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.






Thou Shalt Not Kill

“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering- Yoda

God is pro-life.

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, let me explain what I mean by that. When it comes to “pro-life”, as  Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”.  As it is commonly used today, the term has become associated with those who believe abortion, and sometimes even birth control, should be outlawed. I tend to agree with Sister Joan Chittister, who observed “that’s not pro-life; that’s pro-birth” and take a much broader view of the term. When I say God is pro-life, I mean that God cares about the welfare of every living part of his creation. That includes every single human being on the planet, as well as animals, plants, and the environment that sustains them. To be “pro-life” means to actively advocate for all of the above and to stand in opposition to the social Darwinism that causes some lifeforms to be designated winners and others losers. In terms of the elephant I just let out into the room, I believe the best way to reduce the number of abortions is through a combination of comprehensive sex education, access to affordable, effective methods of birth control, and a robust social safety net.

On the other side of the (usually) political spectrum from the advocates of abortion restriction  are the advocates for gun restriction. It never has made theological sense to me than generally folks are anti-choice and pro-gun, or pro-choice and anti-gun. It seems to me that a consistent pro-life position would be opposed to the proliferation of both abortions and guns.  You can’t say out of one side of your mouth that abortion restrictions are effective in preventing deaths, and out of the other say that gun restrictions are ineffective in preventing deaths. This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment or Roe vs. Wade, or even one’s premise of when life begins; it has to do with logic. I am also unconvinced by the use of statistics which compare the number of gun deaths to the number of deaths by abortion. (If you haven’t read “How to Lie With Statistics” yet, I highly recommend it.) Too often statistical arguments are red herrings which serve only to cause arguments about whose cause is worthier, and which accomplish nothing to solve the problem.

The first murder recorded in the Bible is the killing of Abel by his brother Cain. This is not an auspicious start for humanity, if you consider that with only four people introduced into the story so far, one decides to kill another. Genesis 4 relates that Cain became jealous, apparently because he thought that God always liked his brother best. God says to Cain,  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” It’s always a good idea to pay attention when God tells you something, especially if you are hoping to win God’s favor like Cain supposedly was. Instead, he allowed his fear of inadequacy to fester into anger. Instead of controlling his emotions, Cain was controlled by them. His anger spiraled into hate, which is not an emotion, but a choice to ruminate on a negative emotion. He then made a further bad choice to deliberately act on his hate by waylaying and killing his brother. And as Yoda might have predicted, great suffering was the result- for his brother, his parents, himself, and for the God who cared for both Cain and Abel.

Jesus warned his followers that murder begins in the heart. In Biblical references, the heart was not the seat of the emotions but of the will…we might say “mindset”. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Jesus lists a series of escalating consequences as a person moves further and further toward the dark side. Anger is a natural human emotion, but it’s also dangerous because it can lead to hurtful behaviors.   A person might impulsively say words they don’t mean, but which cause deep wounds. Name calling is a symptom of contempt; when you call someone “raca” or “fool” you are moving into dangerous territory. If you believe that someone is worthless compared to you, anything goes….even murder. “Be angry and sin not. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, advises Paul. I take that to mean “don’t let anger fester and infect you with hate. Don’t ruminate on the wrongs you perceive have been done unto you.” Certainly, there are examples of “righteous anger” in the Bible, such as Jesus chasing the money changers out of the Temple, but generally speaking when that occurs, it’s on behalf of others who are being hurt, not the feeling of being wronged oneself. If it’s you who are feeling wronged, it’s a good clue that your anger may be steering you down a dangerous path.

Thou shalt not kill“. There’s so much more to being “pro-life” than we realize, and this commandment just scratches the surface. I’ve touched on two hot-button topics here, but  haven’t even mentioned so many others. I haven’t talked about deaths as a result of war, or the prison system, or lack of healthcare, or unjust economic systems that designed to benefit the good of the few at the expense of the many. But I have hope that despite everything we do that is pro-death, God is pro-life. And as Malcom said in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way.



Jonah, Jesus, and Grace

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“We’re all stories in the end, eh? Make it a good one.” -The Doctor

I love stories and those with the imagination to tell them, for stories often convey deep and lasting truth in ways that couldn’t be communicated in any other way. Because stories approach the truth obliquely, I’m often left remembering and pondering and wondering long after they have reached their conclusions.  There are certain books and movies that I enjoy reading or watching repeatedly. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter series (especially Deathly Hallows) or watched Star Trek IV, or certain Doctor Who episodes. The new Wonder Woman movie will probably wind up on my repeat list, too. But it’s not because I believe that there is a parallel wizarding world, or that time travel is possible, or that superheroes with fantastical powers walk among us. Those parts of the stories are just window dressing on the truth, and if you are distracted by the curtains, you will miss the main point.

This week’s lectionary readings contain two stories that I see as using different window dressings to communicate the reality of God’s grace. The first story is from Jonah and as I wrote last year, isn’t primarily about a big fish.  God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and warn them if they don’t change their ways, they will be destroyed. Jonah doesn’t want to do this, and takes some convincing to go, but eventually does what God asks. The people take his warnings seriously, which makes him mad because he wanted to see them destroyed. That’s where today’s reading picks up the story:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The second story is one Jesus tells his disciples, but if taken at face value it is difficult to understand and makes little sense.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can certainly understand why the day laborers who worked twelve hours would be resentful of the ones who only worked one. And wouldn’t the landowner be setting a bad precedent for next year’s harvest hires? Isn’t this kind of treatment akin to (gasp!) socialism? What exactly was Jesus trying to tell us?

The traditional interpretation of the story is that it’s about heaven: the one who makes a deathbed confession winds up in the same afterlife as someone who has been a faithful follower since childhood. I don’t disagree with that thinking, but I think there must be something more to the story. Jesus talked about “the kingdom of heaven” quite a lot, often using stories and metaphors. In most of these instances, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by; he was talking about something that was immanently present. So how does this story fit in with all the other stories Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven? And how is it similar to the Jonah story?

