New Wine, Great Sheets of Animals, and the General Conference

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:36-39 (also Matthew 9:16-20 and Mark 2:21-22

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Acts 10:9-16

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the recent special general conference of the UMC, which has been my adopted church home since leaving the SBC. The conference was specifically called to discuss what rules, if any, the UMC ought to impose on its member churches with regard to same-sex relationships. There were two main proposals, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide how to handle requests to perform same-sex marriages and/or whether to allow GLBTQ people to become pastors of Methodist churches. The Traditional Plan would forbid these in all UMC churches. By a narrow vote, the Traditional Plan was approved, but its constitutionality and enforcement protocol remain in question.
I live in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which is overall more inclined to take an inclusive view on this divisive subject than some of the other geographic jurisdictions. Following the vote, there was great rejoicing on the part of those who believe same-sex relationships are a mortal sin, and great sorrow on the part of those who believe GLBTQ people are part of God’s good and diverse creation.

I fall into the sorrowful camp on this, not only for reasons of science and empathy, but also for theological reasons. And I came to an inclusive perspective not because I don’t read the Bible, but because I do. I’m aware of the Bible verses usually cited to forbid same-sex relationships, but I’m also aware that translation and context matter in Biblical interpretation. What “the Bible clearly says” depends a great deal on what translation you are using, as well as the bias of the translator. And there are many things that “the Bible clearly says” that are widely ignored (like working on the Sabbath) or thought to be obsolete cultural mores (like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) Why is this particular taboo given such relative importance?

Some will cite Genesis 1:27, where God creates mankind male and female in his own image, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. If procreation is the criteria for a valid, God-approved marriage, what of those who cannot have children? Barring some miracle along the lines of the Sarah and Abraham story, my childbearing days have been over for quite a while now. Is my marriage still valid? Should postmenopausal women be forbidden to marry? How does the elevation of procreation as an imperative for marriage fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Jesus quotes the Genesis passage, but he does so in the context of forbidding divorce to heterosexual couples. When I read the Genesis passage, I don’t understand it as being about the primacy of binary sexuality, but about the equality of men and women created in the image of a God who can’t be understood in an anthropomorphological way. When I read Jesus’s application of the Genesis passage to first-century divorce practices, I don’t understand him to be talking so much about sex, but about the misuse of power by men against women.

My theology comes not so much from individual Bible verses, but from the Bible taken as a whole, and particularly the Bible as it seems to be understood by Jesus. And it seems to me that quite a lot of what Jesus had to say and do was in the direction of inclusion, not exclusion; of principles rather than rules. What “the Bible clearly said” to Jesus was often quite different from what “the Bible clearly said” to religious people who opposed him. That’s how I understand the parable of the wineskins. The rules-based religion Jesus’s opponents promoted had become ossified, like the hardened, inflexible wineskins of the parable. Jesus wanted to bring the people of God to a better understanding of what God expects from humans in terms of their behavior. Jesus understood God’s Prime Directive to be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and like new wine this principle cannot be confined by a set of rules.

Take Sabbath-keeping for example. “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is actually one of the Ten Commandments, unlike prohibitions against same-sex marriage or gay clergy. It’s a good commandment, and I think the principle behind it is still valid today, even if it is widely ignored. It isn’t good for anyone to work 24/7. We might call it “down time” instead of “rest”, but that’s the idea behind it. Unfortunately people have always had a nasty tendency of idolizing rules while forgetting the reason the rule was created. Hezekiah had to destroy the bronze serpent Moses had created to cure a plague of snakes, because the people of God had started worshipping it rather than remembering why Moses created it in the first place. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath-keeping had become more of a burden than a welcome respite to people. Jesus’s attention to the principle rather than the rule of law often caused him to come into conflict with those who believed the rule was inflexible. If Jesus could help somebody, he would, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Like the Sabbath, I think marriage meets a human need- the need for intimacy and companionship. The creation story in Genesis 2 includes a statement by God that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will create a suitable partner for him“. Yes, I know the first couple was heterosexual, but there wasn’t exactly a large human population at the time from which to make generalizations. When large populations are considered, the majority of people will preferentially seek partners of the opposite sex, but some will be attracted to partners of the same sex, or not feel much in the way of sexual attraction at all. (It’s sadly interesting, although logically consistent, that some in the no-exceptions-to-binary sexuality camp even look askance at asexual, celibate people as being deviant in some way. I find that attitude very strange from both a Biblical and an early church history viewpoint.)

