Friday, November 21, 2014

A Christian Response to Immigration Reform

In light of President Obama's speech last night on why he is taking action regarding immigration, here's a post I wrote last year on how Christians should respond to immigration reform.

Perhaps the most beloved story in the Gospels, and indeed maybe the favorite story for many from the entire Bible, is the story of Jesus’ birth. Even when it is not the time for Christmas, the familiar nativity story lives on in our hearts and minds, narrating for us the incarnation of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Yet, while we celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born, Mary laid him in a feeding trough because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may not be entirely historical, both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus did gather a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger. Can this story shed biblical light on the question concerning our current immigration policies?

I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Since the horror of 9/11, xenophobia has been prevalent in our country. This fear of foreigners has grown out of a return to an entrenched and zealous patriotism that has gone too far in its understanding of America as the only culturally pure society. Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that American culture is under threat. Such xenophobic tendencies may overtly or implicitly influence our feelings about immigrants and our political positions on the issue of immigration.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the kingdom of God, and alien and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the kingdom of God. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentile, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the Jewish religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).

One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not undocumented immigrants. They are law abiding citizens who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country seeking exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social programs. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.

And, while there may be as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of these are hard working people who are seeking a better life for themselves and for their families. The majority contribute to the economy of this nation, including doing many jobs that Americans will not perform, as well as starting small businesses in the entrepreneurial spirit of America, as a report on NBC indicated.

As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and voice our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?” only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Disciples in Mark: Human Failure and Human Possibility Before God

The role of the disciples in Mark has received a great deal of attention in Markan scholarship over the years. Scholars have debated the seemingly unanswerable question of who the disciples are in Mark, and what their role is in the hearing of Mark’s audience. Several have essentially argued for their negative portrayal, while others have viewed the presentation of the disciples along more positive lines. 

Some have suggested that the portrayal of the disciples has been for polemical purposes, to address an alleged false Christology rampant in the Markan community. Still others have viewed Mark’s treatment of the disciples as more pastoral, representing the reality of discipleship dependent on Mark’s Jesus. Yet most would agree that the role played by the disciples of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is certainly ambiguous. 

The question remains, however. What are we to make of the portrayal of the disciples in Mark’s gospel? Why does Mark present the disciples sometimes in a positive ways, but in other places in negative ways?

While I am cautious to avoid simplistic answers to these questions, it seems to me that the most valid, and I think most defensible answer, is that the ambiguous portrayal of the disciples in Mark is for the purpose of demonstrating to the Markan audience the reality of human existence before God. 

From reading the Gospel narrative, one can see the great dichotomy that exists within the narrative between “the things of God and the things of humans” (8:33). The negative and positive portrayals of the disciples then are both for purposes of plot and to demonstrate human failure and human possibility before God that occur in the lives of real people. 

In this way the Markan audience is confronted by their own reality as followers of Jesus on the way. They are called to faith and discipleship, which is defined not only in following Jesus, but also in their dependence on God.

Jesus is clearly seen as the true model of discipleship who thinks the things of God and is dependent on the Spirit of God to carry out God’s will. The disciples are presented as often weak followers of Jesus, whose relationship to God comes through Jesus.

Thus, the Markan audience is presented with a choice of two models to follow. Either they can follow the examples of the disciples, which will lead to misunderstanding and failure, or they can follow the example of Jesus that will lead to understanding and faithfulness before God.

Given this awareness of the narrative presentation of both Jesus and the disciples, it seems very plausible to me that the audience of the Markan narrative is supposed to view Jesus as the paradigmatic disciple, who not only makes the way possible for them to be in relationship to God, but sets for them an example of how one truly lives faithfully before God.

It is Mark’s Jesus that faces temptation with success (1:12-13). It is Mark’s Jesus that expresses faith in God; faith enough to cast out evil spirits when the disciples cannot (9:14-29). It is Mark’s Jesus who goes the “way of the Lord”, even when that entails his death (8:31-32; Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:32-34). It is Mark’s Jesus that follows his own command to “take up your cross” (8:34).  It is Mark’s Jesus that serves while the disciples try to “lord over one another” (10:35-45) It is Mark’s Jesus who declares the rule of God and acts out the rule of God as God’s own Son. And, it is Mark’s Jesus that God not only affirms at the baptism of Jesus, but is the one God commands the disciples to listen to (1:11; 9:7).

