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Sowing and Reaping

The Christian faith is an outgrowth of the Judaism that developed out of the religion of ancient Israel. It is not too much to say that virtually every line of the New Testament is related in one way or another to the Jewish Bible and the traditions it spawned or reflected. Jesus, of course, was Jewish and showed no desire to be anything but Jewish, and sometimes in certain sectors of Judaism, he is even considered as someone who acted in the tradition of Israel's prophets.

The tradition of the prophets is marked by the boldness of speaking truth to power. The prophets observed closely the circumstances in which they were living, both in times of weal and woe, and attempted to say how these fit into the scheme of the God of Israel. Mostly their outcry comes in time of woe, when things are bad for Israel, so bad at times the Jews have been displaced from their land and moved into exile—think, for example, the refugee camps in which Palestinians have been living for 40 years or more or where Syrians are living today. The prophets presume to say why this is happening, or more specifically, why God has permitted this to happen. The answer every time is corruption—the corruption of the religion of Israel, the corruption of the society of Israel, the corruption of the mission of Israel to be light to the nations.

The church I serve is located in the center of New Jersey, surely one of the most corrupt states of the 50. I don't know whether this is an especially corrupt time in the state's history, but the profile of our present governor, Chris Christie, whose boundless ambition has brought attention to him and to the running of the state, makes one more aware of the corruption that is business as usual in New Jersey. We call ourselves "The Garden State," but certainly this is no Garden of Eden, though if it is, it is the Garden of Eden after the Fall from grace.

Money, of course, is fundamental in the state's corruption, though I don't think that money is the principal demon driving our Governor. Everything about him suggests that he is ravenous for power and has done and will do pretty much anything he has to do to get it. There is nothing in his demeanor or his policies that would indicate he is interested in the well-being of the people of New Jersey. He is hostile to programs that serve the poor and disenfranchised, and he calculates his every policy and every move by how it will position him for a run for the Presidency on the Republican ticket. Thus he cannot even admit the reality of the human impact on global warming or endorse a raise in the minimum wage, because these are anathema to the most retrograde wing of his Party. At the same time, he has forged alliances in the state with power-hungry Democrats like George Norcross and Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, all of whom seem to be unprincipled opportunists. Power is their god, and their devotion is absolute.

When the prophets of ancient Israel spoke up, it was always in defense of the God who had led Israel out of bondage, the Eternal One who is the God of liberation and justice. They understood the ruin of Israel as a consequence of the departure from devotion to this God who is true in preference for false gods of power and wealth and selfishness, the very sort of things we see being played out in New Jersey. The state has frequently made itself a laughing stock, but its corruption is really no laughing matter. As in ancient Israel, the corruptions of wealth and power have real consequences, not least of all for the poor in the state, but also in our day for the environment and hence for future generations, who may find that they are not able to do much gardening in The Garden State.

I don't know whether or not the corruption in this state is worse than it has been in the past or whether it is, as I say, simply more in our faces because of the governor's national profile and because his vaunted "straight-talking" seems so brutal and bullying. But the corruption is real and as much a denial of the God of justice and liberation as was anything that confronted the prophets of Israel. If we ourselves are not prophets, perhaps at least we can be prophetic in realizing that the corruptions of power are religious and not merely political. Writing to the Galatian church, St. Paul said, "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow." It does not seem to me that we are reaping good things in the Garden State these days.

Blessings in your quest,

Jeffrey Eaton


The Fallible Church

I am the pastor of a Lutheran church and specifically a Lutheran church that is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Lutherans of this stripe tend to think of ourselves as small “c” catholics. Big “C” Catholics usually have the word “catholic” in the name of their denomination as in the case of Roman Catholics, who commonly call themselves “Catholics” as we call ourselves “Lutherans”. The word “catholic” means universal and suggests the entire Church, which is made up of a number of denominations, among them the Roman Catholic Church.

            Lutherans are probably not big “P” Protestants either. By big “P” Protestants I mean those churches that didn’t want any part of the Roman Catholic Church and which defined themselves in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.   Lutherans are small “p” protestants and have traditionally wanted to keep the doors open for relationship to the Roman Catholic Church as well as to the big “P” Protestant denominations.

