Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is the day when Jesus came to Jerusalem so he could die.  The disciples thought he was coming to set himself up on the throne of David as king.  They imagined that the kingdom of God was like an earthly kingdom, despite all the times that Jesus had patiently explained that the kingdom of God was like yeast, like ten virgins, like anything but a government. Despite the fact that he had washed their feet, despite the fact that he had told them that the one who wanted to be great must be the servant of all.

Later, Paul would write to the church in Philippi:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:1-8)

On this Sunday we celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when he arrived not on a prancing warhorse, but on a donkey—that should also have been a clue:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!

Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you,

righteous and victorious,

lowly and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

As Jesus arrived on the donkey, the people threw palm branches in front of them and proclaimed “hosanna”—a word that means “Save!”—which is also a part of the meaning of Jesus’ name: “ he saves.”  And that is precisely what Jesus came to do. 

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was triumphal, but not in the way that the people on that day, in that moment, imagined.  He was triumphant, because he would triumph over sin, triumph over Satan, and triumph over death.  The kingdom of God was truly at hand.  But the kingdom of God is not a kingdom like the world knows and understands; it is not a kingdom people easily see.

What did Jesus say?

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed,nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21)

 The kingdom of God is inside of us, it is us collectively, it is us as God’s temple now, we who can now worship God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, because God now lives in each of us as individuals, and in all of us collectively. As Jesus told his disciple in Matthew 18:20:

 “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

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We cannot control the behavior of other people.  One of the things we briefly touched in last week’s A Mirror Darkly webcast was the question of free will and how that relates to God’s omniscience. In the movie Bruce Almighty, which is obviously fiction, God, as played by Morgan Freeman tells Bruce (played by Jim Carrey) that the one thing you can’t do is make someone love you.

And yet love—for God and others—is the core of the Bible.

But God has, at the very least, chosen to limit himself.  I’ve pointed out before a shocking truth that is very clear from the Garden of Eden event between the serpent, Eve and Adam: God would rather we be free than that we be good. 

That’s shocking for human beings because—thanks to that event in the garden—we are locked into a binary point of view regarding everything in life: is it good, or is it bad?  By our nature, thanks to the choice Adam and Eve made, we are constantly concerned with judging right and wrong.  We can’t help it.  That’s why we are so obsessed with passing endless laws. Our very nature has become legalistic.

God didn’t warn us against eating from a tree of the knowledge of just evil, but of both good and evil.  We weren’t supposed to think about such matters or even know about them; we were instead simply to love one another and God.  If everyone focused on bringing happiness to others, on loving others, then we’d always have everything we ever wanted, always be satisfied, always feel complete.  We would be in paradise. 

But it didn’t go down that way. 

Instead, we ate from the cursed tree of the knowledge of good and evil and so we judge everything.  We were never intended to become the legalistic obsessives that we have turned into. 

Nevertheless, God thought that letting us making a poor choice was better than us being denied the possibility of making a choice at all.  All of human history, all the horrors that it has produced: the existence of death, murder, rape, slavery, war, suffering, disease, starvation—every bad and awful thing you can think of—God thought it was worth it for the sake of freedom.  Freedom trumps everything, even the life of Jesus, his son, who had to die to fix the mess we made.

The philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued that given a God that is both powerful as well as good—very good—he would necessarily design a world that would be the best it possibly could be, given the existence of this thing called freedom, the ability of human beings to make choices.

And we know that God made a good choice himself, in giving us choice. All you have to do is ask yourself: would you rather be free, or live in a totalitarian dictatorship?  Is the US preferable to North Korea?  The old Soviet Union?  The Nazi Reich?

Ask your teenager if she wants you to micromanage her life.  Can you make your children behave now?  How about when they grow up?  Can you determine all their choices for them? What music to listen to, what television to watch, which friends to have?  Would they like that?  Would you really want to be in charge of their lives for the rest of your lives?

In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C.S. Lewis wrote:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Those who would limit freedom always argue that it is for the greater good: to protect us and to ensure our happiness.

And we know better.  We know it won’t work out like that. 

