What Makes a Miracle?

Season After Pentecost, Proper 9

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.  Mark 6:1-6

Like many people, I’ve been watching and waiting anxiously for the latest news on the fate of the trapped Thai soccer team. The good news that all were safely rescued finally came today, and this quote by the Thai Navy Seals who were responsible for their rescue caught my eye: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.

The popular understanding of “miracle” generally means a supernatural event that cannot be explained scientifically. But what if that’s not an accurate definition? What if miracles are less about the “how” and more about the “why”. People often seem to focus on the mechanism by which unexpected positive outcomes occur and make them some kind of talking point to argue for or against the existence of God. Personally, I think that God quite often uses people to accomplish God’s desired positive outcomes. That doesn’t make those outcomes any less miraculous. I am reminded of a song in Fiddler on the Roof, where Motel makes the ecstatic proclamation to Tzeitel that: But of all God’s miracles large and small,  The most miraculous one of all  Is the one I thought could never be:  God has given you to me.   Motel correctly understands that his ability to summon the courage to stand up to Tevye and say that “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness” is just as miraculous an event as the sacred stories of his people.

I think this week’s passage makes an interesting observation about miracles when it observes that “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” If miracles were primarily a matter of divine intervention, I really don’t see why Jesus should have had any trouble impressing his hometown fanboys. Perhaps the problem in Nazareth is that the people didn’t recognize a miracle when they saw it. After all, Jesus did cure some sick people, but apparently that was too ordinary a thing for his critics. It makes me wonder what it was that they were hoping to see. Showers of gold falling from the sky which would make everyone in Nazareth independently wealthy? Bolts of lightning coming down from heaven and striking all the Roman soldiers and their collaborators dead? Or maybe just something entertaining, like Jesus tap dancing across the Sea of Galilee while juggling the fish that leapt into his hands?

Perhaps the problem with belief in Nazareth was not that they didn’t believe in Jesus, but that they believed wrongly about Jesus. Those kind of wrong beliefs are still going on, aren’t they? Despite what proponents of the prosperity gospel may say, Jesus didn’t come to make his followers rich. In fact, he tended to say things like “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” Despite what Constantine and his spiritual heirs have said, the sign of the cross isn’t about successful conquest, but about self-sacrifice. The kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus looks very different from the kingdoms of the world as proclaimed by the rich and powerful. The abundant life Jesus came to bring isn’t about owning or winning or having a good time, but having a meaningful life. Perhaps miracles shouldn’t be understood as the mysterious tapping into an unseen source of magic or science in order to get what we want. Perhaps miracles are best understood as God accomplishing what God desires to happen, and sometimes God does that with a little help from his friends. Perhaps one reason we don’t see miracles is that we aren’t looking for them, but maybe another  is that we aren’t cooperating with God in making them happen. Just as in Nazareth, it may be that our wrong attitudes get in the way of channelling God’s power and blessing to the intended recipients.

I think that the successful rescue of the Thai teenagers and their coach was a miracle, the kind of miracle we might witness more often if more human hearts and minds were oriented toward loving our neighbors as ourselves. I think of the selflessness of the Thai farmers whose crops were wiped out by the pumping operation that brought the water levels in the cave down. They surely took a financial hit, but news reports had them saying they could always replant their crops and that the value of human lives was a higher priority. I think about the self-sacrifice of the Thai Navy Seals, especially the one who laid down his life in an attempt to bring oxygen tanks in to the boys. I think about all the people who applied their minds to solving what seemed to be an insoluble problem, and their hearts to value someone else’s children as they valued their own. The rescue was costly in terms of money, time, and effort, but I never heard anyone count the cost and say that it wasn’t worth it.

The writer of the gospel of John uniquely used the word “sign” when referring to events the other gospel writers called “miracles”. For John, what happened and how it happened weren’t the main point of Jesus’s actions. Each “sign” was meant to convey something deeper, and I think the kind of things Jesus did show us a great deal about God’s idea about how the world ought to be.  For example. Jesus had compassion on people when he noticed they were hungry, and saw that they were fed. He had compassion on people who were sick, and healed them. We may not be able to multiply loaves and fishes or heal people with a word the way Jesus did, but sometimes I wonder if what prevents us from doing  “the works I have been doing, and  even greater things than these isn’t because we don’t have supernatural powers. It’s because we don’t care about people the way Jesus did, and therefore don’t want to spend the money, time, or effort that is needed. We count the cost, and decide it’s not worth it.