            I bring this up in light of Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of Love”, in which he attempts among other things to soften the Roman church’s position with regard to members who are divorced and remarried, and the relation of homosexual people to the church. This is another case in which Pope Francis improves the tone of a teaching of the church without changing the teaching. So it is still the case that remarried or remarrying Roman Catholics must have an annulment of their first marriage(s) if they are to receive communion at Mass. The change of tone urges a more compassionate attitude to “imperfect” Roman Catholics who are divorced or remarried or cohabitating, maybe even working out some sort of communion agreement between priests and bishops on an individual basis. As far as same-sex marriage is concerned “The Joy of Love” says that whatever joy there may be in these arrangements, they do not have the dignity of heterosexual marriages. The Pope urges that gay people be respected.

            There are probably Roman Catholic priests as well as Roman Catholic lay people who try to hold the line on the historic teaching of the church and who discourage communion or simply withhold it from those who are “imperfect” Roman Catholics. But in most parishes there are plenty of people at the communion rail every Sunday receiving Holy Communion, who are among the “imperfect” and even known to be among the “imperfect” but who nevertheless commune. These are at the very least small “p” protestants who are not keeping the Roman Catholic teachings of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Like good Lutherans, they are obedient to their consciences, but they stay in a church that continues to believe that conscience must bow to its dogma.

            I must say I don’t quite understand why these small “p” protestants don’t leave the Roman Catholic Church and live out their Christianity in some other denomination that fully welcomes them as sisters and brothers in Christ. They can be small “c” catholics and small “p” protestants or even big “P” Protestants if they so choose. There are churches that would be ever so grateful for them and their imperfections and would welcome their communion. Or rather than leaving the church of their birth, they might for the sake of compassion and Christian conscience publicly oppose the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and demand a change in the way the church does its business and act to reform the church, as Luther tried to do more than 500 years ago. This might be a big help to Pope Francis who is generally seen to be in favor of church reform.  

            In conclusion and for modesty’s sake, I should say that the Lutheran church that emerged out of the Lutheran Reformation is not perfect—it admits freely to being fallible. How could it be otherwise, filled as it is with people like myself, who are in one way or another “imperfect” Christians?

                                                                                                Jeffrey Eaton


A God Worth Having


Half a century ago, the great Christian theologian, Paul Tillich, conceived of faith as one.

How does one go about deciding this issue?  Those of us brought up in a specific religious tradition will be inclined to believe that the God of our religion is the true God.  Or perhaps we will have a falling out with our religion and want to think about the Ultimate in some other terms, which seem to us to represent a higher truth and more ultimate God than that of the religion we have departed.  But how do we make such decisions?  This is not something that is simply a matter of fact, such that if one just gets enough facts one will be able to be certain about what is Ultimate.  In addition to facts, there is also the question of value, which brings us to the title of this blog: “A God Worth Having”.

Under this title it is my intention to explore what it is that makes for a God worth having at this particular moment of history, when religion is everywhere in the news, often in the most degraded forms. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, the literary critic, James Wood, wrote about the nastiness of Pat Robertson’s comments about the earthquake in Haiti as the punishment of God being visited on the Haitians. Wood then went on to say that there was an aspect of this sort of insanity in a comment made by President Obama to the effect that “but for the grace of God” such a disaster could happen to any of us, suggesting that God is allowing the disaster for some and gracing others with safety and prosperity. Wood, a recovering evangelical, goes on to suggest that if God isn’t involved in making disasters or sparing us from them, then God is so absent as not to be worth having. Which may be true for him, but if so, I would say that he needs to think a little more about what sort of God is worth having, because there seem to me to be some buried assumptions in his reasoning that are not worth having.

Emanuel Lutheran Church is a congregation where people in the Lutheran tradition of Christianity come together to come to grips with the question of, “What is a God worth having?” This question is alive in our worship and in our Christian education and in our ministry to one another and in the larger community. We are a people seeking to know what godliness is in the second decade of the twenty-first century on planet Earth, searching amid all the competing voices that are calling for recognition in contemporary life as the word of God.

This blog will appear regularly on this website as a kind of provocation for readers and writer to think about what it means in our contemporary cultural environment to think about God, and what image of God is worthy of our devotion. The blog is not at this time interactive, other than as an occasion to reflect upon this question. Beyond this, the blog is a window into the kind of inquiries that occupy many members of Emanuel.

Blessings in your quest,

Jeffrey C. Eaton, Pastor