How to Live in “Interesting Times”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-24

This week’s Romans passage has been on my mind a lot this week, particularly the verse about “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It seems I’ve been antagonizing, and being antagonized by, Facebook friends left and right a great deal during this past week. My discomfort with my friends on the right had to do with the “Nashville statement”,  much of with which I do not agree, and my discomfort with my friends on the left had to do with the aggressively violent components of antifa, with which I also do not agree. I find these “conversations” extremely emotionally distressing because I’m a peacemaker by nature. I try to make connections with people, and to find common ground. But I also am a person who believes it is important to stand up for love, kindness, justice, and fairness. Like Jeremiah, I find it impossible to keep my mouth shut (or typing fingers still) at times, because it becomes “in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” It might make my life easier if I stuck to posting only cute kitten pictures and happy thoughts, but I just can’t remain silent in the face of injustice or unkindness. I get especially upset when I see people expressing thoughts and exhibiting behaviors that drive people away from God, for I think that having a relationship with God is of great benefit.  I have quite a few friends who have been driven from the arms of God into the arms of atheism by those who think they are “watchmen” doing God’s work.  I don’t think that barring the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven to all who do not agree with a particular understanding of God, or of scripture, is doing God’s work. I think we are supposed to be witnesses to what God has done in our own lives, not watchmen telling other people what they are doing wrong in theirs. And so, I really appreciate Paul’s acknowledgement that no matter how hard I try, it may not always be possible to get along with all people at all times.

We live in “interesting times”, but the times the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote this passage were no less “interesting”, challenging and dangerous. They lived under the whims of a succession of dangerously megalomaniac emperors– Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They were looked upon with suspicion and distrust by the dominant established religious, political, and cultural systems, who invented all kinds of wild “fake news” stories about the nascent Christian movement. Rumors were spread that Christians practiced cannibalism during the Lord’s supper; that their “love feasts” were orgiastic; that they started the Great Fire of Rome. Given their precarious circumstances, it seems quite reasonable that Paul would have urged them to keep their heads down and not go looking for trouble, as he does later in Romans 13. Don’t make unnecessary waves. When in Afghanistan, wear a burqa. Perhaps those survival practicalities also lay behind his admonition to attempt to “live peaceably with all“. But I also remember the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who contended against “those crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” I don’t think it’s okay with God to pretend everything is good when it’s not, especially when remaining silent might cause harm.

So how do we strike a balance between “living peaceably with all” while living lives that are a faithful testimony to the Way of Jesus? How do we apply Paul’s words to the Roman Christians in our own place and time? I think the key is in what Paul calls “genuine love”. Everything we say and do ought to demonstrate love. If there is to be any competition between followers of Jesus, it ought to be in showing love. By showing love to others, we are serving God. When Paul talks about holding fast to the good and hating evil, I don’t think he was talking about strict observance of the Mosaic purity laws or the Greco-Roman household codes.  I certainly don’t think he was talking about passing moral judgement on those who violate those laws, for that goes counter to the overall message of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus’s harshest words were not for “sinners”, but for the Pharisees who were careful to observe all the laws of Moses. His highest praises were not for the religiously observant, but for those who worked to improve the welfare of others. Paul was once the epitome of a good Pharisee, not only in his strict personal adherence to the Mosaic laws, but also in his zealous persecution of the early followers of Jesus. He hounded, imprisoned, and was a party to the murder of the first Christians precisely because he believed their theology was dangerous, wrong and harmful.  In hindsight he came to consider all his previous “godly”behavior less than worthless. (“Rubbish” in the RSV; “dung” in the KJV; “garbage” in the NIV)  When Paul talks about “good” and “evil” here, I think he is talking about doing things that help people versus doing things that hurt people. “Do unto others as you would like for them to unto you.” as Jesus phrased it, which is entirely consistent with the teaching of  Hillel, the grandfather of Paul’s mentor Gamaliel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  Paul goes on to give several concrete examples of what this kind of genuine love looks like in action in his time and place. Here’s what this passage says to me in my own time and place.

