The Reason for the Rules

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. Luke 13:10-17

“We are a nation of laws”. How many times have you heard that statement, and in what context? Too often it is cited as justification for behavior that causes harm directly or indirectly to human beings created in God’s image. It’s against the law to cross the border without permission, even when fleeing persecution or famine. “Urban camping” is against the law, even if you are homeless and have nowhere else to go. In Arizona, members of a faith group are being prosecuted under littering laws for leaving jugs of water in the desert for travellers who might otherwise die of thirst.

The reason we have laws and rules is to serve and protect people. It’s against the law to murder, to rape, to steal, and to commit perjury, and for good reason. It’s against the law to run red lights, to speed, and to drive under the influence, and there is good reason for those too. But there are some laws and rules that are just pointless, silly, or outdated. Unfortunately there are some laws that are applied in ways that cause more harm than good, as the heartbreaking story of the death of Eric Garner attests. And also unfortunately, laws and rules are often applied unequally. Rich and powerful people get away with things that the poor and powerless are punished for doing, which is a pretty blatant violation of levitical law.

The passage from Luke above is just one of many where Jesus disputed with those who believed that people exist to serve and protect rules, rather than the other way around. God’s purpose in instituting the Sabbath was so that people and animals would not be worked to death. It was meant to be a blessing to people, not a burden, but over many years Sabbath-observation evolved into an absolute rule that must be followed regardless of the harm it might cause. Jesus believed that”The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” I don’t long for a return to the “blue laws” of the recent past, but I do long for a restoration of the principle of Sabbath. When people have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, when workers in poultry processing plants are forced to wear diapers because they aren’t allowed bathroom breaks, when factory and warehouse workers have their every move followed and critiqued for efficiency, there is something profoundly wrong.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who got into trouble with those who prioritize rules over people. Peter and the other first apostles did too. When they were commanded to stop telling others about Jesus, they responded “We must serve God rather than human authority.” Too often rules serve to protect those in power, rather than all people. Paul got into trouble in Ephesus for cutting into business profits by sharing the message of Jesus.”God’s Smuggler”, Brother Andrew, who famously smuggled Bibles across the Iron Curtain, followed the same rationale when he wrote “The Ethics of Smuggling

“The law” does not have ultimate moral priority. Once upon a time in Europe, Hitler’s “Final Solution” was the law of the land, and it was illegal to shelter Jews. Once upon a time in America, slavery was legal and harboring runaway slaves was illegal. Once upon a time in South Africa, apartheid was legal and racial mixing was illegal. Once upon a time in the fictional universe, Jean Valjean was relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert for stealing bread to feed his starving family. And in many places today, publicly identifying as a follower of Jesus is prohibited by law and violators are prosecuted and punished.

Ultimate moral priority is of divine, not human origin, and I agree with Jesus and Paul’s interpretation of God’s moral priorities: In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets” and ” For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our ultimate loyalty should be to serve God’s moral priorities, not human ones. “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD ” Depending on the time and place in which one lives, that kind of loyalty can be scary or even dangerous.

Good news? That’s where faith comes in. I believe that by following God’s moral priorities, God’s followers have the power to transform the world into the kind of place God intended when he created it. And that is good news to me.

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!

Eureka!

The following is the script for the sermon I gave on Epiphany Sunday at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, with added hyperlinks to supplemental information.

When I was a science teacher, I used to tell my students a story about Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in the 3rd century BC. Here’s how it goes: The king had commissioned a goldsmith to make a solid gold crown. When he received the finished work, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting a cheaper metal for some of the gold the king had given him. But he didn’t know how to prove it. Archimedes, who was employed by the king for his scientific knowledge, knew that different metals had different densities. If he could determine the density of the crown, he would know whether it was solid gold or not. Density is mass divided by volume. He could determine the mass of the crown by weighing it, but how could he calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object without melting it down and destroying it? For days he thought about the problem, trying to come up with a solution. One day, he happened to be puzzling over the problem as he lowered himself into the bathtub. He noticed that the water level in the tub rose as his body went under water, and suddenly a light bulb came on in his head. He could calculate the volume of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced! Archimedes was so excited that he jumped out of the tub, forgetting to dress, and ran naked down the streets of town shouting “Eureka!” which translated means, “I have found it!”

