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

Psalm 146: Do not put your faith in presidents

Reading: Psalm 146

I am going to start this message with a public service announcement. I know that our presidential candidates are not likely to bring people to the polls — and I know that this year, Indiana isn’t exactly a swing state, but remember this year is an important election year. The governor’s race is competitive; and in my experience what the State government does is more important in my daily life than what the federal government does. In federal elections, the Senate race is nearly tied the last time I looked at the polls. Not only is the Senate race here competitive, but our vote may very well determine which party controls the Senate: For those who care about federal appointments such as the supreme court, the vote for Senator is more important here in Indiana than the vote for president. Nothing is a sure thing this year, the decision will be made according to who shows up to vote — So, remember to vote Tuesday — polls are open from 6:00 AM until 6:00 PM.

Of course, I also want to remind you that while elections are important, there is no candidate on the ballot that is able to save our nation. I also want to remind you that there is also no candidate that is so terrible that our nation cannot survive his or her election. I’ve heard people on both sides suggest that if the wrong person wins, it will be the end of our nation; I personally think this is unlikely. Even more shockingly, when I was reading an article in Charisma, I read an op-ed by a “prophet” who said that Donald Trump is anointed to be president by God.  (Of course, he also said God told him Cleveland would win the World Series because Chicago votes Democrat, so I really cannot take him seriously.)  I can assure you there is no messiah on the ballot — and, anyone looking for a messiah in a political election has just created their own personal anti-Christ. If you need clarification the prefix anti does not always mean against — sometimes it means an alternative. An example of this is in church history there have been anti-popes. What this means is that more than one pope was elected, and when we name which election is legitimate, the others stand as alternatives. Jesus Christ is our legitimate messiah, so when somebody calls for another one that is to me, in this sense, an antichrist.

Of course, my point is that when we look a mortal to be our Savior, we are looking in the wrong place. As important as things like elections are, there are much more important things. No matter who our governor is, and no matter who our president is — we still choose for ourselves how we act towards our neighbors. No matter who is in office, they can neither force people to be good neighbors, nor can they stop them from being good neighbors. The most important thing that determines the peace and prosperity of the nation is the those who live in the nation. The salvation that our nation needs will never be legislated, it must come by changing the hearts and minds of the people in the nation. We don’t need a perfect government — we need widespread repentance. I need Jesus, you need Jesus — our nation needs Jesus.

Now, no matter how bad things look — I know this isn’t exactly a religious thing to say, but historically the United States has been a robust nation. We have had bad presidents before, and we have survived those who truly did abuse their power. People who debate which living president was the worst president our nation ever had are missing a history that included a number of shocking actions by presidents — and, the nation survived every one of them. I will give a few examples of terrible presidents.

Our second president, John Adams completely ignored the text of the First Amendment, taking away the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press by criminalizing statements that were critical of his government. This law was used to imprison congressmen who belonged to the opposing party, and to fine or imprison editors who supported his political opponent Thomas Jefferson. One of Jefferson’s acts as president was to pardon everybody who was arrested under the Sedition acts.

Our seventh president, Andrew Jackson was the leader of what should be called the most successful genocide of the 19th century. Jackson significantly reduced Native American land, and had the people removed. Jackson was famously responsible for the trail of tears, but we shouldn’t forget that the policy of removal included “gifts” of blankets and clothing worn by those who died of smallpox, and in many cases sending the military to kill every man woman and child. I know that many people dislike it when the Genocide word is used about a population within the bounds of the United States — but simple trip to Mexico or Central America shows us a visible difference between a land that was brutally colonized, and a land where the native population was removed.

The 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was a truly dreadful president; he was impeached for his political positions. You might remember, the 16th President was Abraham Lincoln. For Lincoln’s second term, he ran under the National Union party, and chose a Southern Democrat for his running mate; hoping that this would help the restoration of the Union. Unfortunately, this meant that when Lincoln was assassinated, the person who replaced him was far from Lincoln’s policies.

