragile, shrinking violet who needs protection. She did need protection. Now she needs someone to see her as a person who can take responsibility for herself. She needs someone to affirm that she has choices to make and that she’s capable of making them. She isn’t defined by her past, or by a husband or the man with whom she committed adultery. She isn’t even defined by the religious leaders’ opinions of her, or by how well she measures up to her society’s standards. Jesus doesn’t even leave her indebted to him. He loves her as a person who has agency and will, and can go forward to choose the kind of life she wants to live.  
     We all need reminding that this is how the Lord sees us, and so it’s how we should all see each other.
     Let’s protect each other when we should. When the strong would grind the weak into the dust, let there be no doubt on whose side we stand.
     Let’s make sure we take responsibility for our own sins. And take responsibility to go and sin no more.
     And let’s make sure we allow each person the agency and power, as creations of God he called “good,” to make their own decisions and define themselves instead of seeing them only in relation to ourselves. 

     Whoever we might be.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

     As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 
     While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 
     On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
-Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)

“That’s not what you meant, right, Jesus?” 
     Simon’s voice carried a little more than he intended, maybe. The conversation that had been going on for the last few minutes, since the Pharisees had approached their little band outside Matthew’s house, came to a sudden stop. Everyone looked at him: Pharisees, disciples, Jesus. Simon could see Matthew, standing just outside the circle looking uncomfortable, and shot him a look that could have peeled paint off a wall. A tax collector – he still couldn’t get over it. Jesus, asking a tax collector to follow him, then eating at his house with all these…these…people! No wonder the Pharisees were talking. Everyone was talking.
     They didn’t call Simon “The Zealot” for nothing. It wasn’t that long ago that he and his compatriots would have trampled Matthew’s collection booth under their horses’ hooves. And if that wasn’t enough to push him into a new line of work, they might have just introduced him to the points of their daggers. 
     He had barely been able to get anything down at dinner. The food they were eating, the house in which they were eating it, had been purchased with the blood, sweat, and tears of his countrymen, stolen without a qualm by their host. Bad enough that he collected the taxes that funded this foreign occupation of the Promised Land. What made it worse was that he funded his own affluent lifestyle with the “surcharges” he collected on top of the taxes. Tax collectors never really tried to hide that those surcharges went right into their own pockets.
     And there they had sat, eating at Matthew’s table liked they belonged there. Jesus laughed and traded jokes with his host and all his friends, complimented the food and house, and generally seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. Simon, on the other hand, spent the meal trading astounded looks with the other disciples and glaring at Matthew and his buddies.
     So he hadn’t been at all surprised when, as they left the house, the Pharisees were waiting to pounce. They gathered around, looking down their noses at the little group. Their spokesman had stared them in the face, in turn, until they were all looking down at their feet like scolded children. “This teacher of yours – why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
     Silence, except for sandals shuffling in the dirt. And then Jesus, approaching the confrontation, threw alcohol on the fire. 
     “Healthy people don’t need doctors. Doctors are for the sick.” 
     He said it with a smile, but with steel in his voice, and Simon had been startled to see the Pharisees’ smug self-righteousness melt right in front of them all. He didn’t let them off the ropes. “Go study a little more, and learn what the prophet meant when he said, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Now it was the Pharisees’ turn to contemplate their own sandals. 
     “I haven’t come to call the righteous, you see. I’ve come for sinners.”
     This last, these were the words that Simon was sure he must have misunderstood. Not for the righteous. For sinners. With all this talk of doctors and healthy people and sick people, Simon was getting an unsettling feeling that following Jesus wasn’t going to be what he imagined it was. Surely he had misunderstood, because if he hadn’t then Jesus was saying that following him wasn’t about drawing lines and building walls to keep out the rabble. It wasn’t about reassuring themselves that God loved them. It was about taking that message of God’s open door to those who thought their sins put them outside God’s love and concern.
     Everyone looked at Simon, then back at Jesus. Simon swallowed hard, but he wasn’t going to let this go. “I mean, we have to have some standards, right? No one’s perfect, but, let’s face it: some of us are better than others.” He glanced apologetically at the Pharisees, then whispered, “Tell them you don’t mean that the way it sounded. Tell them that they misinterpreted this dinner. Tell them you’re not really welcoming sinners over righteous people.”
     Jesus looked at Simon for a moment. He was thoughtful. Quiet. Then he turned to walk back toward Matthew. “Sinner. Righteous.” he murmured, loudly enough so Simon could just hear it. “And which are you, Simon? Which are you?”
     And suddenly it made sense to Simon. What Jesus was saying made sense. If Matthew had blood on his hands, so did he. If Matthew had cut corners to get what he wanted, so had he. If Matthew had associated with sinners in the course of his life, so had he. In the end, they were with Jesus for the same reason. He had asked them to follow, and they had wanted nothing more than they had wanted to say yes.
     Who was righteous, really? Not Matthew and his friends. Not these Pharisees. Not even him. And yet, by puncturing his self-righteous balloon, Jesus gave Simon something that was, maybe, even better. Acceptance. He knew Simon, just like he knew Matthew. And he loved them as they were, and wanted them to be better. He wanted it enough to live with them, and teach them, and show them.
     Simon shook his head and smiled to himself a little. He glanced at the Pharisees. “If you guys will excuse me, I’m going to talk to my friend.” Simon walked over to where Jesus stood talking to Matthew, and he embraced the astonished tax collector. “Thank you, brother, for the hospitality,” he whispered into his ear.

