One Wedding, Six Water Jars, and an Epiphany

Second Sunday After the Epiphany

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”  “Woman,why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so,  and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:1-11

John’s gospel differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s telling of the Jesus story in a number of ways, and is the only one who includes the water-into-wine miracle. In fact, John doesn’t use the word “miracle” to describe supernatural acts by Jesus. Rather, he uses the word “sign”. This leads me to believe that John chose to include specific acts in his gospel for metaphorical reasons. That is, John selected miracles not just because they displayed Jesus’s abilities to do things ordinary humans could not, but because they demonstrated something about Jesus that John wanted the reader to understand. John is the most metaphysical and mystical of the gospels, and there is always something else beyond the plain meaning of his stories about Jesus.

What could possibly be the meaning of this story, especially as John notes it is the first sign Jesus performs? I don’t think it’s that Jesus wanted to get everybody drunker than they already were. I can see how someone looking only at the plain meaning of the story might come to that conclusion, though. I can remember certain Baptist Sunday school teachers of my youth insisting that Jesus changed the water into grape juice, not wine. I can’t remember whether I had the nerve to ask or was only thinking, “Then why did the banquet master make that remark about the practice of serving inferior wine after the guest’s taste buds had been sufficiently dulled so as not to notice or care?”  No, I think we have to go beyond the plain meaning of this event to understand its significance.

In ancient times, wine was a symbol of joy. The book of Judges makes a reference to wine cheering both gods and men. Psalms speaks of wine making glad the hearts of men. The writer of Ecclesiastes notes that wine makes life joyful. Micah envisioned a time in the age to come when everyone would sit under his own vine and fig tree. Jesus himself used many metaphors of the kingdom of God as a banquet, a party. Many people have the mistaken impression that if they give their hearts and lives over to God, God is going to demand that that they give up everything they enjoy doing and start doing everything they don’t want to do. There are a lot of jokes, which really aren’t jokes, about people who want to wait until they are on death’s doorstep to “get religion” lest they miss out on the fun of life. Changing the water into wine is a sign to me that God is not a celestial party pooper out to make our lives miserable. As Jesus later will tell his disciples, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” God doesn’t want to ruin our lives, but improve them. Those who “taste and see that the Lord is good” will not want to go back to drinking the inferior wine of a life without God.

John notes that the six water jars were the kind used by religious people for ceremonial washing. I think he included that little detail to make a point. Just as tasteless water was changed into the choicest wine, Jesus was about to change the way people thought about God. Faith should not be thought of as a chore, but a delight. God is not so much concerned about whether we jump through all the right ceremonial hoops, but in how well we love. Jesus would condense all 613 commandments in the Torah into two: love of God and love of others. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Some religious teachers emphasize rules, the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”, some of which may have served a useful purpose at some point in time, but are no longer applicable. Jesus taught principles rather than rules. When he said “I have come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, I think that’s what he meant. Rules may change in adaptation to changing times, but the principles upon which the rules were based are unchanging. And according to Jesus, the primary principle is love: love that is not an emotion, but an action. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The epiphany of the miracle at Cana is that Jesus came not to make life boring or dull, but full and meaningful. God is less concerned with how well we dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s  that with how we treat others.  And that’s good news to me!

 

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Eureka!

The following is the script for the sermon I gave on Epiphany Sunday at Spirit of Hope United Methodist Church, with added hyperlinks to supplemental information.

When I was a science teacher, I used to tell my students a story about Archimedes, the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in the 3rd century BC. Here’s how it goes: The king had commissioned a goldsmith to make a solid gold crown. When he received the finished work, he suspected that the goldsmith had cheated him by substituting a cheaper metal for some of the gold the king had given him. But he didn’t know how to prove it. Archimedes, who was employed by the king for his scientific knowledge, knew that different metals had different densities. If he could determine the density of the crown, he would know whether it was solid gold or not. Density is mass divided by volume. He could determine the mass of the crown by weighing it, but how could he calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object without melting it down and destroying it? For days he thought about the problem, trying to come up with a solution. One day, he happened to be puzzling over the problem as he lowered himself into the bathtub. He noticed that the water level in the tub rose as his body went under water, and suddenly a light bulb came on in his head. He could calculate the volume of the crown by measuring the amount of water it displaced! Archimedes was so excited that he jumped out of the tub, forgetting to dress, and ran naked down the streets of town shouting “Eureka!” which translated means, “I have found it!”

