Well, this past weekend certainly stirred things up.
Last week I upset a number of people at the Vineyard in a talk that was scheduled months ago on compassionate action and social justice in response to living open lives before Jesus. My feeling is that social justice—or for that matter, any mercy work that we do—is confusing if it isn’t undergirded with empathy. I tend to think incarnational Christianity is rooted in that; that before we wag our fingers and pronounce judgment on individuals or groups, let’s first try slipping into their shoes. At least attempt it. Oddly, it seems way easier to spot the splinter in someone else’s eye while missing the two-by-four in our own. My own ten-year journey in a small group with pastors who are African-American has had a profound effect on how I see American culture.
Anyway, it made some folks hopping mad. In each of the four celebrations, I noticed several people walking out of the auditorium during one particular segment. There’s no way that isn’t painful when you’re speaking, no matter how thick-skinned you are.
After reading and unpacking our text from Mark 6 about the feeding of the five thousand, I returned to a particular thought about the story, specifically how the disciples had not eaten all day either. Here’s the rest of the transcript from one of the celebrations, all in blue. This isn’t a post…it’s practically a book. Sorry. A brief post-furor comment follows the transcript:
…But here’s the deal: this isn’t a story about extreme poverty. These people could return to their homes…very hungry, but they’re not going to starve. But perhaps there’s a bigger story about the heart of God. And perhaps it’s a story of what can happen when we’re hungry along with the people who need to hear Jesus…when they’re hungry, when we feel what they feel. And that’s part of the story of the incarnation. The apostle Paul says in Philippians 2: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)
Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father. They were One in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love. He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what we feel because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one who has the power.
I believe that incarnational Christianity is what each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, that we might feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s the real thing. That’s why it says in 2 Corinthians 8: You know how full of love and kindness Jesus was: though he was so rich, for your sakes he became poor.
What I want to do is engage your sense of empathy. The beauty of what God wants to produce in us is incarnational Christianity. God slipping into the skin of humanity, into the skin of the species that would pin Him to wood like some grade-school insect experiment, that kind of love is nearly impossible to wrap your brain around. But He modeled it, and then says to us, “Just as the Father has sent me into the world, I’m sending you.”
And that’s the idea behind the Biblical concept of social justice. When you feel what someone else feels, it will cause you to set things right if they have been marginalized, discriminated, or hurt in any way by the greed, racism or any other evil in the systems of this world.
Now I’m going to get on my soapbox here, so give me some grace.
One of the things that we try really hard to do here at Vineyard Cincinnati is avoid politics. Personally, I don’t think either of the political parties neatly holds all the truth. What’s more, my job is to introduce you to another government: the Kingdom of God. It’s not a republic, it’s not a democracy, it’s not a socialist structure, or parliamentarian, nor communistic. It’s a dictatorship, or to say it more nicely, a monarchy. You don’t get a vote. What’s more, you are a servant in its governance structure, and the only way you get any power in it is by become the least and the last. My true citizenship is in that Kingdom. It comes before everything else.
As a matter of fact, Jesus said that we were to pursue that government first—and get this—above everything else in life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have responsibilities in the country we live in and shouldn’t work for justice or be grateful for where we live, but it does mean that it is kept in perspective. We have spiritual brothers and sisters in every country on the earth, and our allegiance to them and the common Kingdom we live in is greater than any nationalism or patriotism.
In the end, my Father is the King over it all, and He’s not an American, He’s not a white European, He’s not even a “Christian”, per se. He’s God, the Creator of an entire universe for His pleasure, who gave His own Son for the redemption of every tribe and nation on the planet. And so I’m careful not to share my personal political persuasion. I’m here to help you find your way into that Kingdom.
Now let me offer the flipside of that. It’s hard to talk about justice—and social justice—without mentioning this next cultural issue. And here’s where it gets dicey.
Last year there was a lot of huffing and puffing, debating and name-calling on the internet about the phrase social justice. It turns out that a popular political commentator said that if you see those words anywhere on your church’s website, “run (away) as fast as you can.” He later backtracked a bit, but largely stuck to his guns. Now let me clarify something: that religious advice came from someone who’s personal religion is founded by a man in New York who wrote an additional book of the Bible based on words he saw written on golden tablets he found that could only be read with special glasses about how Israelites came to America before Jesus and how at one time there were great civilizations with armies and chariots in North America who fought against each other even though there’s never been a single bit of archeological evidence to support it. Not a single bolt from a chariot has been found here.