First, be optimistic about the future. There is a God, and he is working to bend the arc of the moral universe toward his design of justice and love. How quickly he is able to do that depends a great deal on whether we work with him or against him in the bending process. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot, so suffering is inevitable. When suffering comes, “why did this happen to me?” is the wrong question to ask. Attempting to answer that question will most likely lead to assigning blame to God, self, or others. Instead of looking for someone to blame, be patient.  Patience is not endurance for endurance’s sake; rather it is active. Patience asks, “How can I best get through this?”, and “What can I learn from this”, and “How can I use this to help others?” Instead of cursing the darkness, patience sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and actively struggles to reach it.

Acknowledging that “stuff happens”, and refusing to assign blame for it, leads us to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of others. Offer thoughts and prayers for those caught in the midst of tragedy, but let those thoughts and prayers lead you to assist in material ways. As James put it, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?” When bad things happen, we shouldn’t ask if someone is deserving of our help; we should ask how we can help. I think Jesus was pretty clear about that in his  conversation about the man born blind. Prevailing religious thought in the time of Jesus was that God rewarded the good and punished the bad. If someone was sick or poor, they must have done something to deserve their fate. Therefore, either the blind man had somehow sinned prenatally (original sin?) or his parents had done something wrong. This thinking is not dissimilar from some of the “blame the victim” and “prosperity gospel” theologies popular in some circles today. Rather than assign blame, Jesus took the opportunity to help, showing us by his example that we ought to do the same.

Have empathy: put yourself in another’s shoes and feel what they are feeling without overwriting their experience with your own thoughts and feelings. Share in the joys and sorrows of others without being jealous or judgemental.   You can’t raise yourself up by bringing others down, either by blaming them for their own misfortunes or by shaming their joys. I think blame can be a form of magical thinking, and shame a form of arrogance. This happened to you because you did x, y, and z. Since I do a, b, and c instead, what happened to you will never happen to me. Or: I’m morally superior to you because I did m, and you did n.  Judas objected to Mary’s waste of an expensive perfume, telling her it could have been put to better uses, but Jesus praised her.

Be humble:  Don’t think that you alone have all the correct answers, and it is your responsibility to convince others to come around to your way of thinking. I get especially tired of people using the phrase “the Bible clearly says” in an attempt to “correct” someone else’s thinking. First of all, using the Bible as an argument doesn’t work with people who don’t believe God speaks through it. Secondly, “the Bible clearly says” arguments have been used in defense of all kinds of horrible things in the past, including slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples by European invaders. Cultivate the ability to listen and learn from others and from history. If the Bible were completely clear as some like to think it is, there wouldn’t be thousands of different denominations. Humility doesn’t mean self-abasement, but neither is it condescending to others. It takes humility to understand that the lenses through which you understand the Bible or see reality are unique to you, and quite possibly do not yield perfect vision. For now we see through a glass, darkly, I also like the way Doctor Who phrased it, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

Don’t try to get even. It doesn’t work,  and remember that the means are equally as important as the ends. Those who use evil means with the intention of achieving a good result are in danger of becoming just as bad as the evil they oppose. I’m reminded of the last lines in “Animal Farm: ““The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The only lasting way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Because I believe the image of God is stamped indelibly on every human soul, I do not believe that certain people lack a conscience, even when they behave as though they don’t have one. Even Darth Vader found redemption in the end, and I might point out that his conscience was not awakened at the point of Luke’s lightsaber, but through their relationship.  As Martin Luther King observed, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But I’m going to keep working on it.

