Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
I've been doing some reading up on Frederick Douglas this week. He has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of the tragic violence our nation has faced and the turmoil occurring in our political parties. President Obama continues to call for unity, but our nation, our culture, our lives are incredibly divided. Read these words, delivered to Congress in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic."
Truth does not prevail in violence. Emotion does. Personal agendas and ambitions do. Certainly sin and evil do as well. But Truth does not prevail in that. Instead, it prevails in reason.
Take a step back and ask, why now? Why do these attacks happen in the heat of summer and in times and places where the economy struggles? Why do we hear about these attacks in places with greater population density and not in the rural villages that predominate our country? We get hot and stressed... and our frustration overides our reason, so we find someone to take it out on. That someone is almost always the wrong person, not the person with whom we are truly frustrated.
I don't know about Frederick Douglass's faith, so I cannot comment on that, but I noticed he applied some of the spiritual warfare principles of Jesus to politics in the 1800's. He taught us to name the root cause, the evil spirit tormenting us, and to have the courage to cast it out instead of just dealing with the symptoms. It reminds me of the demoniac of Gerasene that was chained outside the town, near the tombs because he was so enraged that he would wound himself and anyone around him. Jesus, was not afraid of him, but asked the demons their name. They replied "Legion, for we are many". Jesus then cast them into a herd of pigs when they begged him not to send them away and the man was restored to sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
We need to name those root causes, those spiritual evils that are tormenting us and have the courage to cast them out. I don't mean the evils our neighbors have, I mean the ones that we have in our own lives, in our own houses, in our own hearts. I'm sure the devil loves nothing more than a bunch of tormented fools taking out their distress on one another, all the while being blind to the root of our strife.
I've not seen any quotes of Frederick Douglas posted but I encourage you to check him out as he spoke from a place of peace, grace, strength, and unity, in a time when those qualities were most lacking in our nation. We may be in times like those again.
Disclaimer: I am personally a terrible example about the following subject.
I'm coming close to 20 years of experience serving in churches. One of the common stories I have heard told or seen demonstrated in almost every congregation I have been a part of is the growth toward becoming Pharisees. Depending on how my day is going it strikes me as either funny or sad the way it seems everyone, and I mean everyone tells this story on someone else. It goes something like this...
Once upon a time, I was a young Christian who had just discovered the love of Jesus for the first time and was reveling and excited about the freedom and forgiveness I found in His grace. I couldn't understand all these "older" Christians who were always reading from the Old Testament and talking about the Law. Come on people! Jesus died so that we could get away from all the Law stuff that only holds us back from God. It was offensive to me how complicated they were making the simple love and grace of God out to be. They were just like the Pharisees in the Gospels.
To make matters even worse, I found out that they were still sinners. Not only were they keeping people out who were the ones who really needed God, they weren't even following all the rules they were so insistent on others keeping.
This story often ends with a call to ministry, perhaps a church split, or some other form of starting ministry from a fresh new perspective. The world turns, and another generation arises. Those who were once adamant that grace theologically outranks works every time have grown a few years older, and perhaps more importantly taken up the mantle of leadership and their perspective changes.
Suddenly, they are not sure that everyone deserves grace all the time. Now, they should only receive that forgiveness and acceptance if they apologize... and not just a half-hearted apology. They need to really mean it. It needs to be actual repentance, so everyone knows they will never do it again. They should also pay for whatever pain or damage they caused if at all possible. The list goes on...
The funny thing is that so much of this depends on context. It is not age that makes people Pharisees, it is responsibility. I have seen young adults in college ministry be so pro-grace/anti-law in their college ministry groups on campus who, when put in charge of a cabin of middle school students at camp, suddenly transform into the master of parliamentary procedure for the Sanhedrin Council of the Pharisee sect.
Why is this? Simply put, we would rather receive grace than give it. Even those of us who struggle with our own pride and desire to earn our keep... we certainly don't want to give out more grace than we have access to ourselves. That cuts us to the core. Yet what did Jesus say about giving and receiving? Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8) or more pointedly in Luke 6:30 - Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Jesus didn't deal with what was fair. He dealt with what was right. Those are not always the same thing. It is those moments when it is not fair but it is right that we probably cringe the most. Especially when it is unfair to us.
The question today is not, where do you stand? Where we stand depends on the day and how much responsibility we have. The question is: how are we giving out grace?
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
- Matthew 7:3 KJV
Tonight I'm finishing up the chapter on the gospel of John. It is just the first draft and I imagine there will be plenty of revisions. If there is one thing I have learned combing through the politics in the gospels is that we all have room to grow. I do not just mean that nobody knows it all like Jesus does... that much is a bit too obvious. I mean that we all - right, left, middle, other, and abstaining, are unified by the effects of fear in our political lives.
Every day it is something else. I used to hear about the negativity in the media and how some people wished the stories were more uplifting. Today though, it is not just negativity, it is anxiety. It is fear. I do not know if we have grown up into a fear-consuming nation or if there are external pressures that intend on keeping us that way. All I know is that fear is prevalent.
That is except when we cover it up with our anger. The political anger today matches the fear and meets it head on in a violent chemical reaction that is imploding communities and exploding across the nation. We react. All of us. Anger and fear, two sides of the same coin that herd us around in circles.
So tonight I'm wondering, if we strip away the fear and anger as motivations for our politics... what is left? Is there any motivation? When we strip away the manipulators is there anything left that honors God?
It's time to quit reacting to the motes in our own eyes. They lead us into jousting matches with windmills like Don Quixote that make us feel important because we cannot see what we are doing... just being foolish. We need to see clearly what is going on in us, so that we can see clearly what is going on around us, and where God is at work.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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