What Makes a Miracle?

Season After Pentecost, Proper 9

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.  Mark 6:1-6

Like many people, I’ve been watching and waiting anxiously for the latest news on the fate of the trapped Thai soccer team. The good news that all were safely rescued finally came today, and this quote by the Thai Navy Seals who were responsible for their rescue caught my eye: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.

The popular understanding of “miracle” generally means a supernatural event that cannot be explained scientifically. But what if that’s not an accurate definition? What if miracles are less about the “how” and more about the “why”. People often seem to focus on the mechanism by which unexpected positive outcomes occur and make them some kind of talking point to argue for or against the existence of God. Personally, I think that God quite often uses people to accomplish God’s desired positive outcomes. That doesn’t make those outcomes any less miraculous. I am reminded of a song in Fiddler on the Roof, where Motel makes the ecstatic proclamation to Tzeitel that: But of all God’s miracles large and small,  The most miraculous one of all  Is the one I thought could never be:  God has given you to me.   Motel correctly understands that his ability to summon the courage to stand up to Tevye and say that “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness” is just as miraculous an event as the sacred stories of his people.

I think this week’s passage makes an interesting observation about miracles when it observes that “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” If miracles were primarily a matter of divine intervention, I really don’t see why Jesus should have had any trouble impressing his hometown fanboys. Perhaps the problem in Nazareth is that the people didn’t recognize a miracle when they saw it. After all, Jesus did cure some sick people, but apparently that was too ordinary a thing for his critics. It makes me wonder what it was that they were hoping to see. Showers of gold falling from the sky which would make everyone in Nazareth independently wealthy? Bolts of lightning coming down from heaven and striking all the Roman soldiers and their collaborators dead? Or maybe just something entertaining, like Jesus tap dancing across the Sea of Galilee while juggling the fish that leapt into his hands?

Perhaps the problem with belief in Nazareth was not that they didn’t believe in Jesus, but that they believed wrongly about Jesus. Those kind of wrong beliefs are still going on, aren’t they? Despite what proponents of the prosperity gospel may say, Jesus didn’t come to make his followers rich. In fact, he tended to say things like “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” Despite what Constantine and his spiritual heirs have said, the sign of the cross isn’t about successful conquest, but about self-sacrifice. The kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus looks very different from the kingdoms of the world as proclaimed by the rich and powerful. The abundant life Jesus came to bring isn’t about owning or winning or having a good time, but having a meaningful life. Perhaps miracles shouldn’t be understood as the mysterious tapping into an unseen source of magic or science in order to get what we want. Perhaps miracles are best understood as God accomplishing what God desires to happen, and sometimes God does that with a little help from his friends. Perhaps one reason we don’t see miracles is that we aren’t looking for them, but maybe another  is that we aren’t cooperating with God in making them happen. Just as in Nazareth, it may be that our wrong attitudes get in the way of channelling God’s power and blessing to the intended recipients.

I think that the successful rescue of the Thai teenagers and their coach was a miracle, the kind of miracle we might witness more often if more human hearts and minds were oriented toward loving our neighbors as ourselves. I think of the selflessness of the Thai farmers whose crops were wiped out by the pumping operation that brought the water levels in the cave down. They surely took a financial hit, but news reports had them saying they could always replant their crops and that the value of human lives was a higher priority. I think about the self-sacrifice of the Thai Navy Seals, especially the one who laid down his life in an attempt to bring oxygen tanks in to the boys. I think about all the people who applied their minds to solving what seemed to be an insoluble problem, and their hearts to value someone else’s children as they valued their own. The rescue was costly in terms of money, time, and effort, but I never heard anyone count the cost and say that it wasn’t worth it.

The writer of the gospel of John uniquely used the word “sign” when referring to events the other gospel writers called “miracles”. For John, what happened and how it happened weren’t the main point of Jesus’s actions. Each “sign” was meant to convey something deeper, and I think the kind of things Jesus did show us a great deal about God’s idea about how the world ought to be.  For example. Jesus had compassion on people when he noticed they were hungry, and saw that they were fed. He had compassion on people who were sick, and healed them. We may not be able to multiply loaves and fishes or heal people with a word the way Jesus did, but sometimes I wonder if what prevents us from doing  “the works I have been doing, and  even greater things than these isn’t because we don’t have supernatural powers. It’s because we don’t care about people the way Jesus did, and therefore don’t want to spend the money, time, or effort that is needed. We count the cost, and decide it’s not worth it.

