How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:1-11

As a relative newcomer to the liturgical tradition, I’ve found the tradition of Lenten fasting rather an alien concept. Several years ago, I was asked to preach on the subject of fasting but wound up declining the opportunity when I learned that I was expected to talk about the spiritual benefits of going without food rather than what I wanted to talk about, which was more along the lines of what Isaiah says in this passage.  I don’t mean to denigrate those who have found fasting a helpful spiritual practice, but as Isaiah observes, there’s a great deal more to the concept of self-denial than not eating. In some cases, I think “giving up something for Lent” can be rather self-serving. Nobody seems to give up vegetables for Lent. The most common options seem to be less healthy choices like sweets, alcohol, and meat.

Isaiah says that God isn’t impressed with fasting when it is self-serving. If one does a little reading between the lines, it seems that the Israelites are fasting in an attempt to manipulate God, trying to perform a sort of magic ritual that will get God to do what they want. They dress and act the part they think God wants them to play, but God is not impressed. God wants to see transformed lives, not actors playing the role of true believers. Isaiah goes on to give specific examples of what God is looking for in the lives of those who claim to worship God.  Don’t use people in pursuit of your own ends. Stand up for those who cannot or dare not speak for themselves. Don’t just say you oppose injustice; do something to stop people from being unjustly treated. Help those who are in need instead of blaming them for their mistakes. Stop the hate speech and rumor-mongering, which all too often culminate in violent acts. God isn’t impressed by empty words and rituals. In fact, God probably thinks it is blasphemous to claim allegience to God when you ignore God’s consistant commands to seek justice and demonstrate kindness. God would rather see you doing the kinds of things that might demonstrate your ultimate loyalty is to God and not yourself, such as treating other people the way you would like to be treated if you were in their place.

Isaiah isn’t the only Hebrew prophet relaying such a message from God. They are pretty unanimous on the subject, along with the Psalmist and the collector of Proverbs. Today’s reading also includes Joel’s plea to “rend your hearts and not your garments” Amos, never one to mince words, understands God to be saying “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Micah puts it beautifully by asking and then answering his own question: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Hosea, in speaking for God, proclaims “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” which is quoted by Jesus several times.

Speaking of Jesus, he didn’t have very many nice words to say for the spiritual descendents of the Israelites whose empty religion the prophets condemned. “You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Neither did his brother James, who bluntly informed members of the early church that “faith without works is dead” and that “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James used the example of someone who encounters a cold, hungry person and instead of giving them a coat and something to eat, says “God bless you! Stay warm and eat well!” For James, words without corresponding actions were useless. It rather reminds me of the careless “thoughts and prayers” offered by many public figures in times of national tragedies. If thoughts and prayers don’t result in helping actions, what good are they?

I think that God is much more interested in how we treat other people than he is with a lot of things we think God wants. There are a lot of arcane laws and strange rituals described in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but Jesus told his followers, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Paul echoed this idea when he wrote to the Galatians,  “Serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s easy in retrospect to point fingers at the foolish Israelites who believed they could bend God to their will by reciting the right prayers and observing the right rituals. It’s easy to point fingers at the Pharisees who thought God is more concerned with rigid behavioral codes and rituals than transformed hearts. It’s harder to see the eighth-century Israelite or first-century Pharisee in ourselves. But I think it is critical that we do so, and not just individually. but corporately. It is sobering to me to see so many parallels and know that history repeats itself for those who will not learn from it.  Some very bad things happened to Sodom and Gomorrah because, as Ezekiel puts it, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Some very bad things happened to the nation of Israel when as a society they did not heed the words of the prophets. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, knowing the very bad things that would happen to them because they would not listen to the words of the prophets or to him. The  apocolyptic books of Daniel and Revelation use the graphic imagery of dreams as metaphors for the fall of entire nations.

I am afraid that in today’s world, religion has been similarly emptied of meaning in too many ways to discuss in one post. Like the ancient Israelites, we try to use God to get what we want. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, we mouth the words and perform the rituals, but our lives are not transformed.  It seems to me that although holding onto a form of Judeo-Christianity, many people’s loyalty is not really to the one God we see revealed in Jesus. Rather, we give our hearts and minds and souls to a pantheon of other gods including Mammon, Ares, Dionysius, Aphrodite, Narcissus, Caesar, and Trithereon, along with the gods we have created in our own image. I don’t think the real God is any more pleased with this kind of idolotrous synchronism than God was pleased when the Israelites tried to cover all their bases by adding the worship of Baal and Astarte to the worship of Yahweh.  I don’t think the real God is particulalry impressed when people act more like followers of the Pharisees than followers of Jesus. And from what I understand from studying the Bible and from history, our society is in a very dark place right now and the outlook for its future is not good. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lent is a reminder that humans are mortal and neither they nor the societies they build will last forever.