If you take away the draperies from the stories of Jonah and the laborers in the vineyard, you can see God’s grace through the window. The truth of the Jonah story is that God’s love is for everyone, even those who we think must be God’s enemies because they are our enemies. The truth of the laborers in the vineyard story is that God’s love isn’t something we can earn. It doesn’t depend on us, but on God. In both stories God’s faithful servants aren’t particularly portrayed positively. They whine that God is unfair and they are not appreciated for their efforts. They expect God to think and behave like human beings usually do: quid pro quo, tit for tat, and you shouldn’t get something for nothing. Sometimes, God’s most faithful servants are the least aware of God’s grace. Like the proud Pharisee in another story Jesus tells, they think that God’s grace is something they earn through good behavior. But it doesn’t work that way, and following that line of reasoning leads you farther away, not nearer, to God. God’s grace is for Jonah and the Ninevites, for the early and late workers in the vineyard, and for Pharisee and publican alike. And it’s only when you realize that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace that you can begin to really experience it. Or as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God’s love, demonstrated through God’s grace, is beyond rational comprehension and stretches to infinity and beyond. And that’s good news to me!




Nahum: The Wrath of God Revealed

The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
8 but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The short book of Nahum describes what Jonah was hoping would happen to Nineveh: No mention or chance of repentance is given: an angry God is completely fed up and completely destroys them. God’s wrathful vengeance obliterates them, and is described in detail worthy of an imaginative Hollywood thriller movie.

It’s interesting to read Jonah and Nahum side by side, for they present quite different understandings of God. In Jonah, love wins. God won’t give up until he has brought his most recalcitrant and fallen creatures into his kingdom. In Nahum, justice wins. The bad guys get what is justly coming to them, and everybody should be happy because they got what they deserved. So which view is correct?

My understanding is that perhaps both views are true, in kind of a Schrödinger’s cat paradox. I’m not sure that from our limited perspective, we can understand the mind of God. How can God be completely just and completely loving at the same time? Don’t these qualities contradict each other? Job certainly understood that dilemma, and found it to be a question that could not be answered by reason, but which could be understood only through relationship.

The best understanding I’ve read (and I wish I could remember where I read it so I could credit the author) is that God’s wrath is really God’s love, seen from a different point of view. Seen from the side of the oppressor, God is acting in punitive anger. Seen from the side of the oppressed, God is acting in liberating love. What the Egyptian slavemasters saw as an expression of God’s wrath, the liberated Hebrews saw as an expression of God’s mercy. This motif is repeated again and again in the Bible, and I think it has continued throughout history for those with eyes to see it.

When the Bible seems to speak with many voices, I don’t see them as contradictions, but as different perspectives. Just because we have difficulty holding two different attributes in our mind at the same time doesn’t mean they aren’t both true. God is both great and good. And that’s good news to me.






Jonah: More than a Fish Story

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

Jonah is one of my favorite Bible stories, and it’s not about a big fish. Personally, I don’t think it is meant to be taken literally at all. It’s a great example of the power of stories to tell the truth in ways that less powerful genres cannot.

The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn its people that God is not pleased with their behavior and if they do not change their ways, they are headed for destruction. Nineveh was a major city located near current Mosul, Iraq, and the capital of the Assyrian empire under Sennacharib. To say that Assyrians were not nice people would be an understatement: ISIS seems to have taken a few pages from their playbook. Assyria was bent on capturing and subjugating Israel, and waged war with exceptional cruelty, which is described in the Bible and also in external sources such as as the Lachish reliefs . The Biblical book of Nahum elaborates on Assyrian atrocities in poetic detail, calling it a city full of blood among other vivid descriptions.

Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, and who could blame him? Instead he books passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. God brews up a storm that threatens to sink the ship, which Jonah apparently sleeps through until awakened by the ship’s captain. Lots are cast to determine who is responsible, and the lot falls on Jonah, who by now feels guilty and urges the sailors to throw him overboard. Ironically, the pagan crew seems to hold high moral standards of their own: they initially protest the idea of sacrificing Jonah to save themselves. The storm grows worse, so they give in and as soon as he goes over the side, the seas calm. Meanwhile, God “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” and Jonah winds up in time-out in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Upon his exit from the fish, Jonah again hears the voice of God telling him to “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”. Jonah reluctantly obeys this time, meets with astonishingly successful results, and God relents and doesn’t destroy the city or its people.

One would think Jonah would be pleased, especially considering that the outcome for most of God’s prophets in Israel were not quite so sunny. But he isn’t, and in fact is quite angry with God. He complains, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed as punishment for its many sins, and thinks God is wrong for sparing it. God responds by declaring both his sovereignty and his care for all his creation. And that’s the end of the story. Nineveh repents, but we don’t know whether Jonah ever does.

One of the most fascinating details of this story to me is that it presents both the pagan sailors and the pagan Assyrians more positively than most of the rest of the Old Testament treats nonbelievers. The sailors place a high value on human life, as evidenced by their unwillingness to sacrifice Jonah if they could find a way out of that. All the Ninevites, from the king on down, listen to God and change their behavior.There are plenty of Biblical examples of times the children of Abraham, who are supposed to be a moral and theological light to the rest of the world, fail abysmally. That is as true today as it was then. I know some atheists who are kind and caring people and some Christians who are quite mean and nasty people.

But I think the main point of the story is this: God loves everyone, bad people and good people alike, and will go to incredible, even ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that love. Isn’t that what the message of the cross is all about?  There is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us. There is nothing God will not do in an attempt to bring us back into relationship with him.  And that’s really good news to me!