Devil’s Bargain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen, and peace be with you.

Jesus’s Unanswered Prayer

Third Sunday After Epiphany, Year A

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

As John remembers it, one of the last prayers Jesus prayed as he prepared himself to go to the cross was for the unity of all believers. “My prayer is not for them [the original disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

It’s All Small Stuff

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. Luke 16:10

My husband and I are of that certain age where we have joined the ranks of the early-morning mall walkers. Walking is (we hope!) a relatively enjoyable way to improve our cardiovascular health, as well as helping to maintain musculoskeletal strength and flexibility. We also enjoy discussing current events and our plans for the rest of the day. But at some point, it occurred to me that our daily mall-walks could also be an exercise in practicing other-centeredness. So as we walk, we’ve made an effort to smile and say “good morning” to people as we pass. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s more difficult than you might imagine, at least for me. It’s so easy for me to slide into my own mind, becoming preoccupied with my own thoughts and worries, that I don’t even notice the people passing by.

When you start greeting people, you start noticing them as people, not just part of the background scenery. There’s an elderly couple who always dresses alike and a family pushing the wheelchair of their severely disabled adult son. There are three men walking together, each wearing a different ball cap proclaiming that they are Army, Navy, and Air Force veterans. There is a man who wears a politically themed t-shirt that I agree with, and there are others whose politically themed clothing I dislike. There’s a middle-aged daughter holding hands as she walks slowly with her mother, who I would guess may suffer from Alzheimer’s. There are young mothers who come pushing strollers and pause at certain locations to do exercises together, and there are young women who walk alone at a frantic pace and look too thin to be healthy. And once you notice them as people, you start to wonder and then to care about them.

Jesus instructed his followers to “deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me“. I don’t think he meant that all of his followers must literally be crucified. In the first place, dying is kind of a one-time event, not something one could successfully perform repeatedly on a daily basis. Secondly, seeking literal martyrdom can be a self-serving, rather than an other-serving thing. As an imprisoned Paul wrote to the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Third, if you remove all Jesus-followers from the equation of the world, the parables of the kingdom don’t make much sense. Remove the yeast from the dough and the bread won’t rise; remove the seed from the field and there will be no crop; remove the salt from the meat and it spoils.

I think there’s a connection between being “faithful in a very little” and “take up your cross daily“. What Jesus is asking us to do is to practice thinking and caring about others and not just ourselves, to become other-centered rather than self- centered. The Good Place does an excellent job of exploring this idea. For example, the character of Tahani performs many extravagant good deeds, but viewers learn that these are motivated by her need for affirmation and approval. Her acts of charity stem from the same kind of self-centered worldview as the behavior of the more overtly selfish Eleanor. As Rick Warren puts it, “humility is not about thinking less of yourself; it is about thinking of yourself less.” And that’s hard to do. It takes practice, and that practice begins with the small stuff…like offering a friendly greeting rather than allowing myself to be preoccupied by my own thoughts.

It’s the attitude that matters, not because actions don’t matter, but because right attitudes lead to right actions and wrong attitudes often lead to ineffectual or harmful ones. Paul understood that when he advised the Corinthians squabbling over whose spiritual gifts were the best, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

The word usually translated “love” in modern versions of 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape” in Greek. In the KJV, the word is translated “charity” which may convey the concept a little better. It is not a feeling, but an attitude expressed in behavior. Paul goes on to explain, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love isn’t self-centered; it’s other-centered.

Changing one’s worldview from self-centeredness to other-centeredness isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come naturally. We are all born self-centered; an infant who is hungry or uncomfortable knows only its needs, and demands that someone quickly and satisfactorily attend to them. Part of becoming mature (should I say adulting?) is learning to delay gratification and developing a realistic sense of one’s place in the universe. It’s easy to intellectually affirm that the universe doesn’t revolve around me and my needs, wants and desires, but harder to incorporate that understanding into my attitude and resultant actions.

Chaos theory postulates that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can eventually cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. I believe Jesus was a good teacher who knew how to break a desired learning outcome down into small steps, but I also believe Jesus understood the butterfly effect. Jesus asks us to pay attention to all the small stuff, because small stuff can lead to big stuff. We have no way of knowing all of the eventual consequences of our smallest actions of kindness, for ourselves and for others.

And that’s good news to me.

The Power of the Cross and the Foolishness of Power

Holy Cross

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. -Gilbert K. Chesterton

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18-24

Constantine got it wrong, and in my opinion the popular understanding of what it means to be Christian has gone downhill ever since.