I hope and I pray that what transpired in the caves of Thailand will be a sign and an encouragement to many others to open their minds to God’s way of thinking and their hearts to God’s way of relating. What miracles then might happen! What good news that would be!

 

 

 

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The Last Lecture of Jesus

Ascension Day

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach  until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1-9

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Luke 24:45-53

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. Mark 16:15-20

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” John 21:15-19

According to the Acts passage, Jesus spent forty days following his resurrection being physically present with his followers. The gospel writers have somewhat differing accounts of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples, although the general message seems to be the same, especially insofar as Matthew and Luke/Acts are concerned. Jesus will no longer be around in human form, but he will always be with them in ways they don’t yet understand, and the disciples are commanded not only to follow his teachings, but to share them with others as well. The Markan passage, minus the snake handling and poison-drinking bits, is a little closer to what I was taught was the primary focus of the gospel: turn or burn.   However, the words attributed to Jesus by Mark do not occur in the earliest known copies of his gospel, and many scholars believe they may have been added some time later.  The last chapter of John doesn’t mention Jesus’s ascension, but a conversation with Peter where Jesus repeatedly tells Peter that the way to demonstrate his love and loyalty is by taking responsibility for the care of others. His final words to Peter, as John tells the story, are “Follow me”.

I grew up in the Baptist church, where we not only didn’t observe the liturgical calendar, we were somewhat proud of not doing so. So I don’t remember any special services or sermons commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven forty days after Easter. But oh boy, do I remember hearing about “the Great Commission”: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

In the Baptist understanding of the word, “witnessing” and the phrase “making disciples” were synonymous with what others might call “proselytizing”; that is, striving to convert people to our faith understanding. This often involved the spiritual equivalent of “cold calling”, starting a conversation along the lines of “If you were to die today do you know whether you would go to heaven or to hell?” If the person said no (and didn’t slam the actual or metaphorical door in your face) then you followed up with some version of the “Four Spiritual Laws” or used a Bible to point out the “Roman Road” ,hopefully leading the person to pray “the sinner’s prayer“, thus accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior”. But if Jesus were to physically walk among us today and observe what passes for “witnessing”, I think he might shake his head and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Jesus’s final instructions were to make disciples, which is not the same as getting someone to agree with a set of doctrinal statements or recite an incantation of magic words.  Following Jesus is a bit more demanding than that. It is a complete paradigm shift, a total change of orientation, a different way of seeing everything. For starters, it  means making an effort to act like Jesus in all our dealings with others. Jesus made it pretty clear that following him means consistently living the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Jesus didn’t seem to be as concerned with correct beliefs as many people today seem to be, and in fact warned that people could profess all the seemingly “correct” things, but not be on the same team at all. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the criteria God uses to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys is how they treated other people. There is no mention of belief in that parable, only behavior, and it seems that there are those on both sides who will be surprised by the final answer.

You will be my witnesses” isn’t a command, but a statement of fact. If Christians make the effort to “obey everything I have commanded you” (which is effectively summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) they are witnesses, and very compelling ones. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Conversely, when Christians do not make an attempt to obey the teachings of Jesus, yet claim association with him, they are not only uncompelling witnesses, but “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” because of their behavior. When it comes to “witnessing”, actions speak louder than words. Or, as the quote attributed to St. Francis goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Or, as Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The early Christians were first given that name because they had a reputation for acting…well, like Jesus.

