No Limits

Second Sunday After Pentecost


There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

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. Acts 2:17, quoting from Joel 2:28

During the most recent Southern Baptist Convention, a great deal of controversy arose when the popular (and very conservative) Christian Bible teacher Beth Moore mentioned that she would be giving the message on Mother’s Day at her home church. The objections came from those who think that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy prohibit women from speaking in church. But there are other passages, like the Galatians passage that is part of today’s lectionary reading, that pretty clearly seem to say just the opposite. The Spirit blows wherever it pleases, and it pleases to flow to all sorts of people. It refuses to be confined to manmade boundaries. You can’t put limits on who God calls to speak God’s truth, any more than you can put limits on the Spirit.

I have to wonder why the men who came to this particular conclusion, out of everything in the Bible, chose to base their reasoning on these two verses, and seemingly ignore the many other places in the Bible where women do take leadership roles, including exercising authority over men and speaking for God. The stories of Deborah in the time of the Judges and of Huldah, advisor to King Josiah, are but two examples, and let’s not forget that the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women. Paul himself seems to offer contradictory advice, not only among his different letters, but sometimes even within the same letter. For example, in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women are not permitted to speak, but in chapter 11, he gives instructions for how women who speak should dress. Paul offers many other instructions on proper church behavior for both women and men which are widely ignored. Men should have short hair and women should have long hair. Men shouldn’t wear hats in church, but women should. Women shouldn’t wear makeup or jewelry.

The picture above is very interesting to me. It is one example of very early Christian art found in Italian catacombs, which date to the second and third centuries AD. A woman, thought to be Mary, stands with her arms raised in what is termed a “liturgical pose”, with the four gospels on either side of her. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that was probably even more true in pre-literate societies. It sure looks to me like she is assuming a leadership and instructional role. There’s also quite a few interesting stories of female leaders in extracanonical literature of the same time period. (more here)

I don’t see how any serious student of the Bible can long toe the current Southern Baptist line, and I am continually amazed by the theological contortions people will go through in order to harmonize contradictory instructions in order to make them apply across all time and space. (For example; one man suggested that it was okay for a woman to give the Sunday message if it was bookended by a man introducing her and giving concluding remarks after her message) Serious students of the Bible read the Bible enough to recognize “proof-texting” when it happens. Not only is it wrong to take verses out of their immediate context, they must be considered in relation to the culture that produced them and to the rest of the Bible. If you don’t consider context holistically, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say. There’s an old joke about one frustrated scholar explaining this by saying “read this (Judas went and hung himself) and now this (Go thou and do likewise)”

Baptists have it right when they encourage people to read the Bible regularly. I am amazed at the biblical ignorance that is seems to be epidemic today, and I am grateful that I grew up in a tradition that stressed continuing Bible study as important for all ages. Traditionally, Baptists also emphasize the importance of a personal experience with God, out of which grows the concept of the “priesthood of the believer”. Christians relate directly to God, without the need for another human to mediate that relationship. That means that we are able to interpret and apply the Bible for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as I read and consider the Bible, the whole Bible, in its cultural context, along with my own personal experience, I come to a very different conclusion about the proper role for women in the church.

I think that the proper role for women is to do whatever God has called them to do. And I think that those who would attempt to prevent women from answering that call are in a rather precarious position, for they oppose not women, but God.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. There is no superior gender, ethnicity, or social status as far as God is concerned. And that’s good news to me.

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One, Two, Three…Infinity

Trinity Sunday, Year C

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-15

Let’s play a little word association game. When you hear the word “God” what is the first word that comes to your mind? If you ask different people, you will get many different responses, because God is complicated. How we understand God depends an awful lot on our own experiences. It’s like the story about the blind men and the elephant. The one who touched the trunk thought it was like a snake, the one who touched the tusk thought it was like a spear, the one who touched a leg thought it was like a tree, and so forth. Due to their visual limitations and the size of the elephant, they could not see the whole elephant at once, and each came to a limited understanding of what an elephant is like.

