How would Paul respond to police brutality?

Reading: Acts 16:16-39

When Karla last spoke here, she spoke of Nazis marching in the street, and of the passion people have over monuments. She also spoke about what it means that humans are the image of God. My understanding of Christian ethics is built on the teaching that humanity is God’s image — so, we should behave in a way that respects God’s image. My understanding of a just society is a society that respects human life and dignity.

Now, this has been a strange year for me. I never imagined who I’d see defending Nazis. I never who would defend murder, and openly call for murder. I never imagined that I’d see a high elected official calling for police officers to “rough up” people who have not only been convicted of a crime, but those who have not even been charged with a crime. I never imagined how many people would defend rapists, because they were in positions of power. Perhaps what surprised me the most is that I was accused of being a bad Christian for suggesting that we have laws that keep people in positions of authority accountable — and that police and elected officials are subject to our laws. I had Romans 13 quoted at me — and was told a pastor should know the Bible better.

13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV)

Of course, I didn’t see why this passage suggests that police brutality is perfectly fine nor why it meant that members of the government should not be held accountable to the law. What I saw is a suggestion that government is better than anarchy, and that we are all better off for being governed and policed; so we should pay our taxes, we should respect and follow the law.  I remember that when Peter was jailed, and forbid to preach Christ he said that we must: “Obey God rather than men”, so I could clearly see that this was not the last word on the matter.

One thing that bothers me about these arguments is how often people are unfair to Paul. Paul is the liberal who worked tirelessly to make sure that my ancestors would be fully accepted as members of the church. Whenever people quote Paul to talk about who should be excluded they miss that Paul always finishes by reminding those who wanted to exclude that they would also be excluded, if not for God’s grace. I find it unfair that when somebody finds a sentence fragment from Paul and tries to make it say the opposite of what he said, that the response is often: “well Paul was wrong.” Not only is it unfair, but, for those who consider Paul an authority it is losing the argument.

I started thinking about the question: “How would Paul respond to police brutality?” Somehow, it seems unlikely that his answer would be what he wrote in Romans 13. It definitely would not be the rather extreme interpretation that if a government official did it, it is right and moral because God put that person in power and if a policeman roughed you up, then you must have done something to deserve it. I somehow don’t think that Paul was saying that those with a badge should get away with assault, theft, racketeering and murder.

Reading Acts, I found my answer. Paul’s response to police violence is that he demanded that his rights as a citizen be respected. When Paul was arrested without a valid reason and roughed up without conviction, he protested to the point of waiting at the jail until the local authorities came and apologized to him. Paul made sure that authorities knew that they were under the law, and that they could not treat people the way they were treating him. Paul was a protester.

Another thing that stands out is that it wasn’t just this one incident. Paul was arrested again. I’d read it to you, but it would take quite a while; Acts chapters 21-28 detail the arrest, and how Paul dealt with it. In the first event, Paul might have been content with an apology, but the second incident took much longer. The second time, Paul was not content to leave it with the local government, but he asked to take his grievance all the way to Caesar.

Of course, the second incident was far more involved, which is why it covers 8 chapters. I will summarize: Paul was attacked by a mob in Jerusalem, because somebody believed that he had brought a gentile into the temple. The Roman authorities responded by arresting Paul, and Paul was ordered to be whipped. Paul, seeing what was about to happen protested that he had rights as a Roman citizen, and that he could not be whipped before he was condemned of a crime. The centurion who was asked to whip Paul went back to the Tribune to point out that Paul had rights, and he could not do that. When the Tribune realized that Paul was a citizen, with rights, he became afraid, because he didn’t respect Paul’s rights.

The tribune, Claudius Lysias, wrote a letter to governor of Judea saying that he `rescued’ Paul from a mob; leaving out some of the details about how he treated Paul, and was sending him to the governor so that the mob’s complaint against Paul could be heard, and it could be decided if Paul had committed any crime. After an initial hearing, Paul was held until the Claudius Lystra could testify.

Felix, however, kept things moving slowly because he was seeking a bribe, and he held Paul, without charges, for two years. After this two years ended, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. 3 days into Festus’s governorship, Paul’s enemies called for him to be tried in Jerusalem, and Paul refuses, because it has already been established that he didn’t commit any crime — Paul appeals to Caesar.

Festus, at this point realizes that his predecessor held Paul for 2 years, without charges, consults Agrippa about what to do, writing: “it seems unreasonable to send a prisoner without any charges against him.” Agrippa then examined Paul, and found that there was nothing to charge him with, and stated that he could have been set free. Paul was then shipped to Rome, and it ends with Paul living in his own house, waiting for an audience with Caesar, and, in his dialogue, it is clear that there are no charges against him, but Paul is the one with the grievance.

The lesson that I take from this is that Paul was not suggesting that people in positions of authority are always right, nor that holding them accountable is rebellious to God, nor that even demanding that personal rights, which have been clearly stated, must be honored by government authorities. Because I see how Paul worked within the system, I see that there is room for protest.

I would like to end with an observation by the theologian Karl Barth taken from his 1930’s treatise on Church and State: “Can serious prayer… continue without corresponding work? Can we ask God for something which we are not… determined and prepared to bring about?” Barth’s question to German Christians in the early 1930’s applies to us today: We both pray and work for a more peaceful and just society.

