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.

Thou Shalt Not Use the Name of the Lord in Vain

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Exodus 20:7

Growing up attending Baptist Sunday School, I was under the impression that the third commandment referred to cussing. If you said “hell” or “damn”, particularly if “damn” was prefixed by “God”, you were in mortal peril of winding up in the lake of fire yourself. Other four-letter words that didn’t have anything to do with God were also included in the “cussing” category. My original interpretation of “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain” was “thou shalt not use bad words”.

As I grew older and began to read the Bible for myself, I began to understand that using the Lord’s name in vain had more to do with oath-taking than vocabulary choices. If someone invoked the name of God when making a promise, they had better follow through on their promise, no matter what. For this reason Jephthah, who foolishly promised to offer whatever or whoever first came out to greet him upon his return from a successful military campaign, believed he had to kill his daughter. Apparently the third commandment takes precedence over the sixth, or perhaps child sacrifice isn’t considered murder. Violating an oath made in God’s name was serious business, even if the person didn’t consciously break the promise. Samson was asleep when he got the haircut that caused him to lose his fabled strength. Interesting, women had an escape clause of sorts: their fathers or husbands could veto their vows.

As is usual with written laws, people who are motivated to do so will find a way around them. It’s quite possible to technically obey the law, but disregard its intent. Jesus gave one example of this kind of thinking when he castigated some prominent religious leaders of his time.Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.” If you determine the principle behind the rule, you’ll have a better understanding of how God wants you to behave. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I understand Jesus to be saying that if you make a promise, you ought to keep it. Don’t try to wiggle out of your responsibilities on technicalities.

There’s another way I think humans use the name of God in vain, and I think it is perhaps the most dangerous transgression of all. There are people who self-identify as Christians, but their lives do not reflect evidence of the transformation a person connected to God is undergoing. It is difficult to see the fruits of the Spirit– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- in their lives. Sometimes they follow all the rules they demand others follow, and sometimes they don’t. They do not live by the law of love: they do not treat others the way they would want to be treated themselves. They appear to focus more on their own needs and wants than those of others; they are more self-aggrandizing than self- sacrificing. They are quick to judge the behavior of others but slow to see their own faults, let alone try to correct them. They have a tendency to say they are speaking for God, even when they say such demonstrably false things that it is clear that they are not. To put it bluntly, people like that give God a bad name, and if that isn’t “using the name of the Lord in vain” I don’t know what is. They are certainly on Jesus’s bad list, for he says of them, “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” and “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” Whatever the “unforgivable sin” of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, this kind of stuff comes perilously close to it.

Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain” is just as important for those who profess to be on God’s team today as it ever was.


Tablets of Stone or Tablets in the Heart?

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Monuments in public places, and what they represent, have become a subject of debate lately. Roy Moore, the current Republican candidate for Jeff Session’s Alabama senate seat, was removed from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments commissioned by him for display in the public square. There have been similar cases in other states. Moore, and those like him, think the Ten Commandments are an essential part of the law of our land, and therefore ought to be widely acknowledged, known, and publicized. Other people believe equally strongly that the Ten Commandments are primarily religious laws, and as such should be separated from the business of government. Despite having such strong opinions, most people don’t know the commandments well enough to list them, or identify what isn’t in them.

Exactly how the commandments are numbered varies a little by faith traditions, because the Bible was originally written as a running document, with the familiar chapters and verses added long after the canon was completed.  Here is a list of the commandments in Exodus 20, divided according to the Protestant tradition with which I am most familiar:

1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.

2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

-Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5)

Exodus 31 describes God as giving Moses what came to be known as the Mosaic Law orally, but the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone by the finger of God, which God then gave to Moses. When Moses heads down from Mount Sinai with the tablets, he finds the people busily breaking several of the commandments, shatters them in anger, and makes the people drink a concoction made from their stone dust. God has to engrave a second set of stone tablets with the same commandments, which will be placed in the Ark of the Covenant and eventually be lost in the mists of time. Whether you believe that God literally used his finger to inscribe the Ten Commandments onto stone tablets, or understand this part of the story as metaphor is irrelevant to me. What I understand both to mean is that these specific commandments were set apart from other parts of the Mosaic law in a significant way. For some reason, these particular rules were given the highest priority.

