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The popular Jesuit priest and writer James Martin reacted on Twitter to the cruel joke of a tax bill that passed the Senate in the middle of the night Saturday:
The US will soon face the consequences of a #TaxBill that takes money from the poor to give to the rich. Those who voted for it will face consequences later, when they are judged. Do you think Jesus's words about being judged on how we care for the poor don't apply? Think again.— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) December 2, 2017
That led to this bit of idiocy from the conservative extremist and all-around douche Eric Erickson, who’s been trying to remake himself as a Christian sage in recent years:
The Bible teaches it is an individual responsibility to help the poor. Shame on those who’d pass off their personal obligation to the government. https://t.co/WMEUgEIOWl— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) December 2, 2017
As many people have pointed out, this is complete crap. Setting aside the bit about “passing off” personal obligation, individualism as such didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, and he definitely had in mind a social orientation toward caring for society’s most vulnerable members. It’s fine (if wrong) to argue that care for the poor is best handled on an individual level. But is it inconsistent with the gospel to say that it’s a job best left to the government? Certainly not.
There’s all manner of ways to respond to Erickson, but I mostly want to say that many people don’t realize just how close we are to being almost literally in the same position as Jesus’ society. The sin he came to save Israel from, the slavery he came to redeem them from, was indeed a repressive tax scheme. To which the conservatives might say aha! Jesus would have been in favor of lower taxes! To which I would respond—stealing a page from the Portland Mercury—I’m going to stop you right there, dipshit. The tax system in ancient Palestine was profoundly regressive. It was a means to move wealth from the rural poor to the urban elite. Or as we would say today, it was firmly set for upward redistribution.
THEY STOLE FROM PEOPLE ON THE EDGE OF STARVATION TO GIVE MONEY TO THE RICH. Seriously: Jesus’ people were subsistence farmers and fishermen only one calamity away from going hungry. Yet the Romans, the Jewish puppet government, and the religious establishment all squeezed them for every penny they could.
It’s shocking to remind oneself of the parallels. What did the money go for, other than to pad the bank accounts of the rich? The military, mostly, some infrastructure. The first King Herod did a fair amount of economic development, but with cronies, and the profits didn’t trickle down to the little people very much. Jesus challenges the equity of this scheme, providing the evidence his own people use to sell him out to the Romans. If there’s no challenge to the socio-economic order, there’s no need for Rome to get involved in an inter-Jewish religious squabble, and Jesus lives.
But Jesus’ most proximate battles are not with the Roman overlords. They’re with the religious leaders of his own community. Because (no reflection on modern Jews), Jesus charges them with two offenses. First, they’re indifferent to the plight of the poor. This is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats: YOU SAW PEOPLE IN NEED AND YOU DID NOTHING. If you abstract out of that story that it’s about personal responsibility, well, God have mercy on you, because you’re too dumb to live and too callous to get into heaven. (Parenthetical reminder that the sheep & the goats is the only place in the New Testament where the standards for salvation are spelled out.)
The second count Jesus has against the trad religious leaders goes like this: the leaders use the teachings of their faith to marginalize people on the basis of race (Syro-Phoenicians), religion (Samaritans), sexuality (prostitutes and the divorced), even health status (lepers). They do none of this to maintain the health or integrity of the Jewish people. It’s to maintain a permanent underclass of Others, which makes it easier for the leaders to exploit the people and cooperate with a hostile foreign power. Not only do those religious leaders get to levy their own taxes, but they get a cut whenever someone needs a religious service, such as healing or purification and they reserve the right to be morally superior while they do it.
So who winds up on the bottom of the pile? Widows and orphans, or as we would say today: women and dependent children. And who’s going to be most hurt by the latest, greatest “tax cut”? Women and dependent children. Jesus cuts straight through the heart of the social order by announcing God’s concern for the poor and summoning all people to share in it.
I am not God, obviously, and it’s not my place to pronounce judgment on God’s behalf. But if you don’t think elected officials will have to answer for the obvious injustice perpetrated in a monstrosity such as the passed by the Senate Saturday night, you’re dumber than you look, and your soul’s twice as ugly. Remember what Jesus tells us in the gospel of Mark: he’s coming back, and he will know what we’ve been up to in the meantime. Repent, everyone. We’re going to need it if this bill makes it past the House.
