Saturday, July 17, 2010


There is an Oxford University Theology professor who begins each new class year with a question: “With what is theology concerned?” The answers usually center around things like God, or Faith, or Spiritual Matters or the generic Religion. To which the professor will shake his head and reply “No, Christian theology is concerned with everything!”

The “theory of everything,” or TOE, has been a science fiction pursuit since at least the 1960's. It has even been a subject of some reflection and research from real scientists. The TOE is a holy grail of sorts that would explain, or connect, or make sense of everything in the known universe. Maybe not in intimate detail, but the TOE is supposed to unify or explain through a single model (the TOE) all the fundamental interactions of nature. It is supposed to give us the ability to predict the outcome of any experiment or process.

And if you listen carefully, you can hear a snort of derision through almost three thousand years of history back to a little fireball named Amos. “What do you think I was doing?” he mutters. “I was predicting – but we called it prophesying – the outcomes of all sorts of human processes on a regular basis! With graphic language and loads of volume!!”

And indeed he was. Take a look at our passage for this week. No, actually, take a deep breath and brace yourself – then take a look:

Amos 8:1-12 This is what the Lord GOD showed me-- a basket of summer fruit. 2 He said, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the LORD said to me, "The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. 3 The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day," says the Lord GOD; "the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!" 4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5 saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." 7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. 8 Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt? 9 On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. 10 I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. 11 The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. 12 They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it.

Good ol’ Amos. You can count on him to stir up trouble. To poke people in the eye with a sharp stick. Amos wasn’t one to beat around the bush – which is a pun because he was a dresser of sycamore trees. Whatever that is. And that’s just part of the problem with Amos, he doesn’t quite fit in. He’s a country boy sent to the city. He’s a manual laborer charged with addressing the upper class. God calls him from the farm, herding sheep and dressing sycamore trees (actually, I spent a summer de-tasseling corn, it was hard sweaty, mind-numbing work that started as the sun was rising, marching up and down the rows of corn no matter how hot the sun got and lasted until it was nearly going down. If dressing sycamore trees was anything like that no wonder he was so grumpy), and says that he was given the task of straightening out the economic morass that was Israel at the time. You can’t blame him for getting hot under the collar, I guess. He looked at the excesses of the elite and was outraged. He looked at the lot of the poorest and his heart broke.

So, what’s the deal with the fruit? Well, it’s a tricky Hebrew pun that’s hard to translate. The word for summer fruit is qayes, and the word for “end” is qays. Or maybe it’s the other ways around. Whichever. Get it? No, most of us don’t. Which means that the best way to visualize this prophetic image would be to look at a time lapse film of a bowl of fruit. There it sits, all shiny and delicious. But then through the magic of technology in the space of a few seconds it rots, right there before your eyes, it rots and shrivels and before you know it instead of a mouth-watering image of the harvest of plenty it turns your stomach and is only fit for the compost heap. Or imagine a shiny red apple that you grab from a basket and take a big bite, only to discover that under that skin, the meat of the apple had already turned, and it is mushy and mealy and you hope that darker spot is just advanced rot and not a worm you’ve bitten in half.

That’s the picture God draws for Amos and he shares so gleefully with Israel and with us. What’s really going on in the land of plenty? What’s under the surface of progress and growth? Where does justice reside in a land driven by profit, where does mercy live in a society of the bottom line?

Though there are some who might argue for it, I’m not sure that it serves us well to go line by line and compare the abuses Amos describes with our world today, our America today. Though in recent months and the past year or so we have been witness to such abuses in our news reporting on a scale that might make even Amos blush. The truth is the perpetrators of such excesses aren’t likely to be reading this bible study, so pointing fingers would be a fruitless exercise. The weight of the text as a whole can speak for itself quite well, I think. And where there are words that pinch, image that cause us to flinch, we can respond to that word on our own.

