Saturday, December 29, 2018

“A Bleaker View of Christmas”

            So, we’ve now moved firmly into the afterglow of Christmas Day.  All of the presents have been unwrapped; most of the Christmas dinners and parties are over; we’ve been back to the malls and stores for those after-Christmas sales.  We are now making preparations to celebrate New Year’s Eve and Day—sort of one last hoorah before we must begin returning to our everyday routines.

            Perhaps you’re different than me.  However, I find this in-between time to be something of a let-down after Christmas.  For the past month, I’ve been busily preparing myself and my church for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth and the confirmation that God loves us and keeps promises made to us.  With such a huge buildup, it is inevitable that there will be a corresponding let down afterwards.

            Of course, life goes on.  Pretty soon, New Year’s will be over and we will have to resume our daily routines.  If you’re like me, then you’ll have to shake yourself out of the post-Christmas doldrums and get back into the swing of things.

            The scriptural story of Jesus goes on after his birth on Christmas Day, as well.  After the shepherds and Wise Men have left the stable, Mary and Joseph face an uncertain future.  In my message this Sunday, December 30th, we will reflect on Matthew’s account of what happened after the first Christmas Day. 

In a dream, God instructs Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt because King Herod, who rules Bethlehem, will try to kill the baby Jesus.  Although he is King, Herod is a very insecure man and the prophecy of a mighty future king born in his territory terrifies Herod.  After Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus leave for Egypt, Herod has all of the children, who are two years or younger, massacred in the Bethlehem area.  As a result, this passage from Matthew has been traditionally called the story of the massacre of the innocents.  Although there is no independent historical account of Herod’s action, it is certainly consistent with what we know about King Herod and how viciously he exercised his powers as king.

Most Biblical scholars agree that from Matthew’s perspective this story shows how God was involved, watching over the newborn Messiah, instructing his parents, and insuring that he was kept safe as an infant and young child.  However, historically, many other Christians have looked at this story from a different perspective—the problem of theodicy.  Theodicy is the problem concerning how Christians reconcile our belief in an all-powerful, loving God with the evil which persists in the world.  In other words, how could an all-powerful, loving God allow all of those innocent children to be massacred by King Herod?  If God warned Joseph and helped Jesus escape from Herod’s wrath, why couldn’t God also have warned and helped all of the other families with small children in Bethlehem?

In my message this weekend, I will struggle with this problem of theodicy as it emerges in Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents.  As Christians, when we struggle with problems of theodicy, there are never any easy or straightforward answers.  However, I think that it is important to struggle with problems of theodicy because I firmly believe that we can grow and deepen our faith by engaging these challenges.  Hopefully, our struggle with theodicy this Sunday will prepare us as we celebrate a new year and resume our normal routines after the Christmas-New Year holiday season.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, December 30th, as we reflect on the massacre of the innocents and the problem of “theodicy.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Monday, December 24, 2018

“The Most Unexpected People, for Just Such a Time as This”

            We have now arrived at Christmas and the celebration of God’s love for us, made manifest in the birth of the Christ-Child.  During Christmas Eve services this year, I want to focus my Proclamation on the characters whom the Gospels describe around the infant Jesus.  These persons were Mary and Joseph, shepherds who had come in from the field, and Wise Men from the East.

            For the past several months at Christ United Methodist Church, where I pastor, a recurrent theme in our worship services has been a verse from the Hebrew book of Esther.  In this story, Esther is an orphaned young Jewish girl, living exile with other Hebrews in Persia.  Esther is under the guardianship of her uncle, Mordecai.  Even though a Hebrew, Mordecai has risen up through the ranks in the King’s Court, until he becomes a high official.  As the story unfolds, Esther is chosen by the King to marry him and become the Queen. 

After a period of time, Mordecai discovers a plot by another high court official to have all Jews living in Persia executed.  Mordecai implores Esther to intervene, using her power as queen, to overturn this planned genocide.  At first, Esther hesitates to get involved.  It is at this point in the story, where Mordecai says to Esther:  For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)  Esther responds to her uncle’s challenge and takes the necessary action to overturn the plot.

Esther was a most unexpected girl, whom God chose for a special time and purpose.  As Mordecai expressed it, perhaps God had chosen her “for just such a time as this.”  Over the past months, as I have reflected on this theme and studied the scriptures, I have discovered that frequently God chooses the most unexpected people for “just such a time.” 