We are in the same boat when it comes to understanding God, for God is infinite and our minds are finite. Moses tried to pin down God by asking “what is your name?” and God wasn’t having it. “I AM WHO I AM” was the only answer given. As Paul later put it, we see God “through a glass darkly” We keep trying to put God in boxes of our own understanding, and He won’t fit.

The Bible uses a lot of different metaphors to try and explain God. God is often compared to a father, and that’s the term Jesus used when he taught his disciples to pray. But God is also compared to a woman in labor and a nursing mother. God is called King of Kings and Mighty Warrior, but God is also described as a shepherd, a gardener, and a potter.

All these, and more, are true at the same time, and none of them gives a complete picture of God. Metaphors can only go so far in describing the indescribable. If you fixate on certain ones and exclude the others, if you try to take the metaphorical literally, or if you rely too much on your own understanding of them, you will have at best an incomplete and at worst a harmful understanding of God. In other words, you will have bad theology, and theology matters.

Bad theology often leads to bad actions as people desperately try to please not the real God, but the god of their imaginations. Often that is a scary picture, what my atheist friends like to disparage as “an angry sky god” ready to dish out the lightening bolts whenever we step out of line. And as Yoda has said, fear is the path to the dark side.

History is replete with examples of this. If you believe that God hates all those who worship differently, you wind up with Charlemagne forcing conversions at the point of a sword, and the Crusades. If you believe that God hates heresy, you wind up with the Spanish Inquisition, and the bloody Catholic/Protestant internecine warfare that swept through Europe. If you believe that God cursed some races to perpetually serve other races, you wind up with centuries of enslaved black Americans. If you believe God rejected the Jews because they rejected Christ, you wind up with pogroms and the Holocaust and that young man who went into a synagogue and started shooting people as they prayed. No, we can’t ignore bad theology.

I think the concept of God as Trinity is a helpful way to combat our human tendency to limit God in ways that fester into bad theology. God is one, yet God is also three. If that makes your head hurt, that’s because it is a paradox that helps get us out of our boxes of binary thinking. God is our Father, the creator and sustainer of the universe, but God is also the Son, the God who became human in the person of Jesus, and God is also the Holy Spirit, the God who is within us and permeates all living things. God is all of these things at the same time. Here are a couple more metaphors: Like a fidget spinner in motion, we can’t focus on one to the exclusion of the others. They are not all the same, but they all work together to accomplish the purposes of God. Like the Three Musketeers, “All for one, and one for all”.

The purposes of God are always driven by love. We know this because that’s what Jesus taught us, and that’s what Jesus lived. Jesus was the embodiment of God on earth. When Phillip asked Jesus what God was like, Jesus responded “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being“. You learn what God is like by looking at and listening to Jesus.

Jesus taught that God’s Prime Directive is love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Jesus lived a life of love. Whenever he met some one he could help, he did, and in every way possible: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And he took that love to the last full measure of devotion. “Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” and that’s what Jesus did for us. “He being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and was obedient to death, even death on a cross.

The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love Jesus showed us, the kind of love God has for us, takes a lifetime to even begin to learn. And the way that we learn it is by listening to the Holy Spirit, that voice of God’s truth that lives within us, and is continually pulsing with the drumbeat of God’s love.

The tongues of fire that descended at Pentecost and enabled people speaking different languages to understand Peter’s sermon were only the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work in teaching us what God’s love is like, and how that love ought to be applied in real life.

We go on in Acts to read about Peter’s dream of the great sheet of clean and unclean animals, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, and the proceedings of the Jerusalem council, all of which welcomed those previously excluded into God’s family. The Holy Spirit helped the new Christians learn that God wants to be God of all people, not just God of a select few lucky enough to born into a good, Hebrew-speaking Jewish home. They began to learn that God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God’s love is for everybody. It doesn’t depend on ethnic or cultural origin, social status, gender, or anything else.

