Jesus Wept

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Jesus wept. John 11:35

The readings for this week include both the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones and the story of the raising of Lazarus. I’ve previously written about Ezekiel’s vision in a post titled “”When All Is Lost” . What stands out to me today in rereading these stories is the theme that “nothing is impossible with God.” When the world is falling apart around us and God seems so far away that we wonder if he’s really there, these stories remind us that even if we think all is lost, it really isn’t.

Why did Jesus weep at Lazarus’s tomb? Jesus, more than anyone, had faith to know that nothing is impossible with God. He knew, as did Martha, that death was not God’s final answer. He knew that Lazarus was going to walk out of that tomb, restored to health and wholeness, in just a few minutes. So why did he weep?

Luke records another time when Jesus wept. In Luke’s memory,this took place on the way to his triumphal arrival into Jerusalem, an event we remember each year on Palm Sunday.  “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. Matthew records Jesus lamenting, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.” A short time later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his friends that “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” as he wrestles with the knowledge of what is to come.

Jesus was not immune to being overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and fear. As Isaiah had foreseen, “He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest griefSince Christians believe that Jesus was without sin, it follows that sadness isn’t sin, despite what some people with faulty theologies may say. We aren’t sad because of a lack of faith; we are sad because we are human.  Faith isn’t a spiritual mood-altering drug that blunts the affect. It is the assurance that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.

Feelings aren’t wrong or sinful; it’s what we do with those feelings that counts. For example, courage doesn’t mean not being afraid; it means acknowledging those fears and doing the right thing anyway. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, there’s a nice little side story about Thomas, who is my favorite disciple. Unlike some of the other disciples, Thomas was a realist who understood pretty clearly that things were not going to go well for Jesus or his followers in the short term. While James and John were planning seating arrangements for an imminent messianic victory, Thomas has his eyes wide open, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

It is not contradictory to affirm that “with God, all things are possible” and to also know that very difficult days may lie ahead. One may be convinced that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” while accepting that not all things that happen are good, or from God. God didn’t cause Lazarus to get sick and die, and God didn’t cause the current coronavirus pandemic either. Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, and he wept over the suffering he saw coming for Jerusalem. And I believe Jesus still weeps over all the pain and suffering in the world.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance“. It was okay for Jesus to weep, and it’s okay for us to weep too. It is entirely appropriate to mourn both those we have lost, and the loss of our way of life. Things will never be the same again. Perhaps some good can come out of this very bad time, but now is a time to weep. Let’s not make things worse for those who mourn by questioning their faith.

Born Again

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:1-17

Ye must be born again.”  Those of us who grew up in evangelical churches will be very familiar with Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. I can remember multiple sermons on the subject, and John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” is one of the first Bible verses I was encouraged to memorize. Nicodemus generally got a bad rap in those sermons. He is castigated for coming to Jesus by night, seeking a secret meeting with Jesus so as not to risk the disapproval of his colleagues. And he’s mocked for taking the words of Jesus too literally and asking how someone could revert to a fetus and repeat their own birth.

Personally, I don’t agree with those understandings of Nicodemus. He certainly wasn’t a coward, for he stood up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin and later he and Joseph of Arimathea were responsible for getting permission from Pilate to take Jesus’s body down from the cross and give him a decent burial.  And I think he understood Jesus’ statement about being born again as being metaphorical, and his “how can this be” question was phrased in metaphorical terms as well. The whole conversation is rich with metaphors which transcend literal understanding.

Nicodemus raises a good question. How can a person start their life all over again, unmarked and unscarred by all the the environmental factors and experiences that have gone into making them who they are? Most people I know have had at least fleeting thoughts along the lines of “if I had my life to live over again”, I might have had different priorities and made better choices. It reminds me of the Doctor Who episode, “Boom Town“. In the story, the Ninth Doctor captures an alien who has caused the Doctor and his companions considerable distress, not to mention attempting to wreak general havoc on Earth. He plans to take her back to her home planet, but she tells him that would be a death sentence for her because of the choices she has made, some of which she appears to regret. The story ends when some timey-wimey hocus pocus causes her to revert to an egg, and the Doctor takes her back to her home planet to be adopted by a different family and grow up in a different environment. The Doctor is hopeful that her life will turn out differently the second time around.

I think that’s what Nicodemus was asking. Yes, I know I’ve made mistakes, but what can I do about them? It’s not possible to start all over again. Children are born fairly malleable, but as humans age, they become more and more “set in their ways”. For better or worse, our environments and experiences cause our personalities and ways of thinking and responding to become more and more entrenched. As we become older, it becomes harder and harder to change, even if we recognize the need to do so. Perhaps Nicodemus had heard Jesus say that “anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” and he was being completely honest about how difficult it would be for him to change his long-established ways of thinking about and relating to God. A major paradigm shift would be necessary before Nicodemus, or anyone else, would be able to really change.

