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Thursday, December 24, 2020

"My Soul Glorifies the Lord"

  He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones 

but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.

-Luke 1:51-53




As I write this, Christmas Eve 2020, people are making tough decisions (our family included) to not travel this Holiday season. They’re choosing to be together on Zoom, FaceTime, Skype or whatever, if they can do that. (One thing this pandemic has brought to the surface is the tech divide between older and younger generations, or between the poor and the more affluent.) They’re suspending long-standing family traditions. 

     While some seem to be giving more gifts to friends and family in the absence of being together, others are forced to scale back because of lost jobs or other financial uncertainty. 

     Some, of course, are marking the first Christmas since a parent, spouse, child, or good friend has died.

     None of that, of course, is unique to Christmas 2020. The scale is unique, though; pretty much every Holiday celebration in the world is touched by this pandemic, to one degree or another. 

     Also at Christmas 2020, our national leaders struggle to address all of this in any meaningful way. While they argue and delay and play power games, we wait for some sign that they recognize the pain that many people are living with and feel their responsibility to do something to help make their burdens just a little lighter.   

     All while a President struggles pathetically to hold on to power at any cost. 

     And if you’ve read the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke, none of this should surprise you.
     Jesus was born into a world where the poor were made poorer and rich richer by those in power. In his world, the powerful schemed to hold on to their power, whatever their scheming might cost those they intended to rule. In the time and place where he was born and lived his life, in which his parents and countrymen lived, most people lived day-to-day, praying for their not to be a crisis that would disrupt the delicate economic balance in which they existed and leave them starving.

    Please look at a part of Luke’s nativity story that we sometimes overlook. It’s Mary’s song, often known as The Magnificat (which I would absolutely name my cat if I had one) after its first word in Latin. Mary’s had an eventful few days or weeks. She’s been visited by an angel. This angel has told her that she’s pregnant (without a guy’s involvement), that this son she’s going to have is the Davidic king that Israel has been awaiting for centuries, that his kingdom will never end, and, oh yes, that all of this will happen through the power of the Holy Spirit so that her son will be, in a way no one else has ever been, the Son of God. The angel also mentions her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant — which is also miraculous, since she was “said to be unable to conceive.” When Mary arrives to visit Elizabeth, the baby she’s carrying “leaps for joy,” and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies that Mary is “blessed” for believing that “the Lord will fulfill his promises.” Out-of-the-ordinary things are happening. Angels are making announcements. Unexpected pregnancies are occurring. A new king has been born. A new kingdom is inaugurated.

     So Mary’s song celebrates these things. She “glorifies the Lord.” She “rejoices.” Why? Because she hasn’t been well-served by the king in power. The kingdom she lives under hasn’t been particularly good or kind or benevolent to her neighbors. She’s lived all of her young life with the inherited hope that God would intervene in the lives of his people, break their chains of bondage to Rome, and restore their fortunes. And now, God “has been mindful of the humble state” in which she and people like her live. “All generations will call her blessed” because through her God is showing that those who fear him can expect to receive his mercy. 

     You know who doesn’t rejoice? Rome. The leaders of Israel who are allied with Rome. The religious leaders who use their piety as a front for greed, corruption, and addiction to power. Anyone who monetizes fear to get people to do what they want, or take what they want from them. Word of a new kingdom never pleases those who are currently reigning.

     Mary sees what God is doing so clearly: in choosing this young girl from a nowhere town to bring his Savior into the world, he’s upending business as usual. He’s scattered those who are proud of themselves and their power and arrogant in their own strength and wealth. He’s bringing down rulers from their thrones — not just spiritual or metaphorical ones but real human rulers. His kingdom will outlast the high priest and the system he presides over, the Roman governor who pulls the strings, even Caesar and the Empire that rules the world. In place of those rulers, he’ll raise up people like Mary who have nothing and mean nothing in the world. He’ll see to it that the hungry have a place at his table while telling the wealthy to get lost. 

     The degree to which we spiritualize all this, make it into some kind of parable about Jesus overcoming evil or sin or the devil or something, probably depends directly on whether we mostly identify with the hungry or with the wealthy. Jesus can be nice to sing about, or read about, or hear about in church. But it’s tough to celebrate if we’re more invested in the failing kingdoms of the powerful and wealthy than we are in God’s kingdom and the one who opens its gates to us.

     To celebrate Christmas, to glorify the Lord and rejoice in our Savior the way Mary does, we’ll need to get over the sentimentality of the season. Put Mary’s song on the lips of most anyone else, and you have a song about revolution, a prophecy that God is coming to stand everything we think our world is about on its head. Because it’s Mary, we smile serenely and tell people who are suffering from the selfishness of those in power in this world that it will all be better one day in heaven, and that we have it better than anywhere else in the world, and that anyway if you’d just get your life together like we have ours together you wouldn’t be in this mess. 

     Jesus came, though, because the way the world is IS the mess. The only way to fix it is to live another way, by the laws of a revolutionary alternative kingdom that came smashing into our world not in an army or a campaign but in a newborn baby sent from God. The only way to see this world transformed before Jesus comes is to see it transformed in the way we treat the people around us. Do we identify with those in humble circumstances? Or do we find our identity in the powerful, wealthy, and influential? If we’re identifying with them, we’re on the wrong side. Their time is passing. 

     Jesus teaches us a new way to live, the way of love over power, sacrifice over arrogance, peace over violence, generosity over selfishness. He offers us grace and forgiveness, and fills us with his Spirit so that we can live in grace and forgiveness toward others. Let’s welcome his coming with rejoicing. Let’s glorify the Lord with our words and our obedience, like that young girl in Nazareth all those years ago.

     Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Christmas With the Gospels -- John

 As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. This week we’ll get into John. (You can read my take on Mark here. Matthew is here. Luke is here.)


