Friday, November 28, 2008

The Constitutional Legacy of Michener's America

This political election season has prompted me to read all sorts of stuff on politics, American history, constitutional philosophy, and biographies. The most recent book I just finished in this vein was James Michener's Legacy: A Novel. It's a slim book, which is visibly odd for anybody that has ever noticed a normal Michener tome. What's even more special than reading a Michener novel within a 24 hour period is the overview of constitutional evolution and history he carries the reader through in only 176 pages (this includes the Constitution too - of which I read every word!).

The story unfolds in Legacy through a Major Norman Starr who is about to go before a public Senate Hearing Committee concerning his role in the Iran-contra affair. Major Starr has not knowingly done anything illegal, but he is being put in a position where his lawyer is recommending he plead the Fifth in order to protect his own personal welfare. As Starr and his wife contemplate their situation and what they ought to do, they recount the Starr family heritage. The go all the way back to a member who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, as well as one who signed the Constitution in 1787. Another member was a Supreme Court justice that served alongside the famous John Marshall; a feisty great-aunt was involved in the struggle for woman's suffrage, and a great-grandfather served alongside General Robert E. Lee in defending the interests of Virginia during the Civil War.

In recounting the different personalities, merits, and character of his family member's interactions with the Constitution, we begin to appreciate Major Starr's commitment to defending the Constititution, but also his interest in learning to apply it correctly to the new situations we face in new centuries, totally unforseen by the delegates who created it in Philadelphia. In comparison to the Starr's allegiance to the Constitution, my own has been one of indifference and basic ignorance. Not that I don't know anything about the Constitution, but what I do know is not based in the kind of respect that history requires. It is a unique document, a very favorable form of governing that should not be ignored by the average citizen.

Some impressions of the Constitution, it's creation, and its consequences - based on Michener's recounting of events:
* There was major tension on how to resolve the interests of the large prosperous states and those of the small states; the two houses of Congress were created to mollify the concerns of each (Representatives gave the large states power according to their population, Senate gave small states an equal voice amongst larger states).

* There was major tension over the roll of slavery, how to count slaves for taxation and voting purposes, and how to set in motion the eventual termination of slavery in the country. It seems that the issue was unresolvable at the time, lest the delegates fracture and thus form no Constitution at the time, if ever. So it was decided to postpone a decision for the next two decades, with the hopes that economic forces would eventually result in manumission of slaves.

* There was major interest in limiting the role and influence of religion upon the new government. Interestingly, according to Michener, it was because everybody was very religious (in one way or another) that religion was seen as a negative force upon governing. Nobody doubted the vital role religion played in forming men and women of good character, but nobody doubted either the terrible violence that religion could unleash when political power was involved (think of the bloody religious wars following the Reformation). It's true that Judeo-Christian ideas were evident in the documents of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and that the delegates were mostly Christian, but with the great interest most seemed to take in severely limiting the establishment of religion, it hardly seems practical to refer to America as a Christian nation.

* There was an interesting clash of wills when it came to the cause of woman's suffrage. Many men in the military, in the government, in the church, and in the pubs were against the right of woman to vote. Evidently enough men were won over to the cause that the amendment was passed in 1919, but many religious men were against it (citing St. Paul alot). It seems that the credibility of religion took a crippling blow upon the passage of woman's suffrage. Religion tried to insert itself in the political realities of interpreting and applying the Constitution, and it chose to defend the wrong cause. Religion seems to be taking a similar beating in opposing gay marriage, especially as the church tries to speak to how the Constitution ought to be applied. Those who are religious may want to reconsider what is the best way to live out the Good News in our Constitutional Democracy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My Grandfather's Son

Clarence Thomas, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, released his autobiography last year of his life up to the day of his swearing in ceremony. I finally bought myself the paperback earlier this fall. It's a fascinating and inspiring story.

It was while I was a junior in high school that Thomas endured his infamous Senate confirmation hearings. I remember watching some of it on TV, and I remember that most of the people in my life considered Thomas to be innocent and a victim of wrongful slander. I was relieved to see that Thomas was selected to the Supreme Court, and by that action I kind of assumed that he was declared innocent. But it was never really clear to me how the sexual harassment accusations were settled. At least now I've read Thomas' version of what happened. The harsh NY Times review of Thomas' autobiography only seems to further the credibility of story.