What a person wants to believe is up to them and I don’t mean to demean anything—we have our own particular idiosyncrasies in Christianity—but those are frankly the factual roots of it.
So how about I as a religious leader stay away from giving you political advice and you avoid religious advice from political commentators? Whatever liberal or conservative, Democratic/Republican/libertarian commentators you want to listen to is your business…and there is definitely a wide range of opinions in this place. But please get your theology from people who are called to shepherd the Body of Christ and your political advice from whomever you want. I think you’ll understand Jesus and the Kingdom of God better. But this idea of justice being linked to societal systems is all over scripture.
In Israel, even with a king and governance structure in place, they were to hold a major event every fifty years where not only were all debts forgiven—and remember, if someone owed you $175,000 and it’s year forty-nine, you’re getting nervous—but any land that had been bought fair-and-square had to be given back to its original owner, even if the previous owner was a lazy slob, never farmed it and got himself in debt. What’s more, all people who were indentured employees because they owed their boss money were set free. Jubilee was a massive social security system—a huge act of social justice and wealth redistribution—that may not seem fair to us free market capitalists but it was vital for Israel…and it reminded them that everything actually belonged to God and He was loaning it to them. It kept them from taking an individualistic approach to their relationship with God and reminded them they—Israel—were a community. I’m not saying it’s possible to emulate that, but I am saying it reveals something about God’s heart.
This idea of community justice is all throughout the scripture. At one point, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah about how religious and moral and observant of religious rules the nation of Judah was, and how they spiritually sought after Him and were a nation that did righteousness…and then during one of their fasts, God suddenly tells them:
“Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like? “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.” Isaiah 58:5–6 (Message Version)
Let me take you further, all throughout the Old Testament is the concept of shalom. We translate it as peace, and it’s more than the absence of war.
In his book, Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be, author and theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…(it) means universal flourishing…a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied…Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
It’s God’s justice fully manifested. It’s relational in its roots and not as individualistic in approach as we make it.
Even in the New Testament, the word we translate peace usually comes from the Greek word eirene. It’s in almost every book in the New Testament, and in most cases it refers to relationships. The word is rooted in a Greek verb that means literally to join…as in being glued together. It implies a healthy social fabric where everyone is connected…and no one falls through the cracks.
When we created the Healing Center, that was the hope. That the Kingdom of God would come to people who had no clue. People who would never step into a church because churches aren’t often seen as safe places or somewhere to get help. To them shalom would be introduced…and that broken people would be woven into the fabric of our community…our part of the Body of Christ.
A few months ago I got a remarkable email from someone named Sandra. I don’t know her at all. Apparently, she first came to the Healing Center years ago for some food and married to an undocumented immigrant. After years of physical abuse, she made the scary decision to run away from her husband while six months pregnant with her fourth child. She packed up her kids and took off. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? Can you imagine the fear and uncertainty? Can you empathize with that? Homeless and out of work, she was in a crisis.
She wrote: “Dave, “I thought you would like to know this: in the past year, many things happened: very good things, thanks to the Healing Center and the Vineyard! After being homeless for two years, I got a home for me and my four kids, I found a job, and I went to school. I will be graduating in only six weeks and have a better future for my kids. I also found out my graduation ceremony will be held at the Vineyard in May! Funny! My life makes sense…now I can see a future! I have made some sacrifices and it has not been easy, but with the help I got from the Healing Center, it’s just so much better!
“God has been very good to me and I hope soon to be able to somehow pay it back. It’s hard to volunteer, but I do try, and hope some day to have the money to give more than what I give now…but for now I can say THANKS! My life is better thanks to the people of God who have seen me and not turned their backs! God bless all you do and the hands and feet who serve at the Healing Center and the Vineyard! I am more than ready for what’s next!”
I had never read an email with so many exclamation points.