God chooses the most unexpected people for special times and purposes.  In the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, God chose Rahab, a pagan cultic prostitute, to help Hebrew spies escape from the city of Jericho.  Rahab was a most unexpected person, chosen by God.  Similarly, Moses was a criminal fugitive, fleeing Egypt after murdering someone.  Yet, God chose Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promise Land, where they eventually settled.  As a fugitive from the law, Moses was a most unexpected person.  In the New Testament, God choses Paul to become a missionary to the Gentiles, sharing the story of Jesus and establishing many of the first churches.  Yet, previously, Paul had been an active opponent of Christians, arresting them for sharing their faith.  Paul was the last person we would expect to become an Apostle and missionary to the Gentiles.  Yet, God chose Paul.

Again and again and again, throughout the scriptures, God choses the most unexpected people for “just such a time as this.”  I believe this is true in the Christmas story as well.

·         Mary, the Mother of  Christ.  Mary was a young girl in an extremely patriarchal society, where women were regarded as the property of their husbands or fathers.  Mary was also from a poor family, living in a small village.  Then, Mary became pregnant.  We can be certain that she was judged and dismissed by the people around her as just a young, ignorant girl who had gotten herself pregnant.  In so many ways, she was a most unexpected person to be chosen by God to be the mother of the Christ-Child.  Yet, God chose Mary.

·         Joseph, the Earthly Father of Christ.  Joseph was not a prominent or important man in his society.  He was a builder and just “an average joe.”  He was a most unexpected person to become the earthly father of the Messiah.  Yet, God chose him for just such a purpose.  And, Joseph listened to God.  He accepted Mary, loving and caring for her throughout her pregnancy.  After Jesus was born, Joseph obediently fled with his family to Egypt, until it was safe for them to return to Nazareth.  Then, Joseph loved and cared for Jesus, as he grew from infancy to adulthood and up until the beginning of his ministry.  God chose Joseph.

·         The Shepherds.  Today, we have a positive view of shepherds.  We think of them as involved in a noble profession, similar to ranchers and farmers.  Yet at the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were a lowly, scorned group.  Most people viewed shepherds as a shiftless, dishonest people, who grazed their sheep on others’ pastures and were not to be trusted.  They were a most unexpected group of people.  Yet, according to Luke, the shepherds were the first group of people to hear the good news that the long-awaited Messiah had finally been born.  Of all the people to be chosen as “the first to know,” the shepherds were a most unexpected people.  Yet, God chose the shepherds.

·         The Wise Men.  While the shepherds were poor, the Wise Men were very rich and affluent.  Yet, they were pagans, not devout Jews.  Although we call them “Wise Men,” a more accurate appellation would be to call them astrologers.  They were pagan religious leaders who studied the stars.  They were from either modern-day Iraq or Iran.  They were a very unexpected group of people to discern the birth of the Jewish Messiah through the appearance of a star.  Yet, God chose the Wise Men.

When we step back from our manger scenes and reflect upon who is around the baby Jesus, everyone is a most unexpected person.  There was something “wrong” with every single person.  Yet, God chose each of them for “just such a time.”  God is always choosing the most unexpected persons for a special time and purpose.

This raises an important question for each of us, as we celebrate Christmas this year.  Are we also the most unexpected persons, whom God is choosing for a special purpose for “just such a time as this”?  We live in an age which has many similarities with the time in which Jesus was born.

At the time when Jesus was born, many people suffered from hunger, poverty, or serious disease.  Economically, there was a large chasm separating the very few wealthy persons from the vast majority who were poor and struggling.  There were also severe political divisions between “zealot” Jews who wanted to overthrow the Roman Army versus more accommodating Jews who tried to thrive within the given power structure.  And, there was significant corruption and deceit within the government.  Finally, there was a deep-seated spiritual hunger among the people.  There were deep antagonisms between religious groups, such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  And, frequently false teachers arose, claiming to be the Messiah, only to be exposed as a charlatan. There was great spiritual turmoil.

