God’s covenant with humanity

Reading: Genesis 8:20-9:17

Three months really isn’t enough time to cover Genesis — one has to either just focus on the familiar, or just quickly mention the familiar and give attention to those parts of the familiar story that we often forget. In the case of Noah’s flood, this study has chosen to do the latter; we followed Cain and Abel with the command that Noah build an ark — and today we find ourselves jumping forward after the flood has happened, after 6 weeks of rain, after 5 months floating on the flood waters with no land in sight, and another month floating seeing mountain-tops, and after the ship, with it’s cargo of 8 people and animals ran aground on Mt. Ararat, after Noah sent out the birds and a dove brought back leaves, and eventually, the ground is dry and God tells them that it is safe. If I read this passage correctly, Noah, his family, and the animals spend about a year in the Ark; 6 weeks in the rain, almost half a year floating around, and another half year or so waiting on the top of a mountain for the land to dry.

The reading in the Sunday school lesson starts when this all ends, after everybody left the ark, after Noah made a sacrifice to God, and after the text tells us that God decided “Never again,” and that even though humanity is always evil, all the time, the world would go on; never again would the world be destroyed because humanity fails to live up to what we were created to be.

Our Sunday school lesson picks up after the sacrifice when God makes a covenant with Noah. The word covenant isn’t exactly the same thing as a promise, it is more like a contract; covenants are conditional, both parties have a part to fulfill. God’s side of the agreement was that God would not destroy the Earth with a flood, and the rainbow is the sign of this covenant. What people rarely seem to talk about is Noah’s side of the deal.

I guess why people don’t talk much about Noah’s covenant is that nobody really follows it. It would be fair to say that not only is it not followed, but when this story was told to the Israelite’s who escaped Egypt, this covenant would not match their experience. Noah is commanded to do three things:

  1. Be fruitful and multiply, filling the Earth
  2. Do not eat blood
  3. Murder should be unthinkable, and murderers executed

I’d say, we’ve done pretty well at accomplishing the first of these commandments. Humanity lives everywhere on Earth, including places that are not very hospitable. We have even built places to live in the most extreme of climates, even now in the dead of an Antarctic winter, there are dozens of people living at the South pole in Amundsen-Scott station. There are about 7 and a half billion people living on the planet, and it often feels like there are no new frontiers for humanity to explore.

The other two, not so much. I would go so far as to observe that there was not much of an attempt to follow these at the time that Israel was led out of Egypt, and to be fair, there is some nuance that has developed over these. Christianity, for example, has not eliminated the eating of blood. Black pudding is served in nations that have been Christian for over a thousand years. Christians in the United States go to steakhouses all the time, without caring how the meat was butchered, nor if there is blood left in the meat. We just don’t think much about eating blood — even though this command was repeated by the church council in Acts 15.

Blood would have also been a familiar food to those in the Egyptian courts. When there were sacrifices to the Egyptian gods, the sacrificial animal was butchered and processed as food. Blood sausage was made from the blood of cattle that were sacrificed, and there is some written evidence that fresh blood was sometimes consumed in magic rituals hoping to gain life.

Honestly, this is one of the more confusing things to me; it is part of a major covenant, it is important enough that the command is repeated in Acts 15, and yet most of Christianity does not consider it very important. It seems strange that blood is an ingredient for various European foods, and Christianity never removed black pudding or other blood sausages from the European diet. Why didn’t we change our diets?

As you know, the Jews were careful about their diets. They had rules about how to butcher the animals to remove as much blood as possible from the meat. Kosher salt was used in the butchering process to draw blood out of the meat — so, I guess I might call it Koshering salt, as it was part of the process of making meat kosher; though, if you absolutely forbid blood you must forbid meat, because no process will strip every bit of blood from the meat. In the strictest sense, obeying the rule requires one to become a vegetarian.

Christians also accept the teaching of Jesus when it comes to things such as dietary laws. When Jesus’ disciples were accused of breaking dietary laws by “eating while unwashed,” Jesus said to the Pharisees: “It is not what goes in the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth that makes a person unclean.” People also quote Paul in Romans 14:14 where Paul writes: “there is nothing unclean, of itself,” suggesting that dietary laws do not apply to Christians.

Another thing we see that murder is far from unthinkable, and there is not much that we can do to make it unthinkable. The loudest voices to end the death penalty are the very voices that believe that humanity is created in God’s image. Many Friends have called to abolish the death penalty, including official statements and sections in books of discipline. I grew up knowing this because there was a section in Mid America Yearly Meeting’s faith and practice. Pope John Paul II called for the abolition of the death penalty writing in Evangelium Vitea: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” Pope Francis went so far as to say that the death penalty is contrary to the gospel because it “attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

One thing that surprised me when reading about the death penalty is that Rabbinic Judaism is opposed to it. Even though there are a number of capital offenses mentioned in the Torah, and even though those that are mentioned happen on such a regular basis that nobody is surprised when they happened, the Talmud insists that it be applied rarely. Talmudic writings suggest that if the state puts somebody to death once in 7 years, the court has blood on their hands, and if they put one person to death in 70 years, it is too many.

