Thursday, 28 January 2021

After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, "Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak." – Acts 13:15

Today's Scripture Reading (January 28, 2021): Acts 13

The bully pulpit. The term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who used the term to describe his office. The bully pulpit combined the term "bully," an adjective by which Roosevelt meant "superb" or "wonderful," and "pulpit," the traditional place from which a pastor or priest speaks out the message of God to the people. In Roosevelt's mind, the President's office was a terrific platform for which the first or lead politician could advocate for the things that he believed were important. The bully pulpit has become a sacred place, treasured by Presidents and Prime Ministers of many nations over the past century. It is where they get to stand and advocate for the good things that can be achieved if the people will just get behind the ideas they are putting forward.

And the bully pulpit has become a jealously guarded place, reserved for the elected political leaders. So is the pastor's pulpit. In contemporary times, pastors and churches tend to carefully guard who it is that they allow to speak from the pulpit of the church. But that has not always been the tradition. In times past, the pulpit, or the Jewish bema, was a place that was offered to visiting pastors and teachers. I can't imagine that the experience was without trepidation or that it always worked out well. Sometimes, the visiting leaders spoke encouragement, but sometimes they advocated for things that went against the existing leadership's prominent teachings.

But this was precisely the standard practice in the first-century Jewish Synagogues. Especially in the Gentile world, leaders would take advantage of visiting dignitaries who might bring a word of teaching to the Jews and God-fearers who had gathered. Paul's upbringing and education made him a coveted speaker among the synagogues of the diaspora. He was brought up as a Hebrew, a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Pharisee, a group that was esteemed by the people for their piety. He had also been educated at the school of Gamaliel, one of the most prominent rabbis of the era.

The synagogue leader invites Paul and Silas to come and speak; to bring encouragement to the congregation. The synagogue's bully pulpit or terrific platform was surrendered to Paul, and whatever it was on which he would like to speak.

For Paul, the subject was obvious. Once the platform had been surrendered, Paul would use the pulpit to advocate for Jesus and invite those listening to join him in his passion for following the Messiah who had come. And even though he had been crucified, the resurrected Christ still actively led the church into a glorious future.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Acts 14

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Don't grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! – James 5:9

Today's Scripture Reading (January 27, 2021): James 4 & 5

Socrates argued that "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." I think the Greek philosopher would have been disappointed with the place to which our culture has devolved. It seems we rarely discuss at the level of ideas anymore. Our go-to always appears to be at the level of people. It is not that the argument is unsound because we have examined it, and the idea doesn't measure up. It is that the person is an idiot, or they belong to the wrong political party, and because the person is lacking, so is every idea that comes from their minds.  And that needs to change.

Not long ago, I publicly complimented a politician on handling one aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am convinced that politicians, like children, need to be praised when they do something right. The compliment was given in a limited sense, but the local government had done something right and deserved recognition. The response I received from one friend was that the government had made a mess of education. They were losers, and because they were losers, they were incapable of doing anything right. The argument had quickly gone from a discussion over an idea and devolved into the realm of personality.  

In the conclusion of James's letter, he admonishes his readers not to grumble against each other, adding that they will be judged if they do complain. The concept is revolutionary. It argues that, while it is entirely appropriate to discuss at the level of ideas, it is not right to discuss at the level of people. And if we do allow our discussions to devolve to the level of a person, then we would be judged, regardless of how stupid the original idea might have been.

It is not that we are never to discuss the areas in which we differ. Discussions over ideas is a good thing. But it should be kept at that level. When we disagree, we need to make sure that personality doesn't enter into the discussion. Someone isn't wrong because of who they are or because of the political party to whom they might belong. A person is never wrong, never. It is the idea or the concept that is wrong.