Our current age is similarly dark and chaotic.  Even though the United States is the richest and most affluent country in human history, there are many citizens, who are hungry, homeless, poor, and without healthcare.  For example, Bread for the World estimates that 1 out of 7 Nebraskans are hungry, while there are 13 million children living with food insecurity in the United States. Economically, there is a widening income and power gap between the wealthy few and everyone else, which is very disturbing because it will certainly undermine our democracy.  And, as at the time of Jesus’ birth, there is a great spiritual hunger.  Many persons desperately seek to find meaning in their lives.

We live in an age which is very similar to the situation when Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men gathered around the baby Jesus.  So, the question is this:  Are we those most unexpected people whom God calls for “just such a time”?  How is God calling us to respond?  What can we do as followers of Christ?

If you are searching for a Christmas Eve service in the Lincoln, Nebraska area, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our Christmas Eve services are at 7 pm and 11 pm.  Both services are candlelight services, meaning that we will conclude with individual lighted candles as we sing “Silent Night.”  At the 11 pm service, we will also celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Our building is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

“What We Can Learn from Mary, the Mother of Jesus”

            This Sunday, December 16th, I will be preaching during an alternative “preview worship” for a new service that we will launch in 2019.  The service will be held in the Family Life Center (gym) at Christ United Methodist Church. 

            For this proclamation, I will be reflecting on Mary’s “Magnificat” from Luke 1:46-55.  In Luke the story of Jesus’ birth begins with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the long-awaited Messiah; she is to name him, Jesus.  After the angel departs, Mary decides to visit her relative Elizabeth and share the great news.  Elizabeth, herself, is also pregnant with her own son, who will grow up to be John the Baptist.

            When Mary enters her home, Elizabeth’s child leaps within her womb and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and prophesies that her child is the long-awaited Messiah.  The “Magnificat” is Mary’s response to the blessing and prophesy of Elizabeth.  This passage is traditionally called the “Magnificat” because in Latin the first word in the passage is “magnify”—or “magnificat" in Latin.

            A careful reading of Mary’s Magnificat suggests that we can divide it into three distinct parts.  In my proclamation, I will suggest that each part holds a valuable lesson for contemporary Christians.  The first lesson concerns the importance of gratitude for all that God gives to us.  Here’s the passage:

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.  (Luke 1:46-49)

Mary begins in gratitude.  Her soul magnifies the Lord and rejoices in God because God has favored her and done great things for her.  Over my life as a follower of Christ, I have discovered that I need to be very intentional in cultivating gratitude towards God.  I find that I get so busy and wrapped up in my activities and concerns that I sometimes forget to be grateful?  So, I have to be disciplined in my devotional life to include time for gratitude.  I suspect that I am not alone among Christians.

            The second lesson is that God will bring about a great reversal, leading to mercy and justice for the poor and marginalized: 

His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)

            Mary proclaims God’s love and mercy for those who are faithful.  Further, she prophesies a great reversal, in which God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly.  God will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty.  Note that Mary is go confident God will perform these deeds in the future that she uses the past tense!  God has promised and God will deliver!  For Mary this prophesy is a certainty.

            To demonstrate this great reversal in the proclamation, I will show a video clip from the movie, Les Misérables. In the scene I have chosen, Jean Valjean, who is very poor and hungry, steals silver from the Cathedral.  The police apprehend Valjean and return him to the Bishop.  They tell the Bishop that Valjean claims he was given the silver and thus did not steal it.  Although Valjean has stolen the silver, the Bishop confirms his story, telling the authorities that he did give the silver to Valjean and then reminding Valjean that he forgot two silver candlesticks.  So, the police release Valjean.  After they leave, the Bishop tells Valjean to take the silver and make something worthwhile out of his life.  This exactly what Valjean does.  The gift of the silver leads to a great reversal in his life.

            We might well ask why God initiates such great reversals.  Why, for instance, does Mary predict that God will fill the hungry with good things, while sending the rich away empty?  Does God not love the rich?  We know that God loves all people, rich and poor.  And, we know that God seeks to enter into loving relationships with all people, rich and poor.  The answer is that God fills the hungry with good things because they are hungry and have nothing, while God sends the rich away empty because they already plenty for themselves. 

