Jesus Wept

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Jesus wept. John 11:35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us

Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm is a favorite of mine, and one of the first scripture passages I memorized as a child. I learned it in the King James version, because that’s what everyone used back then, and although I prefer more modern translations for my everyday reading, when I hear the words of Psalm 23 in my head, they’re always in the KJV. It’s a comforting psalm for me, as it is for many, and perhaps there’s a psychological factor in going back to the poetic language I first heard as a child. In times of stress and anxiety, I will go back to this psalm time and time again. These days, I find myself reciting it on at least a daily basis. We are certainly living in “interesting times” with the coronavirus pandemic spreading exponentially and the resultant economic dominoes falling everywhere.

I ventured out to the grocery store today (during off-hours, wearing gloves, wiping down the cart handles with disinfectant wipes, and trying to stay at least six feet away from other customers). I saw for myself the empty shelves that have been endlessly featured on the news. As I understand it, people are buying in large quantities because they fear being up the proverbial creek without toilet paper. And it’s not just paper products and cleaning supplies…the cereal aisle, canned food aisle, and many others were cleaned out too! Everyone seems to be operating from a mentality of scarcity: there won’t be enough, so I’d better get mine while I still can. But the kingdom of God isn’t a zero-sum game. The kingdom of God doesn’t operate from a mentality of scarcity, but one of abundance, as Jesus tried to demonstrate when he fed the multitudes.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters“. The KJV is deceptive here, because “want” here doesn’t mean desire, but refers to having the necessities of life. Desire is never satisfied, and getting everything we want isn’t what God promises, despite the misuse by some of Psalm 37:4, “delight thyself in the Lord and he will give thee the desires of thine heart” Too often the focus is on the second part of the sentence rather than the first. Those who “delight themselves in the Lord” usually find that the desires of their hearts change significantly. They find themselves desiring less for themselves, being more grateful for what they have, and sharing more with others. The problem with a mentality of scarcity is that it encourages hoarding, which initiates a vicious cycle: more hoarding causes more scarcity, which causes more hoarding. As Gandhi observed, “the earth has enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” When the Lord is our shepherd, we will operate from a mentality of abundance, not one of scarcity, and there will be enough for all.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” In this time of disrupted routines and prescribed social distancing, I find myself having more time to spend with God, and finding it more meaningful. Spending time with God calms my fears about the future in a way I can’t explain, but to which I can attest. The problem with following news updates 24/7 is that it amplifies feelings of helplessness. It’s like being in the middle of one of one of those bad dreams where something is chasing you and when you try to run, you are moving in slow motion. Psychologists tell us that whenever so much seems out of our control, we need to concentrate on what we can control. We can’t control the course of this virus, nor its effect on the economy., or what other people do or don’t do. As Tolkien put it,  “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That sounds pretty close to what the psalmist is telling us here. Whenever the word “righteousness” is used in the Bible, it almost always has to do with how we treat other people. And that’s something we very much can control. When the Lord is our shepherd, we will treat others the way we would like to be treated: with respect, kindness, and generosity.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Note that God doesn’t promise us we won’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death; he promises us that we don’t have to fear it because he is with us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As I understand it, the rod and staff of ancient shepherds were primarily instruments of guidance and protection, not instruments of punishment. Otherwise why would the psalmist find their presence comforting? The word “comfort” is associated with giving strength. When the Lord is our shepherd, we are strengthened by the assurance that God is present with us, always.

Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The banquet imagery here repeats the psalmist’s understanding of both the presence of God no matter what we have to face, and the mindset of abundance rather scarcity. I understand the overflowing cup of wine metaphorically rather than literally. Wine is often used in the Bible as a symbol of joy, and I think that is what the psalmist means to convey. The glass isn’t half-full or half-empty. When the Lord is our shepherd, our glass is overflowing.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever‘” I have quite a few friends who are atheist or agnostic. For some of them who grew up hearing stories of an angry god ready to rain down fire and brimstone on those who stick a toe over an arbitrary line, a non theistic worldview comes as a relief. But some of them also have a fear of the nothingness of death, and some of them wrestle with paralyzing existential angst. When God is our shepherd, we don’t have to fear the end of the world as we know it, or even death itself. When God is our shepherd, however long or short our lives may be, we can know meaning and purpose playing our small part in a greater story. When God is our shepherd, we can be assured that death will not be the end of our existence, nor will we remain separated from those we have loved and lost forever.