 

Advertisements

Total Eclipse of the Mind

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:1-8

2017-08-21 11.27.28

We’ve just returned from a ten-day vacation planned around viewing the total eclipse of the sun. We chose a location in rural Idaho where there would be a good chance of an unclouded day, purchased ISO-certified eclipse glasses, booked an overpriced room in a rundown motel in Boise, and drove off in our minivan. On the way there and back,we visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as Zion, Bryce, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, and Arches National Parks. The highlight of the trip was, of course, experiencing the eclipse. I’ve seen photographs and videos of eclipses, but as Old Rose said to the treasure-hunters in “Titanic”, the experience itself was… somewhat different. “Magical” might approach being an appropriate descriptor. As we took peeks through our eclipse glasses at the ever-waning crescent of the sun, the temperature dropped and the colors of the landscape changed. When the moment of totality arrived, it was sudden, like flipping off the lights. We took off our eclipse glasses and as we gazed in awe at the fiery corona and the surreal landscape, we heard the people in a nearby town break out in cheering. Nobody was thinking about, much less opining about, the political news of the day.  For two short minutes the world was transformed.

In today’s Epistle passage, Paul writes to the Romans that as they present their lives to God, they will be transformed. Much as the eclipse dramatically changed everything around us, followers of Jesus who are growing in their faith will start to see the world and their part in it in new ways. Unlike the eclipse, the transformation is meant to be permanent and ongoing. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Don’t be conformed to this world“. The world as it is is not the way God imagined or planned for it. Its values are seriously distorted. God did not plan a dog-eat-dog world, where it’s every man for himself, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. Jesus summed up God’s values pretty clearly when he answered a first-century biblical scholar’s question,  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The Sermon on the Mount elaborates on the same theme in more detail, giving many specific examples of what “love your neighbor as yourself” means. In many ways God’s values are the exact opposite of the world’s values. The world apart from God sees life as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, but God wants everyone to be a winner. The world apart from God values competition, but God values cooperation. The world apart from God values power and control, but God values love and kindness. The world apart from God thinks that greed is good, but God thinks that giving is the better way. “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” The world apart from God believes that if someone wrongs you, you should get even, but God values forgiveness “even seventy times seven“. God’s values can be seen in what Paul calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit”- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.

But be transformed by the renewing of your mind“. I really like this phrase. It implies active cooperation with God in order for the transformation to take place. Very rarely does God dramatically change on a person overnight; it’s usually a gradual metamorphosis that evolves over time. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that changing your thinking is the key to changing your emotions, but changing your thinking isn’t easy or automatic. It takes work and practice.  “Renewing of your mind” to me means studying and learning from the life and teachings of Jesus as they were recorded by his earliest followers. It means thinking about what Jesus might do if he walked the earth today and figuring out how his teachings can be applied in the place and time in which we live. It means getting outside myself through meditative prayer practices, learning to ignore my racing and anxious thoughts enough to experience the presence of God.

So that you may discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Some people see the Bible as “God’s instruction book”. Although I think I understand where they are coming from, I don’t see it quite that way. For one thing, I’ve seen verses taken out of their context and used to justify whatever the Bible-quoter wanted them to justify. You can’t just string random verses together and make God say whatever you want him to say. There’s an old joke about a man whose devotional reading consisted of cracking his Bible at random and reading the first verse his finger touched. One morning this was his verse for the day: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” That can’t be it, he thought. So he tried again. “Go thou and do likewise” was his second hit. Chagrined, he thought,The third time is a charm! It wasn’t. It read: “What thou doest, do quickly!” The joke is recognizably silly, but I’ve seen a church with screamingly large lettering on its side,  “Master, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”…”Keep my commandments” The question comes from the story of the rich young ruler but the answer written on the side of the church is more in line with the rich young ruler’s thinking than that of Jesus! Then there are the contradictory bits of advice, such as this advice from Proverbs on arguing with fools. I like to think of the Bible more like a recipe with lots of variations than a step-by-step “how to” document. There are certain basic ingredients and processes involved in making a cake, but a huge diversity of possible flavors and adaptations. That’s what the “discerning” piece of the verse above means to me. God has given us the basic ingredients in the Greatest Commandment and the Golden Rule, and those are non-negotiable. But he’s also given us a great deal of latitude in how to carry those out, and I think we’re meant to adapt our recipes to our own times and places.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Don’t let all the bad things in the world influence your thinking and behavior. Instead, work on learning to see the world as God wants it to be.  As you do, you may find yourself both transformed and a transforming force for good. That’s what I mean by a total eclipse of the mind!