Perhaps the reason that Rabbinic Judaism and many Christians shy away from the death penalty, even though it seems to be commanded is that this isn’t the way that God dealt with murderers. There are a number of people in scripture that I can definitely describe as murderers; that is they chose to kill people who did not deserve death. It was neither an accident nor was it preceded by a trial that condemned the person to death. We don’t see a legitimate capital trial in scripture outside of the laws to hold one, but we do see a number of murders. Most of the murderers either vanish from the story or die in battle, or in cases such as Judah and foreign leaders, there is simply no punishment. There are some that God deals with directly: Cain, Moses, David, and Paul all hear directly from God after murdering somebody. Cain is given protection by God. Moses is called to lead the people out of slavery and speak for God to the people. David is restored and grows to be the king who ruled over Israel’s golden age, and as we all know Paul the murderer of Christians became the greatest of Christians, writing more of the New Testament than any other person. Who are we to kill when God keeps insisting on forgiving?

God’s covenant with Noah has consistently been one of the hardest passages for me because I keep seeing that it has never been kept and that there are few who have any interest in keeping it. If this were collected by Moses, then why would Moses include a covenant with God where humanities part would be to kill Moses for his crime of murder? Why is the Torah strict in commands, yet the response to even clear guilt is grace and forgiveness?

What I do know is that any time that God has made an agreement with humanity, humanity broke the contract. We, humans, are apparently not that good at living up to our end of the bargain, even when that bargain seems to be in our favor, yet God finds a way for restoration. We are exposed as lawbreakers and contract breakers — we are in God’s hands; God treats us better we deserve. The law shows us that God truly is merciful.


Genesis 4:1-17: Cain and Abel

Reading: Genesis 4:1-17

Today our Sunday school lesson considered the events from Cain and Abel to God telling Noah there would be a flood. Last week, we talked about creation, and the Fall and somebody pointed out that Cain killing Abel must have been quite the shock to everybody; it would be the first human death, and evidence that humanity, left to decide what is right and wrong might make some seriously bad choices.

On the other hand, it is not so shocking to us. People kill other people, including close family members, every day. I would go so far as to point out that the story of Cain and Abel would not be so shocking to the original audience of Genesis. Think of how those who had survived slavery, and were threatened with genocide as the king ordered the midwives to kill the babies as soon as they were born.

When I compare the experiences of those who read the account of Cain and Abel to the narrative that describes how bad things were before the flood, that period of people whose hearts were focused on evil all the time sounds like a time of innocence. One murder, one assault, and two people killed in self-defense over a period of centuries isn’t exactly a description of a great evil filling the earth to a people who survived a genocide.

It also stands out to me that the story of Cain and Abel is not the story of ancestors. Noah and his family were of Seth’s line, so there are no descendants of Cain and Abel. This isn’t a family story, it does not give us a sense of a word that is much more evil than the one that we live in, nor would it give the nation of Israel a sense that the world before the flood was more evil than their own country. This makes me wonder why tell this story at all? There are so few stories chosen over a period of over a thousand years, so there must be a reason for the stories that are told.

Marcus Dobbs offered the explanation that this is significant because it is the first death, and therefore is the direct result of the fall. For Dobbs, the first death coming from sin going all the way from attitudes to murder, rather than from aging or accident, communicates the seriousness of sin. This would be constant with the idea that the “knowledge of good and evil” is not simply knowing the difference between right and wrong, but doing what is right in one’s own eyes; even if one manages to decide that murder is right.

I asked Karla what she thought of this story, and what stood out to her was that Cain and Abel are brothers; she observed that the first murder was about a conflict within family and that this passage is a reminder that when we harm others, we are most likely to harm those who are closest to us. If there is going to be a murder, it is most likely to be somebody close — by far the most common sort of violence in our world is domestic violence.

As a student back at Friends University, I had a teacher who was an Old Testament scholar who loved Archaeology, and he saw this as a story of the same conflict that Abraham’s family faced through the last half of Genesis — namely, that Abraham and his family were nomadic herdsmen and the great powers of the world, such as Egypt, fed themselves with grain from their farms.

While Abraham is using stone knives, Egypt is possibly the most developed nation on Earth. Egypt grows grains, they make tools out of metal, they have an irrigation system, a powerful military, and a trade network that includes the Assyrian and Hittite empires. Working metal is the key to Egypt’s power; without Bronze, there are no blades to cut wheels; so there is no pottery, no wagons, and no chariots. There is no metal to put a blade on a plow, nor to make a blade for a shovel. Widespread farming, extensive trade, imperial warfare, and I might add cities, cannot exist without metal.

Between the most ancient method of foraging and hunting for food and depending on farms for the bulk of the food, people started to domesticate animals. It proved easier to keep relatively gentle animals around and to make sure they were able to graze than to chase herds as they went from grazing area to grazing area. Life moved from chasing the herds to leading them, and nomad herdsmen developed a wealth of livestock that was passed down for generations. Just because people started plowing fields didn’t mean people stopped raising cattle; Without cattle, there is neither milk nor meat. We need fields for bread, and cattle for beef and cheese otherwise we have no cheeseburger.