In the Acts passage cited above we read of Peter’s hunger-induced dream of the great sheet filled with items on his potential dinner menu, including, I assume, shrimp and bacon as well as steak and lamb chops. “Do not call unclean anything God has called clean“. This had to have been extremely difficult for Peter to accept, as it was a monumental change of the rules for an observant first-century orthodox Jew. The books of Moses clearly prohibited him from eating non-kosher foods. Peter understood the meaning of the dream to be that the good news Jesus brings is for everyone, not just for Mosaic law-abiding descendents of Abraham. In response, he goes to the home of a Gentile God-seeker named Cornelius and says, You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Peter then shares the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection with Cornelius and his family. God shows up in a dramatic way, demonstrating his approval of both Peter, who broke what he thought were the rules by coming under Cornelius’s roof, and Cornelius, who was already considered to be an uncircumcised rulebreaker.

Of course, nothing is truly settled, then or now. There were some believers who held to a more rules-oriented criteria for inclusion in the family of God, and some who held to a less rules-oriented criteria. Later in Acts, we read of the Jerusalem Council which was convened to decide which, if any, rules Gentile converts were required to follow. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he repeatedly had to deal with the same problem in the nascent Christian churches. (for example, his sarcastic suggestion to some of the Galatians here) On the other hand, while the Philippians and Galatians erred on the side of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, Paul had to rein in the “if it feels good, do it” Corinthians. There’s a difference between breaking rules in order to do good to people, and breaking rules in order to please yourself, without thought of how your behavior might cause harm to someone else. Both “the rules are the rules” and “anything goes” are incompatible with the principle of the One Rule to Rule Them All that we call the Golden Rule or the Royal Law.

Does God sometimes change the rules? And if so, which ones? Or does the Bible show an evolving human understanding of God, and how God expects people to behave? My bet is on the latter. The books of Moses contain quite a few rules that are questioned by some of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as well as by Jesus and Paul. So I think that I’m in good company when I question the rule that only heterosexual marriages are valid, or that God only calls heterosexual males to be pastors. I’ve seen those rules hurt too many people. I’ve seen those rules cause too many people to turn away from God. And I don’t think God is too happy when we use rules in ways that harm rather than help people, or cause people to turn away from God.

To those who ask me, “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I will answer “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I would rather err on the side of inclusivity than exclusivity, because it seems to me that’s what Jesus did. He was continually criticizing those who threw up insurmountable barriers of religious rules that kept people away from God, and he was often criticized for the company he kept.

I think that God’s grace can’t be limited. God pitches a bigger tent and invites more people to the table than we think. And that’s good news to me!

Three Funerals and a Divorce

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone, and our children sift thru all we’ve left behind, may the clues that they discover, and the mem’ries they uncover, become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.
-from “Find Us Faithful, by Steve Green, inspired by the Hebrews passage

In the past few weeks I’ve attended three memorial services, all for people who lived long lives of service to God and their fellow human beings. All three services were held in United Methodist churches, which is my adopted denominational affiliation, at least for now. All three services were packed with people who couldn’t seem to stop talking about the positive influence of their departed loved ones. Some stories that were shared were funny, some were inspiring, and some revealed things about the person I hadn’t previously known. These were people that made a difference in the lives of those around them, and they did so for decades. They persevered. They did not lose heart, or grow weary in doing good to others. They were faithful. I imagine them now, along with others I have known, as part of that great heavenly cloud of witnesses to the power of lives transformed by Christ.

At the end of life, what is it that causes a person to be remembered in a positive way, like these three people who have recently “transferred their membership” from a congregation on earth to one in heaven? The stories I heard at the memorial services were less about the person’s doctrinal beliefs than about what the person did, and how that impacted others. As the writer of the book of James puts it, faith is best shown by means of loving actions. “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” Being “found faithful” isn’t a matter of getting all your doctrinal ducks in a row, which is good thing considering how many variations on that theme there are. “Trusting Jesus” isn’t a one-and-done event. It is a lifelong commitment that results in the continuing transformation of a person to think and act more and more like Jesus as the years go by. That commitment was clearly seen in the lives of these three people.

