Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Today’s reading from the Epistles is from the final chapter in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, which seems to have been the one to which he felt closest. It’s interesting because on the surface the selection seems to be dealing with two unconnected topics: a plea for two of the Philippian church leaders to get on the same page, and some good psychological and spiritual advice about positive thinking. But the more I think about it, the more I think that applying Paul’s psychospiritual advice might also be helpful in resolving interpersonal differences.

Conflict between believers, sometimes escalating to the point of violence, has been a part of the church ever since its inception. I’ve often thought about Jesus’s unanswered prayer for unity for his followers as recorded in John: I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This clearly has not happened, and is one of the strongest arguments my atheist friends have used against the existence of God in general, or that Jesus was who he claimed to be in particular. If God can’t answer the Son of God’s prayer, what gives? Jesus was certainly aware that disunity among believers promotes that kind of unbelief, because that was included his prayer. John places Jesus’s prayer for unity in the context of Jesus’s parting speech at the Last Supper, so it would have been some of the last words his followers heard him speak before he had to leave them for the cross.

I don’t know what the issue was that caused conflict between Euodia and Syntache. I doubt it was over something as petty as who had the best casserole at the church potluck, what color the draperies in the worship center should be, or what type of music should be sung at services. Paul refers to these two women as his coworkers “who have contended at my side for the gospel“, so I think they were significant leaders, not “church lady” busybodies. I tend to imagine their differences were theological. Each considered their own opinions to be correct, necessary, and essential, and they strove mightily to convince others of their positions.  People tend to have strong opinions when they think that the fate of the world, or someone’s immortal soul, hangs in the balance. We read the same Bible, but come to different conclusions as we do.  I am saddened to see so much of that kind of thing going on in the church today, and I know enough church history to know that it has pretty much always been going on. I think I understand the “why” well enough, but what can we do about it?

That’s where I think the second part of the passage comes in. The way to “be of the same mind in the Lord” is to begin to develop the mind of Christ. Paul has a few suggestions on that subject., both in this passage and in many other places, Here, he begins by urging his readers, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  and continues to say that thankfulness is an integral part of effective prayer: ” In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”  Gratitude journals have become quite a popular tool for improving mental health, even by those with no religious leanings. There is a principle in cognitive-behavioral psychology that thoughts, emotions, and actions are inextricably linked. Change your thoughts and you will find your feelings change as well. I think that prayer works not to change the mind of God, but to change the mind of the one doing the praying. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his followers was more for our ears than God’s.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. It is possible to disagree with someone without doing so harshly or sarcastically. I used to be quite good at what I call the “Jonathan Swift approach” in my writing, but I’ve come to identify more with  Paul, who came to realize that what he thought was standing up for the right side was in fact not only ineffectual, but harmful.   “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” is almost always a correct prediction.  There’s a bit of advice I learned in education classes that holds true in all relationships:  it takes many positive interactions with a person before you have earned the right for a negative one. (Research puts the ratio at 5.6:1 for adults in a business setting; but I’d shoot for higher in a more personal setting .Most of the time, social media is a terrible place to have an intelligent, much less a gentle conversation with someone about matters of consequence. You can’t adapt your conversation to facial and body language cues, for one thing, and since social media is a very public setting, it tends to put people who disagree with you into extreme defense mode. Face must be saved, at all costs.

The Lord is near”. If we believe that is true, it means Jesus is right there beside us, hearing every word we say to each other. That certainly motivates me to try a bit harder to ensure my words are helpful and kind, rather than to show off how clever and correct I am. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” My goal concerning relationships with difficult people is to, instead of perseverating on our negative interactions, to remind myself of the positive ones. I find it helpful to think about what they do that is good and right or that we have in common, rather than the things about which I think they are badly mistaken. As Paul advised, I’m endeavoring to change my thoughts in order to change my feelings. It is not easy, but I hope that it is right.

It is no secret to most who know me that I find myself on a very different page theologically than some of my fellow believers who have also pledged their loyalty to Christ. I do not hold to an inerrantist view of the Bible; rather I think the Bible is a diverse anthology which reflects an evolving human understanding of God. Although the Bible can lead us to God, the Bible is not God and should not be worshipped as a fourth member of the Trinity. I do not think that God is particularly concerned about sexual orientation; I think he cares more about how we treat other people. I don’t think being pro-life is  synonymous with thinking “every sperm (or egg) is sacred. I think God is pro-life, yes, but most of the examples I see in the Bible have more to do with how we treat refugees, the poor, the enslaved, and other ostracized/marginalized people than with birth control methods. Yet there are those who have called me “false teacher” for coming to such conclusions. There are those who have instructed me to “read the Bible”, thinking that I don’t do that, or else I would surely come to the same conclusions they have. Not only do I find this kind of thing personally hurtful, I feel compelled to defend all those I know who are hurt by this kind of thinking, and also the reputation of God, which I think is being dragged through the mud. It stokes my urge to fight back- bigly.