     As similar as Matthew, Mark, and Luke are, John is at least that different. He has a temple cleansing, but it’s at that beginning of his Gospel and not in the last week of Jesus’ life. (Was there only one cleansing, that John moves for his own reasons — or Matthew, Mark, and Luke all move for their own? Or were there two?) Was Jesus crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover — Friday — as John says? Or on Thursday of Passion week, as the other evangelists indicate? John — along with Mark — doesn’t include a nativity story. Jesus is the preexistent Word that was with God and was God “in the beginning” (1:1-2). He was the agent of creation (1:3) and is still the source of light and life for human beings (1:4-5). Jesus’ existence is explained by saying this Word was “made flesh and lived among us,” allowing us to see his glory (1:14). Jesus’ mother is only mentioned three times, and never by name. John alone, however, includes the story of Jesus providing for his mother’s care while on the cross (19:25-27). John contains no parables, no account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (replacing it with the washing of the apostles’ feet), and no references to the Kingdom of God.
     John has organized his Gospel, it seems, around seven signs and seven “I am” discourses. “Sign” is the     word used in John’s gospel for Jesus’ miracles. Interestingly, in the other Gospels Jesus refuses to give his opponents a sign (Mt. 12:38-39, 16:1-5; Mk 8:11-12; Lk 11:16, 29-30). He warns the disciples that many pretenders will do “signs” to deceive the faithful, but that the “sign of the Son of Man” will not be apparent until his “coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory” (24:3, 24, 30). Luke has a slightly friendlier view of signs; he uses the word to refer to Jesus being laid in a manger and wrapped in cloths at his birth (Lk 2:12), while Simeon tells Mary that he will be a “sign that will be spoken against” (Lk 2:34). 
     Unlike the other three Gospels, in which Jesus refuses to perform signs and those who ask to see them do so because they don’t believe, in John Jesus’ miracles are signs intended to provoke belief — and they do — though some also provoke opposition from the religious leaders. They point beyond themselves to the “glory” of Jesus (2:11). The signs are transforming water to wine at Cana (2:1-11), the healing of the royal official’s son at Capernaum (4:46-54), the healing of the disabled man at Bethesda (5:1-15), the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-13), walking on the water and stilling a storm (6:16-21), the healing of the blind man (9:1-38), and the raising of Lazarus (11:1-45). In healing the lame and blind, creating food and wine, and displaying power over the elements and even death itself, Jesus demonstrates his identity as “the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:30). 
     All of the “I Am” statements in some way relate to life. As the bread of life, he gives life to the world (6:35) and offers a promise that the person who comes to him will never be hungry and will live forever (6:51). As the light of the world, he gives to the one who believes the light of life — either the light shows the way to life or the light that is life (8:12). As the gate for the sheep and the good shepherd, he brings abundant life (10:10) and ensures that the sheep will live by laying down his life for them (10:11). As the resurrection and the life, he overcomes death for those who believe (11:25). As the way, the truth, and the life, he brings believers to his Father’s house, where they can live forever (14:1-7). As the true vine, disciples can only live flourishing, fruitful lives if they “remain in” him (15:1-4). Though John definitely distinguishes between Jesus and the Father, the “I Am” statements echo God’s self-identification in Exodus 3:14.  
     More than any of the the other Gospels, John calls the reward of believing in Jesus “eternal life” (3:16, 36, 4:14, 5:24, 6:40, 47, 10:28, 17:2). A disciple is to “not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (6:27). Disciples are to “hate” their lives so that they are willing to give up what they love in this life to follow Jesus and attain eternal life (12:25). To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood is to have eternal life (6:54). Those God has “given” him receive it (17:2), and those to whom he give eternal life will never die or be taken from him (10:28). 
     This eternal life is prefigured in the raising of Lazarus. The promise is that belief in Jesus allows a person to be in contact with his life-giving power in a way the ensures he will never die. To believe in Jesus is to receive “life in his name.” (20:30) This life is connected to the removal of God’s “wrath” that comes only through Jesus (3:36). If God’s wrath is not removed through belief in Jesus, death is the result; those who believe in Jesus, however, are in touch with the Spirit as a source of “eternal life” welling up like a spring (4:14, 6:63). This life is given by Jesus on the Father's authority (3:16, 5:21, 26, 6:27, 33, 40, 17:2) through the agency of the Spirit (6:63). In some way, a believer in Jesus has already “crossed over from death to life” (5:24-26). Still, that life will only be fully realized when Jesus “raise[s] [a believer] up at the last day” (6:40). 
     John also frequently refers to the concept of “glory” in his Gospel. He tells us at the outset, “we (eyewitnesses, but also readers who believe in their testimony) have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The last two words invoke the experience of Moses, who asked to see the “glory” of God (Exodus 33). What Moses couldn’t see, John tells us, we have seen. Jesus reveals his glory through signs, but does not accept glory from human beings and decries religious leaders who do (5:41,44, 8:50). He is a man of truth because he “seeks the glory of the one who sent him” (7:18, c.f. 8:54). As his death nears, Jesus prays that the Father will glorify him (17:4-5) and that his disciples will see his glory, glory that comes from the Father’s eternal love for him (17:24, echoing 1:14). 
     John anticipates Jesus’ glorification (7:39, 12:16). When “the hour” for his glorification comes (12:23, 17:1), however, it’s not what a reader might expect. Though his signs glorify him ( the first and last signs are explicit about this — 2:11, 11:4), it’s ultimately in his death and resurrection that he finally and completely glorified. As Jesus is “lifted up,” he is glorified by being restored to the Father’s presence — the same presence he shared with the Father at the beginning of time (17:5, 1:1-2). 
     In John, Jesus’ death is “for” those who believe in him (10:15, 17). Jesus dies on behalf of believers. He doesn’t really develop this line of thought as much as he assumes it. John develops the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, in a way unique to his Gospel. He refers to the cross as Jesus being “lifted up.” Jesus compares himself with the snake Moses raised in the desert to heal victims of snakebite: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (3:14). “When I am lifted up from the earth,” he says “I will draw all people to myself” (12:32). To refer to the crucifixion (and the resurrection and ascension which follows it) as lifting up” seems to be John’s way of completing the “arc” of salvation: the Word comes down from God to live with us and is lifted up to return to God. To dying people, God shows his glory by sending Jesus to be “lifted up” before our eyes so that we may live. 
     This is Christmas. It isn’t just a sentimental holiday. John joins with our other Gospel writers to tell us this story so that we may believe, and by believing have life. May we hear the story of Jesus anew this year.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Christmas With the Gospels: Luke

 As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. This week we’ll get into Luke. (You can read my take on Mark here. Matthew is here.)


     As I noted last week, one of the questions that inevitably comes up when reading the Gospels is how to account for their similarities and differences. In spite of almost universal disagreement on the specifics, most everyone agrees that there is clearly some interdependence between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or at least that they share a common source. Mark is thought by most scholars (though not all) to be first. This is largely based on the fact that Mark’s accounts are generally shorter and/or less embellished than in parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke. If Mark edited we’re left to explain why he would have cut some seemingly important events. Mark also contains some “hard readings” that Matthew and Luke seem to smooth out. If Mark isn’t first, a reader wonders why he added some of these difficult readings.  