Thomas' boyhood is a hard-scrabble life, his mother sends him and his brother to live with her father; she can't afford to raise them. Since their real father was not part of their life, Thomas called his grandfather Daddy. He was a hard man, a proud black man who worked for everything he had and turned down free handouts. His harsh rearing of Thomas back then would be totally unacceptable today, but it was what it was. It's clear, in retrospect, that Thomas now knows how much his Daddy loved him, of how wise his Daddy was, and for what his Daddy was trying to protect him from and prepare him for.

Being brilliant and a hard worker helped him get through school and into his attorney career. His faith, though, eroded as he stumbled forward in life, trying to find his place as a black man in a very racist nation. It wasn't always clear how Thomas should fit into white America or black America. What was becoming evident was Thomas' independent thinking about realistic solutions to the problems his people and fellow citizens were enduring.

The last couple chapters of the book unfold rapidly as he recounts the events leading up to his nomination and the terrible experiences of the confirmation process and hearings. It's an emotionally deep series of events. The raw honesty with which Thomas unveils part of his soul is a gift. The strength of character he digs deep to unveil, his reliance upon his wife and his God is beautiful.

A few parts of the story that impressed me:

* The quote from Bob Knight that Thomas used to motivate himself to get ready for the confirmation: Most people have a will to win, but few people have the will to prepare to win.
* The character of Missouri Senator John Danforth and his friendship with Thomas. Inspiring. It's what's best about United States Senators.
* The reemergence of Thomas' faith as he went through the difficult times leading up to the confirmation hearings: the ending of his first marriage, the attempts to still try to be an involved father, the strain of being a public servant while dealing with near-poverty and inner-turmoil.
* The strength, dignity, loyalty, and high expectations that characterized Thomas' Daddy; he is an inspiring man - a hard and harsh man, but a good man.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Picking MY Huckleberries...Didn't Take Long

On a grey Saturday we decided it was time to pick MY huckleberries. The first frost had come and gone, which is what you want to wait for before you pick them. Emma wasn't able to travel up to Papa Ger's to pick his berries, so she was thrilled to help pick my berries. The boys are practically experts at picking berries since it to like forever to pick all of grandpa's huckleberries.

Emma's Soccer Achievement

Emma had fun playing soccer, and she was glad to get some treats, and meet some new friends. I think she really enjoyed making new friends. And the treats.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Sermon Notes 11.23.08

This sermon kicks off one of many from the Gospel according to Luke. At Anchor we are going to read through Luke in a year, about a chapter every two weeks or so. It's not really about reading some chunk of the Bible, but about reflectively walking our way through the stories and teachings of Jesus. If we're to be life-long students of Jesus, then the more we learn his stories and teachings the more we can live them out - and become like our teacher. Of course the point is not to be a student who mostly has lots of knowledge in the head, it's about having a lot of His wisdom, courage, righteousness, mercy in our hearts and hands.

So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives.

Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story's beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.

Luke 1v1-4 (The Message)

Dear Theophilus, in the first volume of this book I wrote on everything that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he said good-bye to the apostles, the ones he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven.
Acts 1v1 (The Message)

The first text we reflectively walk through is Luke's prologue to his narrative of all the things that Jesus began to do and teach. In ancient texts, a lot like today, the authors try to clarify what they are seeking to accomplish through their writings through their introductory paragraph. We know that Luke wrote this gospel, as well as the book, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke-Acts is one story, one narrative about the work of God through Jesus and the local church - a work that began long ago and which will go on for a long time yet.

Since the Luke-Acts narrative is a story about the work of God - it's worth noting what the big picture is concerning this written account. Literally, gospel means good news. Narratively, according to Luke-Acts (and the rest of the Scriptures), the Gospel is:
The work of God to restore us
in the context of community to God and to others
for the good of others and the world.

(see Scot McKnight: Embracing Grace)

Luke acknowledges that many people before him had been passing on the stories of God and the teachings of Jesus - but he was going to write it all down so that Theophilus could regain some of his confidence in what he had been taught concerning the life and events of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is where so many of us can connect with Luke and Theophilus: we have our doubts about the reliability of the stories, we wonder about the realisticness of Jesus' teachings, and we wonder whether what we've been taught really matters. Luke's answer: Yes! The stories are trustworthy, the teachings are transformative, and all that God has done in the world with and through Jesus matters.