God loves rich and poor equally.  However, to love two persons equally does not mean we treat them equally.  Even though a father may love both of his children equally, he is going to provide a sick child with extra care and attention because that child is suffering.  Similarly, we can say that God makes a preferential option for the poor because they are the ones who are suffering.  Further, as disciples of Christ, we are called by God to care for those on the margins of our society, who are powerless, poor, hungry, homeless, sick, and in need of medical care.  Ministries of mercy to those who suffer is fundamental to Christian discipleship.  Similarly, ministries of justice, in which we seek to disrupt and change systems that are unjust and exploitive is fundamental to Christian discipleship.

The third lesson from Mary is that God remains faithful.  She says:

He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:54-55)

Mary concludes by proclaiming God’s faithfulness.  The Hebrew scriptures tell story after story of how the Hebrew people are unfaithful and disobedient to God.  Again and again, the Old Testament prophets condemn the people of Israel for their disobedience and call upon them to repent and remain faithful to God.  Time after time, God forgives the people and welcomes them back into a loving relationship.  God remains faithful. 

            Down through the ages, trusting in God’s faithfulness has always been difficult for human persons.  It seems as though it’s part of human nature to prefer trusting in ourselves and our own resources. This difficulty may be greatly exacerbated in post-modern societies where we struggle to reconcile faith and science.  There appear to be a great many “Christian agnostics,” who verbally claim to be faithful Christians, even though their actions belie their faith claims. Yet, part of Christian discipleship involves trusting in God rather than ourselves.

In summary, Mary’s Magnificat provides three vital lessons for living as faithful Christian disciples:

1.       Cultivate an attitude of gratitude towards God for what God has already given us.
2.       Work for mercy for those in need, such as those who are hungry, homeless, or in need of healthcare, etc.  Also work for justice for those who are exploited and oppressed.
3.      Learn to trust in God’s love and faithfulness.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, December 16th.  You may wish to join our “preview” alternative service at 9:45, where I will reflect on what we can learn from Mary’s “Magnificat.”  In addition, you are welcome to attend our 8:30 am and 11:00 am services, where this week our children and youth will present their 2019 Christmas program.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Taking a Break

This Sunday, December 2nd, Beth Menhusen, the Associate Pastor at Christ UMC is preaching.  So, I'm taking a week off from writing my blog, but check back next week for some new reflections.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

"Let God Be God"

            This is the fourth and final sermon in our series, “Them.”  In this four-week series, we have focused on the importance of social justice for God.  Again and again and again, God calls his people to be instruments for social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  Over the course of these four weeks, we have examined “them’s” – groups of people who are marginalized in our society and how God calls upon his people to work for justice for these marginalized people.

            This Sunday, November 25th, we complete this series by examining one further marginalized group and what it would mean for them to receive justice.  This group is LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered/Transsexual, plus others, such as asexual or questioning, who feel they should be included in the LGBT group).  Although the LGBT+ group has made significant strides towards achieving justice, they continue to be marginalized in some significant ways—especially within the Church.

            Christians are deeply divided over these questions of human sexuality.  There are a few, scatted Biblical passages which appear to prohibit same sex relationships.[1]  Much of the division between Christians centers on how we interpret these passages of scripture.  On the one hand, based primarily upon these scriptures, some Christians believe that LGBT+ practices are sinful and inconsistent with Biblical teachings. 

Yet, there are divisions even among Christians who agree that LGBT+ practices are sinful.  At the extreme is a group who believe that LGBT+ persons should be excluded from the sacraments and life of the church.  Even further to the extreme are persons and congregations claiming to be Christians who believe that LGBT+ persons are sub-human and that “God hates fags.”[2]   

A second group is less extreme.  Although this group of Christians believes that LGBT+ lifestyles are sinful, they also note that everyone is sinful in some way, and they suggest that LGBT+ persons are no more sinful than everyone else.  Representative of this perspective are David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.  In their book, unChristian, they take a position that homosexuality is sinful, based upon the condemnation of homosexuality in those scattered passages from scripture.  Yet, they hasten to draw a distinction between a “sin” which they hate and the “sinner” which they continue to love.  The two authors quote Shayne Wheeler, a pastor, who says, “The Bible is clear:  homosexual practice is inconsistent with Christian discipleship.  But there is not special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not special righteousness for heterosexuals.  For all of us, the only hope for the fracture of our soul is the cross of Christ.”[3]