Congress was overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans at this point — as in, Republicans controlled enough seats to amend the constitution and override vetoes. All Johnson could do is delay what was already set in motion. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments are called the civil war amendments. The 13th amendment made slavery unconstitutional, and is currently used to justify laws against human trafficking. The 14th amendment made it so that we no longer had large groups of stateless peoples living within the boundaries of the United States. The 14th amendment made it so representatives are based on the number of residents within the state, and that anybody born within the boundaries of the United States is a citizen, with all rights that belong to citizens, including the right to vote. At the time the 14th amendment was passed, we had two significant stateless people — the Native Americans, and the freed slaves. There are large numbers of people who’s citizenship and rights are dependent on this amendment. The 15th Amendment guarantees that voting is not limited by race, color, or prior status as a slave.

Johnson spend his presidency attempting to violate these new amendments of the constitution, and to keep them from being enforced — he literally spent his presidency fighting against the Constitution. When Justice meant making sure that freed slaves were given the rights they were promised, Johnson did everything he could do to obstruct justice — even firing federal workers who would follow and enforce the law to replace them with people who would not. While “Jim Crow” was not able to establish itself under Johnson’s presidency, it was as close to a legacy as he could have.

I know that people suggest that our nation, or the constitution cannot survive the wrong person being elected; I understand the fear behind these statements too. When I remember history, I realize that even though we have had presidents who behaved in an evil or criminal manner — presidents who actively opposed the constitution, both our nation and the constitution survived their presidency. No matter what bad things you might say about our candidates — I don’t believe either of them will be so evil as we’ve seen in the past. I don’t personally anticipate that we will elect a president who jails newspaper editors and members of congress who belong to the opposing party for  criticizing the President, nor do I expect the US government to actively commit genocide again. Yes, people have valid concerns — trust is low, and our government needs to work hard to earn back trust in nearly every demographic — but, there is no reason to think it is the end of the world.

There are no saviors on our ballot — there cannot be. We already have a savior, so don’t look to politicians for our salvation. Also know that it takes more than a bad president to destroy our nation and whatever good principles are part of our nation. There are over 300 million people, 50 states, over 3000 counties. Our courts have over 2 centuries of precedent to consider as they interpret our complex legal system. We imagine individuals having far more power than what they have, especially since ultimately most politics are local.

I guess what I want to say is don’t be afraid — first, because when we think about it, anxiety over an election is a terrible waste of creativity and imagination, but more importantly because the things so many people worry about shows a lack of faith in God. America survived president’s Adams, Jackson, and Johnson. Christianity survived Nero and countless other persecutors. The Soviet Union always had more Christians  than communists. I hear people suggest that our government can destroy Christianity — but, no government has done that. God is too strong to be defeated by a government.

Everybody, go vote; Make the best decision you can, but remember, no matter who wins Christ is our true hope for salvation. With God’s help our ancestors have already survived worse than anything this election will bring.

The man who robbed God

Reading: Nehemiah 13:4-14, Malachi 3:6-15

Nehemiah and Malachi are complementary texts, just as Haggai and Zechariah were complementary texts to the book of Ezra. We cannot interpret what Malachi means without giving him his proper audience and place in history, nor can we interpret whether what happens in the narrative is good or bad without the judgment of the prophets.

You already know, I respect Nehemiah as a reformer, and I believe that he worked to correct the injustices that had become part of the system; but we have to realize that Malachi speaks against injustice that existed while Nehemiah was governor. Malachi is opposed to the leadership offered by the priests and Levites; this includes not only Eliashib, but also the government as since the time of Ezra the governor was also a priest.

Malachi is a trial against the Priestly government of Israel, and of course the government is guilty. One might observe that this is obvious as if it were not guilty, it would not need reformation; but it would be good to take note of what the crimes were — so I will make an incomplete list of the charges Malachi had against Nehemiah’s government.

  • Making light of God’s name
  • Offering stolen and inferior sacrifices
  • Because of divorce (Does anybody remember where divorce came up in these passages?)
  • Accusing God of injustice
  • Calling evil good
  • “Can a man rob God?”

