Tablets of Stone or Tablets in the Heart?

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

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

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

-Exodus 20 (repeated in Deuteronomy 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think God is a good teacher, and is aware of our developmental levels. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way,  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” In the “fullness of time“, when humanity had become developmentally ready to receive him, God sent Jesus to teach us how to relate to God, and to each other. There is only one law, the law of love, or as James describes it,  “the perfect law of liberty“, and if it is written on our hearts we will have no need to see it written on tablets of stone.

And that’s good news to me.

 

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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.

 

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!”

 

The Heart of the Matter

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. -Jesus

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.– Moses

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the proclamation of God’s upside-down kingdom in the Beatitudes, followed by the commissioning of Jesus’s followers to be the light that shows others the way into it. Then it really gets interesting. Jesus says that “not a jot or a tittle” should be expunged from the Pentateuch, and that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds an awful lot like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” But right after that, he proceeds to repeatedly say “You have heard it said of old (Scripture quote) but I say to you (different spin on the Scripture he just quoted)

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

What’s going on here? How can the Law of Moses both be timeless and open to such dramatic reinterpretation? I think Jesus is saying it is the principles underlying the Law which are timeless, not the rules themselves. Rules are always incomplete; they can’t prescribe what the most appropriate behavior is in every possible circumstance, and they can be twisted and misused. Any good lawyer knows that even the most carefully written rules are subject to misuse and exploitation. “Don’t lie” is a good example. A person can literally “not lie” but be quite untruthful by the skilful use of misdirection and omission. The rule may be followed, but the principle is violated. As Bill Clinton rather infamously noted, “it depends on what you mean by the word “is”.

The Law is fulfilled when its principles are followed and not just its rules. It is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, that matters.  Obviously, murder is a bad thing and therefore “thou shalt not kill” is a good rule. But Jesus, like Yoda, reminds us that bad actions often have their genesis in the heart and mind. It is only through understanding and applying the principles behind the Law that it can be internalized, as Moses exhorted the Israelites through the use of colorful metaphor. The Bible is pretty consistent about what the two great principles of  the Law are: love of God and love of neighbor.

I was never a great fan of the “Because I said so” approach to parenting. I wanted my children to understand the “why” behind any rules I imposed, because I wanted them to develop internalized behavioral controls. Externalized controls are temporary, dependent on whether the authority figure is watching, and easily manipulated. Internalized controls are more permanent, function independently of supervision, and are can be generalized to apply to novel circumstances.  I think Jesus was saying that’s how God thinks, too. That’s what it means when Moses commands the Israelites to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart“, or when Jeremiah says that God  “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”, or when Paul tells the Corinthians they are living letters “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 

Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill the law; that is to complete its purpose and to lead us to internalize its principles. It is not a static thing written in stone, but a living thing written in receptive hearts. That living principle is love, and as Hillel is reported to have said, “That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Go and study it.”

 

Hebrews: We Can See Clearly Now

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Hebrews differs from the other New Testament letters in that it bears no salutation. We don’t really know who wrote it, to whom it was written, or when it was written. Based on internal references, many scholars speculate that it was written for second-generation Christians living in the lull between active persecutions by Nero and Domitian. The author seems to have been very familiar with both Platonic philosophy and the Hebrew scriptures, for he references both frequently in his arguments.  Various names have been proposed as its author, including Paul, Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla and Aquilla. I find the latter suggestion especially intriguing, as its proponents speculate that the reason the letter itself doesn’t tell us who wrote it is because it was written by a woman, which if known might have caused it to be dismissed.

The main message I get out of Hebrews is that if we want to know God, we need to look to Jesus.  God has been reaching out to human beings for millennia, trying to get through to us in all kinds of ways. From the dawn of human sentience, many people have managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a partial picture of God, or to hear a faint echo of his message of love. But until the coming of Jesus, no one person has seen or heard clearly. Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Want to connect with God? That happens through Jesus, too. Jesus is the lens through which we can see and know God most clearly.

Again and again, the writer of Hebrews takes events described in the Hebrew Bible, and applies them to Jesus, sometimes giving them an entirely different meaning from that of their original context. That’s a fairly common technique for the biblical writers.  As history unfolds, old stories develop new layers of meaning. For example, when read in context Isaiah’s prophecy of “Behold, an almah (young woman or virgin) shall conceive and bear a son was clearly directed to King Ahaz, but the writer of Matthew takes this verse and applies it to Jesus. Jesus often had a tendency to put a new spin on old Scriptures by saying “you have heard it said (something) but I say (something else) Exodus 21:24 clearly prescribes an eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth payback for wrongs done, but Jesus commands his follows not to repay evil with evil, but with good.   People are still doing this today, even my most literally-minded, God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it friends. Jeremiah 29:11  was clearly written as a promise to the Jewish exiles that they would one day return to their ancestral lands. Yet this version is particularly treasured as a personal promise by many, including myself, when going through difficult times.

There is nothing wrong with finding new layers of meaning in ancient texts. That’s part of what makes the Bible a living book to me. But the Bible itself is not the lens through which we should see God; Jesus is. The Bible can lead us to God, but it is not a fourth member of the Trinity. The “word of God” is not ossified words on a page, but Jesus. who is  “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.  We cannot say “the Bible clearly says” anything without understanding it through the lens of Jesus. Jesus is the lens that can, and will, bring everything into focus.