 

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Kingdom of Heaven: Pie in the Sky or Arc of the Moral Universe?

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-53

I had a couple of ideas involving news stories as writing prompts this week, but decided to go back to the liturgical calendar for theological reasons. Karl Barth is widely quoted as saying that one should “read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”, but there’s an important addition often omitted from that statement: “But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”. Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?’”

The problem (at least for me) in using news stories as writing prompts is that it winds up being primarily the news story that is speaking to me, rather than the Bible. It’s too easy for me to read a news story and think of related scriptural passages, and if I am entirely honest, to think mainly of those passages which support my point of view. Reading and reflecting on the Bible systematically forces me to think outside my own confirmation-bias boxes. And that, I think, is a major part of spiritual formation. We are not supposed to use God for our own purposes; we are supposed to be transformed by God.  Don’t be conformed to the pattern of the world, writes Paul to the Romans. Rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus uses several metaphors in an attempt to explain the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God to his followers. Matthew prefers the term “kingdom of heaven” whereas Luke and Mark use “kingdom of God”. They refer to the same thing: the world as it was meant to be rather than the way it is. One explanation for the difference in terminology is that Matthew, who was Jewish, was uncomfortable using or even writing the name of God, whereas the Gentile writers Luke and Mark were not. The metaphor of the mustard seed is found in all three synoptic gospels; the leaven metaphor is found in both Matthew and Luke; and the metaphors of the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fisherman’s net are found only in Matthew. (Click here for an interesting chart which compares the parables of Jesus in different sources).

Jesus often used metaphors and stories to explain concepts which were otherwise difficult for his listeners to understand. The writers of the gospels collected these sayings and stories and compiled them to suit their own unique narrative perspectives. I like stories. They are often truer than facts, and they frequently have the ability to speak across time and space. We can read the parables of Jesus today through our own lenses of life experience and longing, and they can speak to us where we are as meaningfully as they did to those who first heard them. Here’s what these parables of the kingdom are saying to me today.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a mustard seed. It begins as something very small and seemingly insignificant, but it takes root and grows into something that cannot be overlooked, something which provides food and shelter to the birds who take refuge in its many branches. The mustard plant is rooted in the earth, not the sky, and it exists not only for itself, but to meet the needs of others. That’s how God designed the world to be. The kingdom of heaven is not so much “pie in the sky by and by” as it is God bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.    As N T Wright has written in “The Day The Revolution Began”, pie-in-the-sky theologies are a form of “Platonized eschatology” that bears little resemblance to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Although I certainly hope to enjoy pie at the heavenly banquet one day, the Kingdom of God is something that God intends to intrude into our present reality.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a woman kneading bread. If you’ve ever kneaded bread by hand, you know that a fair amount of work is involved in the process. You don’t just toss the ingredients in a pan and wait for it to rise. You have to push and pull and manipulate the dough, adding additional flour or water as needed, until it is firm and elastic and no longer sticky. Only then do you wait for the yeast to work its magic and the bread to rise. Again, the metaphor implies that the kingdom of God starts small and grows into something big, but in this case human effort is also involved. God expects the effort and involvement of human beings in the bending of the arc of the moral universe to his design.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like buried treasure or a very expensive piece of jewelry. It’s valuable, but it is also costly. The person who finds hidden treasure forgotten in a field, or the merchant in search of fine gems, think that their finds are so valuable that they happily liquidate all their other assets. Do we feel the same way when it comes to following the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus? When we reduce the kingdom of heaven to a get-out-of-jail free card easily obtainable by assenting to a correct set of theological beliefs, we’re in danger of succumbing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the fallacy of “cheap grace“. Not only that, we’re also in danger of missing out on the full value of the treasure God wants for us- and the entire created world- to have.

