One, Two, Three…Infinity

Trinity Sunday, Year C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spoiler Alert: God Wins the Endgame

Third Sunday in Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magnificat and the Arc of the Moral Universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The second commandment overlaps the first quite a bit, so much so that in some faith traditions the two are combined. While the first commandment is concerned with putting God first, the second specifically deals with symbols for the kind of things that might be given priority over God. Depending on the translation, these may be called “idols”, “carved images”, “likenesses”, or “statues”, and the categories used to describe these were quite broad. Most scholars believe that it was not images per se that were forbidden, but the worship of those images. However,  there are some Biblical literalists who disagree. The Protestant reformers  in Tudor England went about destroying religious works of art quite zealously. and there are many other examples of iconoclasm throughout history. An internet search on the phrase “graven images” will show you that there are people who hold to that line of thought today. One site I visited even suggested that allowing children to play with stuffed animals was a violation of this commandment, and might create an opening for demonic attack. (Cue theme from “The Exorcist.”)

Since I am not a literalist, I tend to agree with the idea that it is not the “likenesses” themselves that are a problem, but idolatry, or prioritizing anything above God. God is not particularly concerned with the family pictures or artwork I display on my walls, or my Instagram pictures of cats, but God is concerned that I have the right priorities. Anything that is given priority over God’s prime directive of love can become an idol. It is not things themselves that are bad, but the wrong use of things, and even good things can become idols. Each one of the “seven deadly sins” can be seen as idolatry: the result of taking something good and elevating it to a bad extreme. And symbols which might have represented one thing at one time can come to represent something entirely different at another time. When the created symbol becomes more important than the reason it was created, bad consequences are sure to follow.

There’s a story in Numbers about a bronze snake that God commands Moses to make intended to be an instrument of divine healing. Many years later, the writer of the book of Kings commends Hezekiah for destroying it   because it had become an object of worship.. It seems to me that the meaning of the symbol had changed over the years. Where once it was used by God as an instrument of healing, it came to mean something different in Hezekiah’s time. Perhaps they still saw it as a source of healing, but one that was under their control instead of God’s. Burn a pinch of incense, say the right words, and you would be healed. God has become a peripheral part of the equation, subject to the magical properties of the symbol. The story reminds me of the proliferation of relics in the medieval Catholic church, which were often viewed as having magical healing properties.

When I think of the de-evolution of the bronze snake into an idol, I can’t help but think of the quasi-idolatry demonstrated by some in connection with the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. As I understand it, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were meant to be symbols of the freedom and unity enshrined in our Constitution.”One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The brouhahas over standing vs sitting vs kneeling when the National Anthem is sung have eclipsed the original meaning of these symbols; it seems the symbols have become more important than the reasons they were created. If the flag “still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” why shouldn’t a person have the liberty to stand or sit or kneel as they choose? I suppose freedom also means a person attending a sporting event has the right to drink beer, talk to neighbors in the stands, or peruse a smartphone during the national anthem, although I personally wouldn’t opt to do those things. As I understand it, those who choose to kneel are doing it because they do believe in freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and love America enough to want to see those ideals more fully realized. And I’m really not sure how the idea that not standing is meant to convey a lack of support for those serving our country in the military got into this equation at all. Just as the Israelites forgot the original purpose of the bronze snake, I’m afraid that the meaning of the flag as a symbol of freedom and equality has become distorted into something different. Unity in conformity has replaced unity in diversity.

And while I’m busily alienating those who don’t agree with me about this, I don’t think national flags belong in churches, either, especially not front and center on the platform, and certainly not as the focal point of a worship service. I’m all for celebrating Fourth of July with flags and parades and fireworks and patriotic songs, but to me those patriotic displays belong in a secular setting, not in a church. I’m pretty uncomfortable when love for God is conflated with love for country. As a Christian, my primary allegiance is to God and the kingdom of God, which transcends all national boundaries. As the writer of Revelation envisioned heaven  “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  I really am concerned that, for some people, the American flag has become an idol, one which is elevated in practice if not in name above God. And of course, this is only one example of a misused symbol.