The movie The Giver, which came out in 2014 (and is based on a novel of the same name by Lois Lowry), presents a seemingly perfect community without war, pain, or suffering.  But it’s not as wonderful as it seems, and a young boy, chosen to learn from an elderly man about the pain and pleasure of the “real” world winds up rebelling against this “paradise.”

Later, as the boy’s friend and love interest is about to be euthanized in order to prevent the contagion of freedom spreading, the Chief Elder, played by Meryl Streep has a conversation with the Giver, played by Jeff Bridges:

The Giver: With love comes faith, with it comes hope.

Chief Elder: Love is just passion that can turn.

The Giver: We can do better.

Chief Elder: It turns into contempt and murder.

The Giver: We could choose better.

Chief Elder: People are weak. People are selfish. When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time.

God knows that we choose wrong. Every single time.  But he’d rather that, and the world we now inhabit—than that we should be something other than free.

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We do not usually interpret the Bible literally. Anymore than we interpret much of anything we encounter in print literally. Consider Psalm 91:1-4 as an example:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. 
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, 
my God, in whom I trust.” 
Surely he will save you 
from the fowler’s snare 
and from the deadly pestilence. 
He will cover you with his feathers, 
and under his wings you will find refuge; 
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

God has a shelter? Is this like something we might have for the homeless? Does this mean that if you reside in God’s shelter, you’ll be okay, but if you live in your own house or apartment, you’ll be hosed?

God casts a shadow? Like on a sunny day?

God is a refuge? Like a wildlife refuge?

God is a fortress? With walls and ramparts? Do people ever lay siege to him?

God will save you from a fowler’s snare? That’s a relief, since I get trapped in those regularly. I mean, who doesn’t?

God has feathers and wings? So God is a parakeet? Is this why he knows about fowler’s snares?

When we read the Bible, we should be naturally reading it with the same skill-set we use when we read anything. Most grown up human beings understand the way literature works. We have some concept of allegory, metaphor, hyperbole and the like. We realize that poetry works differently than prose. We would be startled if a cookbook were written in limericks. Taylor Swift is not going to use her computer’s warranty as the basis for the lyrics in her next hit song.

Thus, when we look at the book of Revelation, we’re going to have to pay attention and use the skills we would use in reading anything else. Taking it literally will only get us into trouble unless we’re purposely trying to be funny.

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I Don’t Know

Toward the end of Paul’s famous chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, he comments that:

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)”

Paul explains that our understanding and knowledge of God is incomplete. We only see a dim reflection in a mirror, or, as the old King James put it, we see through “a glass darkly.”

This is why we call our webcast that we do each Saturday afternoon at 4 PM “A Mirror Darkly” with the secondary title “unbridled inquiry.” We have to accept a very hard truth: we don’t have the answers to everything, and we will never know everything. Our understanding of God and his purposes is very limited; it can never be anything but. All we can really do is ask a lot of questions.

Socrates was told that he was the wisest of men because he admitted that he “knew nothing.” It may seem paradoxical, but you are fully educated only when you can agree with Socrates. The reason is quite simple: the more you learn, the more you become aware of all that there is to learn, the more you realize that you can barely learn anything at all, compared to the vast amount of information that is available.

Every two days humanity creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. There is no way to absorb all of that. We cannot assimilate more than a tiny fraction of what human beings know and do in the brief span of a single human life. How then can we imagine we can understand God or give but a very fuzzy outline of who he is, what he wants, and what he does?

As Solomon said:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

And our heads are much smaller than Solomon’s temple. We really are able only to “see through a mirror darkly.” We will always have more questions than we have answers. Let’s not be afraid to ask questions. And let’s not be afraid to acknowledge, “I don’t know.”

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Who’s in Charge?

The author of Ecclesiastes writes:

I have seen something else under the sun: 
The race is not to the swift 
or the battle to the strong, 
nor does food come to the wise 
or wealth to the brilliant 
or favor to the learned; 
but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

Which makes us uncomfortable, because we want to be able to control our lives, control what happens to us. We want to think that if we make good choices, do the right things, then we will for sure have things go right for us. But unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. You can do everything right, the odds can ever be in your favor, you can work hard, make good choices, read your Bible regularly, and yet, you can still suffer horribly. You might get cancer. You might have plumbing problems.