The audience of Mark’s story would view themselves as the discipleship community, the new community of God, and Jesus as the one whom they follow and with whom they participate in doing the will of God.

Thus, the presentation of the successes and failures of the disciples in Mark is for the purpose of presenting human reality before God, and to show Jesus as the exemplary Human One, who is the faithful disciple. The negative presentation of the disciples is meant to remind Mark’s audience that they are also susceptible to failure and sin, to denying and deserting Jesus, and to becoming those that represent Satan (8:33).

The discipleship community of Mark is to hope in the God of Jesus, who was faithful to Jesus, and will indeed be faithful to all who imitate and participate with Jesus in doing the will of God. 

Although discipleship is about the disciples’ relationship to Jesus, it is also, and perhaps more, about their relationship to God, for disciples hope not in the power of Jesus to raise them from the dead and give them salvation, but in the God who raised Jesus, and through whom all things are possible (10:27).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Houston’s Subpoenas, Driscoll’s Resignation, and Preaching Authority and Accountability

Two religious stories hit social media like a firestorm this week. The first was the report that the City of Houston had subpoenaed the sermons of some pastors who were fighting for repeal of an ordinance known as Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which gives protection to members of the LGBT community.

The second was the resignation of Mark Driscoll from Mars Hill Church, a church he founded. Driscoll’s resignation comes after allegations of plagiarism, but also concerns over his leadership style, which even many of his church members called arrogant and authoritative.

Both of these stories raise the question concerning preaching and the authority of preachers in the pulpit. Yet, they also raise the issue of accountability preachers must be held to be effective leaders to their congregations.

I have written before on the importance of the separation of church and state from both a theological as well as a constitutional position. Our constitution demands this separation, but from a theological perspective, the church must remain separate from the state so that the church can speak prophetically to the state.

The report about Houston subpoenaing sermons from pastors is troubling in this regard. I am sure the full story is yet to be known, and some reports coming out today suggest a backing away from this action by Houston’s mayor, but let’s assume that the facts are true concerning the initial requests. If so, then this not only infringes on the First Amendment rights of these pastors, it also places constraints on preaching as a prophetic practice that has always been important to this country, particularly at crucial moments in our history.

Let me be clear, preaching is and always has been a political exercise. Mark 1:14-15 says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” John had been arrested by the state for his preaching, and Jesus comes preaching the coming of the rule of God. How much more political can one get?

Pastors have a right, and perhaps even a responsibility, to speak politically. This does not mean, however, that particular political candidates or parties can be endorsed from the pulpit, for they should not be. The law is clear on this. But it does mean that pastors have the right to speak on any political issue they deem worthy of a sermon, and they have the right to take a stand on that issue, even if the state does not agree.

Barring the endorsement of a candidate or a political party, the preacher has the right to exercise free speech, even if such speech is disliked by the state or challenges a particular law. Indeed, and I am to the point of physical illness as I write this sentence, but the preacher has the right to say anything he or she wants from the pulpit, without fear of being sanctioned by the state, so long as the preacher does not promote violence or harm of others. What I have heard from some preachers disgusts me, but the state should not interfere with the preacher’s right to preach.

That being said, pastoral authority must be held accountable. Such accountability lies with the congregations and to some extent with the denominations, depending on the type of church governance a church is under. Pastors and preachers who stand before their congregations each week to bring a sermon must understand that they do not speak the word of God.

Sermons are interpretations of scripture and applications of those interpretations, and preachers who make these interpretations and applications in the sermon are fallible human beings. Neither their training nor their authority gives them carte blanche from the pulpit when it comes to their proclamations on social, political, or theological issues.

This means that parishioners who gather to hear Sunday morning sermons should come with critical minds to engage with what is being said by the preacher and they should feel free and safe with calling out the preacher for speech that is not worthy of the gospel.

While the state has no business censoring a sermon, those who hear the sermon have every right to confront a preacher whose comments in a sermon verge on bigotry and hate or that limit the rights of others regardless of the preacher’s disagreement with those rights. While preachers may feel strongly about an issue, they must not take the position that their view is equated with God’s view, and they should not force their views onto a congregation. That is the abuse of pastoral authority.