You might say that Archimedes had an epiphany. If you look up “epiphany” in a thesaurus, you’ll find that its top synonym is “revelation”. Other synonyms include appearance, manifestation, and realization It comes from a Greek word that means to reveal. In is a moment like Archimedes had, you realize something you hadn’t realized before, you understand something in a new way. An epiphany is a sudden realization that can change everything…a Eureka moment!

The story about the Wise Men is an epiphany- something about the nature of God is revealed to those who are paying attention enough to notice it.

Despite what the carol “We Three Kings” says, the Wise Men were probably not kings and we don’t know how many of them there were. The tradition that there were three of them probably came from the three gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. The idea that they were kings probably came from a passage in Isaiah which says “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Matthew just writes that “there came Magi from the east. “Magi” is often translated “wise men”, but it has the same root meaning as the word “magic”. It’s the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts, who was not an exemplary character. Magic was not exactly kosher; God’s people were advised to stay away from it in rather strong terms. Although we are not sure exactly where in the east they came from, one widely accepted theory is that they were most likely from Persia, where modern day Iran is.

The book of Jeremiah makes a couple of references to magi in the role of advisors to the Babylonian king, and their presence is implied in the book of Daniel too. Magi were astrologers and priests of the Zoroastrian religion, who cast horoscopes and interpreted dreams in order to advise the king. This would have been a high-status position in the Persian court for which they would have been well compensated. They must have been wealthy in order to afford the long trip to Bethlehem, bearing expensive symbolic gifts.

So what’s the epiphany? What did Matthew realize about the character of God that caused him to include this particular story in his gospel? You’ll remember that Luke chose instead to include the story of angels announcing Jesus’s birth to shepherds, but in Matthew the good news of Jesus’s birth is communicated to those on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. As one of my Baptist Sunday School teachers used to say, “God is concerned with the down and outs, but also the up and outs.” God cares about everyone and everyone needs God, whether they know it or not.

The epiphany, the big reveal of the Wise Men’s journey is that God is God of all people, both Jews and Gentiles. God doesn’t play favorites. Paul came to this realization when he wrote to the Ephesians that the mystery of Christ,“ was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”(Ephesians 3:2-6)

This idea that God was the God of all people would not have gone over well with many of the religious leaders at this time. Most of them thought of God in rather tribalistic ways. That is, they were God’s special favorites. As long as they were careful to observe all the laws God had given to them, God would specially bless them. Outsiders were dangerous and should be avoided, because they had different customs and beliefs that might cause God’s people to fall into sin.

Although the Wise Men were well-educated, rich, and well-respected in their own country, they would have been considered outsiders by most of God’s people at the time. They were of a different religion, were of a different culture, spoke a different language. They worshipped one god, but they called their god Azura Mazda rather than Yahweh. Their primary prophet was Zoroaster, not Moses. They were not descendants of Abraham and they did not observe the laws of Moses or the traditions interpreting these. They were not of the same tribe, and therefore potentially dangerous.

God’s people at that time took very seriously what they understood to be God’s command to separate themselves from Gentiles. They feared they might be contaminated by association with them. Had the Wise Men wanted to learn more about the God of Israel, they would have found it very difficult. For example, they would not have been allowed into the Temple past the outermost courtyard. They would have been told that in order to become a part of the people of God, they would have to be circumcised and follow all kinds of dietary laws and other customs. They’d probably have to give up their day jobs, too, as the magic arts were generally frowned upon.

God had commissioned his people to be a “light to the Gentiles” beginning with Abraham, whom he promised “in thee all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. Whenever God’s people decide to hide God’s light under a bushel and hoard God’s blessings for themselves, God is going to act, sometimes in ways that surprise us. God met the Wise Men where they were. If you think about it, God actually used one of the tools of their religion to bring them to Him. They studied the stars looking for meaning and guidance, so God gave them a star, a star that led them to Jesus. And when they finally found Jesus, they knew they had found what they were looking for. Eureka!

The Bible records many Eureka moments, moments when God breaks through our blurred vision and our impaired hearing and makes an appearance. With Abraham, we have the beginning of the understanding that there is only one God. With Moses, we have the genesis of ethical monotheism; that is, the one God expects us to behave in certain ways. With the great 8th century prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah, we see the light beginning to dawn on people that God is more concerned with how we treat other people than if we are saying the right religious words and performing the right religious rituals.