Jesus continues the metaphorical dialogue by saying that  “flesh gives birth to flesh and spirit to spirit.”   Human ways of living and relating to God and others are basically selfish and tribalistic. But that is not God’s desire for humanity, and not the way Jesus lived and taught. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” As Isaiah wrote, God’s ways are very different from human ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” The stark divide between human thinking and the mind of God is certainly evident in the Beatitudes, and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus structures a sentence by saying “you have heard it said (a,b,c) but I say to you (x,y,z) The Kingdom of God is sometimes called an “upside down kingdom” but it might be more accurate to say that the kingdom of God is right side up, and we’re the ones living in the Upside Down.

In yet another metaphor, Jesus compares God’s Spirit to the wind: it goes where it pleases and can’t be controlled by humans. That is as true today as it was in Jesus’s time. Jesus repeatedly got into trouble with religious people who wanted God to stay inside the boxes of their understanding of the scriptures. Jesus prioritized helping people over rigid rules, for example. and sadly there are religious people today who also have similar wrong priorities. Fortunately, God won’t stay put in the most carefully constructed biblical boxes. The Spirit often breaks out in the most surprising ways using the most surprising people. To paraphrase Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the Spirit will find a way.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”The reference Jesus makes to Moses and the snake can be found in Numbers.The Hebrew people have been wandering in the  wilderness for some time now and seem to spend most of it complaining about Moses and/or God. Their bad attitude leads to them being attacked by venomous snakes, but Moses constructs a bronze serpent, and those who gaze upon it are cured. (Fun fact: this may be part of the origin story of the medical symbol)

The bronze snake imagery is a powerful one, for it tells us that it is only by looking to Jesus that we can be spiritually healed and begin to experience the kind of life God intended for us. Looking to Jesus means far more than a one-time confession that we have failed and asking Jesus to save us from ourselves. Going back to the “born again” metaphor, birth is just the beginning of a new life. Looking to Jesus is not a one-and-done experience. It must be ongoing and continuous if our new birth is to result in us growing up into the kind of people God wants us to be. If it is tragic when developmental disabilities keep a person at an infantile stage of development, how much more tragic it is when a person remains spiritually infantile!

Jesus claims that he alone can show us what God is like and what God wants from us, because he alone comes from God. When we continually look to Jesus, study his life, meditate on his teachings, and try to practice them, then we will begin to experience real change. Our ingrained ways of thinking and behaving will be changed into Jesus’s ways of thinking and behaving. We will begin to experience the life God wants us to have, and not only us, but the whole world will begin to change through us. As we metamorphosize, God’s love will metastasize. Oh,  how different our world will be when Christlike behavior becomes the norm rather than the exception!

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Devil’s Bargain

 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11

There are hundreds of stories about people who make deals with the devil, of which Faust is probably the most well known. Usually these stories end badly for the deal-makers, although some of the more modern variations on the story have the protagonist outwitting the devil in some way. There’s the short story of the devil and Daniel Webster, the musical Damn Yankees, and of course, the bluegrass song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis might say that when similar stories pop up again and again in different times and places, that’s because there’s an underlying truth to them.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus’s encounter with the devil took place right after his baptism and affirmation by God as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus needed to decide exactly how he ought to go about that ministry. And so he goes into the wilderness alone, away from the distractions of everyday life, to think and to listen for God’s direction. But before he hears the voice of God, he hears another voice, a voice that is not from God.

The voice of the devil takes advantage of Jesus’s hunger and suggests that he use his superhuman power to turn rocks into food. Not only would that alleviate his immediate physical distress, it would assuredly yield great results if he duplicated the trick for others. And feeding hungry people is a good thing, right? And it would certainly get people’s attention quickly, and garner him a lot of followers. (That’s exactly what happened later when, out of compassion, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd that had come to hear him)

But Jesus said no to this idea. Although he was deeply concerned about people’s physical needs (see Matthew 25) he knew that there was more to his mission than being a one-man food bank. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I’ve often heard it said that the purpose of this quote was to say that there are things in life that are more important than food, but I think there’s more to it than that. God’s words, as recorded again and again in both the Law and the Prophets, tell us that taking care of those marginalized by society is not an option, but an imperative. Those who have should share with those who have not. And it’s not just an individual, but a corporate responsibility. God will judge rulers and societies by how well they live by these words. Jesus knew that God had already told people how societies ought to function, but that they mostly ignored or disobeyed those instructions. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” A one-man, or even a one God-man relief operation wasn’t the answer. The hearts of many would need to be changed, the law “written on their hearts”  before the kingdom of God could begin to spread exponentially. Jesus foresaw a time when his followers would do even more in the way of helping people than he had been able to help during his short time on Earth.