And that’s good news to me!

 

 

Gaslighting the Woman at the Well

Third Sunday in Lent, Year A

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John 4:5-42

The story John tells of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well is an interesting one on many levels. As with the conversation with Nicodemus about being born again, the reader is likely to find humor in the woman’s literal take on Jesus’s metaphorical language about living water. But unlike Nicodemus, the woman was not respected in her community due to her multiple failed marriages, and has developed an even worse reputation over the intervening centuries. Like Mary Magdalene, she has often been portrayed as an especially bad sinner, with the blanks scripture leaves in her story filled in by prurient imaginations. But consider that it’s entirely possible that she may have been more victim than sinner. In this place and time in history, divorce was something that could be done only at the initiative of the husband. Therefore, her five husbands must have either died or divorced her. And at this time adultery was punishable by death, so I doubt she was guilty of marital unfaithfulness.

The fact that she had come to draw water from the well at high noon rather than in the cool of the early morning or evening is an indication that she had reason to want to avoid people. Why would that be? Perhaps she was tired of hearing unkind gossip or speculation about her marital history or status. Perhaps she had begun to doubt her own character as a result. What was wrong with her that five husbands had either died or divorced her, and that she wasn’t married to her sixth partner? Was she cursed by God? Some kind of jinx? I can’t help help but think of the story of Tamar, who had lost only two husbands, and consequently wasn’t allowed to marry Judah’s third son because Judah thought he might die too.  In their cultural milieu, neither Tamar nor the unnamed woman at the well had any good options without a male relative to support them. Perhaps she, like Tamar, made the best choice she could in a no-win scenario.

In the Genesis story, Tamar isn’t condemned for tricking Judah into impregnating her; in fact Judah admitted that it was he who had done her wrong. Interestingly, although usually only paternal ancestors are named in biblical genealogies,  Tamar shows up in Matthew’s genealogy as an ancestor of both David and Jesus. And it’s similarly interesting to note that while Jesus acknowledges the facts of this Samaritan woman’s life situation, he doesn’t condemn her for it either. He doesn’t say “go and sin no more” or “your sins are forgiven” as he does in other situations. Instead, he engages her in a robust theological conversation about the nature of God!

Another interesting point about this story is that Jesus apparently didn’t have a problem with meeting alone with a woman thought to have a questionable reputation for fear that doing so might damage his reputation. Not only that, she was a Samaritan woman, and he asked to drink from her water jar. John’s parenthetical comment about Jews and Samaritans not sharing things in common reminds me of the white and colored water fountains I remember seeing in my youth.  Jesus wasn’t concerned about catching Samaritan cooties by drinking from the same water jar, and he wasn’t worried about being falsely accused of inappropriate behavior by the woman.

Following her conversation with Jesus, the woman is so excited by what she has learned about God that she abandons social restraint along with her water jar and runs into town to share what she understands to be very good news. She turns out to be a rather successful evangelist, and because of her words, many of her neighbors come to know God and follow Jesus. This last piece is especially meaningful to me because I’ve been told that certain roles in the church are biblically proscribed for me as a woman. It took me a long time to get to the place where I understand that just because someone tells me I shouldn’t teach or (gasp!) preach about what I believe to be good news- that doesn’t mean that God thinks that way. I guess that’s why I can empathize so much with my nonbinary friends who have had church doors slammed in their faces, and who think God must reject them too.

The woman at the well may have been a victim of gaslighting by her community and by history, but that’s not the end of the story. Jesus offers himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” out of entanglement in the web of lies spun by others as well as that of our own self-deceptions. The truth is that God doesn’t reject anybody, and God can use anybody who is willing to share God’s love. The metaphorical well of living water is freely available to all who ask for a drink, and there are no “white” and “colored” fountains there.

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born Again

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Devil’s Bargain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen, and peace be with you.