If there was one thing Bronze age farmers hated though, it was migrant herdsmen bringing their animals anywhere close to fields. Farmers, as you know, are tied to the land. Farmers work the same land year after year and they live and die based on whether or not the land produces. Migrant herdsmen live by their livestock, but they have no attachment to the land. The herdsmen move on to fresh land once they used the old.

This fight, of course, didn’t exactly go away in the bronze age. When people talk about the history of the west, that history includes cattle drives that were very destructive to homesteaders who found crops destroyed as cowboys moved cattle across country to where they would be sold. Being from the old west, I grew up with the idea that one of the worst crimes that could be committed was cutting fences so that cattle could go onto a farmer’s field. The hostility was such that in 19th century Kansas, a number of cities forbid cowboys to enter the city.

These days, we use trains and trucks to drive cattle, and ranchers either own or lease the land their cattle live on so that the modern equivalent of cowboys drive trucks. The old fight between cowboys and farmers is a thing of the past; that being said if your cows get in your neighbor’s corn it is likely to strain your relationship with that neighbor.

Perhaps Moses felt it important to tell the story of Cain and Abel, because his ancestors settled in Egypt, and Egyptians, being farmers, hate herdsmen. Egypt was, at first, hospitable — they offered a place for Joseph’s family away from the Nile Valley where they farmed, but as Jacob’s family grew larger and more wealthy Pharaoh ordered every male child of Israel killed. Egypt attempted to kill Israel, just as the farmer Cain killed his brother Abel\ldots but God favored Israel. Egypt turned the power of its emperor on nomadic herdsmen turned slaves, and neither the bureaucracy nor the armies of Egypt could defeat Israel.

Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time four thousand years and sit down and talk with somebody about what we read in Genesis. Any commentary that I can find on this passage written long after the Bronze Age was forgotten. The oldest commentary I read asks questions such as why did God reject Cain’s offering? Early Christians felt that it was either because Cain sorted his offering, and offered God what was substandard while Abel gave what was precious; Augustine offered an alternative to this view, suggesting that Cain’s heart was in the wrong place, and as God cares about the heart first this made the gift unacceptable.

What I do know is when God asks: “where is Abel”, Cain answers: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain communicates the idea that he has no responsibility for his brother, and no interest in his brother’s well being. When I was a child, my parents taught me that this question is central in interpretation — because the correct answer is “yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” You see, if Cain had no personal interest in his brother’s well being, then it would not be necessary to kill him; it might be easier to just let him die easily.

You see if we believe that humanity is created in God’s image then we should value humanity. Refraining from the act of killing somebody else is not enough. One example of this truth is David, who was guilty of murdering his friend Uriah. Uriah, as you know died in battle at the hands of the enemy, but he died because he was abandoned where the enemy would kill him. Because we value the image of God, we don’t leave the image where it will be destroyed easily. We are our brother’s keeper. You see, once we move on to what Jesus says, and what we read in places such as the book of James — we don’t just care whether our actions harm another; we care about the needs of the other. We are called to love, we are called to care, we are called to do the work of Christ, to bring life and restoration.

Romans 12-13 Church and State

Reading: Romans 12:8-13:14

On Monday and Tuesday, the Southern Baptists held their annual convention and passed a resolution on migrant children being separated from their parents. On Wednesday, the Catholic bishops issued a very similar statement. On Thursday, Jeff Sessions spoke at Fort Wayne Indiana, and spend a good deal of his time offering a rebuttal to these statements based on a few verses in Romans 13. I don’t appreciate government officials arguing that our faith needs altering to fit the political needs of our government.

Of course, these statements and the rebuttal didn’t come out of nowhere. In May, Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy that would separate children from their parents. Since the beginning of May 2000 children have been taken away. Right now we have over 10,000 children in custody, and the few reports we have of the conditions that these children are held in telling us that it is unacceptable. There really isn’t enough information, to tell details but there is enough to know that this is deliberate cruelty.

Unwarranted family separation is traumatic to both children and their parents. Last week, I heard the story of Marco Antonio Muñoz who died in custody on May 13. This was a father who entered in the US at a place where people often come to ask for Asylum. When he and his wife came, they were separated from their 3-year-old child and the family was broken up and detained. He was distraught, as you might imagine, he was considered an unruly prisoner, and we are told that he committed suicide while in custody. Remember, it is not illegal to ask for asylum. This family was broken up, and a distressed father died over something that is completely legal.

This is father’s day, and because two thousand children were taken due to an arbitrary decision, hundreds of fathers are facing the same distress that Marco Antonio faced. Nobody makes the decision to leave home and start a new life in a new country lightly. People leave because they are desperate to find a place that is safe for their kids. We have rules that allow people to ask for a safe place to live for a reason and, what we are looking at is children being used as a weapon to punish parents for asking.

I was not surprised by these statements, nor was I surprised that they made the news. There are about 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States, and over 1 in 5 Americans are Catholic. Such religious groups are large enough that whenever they make statements, the statements make the news. I was deeply surprised, however, when Jeff Sessions decided to offer a rebuttal to “our church friends”, where he cited scripture and attempted to argue against these statements. I am deeply concerned that a government authority felt it was necessary to critique the theological views of Church leaders and suggest that we interpret scripture differently. Specifically, he suggested that Romans 13:1-7 means that we are to support what the government does as God’s will, because God ordained the government, and he recommends that churches support his policy.