The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman sorting his catch, keeping that which is good and getting rid of what is bad. Unlike the previous parables, this one implies that the road to the kingdom of God isn’t pot-hole free. In the words of Frederick Buechner,  “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid”.  I have vivid memories of “going shrimping” as a child growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Shrimping involves casting out and pulling a large net behind a slow-moving boat for an extended period of time. After sufficient time had elapsed, we’d haul in the net and begin the process of sorting our catch. We kept the shrimp, crabs, and other tasty edibles, but threw back pinfish and other “trash” fish, along with rocks, oyster shells, and assorted useless debris. We had to watch out for stingrays, which were sometimes embedded in the nets, and could inflict a painful wound if you weren’t careful. Those we chopped up and used for crab bait. It’s interesting that this parable is the only one in this set that is given an explanation. The most interesting piece to me isn’t that there is an element of judgement, although I certainly hope not to be found useful only for crab bait. It’s that human beings aren’t in charge of the judging. God seems to cast a pretty wide net while trolling for citizens of his kingdom. Maybe we should, too.

 

 

 

Thy Kingdom Come

Second Sunday After Pentecost

The following is a lightly edited transcript of my June 18 sermon. (You can find the audio here.) Whenever the UMC General Conference rolls around, it’s time for amateur hour in local churches, and this year I had the privilege of delivering the Sunday message in my church. This is something my younger self never would have dreamed would have happened. I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition, which taught that women should not be pastors. (To be fair to the Baptists, I also was told that NASA didn’t allow female astronauts.) Not only that, but as a natural and somewhat nerdy introvert, I was extremely anxious and self-conscious about any kind of public speaking. The fact that I was (a) asked to speak and (b) wanted to speak is, I think, a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit working to transform the hearts and minds of both individuals and the corporate body known as the Church.

I am grateful to my church for allowing me the opportunity to speak, and to my husband Mike and son Nathan for singing “You Raise Me Up” as a preface to my thoughts on one of my favorite topics, the Kingdom of God.

The Reading from the Gospel for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 9:35- 10:15

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. [Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

“Sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.”
What does it mean to glimpse eternity? Is it like looking into the untempered schism of the temporal vortex, seeing all that was and is ever will be at once? I think eternity is less about time than it is about God.

Sometimes things happen that give us a little peek into an alternate universe. We see the world not as it is, but the way it ought to be, the way I think God intended it to be.
Maye you’ve seen a Facebook meme that asks which fictional alternate universe you’d rather live in. the choices include Oz, Wonderland, Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros, or Hogwarts. I don’t know about you, but I’d probably go with none of the above. I’d like to choose the Kingdom of God. (Well, okay. Narnia comes pretty close, especially at the end of the last book. Who would want to go to Westeros, anyway? It reminds me of that other place Jesus sometimes mentioned, the one where you definitely don’t want to go.)

So, what is this alternate universe called the Kingdom of God? The Israelite prophets talked quite a lot about it, sometimes using beautiful poetic metaphors.

1. The kingdom of God is a place of peace, security, and abundance. No one goes hungry or is homeless. There is no crime and no war.
“Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks; Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they train for war. Each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid,”- Micah 4:3-4
2. The kingdom of God is a place where all enjoy good health and long life. Lives are not cut short by diseases like cancer. No one loses a child to SIDS. Nobody dies because they don’t have access to medical care.
“Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child; the one who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” Isaiah 65:20 
“Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” Ezekiel 47:12
3. The kingdom of God is a place where humans live in harmony with nature.
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the field, The birds of the sky And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety. Hosea 2:18
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11:6
4. The kingdom of God is full of God’s presence.
“My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Ezekiel 37:12
“ The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
“”But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 31:33-34

Who wouldn’t want to live in that kind of alternate universe?