Jesus’s Unanswered Prayer

Third Sunday After Epiphany, Year A

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

As John remembers it, one of the last prayers Jesus prayed as he prepared himself to go to the cross was for the unity of all believers. “My prayer is not for them [the original disciples] alone. 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.”

It didn’t take long for the realization to sink in that we haven’t done so well in that regard. And yes, I say “we”, because I believe the purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind about something, but to change our minds so that they are in tune with God’s. The purpose of prayer is not to get God to do something for us, but for us to become so connected to God that we serve as extensions of God’s will. We become God’s hands, feet, and mouth. So, if Jesus’s prayer for his followers was not answered, it’s not because God wasn’t listening to Jesus. It’s because we’re not listening to God, and as Paul warned the Corinthians, that has serious consequences.

Since the time of Jesus and of Paul, the followers of Jesus have continued to have disagreements about doctrine and practice that have caused Christianity to splinter exponentially into thousands of denominations and sects., many of whom are convinced that their adherents alone hold the keys to the kingdom. In his prayer, Jesus postulated that if his followers were as closely connected to each other as he was to God, others would come to believe that Jesus was who he said he was and that God loved them too. Paul knew that the converse was also true, which is why he warned the squabbling Corinthians that their behavior might result in a loss of credibility. He begged them to be united in mind and purpose so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

That certainly appears to be what has happened, and is still happening. And not only that, terrible- I would say “unChristian”- things have occured due to arguments over doctrine and practice. History is bloody with accounts of people being tortured and killed over theological differences.  Although I do not agree with them, I certainly understand the thinking of my atheist friends who think the world would be better off without theology of any kind. I don’t know if Jesus and/or Paul were “I told you so” types, but as a matter of fact, they did warn us.

What’s the solution? It might help if we who identify ourselves as followers of Christ would get back to basics…that is the message of the cross. The earliest Christian confession seems to have simply been “Jesus is Lord“, although Paul elaborates on what that means a little more in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, (Corinthians)

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,  for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.(Romans)

Note what’s not included. And that would be….most of the stuff that has caused, and is still causing arguments about who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom of God. That goes for both doctrine and practice. As I understand it, the only doctrinal absolute is “Jesus is Lord” and the only practical absolute is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.United in mind and purpose” does not mean it is necessary for all Christians to interpret the Bible in exactly the same way, nor even to adhere to the same set of inflexible rules of behavior. ” It means we are united in a commitment to Jesus as Lord, and it means we are united in the purpose of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus is Lord” that means I am not, and neither is anybody else. I may not have all the correct answers, but neither does any other human being. God alone has all the answers, and Jesus is the only one qualified to judge human motivation and behaviors. Paul advised believers to “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good purpose” Although “fear and trembling” here might be better understood as “respect and awe”, it still carries the meaning that saying “Jesus is Lord” is a serious and personal commitment, one that cannot be taken lightly, nor left to the interpretation of others. Exactly how God “works in you to will and to act on behalf of his good purpose” is different for every person. God didn’t create us to be Cybermen, automatons marching in lockstep and devoid of individuality. Many gifts, one Spirit, but united in one purpose: love.

Jesus is Lord” is not a magical phrase, the spiritual equivalent of saying “open sesame” to open the entrance to the kingdom of God. “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.” In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Jesus elaborates on this idea by saying that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Those who commit to Jesus as Lord put their faith into action by continually asking themselves “what would Jesus do” if he lived in my place in space, time, and culture.

I think all who identify as Christians can agree on the core belief “Jesus is Lord” and the core behavior “do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. That’s good news to me, and I think it is the news a broken and hurting world needs to hear.

 

 

 

 

 

No Limits

Second Sunday After Pentecost


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

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Acts 2:17, quoting from Joel 2:28

During the most recent Southern Baptist Convention, a great deal of controversy arose when the popular (and very conservative) Christian Bible teacher Beth Moore mentioned that she would be giving the message on Mother’s Day at her home church. The objections came from those who think that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Timothy prohibit women from speaking in church. But there are other passages, like the Galatians passage that is part of today’s lectionary reading, that pretty clearly seem to say just the opposite. The Spirit blows wherever it pleases, and it pleases to flow to all sorts of people. It refuses to be confined to manmade boundaries. You can’t put limits on who God calls to speak God’s truth, any more than you can put limits on the Spirit.