Why were these particular commandments set in stone? Were they more important than the other laws recorded in the Torah? If so, it’s interesting to note what is and what isn’t included in the Big Ten, as well as how widely they are actually observed.  There’s only one sexual prohibition included in the Ten Commandments- unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. Prohibitions against theft and murder are enshrined in our legal system, but the commandment against creating images of any living thing (take that, Instagram!) seems to be pretty widely ignored in modern society, even by the most ardent proponents of Ten Commandment monuments in public places. The command to refrain from working every seventh day and to grant one’s employees and even one’s animals one day of rest out of every seven isn’t widely practiced, either. And “greed is good” seems to have become somewhat of a modern capitalist mantra.

Were they meant to be a concise summary, a sort of Cliff’s Notes of all the other laws?  The first four deal with the human relationship with God, and the remaining six deal with human relationships with other humans. The summary hypothesis makes sense when paired with these statements from Jesus: “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.” and “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The great Talmudic sage Hillel, who also lived in the first century, came to a similar conclusion: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this–go and study it!”

Maybe the written law was meant to function as a kind of training wheels for human beings who were only beginning to understand who God was, and how he wanted people to behave.  The  prophet Jeremiah foresaw a time when God’s laws would be internalized: The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them”, declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Paul seems to concur with this understanding, Before this faith came, we were held in custody under the Law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the Law became our guardian to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”

James Fowler postulated that the development of faith goes through predictable stages, similar to Piaget’s and Erickson’s stages of cognitive and psychosocial development. One of the most important concepts in understanding any developmental theory is the realization that people in the earlier stages cannot understand what is going on in the minds of people in the later stages of development. An infant can’t understand that Mommy doesn’t cease to exist when she is not visible, while a toddler knows that an out-of-sight mommy is somewhere, and may go looking for her. Parenting young children is very different from parenting adolescents, because young children operate from a literal, concrete perspective while teenagers are becoming capable of abstract thought. I used to teach science, which often necessitated a review of algebraic concepts, and found that some of my students struggled with higher math, while others did not. Usually, it wasn’t a question of intelligence, but of developmental readiness. A good teacher understands that, and tailors lessons to be appropriate for students’ developmental levels.

When my son was a young child, I once had a conversation with him about his behavior in school. He informed me that since the Bible says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, his inappropriate behaviors were justified because of the inappropriate behaviors of others. I responded that Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to do good things for them instead of trying to get even. He gave me a disgruntled look and said, “Well, anybody can be wrong!” He could not comprehend Jesus’s teaching, because he was not developmentally ready to understand it.

I think God is a good teacher, and is aware of our developmental levels. 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.” In the “fullness of time“, when humanity had become developmentally ready to receive him, God sent Jesus to teach us how to relate to God, and to each other. There is only one law, the law of love, or as James describes it,  “the perfect law of liberty“, and if it is written on our hearts we will have no need to see it written on tablets of stone.

And that’s good news to me.



Total Eclipse of the Mind

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:1-8

2017-08-21 11.27.28

We’ve just returned from a ten-day vacation planned around viewing the total eclipse of the sun. We chose a location in rural Idaho where there would be a good chance of an unclouded day, purchased ISO-certified eclipse glasses, booked an overpriced room in a rundown motel in Boise, and drove off in our minivan. On the way there and back,we visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as Zion, Bryce, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, and Arches National Parks. The highlight of the trip was, of course, experiencing the eclipse. I’ve seen photographs and videos of eclipses, but as Old Rose said to the treasure-hunters in “Titanic”, the experience itself was… somewhat different. “Magical” might approach being an appropriate descriptor. As we took peeks through our eclipse glasses at the ever-waning crescent of the sun, the temperature dropped and the colors of the landscape changed. When the moment of totality arrived, it was sudden, like flipping off the lights. We took off our eclipse glasses and as we gazed in awe at the fiery corona and the surreal landscape, we heard the people in a nearby town break out in cheering. Nobody was thinking about, much less opining about, the political news of the day.  For two short minutes the world was transformed.

