Conscientious Authority

This Sunday’s Gospel has Jesus’ local opponents, Pharisees, colluding with Roman sympathizers, Herodians, to trap him, using a tax question to do so (Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar?). Jesus’ response is commonly misinterpreted by Christians; Martin Luther famously so to the detriment of Germany’s Nazi era Christians. Luther, and others, have claimed Jesus was conceding that earthly rulers have God given authority over disciples and disciples must submit to them. The exact opposite is true.

Romans asserted their rule in the name of Caesar, who was, for them, a god. When Jesus responded to the tax question by distinguishing between Caesar and God (Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s) Jesus was demoting Caesar from divine status. He was introducing an entirely radical idea into human history. Earthly rulers do not reign in the place of or in the name of God. 2,000 years ago Jesus was letting people know they needn’t submit to princes, presidents, prime ministers, or popes as if God ordained their rule. The authority of Jesus marveled those intent upon killing him (When they heard this they were amazed. So they left him and went away.). Jesus’ hunters left the exchange understanding a truth present day conformists don’t - Jesus didn’t affirm the authority of Caesar in the encounter; he gave witness to his own and thus encouraged such conscientious authority from disciples.

The conscientious authority of disciples requires not submission to earthly rulers but courage in standing up to them. Such authority includes peacemaking in a time of chosen wars, sharing in a time of feigned scarcity, and care for creation in a time of planned ecocide.  

Prayer: Holy Spirit, guide us in sharing wisdom and courage during the contentions of our era.

Question: What are the false gods that need to be dethroned in my life?

October 19, 2014  Gospel  Matthew 22:15-21 Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Whistleblowers

Jesus’ parables, in addition to being enjoyable and thought provoking, are a means to speak truth to power. This Sunday’s parable, about invited guests rejecting a meal and killing servant messengers, is basically an account of the destructive history of the ruling class and is spoken directly to chief priests and elders. Jesus’ approaching demise confirms the risks one takes when speaking truth to power.  

Human history is filled with an ever replicating ruling class exacting revenge on truth tellers. Sometimes the truth tellers are members of, or willingly join, the ruling class until listening to their conscience helps free them from it; Robert Ellsberg (Vietnam war lies), Sibel Edmonds/Coleen Rowley (FBI & White House ignoring 9-11 intel), Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski (fixed Iraq invasion intel), Sgt. Joe Darby (Abu Ghraib practices), Richard Bowen III (Citigroup’s fraudulent mortgages), John Kiriakou (CIA torture), Chelsea/Bradley Manning (Army murdering civilians), and Edward Snowden (NSA spying) are but a few. Others, such as Jesus, are born to the commons, stay there, and from that lowly position nourish grassroots communities able to transform all ruling classes.

In 1919 when Max Weber wrote in Politics as a Vocation that “the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination”, he was confirming a truth known to Jesus and all whistleblowers.  

P.S. Cheers to the Golden, CO high school students standing up to their school board censoring the truth about American History.

Prayer: Dear God, strengthen our dedication to truth and those who give witness to it.

Question: How difficult is it for me to hear the truth, especially the truth about the U.S. empire and its history?

October 12, 2014  Gospel  Matthew 22:1-14 Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gift of Creation

Jesus’ parable this Sunday about the Community of God as a vineyard presents all creation being given to us as a gift. All we need to do is receive it as such. If we simply receive the earth for the blessings it provides and care for it so that it will continue to be a source of nourishment, then life will beget life. If we get greedy, like the murderous tenants then death awaits.    

There’s a clear parallel between the murderous tenants in the parable and the deadly corporations wreaking havoc against the earth. Too many corporations show little if any appreciation for the gift of creation that supports them. BP not only pollutes the earth, it sends out memos on how it’s cheaper to pay damages from potential law suits than it is to make their oil rigs safe. Freedom Industries ravages the land through its coal business and then pollutes the water of the people whose land it’s destroying. 20 years ago Chevron dumped a massive oil sludge into Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest and is still fighting a court order to clean it up and provide reparations for the birth defects its causing. The worst polluter in the world is the U.S. military which releases devastating levels of greenhouse gas emissions and radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil. China’s corporate polluters are legendary with the state recently deciding upon a typically murderous response – execute company officials. Thus the vicious cycle of death producing death is perpetuated.