Sad as it is to attend the funeral of a loved one, it’s much sadder to witness a divorce. And I’m afraid that my adopted United Methodist Church is in the process of going through a very messy one. There seem to be irreconcilable doctrinal differences between those who believe being gay is a deadly sin, and those who believe being gay is part of the infinite diversity of God’s good creation. The recent General Conference special session centering on this issue has made national news, and not in a good way. Paul laid out “Jesus is Lord” as the core of Christianity “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I think that when we attempt to amend this core doctrine by adding other requirements, we are creating stumbling blocks that drive people away from God. Paul was considered a radical by his fellow Jews because he dropped the circumcision requirement for Gentile believers, along with the rest of the Mosaic law. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Madeline l’Engle has written, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” There’s also a quote attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The gospel in a word is love, the love God has for us, and the love we show to others. We each must find our own road that leads to loving God and others. And I think that, at the end of life, whether or not we will be “found faithful” in the eyes of God or humans will be based on how we treat those around us.

And that’s good news to me.

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness: Be Careful, Little Lips, What You Say

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Exodus 20:16

“Be careful, little lips, what you say. Be careful, little lips, what you say. For the Father up above is looking down in love. Oh, be careful, little lips what you say”
Children’s song; author unknown

It seems that “fake news” and accusations of fake news are ubiquitous these days, especially on social media. People see items on their news feeds and pass them on  without thinking about whether they are true, whether they are helpful, whether they are kind. Sometimes these are silly, entertaining, and innocent fun (cute pet videos anyone?) but other times they are a form of character assassination that can have very harmful consequences.

“Bearing false witness” is not really synonymous with “lying”, as I was taught as a child. In some translations, it reads “give false testimony”. Essentially, the commandment is prohibiting perjury. It is accusing someone of a crime they did not commit, and it was treated very seriously in Mosaic law. “If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime,  the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time.  The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite,  then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.  The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Both bearing false witness and lying in general are listed as abominations, right up there with murder, in this proverb:  “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”

Jesus often broadened the meaning of the commandments rather than applying them in a strict legalistic sense. For example, the commandment against adultery didn’t just mean having sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse: it meant thinking about it. The commandment against murder didn’t just mean lying in wait and killing someone; it meant harboring hatred against someone. Jesus looked beyond overt behaviors to the attitudes that led to them. As another proverb goes,  “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  Jesus wasn’t too impressed when people used legalistic interpretations of the commandments to get away with doing something that was counter to the intent of the commandment. For example, he condemned the practice of declaring something “corban” so as to avoid responsibility for caring for parents. He condemned the practice of using verbal technicalities to get out of keeping one’s promises. Rather than specific rules that could be cleverly twisted to one’s advantage, Jesus taught principles. For Jesus, the principle underlying all the commandments was what we know as the “Golden Rule:” In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets.”

Paul echoed the same principle when he wrote to the Romans, “The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. If you apply the principle “love does no wrong to its neighbor” to the rule “thou shalt not bear false witnesss”, you will realize that its meaning goes far beyond refraining from perjury. Propaganda, gossip and spreading rumors also violate the spirit of “thou shalt not bear false witness”. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,  “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

James had some strong words to say about the power of the words we say about others: Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

I can’t help but think of how well James’ words describe the harm caused when social media is used to spread lies, rumors, and gossip. It is a forest fire indeed.  In India, there have been several incidents of mob killings of people who were falsely accused of crimes against children. In the United States, there have also been incidents of people being misidentified as perpetrators of terrorist attacks or other horrible crimes. Young people who have been targeted by bullying peers on social media have committed suicide.

Bearing false witness extends to stereotyping entire groups of people in harmful ways too, such as saying that all Muslims are terrorists, all homosexuals are pedophiles, all undocumented immigrants are violent criminals, all gun owners are irresponsible, all Christians are anti-science. All Republicans do not despise the poor. All Democrats are not atheists. Such blanket statements are very harmful and sometimes deadly.  In Arizona, shortly after 9/11, a Sikh man was killed by a stranger who saw his turban and beard, assumed he was a terrorist, and shot him. 

