Gun Violence

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Deut. 31:7-13,24-32:4Rom 10:1-13Matt. 24:15-31

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Paul says in Romans today.

I hear these words and I cannot help but think of the ongoing culture of violence that is America – our culture build around guns and violence and racism.  Every night the news is filled with violence of the day.

In so many ways when it comes to gun violence or violence in general, we have become numb.  “Just another day of violence.” We shrug our shoulders in hopelessness and wait for the next newscast filled with violence.

My prayer continues to be that our country will finally turn the page on apathy.  And some of those prayers have been answered.  Long gone is the mantra “thoughts and prayers” that used to soothe the apathetic public.  Now seen as a cop-out, politicians are forced to find new empty words.

Our marching orders are clear.  Every Christian is not simply called to pray, but called to action.  My prayer is that action begins NOW.

These words from Paul have quite a different context than all the swirling thoughts of my mind.  People in Paul’s time were arguing that the Gentiles were not saved.  He was responding to that with words of inclusion and grace.  Paul was arguing that God’s grace had opened up, and that restrictions like circumcision and following the law were no longer in order, that salvation had spread to unfathomable circles.

Our context is different.  For us salvation is “salvation from ourselves.”  We need to be washed clean of the culture of violence, hatred, and racism.  We need to have rage well up in us to call us peaceloving Christians to action.  We need to be covered in the blood of the victims in order to begin to see straight.  That will certainly awake us to action.

Let me say a little about the plague of guns we have around here, and gun violence:

I am tired of hearing about the 2nd Amendment.  Anyone with a brain knows this is not what the founders of our country intended.  But what do we do?  As Americans most of us are committed to God’s Word, but equally committed to the US Constitution.  What’s more is that we rely on our courts to adapt our antique documents like the Bill of Rights to our modern, technological challenges.  We trust our judiciary to sort all this out: what’s a right and what needs restriction.  The problem is that we are left with that awkward, irresolvable phrasing of the 2nd Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The responses vary.  My NRA card-carrying, pro-gun-rights readers are asking: “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ do you not understand?” Others ask: “What part of ‘a well regulated Militia’ do you not understand?”

While I am not a Constitutional Law expert, nor do I want this Morning Reflection to become a history lesson, it is worth mentioning that best I can tell for most of our history, the 2nd Amendment seemed almost irrelevant, maybe in part to the ambiguity I laid out above. For most of our history, many American towns and states regulated guns and that was that.  But in the 1980s something changed.  People began to look at the 2nd Amendment differently, and the right to bear arms for self-defense emerged.

And now we are bearing the fruit of all that.  As mass shootings dwindled in Australia after the voluntary collection of guns, and as Canadians continue to have more guns than Americans but yet have far fewer incidents of gun violence, our culture of violence here flourishes with police shootings and police being shot, with domestic violence that becomes deadly, with children sometimes accidentally killing themselves or their siblings.  My black friends fear being pulled over by the police, a fear I will never fully understand.

A few things are clear: 1) Prayer is no longer enough to combat violence.  2) Taking away the guns is not enough.  3) Fixing our culture of violence will take more than prayer in schools or a reclaiming of God in classrooms.  It will mean something much deeper, like teaching our children to value life.  4) We cannot do this without help from above.

What does it mean to call on the Lord, as Paul encourages?  To put one’s trust in, to count on, or to look to.  For us it means more than a simple “get out of hell free” card.  Paul is arguing that the flood gates of grace are open.  We desperately need the flood gates of grace to open in other ways as we call on God.

Now is the time for Christians to stand up and proclaim some good news to hurting America – that salvation is at hand – salvation from ourselves.  Now is the time to lay aside our worship of guns and the false hope that more guns will save us, and turn to the God of New Life.  Now is also the time to call one another to action.

You are probably sensing the direction God is calling me to.  We have tried arming ourselves to the hilt and it didn’t work.  Perhaps now is the time to collect up as many guns as we can and have a smelting party.  Only then can the glories of love be revealed.

Only when our hands are free of weapons can we embrace one another.

Only then can we build and bind one another in love’s ferocious embrace.

Enough is enough, my friends.

-Matt

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Setting the Stage

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Num. 32:1-6,16-27Rom. 8:26-30Matt. 23:1-12

In theater, setting the stage is one of the most important tasks.  It lays the foundation for the characters to move, plots to develop, and the entire scene to be set in the audience’s mind.

Today in scripture we see a lot of setting the stage.

Paul speaks about the purpose of prayer, and in Matthew Jesus lays a foundation of what our new faith is to look like.

The Romans passage captures my imagination, with Paul explaining the purpose of prayer and the concepts of “foreknew” and “predestined,” not as simply prior action, but as God acting in eternity and shoring up the kingdom of heaven.

Of course this ol Presbyterian is gonna be interested when the word predestined shows up!