     Matthew and Luke rarely agree with each other against Mark in the order of events in Jesus’ life, but Matthew and Luke frequently agree with Mark against each other, suggesting that Mark’s order was taken as the generally “correct” one that Luke and Matthew might change up for editorial reasons. 

     None of this should bother us since Luke begins his Gospel by assuring the reader that he has “carefully investigated” the accounts “handed down” by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and work ( Luke 1:1-4). Luke believes that the second-hand nature of his Gospel commends it to a reader. It ensures that what he has to say is grounded in first-hand accounts — written and oral — that are no longer available. So it shouldn’t surprise us if Luke has used Mark, or a source that Mark used. It shouldn’t surprise us if he and Matthew have used a common source. We should expect that Luke might have at least one source of his own, as well. And, of course, it shouldn’t surprise us or concern us that the Holy Spirit would use Luke’s “careful investigation” to tell us the story of Jesus in Luke’s particular voice.

     Luke’s Gospel (like Acts, his companion piece) is geographically oriented. He begins his story in Jerusalem with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but quickly moves to Nazareth in Galilee, where a young woman named Mary is visited by an angel. Mary’s baby is spoken of in terms of Old Testament fulfillment: he will be called “Son of God” (1:32, 3:22,38) and sit on the throne of David’s dynasty, but he will rule over Israel forever and his kingdom will never end. This is more than just a prediction of a new Israelite kingdom; the angel is promising Mary that Jesus will sit on the throne of the eternal kingdom of God prophesied in Daniel. Mary and Elizabeth are shown to have a kinship in understanding something about what God is doing through their miraculous pregnancies. Mary and Zechariah celebrate God’s work of salvation with twin songs that celebrate God’s mercy to those who fear him, his determination to remember the promises he’s made to his people by lifting up the humble and throwing down the powerful, and their children’s role in that work.

     The story moves to Bethlehem — the city of David — for Jesus’ birth (2:4). Mary gives birth in humble circumstances, probably in a private home stuffed with guests and with only an animal trough to lay the baby in. The “armies of heaven” appear to humble shepherds in the fields and send them searching to honor their Savior. An elderly man and woman are the only other witnesses to the newborn Messiah; they have spent their lives waiting to see God’s salvation.

     There are two trips to Jerusalem in Jesus’ early life, where portentous events occur, but we’re told twice around those events that he lived in Nazareth, in Galilee, where he “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him,” and he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Luke wants us to see that Jesus was nurtured physically and spiritually away from Jerusalem and the Temple. He’s baptized by John (3:21-22) and confronts Satan in the wilderness (4:1-13) before returning to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit“ (4:14), where his early ministry takes place. He announces his intentions in his hometown synagogue by reading from Isaiah about “the year of the Lord’s favor” and declaring its commencement. (4:16-20)

     Though he is known outside of Galilee (6:17), his early healing and teaching takes place in Capernaum and other towns around the Sea of Galilee, in which he proclaims “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” He clashes with the religious leaders over his authority (5:21), the people with whom he associated (5:27-32, 7:36-50), and his seemingly cavalier attitude about Sabbath-keeping (6:1-10). He even ministers to Gentiles (7:1-10) and in Gentile territory — and in the tombs at that (8:26) — before setting foot in Jerusalem. Only after two warnings to his disciples about his coming suffering (9:21-22, 9:44), and warnings about the cost of following him (9:23-24, 51-62), does Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” when “the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven.” (9:51)

     Much of Jesus’ teaching, including several of his parables, occurs as he and his disciples make their way to Jerusalem. Jesus becomes more explicit that his coming is a crisis point that demands a decision (11:23, 29-32, 12:32-34, 49-53) and that those who can’t “interpret this present time” (12:54-59) will “perish” (13:3, 5). Many who are “last will be first,” and many who are first will be last” in the Kingdom (13:30). Increasingly, his parables reflect the urgency of accepting God’s invitation to be a part of the Kingdom, because the significance isn’t in the invitation, but in the accepting of it (14:15-23). Disciples follow at risk of their lives and give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom (18:18-29). Those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled (18:9-14). Interspersed throughout the journey are stories of those who do receive the Kingdom by coming to Jesus in faith and repentance (17:11-19, 18:35-43, 19:1-9).

     Occasionally we are reminded of the danger Jesus is in (12:49, 17:25, 18:31-33). Told Herod wants to kill him, Jesus replies, “Surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (13:33). 

     As he nears Jerusalem, Jesus counters thoughts of an imminent revolution with the parable of the minas (19:19-26), in which an accession to the throne is delayed and the eventual king’s servants are left to carry on his work in his absence. Despite confusion about the “appearing” of God’s kingdom, Jesus stages a royal entry to Jerusalem. He is the King, but his coming to the royal city exposes those who don’t recognize him (19:39-20:47). Jesus announces judgment on Jerusalem and the temple in action (19:45) and word (19:41-44, 20:8-19, 21:5-36).

     After Jesus’ crucifixion, his first post-resurrection appearance is outside Jerusalem (24:13-32). When he does appear to his disciples again, it’s to tell them that their mission will be to preach “repentance for the forgiveness of sins…in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”(24:47) Far from ending with his crucifixion in the holy city, God has raised him and will use his disciples to take the gospel to the world. Luke’s companion volume, Acts, will of course begin there with its geographic formula of Jerusalem/Judea and Samaria/the ends of the earth.

     May our mission be as clear, our hope as strong, and our lives as credible a witness as theirs.


Friday, December 4, 2020

Christmas with the Gospels: Matthew

 As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. This week we’ll get into Matthew. (You can read my take on Mark here.)


     Christians believe that the Gospels come from the Holy Spirit, but it’s also clear that the Gospel writers weren’t simply stenographers taking dictation. (Luke 1:1-4) The question is how human writer and Holy Spirit cooperated. While Matthew is the first Gospel in our Bibles, most scholars these days are convinced that Mark was the earliest Gospel. None of the evidence for this makes the priority of Mark a slam dunk, but taken together it does seem to lean in that direction. Most everyone agrees, at least, that there is clearly some interdependence between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or at least that they share a common source. We’ll get into that a little more next week when we take a look at Luke.

     But this week, we’re looking at Matthew.