I hope and I pray that what transpired in the caves of Thailand will be a sign and an encouragement to many others to open their minds to God’s way of thinking and their hearts to God’s way of relating. What miracles then might happen! What good news that would be!

 

 

 

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Babel Revisited

Day of Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions,your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
Acts 2:1-21

The events that took place on that first Pentecost have always struck me as a reversal of those that took place in the story of the Tower of Babel, as recorded in Genesis. The story of the Tower of Babel appears to be an origin story with a theological purpose. Everyone used to speak the same language, but they used that commanility for evil purposes. In order to prevent that, God caused them to start speaking different languages, which caused different groups of people to scatter across the earth. In the story of the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts, God causes many different groups of people to hear the gospel in their own languages. The difference as I see it, is that in the Babel story, human beings intended to use what they had in common to do something bad, and in the Pentecost story, they intended to do something good. In both cases, God acted to mitigate the bad and promote the good.

The Tower of Babel story has been used by some people to justify some very bad things, including nationalism and racism. I think that those folks who think the purpose of the story is to teach that God created different races and nations, which should never be intermixed, are totally missing the intended theological point. It’s not about speaking different languages or having different colored skins or coming from different countries. It’s about being up to no good, and God acting to prevent that.  It is about what some think is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins: pride. Heaven knows the accumulation of human hubris over the centuries has caused all kinds of bad things to happen to individuals, to societies, and to the planet. People who think they have all the answers usually don’t, and they often are blind to all the ramifications of their words and actions. Pride is really a kind of idolatry. Those who would use what they have in common with certain people to elevate their tribe above others are guilty of the same sin as the builders of that legendary tower.

On the Day of Pentecost, God undoes Babel for the purpose of allowing the message of Jesus to be heard by all those who want to hear it. Apparently, not everyone in the crowd fell into that category as some heard only gibberish; hence the accusation of drunkenness. I like Peter’s sense of humor in noting that 9 AM is far too early for the speakers to have been awake long enough to already be drunk. Peter then gives a very short but highly effective sermon summarizing the good news: Jesus was sent by God, but instead of recognizing, much less appreciating all that God said and did through Jesus, humans murdered him. But Jesus defeated death itself, thus proving that he is both Israel’s long-awaited Messiah and the world’s one true ruler.  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

As on the day of Pentecost, people long to hear the unobstructed message of Jesus, and I’m afraid there are more than language barriers that prevent people from hearing it today. Actions speak louder than words, and whenever Christians do not behave in ways that are in line with the teachings of the one they profess to follow, people will hear only gibberish. But I believe that God is still in the business of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility between different groups of people. God will do that with or without human help, but I think God would prefer that we join in the effort, rather than adding another layer of bricks to the wall.

What Babel separated, Pentecost reunited. Peter quotes the prophet Joel, who wrote “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.and they will prophesy.”  and later Paul will write “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The lesson of Pentecost is that there are no barriers God cannot remove. The lesson of Pentecost is that God is not concerned about the different boxes in which we try to categorize and differentiate people. God is concerned about the heart, and the heart has no age, race, gender, or national boundaries.

And that’s good news to me.

 

The Last Lecture of Jesus

Ascension Day

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach  until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1-9

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Luke 24:45-53

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. Mark 16:15-20

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” John 21:15-19

According to the Acts passage, Jesus spent forty days following his resurrection being physically present with his followers. The gospel writers have somewhat differing accounts of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples, although the general message seems to be the same, especially insofar as Matthew and Luke/Acts are concerned. Jesus will no longer be around in human form, but he will always be with them in ways they don’t yet understand, and the disciples are commanded not only to follow his teachings, but to share them with others as well. The Markan passage, minus the snake handling and poison-drinking bits, is a little closer to what I was taught was the primary focus of the gospel: turn or burn.   However, the words attributed to Jesus by Mark do not occur in the earliest known copies of his gospel, and many scholars believe they may have been added some time later.  The last chapter of John doesn’t mention Jesus’s ascension, but a conversation with Peter where Jesus repeatedly tells Peter that the way to demonstrate his love and loyalty is by taking responsibility for the care of others. His final words to Peter, as John tells the story, are “Follow me”.