If this principle of causing no harm is applied to the commandment against false witness, it’s not enough to avoid committing perjury. Don’t deliberately spread misinformation with the intent of harming someone. Be very, very careful when sharing derogatory “information” about someone on social media, especially when you do not personally know the person and did not witness the purported act. Pictures can be photoshopped. Videos can be selectively edited. Memes are almost always simplistic. Prefacing something with “if this is true” does not get you off the hook. I’m aware that many people who share such items believe they are being helpful, warning others of danger like a modern-day Paul Revere. But the actual results too often turn out to be more like the instigator of a figurative or (heaven forbid, actual) lynch mob.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” It’s still good advice today.

 

 

 

 

 

Love is an Action Verb

” 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.” John 3:16

On the fourth Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of love. A day later, on Christmas Eve, we lit the Christ candle in the center of the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Love seems to be pretty important to God, and that’s a consistent theme throughout the Bible. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  

Leviticus commands the nascent Israelite community, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

Later, Jesus would affirm that these two commands were the essence of the Hebrew scriptures. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love isn’t a feeling, but an action, and that’s a pretty consistent theme throughout the Bible too. God gave the dearest part of himself to the world in the person of Jesus. The ancient Israelites showed their love for God by their loyalty to him, by forsaking all other gods, following God’s commands, and teaching their children to do the same. The Levitical passage is pretty specific about what love of neighbor looks like, as were the great prophets of the Israelite monarchy. Jesus, Paul, James, and John all taught that love is not a feeling, but an action directed toward the well-being of others.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling toward someone. Love is more than sending “thoughts and prayers”. It is a behavior. Or as Doctor Who once observed, “Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a promise”.

The Magnificat and the Arc of the Moral Universe.

On the first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of hope.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Luke 1:46-55

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the nights lengthen and temperatures drop in December, we remember that the times in which Mary lived were metaphorically dark and cold times for people like her. The descendants of Abraham lived under the heavy thumb of the Roman Empire. Income inequality and political and religious corruption were widespread. Caesar proclaimed himself “son of God” and  lord of all the known world, and disloyalty was severely punished. The latter would have been especially difficult for faithful Jews, who were uncompromisingly monotheistic and whose loyalty belonged only to God.

This was the world into which God sent his messenger to a Jewish girl named Mary, with an unbelievable announcement: she would bear a Child who would be able to put right everything that human beings had made go wrong in the world. The moral universe, as designed by God, had been horribly warped by the  wrong and self-centered choices of human beings. But the child Mary would bear would begin the repair process. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the arc of the moral universe would begin to bend in the right direction.

It’s interesting to me to note that, in order to accomplish his purposes, God chose to act through and with the cooperation of a human being. Mary said “yes” to God, even though what she was told seemed impossible. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her “yes” to God resulted in great difficulties and challenges for her personally, yet she was able to break forth into the joyous song we know as the Magnificat in the midst of these. It seems to me that, more often than not, God chooses to work through willing human beings who “get” his message and are willing to be “doers’ and not just “hearers” of that message.

When we find ourselves living through dark times, with causes and effects tangled up into seemingly impossible knots, it is good to remember what God’s messenger told Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God. God may work in ways we cannot predict, do not expect, and may not live to see, but be certain of this: God is working. God is working in us and through us for the transformation of the world. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “God is the one who began this good work in you, and I am certain that he won’t stop before it is complete on the day that Christ Jesus returns.”

We light the candle of hope, because with God, there is hope. God will work with us and through us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. And, as Jesus taught and lived, that will be accomplished not by superior power, but by superior love. The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. And that’s good news to me!