The reading from Malachi I chose was: “Can a man rob God” because Nehemiah Chapter 13 indites Eliashib for doing exactly this:  Robbing God of the tithes and offerings. Taking the whole of Malachi’s prophecy against the leadership of Israel, we see that God’s position on the temple system is beyond a call for reform, and a complete: “I wish you would shut the temple doors.”

I know that if you have ever heard a sermon on Malachi 3:8-12, it is unlikely that the preacher pointed to Eliashib, or the little detail that the whole book of Malachi is about the corruption of the Priests and Levites, or even what a Tithe was in the Old Testament. This is not an appropriate text for “Stewardship Sunday”; but it is a highly appropriate text for Reformation Sunday. As you might know today is Reformation Sunday. Luther was opposed to the way the Church in his time and place was compromising her theology in order to raise money. The lesson of Malachi calling out the corruption of the Temple system, which included misappropriating the tithe seems quite appropriate for Reformation Sunday.

Now, in order for us to understand what it means that the high priest took from the tithes, we have to realize what the tithes were in an Old Testament context. Tithes were not a voluntary gift, but a tax, generally on agricultural production. If one reads through the books of the Law searching for the rules and the use of the tithe, one quickly learns that there were several tithes.

There was the tithe that went to the tribe of Levi. The Levites were landless, their inheritance was bureaucratic positions and 10% of the nation’s agricultural production. The bureaucrats had a real stake in the wealth of the nation, for as the nation prospered they prospered. There was a tithe of a tithe, or 1% that went to the temple system. There was a tithe that went to public festivals and holidays, and there was a tithe to meet the needs of widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

When we talk about the tithes, we are not talking about a voluntary religious gift of 10%, but we are talking about the bulk of the national tax system. We are talking about how government employees are paid, we are talking about public events, we are talking about a national welfare system for the most desperately poor. Taking from the Tithes and offerings isn’t something that just harms the temple, it is something that disrupts the entire province.

Now imagine what happens in this case: The Levites, who are basically born to do government work, suddenly are not paid. Imagine what happens if the road worker is not paid, if the policemen and firemen are not paid, if the courthouse clerks are not paid. Imagine what happens if the tax collector is not paid. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that those who can embezzle, or take bribes to survive will be corrupted, and those who cannot will seek day-labor instead of continuing to do necessary tasks such as maintaining the roads.

The leadership complains that God is being unjust, but this simple act made the entire nation unjust. Not only do the people who needed fed because they were wards of the state starve, but suddenly every tax collector becomes an embezzler, every cop shakes down people for money, ever petty bureaucrat seeks bribes. A society that is supposed to be a model for justice becomes like a corrupt African nation. Where there is widespread corruption, justice and prosperity are both impossible.

The lesson the prophets teach us is that leaders are not perfect but, Nehemiah did something that we rarely see. Nehemiah address the corruption at the top. He assigns people to account for the Tithes, and make sure that it is properly distributed so that people can do their jobs. By creating accountability for those who are at the top of the system, Nehemiah makes the system less corruptible.

Now, the obvious lesson here is that government officials should be held accountable, and that there should be a system to hold people accountable at ever level. Our system of government points to a system of checks and balances, and when we have reform to make government officials and workers more accountable, we usually call it increasing transparency.

A less obvious lesson is found when Malachi tells the leadership that God wishes they would just close the doors of the Temple. When we read Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah is absolutely offended that the misappropriation of the tithes makes it so the temple cannot properly function missing that this would also shut down the nation and cause the deaths of a number of wards of state.

Nehemiah did the right thing, but his motive was the wrong one. He wanted to save the temple, which was a symbol of not only God’s presence but also the authority of the priests. Clearly, if the corruption was complete enough to disrupt the normal functions of the temple, all of society was disrupted. Nehemiah addressed the corruption, not because it was destroying Judah, but because it was destroying the symbol of Judah’s position as God’s favored people. It is not a surprise that God spoke through Malachi suggesting that they close the door of the temple forever if they cannot practice justice.