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Matthew: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“ A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

The New Testament begins with four books about the life and teachings of Jesus, each with its own unique perspective. These books are collectively known as “gospels” because their purpose is to proclaim the gospel, or “good news”, and they contain both stories about the life of Jesus and collections of his teachings. Most scholars believe that Mark, rather than Matthew, was the first of the gospels to be written, but in the traditional arrangement of the New Testament, Matthew is placed first.

When one remembers that the Bible strives to offer a theological rather than chronological perspective on history, the placement of Matthew as the first book of the New Testament is quite reasonable. Matthew is concerned with showing the reader than Jesus is the fulfillment of many prophecies. He often juxtaposes events in the life of Jesus with quotes from the Hebrew prophetic books, with the editorial comment “this event happened in fulfillment of this prophecy”. In this way Matthew provides a bridge from the Old to the New testaments. In one respect, he’s “preparing the way of the Lord” by showing thematic connections. It’s interesting to me that Matthew can get quite creative with these at times. He will quote a passage from Isaiah or one of the other prophets, which when read in its original context refers to one thing, and apply it to something different. For example, Jeremiah 31:15 describes Rachel weeping for her lost children, and in its original context was a poetic description of the depths of loss the Jewish exiles felt in Babylon. Matthew also sees the passage as applying to the bereaved mothers in Bethlehem after Herod’s infamous slaughter of the innocents.

Isaiah 40 describes a voice crying in the wilderness and urging preparations that should be made in anticipation of God’s intervention on behalf of his people. In Isaiah’s time, people would have understood this passage as a promise that God would devise a way to allow the exiled Jews to return to their ancestral lands. Matthew understands Isaiah’s description might also be applied to John the Baptist, who literally lived and preached in the wilderness, and whose call to repentance certainly served to prepare the way for Jesus. By interpreting familiar scriptures in new ways, Matthew attempts to show his readers that Jesus is both the continuation and completion of God’s redemptive efforts throughout history.

The Bible is often described as a “living” book. For me, that has meant that each time I read through it, it speaks to me in a different way. It also means that there is a lot of leeway for differing interpretations and understandings of how to apply its principles to one’s life. I can only imagine the flak Matthew probably received from those who did not think that their scriptures might apply to Jesus as well as ancient Israel. As Matthew understood it, the scriptures prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.  I think this is still true.

The Bible can lead us to God, but it isn’t God. God can best be understood through the life and teachings of Jesus. God isn’t a capricious, angry “sky god”, zapping all nonbelievers with bolts of lightning. And he isn’t Santa Claus, dispensing goodies to good boys and girls and lumps of coal to bad ones. God is like Jesus, and each time I read the stories of Jesus as he is remembered by the gospel writers, I gain a greater understanding of just what really good news that is.

 

Ezekiel: When All Is Lost

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah, although his prophetic activity began a little later and came from a different perspective. While Jeremiah lived in Judea and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem firsthand, Ezekiel received his first vision from God as one of the exiles in Babylon. He must have been included in the first wave of Judeans deported to Babylon when Jehoiachin surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar’s army. (2 Kings 24)

Ezekiel uses a great deal of figurative imagery to describe Jerusalem’s impending destruction. The book begins with a vision of God that reads like a bizarre dream- wheels within wheels, strange chimeric creatures, and a blindingly bright “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” that knocks him to the ground. And that’s just the beginning. There are more strange visions, some of which are interpreted for the reader. God tells Ezekiel he will be held personally responsible for the deaths of sinners he doesn’t forewarn of God’s judgement, and commands him do some very strange symbolic acts that today we might call performance art.

In one of Ezekiel’s visions, he sees the glory of God actually packing up and leaving the Temple. The emotional and spiritual impact of this event must have been devastating, because the concept of an omnipresent deity had not yet developed. God’s presence was thought to reside in the temple, above the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. If God had grown so disgusted with his wayward children that he actually abandoned his dwelling place, all hope was really and truly lost. I can’t help but be reminded of the “God is dead” theologies that popped up in the sixties, and the effect these had on some people. If God is absent, or God is dead, what does that mean for a people whose entire existence was built around their special relationship to Him? This would have resulted in a corporate identity crisis of major proportions.

Thankfully, Ezekiel doesn’t end with a terrifying vision of divine abandonment and resultant social anomie. Terrible days will come as a consequence of Israel’s refusal to love God and neighbor. But God has not abandoned his people, even if that seems to be the case. It is in the crucible of the exile that the concept of monotheism is able to be fully refined. God is not a local sky god whose influence is restricted to the land of Canaan, but a God who is present with his people wherever they are.  God has not abandoned them, and is able to accomplish the seemingly impossible, as Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones assures us. And at the end of the story, God will again be present with his people, causing a great river of life to flow from his presence from a restored Temple into a restored Eden.

When the world is falling apart around us and God seems so far away that we wonder if he’s really there, Ezekiel reminds us that even if we think all is lost, it really isn’t. Sometimes it takes a dark night of the soul to shatter our inadequate understanding of God, only to find the light of connection on the other side of the darkness. And that’s good news to me.