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Jeremiah 29:1-14 Plans to give a future and a hope

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14

The words of this passage are very familiar to me. The promise that God gives God’s people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-12 KJV) is a promise that I often see on posters. These are words that many people keep coming back to, because they are words of hope.

I admit — when I see these words on a poster, they are separated from the context. When lives are comfortable, it is easy to look to the promise that God has a special plan for us — when our lives are hard, then these words are very difficult to believe. The words are most difficult to believe if they are given to us in the context of words that take away every bit of hope that we have.

When Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The leading people of Judah were taken away from their homes, and they were sent somewhere else to live. One of the communities where they were sent was Babylon — the capitol of an enemy empire that destroyed their homeland. These were not people living in a safe situation — these were people living in a place where they were surrounded by enemies.

Not only were they in a hostile place, but this letter was not actually the kind of letter that would bring hope. In order to preserve hope, the exiles were telling each other that this would all be over soon, that they could go home and rebuild. The exiles were putting on a brave face, and hoping to return home. Jeremiah the prophet sent them a letter telling them that the hope that they had was wrong — that they would die in a hostile land, never to see home again. This hope crushing letter is still something we keep going back to and quoting, why, because it says: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This promise to people facing the worst news they can imagine surely is for us as well.

I don’t know what it means to live in a hostile nation. I don’t know what it means to have hope stripped away; I have never lived in exile, I’ve never lived in fear of the police, I’ve never felt that place where I lived was hostile just because of who I was. I cannot look back at my experience and know what the Jews in Babylon must have felt — especially as they had this bad news. My experience does not tell me these things, and my imagination isn’t quite good enough to tell how I would respond to these things; you see I imagine myself braver than I am.

The truth is, I stand here, and I realize that there are people in this room who can understand. Last month has been a tough month for you — and you are in my prayers. I know that some of you are nervous when you see police. I have learned that there are some people who use their little bit of authority to harass people. I realize that there are some of you who have face ICE, and have been to the immigration courts. I know that this experience is frightening, and my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Two weeks ago, I listened to our attorney General, Jeff Sessions speak. In his speech, he included a lengthy list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. This list included some fairly detailed descriptions that included names and ethnicity. When listening to this man try to demonstrate that Hispanics are a danger to the United States, I realized that this is dangerous. As Sessions spoke of local police forces refusing to protect the public from this danger, I feared that somebody might take up arms to protect his community from the brown threat. I know that Jeff Sessions was only talking about those who could be deported — but I also know that you can’t tell a natural born citizen from an immigrant by looking, and I don’t know anybody who carries around their birth certificate to prove citizenship. If your ancestors are largely Mayan, Inca, Aztec, or any of the other people who are indigenous to the Americas; you can’t change your skin. When Jeff Sessions mentioned the crime committed by a Guatemalan, and suggested that law enforcement refuses to protect the people from such criminals — it puts everyone of Mayan descent in danger — and considering that violent racist don’t really care to verify genealogy any more than they care to verify status, it puts everyone of visibly Native American descent in danger.

The danger that I speak of is something that I’ve seen in a community that is familiar to Karla and me. When we visit Kansas, one of the stops that I make is in Oletha; which is a quiet suburb of Kansas City with a Christian college. Several months ago, the President spoke of the danger of radical Islamic terrorism — and following that speech, somebody saw a couple Indians eating at a restaurant. The man pulled a gun on them, yelled get out of my country, and murdered them. He drove to another town, went to a restaurant, and asked to be hidden, because he killed an Iranian. Now, these Indians were not Iranian, they were not Muslims, and they were not terrorists; and they were here legally, working as Engineers for Garmin. Violent racists don’t care about immigration status — nor even getting nationality correct. If hate is a danger to electrical Engineers — it is a danger to everybody who can’t change their skin.

As I’ve been watching this hateful insanity, I’ve been learning that even those I thought would be sympathetic are not always. I’ve learned that doors that I thought would be are being shut. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that you are a community that can identify with the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that the story of an America that welcomes people isn’t always true. It breaks my heart to have learned this.

The thing is, the more you are like the Jews in Babylon, the more sure I can be that the promise is for you — the promise that God wants good for you and not evil. I know you and I both pray to Jesus, I know that we both hold onto the name were were given, Christian. I know that we are members of the same kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. You are my fellow citizens in Christ — this cannot change. Because I know who you are, I know that the hope offered in this promise is yours.

I also see that Jeremiah gives advice to people living in a land that is an enemy land. The advice that Jeremiah gave was to live — to build houses, to plant gardens, to marry and have families. He advised the people who lived in a hostile land to live normal lives in that land. This seems to be good advice to me, because what other choice did they have? What choice do you have? You have to live your life — the alternative is to die waiting for a chance to live.

Living life, and having your family live life though isn’t the only advice that is given. The rest of the advice is difficult advice: Remember this is advice to people living in a hostile city and nation!

