Sunday, June 25, 2017

Romans 6:1b-11 for today

Dear Sibblings in Christ,
         I hear that some of you wonder at the Grace you’ve received from God through Jesus Christ. But, you wonder in a strange direction, perhaps even you wander, more than wonder—it is as if you are children seeking boundaries, participants in a new game wondering about breaking the rules, or explorers looking for the edge of the map, instead of paying attention to your footing.
         You ask of this Grace, if it is a great thing, because it overcomes Sin, how much greater would it be if we sinned a whole bunch more, so that it could overcome more Sin still?
You may not ask the question exactly like that of course, but you do ask questions like:
-If we’re saved by grace, what’s the point of doing good things?
-If God saves us despite ourselves, why does any of this matter?
-If it’s all about the love of God, why even talk about Sin?

         And when I hear these questions, I wonder at you all. It’s like you’ve waited your whole life for the woman of your dreams, you meet her, and the first question out of your mouth is, “I can cheat on her, right?”
         Dear Lord, what’s wrong with you people?
         Don’t you know you’ve been fused to Jesus?
         It’s like a marriage, all his stuff is yours and all your stuff is his.
         It’s like that famous exchange between Ruth and Naomi, where Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, but instead says, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
         It’s like the poor disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, “the disciple is like the teacher”... when they say he’s of the Devil, they’ll say that about you too—guilt by association—in this case association with Jesus.
         You’ve been buried with him, you share a grave. His resurrection is your new life, you share life!

         Don’t you get it?
         -Sin and Death made you their slave.
         -You were indebted to Sin and Death.
         … okay, maybe those metaphors don’t work with you all… a couple millennia have passed since I wrote Romans, after all…
Let’s try this one, I’ve watched your “TV” and have seen those ads that make cell phone plans out to be the worst thing ever to happen to humanity… You are so put upon by a wireless contract that you just don’t know what to do with yourself.
Well, you have just such a contract with Sin and Death, there is no way out!
Yet, such contracts only work if you’re alive,
-dead people don’t have cell phone plans
—the contract is considered terminated, when you are.
For that matter, going back to my original metaphors…
-Debts can’t be collected from the dead.
-Slaves can’t be ordered around, if they’ve slipped this mortal coil…
         Still not getting it? Need me to connect the dots for you… okay.

         Have you heard of Jujitsu?
It is a Japanese martial art started during the Samurai era—there was no way for a common person to defeat a heavily armored Samurai by force—the armored combatant always had the advantage as long as it was a question of force.
—but counterforce easily disables the much heavier opponent.
Jujitsu uses an opponent’s momentum and weight against them.
Why rush at an opponent rushing at you, when you can simply step out of the way and they fall down a hole or trip into a wall?
         So too, Jesus uses that inevitable crushing weight and momentum of Death, to nullify this contract Sin and Death has on you!
         In Christ’s death, Death kills all who are found on the side of Christ. And in so doing, they are all freed from the clutches of Sin and Death—the contract is null and void.
         Yes, we lose our life through this baptism into Christ, yet we find it in his resurrection. He has died to sin and now lives to God—and so do you.

         So, to answer your question, “Why not sin more so that there is more grace?”
I say: It is the same reason you don’t talk on the MaBell network, you don’t have a contract with MaBell anymore!
You don’t go around sinning, because you’ve been freed from that relationship with Sin—you are Christ’s disciple now, not a Disciple of Sin!
Q: If it’s all about the love of God, why even talk about Sin?
A: We talk about Sin, because it is worth remembering what you are freed from… just as we Jews, remember I Paul am a Jew among Jews, recount the Passover—we’ve been freed from slavery in Egypt—so too do we Christians tell our story of captivity and liberation.
Q: If God saves us despite ourselves, why does any of this matter?
A: It all matters deeply, because you live in the deep life of God, now. We’re infused with the unending love of God–and it means everything!
Q: If we’re saved by grace, what’s the point of doing good things?
A: You do good because you’re freed for that very task. We have to be slaves to something, let’s be slaves to doing good… It’s in our contract.

         Therefore, siblings in the faith, consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Politics, Policy, and the Church

            One of the things that concerns me in these polarized times, when everything a person say is analyzed for its political ramifications—did you say a blue thing or a red thing?—is that we lose sight of the distinction between policy and politics.
            Politics is the up and down, who is winning the next election or poll, or which side scored a point on a talk-show or with a Facebook meme or Twitter hashtag.
            Policy is how our government is run, what choices those who represent us make, and how they will shape all our lives.
            In our society, the deal we’ve made between church and state, roughly put, is that the church isn’t political—we don’t endorse candidates, the Baptists ought not be the praying wing of the Republican Party and the Lutherans ought not be the praying wing of the Democratic Party. That said, there is no such agreement about policy—so looking at how politicians vote, what the consequences of policies choices are—is not out of bounds.
            Now this agreement, at its worst, can morph religion. There are politicians who would love to be endorsed by congregations—sometimes they try to get pastors to break this societal agreement (you might remember that back in 2014 investor and political activist Steven Baer offered me a $10,000 bribe to tell you all how to vote from the pulpit that year—which I, of course, didn’t do). More often they want churches to bend this agreement. You get these “Church Voter Guides” that inform people about issues/policy, but make clear they are really about particular candidates. In fact, I think some of the shibboleths of, most prominently, Evangelical Christianity, have more to do with overblowing the importance of particular policies to favor particular political parties, than having anything to do with scripture and faith. When done poorly faith can be corrupted or bent by this separation between Church and State.