The Jewish people of Jesus’s day had been looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God for centuries. And finally Jesus appears and tells them the time is here. As he prepares to begin his ministry, he tells the people of his home synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”…

Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God a lot more after that: 14 times in Mark, 32 times in Luke, 24 times in Matthew if you count Matthew’s preferential use of  the term “kingdom of heaven”. Since Matthew was Jewish (Mark and Luke were Gentiles) he was probably uncomfortable saying the name of God aloud. However from the parallel passages in Luke and Mark it’s pretty clear Matthew is talking about the same thing: that is, the reign of God, the place where God’s will is done on earth as it is heaven and everything that once went wrong is made right.

In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus is going about proclaiming the good news of the nearness of the kingdom. He looks out at a crowd of people and is overcome by compassion. They are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Life was difficult and unpredictable for first century Jews. They were under Rome’s thumb. The government wasn’t helping. The religious authorities weren’t helping either. They were more concerned with seeing that purity laws- don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle- were properly observed than with doing things that would actually improve people’s lives. The image that comes to my mind here is animals being penned up in a confined area, panicking and running this way and that at the touch of a cattle prod. It’s such a different image than the one in Psalm 23 where the good shepherd leads his sheep by still waters into green pastures.

Isn’t much of the world we live in the same today? There is such overwhelming need. What can we do about it? Where do we even start? If the “kingdom of God is near,” how do we find the entrance? Where’s our “wardrobe door,” or “Platform 9 ¾” to find it?
Here’s a hint. Jesus sends his disciples with the same message and tells them to do the same kind of things he has been doing. “The kingdom of God is near.” As John put it in his gospel, Jesus is the door. Jesus shows us the way. Go, and do.

There’s a saying that counselors sometimes use, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. I think this is spiritually true as well. If we start acting like citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, it becomes more and more real to us. The barriers between this world and the alternate reality of the kingdom of God become thinner and thinner, and sometimes we even get to glimpse this state called “eternity.” Then when the time comes for us to step over the invisible barrier between earth and heaven, we’ll be prepared to live there without undergoing major culture shock. Furthermore, the more people who commit themselves to following the way of Jesus, the better our present world will become. We can be a part of God’s efforts to transform the world into a better place. The Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, says Jesus. It starts out so small, but grows into a huge plant with many branches that shelter life.

Instead of imagining that there’s no heaven like John Lennon suggested, let’s imagine what the world would be like if more people lived as citizens of heaven in the here-and-now. Imagine all the people living according to what Jesus said was the greatest commandment, and the Golden Rule.

Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s exactly what Jesus tells the Twelve to go and do in today’s passage.
“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Actions speak louder than words. As St Francis is reported to have said,
“Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

Or as John Wesley might have put it,
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

Let’s not get so hung up by the supernatural-ness of what Jesus and the Twelve were able to do that we miss the main point. Jesus did the things he did because he cared about people, and he wants us to do the same. Just because we can’t literally do those exact things doesn’t mean we can’t do something. And we are not limited to only doing the things on that list. God gave us both hearts to care and brains to figure out what we can do to meet human need.

Take a look at the green sheet of mission and ministry opportunities in your bulletin.

We may not be able to heal the sick or raise the dead in the way Jesus and the Twelve did, but there are many ways we can work to bring health and healing to people. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you volunteer in caregiving or disability ministries, or support Midwestern University’s medical mission to Guatemala, that you are helping to bring the kingdom of God a little closer?
We may not be able to cleanse lepers the way jesus and the Twelve did, but there are many ways we can work to bring hope and wholeness to those who are excluded and marginalized. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you volunteer at Justa Center or build homes with One Mission and Habitat for Humanity or buy Christmas gifts through Angel Tree, you are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?
We may not be able to multiply loaves and fishes to feed a hungry crowd the way Jesus did, but there are many ways we can work to end hunger. What do you see on that green sheet that does that? Where else are there needs, and how can you help?. Have you ever thought that when you collect food for West Valley Community Pantry and Hart Pantry. or prepare snack bags for Justa Center, you are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?
Now for the part about casting out demons. We don’t generally think in those terms today and when we read the Biblical descriptions of those kinds of healings, it often seems that those described as suffering from unclean spirits had some kind of physical or mental illness like epilepsy or schizophrenia. But again, that’s not the point. People were suffering, and Jesus did something about it. We all know people who are tormented by metaphorical demons like PTSD and addictions. Have you ever thought that organizations like AA and Soldiers Best Friend are working to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer?

