One, Two, Three…Infinity

Trinity Sunday, Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spoiler Alert: God Wins the Endgame

Third Sunday in Easter

“We’re in the endgame now”- Doctor Strange

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped. Revelation 5:11-14

Warning: This post will contain actual spoilers for “Avengers:Endgame”, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know what happens, read no further. You have been warned.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, you are undoubtedly aware of all the hoopla surrounding the release of the final chapter in a 22-movie saga that has been playing out over the last eleven years. I was in nerd-vana for the entirety of its three-hour duration and found it exhilarating and satisfying. I like movies where the good guys win, and I prefer happy endings to dystopian or ambiguous ones. Post-movie, I’ve been avidly reading some of the reviews and discussions about what happened in the movie, and what that might mean for the next book in the Marvel universe. It’s interesting reading, but I think too much dissection of the details of the plot is a distraction. And I think the same thing about the way some people approach Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible.

What happened when Captain America returned the Soul Stone? Since it was obtained in exchange for Black Widow’s’s life, did returning it bring her back? What’s with Peter Parker going back to school and finding all his friends there? Wouldn’t at least some of them have survived the initial snap, and be five years older? If Captain America stayed in the past to marry Peggy and live happily ever after, is there a second Captain America frozen in the ice? Is Loki alive somewhere? And by the way, where is Goose?

It may be fun to speculate, but when people critique the movie on the basis of these alleged plot holes, I think they’re forgetting that it’s a story. Stories don’t have to make logical sense; they make sense on a level that is deeper than logic. Stories express truths that are not necessarily constrained by the bounds of reality. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis both understood that the reason myths from different cultures share common themes is because they are expressions of universal experiences. Although Lewis and Campbell answered the-which-came-first- the chicken-or-the-egg question somewhat differently, they both believed that all stories are retellings of “the great story”. The problem with demythologizing stories in order to make them fit into an Enlightenment pigeonhole is that the attempt to make them real often serves to obfuscate their most essential truths. You can spend your time speculating about time travel paradoxes and alternate universes, or you can go along with our heroes on their journey, cheer them on as they attempt to take down Thanos, weep with them as painful sacrifices are made, and rejoice with them in final victories great and small. We can be reminded anew of the importance of family; that teamwork is better than going it alone; and that friendship can transcend immense personal differences and perspectives.

Revelation is a very strange book, and people either love it or hate it. That’s nothing new, for it had a prolonged and difficult journey into canonicity. Its inclusion in the Christian Bible has been questioned by many, including Martin Luther. And much like the Avengers comic books, it has provided plenty of material for popular books and movies, such as the Left Behind series. There’s a large Christian subculture that finds endless fascination in trying to decipher Revelation’s more cryptic visions, such as who “666” and other characters might be in real life, what the “mark of the beast” is, or how to predict the timing of the End of Days. So far, time has not been kind to any of these speculations. I can remember when bar codes were first introduced, some were claiming they were the Mark of the Beast. In the 1984 edition of “Bible Trivia” board game, there are several questions which attempt to relate then-current events such as the emerging European Common Market to passages in Revelation and Daniel. These haven’t aged well. People like Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping are remembered primarily for being famously unsuccessful in predicting the end of the world as we know it.

When we try to dissect Revelation as if it were a kind of divine Da Vinci code that must be deciphered to be understood, we’re missing its point, just as we’re missing the point of Avengers: Endgame when we expect it to all make logical and consistent sense. When we try to fit Revelation’s weird imagery into scientific, literal explanations, we’re in danger of missing its primary truth. The point of Revelation is that “ though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet“. The truth of Revelation is that in the endgame, God wins.

In Infinity Wars, Doctor Strange says that he sees 14,000,605 futures, and in only one of them is Thanos defeated. Following his vision, he willingly gives the Time Stone to Thanos, seemingly ensuring Thanos’s victory. He can’t tell the other Avengers what he sees, because if he did, they would lose. There is no opportunity to debate, because shortly thereafter he gets dusted and disappears. The remaining Avengers must act using their own unique gifts and strengths, without knowing whether they are making the right choices. And many find themselves in positions where the right choice is not in using their superpowers to fight, but in the strength of their characters to sacrifice. Black Widow gives her life so that Hawkeye can recover the Soul Stone. Iron Man first gives up his idyllic life with his wife and child, then sacrifices his own life so that others might continue to live.