     This is going to be interesting, he thought to himself. Very interesting.

Friday, September 14, 2018


Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
     “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. 
-Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)

Our basement really smelled bad. So bad you didn’t want to be in it for more than a minute.
     It wasn’t usually like that, you understand. But on this particular Saturday — ugh. The strong smell of mildew. Mold, maybe. Or something. We’d had a little water seep in after strong rains and wet the carpet and pad in one room. It had never been this bad, though. Something was clearly going on. But the carpet didn’t seem to be wet. Well, maybe it had been, and the mold had started growing. 
     Not knowing what else to do, I decided to pull out the carpet. It was getting kind of old anyway, and if it was as moldy as it smelled then it certainly didn’t need to be in the house. I went down and started cutting and pulling. After an hour or so of work, the carpet and pad in what we still call “the playroom” (despite the fact that the one who mostly played in it is now a junior in college) was rolled up in three or four sections, ready to be dragged to the curb.
     Funny thing, though — I never found the mold I expected to find. 
     Well, maybe it was in the pad or the carpet or something. Maybe when I dragged it out to the curb, the smell would be gone. So I opened the door to the outside, the door that leads to steps that go up to ground level. The door that gets used once or twice a week. I opened the door, and it hit me.
     When I say it hit me, I mean I realized that what we were smelling wasn’t mold at all.
     But I also mean that the smell hit me. I mean, really hit me. Like I imagine an armored truck would hit me.
     The smell of a squirrel that had expired, oh, I’m guessing 5 or 6 days before and had spent the better part of a week…contributing to the ecosystem, let’s just say. On the steps just outside my basement door.
     The good news is that once my late little friend was hosed off my steps and his remains (mostly tail) buried in my backyard — deeply, and with all the honors deserved by a squirrel of his stature — the smell was out of my basement in no time at all.
     What if I had never opened that door, though?
     Go along with me here. What if I just replaced the carpet? Would the smell be gone? No, even with beautiful new carpet, or expensive tile, or whatever, the basement would still stink. It would look better, newer, but you still wouldn’t want to spend any time there.
     So what if I placed some air fresheners around? Well, that might help a little. It might mask the odor. Make it smell like death and lilacs (which would not be a great smell, but is a wonderful band name…). The smell would still be there. It still wouldn’t be a place you’d want to spend much time.
     So, OK: if new carpet and air fresheners wouldn’t do it, how about new paint? New paint always freshens a place up — no cracks, no stained trim, no scuff marks. Surely a couple gallons of Sherwin-Williams would do it, right? 
     You know it wouldn’t, of course. Neither would nice new furniture, better window treatments, a state of the art home theater, or a top-notch security system. It wouldn’t matter if you made the room into a library, game room, office, or bedroom. You could do a lot of work, much more than I did, and still get nowhere, for one painfully obvious reason; none of that would get anywhere near the source of the problem.
     Of course, no one would be dumb enough to do that, would they?
     Well, hold on. 
     I’ve seen a lot of people change churches over and over, jump from place to place, trying to find something that they can’t even define: a feeling, a sense of belonging, a purpose. They chase that…whatever it is…from church to church, when maybe all along the problem has more to do with their expectations. But they’re never going to find it if they never move from a preoccupation with receiving to a determination to give.