Every year, there’s an ecumenical thanksgiving service held in St. Cloud, Wisconsin, just before the Turkey Trot fundraiser for the local food pantry. I was invited to preach this year. I made a hash of it, to be honest. It was early, I was tired, and not in the right frame of mind to prepare on Wednesday, let’s just leave it at that.
In any case, the text was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 from Luke. Surprisingly, it’s not in the lectionaries, though the parallel accounts from Matthew and Mark appear. That’s a shame, because it’s worth hearing. Luke gives it a spin not found in the other gospels. Luke opens the chapter with the story of Jesus sending out his disciples on their first mission trip without him.
Now, understand what’s going on here. In chapter 9 of the story—not even halfway—Jesus already knows he will go to Jerusalem and die there. He has been causing a ruckus with his ministry. The religious leaders of his day worked off a transactional model: You come, you pay a little something, you’re released from your sin and guilt, you go on your way, until the next time you screw up. But Jesus says, “Yo, this is whack. You make people pay for their suffering? You make them pay to receive God’s blessing? No way, man.” Instead, Jesus gives thanks to God for God’s goodness. God provides the healing in gratitude. Then the healed give thanks.
Gratitude, in other words, is the engine of grace, mercy, and healing. It is the mode of our participation in the life of God. This is enough of a challenge to cause the people to abandon the religious leaders in favor of Jesus, creating a power vacuum. There’s only one of him, after all, and many people. Between the need to spread the workload and Jesus’ intuition about how his challenge to the existing religious leadership will end, he knows the situation cannot hold for very long. So he sets to work training the disciples to carry on his ministry after his inevitable death.
It was a common enough practice for teachers to send their students out in those days. The Cynics, for example, would wander the landscape, carrying only the bare necessities: a hat, a coat, a walking stick, a wallet. They would offer a class on their philosophy, and the audience would give them a few coins for the effort. Jesus says to his disciples, “You don’t even need that much. You’re better than that.” So off they go, famously, with no cloak or staff or purse. Unlike the philosophers, they take no money for their teaching. They depend solely on the generosity of the people they encounter to house and feed them, and they don’t shop around for a better deal. If they receive no hospitality, they just keep moving along. They live in utter dependence and gratitude, get it?
Their journey, like Jesus’, is a success. In fact, they create an even bigger stir than the man himself! They create such a ruckus that word starts to get back to the latest King Herod. Some people say Jesus is Elijah or some other prophet, back from the dead. And Herod says, “Huh?” Other people say Jesus is John the Baptist returned. And Herod says “Didn’t I kill him?” Some people say, Jesus is this hot young prophet all on his own. And Herod says, “I think I want to talk to this guy.” He wanted to meet John, too.
Jesus is smarter than to accept that invitation, so he scoots out of Herod’s turf and calls the disciples back to debrief. They’re in the middle of telling him how great things went when the crowds show up. Jesus says, “let’s roll with this.” He teaches and heals all day, until at last the sun is going down and the people start to get hungry.
The disciples say, Maybe we should break this up so the crowd can get themselves something to eat. Jesus responds with three of the most challenging words in scripture: “You feed them.” To which the disciples say: “Umm.”
All right, Jesus asks, what do you have? Five loaves of bread and two fish, comes the answer. Bring them to me, he says. In language deliberately reminiscent of the Lord’s supper, he takes the bread, he give thanks for it, he breaks it, and gives it to the people. He gives thanks, GET IT?
You know the rest of the story: there’s enough to feed 5,000 men, with plenty left over. (And you thought your mom fed an army yesterday, and the fridge was stuffed with the remains.) What you don’t know (unless you’re a New Testament scholar) is that this story recalls one from 2 Kings, where the prophet Elisha feeds 100 prophets with 20 loaves of bread.
You see what’s going on here? Jesus is a far greater prophet than Elijah or Elisha, according to Luke, because of his grateful reliance on God. In fact, immediately after this story comes Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, and the chapter continues in the same way, carefully balancing indications of Jesus’ greatness with his commands to humility, hammering on the point that these aspects are one and the same.
When the disciples learn to imitate that grateful reliance, they are able to work even greater wonders than those who have gone before. The story of Jesus feeding the crowds was so beloved by the early Christians that it was told and retold: six times in four gospels! Until Constantine, the loaves and fish were a far more common symbol of the faith than the cross.