Monday night Brittany and I drove one of her friends home. On our way back at 20th West and J, we were a moment from the intersection. The light was green. Other cars had gone through ahead of us. And then, suddenly, a BMW blew through the light without slowing.

A second later, we would have been right in that intersection. Brittany was terrified, screaming “we were almost killed.” She had such a severe panic attack that she developed a headache.

For myself, I was so annoyed I almost used my horn.

We are not in control. We live or die because of “time and chance.” As Proverbs puts it, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps” (Proverbs 16:9). The Psalmist writes, “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). God has decided when we will die—or not. Monday night was not, after all, a good day to die.

In the short letters to the seven churches in Asia in Revelation 2-3, we learned the Christians there were suffering for their faith, as Christians had been doing from the time of Christ, and have been continuing to do so ever since, even into our current era.

And so, this week we come to the second half of Revelation chapter 7. In chapter six, we met those who “had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Revelation 6:9). In chapter seven, we learn a bit more about them—and us.

As Jesus promised his disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

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For the Love of God

Telling people how to vote and getting angry at those who vote differently than you do, or who have beliefs different than yours is not the answer. Democrats are not all alike. Republicans are not all alike. Not all Democrats believe in abortion, not all Democrats believe in socialism. Democrats are just human beings, and like all of us, needing redemption. Not all Republicans are opposed to abortion, not all Republicans are opposed to socialism. Republicans need redemption just as much as Democrats. We’re all sinners. Not all Muslims are terrorists. More Muslims die from extremists than non-Muslims. I don’t agree with Islam any more than I agree with Mormonism. But I do not view Mitt Romney as a danger to the United States. I do not view the Muslim who works at the gas station around the corner as a danger to the United States. Again, they need Jesus. That’s what our focus as Christians needs to be on.

Loving people is our primary our purpose as Christians and it is the primary purpose of the church. One of the main ways we love people is by sharing our faith with them.

The church is not the United States. The church is not the Republican party. The church is not the Democratic party. God is not a politician. And most of all, people are not our enemy. They are objects of love:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:6-10)

We need to show people the love of Jesus, always. Don’t forget that those you disagree with are first and foremost, people. Don’t conflate human beings with Satan.

Paul is very clear. He told the church that we don’t wage war as the world does:

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

And Paul points out that our enemies are not flesh and blood:

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)

Jesus was quite clear about the way Christians were supposed to think:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)

We change the world by changing the hearts and minds of the people we come in contact with. Our job is to evangelize, to share the love of Jesus. Our job is not to get out the vote.

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A Hammer and Sickle Is Not an Appropriate Fashion Accessory

Tyler, the Creator, who was nominated for Best Rap Album of the year for Flower Boy, showed up on the Grammy’s red carpet wearing a Russian hat, known as the ushanka, with a Sickle and Hammer soviet symbol on the hat. I wonder if such a move would have been ignored by everyone if he had been sporting a swastika instead? Tyler Gregory Okonma is the rap artist’s actual name. He is either evil or ignorant, though those two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Given his penchant for misogyny and homophobia in his rap lyrics, I’ll go for both. Communism is no less evil than Nazism, and should be criticized just as harshly. Communism is responsible for oppression, religious persecution, and for killing at least a hundred million people during the twentieth century.

The Black Book of Communism is something Tyler, the Creator might want to think about reading. Of course, the entertainment magazines and the other entertainers who ignored Tyler, the Creator’s vile display of a disgusting symbol of oppression and death without condemnation might want to read it too.

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Money Well Spent

According to CNN, Americans love buying lottery tickets. They spent more than 80 billion dollars on them in 2016. That’s more than they spent on movies, video games, music, sports tickets and books — combined. The budget for NASA in 2016 was about 19 billion dollars. I get very tired of people who want to complain about how much money is spent on space exploration. Such people are obvious idiots.

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October 31 is Halloween, a favorite holiday of children, when they get to go out trick or treating dressed as ghosts and goblins. I’ve always enjoyed Halloween. But October 31 can also be remembered for another reason. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted a list of 95 points on the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. What happened to him and the church as a result changed the world. He had not been seeking a revolution. He merely wanted to debate the practice of “indulgences” in an academic forum.
What were indulgences?