     I’ve seen people identify their marriage problems as some variation of “my spouse doesn’t make me happy.” So they set about trying to “fix” their husband or wife, which generally has the effect of making things worse. Or go find a new one that’s closer to their ideal. Thing is, while their attention is on fixing or replacing their spouse, they don’t consider that the smell might be coming from something corrupt in their own heart.  
     You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen self-righteous people who know every dark place on the internet demean “the gays.” You’ve seen angry, bitter people attack immigrants as the source of all their problems, when their problems have nothing to do with that family down the street from Mexico, or Yemen, or Poland. You know people who laugh that their only drinking problem is that they can’t get enough beer, and you know that there’s something full of decay down deep inside them that they haven’t seen or think they can ignore.
     Maybe, just maybe, you yourself have been letting something rotten stay in the darkness of your heart of hearts for a long time now: anger, jealousy, hurt, grief, lust, selfishness, pride, greed. You’ve tried fixing the people around you. You’ve tried engineering your life to look just like you want it to. You’ve whitewashed your tombs. You’ve obsessively scrubbed the outside of your best china. But the stink is still there. 
     “First clean the inside,” Jesus says. That doesn’t work with china — please clean the outside of your dishes too — but it works with people because what’s inside us tends to find its way outside until it poisons the air all around us. 
     Of course, if we could clean up our own insides we wouldn’t be in this mess. Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is saying. The problem he’s pointing at is our inability to even acknowledge that there might be something in our hearts, something that needs cleaning out down in the tangle of needs, wants, values, perspectives, and attitudes that make us who we are. We’d rather just leave the door shut. We need Jesus to do the cleaning, to write God’s laws on our hearts, in the words of Jeremiah. But we have to be willing to “draw near to God with a sincere heart” so that can happen.
     There’s nothing we need to hide. Nothing we have to prove. Open that door. It might be kind of gross back there. It might take some work to clean it up. But it’s only when we’re willing to acknowledge where the real problem is that God will start to clean it up.

     Trust me: you don’t want to leave it there. It’ll just smell worse.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Not of This World

…As I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. 
-Philippians 3:18-21 (NIV)

A couple of weeks ago, a group of evangelical church leaders was invited to dinner at the White House. 
     I’m guessing my invitation was lost in the mail. Or maybe I’m not evangelical enough. Or, most likely, I don’t have influence on a large enough bloc of potential voters. (Did that sound cynical?)
     The — let’s call him the Host-in-Chief of the dinner — had some words for the church leaders that were present there. Now, before I go on, let me just promise you that I’ll say what I’m going to say again if someone from the other party ever comes out with something like this in a room full of church leaders. But this is the guy who inhabits the White House now that we’re talking about, and so I’m going to come across as critical of him. So, just get ready for that, or stop reading here if you prefer. And know that I pray for the guy and would like to see him succeed. I just can’t let this go by without comment, though.
     So, again — room full of church leaders. Pastors, teachers, etc. Not leaders of small churches. They preach to and teach and are read by large numbers of people every week, some of whom hang on their every word. This is why I take it seriously when the President of the United States invites these folks for dinner and then says the following:  

“I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. Because if they don’t — it’s Nov. 6 — if they don’t vote we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election — you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”