Those us of predestined can rest in God’s grace, because we have also been called, justified, and glorified.  For those of you really interested in the minutia of theological discourse, this becomes the heart of Karl Barth’s understanding of sanctification, which is closely linked with justification.  It is a phenomenal read if you love that kind of stuff.

The passage in Matthew is the setting of the stage for Jesus to denounce the Scribes and Pharisees.

In many ways, today’s readings are dense and rich in meaning and depth.  In one sense they are difficult.  But it is a reminder to me that living into Scripture is not something one does overnight, but requires a lifetime of study and reflection.  I am constantly reminded, through the process of writing Morning Reflections, how little I know.  It is a humbling process.  But nevertheless, it is a rich, rewarding experience and feels a lot like taking my daily vitamins.  And just like vitamins, it is the long term effects that are often most important.

And so today we set the stage.  We wait for the story to develop.  In the meantime, we focus on the tasks at hand, and pray to God that he will enrich our prayer and help us focus on the building blocks of our faith.

-Matt

Grace Abounds

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Num. 23:11-26Rom. 8:1-11Matt. 22:1-14

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet can be troubling and confusing.

Big chunks of Matthew can be troubling and confusing!  Those of you that joined the Noon Bible Study of Matthew know this.  One of the challenges is this sudden shift about Chapter 22, when there is a sudden harshness of judgment oracles.

Best I can tell this is a symbolic picture of Matthew’s church.  Each one of Matthew’s readers can probably recognize their own face as they are gathered at the son’s wedding banquet – those who were invited, those invited late, the gathering of the good and bad.  And they are jammed into this churchly banquet hall, both good and bad.

Near the end we hear a traditional Jewish saying – “many are called, but few are chosen”.  Like yesterday’s reflection about “never getting there”, this is not meant to be read literally, but means “God wants everybody at the party, but not everyone wants to come or knows how to behave once they get there.”

Usually parables have a disconnect with reality.  This certainly fits the bill, with much of this not making sense.  Some are cajoled in off the street unexpectedly and then judged for not being ready?  Huh?  There is certainly an underlay of a judgement oracle urging us as Christians to discern who we are and how we live.  Jesus wants us to be different, act different, feel different.

Do we come to the church with a sense of awe and wonder?  How are we joyful or prepared to belong to the church?  Are we coming as children of the kingdom, or strutting our stuff expecting results?  The “what’s in it for me” culture certainly has taken over the church of North America and it is why we are dying.  The church has never been about “what’s in it for me”, but a place where awe and wonder meet up with those who are humble and open recipients of massive grace.

Only then will we get to Happy Hour.

-Matt

True Allegiances

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Num. 22:21-38Rom. 7:1-12Matt. 21:23-32

Best I can tell, Jesus is speaking of allegiances in today’s Matthew passage.  An extension of the turning of the money changer tables, Jesus is interrogated by the chief priests and elders.  They want to know by what authority he is disrupting temple practices.  He withholds his answer until they answer one of his questions, a question which points to allegiances.

He asks whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from human origin.  If they say heaven, people will wonder why they did not believe him.  If they say “from human origin” then the crowd will turn against them, because they believe John to be a prophet.

Their earthly allegiances get in the way.  It disallows them from answering.  They are pandering to their own egos, their own respect and credentials.  Because of this, Jesus tells a parable, and then declares that the prostitutes and tax-collectors will enter heaven before they do.

It is a passage full of insults.  Jesus is tired of putting up with their mud-slinging and he is slinging some back.

The world is no different today.  We live in a world that vies for our attention.  Not just commercials on television, but almost every corner of life – we are asked to pay our dues, subscribe to certain ways of thinking, support this that or the other candidate, buy this, support that.  We pander to expectations society puts on us, divorcing ourselves from the call that Jesus hurls out today – that our allegiance better be with God.

We must be willing to part with our credibility, with our respect and dignity, if it means holding up our Sovereign God above all else.  That’s a tall order, yet one that we must struggle with daily, for ours is not the kingdom of earth, but the kingdom of heaven.

-Matt

Justice for All

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Num. 16:36-50Rom. 4:13-25Matt. 20:1-16

Grace abounds in Paul’s letter to the Romans today.

Paul talks about it by continuing to assert that God’s promise is realized through faith, not the law.  “For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.  For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace….”

All throughout the New Testament we discover that God’s kingdom is not driven by good business practices, but a practice of love, abundance, and grace.

This is a regular theme of the New Testament that grace supersedes the law, and one that continues to get kick-back from religious leaders in all corners of the Church.  It is just too much to think about Love and Grace trumping rules.  And yet I see a church that is consumed by laws and condemnation lately.  We have a lot of “no’s” for a world that is looking to us for God’s “yes”.

