How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Sanctity of Life

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

The sixth (or seventh, if you’re Catholic) of the Ten Commandments in its familiar KJV rendering commands”Thou shalt not kill”, but is probably better translated “you shall not murder”. The Pentateuch expounds on this commandment quite a few times, distinguishing between accidental and deliberate deaths, with different punishments for each. Premeditated murder carries the death penalty on the testimony of two or three witnesses, with false witnesses subject to the same penalty. Where death occurs as a result of non-premeditated or accidental actions, the punishment may be fines or exile to sanctuary cities. Rather than elaborate on crime and punishment, Jesus focused on the principle behind the commandment. I understand this principle to be the sanctity of life.

“Sanctity of life” has come to be used as a synonym for “anti-abortion”, but I agree with Joan Chittester, who is quoted as saying  “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” I think Jesus was trying to have a “much broader conversation” with his followers by going beyond the letter of the law and exposing its heart.

The path to the dark side begins with anger, Jesus says. But even more dangerous than anger is disdainful judgement and name-calling. “Raca” is a derogatory term derived from the root word “to spit”. When the Jewish people of Jesus’ day used that word, they were judging the recipient as worthless and good-for-nothing. We don’t use that word today, but we have plenty of substitutes that mean the same thing:”moochers” “welfare queens” “takers”. Calling other people fools has never gone out of vogue, although there quite a few creative variations on that theme, and Jesus seems to rank that one as the most dangerous of all.

Jesus goes on to say that you cannot connect to God if you are not connected with your fellow human beings. You can’t connect to God when you are consumed by anger. You can’t connect to God when you judge other human beings as worthless, stupid, or evil. God isn’t interested in your pious words and behaviors, but in how you think of other people, what you say about them, and how you treat them.  “I hate, I despise your religious feasts”, thunders Amos. “Rend your hearts and not your garments“, implores Joel. “The entire law is fulfilled in the single decree, Love your neighbor as yourself“, writes Paul. Furthermore, it is not just your spiritual life that will be negatively impacted when you persist in unloving thoughts, words, and behaviors. Many other unpleasant and undesirable consequences are likely to ensue.

If we believe life is sacred- special and precious- why don’t we consistently and holistically act like it?

Micah: Keep it Simple

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah was a contemporary of Amos and in many ways his message is similar: Terrible judgement is coming because of the individual and corporate sins of the nations of Israel and Judah. God’s people, whom he had chosen in order that they might be a light to the pagan nations around them, have failed abysmally in that respect. Far from demonstrating love for God and neighbor, they are consumed by greed and plot ways to take advantage of their neighbors. Micah rails, “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.”  “Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins”. Micah also has God speaking rather harsh words to the country’s leaders, who are using rather than serving the common people:  “Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

Those who claim to speak for God are not speaking God’s words. Instead, they proclaim a kind of eighth-century prosperity gospel, as Micah sarcastically notes with “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ that would be just the prophet for this people!”  These populist prophets tell Micah to stop speaking out against social injustice, because God isn’t really concerned about that kind of thing. “Do not prophesy,” their prophets say.“Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.” Priests and prophets alike seem to think that God is concerned mainly about proper ritual behavior and worship. Micah hears God as saying they are very wrong: God is much more concerned with how people treat each other. “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

Lest other nations gloat over Israel’s downfall and think that it proves God is irrelevant, they will find they are wrong. God will find a way in spite of his obtuse people. There’s a lovely little prophecy in chapter 5 about a promised good and wise ruler from Bethlehem, whom Jews understand to be a messianic second David and Christians understand to be Jesus. This  ruler will lead the people into being what God intended for them to be from the beginning: an example and a blessing to all the other nations on earth. “Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite Bible verses, because it says that what God expects from us is not complicated. He wants us to act justly- to treat people fairly ourselves, and to be advocates for those who are being taking advantage of. He wants us to love mercy- to be kind and forgiving and helpful to everyone we can. And he wants us to walk humbly- to be aware that we are not in the place of God, that we do not have all the answers, that we should be willing to listen and to learn, that “it’s not about me”. There are no magic words we must say or rituals we must perform in exactly the right way to get in God’s good graces, no long lists of “thou shalts and shalt nots” to memorize and obey, no need to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Just three simple, yet profound things on the divine “to do” list. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

It’s simple, really, and it reminds me of what Jesus would tell us many years later “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”.  God will eventually accomplish what he intended, the earth and its inhabitants will at last be all they were meant to be, and God invites us to join him in making it so. And that’s good news to me.



Amos: A Call to Social Justice

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
    so that my holy name is profaned;
 they lay themselves down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
    wine bought with fines they imposed.

Although there are many passages in the Law and the Prophets which warn that God is not happy when the game of life is rigged in favor of the upper classes, no one sounds the call for social justice as clearly as Amos. Along with  Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, Amos is set in the 8th century BC, “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel“.

Life for the upper classes in the time of Jeroboam II seemed to have been pretty good. Israel enjoyed military successes against Syria and a booming economy based on trade with Assyria and Egypt. But Amos warns that all is not well in God’s eyes. There is tremendous and accelerating income inequality. The rich and powerful take advantage of the poor and marginalized to become even richer and more powerful, and they live lives of hedonistic unconcern for the least among them. God is angry, and  his judgement is on the way. Amos hears God warning the Israelite one-percenters: “I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end” and “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”

Amos presents God as being particularly upset with those who see themselves as religious, but do not express their faith in acts of justice and mercy. God is disgusted by their pious, empty acts of worship, and  many who long for the “day of the Lord” are in for an unpleasant surprise. It will not be what they expect. ” Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.  Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We know the rest of the story. Amos gets reported to the king for his unpatriotic, heretical prophecies and Jeroboam tells him he should just leave the country if he doesn’t like the way things are. Nothing changes, and  Israel eventually falls, ironically to their former trading partner Assyria.

Amos is a very scary book to me, because I can’t help but see many parallels between the world in which Amos lived so many centuries ago, and the one in which we live today. Income equality is a serious and growing problem. Too many people go through life like hamsters on a wheel; the faster they run and the harder they work, the farther behind they fall. We have plenty of people today who profess to a form of religion while denying its substance. Preachers of the prosperity gospel distort the words of Scripture into promoting  something completely different from the gospel of Christ. And like Amos, those who attempt to issue words of warning are maligned and ignored. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  If you’ve never read the entire transcript of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous sermon, here’s a link. He certainly seems to be channeling Amos, “colorful metaphors” and all.

So where’s the good news in Amos? In the midst of all the dire warnings, there are words of hope. Some are conditional: there is still time to change the behaviors that have set Israel on an accelerating course into judgement. Amos implores them to “seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” And amazingly, some are unconditional. One day, God is going to put right what humans have caused to go so terribly wrong: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

God is in control, and working, with and without our help, to fix all that is broken and wrong in the world he created and called “very good”. And that’s good news to me.