The good news is that God never gives up on us.  Isaiah 58 goes on to say that if only Israel will change her ways, things can be different. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Even Ninevah, which was about as high on the axis-of-evil badlist as they come, was spared when they changed their ways. The arc of the moral universe is long, but God is bending it inexorably towards justice. We can either help or find ourselves pushed out of the way.






Whose Team is God On?

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:21-31

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.” -Percy Bysshe Shelley

I found it ironically amusing that today’s reading, which includes the phrase “they shall mount up with wings like eagles“, coincided with the 2018 Super Bowl, where the underdog Philadelphia Eagles defeated the favored New England Patriots. I admit that I rooted for the Eagles primarily because they were not the Patriots, who seem to win more than their fair share of national titles. There are certainly times when I feel that the wrong team is winning in the world we live in, where the strong only get stronger and use that strength to lord it over the weak.

The writer of Isaiah must have also felt that way, for the time frame in Isaiah 40 seems to have been the sixth century BC. Things were not going very well for the people of Israel. Jerusalem was in ruins, its people carted away in captivity to Babylon, where they languished for many decades, strangers in a strange land. The people had to feel abandoned and let down by God, and perhaps even wonder whether there was a God at all. The prophet reminds them that God takes a rather longer-term perspective than that of humans. God knows that the Babylonian empire and its rulers will eventually crumble into dust, like the braggadocious king in Shelley’s poem. And when they do, God will still be there.

In time, God will “bring princes to naught, and make the rulers of the earth as nothing.” In time, Babylon will fall as surely as did Assyria before her, and Greece and Rome after her. That God wouldn’t “faint or grow weary” and might observe the rise and fall of many kingdoms isn’t particularly surprising; one would expect that of an eternal deity.. What is surprising is that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless“. In other words, God favors the underdog. God is on the side of the losers rather than the winners, and offers them comfort and strength. “But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah’s words reassure me that this is God’s world, and no matter how it looks to me at the moment, “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet“. And that’s good news to me.




By Whose Authority?

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 
The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

As I’ve mentioned previously, Mark doesn’t waste any time. His sense of urgency is palpable, and his writing is densely packed. We’re only about halfway through the first chapter in today’s reading, and Mark has already covered John the Baptist’s entire career, Jesus’s baptism and temptation, as well as the core teaching of his message and the calling of his first disciples. In the rest of the chapter, Mark details some of the things Jesus became known for doing: teaching, healing, and praying. Today’s passage is concerned with two of these. Most people will tend to fixate on Mark’s account of a successful exorcism, while overlooking the part describing Jesus as an extraordinary teacher. The exorcism is certainly spectacular, but I think the description of Jesus as one who taught “with authority, not as the teachers of the law” is perhaps more significant.

I might as well get what I think about the exorcism out of the way first, because Jesus’s ability to drive out demons seems to be one of the things that attracted people to him, and the synoptic gospels have many other references to demons and demon possession. In most cases, the symptoms described seem to indicate the person suffered from epilepsy or mental illness, and I can certainly see how ancient peoples might have attributed strange behaviors caused by brain dysfunction to demons. The important thing to me is not what caused the sufferers such distress, but that Jesus healed them. He didn’t ostracize or blame them or declare them particularly sinful for falling prey to powers beyond their control. He helped them to the full extent of his abilities.

We know a little more about brain chemistry today than they did in the first century, but there are certainly still many cases of people who suffer from what pre-scientific societies might have called demon possession. They are not in control of their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, and they may endanger themselves or others. People with mental illnesses often suffer greatly and may cause great suffering to those around them. Certainly anyone who has ever dealt with an addiction, or an addicted family member, can identify with the concept of someone being controlled by something they are powerless to resist. The question we should ask ourselves is not why are they like this, but what can we do to help? We may not be able to effect instantaneous cures in the way that Jesus did, but I think we ought to have the same attitude Jesus had. We ought to see them as suffering human beings to be healed, not lawbreakers deserving of further punishment. And I am afraid that, unlike Jesus, we are not doing all that is within our power to help. Too often our jails become holding pens for mentally ill people whose behavior spirals out of control, where they do not receive the medication or treatment that might help them. We have learned a great deal about addiction, even developing medications which work to effectively suppress the desire to get high, but instead of viewing addiction as a sickness to be cured, we see it as a crime to be punished.