You might say that Archimedes had an epiphany. If you look up “epiphany” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that its top synonym is “revelation”. Other synonyms include appearance, manifestation, and realization It comes from a Greek word that means to reveal. In is a moment like Archimedes had, you realize something you hadn’t realized before, you understand something in a new way. An epiphany is a sudden realization that can change everything…a Eureka moment!

The story about the Wise Men is an epiphany- something about the nature of God is revealed to those who are paying attention enough to notice it.

Despite what the carol “We Three Kings” says, the Wise Men were probably not kings and we don’t know how many of them there were. The tradition that there were three of them probably came from the three gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. The idea that they were kings probably came from a passage in Isaiah which says “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Matthew just writes that “there came Magi from the east. “Magi” is often translated “wise men”, but it has the same root meaning as the word “magic”. It’s the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts, who was not an exemplary character. Magic was not exactly kosher; God’s people were advised to stay away from it in rather strong terms. Although we are not sure exactly where in the east they came from, one widely accepted theory is that they were most likely from Persia, where modern day Iran is.

The book of Jeremiah makes a couple of references to magi in the role of advisors to the Babylonian king, and their presence is implied in the book of Daniel too. Magi were astrologers and priests of the Zoroastrian religion, who cast horoscopes and interpreted dreams in order to advise the king. This would have been a high-status position in the Persian court for which they would have been well compensated. They must have been wealthy in order to afford the long trip to Bethlehem, bearing expensive symbolic gifts.

So what’s the epiphany? What did Matthew realize about the character of God that caused him to include this particular story in his gospel? You’ll remember that Luke chose instead to include the story of angels announcing Jesus’s birth to shepherds, but in Matthew the good news of Jesus’s birth is communicated to those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. As one of my Baptist Sunday School teachers used to say, “God is concerned with the down and outs, but also the up and outs.” God cares about everyone and everyone needs God, whether they know it or not.

The epiphany, the big reveal of the Wise Men’s journey is that God is God of all people, both Jews and Gentiles. God doesn’t play favorites. Paul came to this realization when he wrote to the Ephesians that the mystery of Christ,“ was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”(Ephesians 3:2-6)

This idea that God was the God of all people would not have gone over well with many of the religious leaders at this time. Most of them thought of God in rather tribalistic ways. That is, they were God’s special favorites. As long as they were careful to observe all the laws God had given to them, God would specially bless them. Outsiders were dangerous and should be avoided, because they had different customs and beliefs that might cause God’s people to fall into sin.

Although the Wise Men were well-educated, rich, and well-respected in their own country, they would have been considered outsiders by most of God’s people at the time. They were of a different religion, were of a different culture, spoke a different language. They worshipped one god, but they called their god Azura Mazda rather than Yahweh. Their primary prophet was Zoroaster, not Moses. They were not descendants of Abraham and they did not observe the laws of Moses or the traditions interpreting these. They were not of the same tribe, and therefore potentially dangerous.

God’s people at that time took very seriously what they understood to be God’s command to separate themselves from Gentiles. They feared they might be contaminated by association with them. Had the Wise Men wanted to learn more about the God of Israel, they would have found it very difficult. For example, they would not have been allowed into the Temple past the outermost courtyard. They would have been told that in order to become a part of the people of God, they would have to be circumcised and follow all kinds of dietary laws and other customs. They’d probably have to give up their day jobs, too, as the magic arts were generally frowned upon.