The voice of the devil also suggested that Jesus could jump off a tall building in the middle of town, then supernaturally float to the ground and land unharmed. That would get the attention of a lot of people, right? They would pay attention to someone who could perform a stunt like that, yes?

But Jesus said no to this idea too. “Do not put the Lord your God to a test“. This scene reminds me of “King Herod’s Song” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Herod taunts Jesus to “prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool” Demanding signs from God is not only arrogant, it’s ultimately ineffective. In the stories of the Exodus, Moses found that to be true again and again. Pharaoh remained unconvinced by Moses’s staff turning into a snake and most of the plagues.The children of Israel seemed to have had extremely short attention spans, for in spite of witnessing multiple supernatural events, kept whining and complaining. As Jesus told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, even the most spectacular miracle is insufficient to overcome confirmation bias. People will deny any evidence that does not conform to what they want to believe is true.If (people) do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Paul made the same observation when he wrote to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

It’s also interesting to me that in this particular temptation, the devil quoted Scripture to try and get Jesus to go along with him. But Jesus knew Scripture well enough to recognize a passage taken out of context and used manipulatively , and Jesus responded with a Scripture passage of his own that was more relevant to his decision-making. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about trying to convince people to read and study the whole Bible is because I think Biblical ignorance is one of the best tools in the devil’s toolbox. Just to take one example…how long was slavery justified on “biblical” grounds? Did you know that there was once a “slave Bible” that contained passages like “slaves obey your masters but omitted all the passages that “might incite rebellion” such as Galatians 3:28 not to mention the entire book of Exodus? That was a devilish use of the Bible, and unfortunately there are many more examples of the Bible being used in devilish ways.

The voice of the devil then makes an offer he thinks Jesus won’t be able to refuse. If Jesus will pledge allegiance to the devil, then the devil will make Jesus king of the world. Then Jesus will have the power to control everybody and everything. That would be a good thing, right? Jesus could make all the laws, so everybody would have to behave themselves or else. Jesus could redistribute the world’s resources any way he saw fit. And being Jesus, all his decisions would be loving and just and fair. The world would be a much better place with Jesus in charge!

But Jesus said no to that tempting offer too, referring to the first commandment. Idolatry doesn’t always come in the form of a golden calf. Idolatry is anything in which you place your ultimate allegiance and trust. Now, as in Jesus’s time, the most common idols are money, power, and pleasure. “No man can serve two masters“, Jesus warned his disciples. In Matthew’s context, Jesus was speaking specifically of money, but the warning can be generalized to other idols too. The way of the cross- the way Jesus took- is diametrically opposed to the way of power and control.  (Jesus), “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”  Counterintuitively, Jesus’s refusal to use his power and “come down from the cross” resulted in him becoming (as Obi-wan-Kenobi might put it) more powerful than anyone could imagine. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The sayings “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the ends don’t justify the means” don’t come from the Bible, but those concepts are at play here in the deals the devil tries to make with Jesus. Jesus said “no” to any kind of devil’s bargain, and I think it’s incumbent upon his followers to do likewise. Real, lasting change won’t come through the love of power, but the power of love. Jesus has shown us the way.  And that’s good news to me.

It is Well

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:6-9

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

In the summer of 1873, a Chicago lawyer named Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna planned a trip to Europe to visit family and friends, along with their four young daughters, ages 18 months to 12 years. But as the time for the trip approached, Spafford’s legal practice ran into some difficulties and he didn’t feel he could leave He didn’t want to spoil the vacation for the rest of his family, so he kissed them goodbye and they embarked on the trans-Atlantic journey alone. He planned to join them as soon as he got his business problems straightened out. But their ship collided without another ship off the coast of Newfoundland, and the damage was so severe that it sank in twenty minutes. If you ever saw the movie Titanic you can imagine what it must have been like for Anna and her children to try to hold onto each other as the waves swept over the decks, taking them into the frigid waters. Ten days later, the rescue boats reached land and Anna was able to telegraph her husband that she alone had been rescued. It was with this tragedy in mind that Spafford penned the words “When peace like a river attendeth my way; when sorrows like sea billows roll …Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”

To be able to honestly say “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well with my soul” is to experience “the peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace not as the world gives” that comes from God. Usually, when we hear the word “peace” we think of it in negative terms: absence of war, absence of interpersonal conflict, absence of personal trouble and loss. But that isn’t what Paul and Jesus are talking about here.