Pastors and preachers who consider their words to be infallible and their authority unquestionable should not be held accountable by the state for what they say from their pulpits so long as their words are within current laws regarding political endorsements and tax exempt status, and so long as they do not encourage harming others. However, the congregations that they lead and to whom they preach must keep pastoral egos in check by always questioning what is said in a sermon.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Jesus’ Miracles in Mark and God’s Numinous Presence

In a previous post I discussed how the Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as the one sent from God. In doing so, Mark’s story sets Jesus in relation to God as the one who represents God on earth. As God’s envoy, who carries God’s authority, Jesus takes on the vocation that is only meant for God. Thus, what Jesus does on earth is to be viewed as God’s actions; actions done on behalf of God. The literary presentation of Jesus as miracle worker is a good example of this, particularly in the responses to Jesus’ miracles in Mark.

The motif of wonder in response to Jesus’ miracles is frequent in Mark, and is expressed through various terms relating to fear, astonishment, or amazement. Such responses to the miracles in Mark carry significance for the presentation of Jesus as personifying the numinous presence of God.

In the exorcism of 1:22-28, the crowd is not only said to be astonished at the teaching of Jesus, but in response to his casting out of the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue, they are said to be amazed. While it is true that they see the teaching of Jesus as that which has authority, it is the act of exorcism that seems to cause their amazement in 1:27.

In 2:12, the crowd is said to be amazed at the healing and forgiving power of Jesus in healing the paralytic. Moreover, their acclamation of God’s power in the healing and forgiveness given by Jesus, and their claim to have never seen anything like this before, also serves to highlight their encounter with the divine.

In 4:41 the audience finds the first reference to the astonishment of the disciples. In a miracle in which they are the only witnesses, and indeed the ones whom Jesus saves, these disciples see for themselves the power Jesus possesses, power to calm the wind and the waves, something that God alone can do. The narrator tells the audience that in response to the calming of the storm the disciples "were filled with great awe", which demonstrates their great wonder at what has just happened.

The story of Jesus casting out the unclean spirits in 5:1-20 presents two different reactions that fall under a response of wonder. The response of 5:15 is from those who see the man who was possessed by Legion restored to his right mind. Their fear is over Jesus’ power to transform the man whom no one to this point could subdue. Thus what others could not do, Jesus, as the one filled with the power of God, acts to demonstrate the new revelation of God by doing what could not have been done. 

The second response in 5:20 is in response to the proclamation of the once possessed man. His instructions from Jesus are to go and tell all that the Lord has done for him, and he carries out this proclamation. On hearing the message, and seeing the man who was once possessed by the evil spirits, “everyone” was amazed. Clearly their amazement is a combination of seeing the man in a new state, and hearing how this was done. Thus, their wonder is directed at that which Jesus alone could do, and at the new revelation God was executing in Jesus.  

The healing of the woman who touches Jesus’ garment and the raising of the daughter of Jairus (5:21-43) are linked through a number of verbal and thematic similarities. There are also reactions of wonder found in both stories.

In the healing of the woman of her perpetual bleeding, she alone is the one who responds in fear (5:33). Her fear, however, is not as a result of what Jesus may do to her, seeing that she has transgressed the law as a result of her touching Jesus. Rather, her fear is in knowing that she had been healed of her disease, which doctors have failed to do for her, and that she had experienced an encounter with divine power. 

Likewise, the raising of Jairus’ daughter presents the onlookers with a sense of God’s new revelation. The audience is set up for the newness of the experience when Jairus is asked why he should bother the teacher any further. The people indeed understood that no one could raise the dead. But Jesus’ coming and his actions in raising the dead girl confront the witnesses with the presence of God’s power through Jesus’ miracle working. Thus, they were overcome with amazement (5:42).

Upon seeing Jesus open the ears and loosen the tongue of the deaf mute in 7:31-37, as well as hearing the man speak, the witnesses of the miracle are said to be astonished beyond measure. This is further presented to Mark’s audience by the choral response in verse 37. The response echoes what Isaiah spoke of when he prophesied that the ears of the deaf would be opened (Isa 35:5). Thus, in this miracle, like the others where a response of marvel is narrated, Jesus is presented as the one who brings the new revelation of God.