I think the message for most of us, is a little more subtle than that, however. I know, I know, subtle and Amos go together like ice cream and fish heads, but still. Take a look back at verse 5. Amos’ complaint here is that the merchants are chafing under the blue laws. He is saying that they have compartmentalized their worship life and their business life and are wanting to get the former out of the way so that they can get back to the latter. He imagines them sitting in the pew in their Sunday best, but plotting Monday’s conquests in the back of their minds.

The classic prophetic complaint is that the tendency, even of people of faith, is to put God into one small - and maybe shrinking - corner of our lives and to do our level best to keep Him there. While we go about the rest of our lives without a thought as to how our faith just might impact our business decisions, our political decisions, or our public and private behaviors. We have allowed the Constitutional blessing of separation of church and state – which was intended to keep the government out of the church, not the other way around – to become our standard operating procedure for all of live. We have given God a corner of our lives, but what God wants is all of it.

That professor was right, theology – or we might more comfortably say faith – is concerned with everything. Our whole lives belong to God, all of our decisions, all of our leanings, all of our priorities, all of our business. To continue to behave otherwise is to bring famine upon us. But not a famine of bread, but of the Word, the presence, the blessing of God. And then we would be lost.

OK, next time, I deal with the real threat from Amos: verse 10 - "I will bring baldness on every head." That’s just way too personal!


Friday, July 2, 2010

Happy Birthday?

OK, there's one thing I've never been clear on. So, forgive my historical ignorance, but I've got to ask. Is the 4th of July the birthday of the United States of America, or what? Just what is it that we are celebrating on this date? Now, hang on, before you throw up your hands at someone who has been to school forever and hasn't apparently learned anything at all, think about it for a moment. What really happened on the first July 4th way back in 1776?

All the armchair historians in the audience will be quick to point out the historical reality that the Declaration wasn't completely signed on July 4th. Or that there is considerable debate as to when it was actually signed. Some argue that no one signed it on the 4th and some say they all did. Most historians argue for an August date, some argue that the last signatures didn't appear until much later - maybe years. I guess that explains why the fireworks in the neighborhood just go on and on and on. They are trying to be more historical. Right.

The other historical reality that no one talks much about is that it was almost a no vote. The Declaration just squeaked by with a late arrival that swayed the vote of one delegation. Plus, the vote was taken on July 2nd and John Adams wrote his wife saying in the future Americans will celebrate July 2nd as an Independence Day! Whoops. Sorry John.

Let me get back to my original question. The little historical diversion was an added bonus, free of charge. You're welcome. But I ask again, just what is it that we are celebrating on July 4th? A birthday doesn't seem quite right to me.

And I was thinking of all of this because of the story of Naaman in our text for this week. (Note to self: work on transitions, that was pretty lame.) No, seriously. There is a connection. Trust me on this. Take a look:

2 Kings 5:1-14 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. 3 She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel." He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." 7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me." 8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

OK, long story, sorry about that. Just think, though, you can bleep over it as you read thinking you've got the highlight. On Sunday morning everyone will have to listen to the whole thing, start to finish. Yikes.

Anyway, this is the story of Naaman's birthday. Seriously. Well, maybe "re-birthday" might be a little closer to the truth. But like with any birth there is a lot of pain involved, there is fear and confusion and a whole lot of uncertainty.

Naaman is a great man. We know he is because it says so right there in the text. Verse on he was "a great man and in high favor with his master" (the King of Aram - because Naaman was a military man, serving at the will of the commander in chief. And expressly forbidden to talk to reporters from The Rolling Petros). A great man with a small problem. A skin disease. It's called leprosy because any visible skin disease was called that. It might have been terminal, it might have been a rash. But it was there and he was worried.

And here's the point, he went to a series of great men and wasn't able to find a solution. Or he found it, he just couldn't see it. It took a less than great slave girl to point to a solution and a less than great set of personal servants to convince him to stop pouting and give the solution a shot. It didn't sound great enough for such a great man to go jump in a river seven times. But the servants argued, "you've come this far, what's it going to hurt. If you were asked to do a great thing, you would have done it without question. Why not do this humble thing and see what happens?"