The Holy Spirit lead the early Christians to understand that love of God and love of others were inextricably linked. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whosoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

They learned to interpret the scriptures they’d read all their lives in new ways. They learned that God didn’t care much about purity rules “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” but cared an awful lot about how they treated other people. “The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s the kicker: The Holy Spirit didn’t stop guiding us into truth at the conclusion of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is still working on that, and God is still speaking to those who have ears to listen, and to learn. We’re still learning about God, and how God wants us to apply that love in a world that desperately needs it.

There is a great deal of symbolism in this 15th century artist’s depiction of Trinity. What’s most interesting about it to me is the little square between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit’s feet, which has been found to contain glue residue. Some art historians believe that the square once held a mirror. Do you see the symbolism there? God is inviting the observer to the table of fellowship. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter how you identify yourself, YOU are welcome here.

(I got the idea for the liturgy of welcome I used in church from here, and adapted it to fit our congregation.)

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, God in three persons, united in infinite love. Creating, sustaining, redeeming, teaching, guiding, and comforting, all in the name of love. The circles of God’s inclusive love keep expanding wider and wider, and it is our joy to be a part of that process, until that day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” and all are joined together in that great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God.

Mourning Tabitha

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

Quick Bible trivia question: Who was Tabitha?
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In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. Acts 9:36-43

We have an ancient (well, 1984 is practically ancient) edition of a board game, which is labeled “Bible Trivia:Where the Trivia is Not Trivial” Some of the “correct” answers given are debatable. What was your answer to my question about Tabitha? Did you answer “a woman Peter raised from the dead”, or did you answer “a woman known for doing good and helping those in need?

At least in the Southern Baptist culture in which I grew up, the answer would have definitely been the former. The emphasis would have been on Peter, and how he demonstrated the power of God by performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus did. Great emphasis would have also been placed on the evangelistic results of the miracle. In most sermons I heard dealing with this event, Tabitha herself seemed to be a mere prop in the story, a cipher of a woman important mainly for the role she played in advancing the message of the gospel.

But Tabitha wasn’t a cipher. She was doing exactly what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: using the talents and resources that she had to help others. She was greatly loved and greatly missed by all those she had helped. Had she not made such an impact on others, had their grief at her passing not been so vocal, would Peter have even been there to to perform his show-stopping miracle? Why is it that when most people remember the story, they remember Peter more than Tabitha?

One answer might be that Peter is a man, doing manly things like public preaching, and Tabitha is a woman, doing womanly things like sewing. and of course, most of the Bible was written by men. I’m afraid there is some truth in that. There were women who traveled with Jesus and provided financial support for his ministry, yet not nearly so many stories about them as there are about Jesus’s male disciples. There were women at the foot of the cross who watched Jesus die, while most of his male disciples had scattered into hiding. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women who had gone to Jesus’s tomb to perform a last (womanly?) service of caring for his body. In general, there are not nearly as many stories in the Bible of women of faith as there are of men of faith, and those we do have are often lacking in detail. Not only that, but in some cases the gender identity of prominent female disciples has been erased (Junia became Junias in some translations), or their moral character impugned.(Mary Magdalene) I’m sorry that we don’t know more about Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied, Phoebe , Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla (who some think may have written Hebrews) or the anonymous “chosen lady” in 2 John.

There’s another answer, and that’s that the human mind is naturally drawn to the novel, the unusual, and the showy, overlooking the ordinary moments which make up the bulk of our lives. “Man bites dog” makes the newspaper; “dog bites man” doesn’t. Raising someone from the dead definitely falls into the “man bites dog” category. It’s just not something you see every day. And although the human mind works that way, I think the mind of God sees things somewhat differently.