Jesus’ Community of God is life-giving and therefore all about people being fruitful. It includes people of every ethnicity and religion who are giving care to a fruitful earth.   

Prayer: Creator Spirit, help us understand we’re all vines connected in a flow of life.

Question: How do I care for creation?  

October 5, 2014 Gospel Matthew 21:33-43 Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Easy Choices

Jesus’ parable this Sunday seems to present most modern readers with a pretty easy choice. It’s better to say “No” to a father’s public request but then do as he asked than it is to say “Yes” but then not actually fulfill the request. However, in a culture that gave primacy to publically honoring the male head of the household, the easy choice would have been the exact opposite; say “Yes” for under no circumstances may you dishonor your father publically. It’s better to deceive than to dishonor.

Sometimes, there are people or groups that both deceive and dishonor. There is a phrase in the environmental movement called ‘Greenwashing.” It refers to companies that say “Yes” to the public request for ecological responsibility but don’t actually fulfill it and then lie about having not done so; they choose to deceive and to dishonor. Like the ruling class of Jesus’ time, the ruling class of corporations today has an easy choice for truth and honor when it comes to the environment but they’re not making it: i.e. British Petroleum, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, General Motors. The changes made by common people (boycotting the companies, planting trees, increasing farmer’s markets, shifting to clean renewable energy, …) have been having an impact though so that genuinely Green companies are rising up to take their place: Abe’s Market, Commuter Car, Lit Motors, Obvio, Preserve, Remarkable, Seventh Generation, Twike Vehicles, and others.    

Jesus used the present tense in the Gospel parable when referring to rulers making the easy choice for the Community of God as commoners had already done: “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” The Community of God isn’t a distant place of reward for elites as heaven’s been made out to be. It’s a present place of cooperation and peace among all as earth can be.

Prayer: Spirit of Truth, help us to speak your way and live your way.

Question: What are some choices I’ve been considering, especially when it comes to care for creation, that it’s time for me to make?

September 28, 2014 Gospel Matthew 21:28-32  Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

People Getting What They Deserve

Someone getting what they deserve has an ominous quality about it. While it could indicate someone’s been rewarded, the sound of it feels more like someone’s suffering as payback. Whichever the case, people getting what they deserve signifies an exacting judgment to ensure fairness. Jesus’ parable this Sunday is about a landowner who doesn’t make exacting judgments. The landowner in the story doesn’t give laborers what they deserve and some people react believing it’s not fair. 

James Foley and Steven Sotloff didn’t get what they deserved when they died at the hands of ISIS. It wasn’t fair. 500,000 Iraqi’s didn’t get what they deserved when they died at the hands of the Bush Administration. That wasn’t fair either. Will ISIS devote themselves to making sure other Americans get what ISIS thinks they deserve to even out the numbers? How many people and years will the U.S. devote to making sure ISIS gets what the Obama Administration thinks they deserve? People getting what they deserve seems to have gripped our collective imaginations. Who will loosen the grip? Who will give people the understanding, respect, happiness, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, peace … that we don’t think they deserve? Will it be we who are trying to follow Jesus?

Jesus’ parable is about a God who is not bound by people getting what they deserve but is, instead, loving - generously so. It’s about a Community of God equally generous with love. It is a labor but a fruitful one.  

Prayer: Dear God, we open ourselves to a spirit of generosity and receptivity to love.

Question: How do we loosen the grip of vengeance and live from Jesus’ vision of peace?

September 21, 2014  Gospel  Matthew 20:1-16a   Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exaltation of Weapons

Some distortions are so brazen it’s difficult to understand their appeal. This Sunday’s feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross is one such distortion. Would Christians consider celebrating a feast day named The Extolling of the Electric Chair or The Acclaim of the AK 47? Would Christians wear one of those instruments of death around their neck as a piece of jewelry if it were the weapon used to kill Jesus? While the normalizing and sanctifying of the additional weapons seems bizarre each is no less bizarre than the Exaltation of the Cross.