In “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright postulates that many modern expressions of Christianity have sadly missed the mark Jesus set for us. He uses the term “platonized eschatology” to refer to the tendency to make faith in Jesus more about going to an idealized heaven after death rather than being about a way of life that also has the power to transform the world we live in. The “revolution” Wright sees Jesus as having started was to begin the Kingdom of God “on earth, as it is in heaven” in the here-and-now. The Kingdom of God would grow as a tiny mustard seed into a great tree with many nurturing branches, where all might come and find shelter. Christ’s atonement and resurrection made it possible for humans to begin to faithfully reflect the image of God in which they were created and to realize their true vocation- to join God in the task of putting right everything that has gone wrong in this world, and to enjoy the company of God and each other both here and hereafter.

As Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in the alternate universe we call heaven. As Handel envisioned in words and music, the kingdom of this world (power, money, and self-gratification) will become the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ. (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control). And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

What’s So Wrong With Stereotypes?

Second Sunday After Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”
He then added, “Very truly I tell you,you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51

(Paul wrote to Titus) One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” Titus 1:12

“Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.” -Second Doctor in “The Wheel in Space”

What’s so wrong with stereotyping? If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all do it at times. Because this behavior is so universal, social scientists believe that it must have an evolutionary advantage. It seems logical that in primitive societies, it would be very helpful to have a quick means to differentiate members of your own tribe from those of another tribe who might mean to cause you harm. Hunter-gatherers who were too friendly with strangers wandering into their territories might find themselves not surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on their trusting genes. So over the course of centuries, the tendency to mistrust strangers, especially those who are different in observable ways, becomes amplified.

Not only do we all have the tendency to make pre-judgements about people based on our stereotypes of them, we have probably also been stereotyped ourselves. My mother became friends with my third grade teacher, who moved to Alabama from Ohio and was surprised to find that her students were not all barefort and suffering from hookworm.  As a young adult in Kentucky, I shared an apartment with another young adult who was pianist in a black church. I remember meeting some of the leaders from her church who, upon hearing my Alabama accent, asked me in all sincerity if my family owned any slaves. For several years I deliberately (but unsuccessfully) strove to eliminate my deep-South accent, just so people would not make incorrect and disparaging assumptions about my intelligence, habits, or behavior. Having been the victim of stereotyping myself has made me especially sensitive to moticing it when it happens to others.

Stereotyping others is a natural, even logical behavior. But just because something is natural or logical does not necessarily make it morally or even objectively right. When Philip told Nathanael that he believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, Nathanael didn’t believe him. It seemed that people living in Bethsaida held negative stereotypes about the character of people living in Nazareth. If you were from Nazareth, you weren’t a good person. We aren’t told of the reasoning behind the stereotyping. Were they especially poor? Uneducated? Troublemakers? The text doesn’t say. What it does say is that Philip responds by telling Nathanael that he should come see for himself, and Philip does. He has a life-changing conversation with Jesus, and becomes one of his first followers. What might have happened if Nathanael, because of his preconceived ideas about people from Nazareth, hadn’t decided to come and see for himself? He would have certainly have missed out “bigly”!

Jesus seems to have paid little attention to stereotypes when it came to inviting other people to join his inner circle. From the hints we get here and there in the gospels, they seem to have been a very diverse group, ranging on the political spectrum from Matthew the tax collector to Simon the Zealot. Matthew would have viewed people like Simon as violent revolutionaries, while Simon must have viewed people like Matthew as greedy collaborators. And I like to think that both Matthew and Simon changed their opinions of each other after spending three years together on the road with Jesus. That’s usually what happens when you “come and see” for yourself rather than unquestioningly clinging to stereotypes. That’s what happened to my third grade teacher. It’s what happened to me and some of my classmates when my school was integrated in the sixties. It’s what often happens when people travel. Friendship and/or working together for a common purpose can be a very effective antidote to all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and behaviors.

I don’t think God has ever been a particular fan of stereotypes, either. As God told the prophet Samuel regarding the selection of David as king, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God definitely never bought into the “oldest, most responsible” stereotype, at least according to the Genesis stories of Abel vs Cain, Isaac vs Ishmael, Jacob vs Esau, and Joseph and his many older brothers. Stereotypes are not just mistaken, but sinful when they prevent us from doing things God has repeatedly commanded us to do. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. Where stereotypes collide with the practice of compassion, it’s pretty clear to me which one God prefers. And if we choose obedience to behaviors prescribed by a stereotype rather than obedience to behaviors God prescribes, isn’t that dangerously close to idolatry?