An attorney General has broad authority to direct federal law enforcement policy, but zero authority to talk about church teaching. He has no standing to tell us that the positions of our Church are unbiblical, but the challenge is made. Jeff Sessions, speaking in the role of Attorney General, found a passage of scripture where Paul tells us to obey the government because the government does God’s work. Because of this, we must struggle with the question of which interpretation is valid: that of Christian scholars or a government official. Does Romans 13 mean that what the government does is God’s will and it is the place of the Christian to accept it, and not to criticize it?

The belief that Christians should always support the actions of the government is antithetical to the stories that we tell each other. One example I grew up with is the story published in Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place which tells the story of a family who felt that a law was unjust, and so they built a hidden room where they hid people who were illegally evading arrest and they helped them escape the government. The Ten Boom family was eventually caught, arrested, and most of them died in a prison camp. Corrie ten Boon survived and traveled the world telling the story about how they worked to save Jews from the Nazis, she wrote a book in 1971 that sold 6 million copies before a movie was released in 1975.

If we accept that Romans 13 means that what the government does is God’s will, and the church has no right to criticize, then we believe that Corrie ten Boom was disobedient to God when she and her family saved Jews from the Nazis. Everybody I know celebrates the courage of the ten Boon family. I was privileged to go to her house in Harlaam Netherlands, and to see the secret room where Jews were hidden. I know we don’t believe that Romans 13 means that what the Nazis did was God’s will because I hear Christians celebrating Corrie ten Boom.

If we look back in our own history, we see that we don’t believe that everything the government does is right. I’m sure that everybody knows the name Levi Coffin. Levi Coffin, like Corrie ten Boom worked to smuggle people to safety against the laws of the government. Coffin was part of the network of the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves find freedom and safety in Canada, and in his memoir, he estimates that he helped about 3000 people escape and that he never heard of any who passed through his home being caught. The Levi Coffin house is now a museum that is less than an hour’s drive from us; so if anybody wants to see what it looks like to hide fugitives from an oppressive government, we can go to the Coffin house in Fountain City.

Christian history does not allow us to interpret Romans 13 as God’s blank check to the government. Our heritage is one of being an illegal people. If we look at Quaker history, Friends are one of the groups that might be described as a free church. Free churches are all denominational groups who rejected the idea of a state church. Governments passed laws banning free churches from meeting. Attending a Baptist, or a Quaker or a Mennonite church was, in much of Europe illegal. Quakers and other nonconformists were imprisoned and even killed both in the old world and the new world because of laws that established a state church and forbid other denominations. The very existence of our church depends on an interpretation of Romans 13, other than blind obedience to the government.

If I go back further in Christian history to the time when the Bible was being written, I see some other issues. The first issue I see is Acts 5, where Peter is commanded to stop speaking by the authorities. Peter did not say: “I must obey men rather than God”, but instead he continued to preach and face arrest. The Christian message was only spread through disobedience to authorities.

As Christianity spread, there were several laws that they habitually broke. Laws were passed that forbid them to meet together, but they met together and scripture commands that they do not forsake meeting together. Laws were passed that required Christians to sacrifice to Caesar, and say Caesar is Lord — Christians refused, and those who would not refuse were kicked out of the church. Laws were passed calling on people to take part in community life, including civil sacrifice and idol worship — Christians refused to take part, disobeying the law. If Romans 13 were interpreted to mean that we support the government in all things, there would be no Christianity anywhere. All Christians have the heritage of being an illegal people, and we should remember when we were illegals.

Finally, consider the context of Romans itself. Romans 13:1-7 is not isolated, but comes in a section of scripture that talks about Christian’s relationship with society. This section includes Romans 12 as well as Romans 13. The argument that what the government does is God’s will, and should not be questioned by Christians depends on reading Romans 13:1-7 in isolation of their context. Even if we do not know not remember the audience of the book were an illegal people in Nero’s Rome, we see that the words preceding and following what was quoted leave no room for blindly following governments.

Romans 12 begins by telling us not to be conformed to this world. Paul is not telling the Christians to be good Romans who treat Nero’s every word as God’s law, he is calling them to non-conformity. The rest of chapter 12 talks about compassion and humility. The last part of chapter 12 gives many quotes from the sermon on the mount, ending with the words:

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21 NRSV)

Romans 13 continues to give a hint to the limits of the command to obey the government immediately after the section that is quoted. Paul moves from talking about why we should pay taxes and respect the authority of governing authorities to quoting Jesus saying:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

We are not called to conform, nor to let the world tell us what is right. It is true that we are called to pay our taxes, but above that we are called to live according to the law of love, to take care of those who need help (including enemies) and to do nothing to harm our neighbors. You need to stop reading at the correct place or you realize that Paul does not recognize the legitimacy of laws that require harming another person. Is it loving to rip children from parents who committed no crime but simply came to ask for refuge? In Romans 12 Christians are called to offer hospitality to those who need it. Does this policy harm a neighbor, yes it harms a neighbor. By Paul’s logic, by our nation’s laws, and by all that is right in the world, what is being done is illegal.