Jeremiah tells the Jews living in Babylon to work and pray for the prosperity of the city — to work and pray that Babylon prospers. The advice is to seek good for your neighbors, and for the wider community, even if it is a hostile place filled with enemies. The reason Jeremiah gives is that “As Babylon prospers, so you will also prosper.” This really makes sense if you think about it. If you are going to live your life somewhere — you hope that it is a good place to live. If you live in the city, what is good for that city is good for everybody, so hope for that good.

Now, I would like to call on us to follow one part of the advice given by Jeremiah — stand, and lets pray. There is something that has been called a concert of prayer where the leader calls out prayer requests, and everybody prays. I have a few things to pray for — I will call them out, and wait as we pray. Let us pray together.

  • For peace and prosperity in the United States and Indianapolis
  • For President Donald Trump, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our congressmen and our judges
  • For governor Eric Holcomb, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our city government, our schools, and our civic workers
  • For those who are poor and those who are sick
  • For Iglesia Amigos

Message given at Iglesia Amigos de Indianapolis.

Revelation 3:7-13 — Closed doors and open doors

Reading: Revelation 3:7-13

We are continuing our overview of the 7 churches with Philadelphia. If you notice, the letter to Philadelphia does not condemn them for anything. The struggles that they suffer are mentioned, but there is nothing but love and compassion for this struggling church. If our church were to get a letter, I hope that it would be such a letter.

For those of you who were in Sunday school, you have learned that the city of Philadelphia was a city that was one prosperous but now faced struggles. The video we watched talked about how the city was devastated by an earthquake, and then the Emperor Domitian ordered them to destroy the local vineyards so not to compete with the Italian Wine industry.

In addition to that, they mentioned something that had become a continuing theme in these letters to the churches; the argument of whether or not Christians were a Jewish sect. This argument had been going on for some time, and historians disagree on whether or not this argument had yet been resolved. Some say that a clear decision was made about 85 AD, but there is evidence that there were synagogues that included Jewish Christians well into the 2nd century. By 98 AD, however, the distinction was clear enough that Roman law did not include Christians as Jews.

This process of separation, which by this point had been going on for about 40 years, was a hard process to say the least. I know a little bit of the pain of seeing doors closed — especially doors that at one point very familiar to me, but can you imagine going to your place of worship, and being told that you are no longer welcome? Can you imagine the doors of your church being closed to you? I know the language in Revelation is a more harsh than we find acceptable now; but, at the time it was a personal hurt — when the synagogue doors were shut, the Christians were separated from not only the pagan community, but the community that worshiped God as well.

Historians estimate that at the end of the First Century there were thousands of Christians, most likely less than 10,000 — this number comes from assuming that Christians grew at a consistent rate until Christianity became the main Roman religion in the fourth century. Even if we are to guess that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation is the number of Christians, this would be a tiny fraction of the 60 million or so people who lived in the Roman empire. While the best we can do is guess — there is no number I can guess that makes getting closed out of the synagogue anything less than isolating.

What is the promise given to those who are faithful, even when they are cast out, and it is made clear that the world has no place for them? What promise is made to people who now see the doors of both the synagogue and the Agora shut, isolating them from both the world of faith and the world of business? “These are the words of the one who opens and no one will shut.” I see much hope in this introduction; I see the promise that Christ has an open door for the marginalized.

In some ways, we can imagine what was going on; Many of us have had an experience where we were shut out of somewhere that was familiar and safe. If we have, we have a guess of the hurt that was going on. Personally, I’ve been very lucky — I’ve been more the type to observe shut doors than to have them shut on me. When I experience closed doors, it is generally because I choose to spend time with those who see the doors shut on them.

You know that my heart is with people who are shut out — it always has been. My earliest memory of disappointment with the church was when I saw friends that I invited were less than welcome. Right now, my heart is with a group of people who are being reduced to a political argument. Last month was not a good month to be involved with Hispanic ministry. Just last week, a man involved with Iglesia Amigos was picked up by ICE, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, his wife was released with an ankle bracelet. Just a couple weeks ago, Jeff Sessions demonized the Hispanic community by reading a list of crimes, connected with Ethnic backgrounds — it does not make it easier for a community of brown when the nation is being told by high government officials that brown people are criminals, and dangerous to the community. Next Tuesday, we suspect that a group of documented immigrants; the minor children of undocumented immigrants brought here, but later given permission to live and work here might find that when their work permits expire, they will not be renewed. We fear that people who have no memory of living anywhere else will become criminalized.

It is hard for me to walk with members of a marginalized community, because there are some doors open to me that, in order to enter them, I must leave them behind. It is distressing when we see doors that were once opened closed; especially when there are people who we saw as friends on the other side of those doors. Last month has literally been the kind of month where optimism has become dispair.

Yet Christ came to Earth to bring the gospel to the marginalized people. Christ preached good news to the poor — Christ is the one who sets before us an open door that no one will shut. The more time I spend with people who see doors closed, the more I realize that these words are good news for the desperate. The kingdom of heaven is made up of the faithful Christians of Philadelphia; who entered the door Christ opened while all those other doors were shut. Jesus came with the message that God accepts those that society calls unacceptable. With Christ, all the divisions we make no longer matter, because Christ tore down all those walls that we build.