Jesus repeatedly taught variations on the theme of “the last shall be first, and the first last“. When he observes a poor widow putting her last two cents into the offering plate, he tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” He tells his squabbling disciples that the way to greatness lies in servanthood. and that ” it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The hero of his story about the Good Samaritan is not the expected religious leaders who play important roles in the life of God’s people, but a nobody, an outsider, a cipher. During his last night on earth, Jesus assumed the role of the lowliest of servants, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his disciples to go and do likewise, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. He bluntly warns that God’s idea of what is most important isn’t necessarily what tends to catch human attention. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

God isn’t more interested in man-bites-dog stories than in dog-bites-man stories. In fact, I doubt God is pleased with stories about biting anybody or anything. I think God would prefer stories about dogs that help humans, or humans that help dogs. God wants us to do good wherever and whenever we can, and God is more concerned about the intent behind our actions than how big or small it might be. Yes, God was pleased by what Peter was able to do, but God was equally pleased by what Tabitha was able to do. Both Peter and Tabitha were channels of God’s spirit of healing and love.

I mourn for all the Tabithas, those who are overlooked and their stories forgotten, whether it is because of their gender or because their acts of kindness are considered ordinary. But God doesn’t overlook or forget anyone. We are all important and beloved by God, and God notices the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And that’s good news to me.

New Wine, Great Sheets of Animals, and the General Conference

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:36-39 (also Matthew 9:16-20 and Mark 2:21-22

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Acts 10:9-16

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the recent special general conference of the UMC, which has been my adopted church home since leaving the SBC. The conference was specifically called to discuss what rules, if any, the UMC ought to impose on its member churches with regard to same-sex relationships. There were two main proposals, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide how to handle requests to perform same-sex marriages and/or whether to allow GLBTQ people to become pastors of Methodist churches. The Traditional Plan would forbid these in all UMC churches. By a narrow vote, the Traditional Plan was approved, but its constitutionality and enforcement protocol remain in question.
I live in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which is overall more inclined to take an inclusive view on this divisive subject than some of the other geographic jurisdictions. Following the vote, there was great rejoicing on the part of those who believe same-sex relationships are a mortal sin, and great sorrow on the part of those who believe GLBTQ people are part of God’s good and diverse creation.

I fall into the sorrowful camp on this, not only for reasons of science and empathy, but also for theological reasons. And I came to an inclusive perspective not because I don’t read the Bible, but because I do. I’m aware of the Bible verses usually cited to forbid same-sex relationships, but I’m also aware that translation and context matter in Biblical interpretation. What “the Bible clearly says” depends a great deal on what translation you are using, as well as the bias of the translator. And there are many things that “the Bible clearly says” that are widely ignored (like working on the Sabbath) or thought to be obsolete cultural mores (like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) Why is this particular taboo given such relative importance?

Some will cite Genesis 1:27, where God creates mankind male and female in his own image, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. If procreation is the criteria for a valid, God-approved marriage, what of those who cannot have children? Barring some miracle along the lines of the Sarah and Abraham story, my childbearing days have been over for quite a while now. Is my marriage still valid? Should postmenopausal women be forbidden to marry? How does the elevation of procreation as an imperative for marriage fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Jesus quotes the Genesis passage, but he does so in the context of forbidding divorce to heterosexual couples. When I read the Genesis passage, I don’t understand it as being about the primacy of binary sexuality, but about the equality of men and women created in the image of a God who can’t be understood in an anthropomorphological way. When I read Jesus’s application of the Genesis passage to first-century divorce practices, I don’t understand him to be talking so much about sex, but about the misuse of power by men against women.

My theology comes not so much from individual Bible verses, but from the Bible taken as a whole, and particularly the Bible as it seems to be understood by Jesus. And it seems to me that quite a lot of what Jesus had to say and do was in the direction of inclusion, not exclusion; of principles rather than rules. What “the Bible clearly said” to Jesus was often quite different from what “the Bible clearly said” to religious people who opposed him. That’s how I understand the parable of the wineskins. The rules-based religion Jesus’s opponents promoted had become ossified, like the hardened, inflexible wineskins of the parable. Jesus wanted to bring the people of God to a better understanding of what God expects from humans in terms of their behavior. Jesus understood God’s Prime Directive to be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and like new wine this principle cannot be confined by a set of rules.