I grew up in the Baptist church, where we not only didn’t observe the liturgical calendar, we were somewhat proud of not doing so. So I don’t remember any special services or sermons commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven forty days after Easter. But oh boy, do I remember hearing about “the Great Commission”: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

In the Baptist understanding of the word, “witnessing” and the phrase “making disciples” were synonymous with what others might call “proselytizing”; that is, striving to convert people to our faith understanding. This often involved the spiritual equivalent of “cold calling”, starting a conversation along the lines of “If you were to die today do you know whether you would go to heaven or to hell?” If the person said no (and didn’t slam the actual or metaphorical door in your face) then you followed up with some version of the “Four Spiritual Laws” or used a Bible to point out the “Roman Road” ,hopefully leading the person to pray “the sinner’s prayer“, thus accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior”. But if Jesus were to physically walk among us today and observe what passes for “witnessing”, I think he might shake his head and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Jesus’s final instructions were to make disciples, which is not the same as getting someone to agree with a set of doctrinal statements or recite an incantation of magic words.  Following Jesus is a bit more demanding than that. It is a complete paradigm shift, a total change of orientation, a different way of seeing everything. For starters, it  means making an effort to act like Jesus in all our dealings with others. Jesus made it pretty clear that following him means consistently living the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Jesus didn’t seem to be as concerned with correct beliefs as many people today seem to be, and in fact warned that people could profess all the seemingly “correct” things, but not be on the same team at all. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the criteria God uses to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys is how they treated other people. There is no mention of belief in that parable, only behavior, and it seems that there are those on both sides who will be surprised by the final answer.

You will be my witnesses” isn’t a command, but a statement of fact. If Christians make the effort to “obey everything I have commanded you” (which is effectively summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) they are witnesses, and very compelling ones. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Conversely, when Christians do not make an attempt to obey the teachings of Jesus, yet claim association with him, they are not only uncompelling witnesses, but “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” because of their behavior. When it comes to “witnessing”, actions speak louder than words. Or, as the quote attributed to St. Francis goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Or, as Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The early Christians were first given that name because they had a reputation for acting…well, like Jesus.

In “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright postulates that many modern expressions of Christianity have sadly missed the mark Jesus set for us. He uses the term “platonized eschatology” to refer to the tendency to make faith in Jesus more about going to an idealized heaven after death rather than being about a way of life that also has the power to transform the world we live in. The “revolution” Wright sees Jesus as having started was to begin the Kingdom of God “on earth, as it is in heaven” in the here-and-now. The Kingdom of God would grow as a tiny mustard seed into a great tree with many nurturing branches, where all might come and find shelter. Christ’s atonement and resurrection made it possible for humans to begin to faithfully reflect the image of God in which they were created and to realize their true vocation- to join God in the task of putting right everything that has gone wrong in this world, and to enjoy the company of God and each other both here and hereafter.

As Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in the alternate universe we call heaven. As Handel envisioned in words and music, the kingdom of this world (power, money, and self-gratification) will become the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ. (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control). And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

When Worldviews Collide

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Matthew 10:34-36

I remember reading a rather disturbing science fiction book called “When Worlds Collide many years ago. In the book, a pair of rogue planets enter the solar system and the first one crashes into Earth in a spectacular example of mutually assured destruction. Written in 1933, the story is suitable for the mother of all disaster movies.  A remnant of humanity escapes in a rocket and travels to the second planet, which has assumed Earth’s place in the solar system, and find it hospitable to human habitation. Life, it would seem,  finds a way.

