Friday, January 20, 2017

Render unto Caesar What Belongs to Caesar and Render unto God What Belongs to God

People have pointed out recently that we are not primarily Democrats or Republicans or Independents; we are, first of all, Americans.  In the aftermath of a tumultuous primary season and a bitterly contested presidential campaign, these are conciliatory words.  Love of our fellow citizens  should run more deeply in our veins that partisan loyalties. They are not, however, the last word for some of us.

For those of us who have confessed faith in Jesus Christ and have vowed to follow him in discipleship, there is a more enduring and demanding core to our identity: love of neighbor, which Jesus so entangles with love of God that we cannot in the end separate the two.  Clintonistas and Trumpsters and Bernieites who claim to be followers of Jesus simply are not permitted to put partisan, political loyalties above love of all our neighbors.  There is no noun or adjective referring to a human being that can be justification for not loving her or him all the time as we love ourselves.  Jesus has excluded all possible excuses.  When he said we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, Jesus pretty much shut down any exceptions (Mt. 5:43-44).  We are permitted to pray “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do [Luke 23:34],” but we still must labor to love them. 

We are loyal Americans, and out of love of country we aspire toward a spirit of unity.  We owe that to Caesar.  But we owe a deeper thing to God.
Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?”  And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt 25:37-40).
It is clear that Jesus did not mean we should simply coexist with or tolerate our neighbor; we owe that to Caesar already.  Jesus means people around us should say:  “Will you look at that? That person must really love that other person.  Usually people like that don’t care for one another.”  That is what we owe to God.  If we read the rest of the story in Matthew 5, we see what a grave mistake it is to confuse what we owe to Caesar with what we owe to God. 

In the aftermath of a divisive election, it may be more challenging to love all our neighbors; but this is what we signed on for when we fell in behind Jesus.  So celebrate, protest, or watch "Frazier" reruns; but let us not confuse civility with Christianity.   May God grants us the grace to be faithful in all our relationships with all people all the time.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State

Monday, January 16, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr: Principled not Passive

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than a secular holiday honoring an important American.  It is also a day to remember someone who taught the church in America some things about Christian discipleship.  King was more than an adept leader of a movement; he was at his core a Baptist preacher who sought to guide people in the way of the Gospel.

In a day when political division generates a bit of rancor among us, it is healthy to remember someone who taught the importance of loving our neighbor and even our enemy. King did not choose nonviolent initiative primarily because it was the most effective tool available to him at the time; rather he chose this tool because he believed in its preeminent power. 

Paul Greenberg wrote, King “understood he had an ally in the heart of his adversary, and he never ceased appealing to it. He was relentless in his application of mercy.”  King believed that he strove ultimately not against other people but against the powers they obey.  In Strive Toward Freedom, King observed:  “There is a creative Force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspect of reality into a harmonious whole.”  He staked his work on the belief that God was working in our world to heal what is broken. 

In Strength to Love, King wrote that he lived with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.  He wrote there are some who find the cross a stumbling block; others see it as foolishness.  “But I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God to social and individual healing,” wrote King. In Strive Toward Freedom, King warned: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force.”  The cross of Jesus clues us in to how we can participate in what God is working out in our world.  This is why King chose confrontational nonviolence over retaliation.  He staked his life and legacy upon that conviction.

Was King’s approach greeted with love and kindness?  No, it created tension, even violent opposition.  He confessed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that he was not afraid of tension.  He believed tension to be constructive and necessary for growth.  His methodology was not passive; it was principled.  The principle was that God is working out the creation’s redemption and finally God will have the last word.  King was many things.  Most of all he was simply a Baptist preacher pointing people in the direction God is moving.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (Romans 8:22-25).

We are people of hope in God.  Martin Luther King Jr. Day renews that hope.


Jim Kelsey—Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What's a Follower of Jesus to Do?

Build a wall or provide a pathway to citizenship? Dreamers or a threat?  Welcome or deport? Register or provide sanctuary?
Over the past year our nation has been engaged in a vigorous debate over the appropriate response to people living among us from other countries, some of whom do not have proper documentation.  There are voices on both ends of the spectrum; most Americans lie someplace along the continuum.  What is a follower of Jesus to do?  I can tell you what we did. 

Through InterFaith Works’ Center for New Americans, my family was matched with a recently arrived refugee family from Syria.  There are four in the family: a mother and father, two daughters (4 and 10 years of age) and two sons (6 and 12 years of age).  Using Google Translate on our phones we are able to have intelligible conversations.  Debbie has taken the mother to some secondhand stores so that she might know where to find affordable items.  We have helped them buy some household goods, and have been able to collect some useful things from others.  On several occasions people in churches have taken the initiative to approach us and offer things unsolicited.  In the spirit of holiday giving, we bought gifts for the children.  When all the other kids in their classes were getting gifts, it was heartbreaking to think of these delightful children receiving nothing.

We invited them to our house for a meal.  In retrospect, we should have done more research into the meaning of the word halal.  In any case, the children seemed delighted to be in our home.

Does this resolve the immigration debate in America?  No, not really.  Is it faithful to the teaching of Jesus?  I think so.  “I was a stranger and you invited me in [Matt. 25:35].”  Regardless of where we stand on the immigration debate, all followers of Jesus are responsible to invite in and care for the strangers among us.  On that issue, for a follower of Jesus, there should be no debate.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister-American Baptist Churches of New York State