In Roman Catholic theology of the time, an indulgence was a way for the Church to grant either the full or partial remission of “temporal punishment” from sins that had been committed. They were given after a sinner had confessed to his bad behavior and performed penance. Temporal punishments were punishments that a person endured either in this life or in Purgatory. They were temporary, rather than permanent and eternal like the flames of Hell. According to Roman Catholic theology, human beings by nature commit many sins of a non-serious nature called “venal” sins which usually go unconfessed. Though they don’t break communion with God, they do cause spiritual damage, and so these temporay punishments were the result. And such temporay punishments could be paid for by penance and by indulgence. Indulgences happened when the church, by virtue of its authority, applied existing merit from the church’s treasurey of good deeds to an individual. The idea was, that the saints had built up a storehouse of merit greater than they needed individually, and so this extra merit could be applied to those who were not so good.

The church had been trying to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for many years. Originally constructed during the time of Constantine over what was believed to be St. Peter’s tomb, by the fifteenth century the building was falling apart and so the church began the process of trying to rebuild it or replace it. By 1517, the Pope at this time, Leo X came up with what seemed a good idea: offering indulgences for those who gave alms for the rebuilding.

Johann Tetzel was a Dominican Friar whom the Pope had made the commissioner of indulgences for all Germany. Tetzel took his job seriously and promoted indulgences rather agressively in Germany. He apparently went so far as to create a chart that listed a price for each type of sin a person might need forgiveness for. He claimed that the indulgences he sold could even save a soul who had violated the Virgin Mary. According to Luther, as part of his marketing campaign, Tetzel had used the clever phrase, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In his list that he had nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, Luther wondered at the compassion of a church that had the ability to shorten the suffering of people in Purgatory but who would grant such relief only for those that coughed up the cash to pay for it. In the end, of course, Luther denied that the Pope or the church had any such power in the first place: he argued that pardon for sin was something only God could grant and that Jesus’ death on the cross had paid for all sins, so there was nothing left that needed forgiving by indulgences.

The pillars of what became the Protestant Reformation are three: first, only Scripture is authoritative for faith and practice in the church; it doesn’t matter what the traditions, church councils or the Pope might say. Second, all Christians stand equal before God, with no need of any human intermediary: all are priests. And finally, salvation is by grace, through faith alone: Jesus paid the entire penalty for sin. There is nothing left to do or not do, no penance to perform, no indulgence to purchase.

Luther’s list of questions is now known as the 95 Theses. They were not designed to provoke a rebellion against the church or the Pope. The church door was commonly used as a bulletin board for the purpose of making announcements. The 95 Theses were written in Latin and thus only addressed to academics. Luther was seeking a debate among the theologians of the church. However, his list was copied, translated, and spread across Europe, creating a controversy between Luther and the Pope over a variety of church doctrines and practices. Three years later, Luther and his supporters were excommunicated. Thus began the Reformation. All the Protestant churches, from the Lutheran to the Presbyterian, from the Baptist to the Methodist can trace their roots back to what Luther did that October day.

Were there any other results of the Reformation, besides the numberless denominations that exist within Christianity today? Between 1618 and 1648 there were a series of wars in Europe that came to be called the Thirty Years War. The Catholic Hapsburgs, who ruled Spain, Austria, the Spanish Netherlands and even most of Germany and Italy, fought against those princes in Germany who were Protestant. Denmark and Sweden supported the Protestant princes. France ultimately chose to ally itself against the Hapsburgs, swinging the tide away from the Hapsburgs. The Peace of Westphalia which followed asserted that each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state. Christians living in states where their denomination was not the official denomination would nevertheless be permitted to practice their religion publicly during certain designated hours and in private whenever they wished. The Peace of Westphalia also brought to an end the Pope’s political and secular power in Europe. As a consequence, Pope Innocent X declared the treaty “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all times.” It didn’t matter, of course. The kings and princes of Europe, whether Catholic or Protestant, simply ignored him. The seeds of secularization and the separation of church and state had been planted. Also, significantly, the Peace of Westphalia established the modern concept of a nation-state and set up the still existing system of relationships between these nations that we so much take for granted.

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SpaceX Launches X-37B

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