     While Mark focuses largely on what Jesus did, Matthew focuses on what he said. He organizes his Gospel into five blocks of Jesus’ teaching. The ends of these are marked by the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things….” or something similar (11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). The first discourse (usually called the Sermon on the Mount), is about life in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew’s term for what is elsewhere called the Kingdom of God). The second discourse (chapter 10), is addressed to the disciples as they are sent out to heal and preach. They are told not to be afraid when they’re opposed because they will be given words to answer their opponents. The third (chapter 13), consists of parables that describe the Kingdom of Heaven. The fourth (chapter 18), anticipates the existence of a future community of disciples living by Kingdom values that Jesus calls “the church,” and that humility and service are the highest values in that community. The fifth (chapters 23-25) warns the disciples to be vigilant in light of the coming judgment.

     Matthew surrounds these blocks of teaching with narratives showing Jesus’ ministry and the various reactions to it. Over and over, Jesus challenges those who resist his message of the Kingdom (especially the religious leaders) and encourages the “weary and burdened” to learn from him. He heals on the Sabbath and casts out a demon as evidence that the kingdom of God has come, bringing him into conflict with the religious leaders and even his own family. The feeding stories, the stilling of the storm, Peter’s confession, and the Transfiguration offer testimony as to his identity. The last third of the Gospel is devoted to the last week of his life as he enters Jerusalem as the coming king, engages in a final conflict with the religious and civil leaders, accepts God’s will in Gethsemane, and after his death and resurrection meets with his disciples to commission them to carry on his work in the world. 

     All of the narrative and teaching is intended by Matthew to show that Jesus “fulfills” (a favorite word of Matthew’s) the long-expected Old Testament roles of “Son of God,” “Son of David,” and “Son of Man.” He is first called “Son of God” by Satan, who asks Jesus to prove his identity by miraculous means (making stones into bread or throwing himself down from the temple to test Psalm 91’s promise to the one who finds refuge in God). He is recognized as the Son of God by demons (8:29), and finally acknowledged as Son of God twice by his disciples (14:33, 16:16). After this, he is only called Son of God in a mocking way by those who are trying him (26:63) and by the passers-by (27:40) and religious leaders (27:43) at the cross. Finally, the Gospel climaxes with the Romans who are guarding his cross confessing him as Son of God after the momentous events at his death. (27:54) The identification of Jesus as Son of God at his death casts the title (from Psalm 2) in a new light. In the Psalm, God calls the king he has enthroned his Son, to whom he will “give the nations as an inheritance.” In Matthew, he is “enthroned” at his crucifixion. As in the Psalm, to reject the Son will lead to destruction, but those who take refuge in him will be blessed.

     Matthew’s Gospel begins with an affirmation that Jesus is the Son of David, and “proves” it through the genealogy (1:1-17). Generations are left out to create three blocks of 14 names each (maybe because the numeric value of the Hebrew letters in David’s name is 14). Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth are included (though women were not mentioned in Israelite genealogies) while the traditional mothers of Israel like Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel are left out. The genealogy locates Jesus within the larger framework of God’s covenant history with Israel, but it also has the effect of making Jesus the culmination of that work. It reads as though Israel is still in Exile (fourteen generations from David to the Exile, and fourteen from the Exile to the Messiah).

     The title “Son of David” usually occurs in Matthew in connection to miracles. Sufferers cry out to Jesus for healing (“have mercy”) using the title (9:27, 15:22, 20:30). After Jesus casts out a demon that has made a man blind and mute (his ability to see and hear afterward serves as evidence of what Jesus has done), “all the people” speculate that he could be the Son of David (12:23), demonstrating that the title is a Messianic one and that Jesus’ miracles had awakened hopes of God intervening in his people’s long suffering. Another crowd celebrates him as Son of David when he comes into Jerusalem during the last week of his life (an event that Matthew says “fulfills” Zechariah’s characterization of the King coming to Jerusalem). Once again, it is Jesus’ opponents who are the last to acknowledge him as Son of David — unintentionally, of course (22:42).

     While others use the other two titles for Jesus, in Matthew his self-characterization is “Son of Man.” In Daniel 7, it is “one like a Son of Man” who receives the glory of the beastly, earthly kingdoms after they are toppled and delivers it to “the saints of the Most High.” Jesus applies this title to himself around thirty times in Matthew, with the frequency increasing in the latter part of the Gospel. Sometimes the title emphasizes his humility and suffering (8:20, 17:12, 22), but most of the time it emphasizes his role as the one who brings salvation (13:37, 20:28) and judgment (13:41). Related to this is the idea that, though he will be crucified (20:18, 26:2) as a “ransom,” the Son of Man will “come” with reward and recompense (16:27) after he is raised from the dead (17:9). He will “come in his Father’s glory” (16:27) and “with the clouds of heaven” (24:30, 26:64). Again, the last time the title is used, Jesus is in front of his opponents and uses the words of Daniel 7 to promise that they will see him coming again to topple their kingdom and establish the unchallenged reign of God.

     I’ve left out, of course, Matthew’s prologue; the events leading up to and including the birth of Jesus. Mary, who is “found to be pregnant through the Holy Sprit,” fits well with the questionable circumstances and ancestry of the three women just mentioned in the family history. Prophecy is fulfilled as Joseph obeys God. Matthew knits the story from there together with five Old Testament texts that he says are “fulfilled” in Jesus. Pagan astrologers see the signs of Jesus’ birth in the heavens while Israel’s king knows nothing of it and plots to have him murdered, which sets up the conflict with the religious and civil authorities that will mark Jesus’ life and end in his death. The family flees to Egypt, but even in that Matthew sees the fulfillment of prophecy.

     May we as well always keep our eyes to the heavens, expecting Jesus to come and fulfill God’s promises. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Christmas With the Gospels: Mark

 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

     They replied, “Some say John the Baptist;  others say Elijah;  and still others, one of the prophets.”

     “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 

     Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” 

     Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.    (Mark 8:27-30, NIV)





As we wait for Christmas, I thought I’d take four weeks here to take a wide-angle look at each of the Gospels, the four stories of Jesus’ life from the New Testament. 

     It’s interesting that we have four. A bias in our understanding of story and information is that multiple accounts that differ in some of their details can’t possibly be accurate. We’ll look a little more closely at the process through which our Gospels came to be in later posts, but for now it’s important to note that the church has long accepted four accounts of Jesus’ life that differ in many details and have been shown to be notoriously difficult to harmonize. Beyond those details, though, each Gospel seems interested in its own themes and presents Jesus in different (though complementary) ways. Part of the value of taking a long view of each Gospel is to note some of these themes and ways of presenting Jesus that can get lost.  