What are we to do? What Paul wrote at the end of Romans 13 is good advice, and I will end my message with the words of scripture:

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in day, not reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14 NRSV)

Whatever you did to the least of these

My church, Raysville Friends, has had a relationship with Iglesia Amigos from the time when it was only an idea.  One of our members was part of the planning committee for the church plant.  On May 3, I and others accompanied Sonia to a routine check-in, where she was taken into custody and transferred to a holding facility in Brazil, IN.    I suggest reading the words of her pastor, Carlos Moran:

Today we have lost one of the pillars, she was one of the founding members of our church. Sonia is very special, one of the best sisters. She was generous, she gave her time and her money to contribute with any project we had going on in our church. She was always present she rarely missed a service unless she was severely ill or out of town. She did not only say she loved her church, her life said so. At church we sing a song that speaks about the poor widow who gave everything she had, Sonia did not only sing the song she was that poor widow, she embodied that women Jesus noticed at the temple. Sonia will not only be missed by her family and her church, she will also be missed by the community around her. She raised funds for other members of the community who had been deported, she provided child care for other children; one child in particular is the child of a single father. That father told her the day before she reported to her check in: what am I going to do with my daughter if you are deported, who will watch her as I work. Sonia was always volunteering or helping someone in her community, whether it was through Faith in Indiana, helping clean the church building or running an errand for a friend, she was always there to help. Sonia was one of those persons that embodied God first, God second, God third, and God always because of that she gave herself fully to her brothers and sisters who bear the image of God, her family, her church and her community. We know that Sonia sometimes would go with out in order to help another person, and for that reason we are now willing to go with out to help her and her family. People can come and go but this absence will truly be missed, simply because her life said to God here I am Lord use me. The blessings we received through her life is prove that God is real and good, we have truly experience the presence of God through her life.

This is morally wrong, this is what hate looks like. Children coming home from school and a father struggling to tell them that their mother is behind bars and that she will only be released in El Salvador. This is the work of the devil, to divide and right now he must feel victorious as yet again a family has been ripped apart, as yet again the church has lost one their pillars as yet again a light has been shut down in the community. I am praying that on the day of judgement God will have mercy on this country, I am calling my brothers and sister to repent because we have done wrong and the children are the ones suffering. It is still time to remember Jesus words: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ We still have time to repent before the King tells us: Depart from me,you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. — Carlos Moran, Pastor Iglesia Amigos (Indianapolis)

Sonia’s children are born in the United States, and are American citizens, but they will either seek asylum in El Salvador, or they risk becoming wards of the state.  This is a case that affects my Church community, however there are many similar cases, and the number of such cases will only grow as people who had status under TPS or DACA lose their status.

As Carlos Moran said “This is what hate looks like”, hate makes American citizens into political refugees who must grow up in a foreign country.  A go fund me account has been made to help with expenses related to Sonia’s detention, likely including funds to help the children resettle in El Salvador.


Holy Week

One thing that I noticed this year is that Jesus was just asking to be arrested;  Holy week started with a public proclamation that Jesus was the king of the Jews.  This would have drawn the attention of Rome and Herod.  Next thing we see, Jesus caused a scene in the temple, driving out those who were selling animals and changing money; this would have invited the attention of temple security and the Sanhedrin.

Remarkably, nobody arrested Jesus when he created these very public disturbances. Perhaps the authorities were afraid that confronting Jesus in the open would create a riot, but when the Temple guards arrested Jesus they did so at night time, when Jesus had gone off by himself with just a few friends.

What stands out to me most of all, however is the trials.  The Sanhedrin, of course, calls for Jesus’ death; according to John’s gospel, many of them had already decided to make Jesus a scapegoat, because they were afraid that Rome would take away their authority due to unrest — and that an execution would ease the tension between Rome and Judea; there were also the charges of blasphemy, and the fact that Jesus said some rather unpleasant things about the religious leaders of His day.

The Sanhedrin did not have the power to enact the death penalty, so they turned Jesus over to Pilate, with the charge that he claimed to be the king of the Jews; something that was true, as of Palm Sunday, and that Rome should find interesting.  Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, the king of the Galileans, somebody who would be personally threatened by the king of the Jews — and this is where it gets interesting.

Herod was more curious than afraid; Herod had heard of Jesus and he wanted to see a miracle.  Herod Antipas was not like his father who killed the children of Bethlehem over a rumor.  Herod was not afraid of Jesus, and when Jesus didn’t perform for Herod, he sent Herod back to Pilate.

In the trial before Pilate, Pilate questioned Jesus, and he again did not find Jesus’ kingdom a threat to Rome’s power.  In John’s gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is another place — perhaps, like Herod, Pilate has heard rumors of the revolutionary who speaks of the kingdom of heaven, while telling people to pay their taxes to Rome.  Perhaps Pilate thought of Jesus as a Platonist, speaking of himself as the King of the Kingdom of Ideals — a place where there was justice and peace.

No matter what Pilate thought, he saw no threat in Jesus — it was the threat that the Sanhedrin would go over his head and report that he ignored a revolutionary that brought him to order the Crucifixion of Jesus.

