Monday, October 30, 2006


Last week's Speaking of Faith radio program featured Jacob Needleman talking about the religious roots of American Democracy. One part that I found particularly interesting was his idea that freedom implies duty. Needleman says,
A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It's a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if you ponder that a little bit, you'll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak. If I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that's not so simple. It doesn't mean just to stop my talking and wait till you're finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that's what we're speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don't have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us.

This is really powerful. The idea of freedom is really cheapened if we see at as freedom from everyone around us. And the idea that freedom of speech implies the responsibility to listen to what others are saying is very good. I suspect some people wouldn't say half of what they do if they were listening to others.

As it turns out, I heard this the same day I began reading Esther de Waal's Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. As de Waal spoke of the importance of listening in Benedictine spirituality, I couldn't miss the connection. One of the core foundations of Benedict's rule is that members of the community must listen to one another and in this listening they hear the voice of God.

Speaking of listening, this week's guest on Speaking of Faith is going to be Martin Marty.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Back on the horse

After a four month hiatus, I've finally picked up my study of Greek again. I had retained most of what I learned earlier from the opening chapters, but at around chapter 10 it's looking like I need to re-read carefully.

I'm at the point now where I can read Greek about the way archeologists in movies read obscure ancient languages...dusting off the ancient inscription I say slowly, "It says something about 'the Son of Man.'" Looking more closely, I add, "Ah yes, here it is ... he's going to be betrayed," followed by a dramatic silence as the non-scholars standing by ponder what this might mean.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Redemptive Suffering

Many Roman Catholics speak of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. I've always had a really hard time with that. In fact, I've had a hard time with many Catholic attitudes toward Mary, but I've discovered that in many instances if I substitute "Church" where they're saying "Mary" it makes sense to me and I think there's probably a road back to the Catholic faith from there.

My proposed substitution still doesn't work for a lot of people because they see the Church as an institution trying to tell them what they can or can't do or even believe. I've never seen the Church that way. To me, the Church is us.

All of this is a very long introduction to my encounter with this' week's lectionary texts. I think this week's text picture the Church, each of us individually and all of us collectively, as co-redeemers with Christ.

The Old Testament lesson is the servant song from Isaiah 53. I don't think any Christian can hear this and not think of Christ, yet the scholars tell us not to, or at least to think exclusively of Christ. Perhaps Isaiah means Israel, perhaps himself, perhaps another.

I'm intrigued by the handling of this in the discussion between Philip and the Ethopian eunuch in Acts 8. "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" the eunuch asks. And then the book of Acts does something amazing. It leaves the question open. It reports, "Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus."

Now a lot of people read into that that Philip simply explained that it refers to Jesus, but the actual text allows for a much bigger interpretation. Suppose the prophet means himself AND someone else AND the people of Israel AND Jesus Christ AND the Christian people of God. Suppose we all bear one another's iniquity and by this we are healed.

The psalm for the week includes the passage Satan tries to use to tempt Jesus in the desert: "he will command his angels concerning you." The whole passage does tempt us to look for glory instead of suffering. It speaks of protection and deliverance. Yet the New Testament's use of this text shows us something deeper in it. The line that jumps out at me is this: "I will be with them in trouble." This is God's plan for our protection. He doesn't keep us out of trouble. He is with us in the trouble.

In the New Testament lesson the author of Hebrews expounds on Christ's high priesthood. Speaking first of every high priest chosen from among mortals he says, "He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness." O that all our leaders were so. Then Jesus in the days of his flesh became our high priest. "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." The mortal high priest is able to deal gently with others because he shares their weakness. Jesus is able to redeem us because he shares our suffering.

So far it may not seem like I have much of a case for my co-redeemer reading of these texts, but I think it comes together in the gospel reading.

James and John come to Jesus and ask for places beside him in glory. Jesus asks, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" The beautiful little fools respond, "We are able."

Jesus tells them that they will, but he goes on to explain "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant," and the basis for this teaching is in Christ himself, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." As the master came to serve, so the disciples will serve.

So how are we co-redeemers? I certainly don't mean that our suffering makes atonement for others or that we somehow accumulate merit for others. Those theologically loaded ideas of redemption obscure the depth of the gospel and block us from seeing our involvement in the gospel. But if we view the gospel in terms of God breaking into the world, then each of us can be agents of redemption.

When we server one another and bear one another's iniquities in the name of Christ, we are certainly a means of grace to one another, as surely as when we preach the gospel or administer the sacraments. And so I don't think it is a stretch to put any Christian into Isaiah's servant song and say, "upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

You know the commandments

This week's gospel reading is the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking how he may inherit eternal life. The opening verse portrays a sense of urgency in the man's request. Jesus was setting out on a journey when the man "ran up and knelt before him."

Barbara Rossing points out how much this looks like a healing story. This is the way they begin. Someone comes to Jesus and falls at his feet, begging for his help. See, for example, the stories of the leper in Mark 1:40, Jairus in Mark 5:22, and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:25. They all come before Jesus, kneel and ask for his help.