Senator John McCain in a 2008 campaign stop reacted the way that James would have us all react when a supporter complained that "Obama was an Arab," McCain took the microphone and took over the conversation. No, he did not discuss that Arab's are good people or that there is nothing wrong with being an Arab. I think the criticism of McCain over this is misplaced. He was not the espousing a well thought out policy statement. It was a reaction to an attack that had occurred at the level of the person. McCain's response was simple. "No, ma'am, he's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues." It was a proper response. Socrates would have been proud; and, so would James. Obama was a good man with, according to McCain's point of view, some bad ideas. So, let's spend our time talking about the ideas, and whether they are really good or bad. And it is at this level that our disagreements and discussions should exist.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Acts 13

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. – James 3:2

Today's Scripture Reading (January 26, 2021): James 3

Vera Nazarian, in "The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration," argued, "was it you or I who stumbled first? It does not matter. The one of us who finds the strength to get up first, must help the other." The question is never whether we stumble. We all do. We stumble, and then we get up again and move on. Nazarian's point is that when we, as a group of stumblers, get onto our feet, regardless of how momentary our balance might be with us, we are required to help those who have stumbled to regain their feet.

That is how it should work. But, in truth, it doesn't. At least, that is not the way that we perceive it. Too often, those who have momentarily gained their feet seem to be more likely to ignore or take advantage of those who have stumbled, rather than helping them to get up again. And our unfortunate response is that often when we know that we have stumbled, we want to isolate ourselves from those around us who have found the strength to stand again. When we have fallen, we fear, rightfully, those who are standing. It shouldn't be that way, but that is our reality.

James says that "we stumble in many ways." There is not just one way to fall. We fall because of our actions, and while that might be the most obvious way that we fail, it is not the only way we stumble. James is about to enter into an argument that what we say is as important, or maybe more important, than what we do. Just as a small rudder can steer a large ship, the tongue essentially guides the actions of our lives. What we say and the positions that we take on issues are critical, and when our words stumble, sometimes we tend to overlook these moments as just words. Yet, our speech and the things that we say our loud, or even just to ourselves, will often prove to be the very things that cause us to physically fall.

The perfect one is not just the one whose actions are without fault; the perfect can keep their whole body in check, including the things that they say. And that describes none of us. Because we all stumble, and we fall in many ways.

There was one who was perfect. His name was Jesus, and one we crucified. And yet, he came off the cross committed to helping us get up when we have stumbled. He is our restoration and our reconciliation to God. But more than that, he is our example. What he does is what we should do. And when someone falls, we should be the ones to help the other to stand up because we have found our strength.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: James 4 & 5          

Monday, 25 January 2021

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. – James 2:1

Today's Scripture Reading (January 25, 2021): James 2

In "Living, Loving, and Learning," Leo Buscaglia says, "Don't walk in my head with your dirty feet." I understand the prohibition. I live in a world of division and partitions.  It is a world that is filled with prejudices. And what is even worse is that the world seems to want to convince me that their biases are and God-approved. They want to walk around my head with their dirty feet. And when you walk around with dirty feet, you always leave footprints.

James lived in an era of prejudice, and often they were prejudices that many believed were God-approved. It was an era where prejudice was common and based on ethnicity, nationality, economic class, and religious background. People were judged as being either a Jew or Gentile, the free were separated from the slave, the rich removed themselves from the presence of the poor, and the educated Greek culture looked down on the uncivilized and primitive Barbarian. For many, these were the accusations the people used against each other to prove that they were better and more worthy of consideration than their opponents.

Jesus stepped into this era and taught something different. He frequently ignored the barriers, calling the tax-collector and the prostitute to follow him and showing his love and concern for people that the culture had discarded. But in the days of Jesus, there are indications that James, the little brother of the Rabbi, thought that his big brother was mistaken. In those days, he held the teachings of Jesus with contempt. It wasn't until after Jesus's resurrection that James began to realize that his brother was the Messiah, and he began his journey to accept the teachings of Jesus.