Luke is a brilliant writer, and the man he is writing about is brilliant himself, and so is God the Father, the Son, and Spirit. This means that they write in such a way that simple men and women like me can read the stories and teachings and be changed; it also means that brilliant men and women like you can read the stories and teachings and be changed. Everyone can be inspired, invigorated, injected with a new life through the Scriptures - but we have to apply all our heart, mind, soul and strength to the task. If we briefly skim through the stories and teachings, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be confronted and conformed by the Scriptures.

The brilliant story that Luke has revealed through his literary craft - a story rooted in historical veracity, eyewitness accounts, and oral traditions - has to do with the ongoing work of God to gather together a community of men and women in whom and through whom he wants to fix what is wrong in the world. God started with Adam and Eve, but their Fall has been an ongoing descent of humanity. God also began the restoration process with Adam and Eve, forgiving them, being reconciled to them, and using them still to bless the world. God's intent is to restore all humanity and this whole world - the heavens and the earth, and this is what his work has been about since the days of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah, John, Jesus, Peter, Paul and you.

There's more to the story, but restoration is the heart of the Gospel and the Scriptures. Jesus is the God-Man who comes to show us the Way of restoration in this life and the Next. In light of the brokeness and lonliness and despair of our world, this Way of Restoration is certainly good news. Welcome to the Gospel according to Luke...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Eli The Pancakemaker

Eli is at that stage where whatever Emma, Levi, or Isaac are doing, he wants to do. So naturally he wanted to help stir the pancake batter (our typical Saturday morning routine). He did pretty good at it, took his time, didn't stir to quickly, kept stirring...and stirring...

Levi the veteran pancakemaker supervised Eli's initial stirring; he was proud of the little guy!

Like good boys, they refuse to look at the camera when Tara points it at them. Why try?

In the spirit of wanting to do what his brothers are doing, here Eli is trying to get in on the cuddletime. His version of cuddling is to fall on my legs and insist that I raise him up and down. It's a violent form of cuddling, but it works!

Eli became fascinated with our cupboard. He got in the habit of taking all the popcans out of the boxes and putting them neatly up on the shelf. And then he would take them off one by one and drop them back into the boxes. Not necessarily the right boxes, and not necessarily a gentle drop. The next day Tara found a puddle of pop on the floor...Eli is not a gentle child - adorable, but not gentle.

My lap's not big enough for everyone to sit on when we do family devotions, and Eli is resigned to sitting in his own seat, strapped in. And a good distance from Emma so that he won't bug her during the story. Or kick her. Or grab her hair.

And just like his sister and brother, he enjoys sitting down with a book and looking at all the pictures...all by himself.

Emma's Fun School Dance Party

To help raise money for her elementary school, Emma brought the family to a dance party where plenty of pre-teen kids jumped up and down to adult rock-and-roll music. A very interesting experience. I'm old fashioned I guess - I'm not used to seeing my five year old daughter moving to the beat of Love Shack and We Will, We Will Rock You. Anyhoo - me and the boys had some fun on the floor while Emma cruised the cafeteria looking for her friends to dance.

Emma and her good neighbor friend Illyanna - they had fun dancing the night away.

Emma had no hesitancy in jumping into the conga line.

The boys took awhile to get involved in any kind of dancing - we sat on the floor with our neighbor Phil and his daughter Abbey, taking in the sights and warming up to the music.

In case you hadn't noticed, Emma had lots of fun dancing with her friends!

Levi & Isaac: Preschool with Dad

In October Isaac and Levi each got to be a star-student for a whole week, and I was able to go in on a Monday for each of them to read a story and generally hang out with them. Like a dunce, I forgot the camera on Isaac's Monday (even though Tara laid the camera out on the counter right in front of me), but I didn't forget the next Monday for Levi! Here Levi is showing me what he must do at the beginning of every day: move his name from the home section to the school one.

The teachers said that normally Levi and Isaac don't play much together while at school. I guess since Dad is here, they are sticking together - at least for the camera shot! Their version of Connect4 is this: to race to see who can put the most chips in the grate the fastest, and then hit the lever and release them all.