Take Sabbath-keeping for example. “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is actually one of the Ten Commandments, unlike prohibitions against same-sex marriage or gay clergy. It’s a good commandment, and I think the principle behind it is still valid today, even if it is widely ignored. It isn’t good for anyone to work 24/7. We might call it “down time” instead of “rest”, but that’s the idea behind it. Unfortunately people have always had a nasty tendency of idolizing rules while forgetting the reason the rule was created. Hezekiah had to destroy the bronze serpent Moses had created to cure a plague of snakes, because the people of God had started worshipping it rather than remembering why Moses created it in the first place. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath-keeping had become more of a burden than a welcome respite to people. Jesus’s attention to the principle rather than the rule of law often caused him to come into conflict with those who believed the rule was inflexible. If Jesus could help somebody, he would, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Like the Sabbath, I think marriage meets a human need- the need for intimacy and companionship. The creation story in Genesis 2 includes a statement by God that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will create a suitable partner for him“. Yes, I know the first couple was heterosexual, but there wasn’t exactly a large human population at the time from which to make generalizations. When large populations are considered, the majority of people will preferentially seek partners of the opposite sex, but some will be attracted to partners of the same sex, or not feel much in the way of sexual attraction at all. (It’s sadly interesting, although logically consistent, that some in the no-exceptions-to-binary sexuality camp even look askance at asexual, celibate people as being deviant in some way. I find that attitude very strange from both a Biblical and an early church history viewpoint.)

In the Acts passage cited above we read of Peter’s hunger-induced dream of the great sheet filled with items on his potential dinner menu, including, I assume, shrimp and bacon as well as steak and lamb chops. “Do not call unclean anything God has called clean“. This had to have been extremely difficult for Peter to accept, as it was a monumental change of the rules for an observant first-century orthodox Jew. The books of Moses clearly prohibited him from eating non-kosher foods. Peter understood the meaning of the dream to be that the good news Jesus brings is for everyone, not just for Mosaic law-abiding descendents of Abraham. In response, he goes to the home of a Gentile God-seeker named Cornelius and says, You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Peter then shares the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection with Cornelius and his family. God shows up in a dramatic way, demonstrating his approval of both Peter, who broke what he thought were the rules by coming under Cornelius’s roof, and Cornelius, who was already considered to be an uncircumcised rulebreaker.

Of course, nothing is truly settled, then or now. There were some believers who held to a more rules-oriented criteria for inclusion in the family of God, and some who held to a less rules-oriented criteria. Later in Acts, we read of the Jerusalem Council which was convened to decide which, if any, rules Gentile converts were required to follow. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he repeatedly had to deal with the same problem in the nascent Christian churches. (for example, his sarcastic suggestion to some of the Galatians here) On the other hand, while the Philippians and Galatians erred on the side of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, Paul had to rein in the “if it feels good, do it” Corinthians. There’s a difference between breaking rules in order to do good to people, and breaking rules in order to please yourself, without thought of how your behavior might cause harm to someone else. Both “the rules are the rules” and “anything goes” are incompatible with the principle of the One Rule to Rule Them All that we call the Golden Rule or the Royal Law.

Does God sometimes change the rules? And if so, which ones? Or does the Bible show an evolving human understanding of God, and how God expects people to behave? My bet is on the latter. The books of Moses contain quite a few rules that are questioned by some of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as well as by Jesus and Paul. So I think that I’m in good company when I question the rule that only heterosexual marriages are valid, or that God only calls heterosexual males to be pastors. I’ve seen those rules hurt too many people. I’ve seen those rules cause too many people to turn away from God. And I don’t think God is too happy when we use rules in ways that harm rather than help people, or cause people to turn away from God.