That’s all I have to say about that right now. If we focus too much on demons and whether they are literal or metaphorical, we miss Mark’s very important statement that “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” There was something about the way Jesus taught that was really different from the rest of the Bible teachers of his time. In addition to the written Law and Prophets with which we are familiar in our Old Testament, there was a large body of oral commentary on it, After the destruction of the Second Temple, these commentaries came to be written down in what came to be known as the Mishnah.  The predominant Bible teaching methodology of the time seemed to have heavily relied on quoting from these oral-traditions; that is, quoting what other religious scholars thought about a particular passage. Instead of quoting a respected authority to make his points known, Jesus says what he himself thinks. He is his own authority, and often puts a completely different spin on a familiar passage. “You have heard it said…..but I say unto you…”

I don’t think that it’s an accident that Mark juxtaposes a story about an exorcism with an observation about Jesus’s unique nature. “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” Mark wanted to offer proof of Jesus’s authority to his readers, and for those readers, being able to cast out demons was pretty convincing proof that Jesus was not just your average itinerant rabbi. Of course, if you’re familiar with the rest of the story, you know that what was proof to his followers didn’t prove anything to his opponents, some of whom accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon himself! And in the very pointed parable Luke records of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus observes that some people won’t be convinced of the truth by even the most spectacular of miraculous events.

Paul later writes to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” and both are tripped up by the foolishness of the cross. Faith can’t be proved; it has to be lived, and the best way to live it, then as now, is to follow Jesus in our attitudes and actions. And we often find that in the living we have all the proof we need. And that’s good news to me.


What is the Good News?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Mark 1:14-15

“What we have here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke

What is the gospel, or the good news? In Greek, the word is “euaggelion“, from which we get our word “evangelism” But I’m afraid that when most people hear the word “evangelism” or “evangelistic” today, the associations that comes to mind are certainly more in line with the “turn or burn” fire and fury of John the Baptist than the way Jesus seemed to have understood the word.

Although the New Testament uses the word translated as “gospel” 76 times, its use in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to religious applications. It was a general term used in a variety of contexts, and was commonly used (by the victors, of course) to announce a military victory. There’s a very interesting reference to Augustus Caesar which says in part, “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him” So at least for some first century readers, the association with the word “gospel” might have been to the Pax Romana! If you’re interested, here’s a link to a lengthy, but fascinating article about the use of the word, as well as information about emperor worship, in the time of Jesus.

First-century Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming reign of God for a long time. Although their forced exile in Babylon was over, they were still a subjugated people at the mercy of both their Roman overlords and collaborators like Herod. The glory days of Israel during the time of David and Solomon had long passed into legend. Where was the promised new David, who would free them from captivity and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, where everyone could sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree? Of course, the “good news” that the first century Jews were longing to hear would be bad news for the Romans, who would be defeated and stripped of their power. Israel would be restored under the leadership of a wise and good king, and take Rome’s place as the dominant superpower, respected by all the other nations of the world.

Into this eclectic mix of cultural expectations and longings came Jesus, who used the same announcement of “good news”, but seemed to have understood the meaning of the word very differently. Luke gives a few more details than Mark about the content of Jesus’s initial proclamation. In his home synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, but added a twist of his own:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.

It’s interesting to read the whole passage from Isaiah 61 and note what Jesus chooses to include in his selection, and what he leaves out. He ends his reading with proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but leaves out the next line equating that time with God’s vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. God’s reign on earth begins not with a powerful military leader like David crushing his enemies, but with Jesus, who went about doing good” and “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that the good news of the kingdom of God (kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) isn’t just something that will happen in the future.  It is here, beginning now. Time and time again, Jesus tries to explain both the immanence of the kingdom of God and how it differs from preconceived ideas about it. The Kingdom of God is found not by looking for easily identifiable external realities but is within you. Often Jesus resorts to metaphor: the kingdom of God works  like yeast in bread dough and grows slowly like a mustard seed. Like treasure hidden in a field, it may not be readily apparent to the casual onlooker.