            On the other hand, many other Christians, do not view homosexuality as “inconsistent with Christian discipleship,” at all.  For Christians in this group, the authority of scripture is just as important as it is for Christians who condemn homosexuality as sinful.  However, this perspective interprets the scriptures differently.  While these scriptures condemn homosexuality, it is clear that these scriptural passages are not focused on a mutually affirming, loving relationship between gay men or women.  For instance, two of the passages in Genesis 19: 1-11 and Judges 19: 22-26 are about gang rape as acts of violence towards strangers.  Certainly, Christians would condemn these acts as evil, regardless of whether it was homosexual or heterosexual rape.  Similarly, in two of the passages from Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1Timothy 1:10) there is debate among Biblical scholars concerning whether the specific terms used by Paul should be translated in a way that implies homosexual behavior.

            My own personal opinion is that the Bible does not condemn mutually loving and affirming relationships between LGBT+ persons.  First, as noted above, it is clear that the scriptural passages are not even talking about a mutually affirming, loving relationship between persons.  Secondly, there is no “red thread” running throughout the scriptures which consistently condemns LGBT+ people.  Instead, the vibrant “red thread” running throughout the scriptures is the call to love one another, as exemplified in 1 John 4: 19-20,  “We love because God first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

            These issues are certainly confusing, and Christians may disagree on the proper interpretation of scripture.  My denomination, the United Methodist Church, will try to resolve these questions once and for all at a General Conference to be held February 23-26, 2019.  As we reflect in advance of the General Conference, my proclamation this Sunday will be grounded in a passage of scripture from the Gospel of Matthew:

He [Jesus] put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So, when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”    
Matthew 13:24-30

            Since these issues are so confusing, then perhaps we would do well to remember that only God is in a position to judge.  In this parable, Jesus argues against building up boundaries, in order to have a “pure” community of faith.  Rather, we should leave judgment of who is good and who is evil to God.  In other words, we should let God be God.  We should see the Church as open to all people—both sinners as well as saints.  So, without pre-judging where or not LGBT+ people are sinners or saints, Jesus says that the Church should welcome and love everyone.

            During my meditation on Sunday, I intend to distinguish between three important terms concerning the Church’s stance towards the LGBT+ community:

1.      Welcoming/Accepting.  In this position, the church welcomes and loves LGBT+ people, but at the same time it judges their lifestyles as sinful.  So, the attitude is one of welcoming and loving LGBT+ persons because “we want you to get better.”  This position is exemplified by Christians, such as Kinnaman and Lyons, who claim that homosexuality is sinful, but then insist that it is no more egregious than other sins which “straight” Christians commit.

2.      Affirming.  In this position, the church not only welcomes the LGBT+ community, but it also celebrates those persons and who those persons are, even if they are different from the rest of the congregation.  This perspective could be grounded in Matthew 13:24-30 and 1 John 4: 19-20, which to repeat, says:  “We love because God first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 

3.      Reconciling.  The reconciling position accepts everything held by the Affirming position.  But, in addition, it recognizes that historically the Church has done much harm to LGBT+ persons and to itself.  In recognition of this history, a Reconciling community of faith seeks healing and transformation of animosity into a loving relationship among all God’s children. Authentic reconciliation requires working for justice and full inclusion of LGBT+ communities, both within the Church and within society.  I believe that this perspective is also grounded in Matthew 13:24-30 and 1 John 4: 19-20.

In my assessment, my congregation, Christ United Methodist Church, has moved well beyond Accepting and is now somewhere between Affirming and Reconciling.  In my proclamation, I will challenge our community of faith to become a Reconciling congregation.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 25th, as we reflect on justice for the LGBT+ community, both within the Church and secular society.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

         Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] These passages are Genesis 19:1-11, Judges 19:22-26, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10.
[2] Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas best epitomizes this extreme view.  See their website:  (Here, a caveat is order:  Many other Christians—including myself—do not think that Westboro Baptist and others who share their beliefs are actually Christian because they fundamentally oppose so much of Christ’s teachings.)
[3] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 2007), 97.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Facing Big Troubles"

            This is the third week in our four-week proclamation series, “Them,” which focuses on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society.  We began this series on “All Saints Sunday,” a Sunday set aside to remember our deceased loved ones.  In that context, we looked at how we sometimes marginalize those who are grieving the death of a loved one.  Although we rally around our friends and family for the funeral or memorial service, afterwards we quickly return to our normal routines, emotionally abandoning those closest to the deceased, as they continue grieving and adjusting to life without their loved one. 

