You Raise Me Up to Walk on Stormy Seas

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Still Wrestling

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

I began this blog a year and a half ago by writing about the Genesis scripture in this week’s reading. You can read my original post here. Interestingly enough, one of the first comments I received about the post was “you know this didn’t really happen, don’t you?” My response was that I think the story is true, whether or not it actually happened the way the writer of Genesis told it. I get just as annoyed with liberal literalists as I do with conservative literalists. I think they are both missing the point.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God resonates with me because that part of his story is my story too. Literal faith is easy. Transformative faith requires struggle. Jesus talked about an easy and a difficult path, too.

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.

 

 

 

Are Souls Gendered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s Not About Me

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:1-11

I didn’t write last week because I was on a youth work mission trip, along with twenty-eight youth and thirteen adults from seven different churches. I’m also diverging from my plan to use the liturgical calendar readings for this week as a writing prompt. Instead, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about our mission trip and how it relates to something I learned a long time ago on my faith journey, but of which I constantly have to be reminded: it’s not about me.

I am, and always have been, an introvert by any definition of the word. I particularly identify with the MBTI/Jungian description of a preference for introversion. I am energized by time spent alone thinking about matters of consequence, or discussing them with one or two close friends. I have learned to extravert myself pretty well when necessary, but it’s exhausting to me, particularly when it goes on for a week. Nevertheless, I will persist. It’s not about me or what I find comfortable; it’s about doing what is right regardless of how I feel. My husband describes these mission trips as “fun”; I’d probably choose the word “important.” They help the people whom we go to serve in concrete, tangible ways; they help the young people who go on them by developing leadership skills and fostering self-confidence; and they are always a spiritually transformative experience for me.

Paul reminds the Philippians of the unfathomable nature of the sacrifice Jesus made to become one of us, and tells them they ought to have the same mindset! The passage reminds me that there are plenty of things in life that I ought to do, not because I want to, or because they’re easy, pleasant, or comfortable, but because they are the right thing to do. Jesus was the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s individualistic Objectivism, which is probably why I have such a great deal of difficulty relating to her devotees, especially when they also identify as Christian. For me, to be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus, and to be in the process of being transformed into the mindset of Christ, to be other-centered rather than self-centered. The writer of the letters of John spoke of “many antichrists” in the world in which he lived, and if we can get away from the Hollywoodized perception of “antichrist” as a specific, spectacularly evil person, we will see that the spirit of antichrist is present in our world as well. Where Christ is selfless, antichrist is selfish. Where Christ is self-giving, antichrist is greedy and grasping. Where Christ is humble, antichrist is narcissistic. You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and you cannot simultaneously claim Jesus and Caesar as Lord.

Paul goes on to say that because of Jesus’s humility and obedience to the pattern of other-centeredness laid out for him, God “highly exalted him“. Jesus’s teachings were full of the paradox of losing one’s life in order to find it, and as usual I find psychological as well as spiritual truth in his teachings. The pursuit of happiness as one’s Prime Directive is ultimately unfulfilling and counterproductive. As an introvert, I have a tendency to over-think, over-analyze, and ruminate about everything, which sometimes sucks me into an emotional black hole. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that the way to escape negative feelings is not to think, but to do. I have found that the most effective kind of doing is not something to merely distract or entertain myself, but to do something for others. Sometimes this can be as simple as smiling and saying hello to people you meet; it’s not so much the magnitude of the act as the direction of the focus that is important. The more you practice the change of focus from self to others, the more you will be changed, and the more the world will be changed through you for the better.

“O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”
-from a prayer attributed to St. Francis.

 

Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

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!”