The lesson I want us to take home is that yes, a man can rob God. When I studied this passage, one of the commentaries that I read was Calvin’s commentary on Malachi. I was rather surprised when I read what he said:

God then, no doubt, is deprived by us of his right, when we are unkind to the poor, and refuse them aid in their necessity. We indeed thereby wrong men, and are cruel; but our crime is still more heinous, inasmuch as we are unfaithful stewards; for God deals more liberally with us than with others, for this end–that some portion of our abundance may come to the poor; and as he consecrates to their use what we abound in, we become guilty of sacrilege whenever we give not to our brethren what God commands us; for we know that he engages to repay, according to what he said in Proverbs 19:17, “He who gives to the poor lends to God”

We rob God when we miss the point in the same way Nehemiah did, and have our priorities all wrong. Eliashib’s crime was bad enough; but forgetting that humanity is creating in God’s image, and valuing a building over the people was even worse. The Temple was a great symbol,  but it was a symbol created by people. If the doors closed forever, God would still be God. If Nehemiah’s first thought was to the people who’s livelihoods were stolen instead of the temple, perhaps Malachi’s prophecy would not have been necessary.

We should also remember the promise in Malachi — that if we do not rob God, the windows of Heaven will open. When I consider the effects of corruption, I realize that while there is corruption it hardly matters if the windows of heaven are open. There are no shortage of nations that should be wealthy, but widespread corruption keeps them poor. I read this, and I wonder if God ever closed the windows of heaven. I wonder if selfish priests, and indifference to the inhabitants of the land was enough to destroy all the wealth that was promised.

No matter what, may we honor God, and may we show our love to God by our behavior towards those who are made in God’s image. If we live in this way, I have no doubt that we will not rob God.

Isaiah 31: Do not put your faith in Egypt

Reading: Isaiah 31

Last week, I spoke about Nehemiah’s work to rebuild Jerusalem. Today in Sunday School, we are still talking about Nehemiah. Today I choose to remind everybody one of the things that brought the fall of Jerusalem. Some of the later kings such as Hezekiah worked to turn the nation back to God, but when it came to security, they believed in foreign armies. The best of the kings, Josiah, failed in this and his attempt to play international war politics likely hastened Nebuchadnezzar’s armies burning Jerusalem.

I read this, because I feel that we are in a similar position. I believe that many in the church have been trying to make alliances with the world, and sometimes these have been to our own destruction. I have something that I must say and I cannot say it without talking about politics. Do not take anything I say as an endorsement of a candidate. Not only does the Johnson amendment say that I cannot, but I would not want to even if I could. I don’t believe we can find salvation in government, I believe Salvation is God’s domain. I am also perfectly aware that if I told you how to vote, you’d roll your eyes and make up your own mind. Anyways, I’m afraid that no matter how I vote, I’m going to feel quite dirty.

You see, my faith teaches me that Humanity, both men and women, is created in God’s image. I believe that the way we speak and act towards others either honors or dishonors God’s image. If you want to know how important images are, think about how much anger there is when somebody burns a flag in protest. Think about how offended we are when somebody vandalizes a cross. If we truly believed, as scripture teaches in both the Old and New Testaments, that humans are the Image of God, we would be just as offended when someone is dehumanized as when somebody burns a flag. This understanding shapes my personal sense of morality and my political views. As you might guess, I have much to be offended over. I refuse to argue about which politician is less offensive. To endorse a politician would be to compromise one of my core beliefs. Anything I might say against one is not intended to excuse the other.

I am, like everybody, a product of my background. My mom’s family were democrats, my dad’s family were Republicans. My dad’s family had been republicans since about the time of Lincoln. Many of my heroes were the people were the abolitionist voices of the early Republican party such as the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and the former slave Fredric Douglas. I think that some of the greatest advancements in human rights were the civil war amendments, which gave full rights to citizenship to the stateless people living in the borders of the US: At that point, the displaced Native Americans and the freed slaves, and the children of the freed slaves were all stateless people without the rights of a citizen. I feel that the 19th amendment, granting the same rights to women that men have such as participating in elections was equally important. These amendments are the successes of the Republican party. I am proud of these successes.