All these glimpses into the nature of God are leading up to one great epiphany, the one that was first glimpsed in a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

Epiphany is more than a once-a-year celebration of divine revelation. God revealed his nature fully and completely in Jesus and God is still revealing himself to those who seek him. During his last night before he gave his life for us. Jesus told his disciples that epiphanies would continue: I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me by taking from what is Mine and disclosing it to you.” (John 16:12-14)

Not everyone in Bethlehem heard the voices of the angels which directed the shepherds to the manger. Not everyone in Persia understood the meaning of the star that guided the Wise Men on their journey. The year to come will hold many Eureka moments for those who seek God, for “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18)

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear what God is saying through the Spirit to us today. Amen.

Audio of sermon can be found here.

Nobody’s Above the Law

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. 2 Samuel 11:27

James I of England is generally given credit for developing the theory of the divine right of kings,  and arguments for and against the idea came strongly into political play during the time of the American Revolution. King Louis XIV of France is reported to have coined the phrase, “L’état, c’est moi.” Some might argue that Jeff Session’s recent public interpretation of Romans 13 uses the concept of divine right to justify the policy of family separation for those who have crossed the US border without official permission. However, the idea that powerful people can do anything they want and are above the law has been around much longer than that. It was certainly commonplace practice during the Bronze and Iron Ages.  Perhaps that’s what David was thinking when he arranged for Uriah’s death in order to acquire Bathsheba for himself.

You can read the whole sordid story in 2 Samuel 11-12 but here’s a quick summary: David has been having a pretty successful run after the death of Saul, assuming first control of the southern territories, and then expanding his rule over the northern tribes as well. He wrests control of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, gets the Ark of the Covenant back from the Philistines, builds himself a nice palace, makes plans to build a temple for God, has a number of significant military victories, and acquires several wives. But for some unknown reason,  one spring “at the time when kings go off to war” David decides to stay home and send the Israelite army off without him. Late one evening he becomes restless, goes up onto his rooftop, and spies on his neigbor Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah is away with the rest of the army. In any event, he decides that he wants to have sex with her. Like many women in the “Me Too” movement, Bathsheba is hardly in a position to say no. When she becomes pregnant as a result of  David’s blatant violation of the seventh commandment, he unsuccessfully tries a number of ruses to get Uriah home to bed his wife before the pregnancy becomes obvious. Uriah is too scrupulous to do that during wartime, so David asks his trusted deputy Joab to arrange a battlefield “accident” for Uriah. Now David is guilty of  blatantly violating the sixth commandment as well as the seventh. He quickly marries Bathsheba; problem solved, or so he thinks. And that’s where today’s reading picks up:

But the thing David had done displeased the Lord. The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul.  I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.  Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” -2 Samuel 11:27-12:13

There are several thoughts that come to my mind when I read this passage. David may have thought that because he was king, he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it. As absolute ruler, I suppose David could have made everything legal by making an official proclamation to that effect. But what is legal is not necessarily kosher, and that’s not how God thinks. I believe God wove his moral law into the fabric of the universe, and no one is above that law. If it’s not okay for a commoner to rape and kill, it’s not okay for a king either. The rules are supposed to be applied equally to the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Justice is one of the main themes of the Hebrew Bible, along with strong admonitions that rulers are to use their power and wealth to benefit others, not to please themselves. David wasn’t above God’s law, and God let David know that by sending Nathan the prophet to tell him so.

To me, the hero of this story is Nathan, not David. Speaking truth to power can be hazardous to one’s health, so I admire Nathan’s courage and cleverness as well as his moral clarity. It is Nathan, not David, who comes across as  “a man after God’s own heart”   here. Nathan understands how God expects humans to behave and he knows that David has missed the mark by a wide margin. But how can he communicate this in a way that he will be heard, while avoiding the personal repercussions from the wrath of an angry king who doesn’t want to be told what to do? Nathan goes about his goal obliquely, by telling a story. He crafts his story so well that David can’t help but be sympathetic for Nathan’s fictional poor man. It is only after David expresses his anger at the rich man’s outrageous behavior that Nathan delivers his punchline, “You are the man!” I think writers and storytellers and playwrights are often more important in God’s eyes than we know. They can say things that would never be heard otherwise, and if they are in tune with the heart of God they can be a very powerful force for good.

