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Wrestling with heaven and hell (last weekend’s #sermon #podcast)

I keep on getting busy and forgetting to post my sermon podcasts. Last weekend, for our Wrestling sermon series, we wrestled with heaven and hell. To provide a different framework than the usual one in which the question is concerned, I looked at two passages from Isaiah. Isaiah 2 starts off by talking about God’s vision for a beautiful peaceful world (vv. 1-4) and then talks about the entrenched idolatry and injustice that will need to be destroyed for God’s peace to be established (vv. 5-19). This was actually the topic of one of my first major blog posts if you’d rather read than listen. The second passage I looked at was Isaiah 6 which captures what it’s like for a human to stand in the overwhelming presence of God. I have a typed manuscript of a sermon on this that I preached in the Dominican Republic two years ago. These two components, God’s promise of a peaceful kingdom and the ability to face God with integrity, are the foundation for how I understand what heaven and hell are. Here is the audio. Sign up for the podcast if you’d like to auto-download it into your phone.

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Salvation from “whiteness”: a subversive reading of Job

For Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to consider a very challenging quote from black liberation theologian James Cone: “When whites undergo the true experience of conversion wherein they die to whiteness and are reborn anew in order to struggle against white oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed, there is a place for them in the black struggle of freedom.” When Cone talks about whiteness, he’s not talking literally about the color of our skin. He’s talking about a set of attitudes that many white people are usually completely unaware of having and which all too often our Christianity has been tailored to validate. In my last semester of seminary, I wrote a term paper in Hebrew poetry on the way that the book of Job describes a “white” man who is literally turned black by God (Job 30:30). When we see Job’s “whiteness” come through in his speech from chapters 29-31, we’re able to see that his fall from privilege, or his “dying to whiteness,” is his salvation. Continue Reading

Justice of the heart and Frank Schaefer

frank schaeferThis week, the United Methodist Church put a pastor on trial named Frank Schaefer for officiating at the wedding of his gay son. The judge, retired bishop Al Gwinn, ruled out as inadmissible any defense arguments based on scripture or other sections of the Book of Discipline, reasoning that only “the facts” of what Schaefer did were relevant to determining the verdict. While I understand the rationale and practical limitations that necessitate this approach to justice, I do not think it does justice to justice. The promise that we receive in scripture is that God judges according to the heart. Hebrews 4:12-13 says: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Continue Reading

What are the “weightier matters of the law”? (Matthew 23:23)

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “weightier matters of the law”? It sounds like they would be the parts of the Bible that are hard for a modern world to accept. Evangelical Christians in our time tend to litmus-test their faith according to their loyalty to what they see as the “weightier” parts of the Bible that clash with modern sensibilities, whether it’s young Earth creationism, the eternal conscious torment of hell, a complementarian account of gender, or opposition to homosexuality, to name the top four. But what does Jesus say are the “weightier matters of the law” in Matthew 23:23? Continue Reading

Is Guantanamo Bay as far as the east is from the west?

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Do you think these human beings matter to God? They certainly don’t matter much to us. About a hundred prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are now engaged in a hunger strike. But don’t worry; the prison guards won’t let them die. They force-feed them through tubes in their noses. Apparently one detainee has been force-fed daily since 2005. Continue Reading

Justice as a question of piety vs. holiness

With it being Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we preached on justice as our sermon series topic this weekend. For my text, I used Isaiah 58, where Isaiah confronts the people of Israel for fasting without justice. God’s people have often pursued devotional practices that “honor” God not only to the exclusion of treating other people justly but as a means of legitimating their lack of justice. I often call this pitting love of God against love of neighbor. As I was contemplating Isaiah 58, it hit me that our sensibilities about justice are often derived in whether we are seeking piety or holiness in our religious life. Here is my sermon audio. Continue Reading

Frantz Fanon and Isaiah 61

Isaiah 61 was the Daily Office Old Testament reading for today. Some of you will recall that Jesus read this text as part of his first sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4. The first two verses read: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” What in the world is a “day of vengeance” doing in the same line as the “year of the Lord’s favor”? Jesus stopped his sermon before the vengeance part. But it’s still there in Isaiah 61. What does God’s favor have to do with His vengeance? Everything, if you’re one of the oppressed and God’s favor means victory over your oppressors. Continue Reading

Javert vs. Valjean: the two Christianities of Les Miserables

***Spoiler alert: this post presumes that you know the storyline of Les Miz.*** After watching Les Miserables in the theater, I wanted to stand up at the end and shout, “This is what Christianity really is!” kind of like what Peter Enns wrote on his blog. But there are two Christianities represented in Les Miz by the police inspector Javert and the convict Jean Valjean, and though Valjean’s version triumphs in the film, Javert’s Christianity is winning big time in today’s America. Some say Javert represents “justice” and Valjean represents “mercy,” so we need a happy mix of the two, but that’s already choosing Javert’s Christianity, because Valjean exhibits not only mercy, but an alternative justice that is incomprehensible to the penal retributive justice of modernity. The question of whether we see the world through the eyes of Javert or Valjean amounts to our understanding of justice. For Javert, justice is retribution in the interest of maintaining an abstract order; for Valjean, justice is solidarity in the interest of personal love. Continue Reading

Looking Back on 2012: Jan-Feb

I figured I would end 2012 by reviewing a selection of my posts from throughout the year chronologically, starting with 10 posts from January and February, which I have listed below with a brief description for each of them. These don’t necessarily have any ranking to them; they are just the ten that first jumped out at me for being either popular or important. Continue Reading

Isaiah 10 and the fiscal cliff

When I read something in the Bible and I think I shouldn’t say anything about it because it might make people mad, God sometimes lets it go. But not this time. He’s been bugging me for two days. I wasn’t going out of my way to mine the Old Testament for social justice texts. I was just reading my Daily Office, trying to stay out of trouble. And then Isaiah 10:1-4 comes along: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.” I’m afraid this prophetic word seems quite apropos in the context of our government’s fiscal cliff standoff right now. Continue Reading