Think of the Needs of the Group (1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1)

Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well.

With that as a base to work from, common sense can take you the rest of the way. Eat anything sold at the butcher shop, for instance; you don’t have to run an “idolatry test” on every item. “The earth,” after all, “is God’s, and everything in it.” That “everything” certainly includes the leg of lamb in the butcher shop. If a nonbeliever invites you to dinner and you feel like going, go ahead and enjoy yourself; eat everything placed before you. It would be both bad manners and bad spirituality to cross-examine your host on the ethical purity of each course as it is served. On the other hand, if he goes out of his way to tell you that this or that was sacrificed to god or goddess so-and-so, you should pass. Even though you may be indifferent as to where it came from, he isn’t, and you don’t want to send mixed messages to him about who you are worshiping.

But, except for these special cases, I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it, and he blessed it!

So eat your meals heartily, not worrying about what others say about you—you’re eating to God’s glory, after all, not to please them. As a matter of fact, do everything that way, heartily and freely to God’s glory. At the same time, don’t be callous in your exercise of freedom, thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free as you are. I try my best to be considerate of everyone’s feelings in all these matters; I hope you will be, too.

It pleases me that you continue to remember and honor me by keeping up the traditions of the faith I taught you. (The Message)

“To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

Andre Gide

Extreme individualism wants what it wants and doesn’t give a thought about anyone else – which is why we always have such a peck of trouble in the world all the time.

We need to get a phrase into our language which will become a continual mantra we say and observe:

Think of the needs of the group.

Christianity is a religion of community, of being attentive to and meeting one another’s needs, and of caring about the common good of all persons throughout the world. Christians dishonor their Lord and buck their spiritual tradition whenever they go rogue and base everything they say and do on what sort of advantage it is for them without considering others.

Yes, believers in Jesus have freedom in Christ. The cross has released the shackles that kept us in sin’s bondage. But, no, that doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, whenever we want. That’s the way individualism looks at it. That’s not how a communal people, the church, are to look at it.

Freedom hinges on two very important and seemingly small grammar prepositions: from and to.

Freedom always involves two elements:

  1. Freedom from what hinders or oppresses us.
  2. Freedom to become who we are meant to be.

In Christianity, believers are saved from sin, death, and hell – released from guilt and shame. There is redemption from the pit of despair. The bonds that hindered are now broken through the cross of Christ. The power of the world, the sinful nature, and the devil are taken away.

Yet, in no way does that now mean that we now get to do whatever we want, as if we’ve finally outgrown childhood and parental authority.

The extreme individualist Christian looks at freedom solely from this vantage. As a result, such a person considers the church as nonobligatory, involvement in issues of justice as optional, the use of personal funds and resources as discretionary, and accountability to others as arbitrary.

Such individualism sees Christianity as a fire insurance policy from hell, and a ticket punched for heaven. Until Christ returns, the reasoning goes, I can do whatever the heck I want. It’s my life, not yours.

Christians, however, are still servants. Whereas we were once enslaved to the dark forces of this world, now we are slaves to Christ. We exchanged masters. Satan is no longer the deceitful and lying task master over us. We are now under new management and have a new Master, the Lord Jesus. We’ve changed allegiances.

And now, submitted to Christ, we embrace our mandate of freedom to become whom we were always meant to be: At peace with our Creator and in harmony with all creation. We are now free to enjoy right relationships with God and others, to walk in faith, hope, and love, and to bless both the church and the world.

The Christian’s freedom came at a price: the very blood of Christ Jesus. Therefore, we are not to abuse that freedom by focusing solely on our freedoms from all that once bound us. We are also responsible and accountable for using that freedom in going to the world and proclaiming the gospel in word and sacrament, as well as loving God and neighbor.

Freedom is only freedom when it has the well-being of everyone in mind.

Think of the needs of the group.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father: Help us to live into the freedom you have brought to us. May we exercise our freedom, with the heart of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, to serve your purposes. Unite us, protect our sacred liberties and rights, and defend us from every evil. Strengthen your people as a foundation of moral clarity, justice, love, and gospel proclamation. Grant all this by the power of your Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

The Divine Warrior (Isaiah 59:15b-21)

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.

He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
    and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to what they have done,
    so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
    and retribution to his foes;
    he will repay the islands their due.
From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord,
    and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
    that the breath of the Lord drives along.

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord. (New International Version)

The Lord inhabits a lot of roles as God: Creator and Sustainer, Father and Mother, Helper and Healer, Sovereign and King, Shepherd and Spirit, and much more. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we see God as the Divine Warrior and Redeemer.