I find it remarkable that some of Jesus’ own disciples were looking forward to a revolution and fighting Rome to either a glorious victory, or a glorious death.  No matter how much Jesus said to them, they never quite understood.  How was it that Herod Antipas and Pilate could understand what Jesus’ disciples could not?  Why were the political powers able to see that the kingdom of Heaven had no desire to establish itself as a political kingdom of this world?

I don’t think Herod and Pilate accepted the kingdom of heaven; I don’t think they wanted any part of it — I think they saw a living Messiah who called for a revolution of hearts and minds, rather than one of swords as a far less dangerous messiah than those who were eager to die fighting Rome.  They may not have accepted the gospel, but they knew that the gospel was not calling for their death.

Luke 10:25-37: Who is my Samaritan?

Reading: Luke 10:25-37

This is not the first time I’ve spoken on the Samaritans. When we went through John, I spoke about where the Samaritans came from and their rivalry with the people of Judah.  I don’t think it is necessary to go into so much detail as we have in the past but, I will say that the people of Judah had an irrational hatred for Samaritans. Hate was somehow built into the culture and it had been building since they returned from the Babylonian captivity.

You might remember, my sympathy is with the Samaritans. Basically, what they did to earn the hatred was survive the Assyrian conquest, and then miss the Babylonian captivity. The grievances between Judah and Samaria come from religious arguments. Both sides accused the other of too much foreign influence, each claiming to have the better and purer understanding of God and the more correct way of worshiping God. Doubtlessly, when somebody was willing to admit Samaritans are from the stock of Israel, that would add the resentment of the kingdom splitting in two rather than reminding the children of Judah that the children of Joseph are sons of Israel, just as they are.

Of course, I don’t think the exact historical details are as important as the biases of the culture, and the person who Jesus was speaking to. Jesus said this to answer the question: “Who is my neighbor.” The question was important, because it is necessary to know who your neighbor is when interpreting the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The man asked, because he wanted to know who was not his neighbor.

Jesus gave an answer that surprised everybody. He told a story of a man who was robbed and left for dead, and who was ignored by the best of society; though they saw his suffering they ignored him and left him for dead. The story made clear that those who were considered authorities in the law did not always follow it, or if they did, they saw the man bleeding on the road, and they left him still bleeding. If they believed themselves to love their neighbor, they somehow did not see this man in need as a neighbor.

Then a Samaritan came, somebody who shouldn’t have even been on this road because he was not welcome. He saw the man, tended his wounds, and took him to an inn where he could recover and payed for his stay. The Samaritan was the hero of the story who not only made sure that the man was taken to a safe place, but went above and beyond what could be expected.

When Jesus asked: “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers”, the response was “the one who showed him mercy.” The expert in the Law who asked “who is my neighbor” could not bear to say the word Samaritan when he said that the man who showed mercy behaved the way one should behave as a neighbor. It must have stung a little when Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.” It is a hard lesson to learn that we should be more like somebody we hate without any cause.

When the Lawyer asked “Who is my neighbor,” he sought to justify himself.  Jesus answered quite cleverly, so that the lawyer couldn’t exclude anybody. The people of Judah hated the Samaritan to the point that a respectable person like this man was unwilling to answer “Samaritan” when a story was told that painted one in a positive light. The Samaritans were, like the people of Judah, an occupied people. As much hate as there was, there was no rational reason for it. Samaria was no less occupied by Rome than Judah. The Samaritans had no real power; no real power to harm the people of Judah; they were a people who it cost nothing to hate. There was reason to hate Romans, but the Romans had power and the will to punish their enemies. Samaria had none of that.

The Samaritan showed that he loved his neighbor — the person in need, even though he was out of his country, and in a country that hated him simply because he breathed. Who is your neighbor? Clearly, the neighbor isn’t defined by feelings, nor by our bias, nor by an understanding of friends and enemies. Our neighbors are those around us, especially those who are in need. The priest and the Levite saw their neighbor, and they passed by. The Samaritan saw a person who, on any other day would most likely be hostile — but a person who was bleeding on the road, and he acted with compassion to his neighbor. Jesus told the Lawyer to act like the Samaritan, which means, be a good neighbor when there is need, even if there is hostility.

I know that I live in a nation that from the day it declared independence declared that “All men are created equal.” I’d like to say that we are much better than the people in the Bible; we are fair to everybody. We do not hate anybody without cause, but we are generous and welcoming. As much as I’d like to say that, I can’t say it without lying. I know we have always had people who have no power who we look down on and treat as enemies even though they have done nothing to us.

When I think of who our Samaritans are, one group that comes to mind are the African Americans. Many of us are old enough to remember the days before Jim Crow ended, desegregation became law, and voting rights was enforced. There were the 13th and 14th amendments that stated the black man had rights, but these words were ignored and circumvented as much as possible. I know that at least one person in this congregation knows what a sunset town is, and that there were a number of sunset towns in Indiana.

Today, I see many people complain if a black person suggests that the systems of oppression are still in place, or if he suggests that our society and our law do not value black people’s lives. I’ve seen people suggest that saying “Black lives matter” is morally equivalent, and equally hateful to belonging to the KKK. Now, I am not in a place to judge when systemic racism is a thing of the past but, I think that even when it appears to be past, it is best to listen to those who suffered under it.