            Last Sunday was Veteran’s Day, a day set aside to remember and thank all of our military veterans who have served and sacrificed for our country.  In that context, we looked at how, as a society, we frequently fail to provide the resources which veterans need when they are discharged from the military and return to civilian life.  For instance, in Nebraska there are 7,467 veterans who live below the poverty line and are at risk of being food insecure.[1]  As a country, we have failed to care for our veterans after their service; marginalizing and ignoring them, instead.  Similarly, as a country we marginalize the mentally ill and elderly by failing to make desperately needed healthcare resources available to them.

            This Sunday, we turn our attention to another marginalized group within our midst:  the poor and hungry.  To ground our thinking about justice and the hungry, I have selected the story of the woman with the expensive ointment, as told in the Gospel of Mark:

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.  But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

            While dining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman of the household anointed Jesus’ head with a costly bottle of “nard” – a costly oil.  The woman’s gesture is tremendously generous, as she breaks the jar and empties its entire contents of oil on Jesus’ head.  In Hebrew tradition, kings were anointed for leadership, signifying that they had been chosen by God.  (See, for example, the story of Samuel anointing Saul to be king in 1 Samuel 9:15-10:1, and also the anointing of David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:1-13.)  By anointing Jesus, the woman conveys her believe that Jesus is the king of Israel; the chosen Son of God.  Since the bodies of kings were anointed at their death, Jesus also sees a foreshadowing of his own death in this ritualistic anointing with expensive oil. 

            Yet, some of Jesus’ followers scold the woman for “wasting” the precious oil by anointing Jesus.  They believe that the woman should have sold the precious oil and given the money to help the poor; perhaps by providing the poor with food.  Jesus defends the woman and her gesture.  He says, “…you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”   

            This phrase, “you will always have the poor with you,” has sometimes been a source of confusion for Christians.  Does Jesus really mean to say that there will always be poor and hungry people among us?  Does that mean that Christians are not expected to help the poor and feed the hungry?  Occasionally, some Christians will make that argument.  But, the claim that Christians are not expected to help the poor and hungry is a gross misinterpretation and a false teaching. 

            In uttering this phrase, Jesus is citing a passage from Deuteronomy 15:11. The full verse is as follows: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”  When read in its entirety, this verse actually underscores the vital importance for persons of faith to help the poor and hungry.  Jesus is not excusing his followers from caring for the poor and hungry.  Instead, Jesus points out the importance of timing.  Although Christians will always have the poor and hungry to care for, there is only a short window of time in which Christ will be present as the Son of Man.  So, even though the expensive oil could have been sold and the money given the poor during normal times, these are not normal times.  Instead, this is the moment in which Jesus is with the disciples and the moment when the woman might make this generous gesture.

            I purposively selected this scriptural passage as my text for a sermon on the hungry because I think that it exposes an important temptation which middle-class, American Christians must confront.  It is interesting that Jesus words, “you will always have the poor with you,” have sometimes been mis-used as a rationale for doing nothing to help the poor.  When we reflect carefully, what emerges is an underlying assumption that a problem is not worthwhile to address if we cannot completely solve it.  Think about it.  If we provide a meal for a hungry person today, is that action any less meaningful if there will be hungry persons a thousand years from now?  Is the hungry person any less fed today, if another person is hungry a thousand years from now?  The answer is, of course, no. 

            Still, those of us who have worked at soup kitchens and food pantries know how hard the work is.  Even for those who are passionate about helping the poor, the work can lead to:

Ø  Frustration
Ø  Burn out
Ø  Depression

It seems as though helping the poor is always a case of three steps forward and then two steps backward.  Before long, one wants to throw up one’s hands and give up.

