Sunday, August 24, 2014

Asking the Right Questions

The politician was talking about making tough political choices. So the reporter asked for an example. Immediately the politician began talking about how people were having a hard time in the present economy. Finally, the reporter interrupted to say, “I didn't ask you to give me an example of a tough political challenge. I asked you for an example of a tough political choice.” At that point, the politician began to equivocate.

The first step to getting the right answer is asking the right question. You'd think that was obvious but many things conspire to deflect our attention from asking the proper questions. Advertisers rarely want people to ask essential questions about their products. They want you to ask if the product is attractive or cool or popular or sexy. I remember computer and phone commercials making a big deal out of all different colors their products come in. Nothing was said about how well the computer or phone actually works, which matters a lot more than how it looks. But everything from cars to candidates is marketed on superficial qualities. Indeed, studies have shown that most people vote on the basis of whether they like a candidate rather than whether they agree with his or her positions on issues. They elect the one they'd want to have as a dinner guest rather than the one who'd make a good leader.

Unfortunately, people also tend to put superficial considerations before essential issues when it comes to ethical and theological questions. C.S. Lewis points out that people often ask whether a behavior or practice or concept is modern or scientific or patriotic or conservative or progressive, rather than whether it is right or wrong, true or false.

Today's lectionary passages all revolve around the importance of asking the right questions. In the Track 1 passage from Exodus 1:8-2:10, the new Pharaoh is concerned about the growth of the Hebrews in Egypt. He is especially worried about the number of males born, because they could grow up to be fighters. So he tells the midwives to kill every male newborn. But the midwives feared God more than the tyrant who ruled their country. At the heart of their acts of civil disobedience is the question as to who is the ultimate authority: God or government?

This may be a no-brainer but throughout history people have gotten the answer wrong. Loyalty to one's country is often unquestioned. Many people think God and country just go together naturally, so one can't conceivably contradict the other. During the Second World War, the population of Germany was for the most part convinced that the aims of their leadership was in concert with God's plans. Of course, any churches that refused to sanctify the Nazi program were outlawed.

Today in China there are 5 carefully controlled denominations sanctioned by the government. There are also numerous underground home churches where people are free to preach and interpret Scripture apart from government supervision. The penalty for being caught worshiping in a house church is being sentenced to a labor camp. Dozens of pastors are imprisoned each year.

Even in the U.S., Christians have been split on various government policies and laws. Long before abortion and gay marriage, some Christians have opposed the government on matters like slavery, war, race, labor and immigration. During World War 1, due to the Sedition Act, you could be imprisoned for being a pacifist. The Rev. Martin Luther King and many of his followers were beaten, sprayed by high pressure water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and incarcerated for peacefully demonstrating against racial discrimination. In each case, people had to ask if they would obey what they considered unjust laws or obey God's laws. And they had to face some very serious consequences for doing so.

We like to think of our country as a Christian one. Jesus lived in a Jewish state. But even in so-called religious countries, when national interests are at variance with Biblical morality, governments opt to follow their political agendas. Caesar will go along with Christ only so long as Christ is on Caesar's side. But eventually there will be a parting of the ways. And when that happens we have to ask the right question: to whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance—the State or the Lord?

In our passage from Romans 12:1-8, Paul has come to the part of his letter where he lays out the ethical implications of the theology he has been expounding. How do citizens of the Kingdom of God live in the kingdoms of this world? Reinhold Niebuhr delineated 5 models of for the relationship between Christ and culture. Since any human culture contains things both good and bad, both the results of common grace and the effects of the Fall, should we embrace culture, reject it, cooperate with it, transform it or live in a paradoxical relationship with it? Whatever we do with it, Paul tells us not to be conformed to it. The Greek word for “conform” means “to take on a similar pattern.” One of the temptations the church faces is that of imitating earthly models. At times it has imitated worldly empires, the military, and successful businesses. The problem is not that of using good ideas of other sources but of assimilating the culture of other organizations. The goal of an empire is to expand and to take over smaller countries. The culture of the military is that of unquestioning obedience to a rigid chain of command. The bottom line of a business is an ever expanding marketshare and an ever increasing income. And, as we've seen all too often, morality is never the primary consideration in any of those organizations. In fact, whatever the original purpose of an organization was, in the end the prime directive becomes ensuring the continued existence of that organization. And that end justifies any means that promises to help achieve it. We see enough of that in the world. We don't need it in the church.

It's already there, of course. Just as you wish to get a boat into the water without getting too much water into the boat, the problem has always been to get the church out into the world without getting too much of the world into the church. So what should we do instead of conforming to the world? Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The word for “renewal” could be translated “renovation.” We don't let the world change us but we let the mind of Christ transform us into his way of thinking. And the mind of Christ, as Paul reminds us in Philippians, is one of humility, service and self-sacrifice. Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is love. Rather than worry about merely perpetuating the church as an organization, rather than just imitating human institutions and appropriating their attitudes along with their insights, we must make sure the purpose of the church remains being the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his transforming Spirit, in this world. But that begs a question, one which underlies all the others and which is the focus of today's gospel (Matthew 16:13-20).

Jesus asks his disciples who the general public says he is. They give various answers. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” We know what Peter said. But what would those in the church today say if Jesus were to put the question to them? Some would say he was a great teacher. Some would say he was a pagan concept adapted by the church. Some would say he was a failed revolutionary who nevertheless had some good ideas. And some would agree with Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The problem is that if you give something radically different than the Petrine answer, you cannot affirm that Jesus is Lord. You may admire and agree with a lot of what a great teacher says, but you are not obligated to do everything he says. The same applies to all answers that fall short of acknowledging Christ as the Lord of all.

And if you ask me, the demotion of Jesus that has occurred in Western society and in the church has less to do with legitimate doubts and more to do with our wanting a way out of total obedience to Christ. We want to pick and choose what parts of his teachings we will concentrate on, whether social justice or personal morality, activism or piety. And we can't do that if Jesus is God incarnate. We can't cherry pick among issues such as poverty, sexual morality, social inequality, personal responsibility, political action, private charity, supporting the environment and supporting the family. We need to stop narrowing down God's concerns to match ours. Instead we must demand justice from those in power, challenge the oppressed to forgive, preach repentance to all, and work for peace and reconciliation.

Asking the right questions goes a long way towards solving any problem. Today we have considered 3 big questions to ask ourselves. When human authority and Biblical morality clash we need to ask “Whom ultimately must we obey?” When we encounter the power and allure of the world, we must ask ourselves, “Are we merely imitating the ways of the world, or are we letting the mind of Christ transform ourselves and our thoughts, words and actions?”

And underlying these questions we must ask ourselves “Who do I think Jesus is?” If we think he is just a great teacher or a supreme example of humanity, then we can depart from his ways when we feel differently than he about some issues. And there is a long history of so-called Christians ignoring Jesus' commands to treat others as we wish to be treated, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to put up the sword, to turn the other cheek, to give generously to the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit those in prison, to welcome the alien, to forgive those who sin against us, to love one's enemy, to repent, to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. The failures of Christianity are largely failures to obey Christ's commands and to live according to his Spirit.

But if we acknowledge him as the very embodiment of our loving Creator, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, our risen Lord who will come again to judge between the eternally alive and the spiritually dead, then we must commit ourselves to bringing all of the gospel—repentance, self-sacrificial service, and liberation from all sins, personal and social—to all of our lives. If we can't, then we must question whether we are Christians at all.   

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