The problem is that I realize the Syntaches to my Euodia also firmly believe they are right, and I am not only wrong, but leading others to perdition. I don’t know what the answer is, because although “here I stand; I can do no other”, I acknowledge that they probably are thinking along the same lines, with the good guys/bad guys roles reversed. I can take a little comfort from realizing that not even Paul had a solution in this case; he didn’t say one was right and the other was wrong; he just urged both of them to concentrate on what they held in common, which was their faith in Jesus as Lord.

And that’s pretty much all I think I have to say about that.

 

 

 

 

 

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Honor the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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. Exodus 20:8-11

It’s interesting that the primary requirement of the fourth commandment is not to go to church, but to rest. It’s also interesting that the prohibition against working on the Sabbath was extended to slaves, resident aliens, and even animals. The ancient Israelites seem to have been quite serious about the observance of this commandment and its violators were to be put to death. (A list of all capital crimes in the Torah can be found here.) By Jesus’s time, there was quite a body of law  which elaborated in detail just what was considered “work” and therefore prohibited. Religious people didn’t want to go anywhere God’s red line, lest they accidentally stumble across it. “The Rabbis decreed that one not only should avoid forbidden acts but also must not do anything that (1) resembles a prohibited act or could be confused with it, (2) is a habit linked with a prohibited act, or (3) usually leads to performing a prohibited act”.

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, blue laws were widely observed. These Sunday prohibitions affected most places of work and stores. Sometimes restaurants, grocery stores, drugstores, or movie theaters would open after noon on Sundays, which when you think about it, doesn’t match with the concept of a full day of rest for everyone. And what about Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and others who observed the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday? Blue laws seem to me to have been designed to encourage everyone to go to church and after that obligation was taken care of, it was back to business as usual. Even after most of the blue laws began to be repealed, there would often be prohibitions on the selling of alcohol, sometimes only until noon and sometimes all day Sunday. Where did that come from? It’s not in the Bible, and not even in the Mishnah. In fact, there is a special blessing which is said over the wine as Shabbat begins. And by the way, the Sabbath as described in the Bible begins at sunset on Friday, not at dawn on Sunday.

Jesus often found himself crossways with the most religiously observant people of his time about the meaning of the commandments, and this one was no exception. The gospels relate several instances where he healed people on the Sabbath, as well as one where he and his disciples plucked themselves a snack as they walked through a grainfield. Jesus explained his controversial actions by saying that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.It was appropriate to do good on the Sabbath because demonstrating love of neighbor took precedence over strictly observing the Sabbath rules. For Jesus, the one rule to rule them all was the rule of love. The reason God gave Moses the fourth commandment  was not to make life difficult, but to make it easier. People are not machines, and should not be used and abused as such. Extended periods of rest are essential for human well-being, and God cared enough to give a commandment instructing that they receive them. Unfortunately, then as now, people have a way to interpret rules in ways that follow the letter of the law while violating the spirit in which it was given.

I am sorry to say that I think in modern society, we violate the spirit of this commandment all the time, to our detriment and that of others. Recently, I saw a news article about a Japanese woman who literally worked herself to death by putting in massive amounts of overtime. A few years ago there was a similar case by an investment broker, as well as a rash of suicides in the financial sector.  The medical profession is notorious for demanding grueling schedules for interns and residents On the other end of the pay scale, there are many jobs which do not pay a living wage, forcing people to work two and three jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. Many retail employees do not have predictable schedules, much less a regular day of rest.  In addition to the human damage caused by unrelenting work, there are the animals who live out their brief and unhappy lives on factory farms. The Fourth Commandment prescribed a day of rest for farm animals, too.

Honor the Sabbath Day to keep it holy“. I think we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water on this one. We’ve not only tossed out the rulebook, we’ve abandoned the principle behind it as well. I’m not proposing a return to the “blue laws” of the fifties and sixties, nor of trying to follow all the detailed rules of the ultra-Orthodox. We no longer live in an agrarian, pre-industrial society, so I think God expects us to adapt the rules to our place in space and time. But the principle underlying the rules still applies, just as much now as it did thousands of years ago.