I’m afraid that in today’s world, the “good news” has become misunderstood as much as it was in Jesus’s time, and the message of Jesus has been distorted just as much as it was in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Franciscan renewal. As NT Wright puts it in “The Day the Revolution Began“, we have “platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology” to the point where we no longer really understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Most of  today’s “evangelism” is geared toward convincing people to make a one-time choice between spending an eternity in heaven or hell. That choice is made by intellectually accepting certain theological principles, saying the right words in prayer, and then presumably (although those being evangelized are not generally told this) adhering to a behavioral code heavily dependent on “thou shalt nots” which may vary depending on the group doing the evangelizing. Not surprisingly, many recipients of this kind of proselytizing do not think what they are being told is “good news”, and they never really hear the radical message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is not just some future apocalyptic dream, nor is it primarily about what happens in the afterlife. The kingdom of God is among us, and like the mustard seed in the parable, has the potential to grow into a great sheltering, nurturing tree. But as Jesus said, we have to change our hearts and lives to make it so. The kingdom of God will not come if we keep on thinking that life is a zero-sum game and behaving accordingly.  We have to give up self-centered ways of thinking and behaving and start acting more like Jesus. We have to make Jesus our Lord in practice, not just in words. If Jesus is really Lord, then we ought to be putting a great deal more time, money, and effort into loving other people and a great deal less indulging our self-centered desires for more pleasure, wealth, and power.

Imagine what the world might be like if everyone in it who identifies as a Christian actually acted more like Christ. Imagine the majority of the human race treating everyone with whom they come into contact with the same kindness and compassion they would want for themselves. Imagine if more humans understood themselves to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation, rather than viewing it as as something to be exploited, used up, and discarded like a broken toy. Imagine if most humans put their minds to work in positive rather than negative ways, finding ways to heal rather than harm, to create rather than destroy, to help rather than hurt, to make the world a little better because they were here. Imagine…

Jesus said, Don’t just imagine. Change your hearts and lives. Trust the good news. The time is always now, and (quoting N T Wright again) the revolution has begun. And that’s good news to me.



What’s So Wrong With Stereotypes?

Second Sunday After Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”
He then added, “Very truly I tell you,you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51

(Paul wrote to Titus) One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” Titus 1:12

“Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.” -Second Doctor in “The Wheel in Space”

What’s so wrong with stereotyping? If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all do it at times. Because this behavior is so universal, social scientists believe that it must have an evolutionary advantage. It seems logical that in primitive societies, it would be very helpful to have a quick means to differentiate members of your own tribe from those of another tribe who might mean to cause you harm. Hunter-gatherers who were too friendly with strangers wandering into their territories might find themselves not surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on their trusting genes. So over the course of centuries, the tendency to mistrust strangers, especially those who are different in observable ways, becomes amplified.

Not only do we all have the tendency to make pre-judgements about people based on our stereotypes of them, we have probably also been stereotyped ourselves. My mother became friends with my third grade teacher, who moved to Alabama from Ohio and was surprised to find that her students were not all barefort and suffering from hookworm.  As a young adult in Kentucky, I shared an apartment with another young adult who was pianist in a black church. I remember meeting some of the leaders from her church who, upon hearing my Alabama accent, asked me in all sincerity if my family owned any slaves. For several years I deliberately (but unsuccessfully) strove to eliminate my deep-South accent, just so people would not make incorrect and disparaging assumptions about my intelligence, habits, or behavior. Having been the victim of stereotyping myself has made me especially sensitive to moticing it when it happens to others.

Stereotyping others is a natural, even logical behavior. But just because something is natural or logical does not necessarily make it morally or even objectively right. When Philip told Nathanael that he believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, Nathanael didn’t believe him. It seemed that people living in Bethsaida held negative stereotypes about the character of people living in Nazareth. If you were from Nazareth, you weren’t a good person. We aren’t told of the reasoning behind the stereotyping. Were they especially poor? Uneducated? Troublemakers? The text doesn’t say. What it does say is that Philip responds by telling Nathanael that he should come see for himself, and Philip does. He has a life-changing conversation with Jesus, and becomes one of his first followers. What might have happened if Nathanael, because of his preconceived ideas about people from Nazareth, hadn’t decided to come and see for himself? He would have certainly have missed out “bigly”!