     He went on to stoke fears of militant action from “violent people” if his party doesn’t do well in the midterm elections. He also talked a lot about getting rid of the Johnson Amendment*, the tax code provision that prevents churches and church leaders from publicly endorsing candidates for office.
     “Maybe it’s why you are very plateaued. I hate to say it, if you were a stock, you’d be like, you’re very plateaued,” he said at one point. “They really have silenced you. But now you’re not silenced anymore.”
     Well, that’s a relief. We’re not silenced anymore. Maybe now the church will be saved.
     So I think I’d like to use my “newfound freedom of speech.” This will be a little weird, having been silenced for so long, so bear with me. I think I’ll use my new liberty to quote some guy whose name I can’t quite remember. I mean, he isn’t a politician or an evangelical church leader, so how important can his name be anyway? But the quote goes something like this: “My kingdom is not of this world."
     Jesus said that (I remember now) while on trial before another politician who claimed to have power over him. In response to Pilate’s fear of losing his own power, Jesus answered that power as the world defines it did not interest him in the slightest. The proof, he said, was in the fact that his followers didn’t fight by the rules of those who held power in the world, or those who wanted to take it. They weren’t confronting Pilate’s soldiers. They weren’t appealing to Caesar for an audience. The kingdom of which Jesus is ruler isn’t concerned with the ways in which the world allocates power. It doesn’t care about national boundaries, or party lines, or Imperial governors or Presidents. If the Roman legions couldn’t bring down Jesus’ kingdom then neither, I suspect, would the IRS. 
     And our President will never be the savior of the church. We already have one, thanks.
     I get why he talks the way he does: decades as the head of a real estate and entertainment empire, and a couple of years in Washington, has taught him how to think about power in our world. It’s to be used for personal advantage. It’s to be held onto at all costs. When you have it, those who don’t have it need your influence on their behalf. And they’ll sometimes give a lot of loyalty in return.       
     The church doesn’t need special treatment secured by loyalty to a politician who won’t give us anything that he doesn’t get back, with interest, in votes and money. We don’t need to be able to endorse political candidates in order to have a message to speak in our world — and, in fact, endorsing candidates gets in the way of that message. If you want to do something for us, Mr. President, then please do what’s right and just for all people — and, when you have to choose, especially for those on the margins of our world. That’s what our King is interested in. That’s what his Kingdom is about.
     The danger in all this silliness isn’t that our President believes that his policies can save the church. The danger is that the church might start to believe it. We’ve shown ourselves as having heads that are easily turned by the temptations of power — either having it ourselves or being close friends with those who do. When that happens, we tend to lose our way. We start thinking, like those influenced by power inevitably seem to, about how to get more, and how to use it to our own advantage. We build empires instead of following our Master in proclaiming God’s kingdom and following him in giving ourselves in sacrificial love.  
     We’re not “one election away” from losing what we have. And, if we are, then it isn’t worth having. The church has never depended on the world’s power brokers to keep it alive, or to keep its “stock” from “plateauing.” If we did, I doubt we would have ever gotten past that night when our Lord and Savior stood before Pilate. We say with Paul that our citizenship is in Heaven. We live for the same kingdom for which the One who died for us lived. And we eagerly await a Savior from there who will bring about resurrection, renewal, and redemption. 
     I’m going to use my freedom of speech to tell you to vote for whoever your conscience tells you to vote for — or no one, if that’s the way you want to show your loyalty to the Kingdom of God. I’m going to tell you that, whenever some politician on either side of the aisle suggests that a vote for him is a vote for God, you should call that what it is. And I want you to know that the price for any favors any politician wants to offer is too high. 
     We know who the King really is. Why should we care which pretender sits on the throne at the moment?

*The Johnson Amendment is an amendment to the U.S. tax code, not the Constitution. The President does not have the power to abolish it; President Trump has instructed the IRS not to prosecute violations of it by religious organizations, which they rarely have since the amendment was passed in 1954.