In this context, the action of this rich young man is something I can relate to. He doesn't need physical healing but spiritual healing, and he knows it. So he comes to Jesus, kneels and says, "Help me, Lord. What must I do?" He wants to be holy.

Jesus' response is blunt: "You know the commandments." This is the tragedy of trying to live a spiritual life. If it were just a matter of not knowing what must be done, we could imagine that if only we knew, we could do it. But we do know. As Moses says, "The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." (Dt. 30:14)

At this point, I'm still hearing this story as an individual. But I want to turn now to receive it in a bigger context. The Old Testment lesson this week is from the prophet Amos. Amos is one of those prophets we Americans very much need right now. Amos speaks to those who "trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain" (Amos 5:11), those "who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate" (5:12).

I don't believe there are people (or at least not many people) in this country who intentionally and knowingly trample the poor. And yet by our actions, by our policies, we do just this. And we do it because we have many posessions. We would love to help the poor. We just aren't willing to jeopardize our own financial standing to do so.

And I don't think this just applies to Republicans. I suspect all of us who have many possessions know exactly how this feels. I am a bleeding heart liberal. I desperately want to help the poor. But I don't want to risk my own family's comfort to do it.

John Henry Newman once said, "the aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious, or who are what is called honourable, upright men, is, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him." And that is why Amos stings. That is why when we say to Jesus, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth," we know it's not enough as well as he does.

But the good news, the Gospel in this week's gospel reading, is that when the young man said this, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." The young man went away grieving. The disciples were astonished at all that happened and asked, "Then who can be saved?" But Jesus told them, "for God all things are possible," which leads me to this week's New Testament lesson: "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

This week's readings cut me. They showed me a failing in myself and in my country. But it's a good cut. We don't know how the story of the rich young man ends. Maybe Jesus' words lead him to life. God kills and he makes alive. He strikes and he heals. He casts down and raises up. Through his Word we receive new life.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Evangelizing Church

Picture a time when although most people are nominally Christian, the large majority of them have a confused idea of the basic message of Christianity. The Bible isn't much read and the preaching in churches is often about anything but the Gospel. Despair and hopelessness are widespread. Many people think they can secure their hapiness by buying things.

It's present-day America, right? Or is it sixteenth century Europe?

This juxtaposition of the problems of the Reformation era and the problems of modern America is from the second chapter of The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution. The authors (primarily Kelly Fryer for this chapter) offer a fresh look at the power of Lutheranism. What if rather than seeing the Reformation as a correction of bad doctrine, we see it instead as a revival movement where the Gospel was spoken with power and the Church was renewed not by a return to better theology but by the impulse to spread the Gospel? Does that look anything like the Lutheran churches we know?

I've aired my reservations about evangelism here before. And yet it's a problem that just won't go away. As much as I'd like to, I can't get around the Great Commission.

The authors of The Evangelizing Church identify three typical Lutheran stances toward evangelism:

1) Skepitcal

In this stance, the whole enterprise of evangelism is viewed with suspicion. In as much as evangelism is proselytizing, it is seen as a bad thing. In as much as it is a holdover from colonialism, it is seen as something for which the Church needs to repent. And in as much as we live in a pluralistic society, evangelism shows disrespect for those of other religions. All of this lets us sidestep the call to evangelize.

2) Pragmatic

Fully embracing the call to evangelize, the pragmatic approach looks around at other denominations and borrows whatever they are doing. And so we have Lutherans embracing the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion and the Purpose Driven Life and whatever else is popular in the wider church culture without worrying about the question of whether these methods are faithful to our Lutheran traditions.

3) Romantic

This stance views everything the Church does as evangelism. It loves the slogan, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." But in general it never feels words are necessary. And so we feed the poor and clothe the naked, but we never actually verbally express the Gospel to anyone.

Seeing these position before me, I was able to easily identify myself as an adherent of the first position. When pressed with the necessity of evangelizing, I might be willing to fall back on the third position, but I hate the second position with the fury of a thousand suns. But, of course, I do see that all three positions are tragically flawed.

The authors of The Evangelizing Church promise a way forward. And so I'm reading on with great hope. I'll let you know what I find.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Economics of Immigration

The Republican candidate for governor in Oregon is running television ads proudly proclaiming that he thinks "illegal means illegal" and so if elected he will crack down on illegal immigrants.

As I've indicated in previous posts, I'm rather radical when it comes to immigration. I think the problem with "illegal immigrants" is with the "illegal" not with the immigrants. To me, closing our borders (literally!) to immigrant workers is just another way for the rich to oppress the poor.

It probably wouldn't change my opinion, but I'd like to at least know what the economic trade-offs are. I know very little about economics, but it seems to me that welcoming immigrants should be good for our economy in the long run. If our wealth as a nation is based on what we produce then increasing the number of workers should increase our overall wealth, right? That is, of course, assuming that the incoming workers don't simply displace existing workers.