The hard part of this gospel is that we are called to love those that Christ accepts. We are called to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, where those walls that were once so comfortable are now torn down. If Christ opens a door — we must let people enter that open door instead of trying to block it. Sometimes good news for the marginalized means a call to work for us. I remember reading a sermon where the preacher was telling the congregation they shouldn’t be a welcoming church — he made it clear that this wasn’t because they were welcoming the wrong people; but it was because they were no longer an inviting church. Welcoming is much easier than inviting; a sign next to an open door is welcoming. Inviting is showing people who are desperately searching for any open door that there is one open too them. Inviting is letting people who are marginalized know that the gospel is good news for them. Inviting is going to the lost, and leading them to Christ’s open door. This is the gospel — and as people of God’s kingdom, the gospel is our work.

Revelation 2:8-17

Reading: Revelation 2:8-17

Today we read the messages to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum. There is a common theme and a common history between these two churches — the theme is suffering persecution, and the common history is that both are known for suffering persecution.

I will start with Pergamum — Antipas of Pergamum is the first known Martyr in Asia Minor. Antipas died in 92 AD in a Brazen Bull. I don’t know if you know what a Brazen bull is — but, I’ll tell you. A brazen bull is a statue of a bull with a door in the side, and tubing that transmits sound from the inside to the mouth — sound that is distorted by the tubing is supposed to sound like bellows. The victim is locked inside of the bull, and a fire is lit under it; and as the person is roasted, his screams become the bull’s bellows.

The note in Revelation mentions a person who was executed in this creative way. The cruelty and the inventiveness that is displayed here makes it clear that this is a place where Satan’s throne is — if Satan had no throne there, how could such inhuman cruelty be openly part of society.

Smyrna is described as a place where Christians were slandered, and the local Jews were pointed out as enemies. Smyrna is different from Pergamum in that it is a prediction: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… for ten days you will have affliction.”

In Smyrna, Jews were tolerated, and their monotheism was tolerated. One question that this brings up is whether or not Christians share in the toleration. The Jews distanced themselves from Christians, and the Christians were accused of Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and other libel. I’m not sure how long 10 days is — but I do know the most famous martyr of Smyrna was Polycarp — and he ordered to be burned at a stake about 50 years after Revelation was written — and he was brought to the stake jointly by the Jewish elite and the pagans of Smyrna. Whatever the situation that would last 10 days was, it was still very much in effect 50 years later.

Personally, I like the idea that the 10 days are the 10 persecutions of the Early church; if they are, than at the time Revelation is written, they would be in the second day of affliction — and the ten days would be over at the start of the 4th century — so 10 days would be about 250 years — the persecutions end with the Church becoming the Imperial religion.

The promise I see in Revelation is that if Christianity endures, it will survive the persecution, and even the persecutors. There is a promise that the power of those who kill only have the power to touch the body — and because of Resurrection, they are powerless against the Church.

I’m done talking about history. There is much more that could be said, there is much I could say about idol worship, I could read from Numbers, and summarize Numbers 22-24, telling the story of Balaam in detail. I would try to connect what is written in Revelation to the experience of the ancient Hebrews. — In a normal weekend, that is what I would do, but this isn’t a normal weekend, so, I have already finished my commentary.

Today, I wonder how a letter to an American church might read. Would we read something like: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is?” Would the letter addressed to us praise us for standing firm against the evil that is in our world? Would it speak of how much we suffer or will suffer?

At this time, I seriously doubt that our letter would read like that. We live in a nation where persecution is so unimaginable that a simple intellectual challenge to Christian morality or belief is as close as we come to persecution — and there are many who seem to believe that such a challenge is persecution. Christian thought is considered in the highest level of government, in a respectful way, even by those who disagree with it; this is so true that those rare times when we don’t hear a common Christian belief being treated respectfully by a government official, we feel that it is wrong, and frighteningly abnormal.

What would a letter be like to a church who faces no persecution, who is not punished nor separated from society for their beliefs, who’s members have control of significant wealth, who has influence in every level of the government, and who’s members hold many positions of high leadership? How does the letter change when in an environment where the president reminds us that we worship God, not government? It seems like we, just like Christian Rome, would get a letter to a church that conquered by enduring hardship.

You see, many American churches have a history of persecution. The American idea of religious freedom was created by and for persecuted Christians. We overcame, we created a place for ourselves where we didn’t face that any more, and part of the goal was to protect the freedoms of those who have no power. With our history, what would Christ say to us?

I think that the letter would be less than kind. I think that we would be called out on our lack of faith in God, and how we really believe in ourselves, our wealth and our power and our personal knowledge.

I think that we would be condemned for the relationship formed with political parties. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly based on Christian morality; both are essentially secular. Now, there is both a Christian Right and Left that have one this one thing in common — both compromise things they believe to be part of the party. Sometimes compromise comes in the form of deemphasizing a traditional belief, or a teaching of Jesus — sometimes it goes further, and it is literally calling something good that scripture calls evil, or condemning something that Christ commands.

I think that we would be condemned for the idolatry of nationalism. The first Christians dealt with the question whether or not Caesar is Lord — they made it clear that Jesus is Lord, and nobody else really is. We live in a nation where Caesar makes no claim to be lord — yet, we are willing to compromise the gospel for political power. We are not asked to worship Caesar, but we are willing to bow down and worship Satan for the promise that he will give us the world to rule.