            I say all of this as preface to what I will say now. The current immigration policy here in the US has hurt people we know and care about. Members of First Indonesian Seventh Day Adventist Church, who we share our building with, some of whom we know by sight because they worked with our Building Finance and Liaison committees, were sent back to Indonesia, where they will face persecution.

            So, let’s think about the politics and policy of all this.
            Back in the 1990’s, during the Clinton Administration, ethnically Chinese Indonesian Christians were being slaughtered—it was ethnic cleansing with a religious tinge to it. America’s policy solution to this problem was to give out travel visas to as many people whose lives were under threat as possible, with the understanding that they would overstay those visas without repercussions—doing things this way instead of taking them in as refugees was, simply put, easier and cheaper.
            During the Bush years there was occasional pressure to return. In fact, immediately after 9-11 all these folk had to register, were put on a list or two, and started checking in with ICE once a year. They did this gladly, many Indonesian Christians showed up in front of the ICE building at 2am the first morning of registration to make sure America knew they were standing with the country who saved them from persecution.
            During the first half of the Obama years there was a spike in deportations, with the assumption that increased enforcement would lead to comprehensive immigration reform. During this time some of these Indonesians went into hiding.
            Then we had the 2016 election in which immigrants were labeled rapists and refugees terrorists. This caused many immigrants to fear for their lives.
            To date the Trump administration has arrested 35% more immigrants than were arrested in the same time last year, and the arrest of “non-criminal immigrants” has doubled. Among those arrested and deported were members of FISDAC, the Massie, Timesela, and Kawuwung families—including fathers who are leaving behind a 13 year old, a 6 year old, and a 1 year old.

            We can speak up for them. We can contact the people who have authority over the policies that have sent these families away. We can make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
            We can contact Christopher Moriarty, the Community Relations Officer of ICE Newark (970 Broad Street, Newark, NJ, 07102), the person on the ground responsible for explaining the implementation of these policies to the public.
            We can contact John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C. 20528) who is in charge of implementing this policy.
            We can contact President Donald Trump (The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500) who holds the highest executive office in the land and signed the orders that activated these deportations.
            We can contact our Senators and Congresspeople, especially Representative Pallone (67/69 Church St., New Brunswick, NJ 08901) who has submitted a bill to give Indonesians with expired tourist visas a second chance at applying for Refugee status.

            None of this need be political, we’re seeking redress for a policy choice that is hurting families we’ve come into contact with. We’re seeking redress for policies that will send people back to a country in which they will be persecuted for both their ethnicity and their religion. This isn’t a red or blue issue—it is a matter of life and death.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My review of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains"

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains” is a warning cry that, to put it crassly, “we are training our brains to pay attention to crap.”
Carr’s premise is that internet use is moving us into a new way of interacting with the world “the dissolution of the linear mind.”
You’ve heard it said, “The Medium is the message” but, per Carr the medium also shapes the messenger. Our brains understand tools to be appendages and re-write themselves to take those new appendages into account. For example, our brain sees a rake as an extension of our hand. What, he asks, happens when the tool is the world wide web?
You see, this re-writing takes a very short amount of time. 5 hours of internet use will permanently rewire a non-internet user’s brain. What does this re-wiring do? It trains our brains to always look for the new, overvaluing what is happening right now, constantly in need of new stimulation. So, if you have noticed you can’t remember things any more or pay attention to any one thing or are anxious when you aren’t being fed new information… that might be because you’ve re-wired your brain to function that way. Some argue the sheer amount of information we ingest through the internet makes up for this shortened attention span and other symptoms, but truth be told we retain content from the internet as well as we do while reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle at the same time… that is, not well at all.
Between 2004-2008 Read of books has fallen by 11%, 29% for the under 35 crowd. The average person now spends 2.5 hours a day on the web and 5 hours a day on the TV… this might shape our whole society, hyper-focusing us on any new bit of information at the expense of its context, or the recent past.
Why would we allow this to happen, you may ask? Because tech companies can make a pretty penny on it. Google’s profits are directly tied to rapidity of information intake. “Google wants information to be free, because as the cost of information falls, we all spend more time looking at computer screens and tech companies profit.”
The Shallows seems a bit alarmist, that said we have elected a man who swims in the stream of the moment and hijacks the national discourse by simply saying something new—the first Twitter President. Maybe Donald Trump is what Google hath wrought.

View all my reviews

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon: Never Finish a Sermon Early

Never finish a sermon early.
         It seems that, quiet consistently, when I type that last, Amen and Alleluia, and put a period or exclamation point at the end… the Word refuses to let that be the last word.