The sand box is always popular. It seems that the more sand you get on the floor, the more fun you are having.

The craft project for the day was to make a fire truck. We used lots of glue.

One of the benefits of being the Star-Student is that you get to be the Line-Leader. Levi is not about to let anyone past him until the teacher says it is time to go to recess!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Formed By Christ

Christ remains the only one who forms.

Christian people do not form the world with their ideas. Rather, Christ forms human beings to a form the same as Christ's own.

However, just as the form of Christ is misperceived where he is understood essentially as the teacher of a pious and good life, so formation of human beings is also wrongly understood where one sees it only as guidance for a pious and good life.

Christ is the one who has become human, who was crucified, and who is risen, as confessed by the Christian faith.... To be conformed to the one who has become human - that is what being really human means....

All super-humanity, all efforts to outgrow one's nature as human, all struggle to be heroic or a demigod, all fall away from a person here, because they are untrue. The real human being is the object neither of contempt nor of deification, but the object of the love of God....

To be conformed with the one who became human means that we may be the human beings that we really are. Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is - all are abolished.

God loves the real human being. God became a real human being.

- from Ethics, 93-94
A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations from His Letters, Writingss, and Sermons.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sunday Sermon Notes 11.09.08

With Election Tuesday past, I thought that the first Sunday of the "new" year ought to be dedicated to some reflection on what we will do now that the votes are in. All that work that so many Christians put into choosing the "right" candidate - what to do now that the candidate has been chosen, what to do with all those concerns we had...if it was a concern we had before the election, how do we take action on it beyond just voting?

It is worth noting: check your attitude towards our new president. Most people have the tendency to overlook any flaws in someone they already like; and most people tend to overlook any good traits over someone they already dislike. There is no need to treat our new president with kid gloves - be interested in knowing and speaking truth - acknowledge his strengths and weaknesses, don't gloss over his weaknesses and don't downplay his strengths.

Romans 13 was my text for the morning, we looked at four key passages to give us some direction on what kind of action to take in the years to come now that we have cast our ballots and are looking for change.

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
What makes Christians unique is our public allegiance to God, we accept his authority and submit to it with glad hearts. In this text Paul is making the point that those who govern are also under the authority of God, whether they acknowledge it or not. Christians are to understand this point, and thus submit to those who govern as a way of submitting to the authority of God.
Takeaway point: Pay Close Attention to how those who govern use their authority. Our submission to their authority doesn't mean that we are disallowed from voicing the truth to how wisely they use their authority.

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Christians are to avoid all slander - especially towards those who govern with authority over us, and especially when we disapprove with their use of the authority. It is one thing to publicly disagree with an action or decision of the President, it is another thing to start speaking half-truths, sharing destructive gossip, slathering on dirty adjectives, and demeaning character. You can disagree - even vehemently - without getting into name-calling, character defamation, and slander.

10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Christians are to love our new President, we are to do no harm to him. Some Christians pray for the President as an act of love: I say then - be part of the answer to your prayers for the President. If you pray that he might have wisdom, consider how the LORD wants to use you to get him wisdom. If you pray that he might have courage to do the right thing, then consider how the LORD wants to use you to infuse him with courage. Of course integrity requires that we are seeking to live by the same wisdom and courage in our everyday life that we expect from our president.

11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Christians can be naive about their place in history, about why things are happening, and how to get the results they think God wants. Too many Christians default to "God is in control" and then do nothing. But Jesus gave evidence to understanding the times he lived in, waking people up to the current work of God, and inspiring/empowering them to take action. Christians need to understand the times and what is required to make the kind of change God envision for the world now.

Power is required to make change, and knowledge is power. So is moral purity: moral purity makes possible moral authority, and moral authority is a powerful change agent in influencing people do to the next right thing. We believe that the Spirit of God is granted to us so that God might channel his power through us: our knowledge of how God works, our moral purity, and our openness to doing/saying what God directs makes possible for God's great power to work through us. No doubt we are faced with situations that seemingly only God can change. God, however, puts his Spirit to work through until people wake up from their slumber and cultivate the kind of power God seeks to use to bless and redeem his world...well we'll keep on getting what we are getting.