By the time that he writes his letter, he agrees. The old prejudices that Jesus rejected now needed to be rejected by the church and its leadership. Believers could not follow the favoritisms of the past. It was time for a change. Later, Paul would expand on James's teaching that "believers in … Jesus Christ must not show favoritism." He would write to the Galatian church, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:28-29). And then, Paul would expand again on this teaching in his letter to the church at Ephesus

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility (Ephesians 2:14-16).

In light of all of this, maybe it is time that we demand that those around us "stop walking around our heads with their dirty feet."

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: James 3

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds … - James 1:2

 Today's Scripture Reading (January 24, 2021): James 1

In 2010, as NBA Basketball was experimenting with developing "Dream Teams "of elite players, shifting the NBA into a battle between a few super or all-star teams. The rest of the schedule would be filled out with lesser teams who had no chance of winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy, the trophy given out yearly to the NBA Champions. Basketball legend Michael Jordan, as these teams were beginning to form, spoke up for a generation of fans who couldn't get their head around what was happening. "I would have never called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson], and said 'hey, let's get together and play on one team.' But things are different - I can't say that's a bad thing. That's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."

Jordan's comment strikes a chord with old school sports fans. In my early adulthood, I was a fan of the Calgary Flames hockey team. The Flames' provincial rival was the Edmonton Oilers, in those early days captained by the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. But, among Flame's fans, there was not a wish that Wayne Gretzky played for our club. We wanted to beat Gretzky and took a perverse joy in the moments when that wish was fulfilled. We understand Michael Jordan when he says that he didn't want to join hands with Larry Bird on the same team. Jordan's desire, and his joy, was held in the moments when he had a chance to prove his worth by playing against him. I suspect that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson would feel the same way about playing with each other or Michael Jordan. These elites could be friends outside of the playing arena, but they wanted to test their strengths against the strengths of the best around them on the court.

Sometimes we consider James's words almost counter-cultural. I mean, we want a comfortable life. Trials are moments that we want to avoid, at all costs. Problems are a common part of life, but not moments that fill us with joy.

Yet, it is in these moments of trials that we prove, if only to ourselves, that we are up to the challenge of facing the stresses of which life is full. It is in these moments that we get to proudly exclaim that we have this. Yes, life is hard. But we are ready for whatever it is that life has to throw at us. And through every trial, we only get stronger.

Spiritually, we also recognize that Satan is limited in the weapons he has at his disposal. And if he is wasting his weapons on the trials that he is throwing at us, we must be making a difference. Paul simply says that testing produces perseverance, and perseverance results in maturity and completeness.

So, go and make a difference, knowing that any resulting testing will only make us stronger and confident that life can't throw anything at us that we can't handle.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: James 2

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. – Acts 12:23

Today's Scripture Reading (January 23, 2021): Acts 12

Italian journalist, Italo Calvino, said in "The Uses of Literature" that "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." Meaning is often subjective and dependent on the emotions and circumstances of the reader. A classic book continues to elicit a response from the reader, regardless of the era in which the book is read. I recently read Upton Sinclair's "Dragon Teeth." The 1942 Novel won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1943. It covers the events of the Nazi takeover of Germany, covering the years 1929-1934. Sinclair had no idea as he wrote the novel how the war was going to end. In 1942, things weren't going well for those who opposed Nazi Germany. But he had his own idea about how the world got to 1942, and in his novel, you can see the seeds that Sinclair believed were sown in the period covered by the story. "Dragon's Teeth" is about Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, and others of the Nazi war machine. It is a story of what has already happened, tied very distinctly into the early Nazi era. But the novel is also about the shifting purposes of Hitler led Nazi Germany, from wanting the best for Germany to a quest for worldwide domination. It is a novel mired in history.

And yet, as I read the novel in the opening days of 2021, I see some contemporary politicians and politics described in the story's telling. If Sinclair had been writing in 2020, maybe we would blame him for making some unfair comparisons with his words even if he doesn't mention any names. But Sinclair died in 1968. My mind is making the connections, teaching me a lesson anew, one that I would have never learned if I had read the novel five or ten years ago.