The Hebrew word translated as peace is “shalom” which is a positive word: it means overall well-being. It carries connotations of prosperity, health, and wholeness.
The Greek word “eirene” in biblical usage is understood in much the same way. When “peace be upon you” is used as a greeting in the Bible, it means “may your life be full of good things”.

But even that doesn’t get the whole meaning of the “peace that transcends all understanding” The peace that God promises is not about the absence of conflict, but about the presence of God. It is not about having a life unmarked by pain, but by having the perspective of God. It is not a Pax Romana, a peace enforced by power and control, but a Pax Christos, a peace that comes by surrendering to God.

In the 23rd Psalm we read “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me It doesn’t say we will be able to avoid the valley of the shadow of death, but that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.
It is inevitable that bad things will happen to us. But God promises that we don’t have to go it alone, and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul wrote to the Romans, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. ”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There’s a meme of a quote by Frederick Buechner that goes “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” There’s certainly plenty to worry about in today’s world, but there was in Paul’s too. And much of it is completely out of our control, just as it was in Paul’s time. Remember he was in prison awaiting execution when he wrote this letter.

So how do we get to this place of peace that transcends all understanding? Paul advised the Philippians“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”   I think Paul must have been a good psychologist as well as a theologian, because much of what Paul told the Philippians is right in line with what mental health practitioners today will tell you about coping with anxiety.

First, pray. When you are worried about something, it’s usually not helpful to keep it to yourself, so therapists will suggest that you talk with a trusted friend. That’s good advice, but with God you have a trusted friend who is always available. Tell God what you are thinking and how you are feeling. You can tell God anything- he’s heard it all.

It’s okay to tell God what you’d like to have happen but remember the purpose of prayer isn’t to get God to do what you want. The purpose of prayer is to connect with God. I think of it as kind of like the mind melds in Star Trek. When you are connected to God in prayer, you begin to see things from God’s perspective and not just your own. Your wants and desires become synchronized with God’s. Or as Mother Teresa put it, “I used to think prayer changes things but now I know that prayer changes us.”

Second, be thankful. There’s a reason why so many self-help materials recommend keeping a gratitude journal. It’s easy to get caught in a downward spiral of negative emotions when you ruminate about all that is going wrong or could go wrong. Writing down things you are thankful forces you to change your focus. There are some studies that indicate that practicing gratitude actually rewires your brain to be happier by creating new neural pathways and changing your brain chemistry.

Or as the old gospel hymn goes, “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, When you are discouraged thinking all is lost. Count your many blessings, name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

Third, watch what you feed your mind. Paul goes on to say, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” How much of what you read, watch, listen to, or talk about is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admiral, excellent, praiseworthy? And how much might be best described by using other adjectives? A diet composed of junk food may give you a sugar high, but when it wears off you’re left feeling worse than you were before.

As computer programmers remind us, “garbage in, garbage out”. This applies not only for the kind of entertainment options you consume, but also for how you consume the news.  It’s way too easy to get sucked into a black hole on social media, TV, or radio and consume stuff that is sensationalistic, inflammatory, and distorted, not to mention dangerously polarizing. If what you are reading, watching, or hearing is resulting in increasing feelings of fear and/or anger, you can be sure your amygdala is in control of your mind, not your cerebral cortex, and certainly not God. Why not turn off the TV, log out of Facebook, and practice loving your neighbor?

I’m not saying we should stick our collective heads in the sand. We need to know what is going on in the world in order to make good decisions, and to do what we can to improve it. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth is credited with saying “take your Bible in one hand and your newspaper in the other.” What’s often left out in this quote is “But interpret your newspaper from your Bible.”  Barth goes on to say, “Indeed the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart. Never! There is still someone who reigns, not in Washington or Moscow or Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That is why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, hope for all the nations of the world. God does not let us fall, not a single one of us, and not all of us together. Someone reigns!

Fourth, get busy. Paul tells the Philippians to put into practice what they have learned from him about being a follower of Jesus. St. Francis instructed the first friars, “You only know as much as you do”.  Psychologists tell us that it is easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. Some even prescribe volunteer work as therapy, for when you help someone else you are also helping yourself. “It’s blessed to be a blessing .”

If we practice what Paul preached to the Philippians, we will become more aware of the presence of God. We will see more clearly from the perspective of God. And in doing so we will begin to realize the promise that God’s “peace which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”We will know that “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well; it is well with my soul”.

But wait- there’s more! Part of seeing things from God’s perspective means glimpsing a bigger picture than our short-sighted vision allows. Martin Luther King intuited this when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leads toward justice. The big picture is that God will bring about not only justice, but the final realization of shalom in all its fullness. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but someday earth and heaven will be one, and Jesus is going to put right everything that once went wrong. That promise is found all through the Bible. I like the way  Isaiah envisioned it: No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

There’s a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr which has come to be known as the “Serenity Prayer.” Most people are familiar with the first part of it because of its association with Twelve Step programs, but not the second part, which is overtly Christian, and I think even more meaningful.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen, and peace be with you.

