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.

 

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Joseph: You May Say That I’m a Dreamer

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. Genesis 50: 15-21

The Joseph stories, found in Genesis 37-50, have always been among my favorite Bible stories, and I particularly love the conclusion to his saga as told in today’s  reading. Joseph’s story begins in Genesis 37, where he is the pampered and probably somewhat spoiled eleventh son of Jacob. It doesn’t help the family dynamics that he is the son of Jacob’s favored wife Rachel, who died giving birth to Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin. Although Benjamin is also given special treatment by his aging father, it is Joseph who bears the brunt of his older half-brothers’ anger and jealousy. Joseph’s personality probably had a fair amount to do with that, as he seems to have had a tendency to flaunt his superior status. The ten older brothers cook up a plot to kill Joseph and make it look like an accident, but relent when an opportunity arises to make a few bucks as well as getting rid of their annoying little brother. Instead of killing Joseph, they sell him to slave traders, who carry him off to Egypt in chains. There he undergoes quite a few more trials and tribulations before eventually rising to power as Pharaoh’s second-in-command. He had learned to harness the power of his dreams not only to promote himself, but to advance the welfare of others. Joseph uses his position of authority not only to save Egypt and his family from famine, but also to make Pharaoh a tidy little profit in the bargain. When Jacob finally dies of old age, it sends Joseph’s guilty brothers into a bit of a panic. What if Joseph, no longer constrained by consideration for his father’s feelings, decides it’s payback time? Instead, Joseph responds, “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” And unlike his great-great-great-many times nephew David, Joseph really means what he says. He has changed, and so have his brothers.

I think one of the reasons I like the Joseph story so much is that I can relate to it in several ways. I was a precocious but not very socially aware child, and as a result was frequently ostracized and sometimes bullied. The bullying was usually verbal, but sometimes physical. Usually I could outrun or pedal faster than my would-be tormentors, and escape their intended harm to my person. However, on one occasion when I was walking to school, one of the patrol-boys (this dates me, I know!) deliberately kept me waiting at a crosswalk long enough for a second child to come up from behind and repeatedly hit my back with a plastic golf club. My desire for self-preservation took precedence over my desire to follow the rules, and I took off running and stormed into the principal’s office to report the incident. I remember being quite upset with both my parents and my school because as far as I knew, my attackers were never punished. In retrospect, perhaps that is why “The Count of Monte Cristo” became one of my favorite books for the next few years. Fast forward to about fifty years later, when people began finding long-lost and forgotten classmates through social media. The golf club incident had not been part of my conscious mind for decades. Out of the blue I was contacted by the man the patrol-boy had grown up to be, apologizing and asking for my forgiveness! I had thought that he wasn’t punished, but he told me that not only was he permanently banned from being a patrol-boy, he had been tormented for years remembering and regretting the incident and his part in it.

When I received his first email, I couldn’t help but think of the Joseph story. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”, because that was how I feel about my painful past now. In retrospect I see that even the bad things that happened in my life have helped mold me into who I am now. I became quite analytical about improving my social skills, and eventually got pretty good at them.  Because I knew first hand how painful it is to be ostracized and teased, I became very sensitive to picking up on the suffering of others, as well as a fierce advocate for the underdog.  I grew out of my Alexandre Dumas-inspired revenge fantasies, and sought instead to become a “wounded healer”. to use my painful experiences as a springboard to help others in pain. My former classmate and I continued to correspond up until the time of his death several years ago. Both of us had changed for the better over the years, and both of us attributed those changes to the working of God in our hearts and minds.

Centuries after the time of Joseph but long before my time, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul understood what Joseph was talking about, although I think this verse is often misunderstood and misapplied in harmful ways. There are some people who believe so strongly in the sovereignty of God that they think that if something bad happens, God caused it to happen for a reason. I find this kind of thinking disturbing theologically as well as psychologically harmful to the people to whom it is often directed. When someone loses a child, I don’t think it’s because God needed another angel. When someone loses a job, has their home destroyed by a hurricane, or gets cancer, I don’t think it’s because God wants to teach them a lesson of some kind. I don’t think that’s the moral of the Joseph story, or what Paul understood about the nature of God either. The way I see it, bad things can and will happen to all of us. Sometimes these are the result of our own mistakes, but more often they are the result of other people’s bad intentions or bad choices, or just plain bad luck.  It is how we respond to the bad things in life that determine whether we are broken or made stronger by them. We can turn inward and be consumed by despair and anger and regret, or we can turn to God, who is able to turn suffering into hope.