Black Slavery existed in what is now the United States since the end of the 16th century, it remained legal from the time it was started until it was ended by the 13th amendment in 1665, or about 250 years of slavery. This 250 years of slavery were followed by voter suppression, segregation, and other systemic laws to make sure that the Black population was kept down until the federal government intervened in 1965; this is 350 years of slavery, silencing and oppression which only ended within the lifetime of most of the people in this room.

Considering how recently our laws have changed, even if I could see no evidence of systemic racism, I would want to give the African American community a lot of patience when they want to air their grievances. I certainly would not suggest that they were no different than the Klu-Klux Klan because they are afraid they will be treated the same way they had been treated for over three centuries.

Unfortunately, I can’t say everything is better. I see people claiming that Jim Crow never happened, that there was no voter suppression, and that congressman John Lewis does not know history when he talks about the passage of the voting rights act of 1965 because Voting rights came in the 14th amendment in 1868. John Lewis of course was at the Selma march. Lewis was clubbed in the head and his skull was fractured over voting rights; this historical event is unforgettable for him. Even worse, I see people trying to pretend slavery never happened, or that slavery was no different than when working class Europeans payed for passage to the New World by signing up for a term of labor with a scheduled end date. I see people denying the truth.

At the start of this month, which is celebrated as Black history month, the state legislature had a vote on whether or not to have a “Hate crime law;” We still don’t have one, the vote was no. Another thing that marked the start of this month was a branch of the KKK distributed recruitment fliers just a couple blocks from the state capitol at Memorial circle. We can’t pretend that racism is a thing of the past when it is right in front of our faces.

Another group that comes to mind as potential Samaritans is the indigenous people of the Americas. Our government has consistently violated treaties and broke promises. Our policy to the Native Americans was one of `removal’. A more modern word for this would be genocide. “Indians” were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1957. Even today, Native Americans suffer violence at a disproportionate rate; half of Native American women have been raped, and 80% of them have suffered some sort of violent attack. A federal court decision in 1978 decided that Native courts have no jurisdiction over non-natives. Unfortunately, this means when somebody goes on a reservation and commits a hate crime, the tribe has to rely on federal courts. Too often, it means that crimes against natives are ignored. I’ve even heard of the Navajo congressman Eric Descheenie in the Arizona State legislature hearing slurs yelled against him, and people calling him `illegal’ right at the capitol earlier this year.

I’ve observed in depictions of immigrants as dangerous and politicians saying `illegal’ while working to take away the methods of legal immigration that all of the people in anti-immigrant advertisements look a lot like my wife or my father-in-law. Their significant Native American ancestry is quite visible. This rhetoric seems to me like we want to make sure that we keep out those who look to much like those that our ancestors `removed’.

I look at White Americans, which is a group that clearly includes myself, and I realize that we have Samaritans, people who did us no harm that we hate for no good reason, and I speculate that so many of us hate because we are ashamed to admit that not everything in history is pleasant. We don’t want to admit a shameful history — and we definitely don’t want to examine ourselves and see if we are still doing the same evil things that we did in the past. I think there might be a fear that we will not be forgiven, and we will be treated the way our ancestors treated others.

Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is our fellow human being, a person created in God’s image. Where our culture teaches us hate, we must remember that if we hate those created in God’s image, we cannot honestly claim to love God. Jesus told the Lawyer to go and do the good that the Samaritan did; hopefully we can hear these words as well.

The lamb on the throne

Reading:  Revelation 5:1-14

The one thing that strikes me about the first century church is that it was completely powerless. Revelation is addressed to a church that is facing a great persecution. The first century church was filled with people at the bottom of society. It is addressed to Christians who were recently thrown out of the synagogue, they had caught the negative attention of Rome, they were blamed for the problems that happened in society. Christians were not just persecuted — but, in the stories that were being told about them, Christians were the villains.

Revelation is a letter addressed to the church in Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey. Every one of the seven churches are in major cities of the time; whether the regional capital, a major city of trade, an industrial center, or other traditional centers of power. The Roman Empire knew the names of these cities, and these cities were big enough to have the Emperor’s ear. Several of these cities had temples to deified emperors such as Caesars Augustus — two of these cities were so powerful that they suffered Emperor’s envy.

Christians remember the Emperor Domitian as the second great persecution. Many historians don’t believe that Domitian singled out the Christians — but whether or not he had Christians in mind, the Christians suffered greatly under his policies. Domitian decided to emphasize traditional Roman religion. He personally had a temple built to Jupiter, and he worked to increase the practice of worshiping dead Emperors. His first act as Emperor was to declare that his late brother Titus, the former emperor, was a god, and he had temple built for the worship of his father and brother.

Christians refused to participate in Emperor worship. They would not say Caesar is Lord concerning the living emperor, and they would not pray to the dead emperors. In many places, this meant exclusion from Roman society and a ban from trade. In some cases, it meant physical danger. Whether or not Christians were singled out, their lives were being destroyed by the empire — and their beliefs were not accepted by society. Christians had no power, and any power or wealth a Christian might have was quickly being taken away.