In today’s Epistle passage, Paul writes to the Romans that as they present their lives to God, they will be transformed. Much as the eclipse dramatically changed everything around us, followers of Jesus who are growing in their faith will start to see the world and their part in it in new ways. Unlike the eclipse, the transformation is meant to be permanent and ongoing. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Don’t be conformed to this world“. The world as it is is not the way God imagined or planned for it. Its values are seriously distorted. God did not plan a dog-eat-dog world, where it’s every man for himself, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. Jesus summed up God’s values pretty clearly when he answered a first-century biblical scholar’s question,  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The Sermon on the Mount elaborates on the same theme in more detail, giving many specific examples of what “love your neighbor as yourself” means. In many ways God’s values are the exact opposite of the world’s values. The world apart from God sees life as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, but God wants everyone to be a winner. The world apart from God values competition, but God values cooperation. The world apart from God values power and control, but God values love and kindness. The world apart from God thinks that greed is good, but God thinks that giving is the better way. “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” The world apart from God believes that if someone wrongs you, you should get even, but God values forgiveness “even seventy times seven“. God’s values can be seen in what Paul calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit”- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.

But be transformed by the renewing of your mind“. I really like this phrase. It implies active cooperation with God in order for the transformation to take place. Very rarely does God dramatically change on a person overnight; it’s usually a gradual metamorphosis that evolves over time. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that changing your thinking is the key to changing your emotions, but changing your thinking isn’t easy or automatic. It takes work and practice.  “Renewing of your mind” to me means studying and learning from the life and teachings of Jesus as they were recorded by his earliest followers. It means thinking about what Jesus might do if he walked the earth today and figuring out how his teachings can be applied in the place and time in which we live. It means getting outside myself through meditative prayer practices, learning to ignore my racing and anxious thoughts enough to experience the presence of God.

So that you may discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Some people see the Bible as “God’s instruction book”. Although I think I understand where they are coming from, I don’t see it quite that way. For one thing, I’ve seen verses taken out of their context and used to justify whatever the Bible-quoter wanted them to justify. You can’t just string random verses together and make God say whatever you want him to say. There’s an old joke about a man whose devotional reading consisted of cracking his Bible at random and reading the first verse his finger touched. One morning this was his verse for the day: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” That can’t be it, he thought. So he tried again. “Go thou and do likewise” was his second hit. Chagrined, he thought,The third time is a charm! It wasn’t. It read: “What thou doest, do quickly!” The joke is recognizably silly, but I’ve seen a church with screamingly large lettering on its side,  “Master, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”…”Keep my commandments” The question comes from the story of the rich young ruler but the answer written on the side of the church is more in line with the rich young ruler’s thinking than that of Jesus! Then there are the contradictory bits of advice, such as this advice from Proverbs on arguing with fools. I like to think of the Bible more like a recipe with lots of variations than a step-by-step “how to” document. There are certain basic ingredients and processes involved in making a cake, but a huge diversity of possible flavors and adaptations. That’s what the “discerning” piece of the verse above means to me. God has given us the basic ingredients in the Greatest Commandment and the Golden Rule, and those are non-negotiable. But he’s also given us a great deal of latitude in how to carry those out, and I think we’re meant to adapt our recipes to our own times and places.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Don’t let all the bad things in the world influence your thinking and behavior. Instead, work on learning to see the world as God wants it to be.  As you do, you may find yourself both transformed and a transforming force for good. That’s what I mean by a total eclipse of the mind!







Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the Canaanite woman is both interesting and troubling. The way that Jesus behaves toward the woman seems out of character for him. At first he ignores her plea for help and then he tells her his mission isn’t to help “her kind” of people. He comes pretty close to calling her a derogatory name. Nevertheless, she persists, and seems to show more politeness toward Jesus than he does to her. Jesus responds by apparently changing his mind about who is deserving of his help, praises her for her faith, and there’s a nice happily-ever-after-ending to the story.  It reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge, which doesn’t seem to paint God in a very good light, either.