The exaltation of any deadly weapon, certainly the cross, is in direct proportion to the diminishment and distortion of Jesus’ life witness. It’s also a specific repudiation of Jesus’ teachings about the cross. He repeatedly identified the cross as an instrument of torture in the arsenal of those intent upon killing him. He also told followers to take up their cross thus encouraging disciples not to fix weapons upon others but rather bear and transform, as he did, the people and weapons fixed upon us. The Roman Emperor Constantine is responsible for starting the cult of the cross within Christianity. As he convinced Christians it was a sign of salvation so subsequent warriors have convinced Christians the weapons of their era would save them. Thus diverted and diverting Christians have exalted the sword, the crossbow, the rifle, the A bomb, and, of late, the drone.

It is because U.S. Christians have been so diverted from Jesus’ weaponless witness that a self-identified Christian named Pat Robertson, with millions of followers, could exalt in the weapons of this era and encourage their use. This past week he heartily encouraged open carry for Christian congregants not only in society but in their churches saying: “Blessed are the fully Armed for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Prayer: Dear Jesus, I hold your loving witness in highest regard.

Question: What are the consequences of a Christianity diverted toward the cross and away from Jesus’ life witness?

September 14, 2014  Gospel  John 3:13-17   Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross  

Responsibilites of a Prophet

What are the responsibilities of a prophet? Old Testament prophets fulfilled their responsibilities by lording sinner’s guilt over them with threats of doom until the offender repented. Jesus’ prophetic witness wasn’t intent on harm but instead on transformation shown in his reaching out to hierarchs time and time again. Disciples’ prophetic witness is also to reach out time and time again; first to offending persons, then to others for help with them, and to the church if need be to help resolve the conflicts they produce. Prayerfully asking for help in anything in Jesus’ name assures disciples of Jesus’ Presence.  

What if the offense done by a church member is not to another individual but, instead, to the church itself? What are the responsibilities of a prophet in the case of self-identified Christians who call on Jesus’ name all the while they violate Jesus’ prophetic witness and thus destroy church? It is the case of Ted Cruz, for example, a self-identified Christian who publically calls on Jesus’ name while he promotes the violence of guns, the death penalty, and war as well as reduced taxes for those who are rich but austerity programs for those who are poor with Mr. Cruz being particularly threatening towards poor children crossing the U.S. southern border. Mr. Cruz spoke of his Christian faith and the positions it moved him to support during a Liberty University speech which he opened by quoting Jesus from this Sunday’s Gospel: “The Word tells us when two or more are gathered in His name, He will be there.” Mr. Cruz was confident in Jesus’ Presence at a gathering focused on encouraging other self-identified Christians to do their utmost to defend, violently if need be, the U.S. constitution while he spoke not a word of Jesus’ prophetic witness for the Community of God.  

It’s difficult to take a public figure aside and tell them of the harm they do to Jesus’ faith community. If disciples have done so with Mr. Cruz, it was unsuccessful. If disciples reached out to the church would the church be of help or is the church more and more devoid of Jesus’ prophetic witness reflecting instead many of Mr. Cruz’ same non-Christian perspectives?

Prayer: Dear God, I commit myself to a peaceful heart when relating with those who, in your name, violate your way and ask the same of those who need to deal with me for such an offense.

Question: Who are the self-identified Christians I can reach out to about Jesus’ prophetic witness when they distort it?

September 7, 2014  Gospel  Matthew 18:15-20  Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Names

The name Satan conjures up monstrous images; such as maleficent creatures robed in red. If rendered human still the images are monstrous conjuring up evil people. The word evil, however, was originally defined as disapproval. It could mean one was in league with the devil but that name too has an original meaning that is more tame. Devil essentially means one who slanders and is actually the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Satan. Satan itself is defined as an adversary and originally signified, as in the story of Job, a type of prosecuting attorney. Satan is thus a name given to someone or something that opposes us or trips us up.

What is to be made then of Jesus saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”? It’s especially noteworthy given Peter just finished naming Jesus ‘Christ’ and Jesus in turn renamed the former Simon, as Peter, Rock. One lesson perhaps to be made of the Jesus Peter exchange is to be more aware of a person’s mission in this life; to respect and encourage it. Another lesson in all this naming might be to re-humanize people we may have let drift into caricatures. This would be helpful in considering both Jesus and Peter. We might be less willing to do so for those we have aligned with Satan throughout history. Re-humanizing them however might help us to re-humanize people alive and well in our own time that we have consigned to the category of evil. Doing so might re-humanize us a little too.