With the votes in and our new president to be sworn in on a late January day, maybe some of us can make an early new years resolution: pick one...
Pay Attention to the use of the authority you submitted to.
No Slander from your mouth/heart towards those in authority over you.
Be the answer to your prayers
Understand the times in using your power

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Good News and Gangsters

For my Friday/Laundry-night movie I watched American Gangster. I figured it would be good since it had Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in it. It was good - gritty good, provocative good. It was also a dirty movie, not that this is what made it good, but it was disturbing to me in that I live a clean, "safe", crime-free life.

Which got me to thinking: as a pastor, how would I possibly begin to speak the good news into the lives of the people caught up in the drug-riddled, crime-contaminated city? For the corrupt cops and evil crime-bosses, what can the church do to help them resist their darkness?

Being a Hollywood movie, and knowing that this movie - even though it is based on a true story - is mostly fictional...the church did figure into the movie. The main antagonist of the film, Frank Lucas, brings his church attending mama to live with him. In fact the day Lucas is arrested is a Sunday, and the cops meet him immediately following the service. Prior to the worship service, Lucas' mama had confronted him about his dirty work - she says that she never wanted to ask her son where he got all the money because she didn't want him to lie.

The church in this case was either complicit in the corruption or else very, very naive. So many cops had either turned their eyes away, or were willing to take cash to keep quiet or help out just a little bit. Maybe the church had also looked the other way, or felt like it was benefiting from the money too much to make a fuss.

Are there churches out there that are seriously considering how good the good news would be for the slums and drug-infested ghetto's? Most churches I know are focused on keeping kids and youth safe, providing a safe atmosphere so we can stay pure and holy. But that means looking the other way when the gangsters and rich/corrupt politicians and selfish/greasy businessmen keep pushing their slime onto their neighbors and regions.

Watching the movie made me feel like the gospel is really quite impotent against gangster-darkness. I know God is always at work in this world fueling justice and mercy in all its forms: I bet he'd like to see more church's stick out their neck more often and join him in his "dirty" work.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

What Makes the Good News Good?

One of the unique struggles adult Christians have if they became a Christian as a child and learned a lot about the Bible and Christianity as a child is this: trying to make the leap to understand the Bible and Christianity as an adult.

As a child, I understood the good news to be this: Jesus died for my sins, and if I ask for forgiveness he will come into my heart so that I can live with him forever when I die.

The Problem: that doesn't work for me as an adult who is a Christian. Existentially, it doesn't ring as good news to me.
The Other Problem: the Bible never once poses the good news as what I just summarized above.

So: what is the good news that Jesus proclaims to first century Jews and Gentiles? And how does that translate to good news for today - to me in this twenty-first century?

Scot McKnight takes a shot at this issue in a blogpost (you really ought to take the time to read) titled: The Problem is the Problem. He writes:
To say that we Christians have the "gospel" is to say we have "good news that resolves the bad news." So, we ask, What is the problem to which the gospel speaks this good news? What is it that Christianity "fixes"? The most significant problem many presentations of the gospel face is that the problem the gospel is trying to fix is not robust enough. In other words, the problem has become the problem.

What is the need humans have that the gospel satisfies? I'd be interested in your response to this question.

Here's what I wrote as a response:
Scot, you ask: "What is the need humans have that the gospel satisfies?"


Humans need hope that there is a way that "works."
Is there a way to live that reduces/negates my fears?
Is there a way to live that helps me quit doing shameful things or takes away the shame?
Is there a way to live so that I can get along with everybody?
Is there a way to live so that my little part of the world stays beautiful?

A lot of people I know are giving up on hope that there is a way that works and are just trying to make the best of it. They are taking medication for the fear, hiding dark shameful secrets, walking away from friendships/family when it gets hard, and giving little consideration to how much they need to care for the creation around them.

For the people who haven't given up hope, they are still pretty frustrated that their way isn't working that well, and that so many other people don't seem to have it figured out.

I think the four "cracks" that you identify are on the mark.

I've never used the fear of hell to convince people to "believe" in Jesus, but I don't feel confident about the alternatives. I've drifted towards heralding how much better the way of Jesus is than the world's way, but I have a hard time connecting it to what the way of Jesus saves us from and what it saves us to. It's not been clear to me the connection between loving God/others and salvation/gospel.