God is Still Creating

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Jeremiah 18:1-11

Some understand the Bible as teaching that God created the world and/or the universe in seven days, and that was it. The heavens and the earth were complete, finished, so God rested from all his labors. There was nothing more that needed to be done.

But I think that kind of thinking has more in common with the watchmaker God of the eighteenth century Deists than it does with the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. There are many other metaphors in the Bible where God is shown to be continuously, actively, intimately involved in shaping the universe into what God wants it to be. Isaiah pictured God as a gardener clearing, digging, planting, and pruning. “I will sing for my beloved, a song of his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it up and cleared the stones and planted the finest vines. He built a watchtower in the middle and dug out a winepress as well. He waited for the vineyard to yield good grapes, but the fruit it produced was sour!” Paul, along with many of the prophets, uses childbirth as a metaphor for the struggle of creation to become all that God intends. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In today’s passage, Jeremiah compares God to a potter at his wheel.

It’s a beautiful, intimate picture. God is not some remote observer, waiting to see what will become of his creation, as the Deists (or Zager and Evans) imagined. God is willing to get God’s hands dirty in shaping reality into God’s intended design. In most of the sermons and songs I’ve heard, the potter metaphor is applied on an individual level. Humans are urged to yield their will to God in order to be part of God’s design. For example, Have Thine Own Way is an older hymn and The Potter’s Hand a more contemporary interpretation of this understanding of the metaphor.

But the passage as written in Jeremiah clearly applies not only to individuals, but to governments and entire nations, and not only to the nation of Israel. Of course, the Hebrew Bible is written from Israel’s point of view, but as I understand it God planned for Israel to be a light to the nations in order that God might bless the rest of the world. For that reason God seems to have held Israel to a higher standard than the surrounding nations. Although the other nations weren’t required to observe the holiness code of Israel, or even to understand God in the same way, God still had certain behavioral expectations of them. Governments are meant to serve their people, not enrich their rulers. Rulers are supposed to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society: the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. People should be kind, not cruel to others. If governments and people could not follow these simple rules, God would intervene, and it might not be pretty. “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.”

The potter metaphor teaches me that God isn’t passively observing us “from a distance“, but is still actively, creatively involved in bending the arc of the moral universe to specifications. As the children’s song goes, God’s still working on me, and God’s still working on the world as well. And that’s good news to me.

Original Sin?

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. Jeremiah 2:13

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. Sirach 10:12

.For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:10

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “original sin”? Usually, the term is applied to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden by eating its forbidden fruit. Some theologians, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century, have postulated that original sin is related to sexual desire. (I don’t agree with that particular theory…after all, God commanded Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” before their fall from grace, and I doubt IVF was a thing back then) As I read today’s readings I notice a common theme: they center around the harmful consequences of hubris. With that in mind, I wonder if “original sin” doesn’t go a bit further back than Eve’s first bite of the apple.

Why did Adam and Eve decide that it would be a good idea to disobey God? In the story, a talking snake persuades Eve by telling her that “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Did you catch that? Eve thinks that by eating the fruit, she will in some way become God’s equal. Her behavior echoes the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven as imagined by Milton in Paradise Lost, who understood Isaiah’s prophecy against the king of Babylon as applying to a more primordial fall: How you have fallen from heaven, O Morning Star, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the ground, O destroyer of nations. You said in your heart: “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.

The first law God gave those who would be his followers was “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord, the Lord thy God is one and thou shalt have no other gods before me” Too often when we read the first commandment, we apply it to other people rather than ourselves. It must apply to those idol-worshipping neighbors of Bronze Age Israel, or to those in our day who understand God differently than the American Protestant tradition teaches. But when you think about it, you realize that thinking of oneself as somehow better than or superior to other human beings is the worst kind of idolatry. Whenever we act like the universe ought to revolve around us and our wants and needs, whenever we denigrate other human beings made in the image of God in order to elevate ourselves above them, we are essentially imagining ourselves as gods. We are as foolish as Adam and Eve if we think doing that makes us in any way God’s equal. In fact, such thinking is completely opposite from the nature of God as modeled by Jesus, “who, being in very nature God,did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

As the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus understood it, the commandment to put God first was closely entwined with what we have come to call the Golden Rule. ‘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 in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We can’t claim to follow the first commandment if we routinely violate the second, because all humans are made in the image of God. If we think that we are superior to other human beings for whatever reason, we will most likely behave in harmful ways toward them.