In the verses leading up to today’s scripture passage, John has a vision of a scroll sealed with seven seals. It seems imperative that the scroll be opened, for John weeps when no one is found worthy to break the seals and open the scroll. One of the elders in the vision reassures John that the Lion of Judah has triumphed and is thus able to open the seals. But when John looks, he sees not a lion, but a slaughtered lamb in the place of honor. The Lamb is praised as “worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Nerd alert: I can imagine that scene in heaven as not unlike the reaction of the theater audience when Mjolnir flew into Captain America’s hands)

The Lamb is found worthy precisely because he was slain. The Lion of Judah did not assert his power to usher in the Kingdom of God in the way the people of God expected. As the song goes, “he could have called ten thousand angels” but instead willingly laid down his life so that others might live. In the endgame, it wasn’t superpowers that resulted in the win for the Avengers, but superior character, and I think that’s how God wins too. Reliance on superior power in an attempt to control others and force the universe to be the way you think it should be is the way of Thanos, not the way of God. The way of God is the way of sacrifice and of self-giving, to let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

The movie didn’t end with the deaths of some of its major characters, and neither does the Bible. We got to see Thanos dissolve into dust, and some joyful reunions with those who were thought to be lost forever. According to the Bible, in the endgame death and hell will be destroyed and there will be many joyful reunions with those we have loved and lost.

In the endgame, God wins. And God wins not by asserting his great power but by asserting his great love. And that’s good news to me.

The Magnificat and the Arc of the Moral Universe.

On the first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of hope.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Luke 1:46-55

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the nights lengthen and temperatures drop in December, we remember that the times in which Mary lived were metaphorically dark and cold times for people like her. The descendants of Abraham lived under the heavy thumb of the Roman Empire. Income inequality and political and religious corruption were widespread. Caesar proclaimed himself “son of God” and  lord of all the known world, and disloyalty was severely punished. The latter would have been especially difficult for faithful Jews, who were uncompromisingly monotheistic and whose loyalty belonged only to God.

This was the world into which God sent his messenger to a Jewish girl named Mary, with an unbelievable announcement: she would bear a Child who would be able to put right everything that human beings had made go wrong in the world. The moral universe, as designed by God, had been horribly warped by the  wrong and self-centered choices of human beings. But the child Mary would bear would begin the repair process. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the arc of the moral universe would begin to bend in the right direction.

It’s interesting to me to note that, in order to accomplish his purposes, God chose to act through and with the cooperation of a human being. Mary said “yes” to God, even though what she was told seemed impossible. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her “yes” to God resulted in great difficulties and challenges for her personally, yet she was able to break forth into the joyous song we know as the Magnificat in the midst of these. It seems to me that, more often than not, God chooses to work through willing human beings who “get” his message and are willing to be “doers’ and not just “hearers” of that message.

When we find ourselves living through dark times, with causes and effects tangled up into seemingly impossible knots, it is good to remember what God’s messenger told Mary: “Nothing is impossible with God. God may work in ways we cannot predict, do not expect, and may not live to see, but be certain of this: God is working. God is working in us and through us for the transformation of the world. As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “God is the one who began this good work in you, and I am certain that he won’t stop before it is complete on the day that Christ Jesus returns.”

We light the candle of hope, because with God, there is hope. God will work with us and through us to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. And, as Jesus taught and lived, that will be accomplished not by superior power, but by superior love. The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of the Lord, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. And that’s good news to me!

When Worldviews Collide

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Matthew 10:34-36

I remember reading a rather disturbing science fiction book called “When Worlds Collide many years ago. In the book, a pair of rogue planets enter the solar system and the first one crashes into Earth in a spectacular example of mutually assured destruction. Written in 1933, the story is suitable for the mother of all disaster movies.  A remnant of humanity escapes in a rocket and travels to the second planet, which has assumed Earth’s place in the solar system, and find it hospitable to human habitation. Life, it would seem,  finds a way.

When opposing worldviews collide, it isn’t pretty either. Jesus knew that was true, and warned that there would be a high personal cost to those who would follow him. It’s interesting that Matthew places this saying of Jesus, along with other similar warnings, in the context of the sending out of the Twelve. ” As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” At first that placement seems a bit odd. The Twelve are proclaiming good news. The long-awaited Kingdom of God is near! As proof, Jesus gives his disciples the ability  “to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” Why wouldn’t such good news be welcomed by everyone? Sadly, through the hindsight of centuries, we know that it wasn’t.