Maybe I need to get some more of your books...

McKnight is a gifted writer, and he addresses this issue in more detail in his book Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us where he tries to define the problem by making sure we are asking the right questions. I've ordered it - I know I need it...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Jesus & American Politics

Here's the basic message from Sunday - the last one before Election Tuesday. I asked a bunch of friends on Facebook to give me some wisdom on what I ought to consider as I prepared this message. Their feedback was really, really helpful.


As followers of Jesus, some of us will be voting for the Republicans on Tuesday, others voting for the Democrats, others won't be voting, and others are still undecided about who to vote for on Election Day. I'm glad we have political diversity here - it's a sign of health and wisdom. I'm glad you're glad for the political diversity - it helps us be more thoughtful and considerate when we speak publicly about politics - though it doesn't mean we speak with less concern or conviction.

I think it is necessary that at least once in this very long political campaign season we together search some Scriptures as disciples of Jesus to better hear what God's Spirit is saying to us, and thus shape us as we prepare to vote. Please hear this: I am not presuming to know what candidate God has endorsed, OR which one he will prompt you to consider. I am NOT endorsing either candidate through this message.

Question: Does Jesus care about American politics? Yes. Why? Because politics is about power, and Jesus cares a lot about how power is used. Pretty much the good news is good news about power - Jesus is announcing the good news about how God is going to use power to liberate the world from the grip of evil, injustice, mercilessness and bondage. Jesus is very aware of how power can be used to liberate people (think Exodus and Easter...) and how power can be used to crush and enslave people (think Empire and Crucifixion...).

Jesus has demonstrated for his disciples how to use power. The kingdoms of this world use power over people, but the Kingdom of God as announced/introduced by Jesus uses power to come under people (power over/power under terminology comes from Greg Boyd - The Myth of a Christian Nation). Jesus makes really clear in John 18v36 that his kingdom, his usage of power is not of this world. He doesn't use his power to fight and thus force his way upon others. Jesus knows that his usage of power will prevail in the end - Revelation 11v15 is a central verse of that prophetic letter: the heavens announce that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah and he will reign forever and ever!

We ought to be aware of the damage and destruction that comes from the world's usage of power. It's this awareness, then, that gives such power to the announcement of Jesus in Luke 4v18-19: I - in all my power - have come to bring good news to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, the powerless! Disciples of Jesus understand that we are to use our power to come under them and set them free - this is what the Spirit of God is always up to in this world. Which is why Jesus invites us in Matthew 6v32 to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and he'll take care of everything else (which means don't worry...).

Yes it matters who we vote for. There are many wise Christians who have spent decades and even centuries considering how our faith ought to shape our political involvement and goals. But it also matters that you listen to the Spirit of God and you do what he prompts you to do so that you are using your power to set people free, so that your usage of power is good news to those on the underside of Empire. And this leads us to the main text for the morning, Mark 12v14-16; "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's."

Here's some very interesting stuff about this text: the Herodians and Pharisees (usually enemies towards one another) have come together against a common foe - Jesus, in order to trap him and hopefully get him arrested and killed, and thus silenced. The Herodians are pro-Roman; the Romans have placed King Herod in power, thus the Herodians gleefully collect taxes and enforce Roman law and defend Roman abuses of power. They'd be happy to hear Jesus encourage the masses to give their taxes to Caesar (more money for them), but in this case they are hoping Jesus will denounce giving taxes to Caesar, which will make Jesus guilty of treason, and thus liable for quick crucifixion.

The Pharisees are anti-Rome and pro-Israel; mostly they are pro-strict adherence to Torah. The Pharisees believe that if enough people would adhere to Torah strictly, God would get rid of the Romans. The Pharisees are all about holy righteousness, which means avoidance of impurification- the Romans are basically making it virtually impossible to keep Torah, and this angers the Pharisees. They'd be happy to hear Jesus say that we are only to give taxes to God, but in this case their hoping that he'll advocate giving only taxes to God so that he'll be labeled as fomenting rebellion against Caesar and thus quickly crucified.