Thoughts precede actions. As I see it, “original sin” wasn’t the act of eating the forbidden fruit, but the thought “I deserve to be on equal footing with God’. But I don’t believe God insists on having first place because he has a huge ego that needs to be stroked. Amos and the other 8th century prophets were pretty up front about that. “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.” That particular brand of bad theology has recurred again and again throughout time and space, probably because people have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. They imagine God would do what humans would do if they were in God’s place, but fortunately God is not human. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”

Instead, I think God forbids humans from assuming the place of God because God knows that when humans try to do that, other humans get hurt. Humans have an innate tendency to think of life as a zero-sum game, where some are winners and others are losers. God didn’t plan this world to be a giant game of king-of-the-mountain, where a few winners battle their way to the top by trampling on the masses of losers beneath them. God planned for all humans to live in a shared world of abundance. But that only works when humans don’t try to be gods flexing their muscles against other humans, wasting the earth’s resources on things like war and hoarding possessions. As Gandhi observed, “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

This world doesn’t need a lot of little would-be gods running around ordering their fellow human beings around and mistreating them. What this world needs is more human beings who understand and accept their place in the created order, who “love thy neighbor as thyself” and who take care of the rest of creation in a responsible way.

Whether this is good news or bad news depends on your perspective. It’s good news for those whose lives are being made miserable by petty would-be human gods. It’s bad news for those who would be gods, because God won’t put up with that kind of hubris forever. Jesus began his ministry by quoting these words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners  and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “

I think that’s rather good news. How about you?

Eureka!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio of sermon can be found here.

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.

 

 

 

 

What is the Good News?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Mark 1:14-15

“What we have here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke

What is the gospel, or the good news? In Greek, the word is “euaggelion“, from which we get our word “evangelism” But I’m afraid that when most people hear the word “evangelism” or “evangelistic” today, the associations that comes to mind are certainly more in line with the “turn or burn” fire and fury of John the Baptist than the way Jesus seemed to have understood the word.

Although the New Testament uses the word translated as “gospel” 76 times, its use in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to religious applications. It was a general term used in a variety of contexts, and was commonly used (by the victors, of course) to announce a military victory. There’s a very interesting reference to Augustus Caesar which says in part, “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him” So at least for some first century readers, the association with the word “gospel” might have been to the Pax Romana! If you’re interested, here’s a link to a lengthy, but fascinating article about the use of the word, as well as information about emperor worship, in the time of Jesus.

First-century Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming reign of God for a long time. Although their forced exile in Babylon was over, they were still a subjugated people at the mercy of both their Roman overlords and collaborators like Herod. The glory days of Israel during the time of David and Solomon had long passed into legend. Where was the promised new David, who would free them from captivity and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, where everyone could sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree? Of course, the “good news” that the first century Jews were longing to hear would be bad news for the Romans, who would be defeated and stripped of their power. Israel would be restored under the leadership of a wise and good king, and take Rome’s place as the dominant superpower, respected by all the other nations of the world.

Into this eclectic mix of cultural expectations and longings came Jesus, who used the same announcement of “good news”, but seemed to have understood the meaning of the word very differently. Luke gives a few more details than Mark about the content of Jesus’s initial proclamation. In his home synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, but added a twist of his own:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.

It’s interesting to read the whole passage from Isaiah 61 and note what Jesus chooses to include in his selection, and what he leaves out. He ends his reading with proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but leaves out the next line equating that time with God’s vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. God’s reign on earth begins not with a powerful military leader like David crushing his enemies, but with Jesus, who went about doing good” and “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that the good news of the kingdom of God (kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) isn’t just something that will happen in the future.  It is here, beginning now. Time and time again, Jesus tries to explain both the immanence of the kingdom of God and how it differs from preconceived ideas about it. The Kingdom of God is found not by looking for easily identifiable external realities but is within you. Often Jesus resorts to metaphor: the kingdom of God works  like yeast in bread dough and grows slowly like a mustard seed. Like treasure hidden in a field, it may not be readily apparent to the casual onlooker.

I’m afraid that in today’s world, the “good news” has become misunderstood as much as it was in Jesus’s time, and the message of Jesus has been distorted just as much as it was in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Franciscan renewal. As NT Wright puts it in “The Day the Revolution Began“, we have “platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology” to the point where we no longer really understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Most of  today’s “evangelism” is geared toward convincing people to make a one-time choice between spending an eternity in heaven or hell. That choice is made by intellectually accepting certain theological principles, saying the right words in prayer, and then presumably (although those being evangelized are not generally told this) adhering to a behavioral code heavily dependent on “thou shalt nots” which may vary depending on the group doing the evangelizing. Not surprisingly, many recipients of this kind of proselytizing do not think what they are being told is “good news”, and they never really hear the radical message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is not just some future apocalyptic dream, nor is it primarily about what happens in the afterlife. The kingdom of God is among us, and like the mustard seed in the parable, has the potential to grow into a great sheltering, nurturing tree. But as Jesus said, we have to change our hearts and lives to make it so. The kingdom of God will not come if we keep on thinking that life is a zero-sum game and behaving accordingly.  We have to give up self-centered ways of thinking and behaving and start acting more like Jesus. We have to make Jesus our Lord in practice, not just in words. If Jesus is really Lord, then we ought to be putting a great deal more time, money, and effort into loving other people and a great deal less indulging our self-centered desires for more pleasure, wealth, and power.