Today, I think the biggest thing that would be spoken against us is that we say we love God, but we openly hate our neighbor. We think nothing about speaking of those created in God’s image as if they had no value, and if their lives were worthless. It is as if we’ve decided that God’s image is a select group of people — not every human, but just one ethnicity.

This weekend, a group of White Nationalists extremists held a rally in Virginia. This rally included a Nazi terrorist using a car to harm and murder people who disagreed with the Nazi message. I look at the American church, and I see a group that does not have the courage to say that this hate is sin; and that if you hate your neighbor, who is made in God’s image, you cannot love God. If the American church said this clearly, we would not have seen the ugly display that formed at Charlottesville; but we have not said it — instead, too many of us have defended the rhetoric of hate. In fact, we have a Christian culture where church members recruit other church members for the Klan. Your grandparents likely were aware of the days in the 1920’s when one of the local pastors was a leader of the Indiana KKK; and nobody seemed to have a problem with this. We long ago compromised to the point of blasphemy. If there were a letter to the American church, the letter would tell us to repent of this blasphemy.

Every generation has its own difficulties. The difficulties we read about in scripture are very often the difficulties of living in a hostile culture under a hostile government. Our situation is different, our greatest difficulty is that we are caving without any pressure to those things that early Christians would resist to their death. Our greatest enemy is not Caesar, but compromised Christian leaders telling us that evil is good.

The letters all have this in common: “Whoever conquers” has a promise such as never tasting the second death, or a white stone with a new name. Overcoming a disease in the community is harder than overcoming what is external community. It is very hard because it is our problem; it is our sin. May we overcome though, because a church that hates who it should love is no Christian church at all.

The end of all things: I Peter 4:7-19

Reading: I Peter 4:7-19

“The end of all things is near.” These words spark the imagination; these are words that we all hear from time to time — and they are words that are easy to dismiss because we see that the world didn’t end every time that we hear those words. It is easy to argue how the world will end, and miss how much of the world really did end.

I believe that I Peter was written between the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, and the death of Nero in 68 AD; perhaps not surprisingly, this range of dates is also when Peter and Paul died under the persecution of Nero. Lets consider the Roman world in the middle of the first century.

At this point, Pax Romana had made it so that the entire shoreline of the Mediterranean sea was well connected. The winds were such that travel by sea was fast enough that one could travel from Rome to the ends of the empire in about a week — if you had to travel quickly, you could, though you paid for it by the discomfort of sailing.

While this letter was written in Rome, Peter and others in the community certainly had connections to Jerusalem and the temple. The Roman empire made it so that massive pilgrimages to the temple were possible. The temple was built to its current spender under a Judean king who was basically a client king to the Romans. It might not be pleasant to be occupied, but being under Rome had many advantages.

Caesar Augustus’s descendants were not nearly as great as he was; this is one problem with dynasties, eventually you get kings who are incompetent, crazy, or malicious. Caligula was, doubtless, all of these things. Caligula was assassinated by his bodyguards before he could destroy the empire.

Caligula had most of the adult male members of his family killed, because he saw other potential emperors as a threat to his power. For some reason he missed his uncle Claudius — most likely the reason was that Claudius was mocked by his family and kept out of the public view; uncle Claudius was not a threat.

Under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, things started getting better. Claudius was a hard worker, getting up long before dawn to focus on the needs of the Empire. He focused on improving transportation, building roads and canals throughout the empire; unfortunately, he married a relative, Nero’s mother. The historian Tacitus tells us that Claudius was poisoned by his wife, his food taster, and his physician when Nero was old enough to rule.

When Nero came to power in 54 AD, 10 years before the great fire, he started off as a good emperor. Nero was a student of the philosopher Seneca, and he had the great moral philosopher as his adviser. Seneca taught him to treat people humanely, whether they were slaves or free. Nero’s early reign was marked by reversing the harsher actions of his step-father. His first public speech promised to end secret trials, to eliminate court corruption, and to respect the Senate; and the first half of his rule greatly increased the rights of the poor and former slaves.

It did not take long for the hope people put in Nero to break down; in 58 AD, he had his mother murdered — and by 62, he started executing any nobleman he disagreed with. Not surprisingly, 62 is also when his adviser Seneca fell out of favor. As Seneca was Nero’s speech and policy writer, Nero’s tone and policies changed drastically. One might say that early-Nero’s rule was really Seneca’s rule.

In 64, there was a great fire that destroyed most of Rome. Rumors said that Nero started it so that he could rebuild Rome and expand his palace complex. Between the fire, and Nero’s killing of anybody who criticized him or opposed him politically, he lost the support of the Senate. Nero blames the Christians for the fire, and begins crucifying and burning them. Starting in 65, Senators were planning Nero’s assassination, and they even had members of Nero’s body-guard involved in the plot; and there is a problem, Nero has no heir, the family of Caesar has murdered each other until it was nearly extinct.

In 66 AD, there was a revolt in Judea. Nero sent Vespasian to restore order — this turned into a full out war that in 70AD completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem. While the Jewish-Roman war was going on, back at Rome Nero was assassinated in 68 AD. Nero’s assassination and lack of an heir plunged the empire into a civil war. 69 AD was known as the year of the 4 emperors, the first three dying in quick succession. Vespasian, who warred against Judea left his son Titus in charge and marched on Rome, conquering and looted Rome, and established his house as the next dynasty.