“Believe” is an Action Verb

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

“God prefers kind atheists to hateful Christians”- Internet meme

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew 21 contains another one of Jesus’s parables which is puzzling if taken out of context, but becomes more obvious when read in the context in which Matthew chose to place it.  Matthew 21 begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. The religious powers-that-be are disturbed by these events, which makes me think they knew exactly what Jesus meant by his actions, and didn’t like it. They try posing a “gotcha” question to Jesus, only to find themselves successfully deflected. If that weren’t annoying enough, he then proceeds to tell two stories which make the same point as his actions, only one of which is included in today’s reading. You really should read the whole chapter, which I’ve hyperlinked above, but here’s today’s portion:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Matthew 21:23-32

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation among most Christians today, but when I try to place myself in their shoes, I can not only understand where they were coming from, but see their counterpoints today. Most of the narrative parts of their sacred scriptures repeatedly conveyed the same message: God chose the nation of Israel to be his special people, and Moses gave them the laws God wanted them to follow. When they obeyed, good things happened and when they didn’t, bad things happened. Eventually God became fed up with their disobedience, and allowed their nation to be conquered by foreign powers, who exiled many of their people and occupied the rest. Through the crucible of the Exile, a faithful remnant decided that this must never happen again. They would be very careful to observe all the laws of Moses exactly, and make sure others did the same. Just to make sure no one got anywhere near stepping over the red lines they understood God had drawn, they would “build a fence around the Torah“. (An interesting article on the Men of the Great Assembly can be found here)

Thus it comes as no surprise that most, although not all, of the Pharisees of Jesus’s time saw him as a dangerous and heretical figure. While the Pharisees taught rules, Jesus taught the principles underlying the rules. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it”.  The word “fulfill” might better be translated “complete”. There were two great principles underlying all of the law: love of God and love of neighbor. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” And pushing the envelope a bit further, he doesn’t even mention God when he equates living by the Golden Rule as God’s overriding principle for living a righteous life: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Where the rules conflicted with the principle of love behind the rule, Jesus taught that the principle rather than the rule should be followed. He got into trouble several times for healing people on the Sabbath, for one example see the incident described here. Then there’s the incident John described, where Jesus intervened in the execution of a clearly guilty woman in direct contravention of the death penalty prescribed by Moses.    Jesus seemed to have spent a great deal of his time hanging around with the marginalized, the outcasts, and the forgotten, who flocked to his side. His harshest words were not directed to “sinners”, but to those religious zealots who drove people away from God by their words and actions. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” 

As I understand the parable of the two sons, one son represents the Pharisees, and the other son represents the motley crew of misfits Jesus seemed to attract. It is a conflict between the “old time religion” of the Pharisees and the  “new wine” religion of Jesus. Tradition has it that Mosaic law, and the oral traditions that elaborated on it, proscribed  613 rules to follow. Although the Pharisees were careful to follow the letter of these laws, they often managed to violate their spirit in self-serving ways. That’s why Jesus cast them in the role of the son who says “I obey” but whose actions don’t match his words. I have to think Jesus had people like Zaccheus and this “sinful woman”(who is often identified with Mary Magdalene but probably wasn’t) in mind in the role of the son who says “no” with his words but “yes” with his actions.  Today, I can still see those who say “No” to the demanding, punitive God portrayed by the Pharisees, but will joyfully say “Yes” to the loving, forgiving God personified by Jesus. Which one does the will of the Father? The one who says “yes, Lord” and then does as he pleases, or the one who says “no” to ossified religion and then works to bring to fruition what God wants to happen in the world?

Does God prefer kind atheists to hateful Christians? I have a number of atheist friends who are very kind, and I know some self-identified Christians who are quite mean. Or to put it another way, there are some atheists who live as though God is, and some self-identified Christians who live as though God is not. And quite a few of my atheist friends have come  to the conclusion that there is no God because of the behavior of self-identified Christians who act more like Pharisees than Jesus, and I don’t that makes God very happy. The parable implies that what you do is more important than what you say, which Jesus says clearly here:  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, it seems that there will be some surprises in the end about who’s on God’s good side and who’s on God’s bad side, and again the criteria isn’t what you say, but what you do. Going further out on a limb that some may see as heretical, I find it interesting that Jesus says, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you“. It’s interesting not only if you substitute today’s preferred scapegoat sinner groups for the tax collectors and prostitutes, but also because of the bit about those people entering “ahead of you“, implying that both groups eventually get in, although not in the expected order. Perhaps the doors to the kingdom of heaven are never slammed in anyone’s face.