David’s life, at least as recorded in 2 Samuel, went rapidly downhill after the Bathsheba affair. Despite David’s public acts of contrition,  the child of his illicit dalliance died. I have to wonder if being a terrible role model for his other children didn’t have something to do with the fulfillment of Nathan’s prediction, which followed the Amnon/Absalom/Tamar debacle. Just as David felt he had a right to take Bathsheba because he was king, Amnon thought he had a right to take Tamar because he was a prince. Just as David plotted Uriah’s death, Absalom plotted to kill Amnon, and to take David’s throne. In my thinking, that’s how the business of the sins of the parents being visited on succeeding generations usually works. For example, absent divine intervention, therapy, or a combination of both, children of abusers often grow up to be abusers themselves.

Today’s reading also includes Psalm 51, which David is said to have written after his encounter with Nathan, and in which he expresses deep repentance for his behavior. It’s beautiful, emotionally expressive poetry, but I have a problem with those who derive theological implications from David’s declaration that “against thee and thee only (God) have I sinned”.  I think David sinned against quite a few others, including to begin with Uriah, Bathsheba, and the unnamed child who died, but also against Joab by giving him an order to kill. Then there were the loyal soldiers who were collateral damage in the ploy to get rid of Uriah, along with David’s other wives and children. I see the phrase as hyperbole expressing David’s conviction that sinning against humans pales in comparison to sinning against God. The problem I have with that kind of theology is that there’s plenty of evidence in the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, to indicate that when you sin against human beings, you  are sinning against God, If all humans bear the image of God, then how you treat other human beings is how you treat God. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and mind” is irreversibly yoked with “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Eighth-century prophets like Amos railed against those who were careful to observe the ritual law while ignoring the moral law. “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus tells his listeners that  whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Paul summed up the moral law in one commandment: love your neighbor as yourself., as did James: “If you really keep the royal law stated in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors“.

God doesn’t have one set of rules for the rich, powerful “winners” and another one for the poor, vulnerable, and forgotten “losers”. God cares about justice, and is still using courageous voices to remind us that God’s moral law is part of the design of the universe, and applies to everyone. And that’s good news to me.

 

How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:1-11

As a relative newcomer to the liturgical tradition, I’ve found the tradition of Lenten fasting rather an alien concept. Several years ago, I was asked to preach on the subject of fasting but wound up declining the opportunity when I learned that I was expected to talk about the spiritual benefits of going without food rather than what I wanted to talk about, which was more along the lines of what Isaiah says in this passage.  I don’t mean to denigrate those who have found fasting a helpful spiritual practice, but as Isaiah observes, there’s a great deal more to the concept of self-denial than not eating. In some cases, I think “giving up something for Lent” can be rather self-serving. Nobody seems to give up vegetables for Lent. The most common options seem to be less healthy choices like sweets, alcohol, and meat.

Isaiah says that God isn’t impressed with fasting when it is self-serving. If one does a little reading between the lines, it seems that the Israelites are fasting in an attempt to manipulate God, trying to perform a sort of magic ritual that will get God to do what they want. They dress and act the part they think God wants them to play, but God is not impressed. God wants to see transformed lives, not actors playing the role of true believers. Isaiah goes on to give specific examples of what God is looking for in the lives of those who claim to worship God.  Don’t use people in pursuit of your own ends. Stand up for those who cannot or dare not speak for themselves. Don’t just say you oppose injustice; do something to stop people from being unjustly treated. Help those who are in need instead of blaming them for their mistakes. Stop the hate speech and rumor-mongering, which all too often culminate in violent acts. God isn’t impressed by empty words and rituals. In fact, God probably thinks it is blasphemous to claim allegience to God when you ignore God’s consistant commands to seek justice and demonstrate kindness. God would rather see you doing the kinds of things that might demonstrate your ultimate loyalty is to God and not yourself, such as treating other people the way you would like to be treated if you were in their place.