Imagine what the world might be like if everyone in it who identifies as a Christian actually acted more like Christ. Imagine the majority of the human race treating everyone with whom they come into contact with the same kindness and compassion they would want for themselves. Imagine if more humans understood themselves to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation, rather than viewing it as as something to be exploited, used up, and discarded like a broken toy. Imagine if most humans put their minds to work in positive rather than negative ways, finding ways to heal rather than harm, to create rather than destroy, to help rather than hurt, to make the world a little better because they were here. Imagine…

Jesus said, Don’t just imagine. Change your hearts and lives. Trust the good news. The time is always now, and (quoting N T Wright again) the revolution has begun. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come

Second Sunday After Pentecost

The following is a lightly edited transcript of my June 18 sermon. (You can find the audio here.) Whenever the UMC General Conference rolls around, it’s time for amateur hour in local churches, and this year I had the privilege of delivering the Sunday message in my church. This is something my younger self never would have dreamed would have happened. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, which taught that women should not be pastors. (To be fair to the Baptists, I also was told that NASA didn’t allow female astronauts.) Not only that, but as a natural and somewhat nerdy introvert, I was extremely anxious and self-conscious about any kind of public speaking. The fact that I was (a) asked to speak and (b) wanted to speak is, I think, a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit working to transform the hearts and minds of both individuals and the corporate body known as the Church.

I am grateful to my church for allowing me the opportunity to speak, and to my husband Mike and son Nathan for singing “You Raise Me Up” as a preface to my thoughts on one of my favorite topics, the Kingdom of God.

The Reading from the Gospel for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 9:35- 10:15

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

“Sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.”
What does it mean to glimpse eternity? Is it like looking into the untempered schism of the temporal vortex, seeing all that was and is ever will be at once? I think eternity is less about time than it is about God.

Sometimes things happen that give us a little peek into an alternate universe. We see the world not as it is, but the way it ought to be, the way I think God intended it to be.
Maye you’ve seen a Facebook meme that asks which fictional alternate universe you’d rather live in. the choices include Oz, Wonderland, Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros, or Hogwarts. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably go with none of the above. I’d like to choose the Kingdom of God. (Well, okay. Narnia comes pretty close, especially at the end of the last book. Who would want to go to Westeros, anyway? It reminds me of that other place Jesus sometimes mentioned, the one where you definitely don’t want to go.)

So, what is this alternate universe called the Kingdom of God? The Israelite prophets talked quite a lot about it, sometimes using beautiful poetic metaphors.

1. The kingdom of God is a place of peace, security, and abundance. No one goes hungry or is homeless. There is no crime and no war.
“Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid,”- Micah 4:3-4
2. The kingdom of God is a place where all enjoy good health and long life. Lives are not cut short by diseases like cancer. No one loses a child to SIDS. Nobody dies because they don’t have access to medical care.
“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” Isaiah 65:20 
“Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” Ezekiel 47:12
3. The kingdom of God is a place where humans live in harmony with nature.
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the field, The birds of the sky And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety. Hosea 2:18
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11:6
4. The kingdom of God is full of God’s presence.
“My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Ezekiel 37:12
“ The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
“”But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 31:33-34

Who wouldn’t want to live in that kind of alternate universe?

The Jewish people of Jesus’s day had been looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God for centuries. And finally Jesus appears and tells them the time is here. As he prepares to begin his ministry, he tells the people of his home synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”…

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God a lot more after that: 14 times in Mark, 32 times in Luke, 24 times in Matthew if you count Matthew’s preferential use of  the term “kingdom of heaven”. Since Matthew was Jewish (Mark and Luke were Gentiles) he was probably uncomfortable saying the name of God aloud. However from the parallel passages in Luke and Mark it’s pretty clear Matthew is talking about the same thing: that is, the reign of God, the place where God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven and everything that once went wrong is made right.