Jesus seems to have paid little attention to stereotypes when it came to inviting other people to join his inner circle. From the hints we get here and there in the gospels, they seem to have been a very diverse group, ranging on the political spectrum from Matthew the tax collector to Simon the Zealot. Matthew would have viewed people like Simon as violent revolutionaries, while Simon must have viewed people like Matthew as greedy collaborators. And I like to think that both Matthew and Simon changed their opinions of each other after spending three years together on the road with Jesus. That’s usually what happens when you “come and see” for yourself rather than unquestioningly clinging to stereotypes. That’s what happened to my third grade teacher. It’s what happened to me and some of my classmates when my school was integrated in the sixties. It’s what often happens when people travel. Friendship and/or working together for a common purpose can be a very effective antidote to all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and behaviors.

I don’t think God has ever been a particular fan of stereotypes, either. As God told the prophet Samuel regarding the selection of David as king, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God definitely never bought into the “oldest, most responsible” stereotype, at least according to the Genesis stories of Abel vs Cain, Isaac vs Ishmael, Jacob vs Esau, and Joseph and his many older brothers. Stereotypes are not just mistaken, but sinful when they prevent us from doing things God has repeatedly commanded us to do. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. Where stereotypes collide with the practice of compassion, it’s pretty clear to me which one God prefers. And if we choose obedience to behaviors prescribed by a stereotype rather than obedience to behaviors God prescribes, isn’t that dangerously close to idolatry?

There are times when stereotypes may serve a useful purpose, but they should always be viewed with suspicion. When stereotypes are never questioned, they can be very harmful to the stereotyper as well as the stereotypee. Nathanael would never have met Jesus if he hadn’t been willing to “come and see” for himself.  Furthermore, stereotyping by one group usually leads to counter-stereotyping by the other group in an escalating spiral.  Walls between the two groups are thrown up higher and higher, until they eventually come tumbling down, crushing everyone in the vicinity.

“Come and see” is still pretty good advice. As I understand it, God is more interesting in taking down walls than putting them up. I think he wants us to join him in his efforts. And that’s good news to me.

Epiphany: God is Still Speaking

First Sunday after Epiphany

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11

On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3

The dictionary definition of “epiphany” is “an appearance or manifestation.” It can refer to a God-sighting, but it can also mean a sudden new understanding of reality, of seeing something in a way it has not been seen before. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany usually commemorates the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The epiphany here is that God is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But in Eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany focuses on the baptism of Jesus, as God spoke in affirmation of his pride in and relationship to Jesus. So the occasion of Jesus’s baptism could also be described as a theophany , a visible manifestation of deity.

All four gospels describe this event, which marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to me that Mark’s gospel doesn’t waste any time getting down to business.  Unlike the other synoptic writers, Mark includes no long genealogies, no stories about Jesus’s conception, birth, infancy, or childhood.  Mark gives a brief summary of who John the Baptist was and what he was doing, devotes only  a couple of sentences to Jesus’s baptism, and unlike Matthew or Luke, doesn’t try to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized. There’s some question about exactly who was able to hear God’s voice. In the Markan passage, it seems to be only Jesus who hears God speak, but in the gospel according to John, both Jesus and John the Baptist hear it.  Matthew and Luke don’t specify an audience for the theophany.

I believe that God is still speaking, although not in the ways that some people think. I don’t think God tells any politician to run for office, and I don’t think God tells any popular religious figure to extort money from their followers either as a proof of faith or as an investment opportunity. I don’t think God favors a particular team at a sporting event, not even when it comes to Alabama football. Not all the voices in your head are from God. Just because a thought comes into your mind does not mean it is God speaking, and just because someone says they’ve heard from God doesn’t mean they actually have. The writer of 1 John warns his readers  “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God“. John goes on to say that Jesus is the criteria for determining whether a “spirit” (which I understand as a thought or idea, not a phantasmic entity) is from God. As I understand John’s words, “confessing Jesus has come in the flesh” means more than intellectual assent to a particular creed. It means that a person has had an epiphany about the nature of God: God is like Jesus. God is not what some atheists like to call “an angry sky god” out to punish anyone who steps a toe outside an arbitrary line. God is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out presents to good little boys and girls while the bad ones get lumps of coal. God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings when the right prayers or offerings are properly inserted. Rather, God is a force of love, love that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, and if you want to see what that love is like, look at Jesus. If you want to hear the voice of God, listen to what Jesus has to say…the “red letters” in some Bibles. And since actions usually speaker louder and more clearly than words, look at what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He brought hope to people who felt they had no hope, especially those rejected by the religious establishment and oppressed by the civil government.