Isaiah isn’t the only Hebrew prophet relaying such a message from God. They are pretty unanimous on the subject, along with the Psalmist and the collector of Proverbs. Today’s reading also includes Joel’s plea to “rend your hearts and not your garments” Amos, never one to mince words, understands God to be saying “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Micah puts it beautifully by asking and then answering his own question: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Hosea, in speaking for God, proclaims “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” which is quoted by Jesus several times.

Speaking of Jesus, he didn’t have very many nice words to say for the spiritual descendents of the Israelites whose empty religion the prophets condemned. “You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Neither did his brother James, who bluntly informed members of the early church that “faith without works is dead” and that “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James used the example of someone who encounters a cold, hungry person and instead of giving them a coat and something to eat, says “God bless you! Stay warm and eat well!” For James, words without corresponding actions were useless. It rather reminds me of the careless “thoughts and prayers” offered by many public figures in times of national tragedies. If thoughts and prayers don’t result in helping actions, what good are they?

I think that God is much more interested in how we treat other people than he is with a lot of things we think God wants. There are a lot of arcane laws and strange rituals described in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but Jesus told his followers, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Paul echoed this idea when he wrote to the Galatians,  “Serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s easy in retrospect to point fingers at the foolish Israelites who believed they could bend God to their will by reciting the right prayers and observing the right rituals. It’s easy to point fingers at the Pharisees who thought God is more concerned with rigid behavioral codes and rituals than transformed hearts. It’s harder to see the eighth-century Israelite or first-century Pharisee in ourselves. But I think it is critical that we do so, and not just individually. but corporately. It is sobering to me to see so many parallels and know that history repeats itself for those who will not learn from it.  Some very bad things happened to Sodom and Gomorrah because, as Ezekiel puts it, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Some very bad things happened to the nation of Israel when as a society they did not heed the words of the prophets. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, knowing the very bad things that would happen to them because they would not listen to the words of the prophets or to him. The  apocolyptic books of Daniel and Revelation use the graphic imagery of dreams as metaphors for the fall of entire nations.

I am afraid that in today’s world, religion has been similarly emptied of meaning in too many ways to discuss in one post. Like the ancient Israelites, we try to use God to get what we want. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, we mouth the words and perform the rituals, but our lives are not transformed.  It seems to me that although holding onto a form of Judeo-Christianity, many people’s loyalty is not really to the one God we see revealed in Jesus. Rather, we give our hearts and minds and souls to a pantheon of other gods including Mammon, Ares, Dionysius, Aphrodite, Narcissus, Caesar, and Trithereon, along with the gods we have created in our own image. I don’t think the real God is any more pleased with this kind of idolotrous synchronism than God was pleased when the Israelites tried to cover all their bases by adding the worship of Baal and Astarte to the worship of Yahweh.  I don’t think the real God is particulalry impressed when people act more like followers of the Pharisees than followers of Jesus. And from what I understand from studying the Bible and from history, our society is in a very dark place right now and the outlook for its future is not good. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lent is a reminder that humans are mortal and neither they nor the societies they build will last forever.

The good news is that God never gives up on us.  Isaiah 58 goes on to say that if only Israel will change her ways, things can be different. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Even Ninevah, which was about as high on the axis-of-evil badlist as they come, was spared when they changed their ways. The arc of the moral universe is long, but God is bending it inexorably towards justice. We can either help or find ourselves pushed out of the way.

 

 

 

 

Would Jesus Take a Knee?

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.  Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22

In one of the Facebook theological groups of which I am a member, someone posed the question, “Would Jesus stand with his hand over his heart during the national anthem, or would he take a knee?” Several people responded, making arguments for both options, but the answer I liked best was “He would probably do something surprising”, because that’s exactly what he did in the incident recorded in today’s gospel passage.

As the story of Jesus according to Matthew progresses toward its conclusion, the relationship between Jesus and the religious elite becomes more and more adversarial. After getting into a very public confrontation by chasing the money changers out of the Temple, Jesus tells several parables, all of which cast the religious leaders in a bad light. They respond by trying to publicly trip him up with “gotcha” questions, which is what they are doing in today’s reading. The question is designed to have no good answer. If he responds one way, he’s in trouble with the Roman government; if he responds the other way, he’s in trouble with the general public. As you may recall, crowds of people had just waved palm branches, welcoming Jesus into town as the messiah they hoped would liberate them from Roman oppression. It was a simple yes or no, forced-choice question, but instead of being entrapped in their no-win scenario, Jesus gives an answer no one had anticipated. It’s also an interesting detail to note that the religious leaders have no difficulty producing a denarius while within the confines of the temple courts, where this incident takes place. Part of the function of the money changers was to change Roman coins, which bore not only the idolatrous assertion that Caesar was a god but also his graven image, into shekels. Or was that rule only applicable to the little people, not to the one-percenters?  No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites!