The trouble was that the worldview of a Kingdom of God as seen and proclaimed by Jesus was in direct conflict with several other opposing worldviews. The Pax Romana envisioned peace through strength, including violent coercion whenever it was deemed necessary. Might makes right. The legalistic worldview of most of the Pharisees believed that God’s blessings were reserved for those who strictly observed what they understood to be God’s laws, and that God’s punishment would invariably fall upon those who did not. Bad things did not happen to good people, so the poor and the sick had only themselves to blame for their condition. The Sadducees seemed to have been Mosaic originalists, rejecting the many years of oral tradition that elaborated on and interpreted the scriptures, as well as pragmatists when it came to doing what was necessary to get along with the Romans in order to acquire material wealth. The revolutionary Zealots, channeling their Maccabee ancestors, were ready to instigate a war against the Romans for Jewish independence. And the Essenes threw their hands up at a world not worth saving, withdrew into the desert, and prepared themselves for God to intervene in an epic final battle between the Sons of Light (the Essenes) and the Sons of Darkness (everybody else).

Even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mount should convince the reader that the worldview of Jesus was quite different from all of the above. He eschewed all means of violence, even in pursuit of peaceful ends. He taught that material wealth was more of an impediment than a blessing. He repeatedly broke the letter of the law in order to keep its spirit. And unlike his ascetic (and possibly Essene) cousin John the Baptist, he seemed to have enjoyed eating and drinking and having a good time. The worldview Jesus presented as the Kingdom of God, and his prioritizing of it (a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, “seek ye first the Kingdom of God” was on a collision course with all the other worldviews of his time. It is no wonder that by the end of his short ministry he had come into conflict with his family, friends, community, synagogue, and society.

I am sorry to say that the centuries haven’t changed the nature or intensity of the major worldviews Jesus confronted in the first century. There are still those who live according to the pursuit of power and control, who believe that only the strong should survive. There are still legalists who insist that the only way to God is by strict observance to (their understanding of) the rules.  There are still materialists who believe the worth of human beings is determined by whether they are “makers” or “takers”, or think that “he who dies with the most toys wins”. There are still those who think that violence is a reasonable tactic when it’s done for a good cause. And there are still those who withdraw from the world rather than work to transform it.

The worldview of Jesus calls us to give up striving for the power to control others, and instead serve others. “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 servant, and humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross” and “He who would be first must be last, and the servant of all.” The kingdom of God is not a zero-sum game, where in order for some to be winners, others must be losers. It does not divide humanity, elevating “makers” over “takers”, but exhorts all to be “givers”. “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The Kingdom of God isn’t about rules, but relationships. “He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” In the Kingdom of God, the ends never justify the means. “He that lives by the sword will die by the sword.” And we are not supposed to withdraw from the world; we are supposed to engage it and transform it. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Like the worlds colliding in the science fiction story, when strongly held worldviews collide, the consequences won’t be pleasant or pretty. The worldview of Jesus was not compatible with many of the worldviews of his time, and it isn’t compatible with many of the worldviews of our time either. Those who strive to put the teachings of Jesus into practice often find themselves in conflict with others who have different ideas about the way the world works. Sometimes these people are members of our own families or close friends, causing the sharp sword of division to pierce our hearts with grief. And sadly churches aren’t immune to conflicts caused by colliding worldviews. There are too many doctrinal purists on both ends of the conservative/liberal spectrum who are so busy throwing stones at each other they have buried the message of Jesus in a pile of jagged rocks.

But no matter how discouraged I feel because of the “interesting times” in which we live, my faith tells me it is the worldview Jesus called the Kingdom of God that will emerge triumphant in the end. God’s love is the irresistible force that can move mountains. And that’s good news to me.

 

What is the Good News?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Mark 1:14-15

“What we have here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke

What is the gospel, or the good news? In Greek, the word is “euaggelion“, from which we get our word “evangelism” But I’m afraid that when most people hear the word “evangelism” or “evangelistic” today, the associations that comes to mind are certainly more in line with the “turn or burn” fire and fury of John the Baptist than the way Jesus seemed to have understood the word.

Although the New Testament uses the word translated as “gospel” 76 times, its use in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to religious applications. It was a general term used in a variety of contexts, and was commonly used (by the victors, of course) to announce a military victory. There’s a very interesting reference to Augustus Caesar which says in part, “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him” So at least for some first century readers, the association with the word “gospel” might have been to the Pax Romana! If you’re interested, here’s a link to a lengthy, but fascinating article about the use of the word, as well as information about emperor worship, in the time of Jesus.