I don’t remember when Jimmy Carter was president — I do know I deeply respect him. I was born the year Jerry Falwell became politically active. I grew up with Christian media. I’ve listened to Christian radio and when I followed news, I paid attention to the Christian commentary. I grew up in Kansas District 1, where democrats do not bother to nominate a candidate. Kansas is a closed primary state, meaning only Republicans get to vote in a meaningful election if they live in the Western half of Kansas; this means my mom eventually joined the Republican party and got a vote. Needless to say, I was pretty embedded.

In the 2000 election season, I became disillusioned with the religious right. That year, I listened to Christian Radio and followed some other sources. I listened to the issues that were important to Christians; and, having a pretty good idea what scripture said and what I believed, I came to wonder if there were not some compromises being made. I watched the election on TV, and listened to the Christian radio commentary the day after the election. I heard the names listed, and whether it was a victory for God, or where God’s side was defeated. I noticed God’s side seemed to be a party, and it had nothing to do whether the person elected was of good Christian character or worldly. I began to suspect that the religious right was being used by politicians and then ignored. In 2000, the whole idea that Christians had a real influence in making our government had dissolved, because the people trying to promote Christian influence were promoting party above character to Christians everywhere. It was like they really believed that God didn’t know what God thought this year until the Republican party platform came out.
Since 2000, my view of the culture war has been that it is the wrong fight. Both of our political parties are, ultimately, secular. They are both part of the world. As much as I would like everybody to see how sacred human life is, no law will make this happen. As much as I’d like to see justice in the world, no law will cause people to seek justice. Laws, at most, cause people to avoid punishment. The culture war is unwinable by the use of government. I’ve known this for 16 years now.

We’ve seen the walls we built crumble, our churches are empty, and when people outside the church talk about what Christians believe, they make a list of political positions, completely missing the gospel. Jerusalem is burning the temple is in ruins, and the wall has fallen down. For 16 years, I feel like I’ve watched the church crumble, while it’s spokesmen tried to sell a part of the world as part of the church. I’ve watched more and more compromises, to the point that you can be accused of being on the wrong side if you quote the wrong scripture. When we put what is politically convenient before what scripture teaches, our walls have crumbled. The Babylonians have come because we put our faith in outside chariots. I see my Jerusalem burning.

Now things are more disturbing than ever. As you cannot possibly have missed, one of the candidates said some very unfortunate things in interviews held before he considered running for president. Now, these unfortunate things are not news; he says unfortunate and vulgar things on a very regular basis; what came out of his mouth was a very real discussion during the nomination process. The party, apparently with the support of the religious right, minus Max Lucado and Russell Moore, was able to put up with vulgarity and support his nomination.

The interviews that have been released have a presidential candidate bragging that he can commit sexual assault because he is famous. He brags in a way that suggests he does so whenever he likes. Old interviews also have him saying that he walks into the dressing room of beauty pageants, because he can. I will not quote, and I do not want to go into detail because bluntly, I feel like we should have known what we were getting. I consider a political party to be part of the world, and I take no religious offense when the world acts like the world. In this case, I leave judgment to the courts.

There is a place where I step in and make my judgment. I might not be a national voice but there are people who call me pastor. My realm is the church. I don’t care who gets elected, I do care about destroying the reputation of Christianity. I do not stand accusing a man who condemns himself, but those who defend what he has claimed to do. The public Christians, who spoke to my younger self about wanting a more Christian America, and leaders who would be good for our society are now saying things such as bragging about sexual assault is no big deal, simply macho talk. The worst I’ve heard is one who actually said that groping a woman without her consent is not sexual assault. Unfortunately, those who listen to Christian talk radio or watch Christian television are hearing our moral authorities telling us that this is no big deal. The spokesmen for the church cannot become rape-apologist. There is no prize worth such compromise.