All things are coming to an end. If you were Roman, you were about to see the reign of the Caesars coming to an end. Before Nero, the emperor was from Julius Cesar’s family — but, the Senate was allowed to choose which member; now, the emperor was chosen by the military and served as a military dictator making Rome less democratic. Vespasian’s son Domitian would completely end the illusion that Rome was a republic, and the senate had any power. Domitian would also become one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian faith.

If you had any connection to the Jewish people and faith, the end of Jerusalem as a city and the complete destruction of the temple, followed by making the man responsible for this destruction emperor at Rome would have signaled an end of the world. If you were a Roman, who loved Roman institutions, and the stability Rome enjoyed, even when there were ineffective emperors; you would have lost something. If you were a supporter of the Caesars, you would have mourned their line coming to an end. If you supported the Republic and the senate, you would have mourned that they no longer had any power — that after the civil war all power was held by the emperor and the military.

Peter did not need great prophetic insight to see that change was coming; he only needed the ability to hear rumors, and guess truth from them. The Christian community was a scapegoat for the emperor’s problems; a fiery ordeal is a big eye-opener to the problems faced by the emperor. Perhaps the biggest sign that an institution has problems is the need to direct focus on an unlikely scapegoat. Peter couldn’t have been the only person who saw the writing on the wall.

Peter wrote some advice for the church as it was facing its members being publicly set on fire and burned alive — it might be good to listen to the advice given to a church facing a fiery ordeal even in this time and place where we enjoy comfort, and where Christian thought is discussed and considered at every level of public discourse.

The first thing Peter advises is how to act to other Christians. He advised that we keep loving each other, we keep being hospitable to each other, and that we keep serving each other. When the rest of the world is uncertain, and everything that once seemed safe is unsafe, Peter called the Christian community to be a refuge, and to look out for each other. After the great fire of Rome, many people were made homeless — what is more practical than love, service, and hospitality when people are displaced? Between the fire, a hostile government, and the disasters that were to come, this isn’t just about being nice to each other; this is about survival.

Peter also gave some advice about how to relate to the Roman Empire; in this case he advised that the community honor those who are punished by the government for their Christianity — basically, martyrs are to be honored. If somebody is punished for Christian beliefs or behavior, the person suffered just as Christ suffered — the person is a hero.

On the other hand, Peter told the community not to murder, or steal, or commit other crimes or even to meddle. Peter told this community of scapegoats to be on good behavior — make sure that when Nero sets you on fire, nobody can find any cause for him to have done so — not even meddling; which was reason enough for Nero’s family members and trusted advisers to be put to death.

The end of all things was near, and it came and went; but Peter gave advice that helped Christians survive persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the looting of Rome. The more people saw Christians suffering without any cause; the more people saw Christians loving one another, and being generous and hospitable, serving those who were in need — the more people joined the church. Without fighting back, Christianity would defeat all the power of the empire and would survive it.

Christ has given us the strength to endure all that the world can throw against us. We hope for the resurrection of the dead, and that hope is greater than any power that can be used against us. I don’t anticipate any fiery ordeal any time soon — but, I do anticipate opportunities to love, to be hospitable, and to serve one another.

James 3 — Blessings and blasphemy

Reading: James 3

Last month I started talking about James, and if you recall, one of the things that I brought up was that James really is talking about the practical implications of our belief that humanity is created in God’s image. On April 30, I talked about that images still have, and I gave the example of how people respond to our national image, the flag. When I review what I said on the 30th, I realize that I could many of the same things all over again; but, this is not surprising. The practical implications of humanity as God’s image is a theme throughout James so as we read James 3 we come to the part where James is really taking his congregation to task over the way they speak about human beings.

When we read this, we are reading something that very much speaks to a failing in our own culture. With the tongue, we bless God and curse those made in God’s image, from the same mouth comes blessings and cursing. I don’t know how many of you use Facebook; but I know if you do, you likely have no shortage of friends who will post blessing and cursing almost continuously.

Honestly, I’m not sure if it was a good thing for me to form a Facebook account and reconnect with old friends. I’ve looked at so many people who I’ve respected and who can quote scripture better than I can; and I have seen posts recommending genocide against Native Americans, suggested that murdering people based on ethnicity is appropriate, and suggesting that a class of people are rats, or cockroaches, or even poison.

I see the same people posting praise Jesus, and posting Bible verses, calling for prayer and showing that they are people of deep faith. I’ve learned that American Christian culture sees nothing inconsistent about this behavior. Indeed, I’ve even seen examples of blessing God and cursing God’s image posted by church leaders and on rare occasions even on official church pages. Until I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve not been aware at how much cursing and blessing comes from the same mouth. A person literally blesses and blasphemes God in the same sentence. If I burned a flag, nobody would think me a patriot — why would anybody think a person who cursed God’s image a Christian?

One thing that scares me is that no matter how much people say that words are just words, I know what it looks like when words become actions. We know how powerful words were when spoken by a charismatic German leader in the first half of the 20th century. Words that dehumanized lead to one of the most famous of all genocides, the Holocaust.