         Today we are reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans—it is written to a mixed Jewish/Gentile Christian church—one where the Jews were deported from Rome for five years under the Reign of Emperor Claudius, and when they returned there was dissension between the stayers and the returners—the Jewish Christians struggled to re-integrate into the life of the congregation from which they had been removed.
         How pertinent this situation which Paul writes to, for us today.
         You see, our partners in the Gospel—the First Indonesian Seventh Day Adventist Church who share our building—are experiencing just such a struggle.
10 of their members have been deported, or are in the process of being deported… Since the early 90’s they’ve returned to ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—yearly and yearly have been given an extension on their stay here in the US on account of ongoing persecution of Christians there… This year they were immediately scooped up, persecution be damned.
         I wonder what dissension there will be between the stayers and the returners back in Indonesia…

         I wonder too of the suffering they will meet, and the culpability each one of us shares for their suffering.
         I wonder at the tensions and the paradoxes of our lives as Christians.
         Bound tense by time, living, as always we have, between the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom, and its consummation.
         Imprisoned by the paradox of our very person, always bound to Sin, and yet freed by Christ.
         Yes, I wonder at the tension of time and the paradox of person, both part of our deep reality—and when the Spirit allows it,
in small glimpses often fleeting,
I trust that here with us in all these things is the grace of God,
maybe within all this, reconciliation.
Let us pray

         We are pulled, Church, into the open arms of God, trust this to be true—from the cross, in the grave, on the other side, we are caught by Christ.
Stand firm in your faith—God is for you and not against you
—God is at peace with us, because Jesus is the Prince of Peace and we are his. God’s love, which we most clearly experience in the person of Jesus Christ, wins.
         Yet, this reality is one rarely experienced. In fact, much its opposite finds us. Christ’s glory is found in the glorious cross, in suffering—and so it should not surprise us when we too suffer.
         Suffer, even for our faith
—and that’s where my heart is at right now
—these 10 Christians, returning to Indonesia, members of FISDAC,
the Massie,
and Ka-wu-wung families.
…One of the families left for America after their cousin, who was a pastor, was beheaded. They are returning to Jakarta, where its Christian Governor was sentenced to 2 years in prison for quoting the Quran.
When I talked to Pastor Rantung he was rather realistic about what those members of his flock are to face—persecution is part of being Christian.
None of this “they don’t say merry Christmas to me at the mall—I’m being oppressed.” But life and death decided by doctrine.
         And there is the suffering of those who remain too—13 year old Joel, who is without his father, Arino, on Father Day. 6 year old Will and 1 year old Eden who are preparing to say goodbye to their dad, Billy
… a Christian community cut off from 10 of its members.
         And as I think of these siblings who live so close, who share our building—I must ask,
“What of the 200 Chaldean Christians in Michigan who are being returned to Iraq—to the midst of a war zone?
Or, what of the children from Central America who come here to escape drug cartels? Or those Syrian refugees, of whatever religion, truly just trying to escape extremism…
         …The Kingdom of God—already, but not yet…

         How can we not look at this reality of our sisters and brothers in Christ and not see the depths of sin in which we ourselves are caught?
For decades these families faithfully returned to ICE and had their status as persecuted  people renewed… then we spent an election cycle demonizing immigrants and refugees and now they’re in danger.
         We allowed these new policies that encourage and empower ICE to conduct so called “low hanging fruit deportations.”
         And I say we
—not the President,
not Congress,
not Judges
—One of the hard parts of being a Christian in a Democracy is that we can’t hide behind Roman’s 13 “Submit to Governing Authorities”
or hide behind Martin Luther’s, “Let whoever has the power use it.”  
We can not wash our hands of what the state does—This isn’t Rome or Medieval Germany—here we have the power.
         If we disapproved of sending our sisters and brothers away to be persecuted,
we would speak up.

         You didn’t know—you may say—I know what was my guilty conscience’s first defense
—but as citizens—and that is one of our Christian vocations…
as citizens, it is our duty to be vigilant, to be aware of the policies put in place in our name. And then, in our private lives and in the public square, to strive for justice and peace in all the world—to strive to love our neighbor as ourselves.
         And we’re going to fail at it…
         We’re always going to fail at it
—we’re not even going to have good intentions about our political choices most of the time—but we keep striving.

         Because we strive from a place of love—God showed us his love through Christ while we were still weak, ungodly, unrighteous, sinners … we can try to love our neighbors, because we’re loved.
Yes, sinners we are, yet made holy too. Made holy to love our neighbors.

         And today I’m asking a few things of you all:
-First, I expect all of you to sign a letter to our siblings in Christ who share our building letting them know we feel their pain. It’ll be passed around through the service.
-Second, there are sheets with a boilerplate letter you can use—as your conscience dictates— as a model to write you own letter and a list of people you can contact to tell those who have power over these things that their actions in deporting the members of FISDAC are unjust.
Third, pray throughout the week for these families.