For Paul, the struggle was over circumcision – Gentile versus Jew.  Today it is about immigrants and inclusion.  Not much has changed.  We still struggle over who is in and who is out, because people grab for power.  We like the status quo.  Actually not much has changed since kindergarten – we are a selfish people who don’t like to share.

 

Last night’s election results surprised me a bit, but then I looked nationally and my eyes widened even more.  And yet as the shock waves of last night’s election continue to be felt around the country, our job as Christians does not change much.  We are still faced with the same ol questions:

Are we ready for the radical nature of the Gospel of Love to take over our lives?

Are we ready for God’s new world of Love which means that ALL ARE WELCOME?

Are we ready to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

My response comes easy.

-Matt

General Assembly – Wrap Up

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Num. 16:20-35Rom. 4:1-12Matt. 19:23-30

I believe I have recovered from General Assembly!  It is waaaayyyyy too long of an event.

But the take-aways are many.  Our denomination is on a solid footing.  We have good leaders and the future is bright.  I also walk away with a whole host of renewed relationships.  Indeed, the dynamics of GA are such that relationships can be fostered, and that is the real strength of this meeting.  As I mentioned on Sunday in my GA debriefing, it is not the committee work or the plenary decisions that are of importance, but the way this church puts its “best foot forward” in this time, does worship well, sets the bar high for the rest of the year in terms of relationships and direction.

Another walk away is that our denomination is now ready to stand up to the powers and principalities.  We are a denomination that has God at the center of our existence, and the evil at work in our world is something to oppose.

Interesting, that is the focus of the Matthew passage today.

The parable of the rich young man: “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for  someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”  But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

We are reminded that God is the mover and shaker.  Everything begins with God’s movement in our lives.  We are in the same boat as the rich young man – tied to our worldly affairs so much we are unwilling to let go.  This is the essence of our sin.

But with God all things are possible.  If we as a church or a denomination are going to get anywhere it is coming to this realization.  It is not about us.  It never was.  It is about God.

Is it possible for us to let go and claim the newness of God?  Not an escape from this world, but God offers a release from the power of greed, money, status, and worth.  We have found new and everlasting worth with Christ.

This is the miracle of the gospel.  The abundance of God’s love is so great, that we can talk about it in terms of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  It is an abundance of impossibility.  Not counting our faults, the love of God washes over us like a gentle rain, encapsulating us.

There are those who believe that text is not a metaphor, but a literal “eye of a needle.”  But did you that in some later centuries, the early churches had doors that were referred to as “eyes of needles”?  Tired of the rich people riding their horses into the sanctuary, they would shrink the doors so only people could get through, raising the bottom, lowering the top, so it was what amounted to a crawl space.

And what a way to start church!  You are reminded that you can pass through the eye of a needle, when you are amongst God’s faithful.  With God all things are possible!  It’s even possible to travel through the eye of a needle – traveling through every Sunday morning.

-Matt

General Assembly – Day 8

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The marathon day of the Assembly is over!!!

The Assembly adopted broad strategies to fight institutional racism, environmental racism, injustice, gun violence, and nationalism. Divestment was voted down. Other practices were adopted to support climate science, fight climate change, and care for the earth that God has entrusted to our care.

It was days like yesterday that make me proud to be Presbyterian.

It was a long day.  Divestment debate went on for some time.  And in the end, divestment was soundly rejected, as the 223rd General Assembly voted against divestment (409-106); and the stakes for what was adopted was increased, as a short-list for possible selective divestment in 2020 was inserted, naming specific companies.

I hope those who advocated for a fossil free PCUSA don’t forget that which was passed.  They did not lose.  The Church did not lose.  The way forward is still for broad support for alternative forms of energy.  The PCUSA is committed to wind and solar technologies. Natural gas, nuclear, and every other initiative to move the church and the world to reduce their carbon footprint were all adopted. The MRTI group will continue to fight and advocate for the climate entrusted to our care.

One of the pieces of this is the Assembly’s strong stand is against environmental racism.  Communities of color are disproportionally hurt by climate change.  That may be why the Advisory Committees on Social Witness Policy, Racial Ethnic Concerns, and Women’s Concerns all stood opposed to divestment.  And the Assembly wisely agreed.

There will be a Synod of the Sun event in Norman on Nov 2-3 that will include the MRTI folk.  I hope you mark your calendar now.  It should be an engaging discussion on the plan as we move forward to protect our environment.

Many of us Mid-Council leaders planned to stand in solidarity with the #MeToo movement on this bow tie Friday which is quite a thing with J. Herbert. Pictured above is Ruth Clendenin, the Stated Clerk of Palo Duro Presbytery, Sara Dingman, the Synod Executive at Lincoln Trails and me.

Over 200 of us wore pink bow ties or pink shirts.

There was so much more, and I will sum it up tomorrow. Last day!

-Matt