Palm Sunday and the One who comes in the name of the Lord!

Big Green Palm Leaves WP tangledwingBy Joe LaGuardia

Those of you who know Bob Bala also know he can tell a great story.  I’ve seen his grandchildren drop everything in order to sit with him whenever he utters the words, “I have a story to tell.”

This past week at a Relay for Life banquet, Bob told of a time when he was trying to sell a car to a Baptist preacher in the late 1970s.

The car was a 1978 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.  Bob and the preacher could not strike a deal.  The preacher left, and Bob followed up over the next few days.

Finally, after the third or fourth call, the preacher told Bob, “God told me not to buy that car.”

Bob, in his unique way, was frustrated: How can any man–clergy or not–use God as an excuse not to buy a car?

A few days passed, and Bob made a deal with someone else who traded in a 1974 Toyota Corolla, light blue station wagon.

Bob called the preacher and told him, “Hi, Preacher, I’m calling you because God just sent me the car that he wants you to buy.”

Although that was not the end of the story, and we laughed for quite a few minutes after, I retell that story (with his permission, of course) because it reminds me of the politics of our day — Politics in the public square and politics in the pulpit.

I know that we pastors try to discern God’s will for churches and spend many hours in prayer, but even then I have never said to someone, “God is telling me x, y, and z.”

Now, that does not mean that I haven’t sensed God’s direction in my life or affirmed someone else’s experience with God, but I’ve never been so bold as to say with certainty what God has ever said.

We ministers–and the people of God, too–do not speak in place of God.  Rather, we only come to proclaim the One who comes in the name of the Lord.  We are not Jesus; we only prepare a path so others can hear directly from him on matters important to faith.

This Palm Sunday, many churches will follow in the example of those disciples of old who chanted, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

It was the time when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem to head not for a crown, but for the cross.  People went before him to cast their cloaks on the ground and praise God–a symbolic, but very real way of declaring that this Messiah is coming to be king of Israel.

Yet, when it came time to speak for God, they were silent.  Only Jesus spoke to the powers that were in charge; and only Jesus was able to say, declaratively, what it was that God was doing in the larger story of the world’s salvation.

Palm Sunday is reminiscent of the baptism of Jesus, for it was at that time that John the Baptist declared that he too was preparing for the way of the Lord.  When Jesus came to be baptized, John said that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the very son who came to save the world from its sin.

John said that only Jesus had the authority to speak for God and that “The Lord must increase while I decrease” (John 3).

God’s purpose for John was to prepare the way for the Spirit that others might hear God on God’s own terms.  Even we preachers, who spin some great sermons, proclaim that truth: That Jesus might meet people in the pews right where they are in life.

Politicians are much like preachers (or is it that preachers are like politicians?), and many a candidate will try to speak on God’s behalf.  It is their way of attracting the “evangelical” or “values voter.”

Yet, we must remember that God speaks in God’s own way, and the words that God speaks is usually words we need to hear, rarely intended for someone else.

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Religious Nationalism, Revivalism Rising on the world stage

 

Picture from Terrasanta.net. (Click on the picture for link and source)

Picture from Terrasanta.net. (Click on the picture for link and source)

By Joe LaGuardia

Every election year, we see the influence of a demographic voting block, often pitched as a uniform, monolithic movement, called “evangelicalism”.

Evangelicalism, a loosely-defined subculture in American Christianity, rose to political prominence under the Christian Coalition in the late 1970s and has championed major reforms and legislation that transcend partisanship.

Now, nearly 40 years later, evangelicalism appears to be the national faith of the United States. For all the folks declaring that we’ve strayed from our Judeo-Christian origins as a nation, we still are one of the most religious countries in the world.

Some claim this is unique to our place and time — no other religion aside from Islam plays such an influential role in politics.  This myth reinforces the idea that America is morally exceptional, anchored in biblical values, and divinely blessed.

As times change and the global economy limps along, however, this no longer rings sincere or true.  In fact, a variety of nationalist religions are on the rise in other nations, and we are experiencing none other than a global revival of religion, as it were.

In Japan, for example, the government has been quietly pushing for the revival of Shintoism, an indigenous polytheistic religion of the island nation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a faithful Shinto disciple, is making the religion a central part of governance and social life, not only supporting Shinto shrines with tax dollars but also incorporating ideologies into his political philosophy and promoting the inclusion of its tenets in public education.

According to Michael Holtz, writing for The Christian Monitor, the emphasis on Shintoism resulted from a growing sense of national pride and a concern over “economic stagnation, materialism, and the rise of China.”

Shintoism has always had a precarious place in Japanese culture, but has historically provided the nation with a sense of power and security.  After the Second World War, the government exchanged Shintoism for a more pacifist, secular platform that emphasized industrialism and cultural growth.