But I love it that Sandra said, “…thanks to the people of God who have seen me and not turned their backs…” She recognized more was at work than the Vineyard or the Healing Center. She saw it as the people of God who saw me and didn’t turn away. As we say, vineyard, shminyard. What counts is God getting the credit through the mechanism that He wants to redeem the world through: the people of God.
Shaina Horner, who is on our staff at the Healing Center, gave me a little back-story to this in an email:
“Sandra has worked hard to complete her GED and met with a job coach at the HC. Another worker helped her apply to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services for benefits. In the meantime, she began volunteering at the Healing Center and is a great addition. Sandra is a hard worker and a great help in the warehouse. While going to school, she found a job in a nearby daycare where her children could also attend. She worked 30-40 hours per week, and with the help of Food Stamps and Medicaid, was been able to create a fairly stable life for her kids. Last year she took Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace course to manage the little money she had. Because of that, she established a $1,000 emergency fund. She regularly tithes 10% to VCC. She also transfers $10/mo into a Savings account for Christmas. She is learning good stewardship and is beginning to make good choices.
“In July she went back to school to become a Medical assistant. With the help of financial aid and continued State benefits, she spent the last 8 months in school with and just finished her 160-hour externship at Lincoln Heights Medical Center…and just applied for a job there.
“In March she applied to Mom’s Hope, a mentoring program for single moms. The investment of a mentor will make a significant difference in her life. She needs someone who can walk alongside her, helping guide and challenge her as she grows.”
A couple of days ago I got an update from Shaina: “Good news! Sandra was offered the full time Medical Assistant job at Lincoln Heights. She starts Monday at 11.50/hr. She is coming to volunteer at the Healing Center on Saturday and will pick up a new pair of scrubs. She is very excited.”
When people come into the Healing Center, we can meet some needs. But in the end, it’s them coming in contact with the Kingdom of God and being woven into the Community of Christ that really changes lives.
Let me close with these two verses from Proverbs. Proverbs is an odd book, isn’t it? It’s contextual…meaning you can read one verse to mean one thing, and the next verse to mean the opposite, is in this classic from Proverbs 26:4 & 5:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
It’s all context, folks.
But the book of Proverbs reads mostly along these lines: here’s what a smart person does…and here’s what an idiot does. It tends to use the terms wise man and fool, but you get the drift. It has a lot to say about the poor, and sometimes things that bring on poverty, such as decrying laziness as in Proverbs 6:10 & 11 (and oddly repeated again in 24:33 & 34): A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
But poverty is not all individualistic. There are complex and systemic reasons as well. Proverbs addresses our response to that as well in social and theological ways:
You insult your Maker when you exploit the powerless; when you’re kind to the poor, you honor God. Proverbs 14:31 (Message version).
One of the things I like to do when I speak at other places is to invite leaders to stay with my wife and me and immerse them in another church culture, drag them around to my leadership team meetings, stay up late at night to debrief, talk shop and drink a glass of wine. I have team coming from Pennsylvania tonight, as a matter of fact. A couple of weeks ago we had a 26-year-old woman from Switzerland staying with us. She had finished her university work there and was coming to the states for a few weeks to tour around. She stayed with us for about a week. On two of the days she served at the Healing Center on our campus. That night we all sat in the living room and talked. I asked her how it went.
She said, “It was amazing. I cried.” When I asked her why, she essentially said, “When people started coming in and we began serving them, it was like I was serving Jesus Himself.”
Isn’t that interesting? We tend to think when we serve hurting people, we’re bring Jesus to them. But what if it’s the opposite? Or how about when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25, He says to the righteous, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Jesus then says the righteous respond with, “Jesus, when were You hungry? We didn’t see that. Or when where You ever naked? No way! And You were never in prison—what could You have possibly done?”
And that’s when He tells them, “Whatever you did to the least and the last, it was like you did it for me.” Powerful.
We’ve got it backwards. One last verse from Proverbs: The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Proverbs 29:7 (NIV)
They care about justice, not just charity. They care about what creates poverty, not just kindness for the sake of kindness. Justice demands action, both individualistically and systemically. Let’s pray…
That, my friends, is what made a number of people upset. And at the risk of creating another uproar, I will simply say this: when you touch a person’s idol, you make them very, very angry. Yes, I know that’s simplistic, but test it on yourself.
I’ve certainly been that way.