The traditional interpretation of the story- that Jesus was just testing his disciples and/or the woman in order to teach them a lesson- has always created cognitive dissonance for me. To put it bluntly, it seems cruel, and I see Jesus as being “never cruel or cowardly”.  I never have been very successful with explaining away things in the Bible which bother me, nor tossing out the bits and pieces of it that are hard to understand. Instead I wrestle with them, sometimes for a very long time, until I can come to a conclusion that makes sense to me. I often find that the struggle results in a quantum leap in my faith understanding. No pain, no gain. Like Jacob, I won’t let go without a blessing.

So here’s what I am thinking today about this passage. Orthodox theology teaches that Jesus was a paradox, fully human and fully divine simultaneously. I think that the description of Jesus as “He, being in very nature God” refers to the essential character of God, which is not omniscience or omnipotence, but love. I think that the human Jesus was a product of his culture, which taught him that the world was flat and that Jews were superior to their Canaanite neighbors. There’s a peculiar story in Genesis where Noah’s son Ham walks in on his drunken, naked father, and when Noah wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan into slavery to his brothers.  The book of Deuteronomy has God commanding the extermination of the Canaanites inhabiting the Promised Land, which Joshua attempts to do as wholeheartedly and bloodily as any of the Game of Thrones characters.  The few who manage to trick Joshua’s invading armies into sparing them are sentenced to be “hewers of wood and carriers of water” in perpetuity. Saul loses his kingship for sparing  King Agag of the Amalekites (a subgroup of Canaanite). Jesus would have heard all these stories, and many more like them,  and I think up until this point he had not really examined them in light of his growing understanding of who he was and what his purpose was in God’s redemptive plan. I think that his encounter with the Canaanite woman was an “eureka moment” for Jesus. The persistence of the Canaanite mother changed the way he thought about insiders and outsiders.

Some may have difficulty with my explanation, arguing that Jesus was sinless and therefore could not have been prejudiced. Which is worse, prejudice or purposeful cruelty in the form of testing, even if it is supposedly “for the greater good”? Perhaps prejudice itself is not a sin; it is when we fail to question our prejudices, or when we act on them in harmful ways, that we fall into sin. I don’t think there is anyone who can truthfully claim to be completely free of prejudice, of making assumptions about people we don’t know. We are all products of our cultures, with a natural tendency to be tribalistic, to be suspicious of people who are not part of our group. But when we get to know an outsider, we begin to question our pre-judgements and assumptions about “those people”. Couldn’t that be what happened to Jesus?

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. My fourth grade history book, “Know Alabama”, imagined happy, contented slaves, portrayed the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights, and described the KKK as a necessary and good constraint on our carpetbagger oppressors. Many schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the Confederacy. My Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers applied the “curse of Ham” story to explain that those of African descent were meant to be subservient to those of European descent. My mother, who was progressive enough to be threatened with cross-burning in her yard, once hesitated before handing me the phone to talk to a black classmate who had called to thank my father for his help in getting a job. She hesitated, but she thought about it and handed me the phone.

At some point, I, like my mother before me, and I think like Jesus in this story, began to question what we had been taught. My elementary school was segregated, but my high school was not, and I met black people who were smart and funny and kind and not in the least inferior to me. I read widely from a variety of sources, and began to see history through different perspectives. I also read the Bible quite a lot, and began to notice things my Sunday School teachers hadn’t mentioned. For example, when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Cushite wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment. I couldn’t quite follow the curse of Ham logic, either. Not only did it seem overly punitive to punish all of Ham’s descendents for what seemed to me to be a minor infraction, I didn’t see where Africa came into the picture at all. There were many other Bible stories involving African people in positions of honor and leadership, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Eventually my own observations and Bible study led me to the place where I decided my textbooks and Sunday School teachers were wrong. But my questioning of tradition began with my first contact with black classmates.