There are times when stereotypes may serve a useful purpose, but they should always be viewed with suspicion. When stereotypes are never questioned, they can be very harmful to the stereotyper as well as the stereotypee. Nathanael would never have met Jesus if he hadn’t been willing to “come and see” for himself.  Furthermore, stereotyping by one group usually leads to counter-stereotyping by the other group in an escalating spiral.  Walls between the two groups are thrown up higher and higher, until they eventually come tumbling down, crushing everyone in the vicinity.

“Come and see” is still pretty good advice. As I understand it, God is more interesting in taking down walls than putting them up. I think he wants us to join him in his efforts. And that’s good news to me.

Epiphany: God is Still Speaking

First Sunday after Epiphany

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11

On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3

The dictionary definition of “epiphany” is “an appearance or manifestation.” It can refer to a God-sighting, but it can also mean a sudden new understanding of reality, of seeing something in a way it has not been seen before. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany usually commemorates the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The epiphany here is that God is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But in Eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany focuses on the baptism of Jesus, as God spoke in affirmation of his pride in and relationship to Jesus. So the occasion of Jesus’s baptism could also be described as a theophany , a visible manifestation of deity.

All four gospels describe this event, which marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to me that Mark’s gospel doesn’t waste any time getting down to business.  Unlike the other synoptic writers, Mark includes no long genealogies, no stories about Jesus’s conception, birth, infancy, or childhood.  Mark gives a brief summary of who John the Baptist was and what he was doing, devotes only  a couple of sentences to Jesus’s baptism, and unlike Matthew or Luke, doesn’t try to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized. There’s some question about exactly who was able to hear God’s voice. In the Markan passage, it seems to be only Jesus who hears God speak, but in the gospel according to John, both Jesus and John the Baptist hear it.  Matthew and Luke don’t specify an audience for the theophany.

I believe that God is still speaking, although not in the ways that some people think. I don’t think God tells any politician to run for office, and I don’t think God tells any popular religious figure to extort money from their followers either as a proof of faith or as an investment opportunity. I don’t think God favors a particular team at a sporting event, not even when it comes to Alabama football. Not all the voices in your head are from God. Just because a thought comes into your mind does not mean it is God speaking, and just because someone says they’ve heard from God doesn’t mean they actually have. The writer of 1 John warns his readers  “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God“. John goes on to say that Jesus is the criteria for determining whether a “spirit” (which I understand as a thought or idea, not a phantasmic entity) is from God. As I understand John’s words, “confessing Jesus has come in the flesh” means more than intellectual assent to a particular creed. It means that a person has had an epiphany about the nature of God: God is like Jesus. God is not what some atheists like to call “an angry sky god” out to punish anyone who steps a toe outside an arbitrary line. God is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out presents to good little boys and girls while the bad ones get lumps of coal. God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings when the right prayers or offerings are properly inserted. Rather, God is a force of love, love that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, and if you want to see what that love is like, look at Jesus. If you want to hear the voice of God, listen to what Jesus has to say…the “red letters” in some Bibles. And since actions usually speaker louder and more clearly than words, look at what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He brought hope to people who felt they had no hope, especially those rejected by the religious establishment and oppressed by the civil government.

It is unfortunate that people use portions of the Bible to justify wrong ideas they have developed about God, and then claim that they are speaking for God. I like the way the writer of the Hebrews passage above puts it: the Bible contains the testimony of many different people living in many different times, who tried to put what they heard God saying into words. But it is Jesus, not Moses, David, or the prophets, who is “the exact representation” of God’s nature, meaning Jesus has the last, most complete words. When it comes to understanding God, Jesus is the lodestone and the North Star. “What would Jesus do?” ought to be more than an outdated bumper sticker. It’s a question anyone who really wants to hear the voice of God, and not just the echoes of their own minds, ought to ask.

God is not at all like the way he is portrayed by some of the people who claim they have heard his voice. God is like Jesus, who personified self-giving love. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.