I understand the character of God to be a creative, redemptive force for good in the universe. For me, God is not a puppet master, but a beloved companion. When bad things happen, God is with us, weeping with us, striving to help us weave the broken threads together into something good and true. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, working with and through us for the transformation of our lives and of our world. And that’s good news to me.

 

How to Live in “Interesting Times”

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-24

This week’s Romans passage has been on my mind a lot this week, particularly the verse about “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It seems I’ve been antagonizing, and being antagonized by, Facebook friends left and right a great deal during this past week. My discomfort with my friends on the right had to do with the “Nashville statement”,  much of with which I do not agree, and my discomfort with my friends on the left had to do with the aggressively violent components of antifa, with which I also do not agree. I find these “conversations” extremely emotionally distressing because I’m a peacemaker by nature. I try to make connections with people, and to find common ground. But I also am a person who believes it is important to stand up for love, kindness, justice, and fairness. Like Jeremiah, I find it impossible to keep my mouth shut (or typing fingers still) at times, because it becomes “in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” It might make my life easier if I stuck to posting only cute kitten pictures and happy thoughts, but I just can’t remain silent in the face of injustice or unkindness. I get especially upset when I see people expressing thoughts and exhibiting behaviors that drive people away from God, for I think that having a relationship with God is of great benefit.  I have quite a few friends who have been driven from the arms of God into the arms of atheism by those who think they are “watchmen” doing God’s work.  I don’t think that barring the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven to all who do not agree with a particular understanding of God, or of scripture, is doing God’s work. I think we are supposed to be witnesses to what God has done in our own lives, not watchmen telling other people what they are doing wrong in theirs. And so, I really appreciate Paul’s acknowledgement that no matter how hard I try, it may not always be possible to get along with all people at all times.

We live in “interesting times”, but the times the Roman Christians to whom Paul wrote this passage were no less “interesting”, challenging and dangerous. They lived under the whims of a succession of dangerously megalomaniac emperors– Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. They were looked upon with suspicion and distrust by the dominant established religious, political, and cultural systems, who invented all kinds of wild “fake news” stories about the nascent Christian movement. Rumors were spread that Christians practiced cannibalism during the Lord’s supper; that their “love feasts” were orgiastic; that they started the Great Fire of Rome. Given their precarious circumstances, it seems quite reasonable that Paul would have urged them to keep their heads down and not go looking for trouble, as he does later in Romans 13. Don’t make unnecessary waves. When in Afghanistan, wear a burqa. Perhaps those survival practicalities also lay behind his admonition to attempt to “live peaceably with all“. But I also remember the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who contended against “those crying ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” I don’t think it’s okay with God to pretend everything is good when it’s not, especially when remaining silent might cause harm.

So how do we strike a balance between “living peaceably with all” while living lives that are a faithful testimony to the Way of Jesus? How do we apply Paul’s words to the Roman Christians in our own place and time? I think the key is in what Paul calls “genuine love”. Everything we say and do ought to demonstrate love. If there is to be any competition between followers of Jesus, it ought to be in showing love. By showing love to others, we are serving God. When Paul talks about holding fast to the good and hating evil, I don’t think he was talking about strict observance of the Mosaic purity laws or the Greco-Roman household codes.  I certainly don’t think he was talking about passing moral judgement on those who violate those laws, for that goes counter to the overall message of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus’s harshest words were not for “sinners”, but for the Pharisees who were careful to observe all the laws of Moses. His highest praises were not for the religiously observant, but for those who worked to improve the welfare of others. Paul was once the epitome of a good Pharisee, not only in his strict personal adherence to the Mosaic laws, but also in his zealous persecution of the early followers of Jesus. He hounded, imprisoned, and was a party to the murder of the first Christians precisely because he believed their theology was dangerous, wrong and harmful.  In hindsight he came to consider all his previous “godly”behavior less than worthless. (“Rubbish” in the RSV; “dung” in the KJV; “garbage” in the NIV)  When Paul talks about “good” and “evil” here, I think he is talking about doing things that help people versus doing things that hurt people. “Do unto others as you would like for them to unto you.” as Jesus phrased it, which is entirely consistent with the teaching of  Hillel, the grandfather of Paul’s mentor Gamaliel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  Paul goes on to give several concrete examples of what this kind of genuine love looks like in action in his time and place. Here’s what this passage says to me in my own time and place.