I’ve always found propaganda interesting; I wonder how somebody can present an argument in a way that leads to such extreme actions. I’ve watched or read World War 2 propaganda produced by Disney, by Mel Blanc, Dr. Seuss and by others; I’ve also seen and read some Nazi propaganda. One of the books I read is a children’s volume titled, in translation, “The toadstool”. “The toadstool” compares a Jew to a poison mushroom that is accidental gathered and is chopped up and cooked in with the food and poisoned the whole family. The moral of the story was that it only took a single Jew, just as it only took a single poisoned mushroom, to kill an entire nation. The Nazis also had political cartoons that compared Jews to a terrible rat infestation, and compared the Jewish solution to getting rid of the rats. These were just words and images that suggested that one population was not human like the rest of us, and we all remember what that lead to.

Shockingly, I’ve seen people make exactly the same arguments that the Nazi’s once did. I’ve seen political cartoons suggesting that a class of people is a rat infestation. We at one point had an image comparing a class of people as poison that might destroy our nation. I’ve seen Nazi propaganda recycled as people who bless God freely curse those made in God’s image. I know from the Holocaust what it means that the tongue stains the body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire from hell.

This has been a rather unpleasant news week. As you might know there was a suicide bomber at a concert in Manchester England. After this happened somebody asked the question: “How do people get radicalized so that they would do these kinds of things?” I’ve been thinking about this question, about the passage that I read, and about the other news stories that have come by me these days. Words are powerful. People are radicalized by words. These words that suggest that a group of people are less than human, that they deserve extermination is really what leads to such extreme acts. We talk about radicalization of some other group — but we forget what it looks like when people in our own culture are radicalized.

This weekend, I saw examples of what happens when our own people are radicalized — not extremists, not crazy people, but normal good Americans. As you might know, Friday was the special election for congressman in Montana. On Thursday one of the candidates, according to a witness, put his hands around a journalist’s throat, threw him on the ground and punched him. The journalist described it as: “you just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”

Having heard this news, the election suddenly became interesting to me — I wondered if a person could openly commit assault, without any apparent reason and still be elected for public office. The Gianforte campaign first claimed that the reporter grabbed Congressman Gianforte, but the altercation was observed by a Fox News team who reported that the campaign lied about it, and that the attack came without provocation.

The last day of the campaign, Congressman Gianforte received $100,000 in online donations — most of these donations were after, and apparently because he punched a reporter. He was never arrested for committing assault; though he will have to appear before a judge, and answer for his actions. When the votes were counted, Gianforte won the election, and in the victory speech acknowledged that his actions were wrong, and said he would not do it again.

That apology is all well and good, but I notice two things: people donated money because he punched a journalist, and a number of people gave this as something that made them eager to vote for him. He apologized before his trial, but after the election was over. The election showed that the good people of Montana find it acceptable to elect a man who openly assaults people. How could a pillar of society such as Congressman Gianforte, and so many of the good people of Montana become radicalized and decide that violence against a person because of his constitutionally protected profession was a right and reasonable thing to do?

Again, this is something that comes from the power of words. In February, the President named the press as the enemy of the American people. Now, this is alarming, not only because the first amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, but because I’m perfectly aware that freedom isn’t what a nation gives to its enemies — no, a nation works to protect itself from its enemies. These words are alarming, because they lead to fighting the enemies.

This phrase actually came up during Gianforte’s campaign — and when it did, the congressman pointed to a reporter and said: “We have someone right here, it seems there are more of us than there is of them.” The congressman said that this was a joke, but this joke was a public suggestion that a mob attack a reporter as the enemy of the American people. These words are alarming, because they are a call to violence that cannot help but lead to violence.

We must watch our language — the first reason is the theological one; that speaking of others in a way that does not recognize that they are God’s image is blasphemy against God. The second reason is a practical reason, words are a fire that spreads and brings more evil. Words lead to actions that will embarrass us and our communities.

Jeremiah 29:1-14: Pray for Babylon

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14

Last week I spoke on Psalm 146, and talked to everybody who had hope that they might get their way in the election. Needless to say, I had no idea who would win; but what I said last week still matter. There were no saviors on our ballot, and we don’t need a political savior. I also reminded everybody that the United States has some dark points in our history, and that we have survived these dark times with our nation in tact. Whatever prophecies of gloom we might have seen are likely exaggerations.

This week, I want to talk to those of you who are disappointed in the outcome of the election. I planned to give this message before knowing the outcome of the election. I have decided on the text before I cast my ballot. The thing is about this election is that we elected a man who is opposed by 2/3 of our population. Only 1/4 of registered voters marked “Donald Trump” on their ballots, and it is difficult to say how many of these made this choice with disgust, knowing that if they didn’t Hillary Clinton might win.

The thing is, if the election turned out differently, I could have swapped names and it would have still been true. This is a truly odd election year where both major parties chose candidates who have disapproval ratings above 60%. There were a large number of people on both sides who held their nose while making a choice. In the end I knew that no matter who won, a large number of people would be disappointed in the results, and I know that any Christian leader who is honest will not be able to say we have a great ally in the White House.