Herod Agrippa died. The year was 44 C.E., and Passover had just ended. Agrippa headed from Jerusalem to Caesarea, where he had planned games to be performed to honor the Roman Emperor, Claudius. The scene of Agrippa's arrival at Caesarea is described by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus.

"He put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god. (Josephus, Antiquities).

And then, Herod Agrippa died. Cause of death? Historically the answer to that question remains unknown. The cause of Agrippa's death seems to depend on the meaning the reader attributes to the death. Luke says that he was eaten by worms and died. As beautiful as Agrippa may have looked on the outside, it was the growing evil on the inside that would bring him down. It is a description of the death of the leader because of a spiritual cause.

Josephus probably gives us the most objective cause of death. According to Josephus, "A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner… when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life" (Josephus, Antiquities). But it is easy to connect Luke's interpretation with the cause of death given by Josephus.

The meaning to the death of Agrippa, from Agrippa himself, was that he died as a result of an omen. Tiberius had earlier imprisoned Agrippa, and at that time, he saw an owl perched over his head. The prophecy was said to have meant that he would be swiftly released and reign as King. But if he ever saw the omen again, he would die. On that day in Caesarea, as the crowd proclaimed him to be a god, Agrippa saw an owl perched over his head, and at that moment, he knew that he would die (Josephus, Antiquities).

Maybe the most practical of possible causes of death is provided by the Jews. Herod's death was the result of a political assassination. Rome had simply had enough of the want-to-be King and decided that he must be removed. The five days of stomach pain were likely the result of the poisoning of Herod (Brann, Agrippa I).

Which is the truth? The cause and the meaning of Agrippa's death are now in your hands. You are the reader who now draws conclusions about the death of an ancient want-to-be king.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: James 1

Friday, 22 January 2021

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. – Acts 11:19

Today's Scripture Reading (January 22, 2021): Acts 11

Part of the Christian Church's shame is that we have often gone into other cultures with the demand that to become a Christian, the people had to become like us. In Africa, we mixed up the spiritual with the cultural and often demanded that the Africans become culturally white to become Christian. In North America, our shame was shown in the church's attempts over the years to drive the "Indian" out of Native Americans. I have to admit that one of my most cherished experiences was to attend a Christian Smudging. It was a moment when I was able to take part in a religious experience which merged the Christian belief in the presence of the Holy Spirit with a First Nations experience of inviting the smoke of the sweetgrass to sweep over our bodies, cleansing us from all that we need to be cleansed.

Some Christians struggle with the possibility that someone might be spiritually Christian, but culturally Native American, or Muslim, or even Buddhist or Hindu. We can easily be confused about what it means to follow Christ and what it is that our faith demands of us.

Even after Peter's experience with the Cornelius, the Christian missionary efforts' primary audience were the Jews in Diaspora. It was the Jews who heard the message. The church's expansion into the Gentile populations would wait for the ministry of Paul and his friends. But, for now, it was only the Jews that received the teaching.

The effect of this Christian teaching being directed only to the Jews was that Christianity originally was nothing more than just another Jewish sect. For many of the early believers, being a good Jew was essential to being a good Christian. If you were not born a Jew, then to become a Christian, the first step was to become a Jew. Becoming a Jew meant being baptized into the faith, which meant, among other things, being circumcised and accepting the Jewish food laws. (Imagine, to be a Christian meant living in a world without bacon.) To be a Christian didn't mean becoming like a western white man; it originally meant becoming a Jew.

It was an error from which, through Paul's ministry and the testimony of Peter, the Christian Church would eventually recover. But maybe the saddest part of the story would be that we would lose sight of the early church's mistake and repeat it in the modern era. You don't have to look like me to be Christian. But, according to Jesus, you do have to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40). Do this, and believe and serve our Messiah's cause, and you are Christian, regardless of your cultural practices.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Acts 12