When opposing worldviews collide, it isn’t pretty either. Jesus knew that was true, and warned that there would be a high personal cost to those who would follow him. It’s interesting that Matthew places this saying of Jesus, along with other similar warnings, in the context of the sending out of the Twelve. ” As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” At first that placement seems a bit odd. The Twelve are proclaiming good news. The long-awaited Kingdom of God is near! As proof, Jesus gives his disciples the ability  “to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” Why wouldn’t such good news be welcomed by everyone? Sadly, through the hindsight of centuries, we know that it wasn’t.

The trouble was that the worldview of a Kingdom of God as seen and proclaimed by Jesus was in direct conflict with several other opposing worldviews. The Pax Romana envisioned peace through strength, including violent coercion whenever it was deemed necessary. Might makes right. The legalistic worldview of most of the Pharisees believed that God’s blessings were reserved for those who strictly observed what they understood to be God’s laws, and that God’s punishment would invariably fall upon those who did not. Bad things did not happen to good people, so the poor and the sick had only themselves to blame for their condition. The Sadducees seemed to have been Mosaic originalists, rejecting the many years of oral tradition that elaborated on and interpreted the scriptures, as well as pragmatists when it came to doing what was necessary to get along with the Romans in order to acquire material wealth. The revolutionary Zealots, channeling their Maccabee ancestors, were ready to instigate a war against the Romans for Jewish independence. And the Essenes threw their hands up at a world not worth saving, withdrew into the desert, and prepared themselves for God to intervene in an epic final battle between the Sons of Light (the Essenes) and the Sons of Darkness (everybody else).

Even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mount should convince the reader that the worldview of Jesus was quite different from all of the above. He eschewed all means of violence, even in pursuit of peaceful ends. He taught that material wealth was more of an impediment than a blessing. He repeatedly broke the letter of the law in order to keep its spirit. And unlike his ascetic (and possibly Essene) cousin John the Baptist, he seemed to have enjoyed eating and drinking and having a good time. The worldview Jesus presented as the Kingdom of God, and his prioritizing of it (a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, “seek ye first the Kingdom of God” was on a collision course with all the other worldviews of his time. It is no wonder that by the end of his short ministry he had come into conflict with his family, friends, community, synagogue, and society.

I am sorry to say that the centuries haven’t changed the nature or intensity of the major worldviews Jesus confronted in the first century. There are still those who live according to the pursuit of power and control, who believe that only the strong should survive. There are still legalists who insist that the only way to God is by strict observance to (their understanding of) the rules.  There are still materialists who believe the worth of human beings is determined by whether they are “makers” or “takers”, or think that “he who dies with the most toys wins”. There are still those who think that violence is a reasonable tactic when it’s done for a good cause. And there are still those who withdraw from the world rather than work to transform it.

The worldview of Jesus calls us to give up striving for the power to control others, and instead serve others. “He being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross” and “He who would be first must be last, and the servant of all.” The kingdom of God is not a zero-sum game, where in order for some to be winners, others must be losers. It does not divide humanity, elevating “makers” over “takers”, but exhorts all to be “givers”. “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The Kingdom of God isn’t about rules, but relationships. “He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” In the Kingdom of God, the ends never justify the means. “He that lives by the sword will die by the sword.” And we are not supposed to withdraw from the world; we are supposed to engage it and transform it. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Like the worlds colliding in the science fiction story, when strongly held worldviews collide, the consequences won’t be pleasant or pretty. The worldview of Jesus was not compatible with many of the worldviews of his time, and it isn’t compatible with many of the worldviews of our time either. Those who strive to put the teachings of Jesus into practice often find themselves in conflict with others who have different ideas about the way the world works. Sometimes these people are members of our own families or close friends, causing the sharp sword of division to pierce our hearts with grief. And sadly churches aren’t immune to conflicts caused by colliding worldviews. There are too many doctrinal purists on both ends of the conservative/liberal spectrum who are so busy throwing stones at each other they have buried the message of Jesus in a pile of jagged rocks.

But no matter how discouraged I feel because of the “interesting times” in which we live, my faith tells me it is the worldview Jesus called the Kingdom of God that will emerge triumphant in the end. God’s love is the irresistible force that can move mountains. And that’s good news to me.

 

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.