I have to wonder why the men who came to this particular conclusion, out of everything in the Bible, chose to base their reasoning on these two verses, and seemingly ignore the many other places in the Bible where women do take leadership roles, including exercising authority over men and speaking for God. The stories of Deborah in the time of the Judges and of Huldah, advisor to King Josiah, are but two examples, and let’s not forget that the first witnesses to the Resurrection were women. Paul himself seems to offer contradictory advice, not only among his different letters, but sometimes even within the same letter. For example, in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women are not permitted to speak, but in chapter 11, he gives instructions for how women who speak should dress. Paul offers many other instructions on proper church behavior for both women and men which are widely ignored. Men should have short hair and women should have long hair. Men shouldn’t wear hats in church, but women should. Women shouldn’t wear makeup or jewelry.

The picture above is very interesting to me. It is one example of very early Christian art found in Italian catacombs, which date to the second and third centuries AD. A woman, thought to be Mary, stands with her arms raised in what is termed a “liturgical pose”, with the four gospels on either side of her. A picture is worth a thousand words, and that was probably even more true in pre-literate societies. It sure looks to me like she is assuming a leadership and instructional role. There’s also quite a few interesting stories of female leaders in extracanonical literature of the same time period. (more here)

I don’t see how any serious student of the Bible can long toe the current Southern Baptist line, and I am continually amazed by the theological contortions people will go through in order to harmonize contradictory instructions in order to make them apply across all time and space. (For example; one man suggested that it was okay for a woman to give the Sunday message if it was bookended by a man introducing her and giving concluding remarks after her message) Serious students of the Bible read the Bible enough to recognize “proof-texting” when it happens. Not only is it wrong to take verses out of their immediate context, they must be considered in relation to the culture that produced them and to the rest of the Bible. If you don’t consider context holistically, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say. There’s an old joke about one frustrated scholar explaining this by saying “read this (Judas went and hung himself) and now this (Go thou and do likewise)”

Baptists have it right when they encourage people to read the Bible regularly. I am amazed at the biblical ignorance that is seems to be epidemic today, and I am grateful that I grew up in a tradition that stressed continuing Bible study as important for all ages. Traditionally, Baptists also emphasize the importance of a personal experience with God, out of which grows the concept of the “priesthood of the believer”. Christians relate directly to God, without the need for another human to mediate that relationship. That means that we are able to interpret and apply the Bible for ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And as I read and consider the Bible, the whole Bible, in its cultural context, along with my own personal experience, I come to a very different conclusion about the proper role for women in the church.

I think that the proper role for women is to do whatever God has called them to do. And I think that those who would attempt to prevent women from answering that call are in a rather precarious position, for they oppose not women, but God.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. There is no superior gender, ethnicity, or social status as far as God is concerned. And that’s good news to me.

One, Two, Three…Infinity

Trinity Sunday, Year C

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-15

Let’s play a little word association game. When you hear the word “God” what is the first word that comes to your mind? If you ask different people, you will get many different responses, because God is complicated. How we understand God depends an awful lot on our own experiences. It’s like the story about the blind men and the elephant. The one who touched the trunk thought it was like a snake, the one who touched the tusk thought it was like a spear, the one who touched a leg thought it was like a tree, and so forth. Due to their visual limitations and the size of the elephant, they could not see the whole elephant at once, and each came to a limited understanding of what an elephant is like.

We are in the same boat when it comes to understanding God, for God is infinite and our minds are finite. Moses tried to pin down God by asking “what is your name?” and God wasn’t having it. “I AM WHO I AM” was the only answer given. As Paul later put it, we see God “through a glass darkly” We keep trying to put God in boxes of our own understanding, and He won’t fit.

The Bible uses a lot of different metaphors to try and explain God. God is often compared to a father, and that’s the term Jesus used when he taught his disciples to pray. But God is also compared to a woman in labor and a nursing mother. God is called King of Kings and Mighty Warrior, but God is also described as a shepherd, a gardener, and a potter.