First, be optimistic about the future. There is a God, and he is working to bend the arc of the moral universe toward his design of justice and love. How quickly he is able to do that depends a great deal on whether we work with him or against him in the bending process. We’re not there yet, not by a long shot, so suffering is inevitable. When suffering comes, “why did this happen to me?” is the wrong question to ask. Attempting to answer that question will most likely lead to assigning blame to God, self, or others. Instead of looking for someone to blame, be patient.  Patience is not endurance for endurance’s sake; rather it is active. Patience asks, “How can I best get through this?”, and “What can I learn from this”, and “How can I use this to help others?” Instead of cursing the darkness, patience sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and actively struggles to reach it.

Acknowledging that “stuff happens”, and refusing to assign blame for it, leads us to do what we can to mitigate the suffering of others. Offer thoughts and prayers for those caught in the midst of tragedy, but let those thoughts and prayers lead you to assist in material ways. As James put it, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that?” When bad things happen, we shouldn’t ask if someone is deserving of our help; we should ask how we can help. I think Jesus was pretty clear about that in his  conversation about the man born blind. Prevailing religious thought in the time of Jesus was that God rewarded the good and punished the bad. If someone was sick or poor, they must have done something to deserve their fate. Therefore, either the blind man had somehow sinned prenatally (original sin?) or his parents had done something wrong. This thinking is not dissimilar from some of the “blame the victim” and “prosperity gospel” theologies popular in some circles today. Rather than assign blame, Jesus took the opportunity to help, showing us by his example that we ought to do the same.

Have empathy: put yourself in another’s shoes and feel what they are feeling without overwriting their experience with your own thoughts and feelings. Share in the joys and sorrows of others without being jealous or judgemental.   You can’t raise yourself up by bringing others down, either by blaming them for their own misfortunes or by shaming their joys. I think blame can be a form of magical thinking, and shame a form of arrogance. This happened to you because you did x, y, and z. Since I do a, b, and c instead, what happened to you will never happen to me. Or: I’m morally superior to you because I did m, and you did n.  Judas objected to Mary’s waste of an expensive perfume, telling her it could have been put to better uses, but Jesus praised her.

Be humble:  Don’t think that you alone have all the correct answers, and it is your responsibility to convince others to come around to your way of thinking. I get especially tired of people using the phrase “the Bible clearly says” in an attempt to “correct” someone else’s thinking. First of all, using the Bible as an argument doesn’t work with people who don’t believe God speaks through it. Secondly, “the Bible clearly says” arguments have been used in defense of all kinds of horrible things in the past, including slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples by European invaders. Cultivate the ability to listen and learn from others and from history. If the Bible were completely clear as some like to think it is, there wouldn’t be thousands of different denominations. Humility doesn’t mean self-abasement, but neither is it condescending to others. It takes humility to understand that the lenses through which you understand the Bible or see reality are unique to you, and quite possibly do not yield perfect vision. For now we see through a glass, darkly, I also like the way Doctor Who phrased it, “Nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

Don’t try to get even. It doesn’t work,  and remember that the means are equally as important as the ends. Those who use evil means with the intention of achieving a good result are in danger of becoming just as bad as the evil they oppose. I’m reminded of the last lines in “Animal Farm: ““The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The only lasting way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Because I believe the image of God is stamped indelibly on every human soul, I do not believe that certain people lack a conscience, even when they behave as though they don’t have one. Even Darth Vader found redemption in the end, and I might point out that his conscience was not awakened at the point of Luke’s lightsaber, but through their relationship.  As Martin Luther King observed, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But I’m going to keep working on it.