I won’t list our next President’s personal problems;  I will simply pray that these do not become an issue in his presidency, I will however tell you about one of our nation’s personal problems: people have differing views on what it means that Trump won the presidency. Some voted because of Trump’s short list for the vacant Supreme court seat. Some voted Trump, or didn’t vote Hillary because he spoke to the concerns of Labor, often in a way that is at odds with the Republicans in congress. Some voted for Trump, because they felt he represented the values of White Nationalists. This last one, the KKK vote is very much a personal problem in our nation. I’m not going to say that it is a huge population, but unfortunately, these people assume that the election of Trump means that real Americans think like the KKK; similarly unfortunate are Trumps opponents who often think the same thing making real conversation and compromise impossible.

This issue has lead to problems which, if you remember started before the election. Unfortunately, some of our racist minority have taken it on themselves to vandalize places of worship, harass and threaten people, there has also been some reports of physical assault. There has been some of that here, and some people close to me have been harassed because of their skin tone in the days since the election. On the other side, there were significant protests against the election results in various cities. USA Today describes these protests as “mostly peaceful”, but it also told about the dozens of protesters who were not, and had to be arrested. I find it disturbing that I live in a world where acts of violence and vandalism are carried out both by those who feel the election validated their views, and by those who are deeply opposed to the winning candidate. This is not not the way Americans act at elections time: no, to quote Hillary Clinton: “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power, and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”

My point is, no matter how you voted, there is a good chance that this nation feels different than the America you know and love. I know that it feels different to me. I know it feels different to a lot of people. In general, we love our country, we are proud of our country, and we believe our land to be one of ideals, principles, and hope. We do not expect violence on election day, nor do we expect violence following election day. Today many live in fear: Some live in fear because they are minorities who are targets of anti-minority violence and harassment. Others live in fear because we are facing people who set things on fire hoping somebody will change what has already been decided. No matter what side you are on, the fear that somebody will decide to contest the ballots with bullets is very real.

To be honest, I had to admit long ago that Paul was right when he wrote to the Philippians saying: “Our citizenship in in Heaven.” We are resident aliens of this kingdom of earth. Christianity is far too important, and far too enduring to be co-opted for a political agenda. The truth is, Christ and Paul have nothing to say on how a government should be run; the message in our Bible is a message of how to live in a nation with a different basis for justice than we have and one that was at times hostile to Christians. As Christians, we are truly in our traditional element when we have a message that invites people to be better than the world they live in. What is happening is less than idea, and I miss the nation I remember but I get to look to scripture to help me know what to do. Now, how do we live in such a world?

I personally take the advice that Jeremiah offered to the exiles in Babylon to heart. I admit that there really is no way out of the reality we live it; there is not a political messiah coming that will restore Christianity to America through politics, and we will spend our lifetime living in a secular nation that, whether good or bad, will never really embrace our faith or our values.

Jeremiah’s advice to those who had no choice but to live in Babylon was to live in it. They were to have children, make a home, work, and live a generally normal life. They were not called to overthrow the actually hostile government, but instead to pray for the government and for the prosperity of the city of Babylon. When Jeremiah told the Jews God’s plan was to prosper them, he meant God wanted to prosper them in Babylon.

Here is the thing I learn reading scripture. No matter what we think of our government, our role remains the same:  live the best lives we can. We need to be a blessing to our neighbors, do right by our families, and work for not only our well being but the well being of our neighbors — even the neighbors we disagree with. Jeremiah didn’t call for a revolution, or a fight to win freedom, he called for assimilation and for people to live normal mundane lives that made the world just a little better because they are in it. We love stories of heroes who do great things  but most of us are not heroes, and the accomplishments of normal people are greater than the accomplishments of great leaders. Jesus called us to be salt and light and we are that simply by living the way Jesus taught us;  by making love the rule of our lives. No matter what we think of our nation, it is not right to set it on fire, or hope that our leaders fail. The truth is, we are all in the same boat, so no matter what we think of the Captain.  We want to get to port without sinking. Remember as the nation we live in prospers, we also prosper.

I know none of this is new to you, but I’m going to invite all of you to do one thing that the Jews were told to do for Babylon to pray for the peace and prosperity of the city to pray that it be well governed. If you see our president, or the next one as being Nebuchadnezzar, so be it, but we are still commanded to pray and to work for the good of the place we live in.

Like the results of the election — our first response is clear, so let us respond: let us pray:

  • For the peace and prosperity of the United States, let us pray to the Lord
  • For President Barack Obama, and his successor Donald Trump, let us pray to the Lord
  • For our congressmen and judges, let us pray to the Lord
  • For the peace and prosperity of Indiana, let us pray to the Lord
  • For Governor Mike Pence, and his successor Eric Holcomb, let us pray to the Lord
  • For the peace and prosperity of Henry County and Knightstown, let us pray to the Lord
  • For the County commission and city council, let us pray to the Lord
  • For our policemen and firefighters, let us pray to the Lord
  • For our schools and our educators, let us pray to the Lord
  • For those who serve our community, let us pray to the Lord
  • For the poor and sick in our community, let us pray to the Lord
  • For Raysville Friends church, let us pray to the Lord