     The Gospel of Mark is probably the earliest written of the four. Mark moves — the author frequently uses the word euthus — “immediately.” It starts off at a sprint, no birth story here — “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” From the jump, Mark wants his readers to know who he thinks Jesus is. We’re moved quickly through Jesus’ baptism by John (where God calls Jesus his Son), his time in the wilderness “being tempted by Satan” and attended by angels,  to his dramatic return to Galilee preaching that “the kingdom of God has come near” and that his hearers should “repent and believe the good news.” Fifteen verses in, and we already know who Jesus is and what he wants us to do! Mark moves us along quickly; he doesn’t editorialize much, and even Jesus’ teaching is scarce.

    There are many allusions to and even quotations of Scripture, but they’re rarely highlighted. One exception is the first one, the quotation from Isaiah (with a pinch of Malachi and Exodus), which concludes,  “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Mark is doing far more than just introducing John the Baptist; he’s announcing in Jesus that exile is finally ending. Jesus is building a highway in the desert along which his people can march to freedom. He’s re-establishing God’s rule over his people, in full view of the nations that at present dominate and oppress them. From his baptism, through Galilee and eventually Jerusalem, Jesus is entering hostile territory — healing disease, casting out demons, withstanding Satan’s temptations — and announcing the presence of God’s kingdom. In doing so he’s bringing hope, but also judgment. Thus, “repent and believe.”

     We’re made to identify with the first disciples Jesus calls, following Jesus enthusiastically because we’re sure of who he is. His miracles, laid end-to-end through much of the first part of the book, overwhelm us. He heals a cross-section of sick people, many of whom the religious leaders offer no solace to. Sometimes his healings clash with their expectations about acceptable conduct.  

     While we begin the Gospel with the other disciples following enthusiastically, as the roller-coaster ride continues we also share in their increasing confusion. This guy isn’t who we thought he was. Maybe the best (worst?) example is the response of the disciples to Jesus’ question about his identity. They can answer who people say he is, but their understanding of who he is is hazier; Peter, their spokesman, gets one of Mark’s two titles right (“Christ” but not “Son of God”), then rebukes Jesus when he explains that being the Christ involves suffering, rejection, and death. "Get behind me, Satan," is Jesus’ response to Peter’s big revelation. He also tells his disciples that they shouldn’t tell anyone what they think they know of who he is.

     In contrast to Peter, the rest of the twelve, and the religious leaders (who say Jesus is of “Beelzebub”), the demons know him, obey him and are subject to his authority. Those outside Israel confess him, though they re less obedient than the demons and testify to who he is even though he says they shouldn’t. In fact, in the scene in which Peter confesses Jesus to be Israel's messiah, Mark tells us that Jesus "sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

     Scholars who study Mark sometimes call this the "messianic secret." While the other gospels often feature Jesus being pretty open about who he is, in Mark he’s more coy about it. It seems that this has something to do with the importance given in Mark to Jesus’ death as a necessary part of his identity as Christ and Son of God. Chapters 8-10 provide a pivot point for the gospel; there, Jesus predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection three times (8:31-9:1, 9:33-37, 10:32-45). After each prediction, the disciples demonstrate how little they understand and Jesus teaches them what it really means to be a disciple. They will have to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow” instead of being concerned with preserving their lives (8:34-35). After the other two predictions, they show their ignorance by arguing about who is the greatest and seeking positions of power in God’s coming kingdom, to which Jesus says things like "those who would be great, must be the least," and "those who would be first, must be last.”

     In Mark, Jesus’ death is not principally about the forgiveness of sins. (Jesus has the authority to forgive sins apart from his death.) It’s the expected outcome of living a Kindom-centered life in a world that honors other kings — for Jesus and for those who would follow him. Christ’ blood in Mark is less about the sacrifices of the Law and more about the Exodus story in which the blood of the passover lamb painted on the door posts serves as a sign of God’s covenant. Jesus offers his blood in the last supper as the blood of the new covenant (14:24), reaffirming the theme of a second Exodus we saw in the opening lines of the gospel.

     Unlike the other gospels, Mark gives us no resurrection appearances. There’s nothing at the end except an  empty tomb, a young man in white robes who tells the women about resurrection, and a planned meeting with the disciples in Galilee, where the story begins. (In other gospel accounts they’re told to wait in Jerusalem.) The gospel ends with the women saying nothing to anyone "for terror and amazement seized them" and "they were afraid" (16:1-8). 

     The only human voice in the gospel to confess Jesus as Son of God is a Roman centurion (15:39). At the heart of the new Exodus is the Christ’s death, and Mark doesn’t let us hear him confessed as God’s Son until that moment. Jesus lives up to his identity as the one who brings about God’s deliverance of his people at the moment of his death. God shows that this mission of Jesus’ is still right on track by raising him from the dead and calling his disciples to meet with him to find out how to be a part of it. 

     May we hear Mark clearly on this point, and may we live with the expectation of meeting with the risen Lord and allowing him to teach us how to be his followers in proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.

       

Friday, November 13, 2020

Toward an Unbiased Reading of the Bible

 “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.     

Luke 24:25-27(NIV)



In the early 19th century, a Bible was published in England for use in the British West Indies (the British territory in the Caribbean). Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a “Bible,” because it actually contained about 10% of the Old Testament and about 50% of the New. Even its title acknowledged that, if this was the only Bible the reader had access to, they wouldn’t be getting the whole story. That was intentional, you see.

     The title of the work was Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands. The parts of Scripture that weren’t included, of course, were left out in case they might cause the readers to get the idea that no human being should be considered as having lesser value or should be held in captivity by another. That couldn’t be allowed, of course. 

     The existence of that “Bible” would be merely interesting if it hadn’t been used by Christians to put a religious veneer over a horrific practice. It illustrates the extremes to which people will go to find in Scripture confirmation of what they already believe. Thomas Jefferson famously cut and pasted (literally) a “New Testament” out of the teachings and life of Jesus — without any of his miracles or his resurrection. At a church I worked with years ago, a friend once answered my objections that a text he was using to support a position didn’t mean any such thing with, “I know, but I like to use it that way.” Well, sure. A Bible that supports what we already believe to be true is much to be desired.

     Of course, as I point fingers at others, I have to admit the likelihood that at one time or another I’ve come to the text expecting to find what I was looking for, which is frightening since every week I stand before a church and speak to them what is supposed to be the word of God. 