The core message of both John the Baptist and Jesus was “Repent, and believe the good news“. “Repent” isn’t a feeling; it’s a change of mind and direction. “Believe” isn’t intellectual assent to a creed, but a commitment to a different way of life. As I understand the teachings of Jesus, the change of direction that is required is away from mindless dedication to rules and toward conscious application of the principle of love of God and neighbor. The commitment is not to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but to act on the belief that Jesus knew what he was talking about when it comes to the meaning of  life, the universe, and everything, and in response to follow him. And the good news is that by the grace of God personified in Jesus, the kingdom is near and here and available to all.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You Raise Me Up to Walk on Stormy Seas

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14:22-33

Part of my problem with biblical literalists is that I think they often fail to see the forest for the trees. They get hung up in trying to prove ( in the case of believers) or disprove (in the case of nonbelievers) Biblical stories, as if that were the most important thing about them. John, the writer of the fourth gospel, was very clear about the purpose of the miracle stories he chose to include in his telling of the Jesus story: miraculous events were important not because they were miraculous, but because they were “signs” attesting to who Jesus was and what the kingdom of God that he proclaimed means.

The message- or “sign”, as John might phrase it- is more important than the medium in today’s gospel reading. I think it’s also helpful to consider the context, which follows roughly the same sequence in Matthew, Mark, and John: Jesus learns of Herod’s execution of his cousin John the Baptist.. He tries to withdraw for a little alone time to process his thoughts and feelings about this horrific event, but is prevented from doing so by throngs of people wanting free healthcare. He spends the day helping them to the full extent of his powers, and when evening falls, his disciples urge him to quit for the day and send the crowds away so he can catch a break. Instead, he feels the need to provide not only free healthcare but free food, and multiplies loaves and fishes in order to feed the hungry crowds. Jesus tries again to withdraw and be by himself, but again his prayer time is interrupted, this time by his own disciples. They attempt to follow his instructions to go home and allow him some private time on the mountaintop, but get into trouble when a sudden storm arises over the Galilee. Jesus rescues his frightened disciples by walking across the stormy seas and calming the waters. Interestingly, John omits Peter’s near-drowning in his version of the the walking-on-water story.

If we try to understand these stories as “signs”, as John calls them, what are the signs telling us? First of all, Jesus cared about people- “he had compassion for them” and put their needs above his own. As Paul put it, “he, being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave born in human likeness, and made himself obedient to death, even death on a cross”.  Jesus healed sick people without asking them if they had done all the right things to keep themselves healthy. He fed hungry people without asking them why they weren’t working to earn their daily bread. And he rescued his frightened disciples from the stormy sea, including boastful, impetuous Peter, whose own impulsivity led him into trouble more than once.

Secondly, these stories tell me that God is able to do what we think may be impossible, although he generally prefers to work through people to work his wonders. As a science fiction fan, I don’t find this at all beyond the range of my imagination.  I really do not have the problem with the miracles of Jesus in the way that some of my friends do; just because I can’t understand how something might have happened doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Rather, it demonstrates my incomplete understanding of an observed or reported event. If someone living two thousand years ago were suddenly time-transported to my house today and watched me illuminate a dark room with the flick of a light switch, what might they think? Arthur C Clarke, who was not a theist, observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Maybe Jesus had an understanding of and control over reality that we haven’t figured out yet.

As the leaders of the US and North Korea engage in increasingly escalating rhetoric this week, as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and others engage in violence on the streets of Charlotte, NC today, as who know what will happen tomorrow, I can’t think of a better message to share with a frightening and frightened world than today’s gospel passage. Just as Jesus walked through the storm on the sea of Galilee, he walks toward our storm-tossed world today. I often find myself thinking like the frightened disciples, huddled in the bottom of the boat, hoping and praying that the storm will abate before I and all those I love are destroyed. Sometimes I find myself behaving like Peter, impulsively jumping overboard,  trying and failing to vanquish the oncoming storm on my own. What I ought to be doing is trying to think like Jesus. Where are there needs, and how can I help?

 

Are Souls Gendered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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