 

Total Eclipse of the Mind

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:1-8

2017-08-21 11.27.28

We’ve just returned from a ten-day vacation planned around viewing the total eclipse of the sun. We chose a location in rural Idaho where there would be a good chance of an unclouded day, purchased ISO-certified eclipse glasses, booked an overpriced room in a rundown motel in Boise, and drove off in our minivan. On the way there and back,we visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as well as Zion, Bryce, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, and Arches National Parks. The highlight of the trip was, of course, experiencing the eclipse. I’ve seen photographs and videos of eclipses, but as Old Rose said to the treasure-hunters in “Titanic”, the experience itself was… somewhat different. “Magical” might approach being an appropriate descriptor. As we took peeks through our eclipse glasses at the ever-waning crescent of the sun, the temperature dropped and the colors of the landscape changed. When the moment of totality arrived, it was sudden, like flipping off the lights. We took off our eclipse glasses and as we gazed in awe at the fiery corona and the surreal landscape, we heard the people in a nearby town break out in cheering. Nobody was thinking about, much less opining about, the political news of the day.  For two short minutes the world was transformed.

In today’s Epistle passage, Paul writes to the Romans that as they present their lives to God, they will be transformed. Much as the eclipse dramatically changed everything around us, followers of Jesus who are growing in their faith will start to see the world and their part in it in new ways. Unlike the eclipse, the transformation is meant to be permanent and ongoing. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Don’t be conformed to this world“. The world as it is is not the way God imagined or planned for it. Its values are seriously distorted. God did not plan a dog-eat-dog world, where it’s every man for himself, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. Jesus summed up God’s values pretty clearly when he answered a first-century biblical scholar’s question,  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The Sermon on the Mount elaborates on the same theme in more detail, giving many specific examples of what “love your neighbor as yourself” means. In many ways God’s values are the exact opposite of the world’s values. The world apart from God sees life as a zero-sum game with winners and losers, but God wants everyone to be a winner. The world apart from God values competition, but God values cooperation. The world apart from God values power and control, but God values love and kindness. The world apart from God thinks that greed is good, but God thinks that giving is the better way. “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” The world apart from God believes that if someone wrongs you, you should get even, but God values forgiveness “even seventy times seven“. God’s values can be seen in what Paul calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit”- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.

But be transformed by the renewing of your mind“. I really like this phrase. It implies active cooperation with God in order for the transformation to take place. Very rarely does God dramatically change on a person overnight; it’s usually a gradual metamorphosis that evolves over time. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that changing your thinking is the key to changing your emotions, but changing your thinking isn’t easy or automatic. It takes work and practice.  “Renewing of your mind” to me means studying and learning from the life and teachings of Jesus as they were recorded by his earliest followers. It means thinking about what Jesus might do if he walked the earth today and figuring out how his teachings can be applied in the place and time in which we live. It means getting outside myself through meditative prayer practices, learning to ignore my racing and anxious thoughts enough to experience the presence of God.