First-century Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming reign of God for a long time. Although their forced exile in Babylon was over, they were still a subjugated people at the mercy of both their Roman overlords and collaborators like Herod. The glory days of Israel during the time of David and Solomon had long passed into legend. Where was the promised new David, who would free them from captivity and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, where everyone could sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree? Of course, the “good news” that the first century Jews were longing to hear would be bad news for the Romans, who would be defeated and stripped of their power. Israel would be restored under the leadership of a wise and good king, and take Rome’s place as the dominant superpower, respected by all the other nations of the world.

Into this eclectic mix of cultural expectations and longings came Jesus, who used the same announcement of “good news”, but seemed to have understood the meaning of the word very differently. Luke gives a few more details than Mark about the content of Jesus’s initial proclamation. In his home synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, but added a twist of his own:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.

It’s interesting to read the whole passage from Isaiah 61 and note what Jesus chooses to include in his selection, and what he leaves out. He ends his reading with proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but leaves out the next line equating that time with God’s vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. God’s reign on earth begins not with a powerful military leader like David crushing his enemies, but with Jesus, who went about doing good” and “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that the good news of the kingdom of God (kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) isn’t just something that will happen in the future.  It is here, beginning now. Time and time again, Jesus tries to explain both the immanence of the kingdom of God and how it differs from preconceived ideas about it. The Kingdom of God is found not by looking for easily identifiable external realities but is within you. Often Jesus resorts to metaphor: the kingdom of God works  like yeast in bread dough and grows slowly like a mustard seed. Like treasure hidden in a field, it may not be readily apparent to the casual onlooker.

I’m afraid that in today’s world, the “good news” has become misunderstood as much as it was in Jesus’s time, and the message of Jesus has been distorted just as much as it was in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Franciscan renewal. As NT Wright puts it in “The Day the Revolution Began“, we have “platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology” to the point where we no longer really understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Most of  today’s “evangelism” is geared toward convincing people to make a one-time choice between spending an eternity in heaven or hell. That choice is made by intellectually accepting certain theological principles, saying the right words in prayer, and then presumably (although those being evangelized are not generally told this) adhering to a behavioral code heavily dependent on “thou shalt nots” which may vary depending on the group doing the evangelizing. Not surprisingly, many recipients of this kind of proselytizing do not think what they are being told is “good news”, and they never really hear the radical message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is not just some future apocalyptic dream, nor is it primarily about what happens in the afterlife. The kingdom of God is among us, and like the mustard seed in the parable, has the potential to grow into a great sheltering, nurturing tree. But as Jesus said, we have to change our hearts and lives to make it so. The kingdom of God will not come if we keep on thinking that life is a zero-sum game and behaving accordingly.  We have to give up self-centered ways of thinking and behaving and start acting more like Jesus. We have to make Jesus our Lord in practice, not just in words. If Jesus is really Lord, then we ought to be putting a great deal more time, money, and effort into loving other people and a great deal less indulging our self-centered desires for more pleasure, wealth, and power.

Imagine what the world might be like if everyone in it who identifies as a Christian actually acted more like Christ. Imagine the majority of the human race treating everyone with whom they come into contact with the same kindness and compassion they would want for themselves. Imagine if more humans understood themselves to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation, rather than viewing it as as something to be exploited, used up, and discarded like a broken toy. Imagine if most humans put their minds to work in positive rather than negative ways, finding ways to heal rather than harm, to create rather than destroy, to help rather than hurt, to make the world a little better because they were here. Imagine…

Jesus said, Don’t just imagine. Change your hearts and lives. Trust the good news. The time is always now, and (quoting N T Wright again) the revolution has begun. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Today’s reading from the Epistles is from the final chapter in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, which seems to have been the one to which he felt closest. It’s interesting because on the surface the selection seems to be dealing with two unconnected topics: a plea for two of the Philippian church leaders to get on the same page, and some good psychological and spiritual advice about positive thinking. But the more I think about it, the more I think that applying Paul’s psychospiritual advice might also be helpful in resolving interpersonal differences.

Conflict between believers, sometimes escalating to the point of violence, has been a part of the church ever since its inception. I’ve often thought about Jesus’s unanswered prayer for unity for his followers as recorded in John: I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This clearly has not happened, and is one of the strongest arguments my atheist friends have used against the existence of God in general, or that Jesus was who he claimed to be in particular. If God can’t answer the Son of God’s prayer, what gives? Jesus was certainly aware that disunity among believers promotes that kind of unbelief, because that was included his prayer. John places Jesus’s prayer for unity in the context of Jesus’s parting speech at the Last Supper, so it would have been some of the last words his followers heard him speak before he had to leave them for the cross.