All these, and more, are true at the same time, and none of them gives a complete picture of God. Metaphors can only go so far in describing the indescribable. If you fixate on certain ones and exclude the others, if you try to take the metaphorical literally, or if you rely too much on your own understanding of them, you will have at best an incomplete and at worst a harmful understanding of God. In other words, you will have bad theology, and theology matters.

Bad theology often leads to bad actions as people desperately try to please not the real God, but the god of their imaginations. Often that is a scary picture, what my atheist friends like to disparage as “an angry sky god” ready to dish out the lightening bolts whenever we step out of line. And as Yoda has said, fear is the path to the dark side.

History is replete with examples of this. If you believe that God hates all those who worship differently, you wind up with Charlemagne forcing conversions at the point of a sword, and the Crusades. If you believe that God hates heresy, you wind up with the Spanish Inquisition, and the bloody Catholic/Protestant internecine warfare that swept through Europe. If you believe that God cursed some races to perpetually serve other races, you wind up with centuries of enslaved black Americans. If you believe God rejected the Jews because they rejected Christ, you wind up with pogroms and the Holocaust and that young man who went into a synagogue and started shooting people as they prayed. No, we can’t ignore bad theology.

I think the concept of God as Trinity is a helpful way to combat our human tendency to limit God in ways that fester into bad theology. God is one, yet God is also three. If that makes your head hurt, that’s because it is a paradox that helps get us out of our boxes of binary thinking. God is our Father, the creator and sustainer of the universe, but God is also the Son, the God who became human in the person of Jesus, and God is also the Holy Spirit, the God who is within us and permeates all living things. God is all of these things at the same time. Here are a couple more metaphors: Like a fidget spinner in motion, we can’t focus on one to the exclusion of the others. They are not all the same, but they all work together to accomplish the purposes of God. Like the Three Musketeers, “All for one, and one for all”.

The purposes of God are always driven by love. We know this because that’s what Jesus taught us, and that’s what Jesus lived. Jesus was the embodiment of God on earth. When Phillip asked Jesus what God was like, Jesus responded “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being“. You learn what God is like by looking at and listening to Jesus.

Jesus taught that God’s Prime Directive is love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Jesus lived a life of love. Whenever he met some one he could help, he did, and in every way possible: physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And he took that love to the last full measure of devotion. “Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” and that’s what Jesus did for us. “He being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and was obedient to death, even death on a cross.

The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love Jesus showed us, the kind of love God has for us, takes a lifetime to even begin to learn. And the way that we learn it is by listening to the Holy Spirit, that voice of God’s truth that lives within us, and is continually pulsing with the drumbeat of God’s love.

The tongues of fire that descended at Pentecost and enabled people speaking different languages to understand Peter’s sermon were only the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work in teaching us what God’s love is like, and how that love ought to be applied in real life.

We go on in Acts to read about Peter’s dream of the great sheet of clean and unclean animals, of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, and the proceedings of the Jerusalem council, all of which welcomed those previously excluded into God’s family. The Holy Spirit helped the new Christians learn that God wants to be God of all people, not just God of a select few lucky enough to born into a good, Hebrew-speaking Jewish home. They began to learn that God’s love is inclusive, not exclusive. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God’s love is for everybody. It doesn’t depend on ethnic or cultural origin, social status, gender, or anything else.

The Holy Spirit lead the early Christians to understand that love of God and love of others were inextricably linked. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whosoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

They learned to interpret the scriptures they’d read all their lives in new ways. They learned that God didn’t care much about purity rules “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” but cared an awful lot about how they treated other people. “The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Here’s the kicker: The Holy Spirit didn’t stop guiding us into truth at the conclusion of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is still working on that, and God is still speaking to those who have ears to listen, and to learn. We’re still learning about God, and how God wants us to apply that love in a world that desperately needs it.

There is a great deal of symbolism in this 15th century artist’s depiction of Trinity. What’s most interesting about it to me is the little square between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit’s feet, which has been found to contain glue residue. Some art historians believe that the square once held a mirror. Do you see the symbolism there? God is inviting the observer to the table of fellowship. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter how you identify yourself, YOU are welcome here.