Jesus is too smart for that. The tax in question is the Imperial Tax- that which is levied on subject peoples of the Empire. Rome conquers people in bloody, tyrannical, devastating, genocidal fashion; then they tax those terrified people so that they can go on conquering others. Jesus tells everyone who is listening: go ahead and pay the taxes to Caesar. Caesar can have the coins he minted.

But note what he goes on to say: also give to God what is His. As soon as his Jewish listeners heard this, they would have immediately thought of Psalm 24v1 "The earth is the LORD's and everything in it!" He's subverting the claim of Caesar - Caesar can have his little bloody empire/coins, but the whole earth is the LORD's! He's also upbraiding the Pharisees - Caesar cannot keep you from keeping Torah. The LORD is bigger than Caesar, and no decree from Caesar, no law, no requirement from Caesar can keep you from keeping the heart of the law: Love God/Love your Neighbor (Mark 12v28-34).

This is why everyone was amazed: Jesus avoided any accusation of treason while at the same time subverting the claim of the Herodians and wildly expanding the belief-system of the Pharisees. Brilliant. Yes, the taxes you pay back to Caesar only seem to encourage him in his bloody "peace through victory" empire - HOWEVER - your love of God/neighbor will dull the glory of Rome and increase the glory of God, the light of your love will bit by bit drive back the darkness of Rome's devastation. Yes, you are paying taxes that support that darkness, but more importantly you are loving your neighbor instead of giving into bitterness, fear, and despair - and that is very, very, very powerful.

Paul picks up this theme in Romans 13 as he reworks this teaching of Jesus for the Christians meeting in Rome. Paul writes very, very carefully to his friends - they live in the city of darkness, the new Babylon, the place of bloody politics. The culture is anti-Christian, the society is anti-Christian, the schools, the entertainment, the marketplace is all anti-Christian. But Paul doesn't say to flee! Instead he sets up the tone of the chapter with this verse from 12v21 - Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. This is a basic reworking of: Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's.

Notice how Paul carefully phrases the letter in 13v6-7: pay your taxes, respect those in authority over you (even if they are corrupt killers, unjust judges, slimy senators, etc). But hear what Paul goes on to say in 13v8-10: fulfill the law by loving one another (even your enemy...). Rome was all about rule of law - except that their law kept on killing off whole cities and classes of citizens.... Jesus was all about rule of law - the law of love: Love does no harm to its neighbor! Can you imagine a more subversive theme for Paul to promote in the heart of Rome? No wonder Jesus and Paul got killed by the Romans - they're not stupid! When enough people don't buy into the propaganda of the Empire, when enough people start loving their neighbor and personally doing no harm, when they seek first the kingdom of God and allow no fear of death (because of the promised resurrection) to sway them from righteousness - well who can stop that?

So, when you go to vote on Election Tuesday - carry with you a proper perspective of what is at stake. It does not matter who is elected - followers of Jesus will live out the good news no matter what. God does not decide to bless a nation solely based on who is the President and the choices that he/she makes. God primarily blesses a nation through the individual actions of those that claim to follow his Son and participate in His kingdom.

If you are voting motivated by fear, then you may be hard-pressed to vote out of love. If you are voting and worried about the direction of this country, you may be missing out on what God is doing all around you. If you are anxious about the wrong candidate getting chosen, you may be unaware of how creative and capable God is of still being able to work through any person/government.

It matters who you vote for - not because of who actually gets elected, but because of how you let the Spirit shape your decisions on who to vote for. It doesn't really matter who you vote for because God is always at work in this world to overcome all evil with good. Whether Christ returns this decade or in a hundred decades - Christ will be looking for people who worried less about electing the right candidate and who worked more to love the neighbor God put in your path.

Three things to do before you vote:
1) Pray - not that God would make your chosen candidate win - but rather that God would grant you wisdom and knowledge as you listen to his Spirit for direction.

2) Prioritize - rediscover what are God's priorities. Then discern, out of all the things that are God's priorities, which ones do you really care about? Then pray about what action God wants you to take about those things that you care about that are on God's priority list according to the Scriptures. This will help you keep your vote and its consequences in perspectives.

3) Discern the Political Realities - what is possible right now in light of who the candidates are, the force of the political winds, the mood of the country, and your sense of what God is already doing in and through you/your fellow followers.