According to the aforementioned ad, there are 175,000 illegal immigrants living in Oregon. I can't imagine that we'd be helped by running them out of town. I strongly suspect that our economy depends on the work they do. So why does this Republican want to "get tough" with them?

My sense is that conservative politicians don't really care about this issue and are just using it to maintain the inexplicable support they have from blue collar workers who are afraid that their jobs and/or wages will be hurt by immigration. But what if this fear is well-founded? I don't want to be just another knee-jerk liberal who is unwittingly hurting one group of working class people in the name of helping another.

Does anybody have a good source explaining the actual economic issues involved?

The Word of God in the Bible

I've dropped the ball on my investigation of the authority of God in the Bible, and I may just give it up as I don't think I'm going to have time to do it right any time soon, but I did have occasion to investigate the use of the idea of "word of God" in the Bible.

In the NRSV, the phrase "word of God" appears only three times in the Old Testament, but the phrase "word of the Lord" appears 238 times. Because of the volume, I won't treat each passage individually.

What I will say is that in the overwhelming majority of cases (and arguably all) where these two phrases are used in the Old Testament they are being used to reference something other than Scripture. Specifically, in most cases these phrases refer to a sort of power by which God influences the world. Most specifically, more than half of the instances refer to the power of God coming to or speaking through prophets.

In 109 instance, the use is of the form "the word of the Lord came to X." An additional 34 times someone speaking says something of the form "hear...the word of the Lord." Another 27 times, something happens "according to the word of the Lord" often in fulfillment of a prophetic announcement. And 10 times, something is said to be done "by the word of the Lord." That's 180 of the 241 uses just with those specific formulas. The other uses are generally also of this sort, including people keeping the word of the Lord and other people rebelling against the word of the Lord.

In the New Testament, the phrase "word of God" is much more common, but once again it rarely refers to Scripture. The phrase "word of the Lord" occurs 15 times in the NRSV New Testament, the phrase "word of God" occurs 37 times and the phrase "word of Christ" occurs twice.

I have gone through these occurences and classified them according to what they refer to.

I find only one verse which I think can be argued to directly refer to Scripture using the phrase "word of God", Mark 7:13, "thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this." This verse is clearly referring to what God has commanded. That could, quite reasonably, be understood as meaning scripture.

In two more cases (Lk 8:21 and Lk 11:28) the phrase "word of God" refers to the will of God that is heard. Again, this could arguably be understood as Scripture, but only in a limited sense. When Jesus speaks of "those who hear the word of God and do it" this cannot be a general reference to Scripture, for not everything in the Bible can be done as such.

In one case (Rev. 19:13) the term "Word of God" refers to Jesus Christ himself. In one more (Lk 5:1) "word of God" refers to what Jesus is saying. In two cases (Lk 22:61 and Acts 11:16) the phrase "word of the Lord" refers to something specific Jesus had said.

In five instances (Lk 3:2, 1Co 14:36, Col 1:25, 1Th 4:15, Rev 1:2) "word of God" seems to refer to the prophetic concept, as in "the word of God came unto John". In two cases (Heb 11:3, 2Pe 3:5) "word of God" refers to the creative word of God, as in God spoke and it was so.

In three significant cases (Ac 6:7, Ac 12:24 and Ac 19:20) "the word of God" or "word of the Lord" is described as something apparently insubstantial that spreads, advances and even grows as the Gospel is spread.

The overwhelming majority of the cases in the New Testament (31 occurences) are those in which "word of God" or "word of the Lord" refers to preaching or otherwise bearing witness to Christ. These include cases where people "praised" the word of the Lord (Acts 13:48) that they have heard, cases where the word of God is "received", a case (1Pe 1:23) which speaks of "the living and enduring word of God" by which people are born anew and another (1Pe 1:25) in the same context which says that "the word of the Lord endures for ever" and, lest we be confused, says "That word is the good news that was announced to you."

The full list which I have classified as cases of preaching or witness is:
Ac 4:31, Ac 6:2, Ac 8:14, Ac 8:25, Ac 11:1, Ac 13:5, Ac 13:7, Ac 13:44, Ac 13:46, Ac 13:48, Ac 13:49, Ac 15:35, Ac 15:36, Ac 16:32, Ac 17:13, Ac 18:11, Ac 19:10, Ro 9:6, Ro 10:17, 1Th 1:8, 1Th 2:13, 2Th 3:1, 2Ti 2:9, Tit 2:5, Heb 6:5, Heb 13:7, 1Pe 1:23, 1Pe 1:25, Re 1:9, Re 6:9, Re 20:4

That leaves the following six verses, which I have classified as debatable. It could be argued that these are references to Scripture, but I think, in light of the above analysis and the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, that it makes far more sense to understand these all as the powerful presence by and through which God achieves his will in the world.

Lk 8:11
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.

Joh 10:35
If those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods'—and the scripture cannot be annulled—

Eph 6:17
Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Col 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Heb 4:12
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

1Jo 2:14
I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.