But the point I’ve been working toward, the whole point, is this: what makes it possible to feed that crowd, to feed the hungry in our midst, is the same grateful reliance on God that Jesus exhibited. It’s not about being the greatest again, being the biggest and the best and the wealthy with the low low taxes. It’s about cobbling together whatever meager resources we can and trusting that God will do the rest. Gratitude and trust are inextricably bound together. Gratitude and trust are always a challenge to the powers that be. Gratitude and trust are what make it possible to respond to the sly commandment, “You feed them.” Gratitude and trust are what make it possible to live the life of faith. They’re what it’s all about, man.
So go, live in gratitude and feed those who need it. Then eat some turkey. God knows you have enough of it to go around.
(This is the part where you say, Wait, what?)
Attend, little children: in this passage, Paul is trying to solve a pastoral problem. Jesus told his followers (more or less): “I will return before any of you die.” Yet some of those same followers were dying, and no Jesus. What gives? It’s an important question still today, but even more so in Paul’s day, when belief in resurrection was not widespread. Most people thought that life after death—if there even was such a thing—was a cold, dark, loveless existence. So, you know. Like Duluth.
At the same time, resurrection was a central tenet of Christianity. As Paul says, if you don’t hope because of Christ’s resurrection, you have nothing. So to ask about the dead was both an emotional question: Will we be forever separated from our loved ones? And it was also a faith question: You told us Jesus was coming before anybody died. That’s clearly not the case. ‘Sup with that?
Paul’s answer to this is essentially: don’t sweat it. If Jesus has the power to return and save you, he has the power to save the dead. He consistently refers to the dead as “the sleepers” in this passage. They’re alive, but asleep while they wait for Jesus. When Jesus does come (there’s no “comes back” here), they’ll be in the front of the line to be brought to him. Then come those of us who are living. Here, Paul adds a rhetorical flourish:
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
Yep, this is where the idea of the Rapture comes from. Jerome used the word rapere to translate Paul’s Greek. It’s the Latin word for what a raptor does: a sudden snatching or seizing, catching something up by force. That’s the sense used by the tribulation-minded: that God will suddenly snatch up into heaven the chosen ones, leaving you chumps behind.
Rapere, though, as you may have guessed, also gives us the English word “rape.” It meant at first basically kidnapping a woman, with or without sexual assault. Later it came to refer specifically to the latter part of that equation. That’s not what Paul meant, there’s nothing like that in the original. In the Greek, the word usually had a negative connotation: it’s the word you’d use to describe snatching something out of somebody’s hand, or grabbing something away by force.
But Paul apparently means something more positive: being caught up into heaven, God laying hold of you and plucking you out of the world of sin and death. Is this a literal belief? No, not exactly. It’s a mystical vision, similar to ones recorded in Paul’s other letters. The important part is the comfort it conveys: nothing in life or in death can separate you from the love of God in Christ, as he says in Romans. Whether or not it literally happens the way he describes it is of secondary importance, at best.
The literal interpretation given by people like Tim LaHaye has all-too-often been used to keep people in line. Do the right thing (as we, your social superiors interpret it), or you won’t get caught up by Jesus on the last day. This is a completely vertical cosmology. To cite Bob Marley, “most people think great God will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high.”
But while Paul promises that this vertical relationship with God will work out in the Thessalonians’ favor, he ultimately roots his word of comfort in the horizontal relationship with Jesus in community. Before his appearance on the last day, Jesus comes into the world again in how the Christian community lives and acts, exactly why so many of us are disgusted by Moore’s religious defenders.
It’s not an accident, then, that Paul concludes this passage with instructions for the church to comfort one another. Nor is it accidental that he concludes the letter with this exhortation:
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
While Christians wait for Jesus’ final return, our business is to be making Jesus real in the world, to anticipate his coming in our lives and our bodies. Much of that work is to extend the horizon of Jesus, to gather as many into the loving arms of the body of Christ so they too can be caught up in him when he comes. Paul says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds.” There’s no qualifiers there. To paraphrase one of my commentaries, anyone who desires to be with God will be with God—is already with God. The job of the church is to recognize that truth and to give it as much substance as we can.