Readers of the New Testament will pick up on the warrior language in Isaiah’s prophecy (Ephesians 6:10-20). The Divine Warrior readies for battle by putting on armor: a breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation. The Lord prepares to intervene, to make war on injustice, because there are no earthly human warriors willing to eradicate unrighteousness, redeem the oppressed, and establish deliverance for the needy.

The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In experiment after experiment over the past fifty years, social psychologists have found that the more bystanders there are, the less likely any one of them will help. 

For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. 70% of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt. Yet, when there were other people around, only 40% offered help.

The social psychologists found that individuals find it far too easy to stand with their hands in their pockets, whenever there are other people around that could help and do what is right and just. 

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV)

The Lord noticed that justice had disappeared. God was plenty displeased with the lack of justice – and became downright disgusted when no one was doing anything about it. 

“Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one’s emotions.”

Ayn Rand

The rationalizations for not becoming involved and avoiding the work of justice in the world are legion: 

  • “Someone else can do it better than me.” 
  • “But what if I screw up?”
  • “I don’t have time for this.”
  • “How could I possibly make any difference?”
  • “That’s not my job.”
  • “They made their own bed, now they can sleep in it.”
  • “I don’t know what to do.”

God puts the responsibility for ensuring that everyone has what they need to live and thrive on us. We truly are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

So, let’s come back to the Divine Warrior image in the New Testament. Christians are to take up the armor of God, not only to protect themselves from evil, but also to fight the dark forces that keep people locked in systems of injustice. Read the following text from the perspective of ensuring justice for the common good of all people:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.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. 

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-20, NIV)

The under-privileged, the under-represented, the under-served, the disadvantaged, the deprived, the indigent, and many more groups of people exist because of ignorance and apathy toward their needs. Everyone, including you and me, need to own this and not rationalize why we cannot participate.

The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good. 

The Lord dispenses grace and glory primarily through active people who forsake being bystanders and respond to God’s call on their lives. 

Let’s not bring out the Divine Warrior because of our own negligence. Instead, let’s be attentive to justice, righteousness, and redemption. Perhaps then God will get a more positive press in the public square.

God of justice and righteousness, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish in life. Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities, churches, workplaces, and everywhere we live and go, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Warning about Wealth (James 5:1-6)

Pay attention, you wealthy people! Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you. Your riches have rotted. Moths have destroyed your clothes. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you. It will eat your flesh like fire. Consider the treasure you have hoarded in the last days. 

Listen! Hear the cries of the wages of your field hands. These are the wages you stole from those who harvested your fields. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of heavenly forces. You have lived a self-satisfying life on this earth, a life of luxury. You have stuffed your hearts in preparation for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who doesn’t oppose you. (Common English Bible)

Everyone’s station in life has its own particular temptations.

In the church for which the Apostle James wrote his letter, the rich had completely succumbed to the temptation of using their wealth to build more wealth on the backs of the poor. And the Apostle called them out on it.

Just because you nor I might not be rich in assets and wealth, doesn’t mean today’s New Testament lesson has nothing to do with us. We all inhabit some position of influence or authority, as well as own something, even if it is not much. So, how we use what has been given to us by God is of utmost importance for everyone.

The poor are tempted to envy the rich. And the rich are tempted to trust in their money, resources, and business acumen with no thought to God. Both rich and poor can identify so closely with their respective situations that their primary identity is defined by wealth, or the lack thereof.

Hoarding Wealth

It’s not unusual for a person who appears middle or lower class to have hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed away. I have met more than a few of them in my life. Some people die millionaires, having been penny pinchers their entire lives.

Stockpiling wealth, whether hiding it or flaunting it, without the intention of using it for godly purposes, is tragic. No one is blessed by it. Money is temporary; but relationships are permanent. A wise Christian focuses on storing heavenly treasure and taking an eternal view of their resources.

Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse! —stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being. (Matthew 6:19-21, MSG)

Fraudulent Wealth

A person can become addicted to wealth. People can also desire to be wealthy to the degree that they use illegal and dishonest ways of obtaining it and holding on to it.

Withholding wages from workers is a crime, both legally and biblically. In the ancient world, and still in many places around the globe today, workers are paid daily, at the end of the workday. To not receive their pay means their families will go hungry that night.

Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, CEB)

Self-Indulgent Wealth

The person who lives completely for self is only building wealth in vain, like a hog being fattened for the slaughter. Daydreaming and fantasizing about possessing money for personal indulgence, at the expense of others, will not end well.

Jesus said, “Be careful and guard against all kinds of greed. People do not get life from the many things they own.”

Then Jesus used this story: “There was a rich man who had some land. His land grew a very good crop of food. He thought to himself, ‘What will I do? I have no place to keep all my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘I know what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger barns! I will put all my wheat and good things together in my new barns. Then I can say to myself, I have many good things stored. I have saved enough for many years. Rest, eat, drink, and enjoy life!’