So, he did, and it worked. And the great man became like a little boy. That's what it says in verse 14. Smooth as a baby's behind, it might have said. He was born again. When he stooped down from his great height to humble himself he renewed himself.

If you go check out the text there in 2 Kings, chapter 5, you'll see there was more to his healing than just a skin treatment in a muddy river. There was a spiritual renewal as well. And the great man who had been an unwitting servant of the Lord (see verse 1), became one by design and intent in the end. He chose to be humble and became great. Happy Birthday?

What are we celebrating this weekend? Birthdays seem to be about what happens to us. We don't choose to be born, we just are. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating the happy accident of the birth of those we love. It should be a happy day. But in our family there is another day of celebration, we call it Gotcha Day. Our kids were born a long way away to people we have never met. We can celebrate and thank God for the what is for us a happy accident of their birth, and we do. But we also mark, a little more humbly, and little more quietly the day we chose them, the day we got them. (And like the historical realities of our nation, there is a confusion of dates involved here.)

Maybe the 4th of July ought to be Gotcha Day for the nation, the day we claim our responsibilities and pledge to serve. And maybe it is a day not for listening to the great, but to the humble, the ones we overlook, the ones who don't have much voice. Maybe it could be a day of healing, or the start of a renewal of acceptance and community. Maybe less "rockets red glare" and more lighting a single candle. Who knows? Can we set hope alight this 4th of July?


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Shoot 'Em Up

I have a confession to make. A secret to share with you my closest friends. It’s a little embarrassing, I must admit. But I figure I can trust you. So, here goes: I like action movies.

I know, I know. They are usually not great literary or cinematic works of art. I know that they stretch the limits of possibility and that they tend to solve all problems with violence as a first response. I also know that they tend to focus on the individual rather than the community, the hero against the world, or the forces of evil, or corruption, or …

I know all that. But I still like them. I still go and see them. Well, not all of them, I am a bit discriminating, at least I like to think so. But I go and see movies that in some ways at least disagree with my theology.

In some ways. Aside from the thrilling action scenes that when done well are as aerobic as some workout routines, they get your heart pumping and your muscles clenching almost against your will; but there is one aspect of this genre that does connect theologically. During most of these films the realization dawns, at least on the part of the viewers if not the characters in the story, that a savior is needed.

The problem in much of the bible and in much of the world today, and I humbly submit, in our lives and in the psyche of this great nation is that it is so easy to forget that we need a savior. We have become so independent, so reliant upon our own resources, so certain that we can solve our own problems that we are reluctant to admit we need a savior.

This is one of the struggles I have with our celebration on this date. We call it Independence Day, because it is at the beginning a celebration of a nation who decided that it needed to rule itself as a community, as a nation with a representative government based on the common good. We claimed independence from outside rule.

But what I sometimes fear we are celebrating these days is the action hero, “we don’t need nobody cause we got the power to do whatever we want” kind of independence. The kind we sometimes reference when we shout out “hey, it’s a free country!” Meaning, get off my back, I can do what I choose.

Perhaps, we in the church need to shift emphases a little bit and talk more about an Interdependence Day. I heard this idea at a seminar I attended some time ago. (See, we need help, even with good ideas!) This would allow us to celebrate the richness of our nation because of the ways we learn from and share with a vast diversity of people and cultures. We are a great nation because we recognize our interdependence, we recognize our need for folks like us and unlike us.

Ultimately, of course, we would also want to talk about our need for a Savior, for that is our true dependence. We depend on the grace of God. And despite our popular culture, we know the savior we need doesn’t come with whips and guns, but with grace and mercy and forgiveness.

That’s a hero worth celebrating, and action enough for anyone.