     But here’s what I’ve come to realize: We all tend to see what we want to see in the Bible. If you want it to be a “love letter” from God, then you’ll be inclined to see those things in the Bible that emphasize God’s love and overlook the parts that don’t seem to be about that. Ditto if what you expect from the Bible is a pattern to follow. Same if you want reinforcement for your political agenda, or your sect’s doctrinal peculiarities, or confirmation that your list of sinful behaviors is the same as God’s. We all tend to look at the Bible as a magic mirror, reflecting back what we imagine we look like. None of us — not even preachers — are exempt.

     That’s because of something called confirmation bias. Simply put, we have a tendency to see what we expect to see. We believe what we already think is true. We doubt anything that doesn’t fit within our already-settled beliefs. We dislike being wrong. We subconsciously want to protect our self-esteem from having to admit we may have something more to learn, so we’re always motivated to prove our opinions and our tribe’s positions to be correct. Combine that with our talent for finding faults in others while overlooking our own, and you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to discussion, dialogue, or collaboration. Frankly, it’s amazing we can ever get anything done together, as convinced as we all are that what we already believe is the unvarnished truth.  

     Conspiracy theories and fake news are confirmation bias at work, by the way. We amplify, exaggerate, and even create “evidence” to support what we already believe. The more emotionally charged or deeply entrenched the belief, the more likely it is that confirmation bias will occur. That’s why our social media pages turn into flame wars, or more likely echo chambers where we surround ourselves with people who think just like us, ingest only sources that support our opinions, and conveniently, feed our confirmation bias.

     So don’t imagine for a moment that anyone simply reads the Bible and does what it says, as we’d sometimes like to believe. It’s never that simple. As surely as Jefferson or the publishers of the “Slave Bible,” there are parts that, for all intents and purposes, we take a razor blade to. There are parts that we inflate beyond all sense of proportion to become Doctrines of Extreme Importance. And then there are whole themes in Scripture that we can just cast aside in pursuit of evidence for what we already believe to be true.

     And if we find some other people whose confirmation biases more or less look like ours — well, we call that a denomination, and we buy a church building and slap a sign on it, and spend our time raging about how wrong everyone else is and congratulating ourselves for being right.

     So, it’s hopeless, then? We’re doomed to never learn anything new from the Bible? To never be challenged because of the unassailability of our confirmation biases? No, I’m still somewhat confident that we can read Scripture without our confirmation biases calling all the shots. For starters, we can be self-reflective enough to see that tendency in ourselves and know that what we believe about this or that text in this given moment may or may not be absolute truth (and probably is not). We know to be suspicious of ourselves and our motives, especially around a text or an issue in which we’re emotionally wrapped up. Before you settle on something you’re sure is right, let someone poke holes in it — preferably someone who’s different enough from you that they might not share your confirmation bias.

     That’s the second thing: the Bible is supposed to be read in community. Our ability to own private copies (sometimes specialty Bibles that make sure to feed our confirmation biases) and enjoy “quiet time” alone with God can make us forget it, but the Bible is for the church together, and we haven’t read it until we read it that way. Others in the community will call your biases into question. They’ll challenge what you assumed to be true. They’ll make you think about the lenses through which you read the text. If you can go into those moments with enough humility and trust that God loves you and thinks you have great worth whether you have the Bible all figured out or not, your confirmation biases will be stretched and ruptured. (And that’s a good thing!) Church should be (though it sometimes isn’t) a really good and safe place to confront biases. If you can’t listen to a sister or brother in Christ who sees things differently from you, who are you going to listen to?   

    Connected to that, we need to give those who disagree with us about this text or that one the love that God requires. To paraphrase Paul, our Bible reading is clanging gong and crashing cymbal without love (and at least as annoying). Are people who believe differently from me really as stupid or ungodly as I’m making them out to be? Knowing and loving people who see things differently can help us overcome our biases.

     But that’s only if we love the truth more than winning arguments, even if it means being corrected, even if it means having a different opinion than people you love and respect. 

     Don’t forget, though: It isn’t entirely up to you. God’s Spirit is in you and with you as you engage with the Bible, opening your eyes. Read with your heart open to him and expect his guidance. The same risen Jesus who helped open the Scriptures to his disciples on the road to Emmaus is still living and will open them to you on the roads you travel. Be ready when he does, because that kind of experience, so I’ve been told, tends to set your heart on fire.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Watching and Working

  You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 

     You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds  and glorify  your Father in heaven. 

-Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV) 


Our Father in heaven, let your name be revered. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be doneas in heaven, also on earth.

-Matthew 6:9




 In America, we wait for a President to be elected. 

     Really, we’ve already elected him. It’s just taking a while to find out who we’ve elected. When the counting and legal challenges are done, I hope anger will cool and disappointment will settle. I’d like to believe, at least, that we’re still a country that can elect a President without coming apart at the seams. We always have been, at least in my lifetime. Some of the rhetoric, though, makes me wonder a little if we still are.  

      In the middle of all the politics and legal maneuvering, I ran across a story that I think we all need to hear. Maybe you missed it, but I think there’s something in it that’s important for us to remember. Especially those of us who are believers in Jesus.

     Robert Carter is a young man who grew up in the foster care system in Cincinnati, Ohio. In that system, he no doubt learned some hard lessons about government. There are lots of kids growing up here in America right now who are learning the same kinds of lessons: that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, they’ll still be poor. That their schools will be underfunded. That when they get to school they’ll be hungry, unless some of those school meals that they hear some of their classmates complain about and make fun of are available. That they’ll be cold in the winter and hot in the summer. That they won’t be able to get medicine when they’re sick. That their parents, if they know them both, will work like slaves and they might still have to leave their apartment in the middle of the night because they’re behind on the rent. Or maybe that their parents won’t be part of their lives because of addiction or the legal system or the violence in their neighborhood.

     Robert learned some of those lessons. In the foster system he was separated from his 8 siblings, one of whom he didn’t see for 14 years. So last December, even though he’s single, he took on the responsibility of being a foster parent to three boys: Robert Jr., Giovanni and Kiontae. That’s quite a responsibility in itself for a single parent, but Robert believed that his background made him uniquely suited for fostering the boys.

     It wasn’t that simple, of course.

     As he got to know his foster sons, he learned that they had two sisters, Marionna and Makayla, who were also in the foster system. They’d meet up from time to time, and all of them would cry when they had to go their separate ways. 

     So Robert worked, and saved. 

     He bought a bigger house.