I don’t know what the issue was that caused conflict between Euodia and Syntache. I doubt it was over something as petty as who had the best casserole at the church potluck, what color the draperies in the worship center should be, or what type of music should be sung at services. Paul refers to these two women as his coworkers “who have contended at my side for the gospel“, so I think they were significant leaders, not “church lady” busybodies. I tend to imagine their differences were theological. Each considered their own opinions to be correct, necessary, and essential, and they strove mightily to convince others of their positions.  People tend to have strong opinions when they think that the fate of the world, or someone’s immortal soul, hangs in the balance. We read the same Bible, but come to different conclusions as we do.  I am saddened to see so much of that kind of thing going on in the church today, and I know enough church history to know that it has pretty much always been going on. I think I understand the “why” well enough, but what can we do about it?

That’s where I think the second part of the passage comes in. The way to “be of the same mind in the Lord” is to begin to develop the mind of Christ. Paul has a few suggestions on that subject., both in this passage and in many other places, Here, he begins by urging his readers, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  and continues to say that thankfulness is an integral part of effective prayer: ” In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”  Gratitude journals have become quite a popular tool for improving mental health, even by those with no religious leanings. There is a principle in cognitive-behavioral psychology that thoughts, emotions, and actions are inextricably linked. Change your thoughts and you will find your feelings change as well. I think that prayer works not to change the mind of God, but to change the mind of the one doing the praying. Jesus’s prayer for unity among his followers was more for our ears than God’s.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. It is possible to disagree with someone without doing so harshly or sarcastically. I used to be quite good at what I call the “Jonathan Swift approach” in my writing, but I’ve come to identify more with  Paul, who came to realize that what he thought was standing up for the right side was in fact not only ineffectual, but harmful.   “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” is almost always a correct prediction.  There’s a bit of advice I learned in education classes that holds true in all relationships:  it takes many positive interactions with a person before you have earned the right for a negative one. (Research puts the ratio at 5.6:1 for adults in a business setting; but I’d shoot for higher in a more personal setting .Most of the time, social media is a terrible place to have an intelligent, much less a gentle conversation with someone about matters of consequence. You can’t adapt your conversation to facial and body language cues, for one thing, and since social media is a very public setting, it tends to put people who disagree with you into extreme defense mode. Face must be saved, at all costs.

The Lord is near”. If we believe that is true, it means Jesus is right there beside us, hearing every word we say to each other. That certainly motivates me to try a bit harder to ensure my words are helpful and kind, rather than to show off how clever and correct I am. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” My goal concerning relationships with difficult people is to, instead of perseverating on our negative interactions, to remind myself of the positive ones. I find it helpful to think about what they do that is good and right or that we have in common, rather than the things about which I think they are badly mistaken. As Paul advised, I’m endeavoring to change my thoughts in order to change my feelings. It is not easy, but I hope that it is right.

It is no secret to most who know me that I find myself on a very different page theologically than some of my fellow believers who have also pledged their loyalty to Christ. I do not hold to an inerrantist view of the Bible; rather I think the Bible is a diverse anthology which reflects an evolving human understanding of God. Although the Bible can lead us to God, the Bible is not God and should not be worshipped as a fourth member of the Trinity. I do not think that God is particularly concerned about sexual orientation; I think he cares more about how we treat other people. I don’t think being pro-life is  synonymous with thinking “every sperm (or egg) is sacred. I think God is pro-life, yes, but most of the examples I see in the Bible have more to do with how we treat refugees, the poor, the enslaved, and other ostracized/marginalized people than with birth control methods. Yet there are those who have called me “false teacher” for coming to such conclusions. There are those who have instructed me to “read the Bible”, thinking that I don’t do that, or else I would surely come to the same conclusions they have. Not only do I find this kind of thing personally hurtful, I feel compelled to defend all those I know who are hurt by this kind of thinking, and also the reputation of God, which I think is being dragged through the mud. It stokes my urge to fight back- bigly.

The problem is that I realize the Syntaches to my Euodia also firmly believe they are right, and I am not only wrong, but leading others to perdition. I don’t know what the answer is, because although “here I stand; I can do no other”, I acknowledge that they probably are thinking along the same lines, with the good guys/bad guys roles reversed. I can take a little comfort from realizing that not even Paul had a solution in this case; he didn’t say one was right and the other was wrong; he just urged both of them to concentrate on what they held in common, which was their faith in Jesus as Lord.

And that’s pretty much all I think I have to say about that.

 

 

 

 

 

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.