I know one of the biggest reasons that people jump to defend the nominee is fear. There is a strong sense that we are less secure than we once were. Statistics tell us that most of this is a matter of perception. Before 1994, communities were isolated by geography. It was unusual that what happened in one city would be news in another. Today, if four people are shot in Italy, it is news here in Indiana. I have Facebook friends that I keep up with in China, Russia, Denmark and South Africa. I am as likely to get my news about the United States from the BBC as I am from CBS. The world is so connected that my international friends know when a tornado hits within 100 miles of where I live; even if I never mentioned the weather. Violent crime is less common than it was 30 years ago, but due to the information revolution the entire world is now our community.

We do however have a safety issue that is not just perception. Our government estimates that about 1 out of 5 women have been sexually assaulted. We now have people who are seen as moral leaders, people who are known to support family values and strive to maintain an America that is a good nation to raise children saying that bragging about groping women without permission is simply macho talk. I’ve heard one go so far as to say that groping really isn’t so bad. One out of five women have been sexually assaulted, and people are so desperate to get a candidate into office that they deny sexual assault is a bad thing. The church can survive Nero, and the worst persecution the world can offer; but if those who are seen as God’s prophets become rape-apologists because that is compromise they have to pay for a little political influence they do cause God’s name to be blasphemed. They are blaspheming God’s name themselves.

Again, I endorse no-one. Vote your conscience. Vote issues if you cannot vote for a person. No matter who you support, don’t be a rape-apologist. Some of the women you know have been assaulted. One fifth of American women is over 31 million people. If we marginalize those who have suffered violence at the hands of the powerful, in order to defend the powerful, we are not acting like the church, but quite the opposite. No matter who you want to win, it is not worth throwing a large group of people under the bus for a Pyrrhic victory.

We as Christians need to consider how we can become sensitive to those who’s wounds have been freshly opened by truly evil rhetoric. When we speak, we must remember some of the people who hear us have deep pain in their lives. If one must choose between an election, and the integrity of the church, the choice must be the church. When we speak, we must be careful to speak with grace. We must remember that words can hurt. I do indeed feel that the church is under attack. I feel Jerusalem has been set on fire. I regret that those burning our great city are not seen as invaders, but it is those claiming to speak for God.

Nehemiah 4:1-12: Facing Opposition

Reading: Nehemiah 4:1-12

Nehemiah was a reformer — and, one thing reformers have in common is that they face opposition. Last week, I mentioned that systems protect themselves, people who have an advantage do not want change, and even those who are at a disadvantage fear change. There is a saying: “Better the devil you know.” that applies.

After Nehemiah explored Jerusalem and announced his presence. When the process of rebuilding started, the neighbors to the north immediately started a campaign of opposition, including harassing the workers. You might remember, I have some sympathy for the Samaritans. I think that they had a valid grievance due to how the governors behaved in the time of their grandparents; however I don’t think Nehemiah was personally responsible — he merely had to deal with the situation he walked into.

In order to know what Samaria had to protect, we need to consider the situation. Last week, we learned that Jerusalem was in ruins. Even if the temple were finished, it would not matter. Jerusalem was not inhabited, and if you asked for directions to the temple in Jerusalem, the answer would be: “you can’t get there from here.” If you put ‘temple in Jerusalem’ into your GPS, you would get the error “No route found.”

Judah had been plagues with corrupt leadership, poverty, likely as a result of that corruption. The roads were terrible, and the historic capital was a ghost town. Archaeologists tell us that the population of Judah was smaller than the number of people who came to colonize it. Samaria didn’t want Jerusalem rebuilt, and there really was not much of a Judah to do the rebuilding.

The border of Samaria was about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. Shechum is 42 miles north of Jerusalem, or basically on the border. There was a temple in Shechum, served by Hebrew priests, and sacrificing to the Jewish God. Torah was read in Samaria, and there is an excellent change that there were a large number of Jewish refugees in Samaria. No matter what, Jerusalem was abandoned and Shechum was an economic and religious center. Judah might have been it’s own province on paper, but functionally it was a wasteland. The temple in Jerusalem was unfinished, unused, and inaccessible. If you asked for directions to the temple of the God of Abraham, you would be sent to Shechum.

