Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Stumbling Block of Good Intentions

Ezekiel 7:16-19 Romans 14:5-13 Matthew 18:6-14

There is a particular, if peculiar, preacher in the news lately who has apparently taken upon himself the burden of judging - and condemning - Islam ... in the name of love and Jesus the Christ. You may know him as the man who once threatened to have a Koran-burning party but backed off at the offer of a new car. He accepted the new car, but he reportedly sold it and gave the proceeds to some charity; maybe his own. Be not misled, however. This preacher insisted that he backed down from his book-burning party after much prayer because the Spirit did not give him clear instructions.

Fast forward a few months later, and this same preacher is back in the news. This time, however, the Koran had been put on "trial" with a Muslim-turned-Christian "prosecutor" and an Islamic imam as "defense" counsel. The congregation as "jury" found the Koran guilty of crimes against humanity and ordered the "defendant" burned (wonder why the book of Numbers was not also put on trial?). The incident was filmed, placed on YouTube, and found its way around the world. Last report related to this incident was a mob attack in Afghanistan by angry protesters who killed several innocent persons some 10,000 miles away from Gainesville FL where the "trial" had been held, innocent persons who had absolutely nothing to do with the "trial" or the subsequent book burning.

In the American heartland there is a congregation that calls itself Baptist led by another preacher who has apparently taken the entire burden of judging homosexuality upon himself. He and his followers have not put any books under the burn to my knowledge and I am not aware of their actions having incited mobs to physical violence, but the harm that has been done presumably in the name of the same Messiah cannot be fully measured although the offense they have invoked against Americans is incomprehensible, so disrespectful and offensive in its nature that decent people can think of no decent, printable language with which to describe it. And these have made it very clear that ... they ... do ... not ... care what you or I think.

Jesus Himself said, "These things I have spoken to you that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them." John 16:1-4

It is not important whether you or I personally or doctrinally or theologically agree or disagree with either of these preachers in principle or in practice. It matters not whether Muslims or homosexuals are offended by the actions of these very few (fewer than 100 between the two preachers), and it does not even matter that American families who have suffered the heartbreak of the loss of a loved one have been confronted at the very grave sites of their heroic beloved by the actions of these few, although we do have sensibilities that I dare say are offended on one level or another by these zealots who act more like hyperactive children in a solemn worship service. These few do not care that they are being disruptive or disrespectful, and they do not care whom they hurt in the process. They care even less about who must pay the price for their conduct and their freedom to do such harm - or so says the US Supreme Court. They care only that they get the attention they seem so desperately to need because, they reason, they have the "truth" on their side.

What does matter, what is at the very heart of the behavior and offense of these few, is the Holy and Blessed Name they besmirch and blaspheme, ironically the same Name they claim to serve. Why this matters is that these few get all the press and publicity they want by their sensational acts while very few outside of our own community have ever heard of Southern Christian Mission, Body and Soul Food Pantry, or the Stew Pot.

It is not strictly a matter of publicity, however. Rather it is a matter of what people outside of our little circles know about our Lord, our God, our Holy Father. These few persons who manage to carry headlines all over the globe do as much harm to Christianity as the few bomb-carrying murderers do to Islam. What people see or read with their own eyes is what they believe to be true. These few, unfortunately, are what so many see and come to believe about Christ our Lord.

Jesus seemed to have seen it all coming, but He does not merely dismiss such action as "just the way it is". He pulls out all the stops. He makes no idle threat, but He makes a solemn promise He surely intends to keep: "You hurt My little ones, and I will hurt you back." Within the context of Matthew's passage Jesus seems to specifically be referring to biological children since He had summoned a "little child" (Mt 18:2) to make His point. Peter says the Lord shows "no partiality" (Acts 10:34), but Jesus shows distinct favoritism when it comes to little children. He tells those who are listening (then and now) that if we ever hope to see the kingdom of Heaven, we WILL become "as little children".