How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

How to Live in “Interesting Times”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-24

This week’s Romans passage has been on my mind a lot this week, particularly the verse about “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It seems I’ve been antagonizing, and being antagonized by, Facebook friends left and right a great deal during this past week. My discomfort with my friends on the right had to do with the “Nashville statement”,  much of with which I do not agree, and my discomfort with my friends on the left had to do with the aggressively violent components of antifa, with which I also do not agree. I find these “conversations” extremely emotionally distressing because I’m a peacemaker by nature. I try to make connections with people, and to find common ground. But I also am a person who believes it is important to stand up for love, kindness, justice, and fairness. Like Jeremiah, I find it impossible to keep my mouth shut (or typing fingers still) at times, because it becomes “in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” It might make my life easier if I stuck to posting only cute kitten pictures and happy thoughts, but I just can’t remain silent in the face of injustice or unkindness. I get especially upset when I see people expressing thoughts and exhibiting behaviors that drive people away from God, for I think that having a relationship with God is of great benefit.  I have quite a few friends who have been driven from the arms of God into the arms of atheism by those who think they are “watchmen” doing God’s work.  I don’t think that barring the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven to all who do not agree with a particular understanding of God, or of scripture, is doing God’s work. I think we are supposed to be witnesses to what God has done in our own lives, not watchmen telling other people what they are doing wrong in theirs. And so, I really appreciate Paul’s acknowledgement that no matter how hard I try, it may not always be possible to get along with all people at all times.

We live in “interesting times”, but the times the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote this passage were no less “interesting”, challenging and dangerous. They lived under the whims of a succession of dangerously megalomaniac emperors– Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They were looked upon with suspicion and distrust by the dominant established religious, political, and cultural systems, who invented all kinds of wild “fake news” stories about the nascent Christian movement. Rumors were spread that Christians practiced cannibalism during the Lord’s supper; that their “love feasts” were orgiastic; that they started the Great Fire of Rome. Given their precarious circumstances, it seems quite reasonable that Paul would have urged them to keep their heads down and not go looking for trouble, as he does later in Romans 13. Don’t make unnecessary waves. When in Afghanistan, wear a burqa. Perhaps those survival practicalities also lay behind his admonition to attempt to “live peaceably with all“. But I also remember the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who contended against “those crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” I don’t think it’s okay with God to pretend everything is good when it’s not, especially when remaining silent might cause harm.

So how do we strike a balance between “living peaceably with all” while living lives that are a faithful testimony to the Way of Jesus? How do we apply Paul’s words to the Roman Christians in our own place and time? I think the key is in what Paul calls “genuine love”. Everything we say and do ought to demonstrate love. If there is to be any competition between followers of Jesus, it ought to be in showing love. By showing love to others, we are serving God. When Paul talks about holding fast to the good and hating evil, I don’t think he was talking about strict observance of the Mosaic purity laws or the Greco-Roman household codes.  I certainly don’t think he was talking about passing moral judgement on those who violate those laws, for that goes counter to the overall message of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus’s harshest words were not for “sinners”, but for the Pharisees who were careful to observe all the laws of Moses. His highest praises were not for the religiously observant, but for those who worked to improve the welfare of others. Paul was once the epitome of a good Pharisee, not only in his strict personal adherence to the Mosaic laws, but also in his zealous persecution of the early followers of Jesus. He hounded, imprisoned, and was a party to the murder of the first Christians precisely because he believed their theology was dangerous, wrong and harmful.  In hindsight he came to consider all his previous “godly”behavior less than worthless. (“Rubbish” in the RSV; “dung” in the KJV; “garbage” in the NIV)  When Paul talks about “good” and “evil” here, I think he is talking about doing things that help people versus doing things that hurt people. “Do unto others as you would like for them to unto you.” as Jesus phrased it, which is entirely consistent with the teaching of  Hillel, the grandfather of Paul’s mentor Gamaliel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  Paul goes on to give several concrete examples of what this kind of genuine love looks like in action in his time and place. Here’s what this passage says to me in my own time and place.

First, be optimistic about the future. There is a God, and he is working to bend the arc of the moral universe toward his design of justice and love. How quickly he is able to do that depends a great deal on whether we work with him or against him in the bending process. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot, so suffering is inevitable. When suffering comes, “why did this happen to me?” is the wrong question to ask. Attempting to answer that question will most likely lead to assigning blame to God, self, or others. Instead of looking for someone to blame, be patient.  Patience is not endurance for endurance’s sake; rather it is active. Patience asks, “How can I best get through this?”, and “What can I learn from this”, and “How can I use this to help others?” Instead of cursing the darkness, patience sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and actively struggles to reach it.