If Jerusalem were rebuilt, and the Temple were restored and put back into use, Shechum would lose it’s position of being the religious center of both provinces. If Jerusalem were rebuilt, inhabited, and established as a proper territorial capital, Shechum would compete with another major city just 42 miles to the south. The result would certainly be a diminished economy, and diminished regional influence.

Perhaps even more importantly, there was a personal element to this. Even if the Samaritans offered to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple decades ago, the grandchildren would have several grievances to remember. They would remember that they were told that there was no place for them at the temple. They would remember when those who were in mixed marriages were exiled, presumably to Samaria — and, this is especially important because Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus tells us that the Samaritan governor Sanballat was in a mixed family, such as those who were exiled. There is likely not only a fear that any wealth or influence Judah gains, Samaria will lose – but, a personal grudge, possibly held by the leader of Samaria.

None of this, of course, is Nehemiah’s fault, but he very much has to deal with this. It is very hard to accomplish anything when you have somebody who is more powerful and more connected actively working to make sure you fail. Nehemiah might have been paying for the sins of his predecessors, but this is a steep price to pay. The easy thing of course is giving up — but, Nehemiah found a way to work in spite of all these problems.

Nehemiah drafted a group of people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When they were harassed by enemies, Nehemiah armed the workers and provided some security. Now, conscripting people for a building project is nothing new, but I particularly like who Nehemiah conscripted — the third Chapter of Nehemiah is a list of workers, and the workers include the high priest, a bunch of Levites, and a number of other priests. Now, as you know, the high priest had a mansion and a salary, but without a temple, he didn’t have much of a job. Nehemiah had people doing manual labor who had paying jobs, but no office to attend to — and wouldn’t until Jerusalem was rebuilt. There is, in my mind, a poetic justice to having people such as Eliashib doing manual labor. For context, not only had he been drawing a salary for a job that was not being done, but later, he would misappropriate the temple treasury — but, more on that in 3 weeks.

Eventually, Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Just as Nehemiah had to conscript people to work to rebuild the capital city, he had to order people to move in and make it a community, but he would be successful. Because of this work, Jerusalem became a major city again. Jerusalem became such a major city that people would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem: People still go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
This story is about the rebuilding of the capital and reestablishing the temple as the temple. This was a major project, and I think we have some things that we can learn from this project.

First: If it is worth doing, it is worth doing even if there is opposition. I really do empathize with the opposition. I understand personal grievances, but there are some people who will always be opposed. As a kid, I really wanted people to be happy. One of the hard lessons my teenage self had to learn is that some people are never happy, and there is nothing you can do to please them; so trying can be a terrible waste of effort.

In this case, the goal was not to make Sanballat happy, the goal was to re-establish the city of Jerusalem, and bring the Temple back into use. It would not be possible to make this guy happy, so there comes a point where they did what they had to and built anyways.

Second: I notice that Nehemiah got this rebuilding done by changing the system. The old way of doing things was one where a few people benefited while the rest sacrificed. The high priest lived in a mansion, and received a salary out of tax revenues; yet the Temple remained unfinished, and even if it were finished the roads were not passable.

Nehemiah had the high priest moving rocks along with everybody else. The high position did not exempt him from the work that needed to be done for the position to even be relevant. I know that when one person does the work, and somebody else takes the credit and gets the reward there is no shortage of jealousy. There already was enough problems from the people who are never happy; jealousy is un-needed, so the High Priest was there with everybody else doing manual labor.

Finally: I notice that this was a well managed task. If we read Chapter 3, we see a list of workers and the tasks that they were assigned to complete. When Jerusalem is resettled, Nehemiah orders a list of people to move there and create a city. I know this is obvious and pragmatic — but, if we want to accomplish anything, we have to know our goal, how we will work towards our goal, and who is responsible for doing the work.

Any big project needs a lot of organization. A big dream without organization is something that sits in a notebook until everybody forgets that they ever had a big dream. If we go so far as to make a strategy to build up to a big dream, but nobody is responsible for the various parts of the strategy, the big dream goes nowhere — because nobody knows what to do with it. There are few things more frustrating than working alone at an impossible task; and few things more rewarding than finishing a possible task, that combines with other possible tasks to form what looked impossible.