But Jesus is not strictly speaking in biological terms because clearly we cannot become small children again anymore than we can enter back into a mother's womb as Nicodemus pointed out in John 3:4, but the key to the point Jesus is making here and to Nicodemus is in terms of "change" (or "conversion" in NKJV); the spiritual rebirth that brings us into a stage of infancy in faith. Like infants and small children, these "spiritual children" must be protected and defended at all costs because they are in a precarious state of discovery. They are open to new experiences, new ideas, new truths ... and new lies. And because the nature of a child is one of complete trust, they can be turned this way or that according to what they are told. And like small children, even "spiritual children" can be easily frightened within AND without reason.

Homosexuality and Islam are two very easy social and theological targets because both seem to violate the Judeo-Christian ethic, and they both are socially offensive to many. We don't typically understand either, so it is easy to make them targets of our self-righteousness - and our fears. And because they both seem to be rather confrontational in their nature and state of being, we respond rather strongly according to our fears. We blame Islam specifically for the attack on the World Trade Center, and we blame homosexuality for the continued attacks on the nuclear family and all that we consider sacred. Can we not say that women and African-Americans were treated much the same way with essentially the same arguments when their time came to be recognized as, quite simply, human beings?

It is one thing to believe in something enough to defend it. It is altogether a different thing to impose one's beliefs on another, especially in such a confrontational and overbearing way. We have every right to believe anything we want to believe, but we do not have a right to expect or demand others to believe it. Becoming overbearing with what we believe to the point of belittling those who do not share our beliefs threatens to cross the line from "faith" to "offensiveness" and will eventually do far more harm than any good that can be hoped for because people just don't respond appropriately to threats of any kind. They will surrender out of pure and unreasoned fear, they will fight back (think "Crusades" or "Inquisition"), or they will simply walk away. No matter the response, there is no "victory" to be claimed because nothing was "won". Quite the contrary, we could begin to count substantial losses for the kingdom of Heaven as perhaps we are even now.

We mean well and we do well when we stand for "family values" and Christianity, but we don't do well enough when we ourselves do not live up to the high standards we seem to demand of others. We are disciples ourselves, students of Christ in every sense of the word, continually striving for higher and higher standards, reaching for the spiritual perfection that will enable us to rise above these petty challenges that are truly beneath our calling as "witnesses". We betray our Lord who Himself "did not come to condemn the world" (John 3:17a) when we choose to condemn those who do not share our values or our beliefs.

In my humble opinion it is ok and perhaps preferable to call "sin" what it is, and it is life-affirming when we help unbelievers and "spiritual infants" to understand the raw power and destructive nature of sin. It is ok to protect and correct our children from sinful behavior, and it is ok to remove ourselves from the company of unrepentant sinners if the door to Christ has been slammed shut. It is not ok, however, to proclaim divine judgment lest we live under the very real threat of believing ourselves equal to the task reserved exclusively for the Holy One and exclusively on the Day of His choosing. He did not call forth "judges" in the New Covenant; He called forth "witnesses", "disciples", and "apostles".

It has been said by many that we Christians are better known for what we hate rather than for what we love. And WHOM we love ... because it is abundantly clear by the lives we live that there are many persons and many THINGS we obviously love before we will offer our love to the Lord. It is painfully and abundantly clear by the lives of far too many overly vocal and religious Christians that we uphold ideas, but reject the ideals we demand of others. It should be clear to us by now that our very "stumbling blocks" are the barriers we use to keep "outsiders" at bay by telling them that their spiritual destruction is assured. Such a proclamation is not only dangerous and foolish, it is also very much easier to do than to actually "love" those we choose to condemn.

Sin existed long before you and I came into this world, and sin will endure long after we are gone. We must be careful in the meantime that we don't get caught up in sinful acts or push others into sinful acts as we demand the eradication of sin from our world. We have been chosen, as Jesus reminded His disciples that they did not choose Him, to proclaim the Gospel of Life, the Good News that has come to us in Emmanuel and that will come again. He is our Way, He is our Truth, and He is our Life. Pray as though we depend on it. Live as though we believe it.

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