That old childhood saying never was true: Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.  

Prayer: God of all, help me to remember every person is created in your same image and likeness.

Question: Who are the people I need to re-humanize?  

August 31, 2014 Gospel Matthew 16:21-27 Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Authority

One model of authority is to rule over people. A rather clear sign of such authority is the threat or use of a weapon. The weapon might be a fist or a gun. It could be a knife or a tongue sharpened like one. Whatever its shape weapons always cut both ways. They hurt the one targeted and the one using it. The harm done the victim is obvious, so too the offender, if they are judged a criminal. Less understood is the harm done one who is deemed justified in threatening or using a weapon. What is the harm done to an NRA member brandishing open carry, a police officer who shoots an unarmed man, a nation deploying drones against civilians?

Some people in the U.S. support the ‘rule over’ authority model and the people who exercise it. Other people are concerned about an increased normalization of “rule over” and the use of violence to effect it. Which perspective we hold may say something about our status or gender or color. These qualities may also say something about how we interpret Jesus’ authority. Those who rule over people have long interpreted Jesus as authorizing their rule. So it is that Peter being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven in this Sunday’s Gospel is interpreted to authorize ‘rule over’. An entire hierarchical system has been rationalized around the interpretation. It’s odd how things Jesus never did, like rule over people or like use weapons to effect that rule, have been normalized within his faith community. It’s not only odd, it’s harmful. What is the centuries worth of harm done to members of a supremacist class that claim the right to rule over people and do so in Jesus’ name? Is it the same harm done to the gun owner, the cop, and the nation that assume such rule; is it a loss of authority?

There comes a time when authority shifts. It shifts from external to internal; from rulers who tell us what we should do to conscientious people in communion determining what is best to do. It’s entirely possible for a person to make the shift. Is it possible for larger groups, such as Ferguson Missouri or Jesus’ faith community, to make the shift? Can we shift from an oppressive external ‘rule over’ to a collaborative internal power with? Can we model for humanity how to make the shift?

Prayer: Jesus, help us to live with others and not rule over them.

Question: How do we minimize the harm done by people who cannot make the authority shift?

August 24, 2014   Gospel Matthew 16:13-20  Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Play

Jesus is more playful than we might think. This quality is apparent in his many parables when, rather than teaching dogma he offered stories and metaphors that needed to be played with so as to be understood. His verbal exchanges revealed that same playfulness. That quality is at the heart of his encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Sunday’s Gospel.

Conversely, neither the Old Testament nor the deity most often portrayed within it are known for their playfulness. Religion was serious business. It made demands, such as worship; worship that Israelites, and foreigners who wanted to be more than dogs in their eyes, needed to perform. It consisted of making burnt offerings and sacrifices at Yahweh’s altar. Doesn’t sound like much fun? It apparently wasn’t of much interest to the playful Jesus who’s never described as worshipping in such a manner. When the disciples are being quite serious about getting rid of a bothersome woman and foreigner, Jesus, is perhaps, being a bit playful when he doesn’t give in to their reactions. Jesus is likely being playful with the woman as well when he doesn’t give in to what may be a reaction on her part; appearing to worship him when she calls him Lord and Son of David. Her offer of praise, true or not, does not elicit a response from Jesus, though it’s likely their repartee drew a broad smile to his face. It seems Jesus doesn’t need to be praised or to be worshipped. He never asked for it let alone demanded it. Doing so would have made Jesus a much too serious fellow.

Play is one of the best qualities we can develop as children growing up. It’s one of the best qualities we can maintain as we keep on growing. It’s all about spontaneity, imagination, and creativity; about being delightfully engaged. It energizes us and enlivens us. It’s so very different from worship that requires burnt offerings and sacrifices as to be its opposite.

Prayer: Dear God, help us to be your playful Presence with people.

Question: How could I be a bit more playful in this life?

August 17, 2014  Gospel Matthew 15:21-28  Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time