Even now, fears exist that a return to Shintoism will influence broader militaristic fervor and lead to regional conflicts and Japanese aggression.

Russia is yet another nation instilling a religious awakening with nationalist pride among the populace.  The Russian government has increased its support of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This program of national spirituality, which dangerously aligns church and state, contends that Russia’s religious and cultural way of life dominates what it perceives to be the West’s evil imperialism, according to Wallace Daniel with The Christian Century.

According to Daniel, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow recently “argued that Western nations had ‘abandoned their Christian identity,'” claiming that “both liberal democracy and secularism as enemies of Orthodoxy and envisioned a ‘clash of civilization’ in which Russian Orthodox values stood against those of the secular West.”

Against Kirill’s wishes, the government brokered a historic meeting between Kirill and Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba.  It was the first time the two figureheads met in over 1000 years of church history, and conversation centered on political, economic, and religious aims between the East and West.

For some, the meeting was productive and reflected a religious commitment to greater cooperation; for others, it was a sign that a third World War, entrenched in both political and religious ideologies, is eminent.  With tensions rising between East and West in hotbeds like Ukraine and Syria, these hyperbolic claims may be well-founded.

The fact remains: As economies stall and the world shrinks in the wake of increasing regional tensions, people will turn to religions that reinforce tribal pride, quail fears regarding economic inequality, and promote the interests of nation-states bent on building the capital and leverage needed to elbow their way onto the global stage.

The long and dangerous road of theological tradition

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church hold anti-gay signs at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXUI58

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES – Tags: POLITICS) – RTXUI58

By Joe LaGuardia

As a requirement for her Master of Divinity degree at the McAfee School of Theology, Atlanta, Georgia, the Reverend Karen Woods wrote a thesis on race relations in the local church.  In it, she argues that slavery, discrimination, and contemporary conflicts surrounding race did not suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Rather, the dysfunction of racism grew out of long theological traditions that manipulated the Bible to justify one race’s subjugation over another.  Sadly, although our ancestors were people of their time, this theological context sat squarely on a certain systemic interpretation of the Bible that dehumanized people.

Woods’ thesis reminded me that beliefs surrounding a variety of issues these days result not from spontaneous decisions or platitudes, but from long-held convictions and traditions that require (consciously or otherwise) theological gerrymandering and interpretative acrobats over a long period of time.

If we are still embroiled in the consequences of racism even today, then it should not surprise us that contemporary debates over other hotbed topics will last well into the next generation of Christendom.

Traditions and experience inform how we read the Bible (if we read the Bible at all), and shaping our reading of God’s Word according to such embedded ideologies threatens to undermine the authority of Scripture.

The worst part is when we declare that God agrees with our positions rather than change our minds when we know some things simply contradict Christ’s or the Bible’s teachings.

M. Craig Barnes, writing for The Christian Century, wrote of the dangers associated with biased interpretations of scripture.  He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln lamented the toxicity that imbues any theology that forces ideology on humanity’s understanding of God.

According to Lincoln, “Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes [God’s]aid against the other . . . The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln went on to declare that the institution of slavery–250 years in the making–will not come untangled as easily as many people in the Union had hoped.  Yet, it was imperative to “finish the work we are in” so as to bring about harmony to a nation divided by political ideology.

Lincoln hit the problem squarely on the head.  Our debates surrounding the most pressing issues of the day such as gun control, environmental stewardship, war, immigration and refugee policy, and federal budgets must indeed play out in the philosophical and political arenas, but must avoid any declaration that God is taking one side over another.  Otherwise, we too will be embroiled in divisions that rend the very fabric of our nation.

Ultimately, when a Christian surrenders to God, she surrenders her “rights” in this world in order to become a fully-recognized citizen in God’s kingdom.  It is to sacred Scripture that a citizen of the Kingdom submits, not to any man-made document or system of government.

God’s call is a singular mission to march towards the cause of the cross.  This results from self-denial and, sometimes, death, if not physically, then of those embedded convictions that conflict with Christ’s values.

Most significantly, submitting to Christ’s lordship means divesting our theologies about God and social politics that perpetuate some of the more hostile elements of faith that play out in our places of worship, politics, and the public square.  Without this important reformation in our churches, we remain steadfast in the very bigotry that our faith condemns.

Without analyzing the long-held beliefs that shape our worldview, we fail to “be transformed in the renewal of our mind,” as Paul so aptly commands in Romans 12:1-2.

My prayer for the New Year is that we will have robust debates in an otherwise uncommon election season, but that we will not use religion as a weapon to wield rather than a balm to heal, and that we will use Scripture to transform our thinking rather than support our myopic opinions about so many issues we face today.  May Christ, not the fascination with our own interpretations of Him, be Lord over our lives.