     And just this week, with Robert and the five kids in their finest coordinated outfits, they listened to a judge tell them they were, all six of them, officially a family. Robert has legally adopted them all. Just so they don’t have to be apart again.

     Now, I think a feel-good story is much needed in 2020, and especially in the middle of a contentious election held during a raging pandemic. But this is more than a feel-good story. It’s a prescription. Better, it’s a mission.

     Kingdoms usually don’t come without struggle. They don’t usually come without there being winners and losers, trials, hardship, and strife. Kingdoms come only after a lot of waiting, a lot of patience. Kind of like this election, right? With a lot of waiting and watching.

     While we wait for an announcement and watch election returns, let’s not forget what we really ought to be watching and waiting for. And praying for. God’s kingdom. To be a believer is to want God’s kingdom to come.

     Some of my social media friends have reminded me of that this week. Their posts have said, in effect, “Whoever wins the election, I’m going to keep loving my neighbor and believing that it’s really God who’s on the throne.” That’s a good reminder. I would hope every Christian would affirm those words. We watch and pray for God’s kingdom to come.

     Maybe it isn’t quite enough though. See, there are real people whose lives are drastically affected by political events like an election. Businesses — and livelihoods — can be lost. So can health care. Tell the people who come into our church's food pantry that politics don’t matter when they’ve lost a job due to increased health care costs, or when the program that keeps them from having to choose between buying groceries or prescriptions is cut.

     Tell people lost in a foster system that politics don’t matter.

     Whoever wins the election, there will continue to be people who are utterly failed by those in power. 

     And so we must do more than watch and pray for the kingdom of God, because Jesus makes clear the kind of kingdom he means. This isn’t a kingdom where we’re all taken to heaven to avoid the messiness the world. The kingdom Jesus announced was coming, the one he told us to watch and pray for, is a kingdom in which God’s will is done — in which conditions on earth mirror what life is like in heaven.

     That’s why Jesus says we’re to be salt people and light people whose influence for good is noted and in whom God is glorified. People like Robert Carter, who promised to be a dad to five kids who desperately needed him. People like friends of mine who have fostered and adopted children of their own. People who serve our world in ways that perhaps make a more lasting difference than a Presidential election. People who love like Jesus did: who love those who are most in need with a self-giving, sacrificial abandon.

     People who watch and pray for the kingdom of God, but who work for it too.

     As you watch and pray for God’s kingdom, then, find ways to work for it. We don’t create it with our actions. We don’t qualify for it with good deeds. It only comes at all in Jesus, and will only come fully when he appears. Still, when you find ways to create space in which his will is done, you give our world a glimpse of what that kingdom looks like.

     And you might just get a few others to believe in that kingdom and to watch, pray, and work for it alongside you.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Churches That Burn

      You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds  and glorify  your Father in heaven. 

-Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)




Last Sunday, demonstrations against the government of Chile, corruption in the national police, and economic inequality turned violent in Santiago. Protestors set fire to two churches in the parish of the national police, cheering and recording while the spire of one of them collapsed. The two churches are possibly burned beyond repair. As the images were shown on TV, the Archbishop of Santiago, Celestino Aós, said, “Violence is evil, and whoever sows violence reaps destruction, pain and death. Let us never justify any violence, for political or social purposes.”

     Protestors had something of their own to say. One said it succinctly by posting a photo of herself inside one of the churches, with what looks like a pulpit on fire behind her. The photo is captioned with these words, from Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti: “La única iglesia que ilumina es la que arde.”

     In English, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

    I don’t really know why the protestors chose those two churches, though being known as the parish of the national police might have contributed. I know there is an ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal in Chile in which 360 accusations have been made against Catholic officials, leading to the 2018 resignation of every Chilean bishop. A recent study shows that the percentage of Chileans who say they trust the Church has dwindled from 51% to 13% in 20 years. It seems like a sure bet that the Catholic Church in Chile has been a part of the problem as much as they’ve been a part of the solution. Whether or not burning down a couple of church buildings is appropriate justice I leave for others to decide — and, ultimately, God.

     I’m interested in the slogan on that photo: “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”   

     It seems to me that the church — the institutional church, I mean — in a lot of places is completing a journey. At one time, the church was at the center of a community, a city, even a country. The church had leverage, influence, even power. It functioned as a fortress for the status quo and as a gateway for change.

     Eventually, though, the power of the institutional church started to wane. People began to look elsewhere for counsel, guidance, and leadership. Churches became known as quaint organizations that upheld a past that was seen as more and more irrelevant. And easier and easier to ignore.

     The church pushed back against this. They discovered political power. In America, what’s today known as Evangelicalism is more political now than ecclesial and bears little resemblance to the term evangelical. In hitching our wagon to political influence, though, the church compromises our identity. And, not incidentally, make ourselves a target for the anger of those on the other side of the political spectrum. 

     And so the church is increasingly perceived as part of the problem. Protestors believe that the only way for the church to have any relevance is as an effigy for the corrupt society they think we’re an essential part of. That we’ll only illuminate when the property that we own goes up in flames as an example to the rest of society. 

     Thing is, I don’t think Jesus would disagree with those words, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”

     It’s right there in Matthew, isn’t it, in that famous “sermon on the mount?” “You’re light for the world,” he tells his disciples. But they own no property. They have zero political influence, zero connections in high places. They aren’t famous, or influential, or even very persuasive. They’re a motley little assortment of regular guys (including a few fishermen, a bookkeeper, a tax collector for the occupation government, and a terrorist who’d have liked to stab some government guys in the back) following an itinerant teacher and healer on a decidedly low-budget mission. Yet he calls them light for the world.

     “You can’t hide a town built on a hill,” he goes on to say. The spiritual descendants of those disciples have tried, though. We’ve formed corporations and bought property and built impressive and beautiful structures all over the world — and then turned all our attention to filling them and maintaining them. “You don’t light a lamp and then cover it up,” he says. I wonder, though, if what we own and the shortcuts to influence we’ve sought haven’t become gilded bowls that hide our light instead of allowing it to be enjoyed by everyone in the house. 

     Even as I write that, I know it’s unfair. I know it doesn’t take into account the uncountable churches and disciples of Jesus who have done faithful and wonderful work for the Kingdom. Still, it’s hard to deny that the world is having a hard time seeing the church’s light. If we’re hiding it, if we’re covering it up, that’s on us, not them.   