You may remember the legend of Constantine’s conversion. Prior to the Battle of Milvian in 312, he looked up in the sky and saw a cross of light, accompanied by the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He commanded his troops to paint their shields with a Christian symbol and sure enough, the battle went his way. Subsequently he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Christians went from being persecuted for their faith to being favored for it. Constantine used the power of his office to exempt clergy from paying some taxes and elevated them to high office. Non-Christians were required to pay for the building of Constantinople, thus giving people a financial incentive to convert. The church became rich and powerful, and in so doing obscured the message of the cross. “Whoever wants to be first among you must be last, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

According to Paul, the message of the cross is not about power, but about weakness. It is not about control, but surrender. It is not about taking, but giving. It is not about self-serving, but about self-sacrifice. There’s a fragment of what appears to be an early Christian hymn in Philippians 2 which urges Christians to adapt the mindset of 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!

The message of the cross contrasts rather starkly with the popular understanding of how people are to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and that’s why it seems foolish to those who do not understand it. But to those who seek to incorporate the message of the cross into their daily lives, it is transformative. The message of the cross has the power to transform not only individual lives, but to transform society as well. I think tha’s what Jesus was getting at in his parables of the kingdom: it is like a tiny seed that start small, but grows into an enormous sheltering tree that gives sustenance to all living things. How different our world will be when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ!

And that’s good news to me.

Original Sin?

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. Jeremiah 2:13

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. Sirach 10:12

.For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:10

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “original sin”? Usually, the term is applied to Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden by eating its forbidden fruit. Some theologians, beginning with Augustine in the fourth century, have postulated that original sin is related to sexual desire. (I don’t agree with that particular theory…after all, God commanded Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” before their fall from grace, and I doubt IVF was a thing back then) As I read today’s readings I notice a common theme: they center around the harmful consequences of hubris. With that in mind, I wonder if “original sin” doesn’t go a bit further back than Eve’s first bite of the apple.

Why did Adam and Eve decide that it would be a good idea to disobey God? In the story, a talking snake persuades Eve by telling her that “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Did you catch that? Eve thinks that by eating the fruit, she will in some way become God’s equal. Her behavior echoes the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven as imagined by Milton in Paradise Lost, who understood Isaiah’s prophecy against the king of Babylon as applying to a more primordial fall: How you have fallen from heaven, O Morning Star, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the ground, O destroyer of nations. You said in your heart: “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.

The first law God gave those who would be his followers was “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord, the Lord thy God is one and thou shalt have no other gods before me” Too often when we read the first commandment, we apply it to other people rather than ourselves. It must apply to those idol-worshipping neighbors of Bronze Age Israel, or to those in our day who understand God differently than the American Protestant tradition teaches. But when you think about it, you realize that thinking of oneself as somehow better than or superior to other human beings is the worst kind of idolatry. Whenever we act like the universe ought to revolve around us and our wants and needs, whenever we denigrate other human beings made in the image of God in order to elevate ourselves above them, we are essentially imagining ourselves as gods. We are as foolish as Adam and Eve if we think doing that makes us in any way God’s equal. In fact, such thinking is completely opposite from the nature of God as modeled by 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!

As the great Hebrew prophets and Jesus understood it, the commandment to put God first was closely entwined with what we have come to call the Golden Rule. ‘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.” and “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” We can’t claim to follow the first commandment if we routinely violate the second, because all humans are made in the image of God. If we think that we are superior to other human beings for whatever reason, we will most likely behave in harmful ways toward them.

Thoughts precede actions. As I see it, “original sin” wasn’t the act of eating the forbidden fruit, but the thought “I deserve to be on equal footing with God’. But I don’t believe God insists on having first place because he has a huge ego that needs to be stroked. Amos and the other 8th century prophets were pretty up front about that. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” That particular brand of bad theology has recurred again and again throughout time and space, probably because people have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. They imagine God would do what humans would do if they were in God’s place, but fortunately God is not human. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”

Instead, I think God forbids humans from assuming the place of God because God knows that when humans try to do that, other humans get hurt. Humans have an innate tendency to think of life as a zero-sum game, where some are winners and others are losers. God didn’t plan this world to be a giant game of king-of-the-mountain, where a few winners battle their way to the top by trampling on the masses of losers beneath them. God planned for all humans to live in a shared world of abundance. But that only works when humans don’t try to be gods flexing their muscles against other humans, wasting the earth’s resources on things like war and hoarding possessions. As Gandhi observed, “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

This world doesn’t need a lot of little would-be gods running around ordering their fellow human beings around and mistreating them. What this world needs is more human beings who understand and accept their place in the created order, who “love thy neighbor as thyself” and who take care of the rest of creation in a responsible way.

Whether this is good news or bad news depends on your perspective. It’s good news for those whose lives are being made miserable by petty would-be human gods. It’s bad news for those who would be gods, because God won’t put up with that kind of hubris forever. Jesus began his ministry by quoting these words from Isaiah, “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. “

I think that’s rather good news. How about you?

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.

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.