            In her masterful text, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Sharon Welch argues that, since it has power and privilege, the American middle-class assumes goals in life will be realized.  These assumptions lead to a paralysis of will when faced with complex social problems that cannot be solved individually.  She writes, “It seems natural to many people, when faced with a problem too big to be solved along or within the foreseeable future, simply to do nothing.  If one cannot do everything to solve the problem of world hunger, for example, one does nothing and even argues against partial remedies as foolhardy and deluded.”[2]

            Welch elaborates further on this insight when she writes:  “It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work,  excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts.  When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one’s family.”[3]  Welch makes a good point.  It is easy to give up on meaningful social change, when we already live the good life.  The middle-class get to live their lives of relative ease, regardless of whether or not we institute needed social change that will alleviate hunger.

            It is unchristian to give up on social change that will feed the hungry, provide homes for the homeless, and health care for those who suffer physically and mentally.  Jesus does not ask us to eradicate hunger, but he does tell us to work hard to feed those who are hungry today.  We must also learn to see our work as part of a greater whole.  We are not the only ones working to end hunger and alleviate poverty.  We have predecessors who came before us and we need to acknowledge that we are building upon the foundations that our predecessors built for us.

            Further, to work to end hunger must also entail doing more than the ministries of serving others by working in soup kitchens or food pantries—as important as those are.  A justice issue also arises when we fail to provide food for the hungry.  This is especially true in the domestic United States, which is the richest, most affluent country in the history of the world.  If we are truly concerned about the hungry, then we will be wise stewards of our American citizenship encourage our policymakers to provide more and more assistance for the hungry, until we have eliminated hunger in our country.  In addition to writing our legislators, this also includes financially supporting groups like Bread for the World, a faith-based organization dedicated to urging our nation’s decision-makers to end hunger at home and abroad.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 18th, as we reflect on justice for the poor and hungry.  As part of my reflections, I intend to challenge our congregation to fast for 12 hours this week, in solidarity with the poor and hunger.  Even if you cannot attend our worship this Sunday, I challenge each of you, my readers, to commit to a 12-hour fast sometime this week, in solidarity with the poor and hungry.  During the service, we will also be receiving a special offering for the work of Bread for the World.  Again, if you cannot attend our worship service, I encourage everyone to financially support Bread for the World.  You can contribute directly online by going to their website,, and clicking on “Donate.”  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

           Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Bread for the World, “Ending Hunger in Nebraska [Fact Sheet],” accessed online at:, 6 September 2018.
[2] Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Revised Edition (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2000), 17.
[3] Ibid., 41.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

“A Biblical Vision of Economic Justice”

            This weekend at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, we continue with the second in a four-week proclamation series focusing on social justice for those who have been marginalized by society.  Running again and again, like a red thread throughout the scriptures, is the claim that God calls his people to be instruments of social justice for the powerless and marginalized.  The Hebrew scriptures focus on three principal marginalized groups:  the stranger (aka immigrants), the orphan and the widow.  Of course, this was the ancient Israelite context, but we live in our modern context; so, who are our marginalized groups, today? I think, by no coincidence, many are the same as they were in ancient times, but I would also add groups, such as Veterans, the elderly, LGBT persons, and racial minorities.

            This week, I want to explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the Hebrew Scriptures—or Old Testament.  (Next week, in the third proclamation in the series, I will explore the Biblical vision of economic justice, as developed in the New Testament.) 

            My scriptural text for this week comes from Leviticus 25.  The vision of economic justice developed in this passage is grounded on the notion of sabbath.  In the Genesis 1 Creation story, God is busily engaged in the work of creation for six days, but on the seventh day, God “rested from all the work that he had done.  So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3) This scripture establishes the recurring pattern of work and rest “as woven into the very fabric of the universe.”[1]

Based upon this scripture, Jewish law established the seventh day—the sabbath—as a day of rest for all persons and their animals. It became codified as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:8-10)

Clearly here, the seventh day is set aside as a sabbath—a day of rest—for the Jewish man and his household.  In Leviticus, God takes this provision for a household sabbath and expands it as a framework for social justice.  There are three foci for this expansion in Leviticus 25:  (1) a sabbath rest for the land and nature; (2) the redemption of property in the year of jubilee; and (3) freedom and release for slaves in the year of jubilee.  In my proclamation, I will focus on the first two of these three foci.