“But God said to that man, ‘Foolish man! Tonight, you will die. So, what about the things you prepared for yourself? Who will get those things now?’ (Luke 12:15-20, ERV)

Murderous Wealth

Whenever the rich and powerful are bent on accumulating and hoarding wealth, they step all over workers to get what they want. And the poor laborers possess neither the ability nor the authority to handle the injustice. They are helpless.

By withholding wages and resources, or purposefully paying a non-living wage, the neglect puts people in poverty. Then, the poor struggle to survive. They may starve, even die, through no fault of their own. And the ones who put them in such a position will have to answer to a higher authority – God. (1 Kings 21)

Stewarding Wealth

The Lord gives us money, resources, even wealth, for us to enjoy and give to others. We are stewards, accountable for the time, assets, and relationships, given us by God in this life. So, then, we must emulate godly models of asset allocation and thoughtful stewardship.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 

Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

May we all use whatever resources, gifts, abilities, and time we have to bless others and contribute to the common good of all persons. Amen.

Psalm 6 – Independence Day Celebration or Mourning?

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
    O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
    while you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
    deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
    in Sheol who can give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning;
    every night I flood my bed with tears;
    I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
    they grow weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
    for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my supplication;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
    they shall turn back and in a moment be put to shame. (New Revised Standard Version)

Methinks we Americans, especially on this our national Independence Day, must remember that this has not always been, nor currently is, a day of celebration for a sizable chunk of people in the United States.

Now before you begin offering some mental pushback that I am pouring cold water on a time-honored holiday, or begin believing I’m not a true patriot, I will simply point out that not only is today’s psalm lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary a lament, but also that I’m a guy with two academic degrees in American history.

If we only look at Independence Day from the perspective of white Northern European heritage persons, then it will seem that, speaking like this, I am not grateful for the blessings of being in this incredible country of my birth and the place I’ve lived my entire life.

But I am not looking from that angle today. I choose to acknowledge that on this day, every year for the past 246 years, today’s psalm has been the lived experience and expression of others who looked to the heavens and asked, “How long, O Lord!?”

A true people of compassion are able to suffer with those who suffer. The people of God really ought to be at the forefront of exhibiting empathy and standing in solidarity with suffering folk.

A patriot is one who acknowledges and affirms all it’s citizens, and not only the ones who look like me, talk like me, and act like me. After all, the original documents of the United States made room for this to be so. Empathy, compassion, and solidarity are intentionally built into our nation’s grand experiment of democracy and government.

“We the people of the Unites States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Preamble of the United States Constitution

The very fact that the previous quotation is true for some, and not for everyone, is a telling testament to the reality that we need to keep striving to live into our heritage as Americans and ensure that welfare for the common good of all citizens is continually sought, even if done so imperfectly.

Grieving, tears, and lament was the response of the former slave Frederick Douglass.

“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your [white] fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me [a black man]. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (An oration on July 4, 1852)

Mourning and weeping was and continues to be the experience of many Native American peoples.

“While the United States and its settlers claimed its independence from Great Britain, this came at a cost of others, including this land’s Indigenous Peoples that were stolen from their own homelands. This patriotic holiday is nothing to celebrate because freedom cannot come at the cost of another’s freedom. America’s Independence Day is a celebration of imperialism, genocide, and American exceptionalism, and there is no pride in genocide.”

Daisee Francour (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin)

We cannot change history, but we can work towards a better future where all of our rights are respected and we all experience freedom and independence equally. Those with non-European ancestry who today in our nation experience racism and anti-ethnic aggression need to be acknowledged and affirmed as Americans with equal standing and an equal voice alongside the white population.

So, I would argue that both celebration and weeping ought to occur on this day. We should weep for the dreams and lives of indigenous peoples who were destroyed through westward expansion, and even today experience the ongoing effects of cultural genocide.

We ought to acknowledge not only our nation’s blessings, but also our curses which are still seen in exploiting others through envy, greed, sloth, pride, lust, and gluttony.

We, the people of the United States of America, ought to actively seek to live in more simple and less harmful ways. We should offer our voices, not in violent speech and language, but with creative and healing words.

On this American Independence Day, the Church should reaffirm her allegiance and citizenship to Christ and God’s Kingdom and renounce any nationalistic, economic, ethnic, and political divisions which are contrary to the words and ways of Jesus.

All of the citizens of the earth should seek to embrace non-violent, self-sacrificial love on behalf of everyone. Today is an opportunity to affirm that Christ is the Friend of all people, not just some.

No one ought to be wasting away in their grief and languishing in their tears when we have the means to acknowledge their suffering and to do something about it.

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

Give us the bread we need for today.

Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13, CEB)