In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus is going about proclaiming the good news of the nearness of the kingdom. He looks out at a crowd of people and is overcome by compassion. They are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Life was difficult and unpredictable for first century Jews. They were under Rome’s thumb. The government wasn’t helping. The religious authorities weren’t helping either. They were more concerned with seeing that purity laws- don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle- were properly observed than with doing things that would actually improve people’s lives. The image that comes to my mind here is animals being penned up in a confined area, panicking and running this way and that at the touch of a cattle prod. It’s such a different image than the one in Psalm 23 where the good shepherd leads his sheep by still waters into green pastures.

Isn’t much of the world we live in the same today? There is such overwhelming need. What can we do about it? Where do we even start? If the “kingdom of God is near,” how do we find the entrance? Where’s our “wardrobe door,” or “Platform 9 ¾” to find it?
Here’s a hint. Jesus sends his disciples with the same message and tells them to do the same kind of things he has been doing. “The kingdom of God is near.” As John put it in his gospel, Jesus is the door. Jesus shows us the way. Go, and do.

There’s a saying that counselors sometimes use, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. I think this is spiritually true as well. If we start acting like citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, it becomes more and more real to us. The barriers between this world and the alternate reality of the kingdom of God become thinner and thinner, and sometimes we even get to glimpse this state called “eternity.” Then when the time comes for us to step over the invisible barrier between earth and heaven, we’ll be prepared to live there without undergoing major culture shock. Furthermore, the more people who commit themselves to following the way of Jesus, the better our present world will become. We can be a part of God’s efforts to transform the world into a better place. The Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, says Jesus. It starts out so small, but grows into a huge plant with many branches that shelter life.

Instead of imagining that there’s no heaven like John Lennon suggested, let’s imagine what the world would be like if more people lived as citizens of heaven in the here-and-now. Imagine all the people living according to what Jesus said was the greatest commandment, and the Golden Rule.

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s exactly what Jesus tells the Twelve to go and do in today’s passage.
“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Actions speak louder than words. As St Francis is reported to have said,
“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Or as John Wesley might have put it,
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

Let’s not get so hung up by the supernatural-ness of what Jesus and the Twelve were able to do that we miss the main point. Jesus did the things he did because he cared about people, and he wants us to do the same. Just because we can’t literally do those exact things doesn’t mean we can’t do something. And we are not limited to only doing the things on that list. God gave us both hearts to care and brains to figure out what we can do to meet human need.

Take a look at the green sheet of mission and ministry opportunities in your bulletin.

We may not be able to heal the sick or raise the dead in the way Jesus and the Twelve did, but there are many ways we can work to bring health and healing to people. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you volunteer in caregiving or disability ministries, or support Midwestern University’s medical mission to Guatemala, that you are helping to bring the kingdom of God a little closer?
We may not be able to cleanse lepers the way jesus and the Twelve did, but there are many ways we can work to bring hope and wholeness to those who are excluded and marginalized. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you volunteer at Justa Center or build homes with One Mission and Habitat for Humanity or buy Christmas gifts through Angel Tree, you are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?
We may not be able to multiply loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd the way Jesus did, but there are many ways we can work to end hunger. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you collect food for West Valley Community Pantry and Hart Pantry. or prepare snack bags for Justa Center, you are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?
Now for the part about casting out demons. We don’t generally think in those terms today and when we read the Biblical descriptions of those kinds of healings, it often seems that those described as suffering from unclean spirits had some kind of physical or mental illness like epilepsy or schizophrenia. But again, that’s not the point. People were suffering, and Jesus did something about it. We all know people who are tormented by metaphorical demons like PTSD and addictions. Have you ever thought that organizations like AA and Soldiers Best Friend are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?

There’s one more thing this passage says to me that I want to mention, and that’s that reciprocity is expected between the Twelve and the people of the towns they visit. The disciples are told not to take extra supplies for their journey because the people they are going to serve will want to take care of them. It’s a partnership, and Jesus goes so far as to say if there is no partnership, they cannot do the work he sent them to do. They are not supposed to go in there, knights in shining armor riding metaphorical white horses, thinking they have all the answers, and placing themselves in a superior position over the people they supposedly are coming to serve. Have any of you read James Michener’s “Hawaii” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”? I was absolutely traumatized by the behavior and attitudes of the fictional missionaries in those books. They show us exactly what NOT to do. Part of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is realizing our mutual dependence on each other. When St Francis wrote “it is in giving that we receive” he wasn’t kidding about being on the receiving end. Recently I learned of a Tongan saying, “It is a blessing to be a blessing”

Look again at the list of ministries and missions on the green sheet. And there are many, many more things people are doing that aren’t on this list, things people just do on their own. Blessings on all you who show kindness and compassion in so many places and so many ways. You are helping to bring the kingdom of God a little nearer. As we sang in our opening hymn earlier,

Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

Go, and do. Let’s “make it so!”