To those who ask me, “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I will answer “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I would rather err on the side of inclusivity than exclusivity, because it seems to me that’s what Jesus did. He was continually criticizing those who threw up insurmountable barriers of religious rules that kept people away from God, and he was often criticized for the company he kept.

I think that God’s grace can’t be limited. God pitches a bigger tent and invites more people to the table than we think. And that’s good news to me!

Three Funerals and a Divorce

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone, and our children sift thru all we’ve left behind, may the clues that they discover, and the mem’ries they uncover, become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.
-from “Find Us Faithful, by Steve Green, inspired by the Hebrews passage

In the past few weeks I’ve attended three memorial services, all for people who lived long lives of service to God and their fellow human beings. All three services were held in United Methodist churches, which is my adopted denominational affiliation, at least for now. All three services were packed with people who couldn’t seem to stop talking about the positive influence of their departed loved ones. Some stories that were shared were funny, some were inspiring, and some revealed things about the person I hadn’t previously known. These were people that made a difference in the lives of those around them, and they did so for decades. They persevered. They did not lose heart, or grow weary in doing good to others. They were faithful. I imagine them now, along with others I have known, as part of that great heavenly cloud of witnesses to the power of lives transformed by Christ.

At the end of life, what is it that causes a person to be remembered in a positive way, like these three people who have recently “transferred their membership” from a congregation on earth to one in heaven? The stories I heard at the memorial services were less about the person’s doctrinal beliefs than about what the person did, and how that impacted others. As the writer of the book of James puts it, faith is best shown by means of loving actions. “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” Being “found faithful” isn’t a matter of getting all your doctrinal ducks in a row, which is good thing considering how many variations on that theme there are. “Trusting Jesus” isn’t a one-and-done event. It is a lifelong commitment that results in the continuing transformation of a person to think and act more and more like Jesus as the years go by. That commitment was clearly seen in the lives of these three people.

Sad as it is to attend the funeral of a loved one, it’s much sadder to witness a divorce. And I’m afraid that my adopted United Methodist Church is in the process of going through a very messy one. There seem to be irreconcilable doctrinal differences between those who believe being gay is a deadly sin, and those who believe being gay is part of the infinite diversity of God’s good creation. The recent General Conference special session centering on this issue has made national news, and not in a good way. Paul laid out “Jesus is Lord” as the core of Christianity “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I think that when we attempt to amend this core doctrine by adding other requirements, we are creating stumbling blocks that drive people away from God. Paul was considered a radical by his fellow Jews because he dropped the circumcision requirement for Gentile believers, along with the rest of the Mosaic law. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Madeline l’Engle has written, “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.” There’s also a quote attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The gospel in a word is love, the love God has for us, and the love we show to others. We each must find our own road that leads to loving God and others. And I think that, at the end of life, whether or not we will be “found faithful” in the eyes of God or humans will be based on how we treat those around us.

And that’s good news to me.

Love is an Action Verb

” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

On the fourth Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of love. A day later, on Christmas Eve, we lit the Christ candle in the center of the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Love seems to be pretty important to God, and that’s a consistent theme throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  

Leviticus commands the nascent Israelite community, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Later, Jesus would affirm that these two commands were the essence of the Hebrew scriptures. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love isn’t a feeling, but an action, and that’s a pretty consistent theme throughout the Bible too. God gave the dearest part of himself to the world in the person of Jesus. The ancient Israelites showed their love for God by their loyalty to him, by forsaking all other gods, following God’s commands, and teaching their children to do the same. The Levitical passage is pretty specific about what love of neighbor looks like, as were the great prophets of the Israelite monarchy. Jesus, Paul, James, and John all taught that love is not a feeling, but an action directed toward the well-being of others.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling toward someone. Love is more than sending “thoughts and prayers”. It is a behavior. Or as Doctor Who once observed, “Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise”.

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.