Jesus says “give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s“. Devout Jews would have understood that everything belongs to God. As the psalmist Asaph wrote, we can’t “give” God anything except our loyalty. God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” and Job observed that “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praisedEverything comes from God and belongs to God, and the principle of stewardship teaches that God wants us to to use all God has given us responsibly and well, thinking not only of our own needs and wants but also those of others. There’s quite a lot in the Bible, especially in the writings of the prophets, applying this same principle to governments. Rulers are supposed to take care of the people who live under their governance, not just use their nation’s resources to indulge their own whims. They are supposed to be instruments of justice and righteousness, especially for the poor, widows and orphans. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” Furthermore, as the Bible tells it, God causes the fall of nation after nation when they abdicate these responsibilities, beginning with Sodom and continuing through dozens of others, including Israel and Judah.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s“, but what is Caesar’s, and what is God’s? Where is the line between patriotism and idolatry? It must have grated on Jewish nationalists to think that a large part of the taxes they paid to Rome went to finance the vast Roman military, including those who were brutally occupying their homeland. It would have also bothered devout Jewish people to think that part of the money they paid in taxes was used to fund pagan temples and their sacrifices to idols. This would not be dissimilar to those today who do not want their tax dollars being spent to pay for things they do not support or believe to be morally wrong, such as wars or birth control. It is also not dissimilar to those who take a knee during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest what they believe to be their nation’s unjust treatment of its minorities.

Instead of answering the question posed to him by the Pharisees and their frenemies the Herodians, Jesus asked them to think about where their ultimate loyalties lay, and left it up to them to decide what actions ought to be taken in light of those loyalties. And I think he’s asking us to do the same.

 

 

 

Psalms: An Ancient Hymnal

“He who sings prays twice”

For many years I’ve made it a practice to read the Bible all the way through, from Genesis to Revelation, each year. I hate to admit it, but Psalms is one of those places where I always get bogged down when reading straight through. (Psalm 119, in particular, seems to go on forever!) I seem to appreciate it best when taken in small doses, as in daily liturgical readings comprised of a short psalm or portions of the longer ones.

I feel a little less guilty about my reaction when I think of Psalms as a hymn book. Hymnals contain hundreds of songs, written by different people in different time periods, and expressing different thoughts and feelings, and I find myself drawn to different ones at different times based on what I am thinking and feeling. Some of them have better theologies than others, too. “In the Garden” resonates with many people, but it doesn’t have very much in the way of theological content. I’ve found myself appreciating it much more when I learned the song was written in an attempt to describe Mary Magdalene’s feelings on the first Easter morning. It’s not meant to be theological, but experiential.

The book of Psalms is really a hymnal, a collection of songs used in public and private worship, spanning several centuries. Many psalms are attributed to David, some to other recognizable Biblical figures, and some to unfamiliar songwriters.  Many times they include musical notations referencing tunes that must have been familiar to ancient peoples, but are completely lost to us today. We have only the words, not the melodies or the rhythmic structures, and even the poetry of the original words is not the same in translation. Sometimes there are introductory notes giving the background of the song, but often there are not, and so the context is another unknown.

Like modern hymns, the ancient psalms are diverse in content.  Some tell stories, such as those recalling God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Some express feelings of joy, gratitude, confidence, guilt, sorrow, anxiety, despair or anger, often using grand poetic metaphors. Some seem to have highly developed theologies, while others are best described as the venting of raw emotions. In some psalms, the composer is in ecstatic communion with the presence of God, while in others God seems to be distant, unhearing, and uncaring to the psalmist’s deep distress.

I think that diversity is one of the reasons the psalms continue to speak to people many centuries after they were written, who find themselves in many different circumstances. No matter what you are thinking or feeling, you can probably find a psalm that fits those thoughts and feelings. My favorite psalm is the first one I learned, Psalm 23, which reminds me that even when my life leads me through unknown pathways in dark and dangerous times, God is with me. And that’s good news.