There’s one more thing this passage says to me that I want to mention, and that’s that reciprocity is expected between the Twelve and the people of the towns they visit. The disciples are told not to take extra supplies for their journey because the people they are going to serve will want to take care of them. It’s a partnership, and Jesus goes so far as to say if there is no partnership, they cannot do the work he sent them to do. They are not supposed to go in there, knights in shining armor riding metaphorical white horses, thinking they have all the answers, and placing themselves in a superior position over the people they supposedly are coming to serve. Have any of you read James Michener’s “Hawaii” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”? I was absolutely traumatized by the behavior and attitudes of the fictional missionaries in those books. They show us exactly what NOT to do. Part of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is realizing our mutual dependence on each other. When St Francis wrote “it is in giving that we receive” he wasn’t kidding about being on the receiving end. Recently I learned of a Tongan saying, “It is a blessing to be a blessing”

Look again at the list of ministries and missions on the green sheet. And there are many, many more things people are doing that aren’t on this list, things people just do on their own. Blessings on all you who show kindness and compassion in so many places and so many ways. You are helping to bring the kingdom of God a little nearer. As we sang in our opening hymn earlier,

Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

Go, and do. Let’s “make it so!”

 

Is Resistance Futile?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42

When taken at face value, this is one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus. Is he promoting the kind of absolute pacifism that makes no exception for self-defense? What if the evil person is attacking a child or other innocent? What about war? The entire Jewish population of Europe might have been exterminated had the Third Reich not been violently opposed. Some Christians have taken this passage in the Sermon on the Mount very literally, refusing to participate in any war or to even defend family members from attackers. Others have resorted to all kinds of theological and verbal gymnastics to explain away the “clear meaning” of this passage. They’ll reference Jesus’s instructions to the disciples to buy swords in the days leading up to his crucifixion, or quote him as saying “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” and use those words to justify “stand your ground” laws and preemptive wars.

I don’t think there is a simple answer. I think Jesus often made provocative statements in order to get people to thinking. When I come across a difficult Bible passage, particularly if it something Jesus is reported as saying, I always try to look for the principle behind the literal words, and to compare those words with everything else Jesus said and did. There’s an apocryphal Gandhi saying, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind“, and I think that’s the principle Jesus is trying to get his disciples to see. Violence, even when it is meant to promote justice, usually leads to unforeseen negative consequences. Violence often begets more violence in an escalating spiral. Children who are abused often grow up to be abusers themselves. A punitive criminal justice system often results in recidivism and even worse offenses. World War I, the “war to end all wars” sowed the seeds for World War II, which was even more devastating and deadly. Perhaps Hitler would not have come to power had it not been for the crippling war retributions Germany was forced to pay after losing the first war. You may be able to control human behavior with the use of overwhelming power, but that kind of control is powerless to change human hearts, and in many cases serves only to harden them. Jesus wants to break that vicious cycle  by changing hearts and minds. Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood that principle and tried to apply it to effect lasting change in the unjust societies in which they lived. They trained their followers to literally “turn the other cheek”, even under extreme duress. Through their efforts, many hearts and minds were changed.

I started writing this post a couple of days ago, before the US attacked the Syrian airbase following the horrific poison gas attacks on Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas. I don’t know whether it was the right response or not. On the one hand, I don’t think Gandhi’s techniques would have worked very well to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that there will be considerable unforeseen negative consequences, for the US, for the Syrian people, and for the world.

Is resistance futile? Jesus certainly gave us something to think about with this one.