The first focus is a sabbath rest for the land and nature:

Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.  ~Leviticus 25:3-7

Every seventh year, the land—and, the rest of nature—is to be given a rest.  The land is to lie fallow.  During this year of rest, the land and the ecosystem which it supports is given an opportunity to rest and renew itself.  During the year, the landowner is prohibited from making an exclusive claim on anything that happens to grow and bear fruit on its own.  Instead, this fruit is available to anyone who wishes to harvest and eat it; the landowner, his slaves and laborers, sojourners in the country, livestock, or wild animals are all equally free to eat any fruit that happens to grow.

            Later in the chapter, God promises to provide an abundant enough harvest in the sixth year, so that the owner and his household will have sufficient food during the seventh year of fallow and rest.  God promises that the harvest in the sixth year will be so abundant that there will be food left over for even the eighth and ninth years, if needed.  (Leviticus 25:20-22)

            The second focus is on redemption of the land in the year of Jubilee.  The year of Jubilee occurred once every 50 years.  It represented a “sabbath of sabbaths.”  That is, seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, or 49 years.  The name “jubilee” comes from the word for “ram,”[2] because the advent of the year of Jubilee was announced by blowing on a trumpet or ram’s horn.  Then you shall have the trumpet [or ram’s horn] sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet [or, ram’s horn] sounded throughout all your land.” (Leviticus 25:9)  The year of Jubilee led to a radical re-calibrating of the economy by requiring the return of property to its original owners:

“In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property.  When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” ~ Leviticus 25:13-17

In the year of Jubilee, all land and possessions are returned back to their original owners.  Leases and sales of land are terminated because everything is returned to its original owners.  Thus, the value of property should be calculated, based upon how imminent the next year of Jubilee will be.  If Jubilee is in the distant future, then the prices should be raised because there are many years of harvest before the land must revert back to its original owners.  However, if the Jubilee is imminent, then prices should be lowered because there are few years of harvest before the next Jubilee.  In essence, the purchase of land is essentially the sale of a certain number of harvests on the land, until it is returned to its traditional owners.  

             Obviously, this periodic re-distribution of property back to its original owners has the effect of re-calibrating and equalizing the economy.  Those who have accumulated excess wealth and affluence have it taken from them, while those who have become poor have their lands returned to them so that they may begin again on more equal financial footing.  Poverty and economic marginalization become temporary, instead of permanent and generational.

From God’s perspective, the theological rationale for both the sabbath year and the Jubilee  year are grounded in the fact that God actually owns the land and ecosystems.  As God says:

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.  ~ (Leviticus 25: 23-24)

 Since the land and all of Creation ultimately belongs to God, human persons are not the owners but, rather, the stewards or caretakers.  We care for the land by observing the rhythm of six years of production, followed by a seventh year of rest.  Further, since the land ultimately belongs to God, then humans cannot own it permanently.  Instead, the true owner—that is, God—requires that all land be returned to its original families once every 50 years.

            As far as we know, the Israelites very seldomly—if ever—observed a sabbatical rest year for the ecosystem or a Jubilee year in which the economy was re-calibrated.  Despite the Israelites' failure to implement God’s economy, this passage is still important for informing our understanding of how God calls us to work for social justice.  The Jubilee plan reminds us that God makes a preferential option for the poor and marginalized in any society.  In any economic system, there is a tendency to overlook and forget about those who have become poor and marginalized.  That is, the poor and marginalized can become invisible to those with financial possessions.  However, the power of the Jubilee plan is that it periodically re-calibrates the economy and makes visible those who are powerless.

            This Sunday, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day—a day we set aside to remember and honor those who have served and made sacrifices for our country.  We usually honor our veterans with flowers and parades and special recognition at public events, such as ball games.  But, do these forms of recognition really honor our veterans, if we don’t support them with real programs that will enhance their lives and help them flourish, after their time of service has ended?  Rather than having a parade, wouldn’t it be better to work to improve our veterans’ access to quality mental healthcare, especially for those who suffer from PTSD?  Rather than having a special moment of recognition for veterans at ballgames, wouldn’t it be better to work with unemployed veterans, helping them to find a job or develop new work skills that would make them more employable?

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, November 11th, as we celebrate Veterans Day and reflect on the implications of the Biblical vision for economic justice.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] “Origins of Shabbat,”, accessed at, 10 November 2018.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Commentary on Leviticus in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 1, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.