     So how do we let that light be seen? It’s easy, at least in the conception: “let your light shine before others,  that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” That’s how it’s supposed to work. Good works done faithfully by disciples of Jesus should lead to people glorifying God. In that, we’re pretty much just following Jesus, who “went around doing good.” He announced that God’s kingdom was brushing near to us and that it was a kingdom for all of us. But he also showed what that kingdom looked like: no more sickness, no more death, no more hatred or fear or sorrow or sin. And he wants his disciples to do the same.

     Jesus wants burning churches — disciples burning with the fire of good works who can light up the world around us. It isn’t our nice buildings that will bring glory to God (though we can use them in ways that do). It isn’t political power that Jesus wants the world to see (though we should use our votes to do good for those around us, not just ourselves). It isn’t influential, well-known preachers or membership rolls full of the most impressive names or doctrinal correctness or even evangelistic zeal that Jesus says will set us ablaze with a light that our world can’t deny. It’s good works. Simple. Obvious.

     How are we supposed to be the church in a world in which churches are seen as part of the problem? Same way we’ve always supposed to have been the church. 

     Let’s be known in our communities for good works. If our buildings are burned, may our communities miss us — and may we continue to show love, grace, compassion and kindness. May we get out from under our bowls, may we be a city on a hill whose lights no one can miss. May we be known for good works done with smiles and the name of Jesus on our lips — may we be known for good works and not the scandal, corruption, manipulation, and hunger for power that many people in our world think of now when they hear the word “church.”

     Not everyone will glorify God because of it, I know. But if they don’t may it never be because of us.

     Let’s burn.        

Friday, October 16, 2020

Who Counts?

       Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. 

-Matthew 10:29-31 (NIV)




Earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2020 Census could end on Friday. The effort to count every person in the country, required by the Constitution, had already been delayed by the pandemic. The new deadline, set for October 31st, was deemed too late for the Commerce Department to deliver the results to the President by the deadline required by law, so the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., ordered the deadline moved to September 30. After legal challenges, the Supreme Court ordered the count stopped at the end of this week.

     The Census, of course, is essential for determining representation in Congress and the distribution of government funds. Many experts worry that ending the count early could cause “irreversible damage to efforts to achieve a fair and accurate census.” Justice Sotomayor, the lone dissenter in the Supreme Court decision, wrote, “the harms associated with an inaccurate census are avoidable and intolerable.”

     The problem is that it takes a while to count everyone. It’s possible to respond to the Census online, by phone, or by mail, but not everyone does. So Census workers go out into neighborhoods and knock on doors and ring bells to fill in the gaps. Many of the people who the Census could most help — racial minority groups, poor people and young people — are underrepresented in the mail, phone, and online responses. Immigrants who are out-of-status don’t show up sometimes, whether by their choice or by being overlooked. So the need for an adequate timetable. 

     While the Census Bureau claims that they’ve counted 99.9% of households, most experts outside the Bureau seem to dispute that number. It does not represent the number of households that have competed the form. It probably takes into account any household checked off the list, even if it’s just on the word of neighbors about who lives at a particular address. The fact that the administration has already announced that it would try to exclude those who are out of status from the final count makes it additionally questionable that the report is actually intended to represent the actual number of people living in the United States.

     I don’t know, maybe you think that’s as it should be. I don’t, personally. One of the important things that I think living in this country should mean is that, quite literally, everyone counts. We haven’t always lived up to that ideal, of course. In our early years, only white men counted. Black men were eventually counted as ⅗ of a person, and in 1868 were finally told they counted as whole people. Women finally counted enough to be allowed to vote in 1920. It wasn’t until 1964, almost in my lifetime, that Federal Law finally came to reflect the ideal that everyone should count, whatever their race, gender, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation. And, of course, the fact that laws are on the books doesn’t mean that, every day, people don’t still get the message that they don’t count. We can, and should, do better. The Census should be one means of doing better, a strictly data-driven, non-partisan exercise to make sure that people are counted so that the government can, hopefully, do a more effective job of governing. 

     My conviction about people counting doesn’t come from my being an American, though. It comes from my being a Christian.

     People count with God. 

     I wonder if the group of enslaved people concentrated in Goshen, in Egypt, had been counted on the most recent Egyptian census before God told Pharaoh to let his people go?

     I wonder how the Babylonians counted the people they forcibly captured from Israel and dispersed in their cities? I wonder if they bothered to count them at all? Whether they did or not, God counted them and knew their number when he brought them home. He knew who didn’t make it, too.

     I wonder if Jesus was counted in a census? I wonder if the census-takers got the news that a baby boy had been born to Mary and Joseph? I don’t know if he counted to the Romans at his birth, or even to his countrymen. Yet God said “This is my Son.”

     I know at his death he counted only as a troublemaker, one more pretender king to be dealt with as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible. Only the few disciples and family members present at the cross seemed to care much about his death. Yet God raised him up.

     People count with God. Even the people who aren’t counted by anyone else. Especially them.

     Jesus, of course, pointed out that if God takes care of the birds, he certainly knows and takes care of us. “Every hair on your head is numbered,” he said. God knows us. We count with him, however unimportant the world might tell us that we are. He knows our failures, he knows our shortcomings, he knows the things no one else wants to know. And he chooses to love us and to be faithful and generous to us.

     I want you to know that because there are a lot of ways in this world that we can get the impression that we don’t count. Sometimes it’s because of the people we elect to represent us. Sometimes it’s because we don’t measure up in some way or the other to what everyone else seems to think matters. Sometimes the people we’re closest to give us the impression what we don’t count, and sometimes we even convince ourselves of it. But I want you to know, if you don’t already or if you need reminding of it, that you count with God. Whatever your skin color is, whatever your gender (and whether or not you feel confident about that), wherever you’re from, whatever your bank balance says, wherever you live, whatever you wear, whatever your sexual orientation or political party or church affiliation (or lack of one). To God, you count. You matter. He cares about you: what you’re going through, where you’ve been, where you’d like in your wildest dreams to go.  

     I want you to know as well that because you count with God, you count with me. Oh, I’m not going to be perfect at that, I’m fairly sure. Still, that’s my aspiration. It’s the church’s aspiration too, and sometimes we even get it right. We want to reflect the way God cares about people in the way we care about people. We don't think we deserve any credit for that — it’s just what God expects of us. 

     May you always count, and always know that you count, in the eyes of the people who matter most to you.

     And may you always know that you count with God.

     And may we as God’s people always show those we know and come in contact with that they count. That they matter. That they’re seen and heard, that God knows them and cares about them, that he’s shown it in Jesus and through his church.

     Whether our government acknowledges that all people count or not, we know what God thinks.


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