It is unfortunate that people use portions of the Bible to justify wrong ideas they have developed about God, and then claim that they are speaking for God. I like the way the writer of the Hebrews passage above puts it: the Bible contains the testimony of many different people living in many different times, who tried to put what they heard God saying into words. But it is Jesus, not Moses, David, or the prophets, who is “the exact representation” of God’s nature, meaning Jesus has the last, most complete words. When it comes to understanding God, Jesus is the lodestone and the North Star. “What would Jesus do?” ought to be more than an outdated bumper sticker. It’s a question anyone who really wants to hear the voice of God, and not just the echoes of their own minds, ought to ask.

God is not at all like the way he is portrayed by some of the people who claim they have heard his voice. God is like Jesus, who personified self-giving love. And that’s good news to me.








New Years and Second Winds

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”  He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
JRR Tolkien, in The Fellowship of The Ring

This story about Elijah has always been one of my favorites,  probably because I can identify with his feelings of aloneness and despair over the state of the world as he sees it. To be completely honest, I’ve always been rather prone to bouts of existential depression and angst, and those feelings have been exacerbated over the past year by what I see to be a broken political and economic system, aided and abetted by broken theological systems masquerading as Christianity. So I’ve had trouble finding the motivation to sit down and write, that is at least until I was confronted by today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Office. When I get like this, I probably ought to write more, not less, because when I read, ponder, and attempt to put my thoughts about a Bible passage into words, I invariably find that God is speaking to me. And invariably, what I hear God saying is good news.

In the chapters preceding this one, Elijah had just come down from a major spiritual victory in a showdown with Ahab’s prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Initially so elated by his success in proving that Yahweh was more powerful than Baal that he briefly turns into a Bronze Age version of the Flash, he soon finds that in reality nothing has really changed. Queen Jezebel is still determined to make Baal-worship the official religion of Israel by any means necessary. He feels that there is no use even trying, that he is the last man standing, and that he’s had all that he can take. He prays to die, then collapses in sheer exhaustion. That’s when God shows up, and Elijah finds his second wind.  He journeys for forty days (a highly symbolic number) to Mt. Horeb, known as “the mountain of God” and which is probably the same mountain Moses called Mt. Sinai.  There Elijah has a profound encounter with God, who reveals himself not in dramatic showings of earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sound of silence. Here the Hebrew is usually translated “still small voice” or “gentle whisper” but it could also be translated “sheer silence” In a manner reminiscent of a reality therapy script, God twice asks Elijah “What are you doing here?” Elijah says that although he has worked very hard, he thinks his efforts to educate people about God have been fruitless, and he feels despondent and alone. God tells Elijah that he is not a failure, nor is he alone, and that there are still ways he can make a difference.

Like Elijah, we long for God to reveal himself in dramatic and spectacular ways. That isn’t usually how God works, nor is it even particularly successful.  Jesus, who often had to deal with requests for signs and wonders from those with ulterior motives, told a story about a poor man who died unnoticed and uncared for on the doorstep of a rich man intent only on pursuing his own pleasure. When the rich man died, he found that their positions were reversed in the afterlife. While the poor man reclined in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man suffered in Hades. The rich man wanted to send someone back from the dead to warn his family lest they share his fate, only to be told that ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” That, of course, paralleled the reactions of most of the religious leaders to Jesus, and was probably the main point of the story. People who have their minds made up won’t be convinced to change them by facts, logic, or even miracles. In Elijah’s time, some weren’t convinced by fire coming down out of heaven. In Jesus’s time, some weren’t convinced by Jesus’ resurrection. Why should we expect people to react any differently today?

God still asks, “What are you doing here?” As Gandalf observed, there is much going on in the world that we cannot control. What we can control is our own behavior. We don’t need giant letters in the sky or a booming voice from heaven telling us to be kind, to advocate for justice, or to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. And if we listen, we can still hear God saying, “You are not alone. All is not lost. You can make a difference.”

And that’s good news to me.