“Thou shalt not make any graven images”. I’m afraid the human race hasn’t outgrown the siren song of idolatry. And as Moses warned, when we listen to it we endanger not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children.

 

Revelation:To Hell with Hell

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades”

“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire”

I began this year’s adventure in blogging through the Bible with the idea of “wrestling with God”. In a way, that has been the story of my spiritual journey my whole life. I’ve never been satisfied with a second-hand faith, with believing whatever others tell me without question, and never asking “why”. I want more out of my relationship with God; I want to “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” day by day. That isn’t easy. There are always folks who want to tell you that if you step outside the boundary lines of what you’ve always been told, you are on a slippery slope to hell, with one foot on a banana peel. Maybe that’s where I am. All I can say with any surety is that “I know in whom I have believed, and am committed that he is able, to keep that which I’ve committed, unto him against that day.”

Revelation is an enigmatic book, one that I think lends itself to multiple interpretations and layers of meaning. One of my strongest memories of what I think of as my transition to adult faith (but which others think was the beginning of my slide into heresy) was a bible study I attended at the BSU during my senior year in college. For the first time, I heard that there might be different ways to understand and interpret Revelation. I was intrigued, but the friend who accompanied me was horrified. (See Wikipedia article here, which I think gives a pretty good idea of the diversity of opinion regarding it)  The best approach I’ve found to Revelation is to think of it like dream imagery: full of symbols that are meaningful, but not necessarily literal. I don’t see it as some kind of time-machine window into the future,  but as a symbolic rendering of truth: God will write the final chapter. No matter how bad things seem to be going in the battle between Team Love and Team Hate, in the end the good guys will win. The wrong will fail, the right prevail, and God himself will put right everything that once went wrong

When John had his visions on the isle of Patmos, Christians were under terrible persecution, probably under Domitian, who was heavily invested in making Rome great again by forcing a return to its traditions (pagan) values..The faith was also under siege from within, in the form of variations of Gnostic teaching including the Nicolatians mentioned in the warning to the churches in Ephesus and Pergamum. Jesus had not returned as soon as expected, and the eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection were fast dying out. Had they been mistaken in their faith? What was going to happen to them?  John’s visions as recorded in the book of Revelation would have been a great source of comfort and reassurance to them, as well as an exhortation to not give up. John tries to put his vision of worship in heaven into words  (I like the musical interpretation of these chapters here) and follows that up with many chapters detailing how their oppressors are going to get what’s coming to them. Babylon, which would most likely be understood by John’s readers as code for Rome, would fall, and party time in heaven would commence. Evil would finally be defeated, once and forever, and all God’s people would live happily ever after. “See, the home of God is among mortals.He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.”

What intrigues me most on this year’s read-through of Revelation is the idea that hell itself, along with death and assorted bad characters, will be thrown into the lake of fire. If hell is the “eternal conscious torment” popularized by Dante and Jonathan Edwards, how can hell be thrown into hell? Or is the “lake of fire” a metaphor, one that  “spells the end of sin and wrong?”  There have been quite a few very serious Biblical scholars over many centuries who have come to quite different conclusions about what hell is, who goes there, and how long they might be there. This includes some from very early in the first centuries of the church, before the split between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. A few years ago, Rob Bell got into quite a bit of trouble for his book “Love Wins”, which I didn’t find too terribly different from C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”. Richard Rohr, along with a number of others, seems to following the same line of thought.

Revelation assures us that it is Jesus who has the keys to death and hell, so it is Jesus who will make the final call. I think of the parables Jesus told of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, and I can’t help but hope that God’s love will indeed win, and that hell, now vacant, will finally be thrown into hell and destroyed. And that would be very good news indeed!