Jesus was no stranger to questioning authority. In fact, there are several examples of him doing that in the very same chapter in which we find today’s story. He rejects both (the misuse of) Scripture and traditional purity laws as the basis for living a life pleasing to God. So it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to think that Jesus, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, might have begun to question what he’d been taught about the proper place of Canaanites. He might have started out holding the prejudices common to his culture, but that’s not where he ended up, and that’s not how he behaved. His essential character overcame his learned prejudices. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he praised her faith. The writer of Luke tells a similar story, this time involving the faith of a Roman centurion.

From what I can infer, at some point in his ministry, Jesus moved from an exclusionary to an inclusionary understanding of God’s grace. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of the unnamed Canaanite woman’s persistence, although we can’t know for sure. What we can be sure of is this: No one is outside God’s grace, and there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This is made especially clear in the story John tells of the woman at the well.    Paul, whose letters predate the writing of the gospels, writes in soaring poetry, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”. It’s a pretty amazing story to think that this woman played the role of teacher to the son of God and caused him to change his mind. I’m impressed…and encouraged. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today, lots of fear and prejudice and hate. There are people who think God’s grace is meant for them, not others, those who want to exclude rather than include.  It’s scary and depressing and overwhelming at times. But I believe that change can come, not by power and control, but by love.  Persist. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”



Are Souls Gendered?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:30

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

The BBC television series “Doctor Who” recently created controversy by announcing that the role of the Thirteenth Doctor would be played by a woman. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Doctor is an alien from a planet called Gallifrey whose species have not only the ability to travel in time, but also are able to “regenerate” into a new body instead of dying. The ability to regenerate was originally invented by the writers in order to keep the show going when the actor portraying the original doctor became too ill to continue working. (This literary tactic reminds me a bit of the “invention” of the transporter in Star Trek, which happened because it was less expensive than filming a spacecraft landing on different planets.) “Doctor Who” has been around since 1963, changing actors in the role every few years, and until now, the Doctor’s character has always been male. And some people object very strongly to that kind of gender fluidity, even in a fictional alien from a fictional planet. I have one Facebook friend, a fan of the show from the beginning, who says she will never watch it again.

One of the reasons I enjoy fantasy and science fiction is that it invites speculation about the nature of ultimate reality. What makes us human, and what is the essence of our individuality? “Star Trek”, which began its run about the same time as “Doctor Who” often dealt with these questions. In “The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk eulogizes the alien character Spock, “Of all the souls I have known, he was the most human.”  Several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” dealt with this question in the character of Data.  In The Measure of a Man”, Data’s personhood is put on trial. Is he a person or a thing? This question is revisited in “The Offspring”, where Data creates another android, Lal. He considers Lal to be his daughter after allowing her to choose her own gender and species. “Star Trek: Voyager” pushes the question a bit further in the ongoing character of the holographic Doctor. Do aliens have souls? Do androids? Holograms?  I suppose it depends on your definition of “soul”, but if you understand “soul” to mean the essence of a person, what makes “you” you, a unique individual, the answer  in all three cases is “yes”.

Fictional characters aside, what is the soul, and is gender an intrinsic part of it? The first creation story in Genesis says that humanity (Hebrew adam) was created in the image of God in both male and female variations. If God created both sexes in his own image, then either God is both male and female, or gender is irrelevant to personhood. I’m inclined to the latter interpretation as I do not understand God to be some kind of anthropomorphized hermaphrodite. “God is Spirit”, Jesus taught,  “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”. 

Matthew relates a story in which some of Jesus’s theological opponents try to entrap him by setting up a hypothetical scenario in which a woman marries seven brothers in succession in accordance with the Mosaic commands for levirate marriage. If there is life after death as Jesus claims, then whose property will the woman be? Jesus responds by saying that at the resurrection, marriage will no longer exist because people will be “like the angels in heaven” The woman won’t be anyone’s property because gender roles are apparently irrelevant in life after death.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul states that one’s relationship to Christ is not dependent on ethnic origin, gender, or social status. Faith (not intellectual belief, but trust in and loyalty to) is what is essential to that relationship. There are no second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. The kinds of things we like to use to categorize people into neat binary boxes are irrelevant.

Are souls gendered? I think not, and I’m looking forward to meeting the Thirteenth Doctor.