God had commissioned his people to be a “light to the Gentiles” beginning with Abraham, whom he promised “in thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Whenever God’s people decide to hide God’s light under a bushel and hoard God’s blessings for themselves, God is going to act, sometimes in ways that surprise us. God met the Wise Men where they were. If you think about it, God actually used one of the tools of their religion to bring them to Him. They studied the stars looking for meaning and guidance, so God gave them a star, a star that led them to Jesus. And when they finally found Jesus, they knew they had found what they were looking for. Eureka!

The Bible records many Eureka moments, moments when God breaks through our blurred vision and our impaired hearing and makes an appearance. With Abraham, we have the beginning of the understanding that there is only one God. With Moses, we have the genesis of ethical monotheism; that is, the one God expects us to behave in certain ways. With the great 8th century prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, we see the light beginning to dawn on people that God is more concerned with how we treat other people than if we are saying the right religious words and performing the right religious rituals.

All these glimpses into the nature of God are leading up to one great epiphany, the one that was first glimpsed in a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Epiphany is more than a once-a-year celebration of divine revelation. God revealed his nature fully and completely in Jesus and God is still revealing himself to those who seek him. During his last night before he gave his life for us. Jesus told his disciples that epiphanies would continue: I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

Not everyone in Bethlehem heard the voices of the angels which directed the shepherds to the manger. Not everyone in Persia understood the meaning of the star that guided the Wise Men on their journey. The year to come will hold many Eureka moments for those who seek God, for “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18)

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying through the Spirit to us today. Amen.

Audio of sermon can be found here.

Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ

 

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:13-14

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace. It is interesting to note that the assurance of peace is a motif that appeared both at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life and at the end of it. The angels proclaimed peace when Jesus was born, and Jesus reassured his disciples that his peace would remain with them, even when he was no longer physically present with them. But, as Jesus said, God’s definition of peace means something different than the way we usually understand the meaning of the word. 

The Pax Romana was a period of about two hundred years, during which the known world was relatively free from war, and which enjoyed relative domestic tranquility. This was accomplished through the power of the Roman Empire, which had had no serious international rivals since Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Domestic tranquility was assured through a heavy-handed law-and-order approach which brooked no dissent and offenders were severely punished. (Remember “Spartacus“?) 

When Jesus offered his peace to his followers, he wasn’t talking about the absence of conflict. In fact, he predicted that his coming would inevitably cause conflict between citizens of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. It did, and it still does, because the two realms are incompatible. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Citizens of the Kingdom of God have pledged allegiance to God, not to Caesar.  Citizens of the kingdoms of the world place their trust primarily in Mammon (money; capitalism unrestrained by ethics) or Ares (war; power achieved through force or coercion) 

Citizens of the Kingdom of God know that it is God alone who saves, and that salvation is not always a physical thing. As Victor Frankl expressed it in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” Jesus put it this way, “For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?One can be a billionaire and lead an empty, meaningless life. I think that’s one reason behind the substance addiction that seems so widespread in the families of celebrities, who are often very rich. And Alexander the Great reportedly wept after learning there were no more worlds for him to conquer. 

The Pax Romana eventually failed, as did the Pax Britannica centuries later, and as will the Pax Americana sooner or later. Many people have very different ideas about what causes the enforced peace of empires to crumble, but I think it’s because the idea that peace can be accomplished by force is innately wrong. That isn’t how God designed the moral universe to work. Lasting peace will come only through the Pax Christus, the peace of Christ.

So what is “the peace of Christ”? I think a clue can be found in the context of the Johannine passage, which promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within in us, and it doesn’t depend on external circumstances. It can’t be bought with money, or taken away by external force. As Paul expressed it,Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The peace of Christ is available to all who follow Jesus. When a person begins to do that...not just “believe”, but behave accordingly…they will begin to experience this kind of peace. This peace is not necessarily an absence of trouble or even anxiety, but an assurance that you are in good hands and on the right side of history. If enough people would begin to emulate Jesus in everything they say and do, how different…how peaceful….our world would be!

And that’s good news to me.

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!