(I got the idea for the liturgy of welcome I used in church from here, and adapted it to fit our congregation.)

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, God in three persons, united in infinite love. Creating, sustaining, redeeming, teaching, guiding, and comforting, all in the name of love. The circles of God’s inclusive love keep expanding wider and wider, and it is our joy to be a part of that process, until that day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” and all are joined together in that great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God.

Mourning Tabitha

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

Quick Bible trivia question: Who was Tabitha?
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In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. Acts 9:36-43

We have an ancient (well, 1984 is practically ancient) edition of a board game, which is labeled “Bible Trivia:Where the Trivia is Not Trivial” Some of the “correct” answers given are debatable. What was your answer to my question about Tabitha? Did you answer “a woman Peter raised from the dead”, or did you answer “a woman known for doing good and helping those in need?

At least in the Southern Baptist culture in which I grew up, the answer would have definitely been the former. The emphasis would have been on Peter, and how he demonstrated the power of God by performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus did. Great emphasis would have also been placed on the evangelistic results of the miracle. In most sermons I heard dealing with this event, Tabitha herself seemed to be a mere prop in the story, a cipher of a woman important mainly for the role she played in advancing the message of the gospel.

But Tabitha wasn’t a cipher. She was doing exactly what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: using the talents and resources that she had to help others. She was greatly loved and greatly missed by all those she had helped. Had she not made such an impact on others, had their grief at her passing not been so vocal, would Peter have even been there to to perform his show-stopping miracle? Why is it that when most people remember the story, they remember Peter more than Tabitha?

One answer might be that Peter is a man, doing manly things like public preaching, and Tabitha is a woman, doing womanly things like sewing. and of course, most of the Bible was written by men. I’m afraid there is some truth in that. There were women who traveled with Jesus and provided financial support for his ministry, yet not nearly so many stories about them as there are about Jesus’s male disciples. There were women at the foot of the cross who watched Jesus die, while most of his male disciples had scattered into hiding. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women who had gone to Jesus’s tomb to perform a last (womanly?) service of caring for his body. In general, there are not nearly as many stories in the Bible of women of faith as there are of men of faith, and those we do have are often lacking in detail. Not only that, but in some cases the gender identity of prominent female disciples has been erased (Junia became Junias in some translations), or their moral character impugned.(Mary Magdalene) I’m sorry that we don’t know more about Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied, Phoebe , Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla (who some think may have written Hebrews) or the anonymous “chosen lady” in 2 John.

There’s another answer, and that’s that the human mind is naturally drawn to the novel, the unusual, and the showy, overlooking the ordinary moments which make up the bulk of our lives. “Man bites dog” makes the newspaper; “dog bites man” doesn’t. Raising someone from the dead definitely falls into the “man bites dog” category. It’s just not something you see every day. And although the human mind works that way, I think the mind of God sees things somewhat differently.

Jesus repeatedly taught variations on the theme of “the last shall be first, and the first last“. When he observes a poor widow putting her last two cents into the offering plate, he tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” He tells his squabbling disciples that the way to greatness lies in servanthood. and that ” it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The hero of his story about the Good Samaritan is not the expected religious leaders who play important roles in the life of God’s people, but a nobody, an outsider, a cipher. During his last night on earth, Jesus assumed the role of the lowliest of servants, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his disciples to go and do likewise, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. He bluntly warns that God’s idea of what is most important isn’t necessarily what tends to catch human attention. “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!

God isn’t more interested in man-bites-dog stories than in dog-bites-man stories. In fact, I doubt God is pleased with stories about biting anybody or anything. I think God would prefer stories about dogs that help humans, or humans that help dogs. God wants us to do good wherever and whenever we can, and God is more concerned about the intent behind our actions than how big or small it might be. Yes, God was pleased by what Peter was able to do, but God was equally pleased by what Tabitha was able to do. Both Peter and Tabitha were channels of God’s spirit of healing and love.

I mourn for all the Tabithas, those who are overlooked and their stories forgotten, whether it is because of their gender or because their acts of kindness are considered ordinary. But God doesn’t overlook or forget anyone. We are all important and beloved by God, and God notices the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And that’s good news to me.