Acknowledging that “stuff happens”, and refusing to assign blame for it, leads us to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of others. Offer thoughts and prayers for those caught in the midst of tragedy, but let those thoughts and prayers lead you to assist in material ways. As James put it, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?” When bad things happen, we shouldn’t ask if someone is deserving of our help; we should ask how we can help. I think Jesus was pretty clear about that in his  conversation about the man born blind. Prevailing religious thought in the time of Jesus was that God rewarded the good and punished the bad. If someone was sick or poor, they must have done something to deserve their fate. Therefore, either the blind man had somehow sinned prenatally (original sin?) or his parents had done something wrong. This thinking is not dissimilar from some of the “blame the victim” and “prosperity gospel” theologies popular in some circles today. Rather than assign blame, Jesus took the opportunity to help, showing us by his example that we ought to do the same.

Have empathy: put yourself in another’s shoes and feel what they are feeling without overwriting their experience with your own thoughts and feelings. Share in the joys and sorrows of others without being jealous or judgemental.   You can’t raise yourself up by bringing others down, either by blaming them for their own misfortunes or by shaming their joys. I think blame can be a form of magical thinking, and shame a form of arrogance. This happened to you because you did x, y, and z. Since I do a, b, and c instead, what happened to you will never happen to me. Or: I’m morally superior to you because I did m, and you did n.  Judas objected to Mary’s waste of an expensive perfume, telling her it could have been put to better uses, but Jesus praised her.

Be humble:  Don’t think that you alone have all the correct answers, and it is your responsibility to convince others to come around to your way of thinking. I get especially tired of people using the phrase “the Bible clearly says” in an attempt to “correct” someone else’s thinking. First of all, using the Bible as an argument doesn’t work with people who don’t believe God speaks through it. Secondly, “the Bible clearly says” arguments have been used in defense of all kinds of horrible things in the past, including slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples by European invaders. Cultivate the ability to listen and learn from others and from history. If the Bible were completely clear as some like to think it is, there wouldn’t be thousands of different denominations. Humility doesn’t mean self-abasement, but neither is it condescending to others. It takes humility to understand that the lenses through which you understand the Bible or see reality are unique to you, and quite possibly do not yield perfect vision. For now we see through a glass, darkly, I also like the way Doctor Who phrased it, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

Don’t try to get even. It doesn’t work,  and remember that the means are equally as important as the ends. Those who use evil means with the intention of achieving a good result are in danger of becoming just as bad as the evil they oppose. I’m reminded of the last lines in “Animal Farm: ““The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The only lasting way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Because I believe the image of God is stamped indelibly on every human soul, I do not believe that certain people lack a conscience, even when they behave as though they don’t have one. Even Darth Vader found redemption in the end, and I might point out that his conscience was not awakened at the point of Luke’s lightsaber, but through their relationship.  As Martin Luther King observed, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But I’m going to keep working on it.

 

Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

James: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,  if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

During the process of canonization, there was a good deal of dispute about whether the book of James should be included in the New Testament, and centuries later Martin Luther revived the question, calling it “a right strawy epistle”. James only mentions the name of Jesus twice, and never mentions his crucifixion or the resurrection. It emphasizes behavior over belief to the extent that it reads more like a sermon intended for pious Jews than for new Christians.  James, the brother of Jesus, is traditionally thought to be its author; however the writer only identifies himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. It’s also interesting that the letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” rather than to a particular church community.

It seems to me that the main point James wants to make is that faith is not a belief system, but an action. What a person believes to be true means nothing unless that belief is expressed in tangible action. It doesn’t help at all, and in fact is quite harmful, when a self-identified Christian says “Jesus is Lord” and then behaves in ways that are in direct opposition to what Jesus taught and how he lived. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”, James urges, mirroring Jesus’s words that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock”

Like Jesus and Paul, James prioritizes the “royal law” of love over all others. But “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” isn’t an internal feeling of goodwill; it is an action. And like any good preacher, James proceeds to give several examples of what that might look like. Don’t treat those who can do something for you better than those who can’t.
If you see someone in need, help them
 Control your temper.
Watch your mouth.(maybe James would have something to say about the unhelpful and unkind use of social media, too)
Don’t be greedy or selfish
Don’t judge others.

