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!

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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.

Nobody’s Above the Law

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. 2 Samuel 11:27

James I of England is generally given credit for developing the theory of the divine right of kings,  and arguments for and against the idea came strongly into political play during the time of the American Revolution. King Louis XIV of France is reported to have coined the phrase, “L’état, c’est moi.” Some might argue that Jeff Session’s recent public interpretation of Romans 13 uses the concept of divine right to justify the policy of family separation for those who have crossed the US border without official permission. However, the idea that powerful people can do anything they want and are above the law has been around much longer than that. It was certainly commonplace practice during the Bronze and Iron Ages.  Perhaps that’s what David was thinking when he arranged for Uriah’s death in order to acquire Bathsheba for himself.

You can read the whole sordid story in 2 Samuel 11-12 but here’s a quick summary: David has been having a pretty successful run after the death of Saul, assuming first control of the southern territories, and then expanding his rule over the northern tribes as well. He wrests control of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, gets the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, builds himself a nice palace, makes plans to build a temple for God, has a number of significant military victories, and acquires several wives. But for some unknown reason,  one spring “at the time when kings go off to war” David decides to stay home and send the Israelite army off without him. Late one evening he becomes restless, goes up onto his rooftop, and spies on his neigbor Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah is away with the rest of the army. In any event, he decides that he wants to have sex with her. Like many women in the “Me Too” movement, Bathsheba is hardly in a position to say no. When she becomes pregnant as a result of  David’s blatant violation of the seventh commandment, he unsuccessfully tries a number of ruses to get Uriah home to bed his wife before the pregnancy becomes obvious. Uriah is too scrupulous to do that during wartime, so David asks his trusted deputy Joab to arrange a battlefield “accident” for Uriah. Now David is guilty of  blatantly violating the sixth commandment as well as the seventh. He quickly marries Bathsheba; problem solved, or so he thinks. And that’s where today’s reading picks up:

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” -2 Samuel 11:27-12:13

There are several thoughts that come to my mind when I read this passage. David may have thought that because he was king, he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. As absolute ruler, I suppose David could have made everything legal by making an official proclamation to that effect. But what is legal is not necessarily kosher, and that’s not how God thinks. I believe God wove his moral law into the fabric of the universe, and no one is above that law. If it’s not okay for a commoner to rape and kill, it’s not okay for a king either. The rules are supposed to be applied equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Justice is one of the main themes of the Hebrew Bible, along with strong admonitions that rulers are to use their power and wealth to benefit others, not to please themselves. David wasn’t above God’s law, and God let David know that by sending Nathan the prophet to tell him so.

To me, the hero of this story is Nathan, not David. Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s health, so I admire Nathan’s courage and cleverness as well as his moral clarity. It is Nathan, not David, who comes across as  “a man after God’s own heart”   here. Nathan understands how God expects humans to behave and he knows that David has missed the mark by a wide margin. But how can he communicate this in a way that he will be heard, while avoiding the personal repercussions from the wrath of an angry king who doesn’t want to be told what to do? Nathan goes about his goal obliquely, by telling a story. He crafts his story so well that David can’t help but be sympathetic for Nathan’s fictional poor man. It is only after David expresses his anger at the rich man’s outrageous behavior that Nathan delivers his punchline, “You are the man!” I think writers and storytellers and playwrights are often more important in God’s eyes than we know. They can say things that would never be heard otherwise, and if they are in tune with the heart of God they can be a very powerful force for good.

David’s life, at least as recorded in 2 Samuel, went rapidly downhill after the Bathsheba affair. Despite David’s public acts of contrition,  the child of his illicit dalliance died. I have to wonder if being a terrible role model for his other children didn’t have something to do with the fulfillment of Nathan’s prediction, which followed the Amnon/Absalom/Tamar debacle. Just as David felt he had a right to take Bathsheba because he was king, Amnon thought he had a right to take Tamar because he was a prince. Just as David plotted Uriah’s death, Absalom plotted to kill Amnon, and to take David’s throne. In my thinking, that’s how the business of the sins of the parents being visited on succeeding generations usually works. For example, absent divine intervention, therapy, or a combination of both, children of abusers often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Today’s reading also includes Psalm 51, which David is said to have written after his encounter with Nathan, and in which he expresses deep repentance for his behavior. It’s beautiful, emotionally expressive poetry, but I have a problem with those who derive theological implications from David’s declaration that “against thee and thee only (God) have I sinned”.  I think David sinned against quite a few others, including to begin with Uriah, Bathsheba, and the unnamed child who died, but also against Joab by giving him an order to kill. Then there were the loyal soldiers who were collateral damage in the ploy to get rid of Uriah, along with David’s other wives and children. I see the phrase as hyperbole expressing David’s conviction that sinning against humans pales in comparison to sinning against God. The problem I have with that kind of theology is that there’s plenty of evidence in the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, to indicate that when you sin against human beings, you  are sinning against God, If all humans bear the image of God, then how you treat other human beings is how you treat God. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind” is irreversibly yoked with “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Eighth-century prophets like Amos railed against those who were careful to observe the ritual law while ignoring the moral law. “I hate, I despise your feasts, 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 peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his listeners that  whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Paul summed up the moral law in one commandment: love your neighbor as yourself., as did James: “If you really keep the royal law stated in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors“.