This, finally, is where those harmed by sexual abuse come in. There is no shame, there is no violation, there is no assault or diminishment, that can prevent God from loving you. Jesus came into the world to reconcile it: to put relationships right with justice and equity, and to draw all people to God. If it doesn’t matter if you’re living or dead, it certainly doesn’t matter if you’ve been harassed, or molested, or manipulated, or raped. God believes you. God sees you in ultimate dignity and worth. God loves you and wants to draw near to you in love and comfort. You too will have life. You too will have love. You too will be blessed, redeemed and made whole on the last day when the trumpet blows and the archangel calls.
Our job as the church is to be ready for that moment by making sure you’re ready for that moment. The job of the church is not to get you to behave like a good little Christian should, but to get you somewhere you can receive the grace to be offered.
So to all those victims of abuse out there: I believe you. I see you in dignity and worth. I want you to be a part of the body of Christ. At least, I do those things as best I can. In the meantime, as we await Jesus’ coming, I pray forgiveness for all those times I have failed you, and for strength to do better. Amen and the end.
In light of the news from Sutherland Springs, I’m going to do something you might think crazy: go back to scripture.
Today we, like many churches, celebrated All Saints’ Sunday. We read 1 John 3:1-3:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
That’s all a saint really is; a child of God who has died. Sadly, at least 24 joined the ranks of the saints today. At first, saints were simply people the church deemed worthy of remembering after their death. As time went on, the standards went up, of course. First, the saints became people of exceptional holiness. Now they have to be credited with an actual miracle.
But it’s worth noting that many of the earliest saints were martyrs: people who died (usually) through state-sponsored violence. Also worth remembering: those martyrs died not just because they claimed Jesus as Lord, but because to do so was to resist the violence of the state. Early Christians were communists—and they were pacifists.
When John says “the world does not know us because it did not know him,” this is part of what he means. The world did not understand the Prince of Peace. And the world rejected that light, the Prince of Peace, in order to walk in darkness.
But back to the saints. The very earliest meaning of the term, found even in Jewish writings, is simply a brother or sister in faith. Saints, then, are part of the past: they’re role models who have died. But they’re also part of the present. Saints, as the song goes, are people you can meet in the shops or at tea.
(In case you don’t know it.)
Saints are people in the here and now who strive to walk in Jesus’ way, to be like him, to purify themselves as he purified himself. No, it’s not about s-e-x. It’s not about drinking, either, or loving somebody the same gender as you. Let John tell it:
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.
So sin is lawlessness, like, oh, say, the lawlessness of murder? Why yes, yes it is:
I know this is going to rock your world, but loving one another involves not murdering one another.
The saints were and always have been those who resist this kind of sin, who resist the ways of violence and death. Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, and he was right. The saints tried to purify themselves from the sin of hate, the sin of violence, the sin of murder. And they tried to strengthen one another to do the same, as should we.
Now, notice what I haven’t said: that the saints tried to introduce legislation or commonsense gun regulation or move votes. It’s not that early Christians (or Christians all along) didn’t try to change the world. They did. But at least in the time of the New Testament, the church was composed of people basically without much, if any, formal power. You didn’t get a vote in the Roman Empire!
So they did what they could: offered passive resistance and engaged in an alternative way of life. In that sense, saints are also of the future. We don’t know what will become of us when Jesus returns, when the world is changed. But we know that we will be like Jesus, who is, remember, the Prince of Peace. And so we work to bring that world into existence. The saints work to create the world of the future proleptically, even knowing that in the end, it is only God who can bring peace. But we know that we are created for love and destined for peace, and so we try to bring those things about even before Jesus comes back.
Let me say it again so you spread the word: We are created for love. We are destined for peace. We make love and peace real in the world. That is what saints do. And you are a saint.
In the end, those who have died today will join the great cloud of witnesses urging us on as we run the race of faith. That is, in our work of establishing love, peace, and justice as the norms of our world. They have joined the ranks of the saints, and I commend you to faith in the Prince of Peace that their deaths not be in vain.
You can do that by living and teaching peace, and/or by picking up the phone and giving your member of Congress an earful. Either way is perfectly legitimate, and perfectly faithful. What is not is to say, “Oh well, the world is evil, whatcha gonna do?”
End of sermon. Go be saints.