In using the miracles in this way, then, Mark narrates his presentation of Jesus as an aspect of his presentation of God. In Jesus’ miracles, he acts for God by being God’s numinous presence. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"The Lord is with Us": Joseph and the Providence of God

The following is a shortened version of a sermon I preached from the Narrative Lectionary reading of Genesis 39:1-23 for Sunday, September 21, 2014.

The story of Joseph in Genesis is one which raises, in my mind, the question of God’s good providence. Many of us know his story as Joseph dominates the final fourteen chapters of the book of Genesis, and if we know his story, then we also know that Joseph’s life is a paradigm of the up and down life.

Joseph’s father loves him more than his other eleven brothers, most likely because he is the first born of his favorite, but second wife, Rachel. In fact, Joseph’s father gives him a fine garment, making his other brothers jealous of Joseph’s place in their father’s heart.

If that is not enough, Joseph tells about two dreams he had, one in which eleven sheaves of wheat bow down to his, and the other dream in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. Joseph interprets these dreams as foretelling his future as ruler over his family.

It is little wonder why his brothers could not stand him and why they decided to put him in a pit until they sold him to a group of Midianites, who then sold him to Ishmaelites who were headed to Egypt (Gen. 37:12-36).

Once in Egypt it seems that Joseph’s life was not getting much better, as the Ishmaelite traders sell him as a slave to Potiphar, a wealthy Egyptian merchant. Yet, we find tucked away in this story of Joseph’s decline from being a beloved son of his father to being tossed into a pit and then sold into slavery a statement that serves to guide the narrative: “The Lord was with Joseph.”

Theologians call this providence, God’s intervention in the world and in the lives of humans to guide God’s plan toward God’s intended goal.

And yet, even though the story tells us that the Lord was with Joseph, and because Potiphar recognizes leadership potential in Joseph and promotes him, it is not very long before Joseph returns to another very low point in his life.

Potiphar’s wife saw Joseph as attractive and tried to persuade him into a compromising position. Yet, Joseph refuses, and when he continues to refuse, she accuses him of something he does not do, and Joseph is thrown into prison.

But, “the Lord was with Joseph.” At least that is what we are told.

If we were to visit Joseph in prison, some of us well-meaning Christian folk might say, “Don’t worry Joseph, God’s got a plan.” “This has happened for a reason.” “Trust in God’s providence.”

I get providence from a theological perspective, and I think there is indeed something comforting, even perhaps necessary for us, when we hold to the idea that despite what happens in our lives, God has everything under control.

Yet, I wonder what Joseph thought as he experienced the epitome of the up and down life. You see, we must be reminded that we are in a privileged position that Joseph was not in. We get to see behind the curtain of his story, as the narrator tells us three times about how the Lord was with Joseph.

It is easy for us as readers to see the whole story and see how everything worked out, and how God, as the story emphasizes, was with Joseph.

But, how did Joseph feel about God’s providence during these low points?

Here was a guy who seemed to understand, at least through the dreams he had, that God was going to do great things for him. Yet, he is thrown into a hole by his own brothers and then sold into slavery in Egypt, where he ends up in prison. Not exactly evidence of God’s good providence.

If our good Christian were to say those nice Christian things about God’s good providence to poor Joseph as he is in prison, Joseph might respond, “If this is God’s providence, then it is not so much good as it is scandalous.”

And who could blame him, for we have all been at periods in our lives when we cannot see behind the curtain, when all that we thought was right with our lives was shaken, and our lives were turned upside down.

Out of nowhere comes something that almost destroys us, and we must wonder, if God, in God’s good providence, saw this coming, then why did God not stop that something from happening?

It is certainly a philosophical question of theodicy, but more personally, these times always present, if we are honest with ourselves, existential crises of faith. And yet, in the depths of our hearts and souls, it is possible that during these times we become aware of the presence of God even in the lowest points of our lives.

Although suffering will come our way, as it came Joseph’s way, we must hold onto to what we might interpret from the story of Joseph as not only a statement of fact, but also one of promise: The Lord is with us.