God doesn’t have one set of rules for the rich, powerful “winners” and another one for the poor, vulnerable, and forgotten “losers”. God cares about justice, and is still using courageous voices to remind us that God’s moral law is part of the design of the universe, and applies to everyone. And that’s good news to me.

 

Babel Revisited

Day of Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s good news to me.

 

The Last Lecture of Jesus

Ascension Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery: It’s Not About Body Parts

You shall not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14

“Don’t be a louse. Be faithful to your spouse.” From the children’s musical “Good Kings Come in Small Packages”

“Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise.” Doctor Who

The seventh commandment isn’t about sex; it’s about fidelity. To limit its application to a list of permissible and nonpermissible uses of body parts is to elevate the rule above the principle, making it possible to obey the rule but violate the principle. Bill Clinton famously proclaimed, “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky“, and in his mind he was telling the truth because the sexual acts in which he engaged were not of the missionary position tab A into slot B variety. But he certainly was unfaithful to his wife. Roy Moore denies any sexual wrongdoing, because in his mind there was nothing wrong with a much older man aggressively pursuing teenage girls, and because he stopped short of traditional penetrative intercourse, and because he wasn’t married at the time. But the behavior described by his victims was abusive and harmful, making it morally wrong in my book, and I think also in God’s.

There are many kinds of prohibited sexual behaviors listed in Leviticus 18, as well as other places in both the Old and New Testaments, but the seventh commandment deals specifically with unfaithfulness to one’s life partner. Then, as now, that particular kind of sexual misbehavior had grave economic as well as emotional consequences. A man whose wife was unfaithful could not be certain that children born to his wife were his biological offspring, which was important when it came to generational inheritances.  This was probably a bigger deal then than now; think of the Abraham’s longing for a biological heir, or the story of Naboth’s vineyard. A woman whose husband was unfaithful could not be certain of anything, as in patriarchal cultures she was utterly dependent on her husband for everything. If her husband found a younger or more desirable woman and neglected or abandoned her, she had no means of supporting herself. The covenant of marriage was taken so seriously that adultery, like murder and working on the Sabbath, carried the death penalty.

The principle behind “thou shalt not commit adultery” is faithfulness. I think that whenever someone fixates on the details of how a particular rule is to be obeyed, they often are consciously or subconsciously figuring out ways to get around the principle that caused the rule to be created. As usual, Jesus had some interesting things to say about those kind of semantic games, equating both divorce and lustful thoughts with adultery. Concerning divorce, Luke records Jesus as teaching his followers that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” while Matthew phrases it “It has also been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, brings adultery upon her. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew also records Jesus as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  

It is interesting to me that in both of these examples, Jesus is telling men what they ought not to do, not women. He isn’t telling an abused wife that she must stay with her abuser; he’s telling men not to put their wives into vulnerable positions. He isn’t telling women to dress modestly so as not to lead men into temptation; he’s telling the men not to ogle women. The “Me too” movement has recently unleashed an avalanche of disclosures of sexual abuse perpetrated by a number of prominent entertainers and political figures. Although most of the victims were women, there have also been several men who have reported unwanted sexual advances, usually by other men. But gender or sexual orientation isn’t the real issue here. In every case, a person in a position of power sought to gratify his own desires with little thought of how that behavior might affect others.  That’s something adultery and sexual abuse have in common, along with many other forms of sexual immorality including pornography. It’s not so much what people do with their body parts as why they are doing it. If it’s for self-gratification at the expense of others, especially where power and control are involved, I don’t think God is pleased.

Much has changed since the Bronze Age when the Ten Commandments were written, and since Jesus elaborated on their meaning centuries later. Although what are considered normative cultural practices may have evolved, unfortunately human hearts have not changed much at all. We still have a tendency to be more narcissistic than empathetic in our interactions with others. We still have difficulty discerning what is most important and usually find it easier to follow the letter of the law (and inflict our understanding of those letters on others) than to live out its spirit. As Jesus observed,  “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. These are what defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile him.” Paul wrote, For you, brothers, were called to freedom; but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Rather, serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Thou shalt not commit adultery” can’t be reduced to a command about proper vs improper use of body parts. It is a call to faithfulness, to consideration of the effect of one’s behavior on others, and above all, to love.