James is not a comforting book to read. It’s full of warnings and admonitions and is bound to make the reader feel guilty about something. But I don’t think James meant to give us a laundry list of virtues to pursue and sins to avoid, but to paint us a picture of what love in action looks like. Love is not thoughts, not words, not feelings, but actions. When we act in love, we not only facilitate our connection to God, but we can change the world. And that’s pretty good news to me!

 

Mark: The Kingdom is at Hand

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.”

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and probably the first to be written. Tradition attributes it to John Mark, Simon Peter’s protégé, who was also possibly the young man who fled naked from Jesus’s arrest scene. Mark’s telling of the Jesus story certainly seems in line with the way I imagine Peter would have told it: action oriented and fast-moving.  There is an urgency in Mark’s gospel; he repeatedly uses the adverb “immediately” as he describes events unfolding. If I had to assign the four gospels Myers-Briggs types, Mark would be an SP. Mark is the Captain Kirk of the New Testament.

As I read the Bible, I try to strip away any preconceived notions of what something might mean, and put myself in the place of one hearing its words for the first time. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the good news” seems to have been central to the messages of both John the Baptist and Jesus. It’s really quite startling when taken at face value: the waiting is over. The long-promised and imagined reign of God begins here, now. Those who want to be part of it are instructed to “repent and believe the good news”. But how can this be the correct understanding?  It has been two thousand years since Jesus made this proclamation. I don’t see too many nations beating their swords into plowshares or wolves lying down with lambs, much less everyone living to a ripe old age under their own vines and fig trees. As Longfellow wrote, “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men”

For many evangelicals, “repenting and believing the good news” means that once you agree to a correct set of theological propositions, and say the right words, you will go to heaven when you die instead of hell.  And although this salvation is a free gift from God, new converts usually quickly are confronted with a new set of behavioral rules, which can vary considerably among different churches. But I can’t get away from the fact that Jesus consistently preached that the reign of God had begun before his crucifixion and resurrection. In addition, he also claimed power to forgive sins prior to his death on the cross. In fact, proclamations like these were exactly what caused the orthodox religious establishment to push for the death penalty. I think Jesus meant exactly what he said: the kingdom of God begins here and now. His crucifixion and his resurrection sealed the deal and proved it.  If the reign of God hasn’t been realized in the way or as quickly as his earliest followers expected, it isn’t for lack of trying on God’s part. Religious history has often had a bad track record when it comes to understanding God and what he wants us to do in his name.

I think that the meaning of Jesus’s imperative to “repent and believe the good news” has been dumbed down to the point of being totally misunderstood, if not downright distorted. “Repent”does not simply mean to stop doing x and start doing y, nor does it primarily refer to emotional responses such as guilt, regret, or remorse. The root of the word  carries the idea of changing directions, of seeing everything completely differently. “I once was blind, but now I see”. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the word “repent” to describe this process; John uses the metaphor of “being born again”. We might call it a paradigm shift. As I understand from Jesus’s teachings and actions, what we are to turn away from is the infantile idea that “the world ought to revolve around me” and the self-centered behavior that kind of thinking produces. Instead, as we begin to understand ourselves as part of a greater whole and begin to draw energy and purpose from God, our behavior becomes increasingly other-centered.

Similarly, “believe” does not refer to intellectual assent, but to actions congruent with trust and confidence in the object of one’s faith. “So then, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven and “You believe that God is one. You are doing well! Even the demons believe that, and shudder!”  

The good news is not just that there will be “pie in the sky bye and bye when we die”, although I certainly think there will be pie. If we who claim to “believe” in Jesus would do a better job of practicing what Jesus taught, we might find ourselves surprised by the results. Kindness is contagious, and the smallest acts of it can multiply exponentially. Imagine what the world would be like if more people attempted to follow the principles of the Greatest Commandment and  Golden Rule, which form the backbone of Jesus’s teachings. The world would indeed be a different place.

I think it’s a mistake to think that the kingdom of God is something meant only for the future, whether we think of that as something that will happen in the afterlife or something that will happen after Christ’s return. When asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” and What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

The reign of God has already begun, and the Kingdom of God is growing. The arc of the moral universe may be so long as to be imperceptible, but it still bends towards justice. God has already given us all we need for “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven” God trusts us enough to put the ball in our court. That’s exciting and amazing, and it’s good news to me.