In Revelation 5, we see an image of the slaughtered lamb on the throne, in all trappings of authority. The lamb is called the lion of Judah, the root of David, the conqueror. The lamb had the authority to open the sealed document — a document that had a seal on it to show that it was not disturbed between the sender and the one receiving it; in other words a document that was written for the king’s eyes only. This picture in Revelation makes it clear that Christ is in the ultimate authority.

Now, there are different ways of interpreting this. One common way is to see that Christ’s throne is above all other thrones. We can easily quote Paul in a way that suggests that every king is under Christ, and they are, as political authorities, authorities to do good for the kingdom of heaven established on Earth.

The idea that the emperor is God’s agent on Earth is a pretty easy concept when the Emperor is Christian, and the state religion is Christianity. This was the dominant understanding after the 4th century throughout Christian Europe. It made sense, because you had a Christian king, and he was crowned king by a Christian bishop. The church clearly recognized the king’s right to rule.

This understanding is fairly popular in the United States as well; and why shouldn’t it be? Almost all of our presidents were publicly Christian, and Christian ethics are commonly discussed in congress when crafting laws. The inaugural prayer service has been a tradition since the founding of our nation; it is usually held at the National Cathedral, and it does give a sense that faith has a rather public role in our government. One of the first public actions of a president is to appear in a religious service that lasts for three and a half hours.

When Christianity is on friendly terms with the state, it is easy to picture the rulers as God’s subjects — who will be judged by God according to whether or not they governed according to God’s law. When we see the officials of the church and the officials of the state standing together, and the church blessing the state; it is hard to think otherwise.

The picture of Christ having the ultimate authority might not have had the same implications to the 1st century church. Things are very different now than when Revelation was written. One thing that stands out to me in this passage is that the lamb on the throne was slain. We have to remember that Jesus died on a Roman cross; Roman soldiers stood guard around his grave to make sure that he stayed buried — and when he rose from the dead, he conquered the act of Rome, and Rome’s military might. The picture of the Lamb that was slain, but still conquered isn’t a picture of Christ putting the emperor into power, but a picture of a Christ who’s power was far greater than the empire.

At this point, interpretation becomes difficult for me. I grew up with the idea that I lived in an effectively Christian culture, and everything that I saw around me supported this idea. There was also an idea that there were forces that were trying to reduce Christian influence from our world and culture — there of course were many stories that could be given as examples of this as well. I grew up aware of the culture war, and knowing which side was the right side.

On the other hand, I learned in history classes about all of the evil that was done by people who claimed to be God’s representatives on Earth. History taught me how much corruption was possible in a Christian nation — especially if people were afraid to touch the leaders that God supported, leaving it so that at the end of the day they were only accountable to God. Learning this part of history, I was somewhat skeptical of my own Christian nation.

Conversely, I learned about the evil done by secular nations. I learned about the viciousness of communist governments; as a student of Church history, I learned about how brutal the Roman government was for the first few centuries after Christ. I also learned how brutal society was. I learned about abandoning children to death, I learned about a world where only the powerful mattered, and where life was not treated as sacred. I also learned how Christian ideas seeped into culture and changed the hearts and minds of the people. I learned how Christian Rome eventually ended blood sports, I learned how people started making a real effort to care for the sick, and to save unwanted babies.

When I look at the difference between Christian Rome and Rome before Constantine — it is hard for me to regret that the Emperor became Christian. Even with all its rough edges, I prefer Christian Europe to pre-Christian Europe. I understand the challenge Christianity had in adapting to its new place of privilege, considering that the New Testament was addressed to a Christianity facing existential threats, living in a hostile world with an uncertain survival. I much prefer the world where the Empire and the Church are friends; I much prefer the world inhabited by great theologians trying to understand this new situation.

When I look at history and see all the ways the church has failed to be the church; ways where it represented the Roman Emperor rather than Christ, I see that when Jesus said he did not intend to establish a Kingdom of this world, the church won’t be successful at establishing godliness by using the government. The problem I see in history, including recently, is that Christianity can be distracted by political power, begin to compromise in order to hold onto that power.

Jesus taught us that he did not wish to build a kingdom of this world. Jesus did not want to be the emperor, Jesus did not want the church to become a political party — you see, the kingdom of heaven is lasting in a way that political parties and dynasties are not. The kingdom of heaven is not thrones, nor strong men but it is salt, it is light, it is mustard.

I think that the way that the Kingdom of Heaven changes the kingdoms of Earth is by changing everyday people. When we look to governments to change the world, we make a mistake. Governments can make laws, they can enforce laws, but they do nothing to change the human heart. Christianity started with a few powerless people; people who learned to have faith, and to live according to love, even when love is difficult. It started with a few people who had no power, but were willing to die for what they believed in — and who would do what was right, even when the world was wrong.

For centuries, innocent Christians died; people who were slandered, but who did nothing but good to their neighbors, and the known good character eventually defeated slander. Eventually innocence defeated false convictions. Eventually people sought to become more like the Christians — more Christlike — Christians were salt, light yeast, and eventually Christians were everywhere and changed everything.

I have come to believe that the way Christians change the world isn’t by changing governments directly. I believe that Christianity changes the world by changing something far more lasting — Christianity changes the hearts of the people.