So that you may discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Some people see the Bible as “God’s instruction book”. Although I think I understand where they are coming from, I don’t see it quite that way. For one thing, I’ve seen verses taken out of their context and used to justify whatever the Bible-quoter wanted them to justify. You can’t just string random verses together and make God say whatever you want him to say. There’s an old joke about a man whose devotional reading consisted of cracking his Bible at random and reading the first verse his finger touched. One morning this was his verse for the day: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” That can’t be it, he thought. So he tried again. “Go thou and do likewise” was his second hit. Chagrined, he thought,The third time is a charm! It wasn’t. It read: “What thou doest, do quickly!” The joke is recognizably silly, but I’ve seen a church with screamingly large lettering on its side,  “Master, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”…”Keep my commandments” The question comes from the story of the rich young ruler but the answer written on the side of the church is more in line with the rich young ruler’s thinking than that of Jesus! Then there are the contradictory bits of advice, such as this advice from Proverbs on arguing with fools. I like to think of the Bible more like a recipe with lots of variations than a step-by-step “how to” document. There are certain basic ingredients and processes involved in making a cake, but a huge diversity of possible flavors and adaptations. That’s what the “discerning” piece of the verse above means to me. God has given us the basic ingredients in the Greatest Commandment and the Golden Rule, and those are non-negotiable. But he’s also given us a great deal of latitude in how to carry those out, and I think we’re meant to adapt our recipes to our own times and places.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Don’t let all the bad things in the world influence your thinking and behavior. Instead, work on learning to see the world as God wants it to be.  As you do, you may find yourself both transformed and a transforming force for good. That’s what I mean by a total eclipse of the mind!

 

 

 

 

 

The Kingdom of Heaven: Pie in the Sky or Arc of the Moral Universe?

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-53

I had a couple of ideas involving news stories as writing prompts this week, but decided to go back to the liturgical calendar for theological reasons. Karl Barth is widely quoted as saying that one should “read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”, but there’s an important addition often omitted from that statement: “But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”. Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?’”

The problem (at least for me) in using news stories as writing prompts is that it winds up being primarily the news story that is speaking to me, rather than the Bible. It’s too easy for me to read a news story and think of related scriptural passages, and if I am entirely honest, to think mainly of those passages which support my point of view. Reading and reflecting on the Bible systematically forces me to think outside my own confirmation-bias boxes. And that, I think, is a major part of spiritual formation. We are not supposed to use God for our own purposes; we are supposed to be transformed by God.  Don’t be conformed to the pattern of the world, writes Paul to the Romans. Rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus uses several metaphors in an attempt to explain the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God to his followers. Matthew prefers the term “kingdom of heaven” whereas Luke and Mark use “kingdom of God”. They refer to the same thing: the world as it was meant to be rather than the way it is. One explanation for the difference in terminology is that Matthew, who was Jewish, was uncomfortable using or even writing the name of God, whereas the Gentile writers Luke and Mark were not. The metaphor of the mustard seed is found in all three synoptic gospels; the leaven metaphor is found in both Matthew and Luke; and the metaphors of the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fisherman’s net are found only in Matthew. (Click here for an interesting chart which compares the parables of Jesus in different sources).

Jesus often used metaphors and stories to explain concepts which were otherwise difficult for his listeners to understand. The writers of the gospels collected these sayings and stories and compiled them to suit their own unique narrative perspectives. I like stories. They are often truer than facts, and they frequently have the ability to speak across time and space. We can read the parables of Jesus today through our own lenses of life experience and longing, and they can speak to us where we are as meaningfully as they did to those who first heard them. Here’s what these parables of the kingdom are saying to me today.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a mustard seed. It begins as something very small and seemingly insignificant, but it takes root and grows into something that cannot be overlooked, something which provides food and shelter to the birds who take refuge in its many branches. The mustard plant is rooted in the earth, not the sky, and it exists not only for itself, but to meet the needs of others. That’s how God designed the world to be. The kingdom of heaven is not so much “pie in the sky by and by” as it is God bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice.    As N T Wright has written in “The Day The Revolution Began”, pie-in-the-sky theologies are a form of “Platonized eschatology” that bears little resemblance to the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Although I certainly hope to enjoy pie at the heavenly banquet one day, the Kingdom of God is something that God intends to intrude into our present reality.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like a woman kneading bread. If you’ve ever kneaded bread by hand, you know that a fair amount of work is involved in the process. You don’t just toss the ingredients in a pan and wait for it to rise. You have to push and pull and manipulate the dough, adding additional flour or water as needed, until it is firm and elastic and no longer sticky. Only then do you wait for the yeast to work its magic and the bread to rise. Again, the metaphor implies that the kingdom of God starts small and grows into something big, but in this case human effort is also involved. God expects the effort and involvement of human beings in the bending of the arc of the moral universe to his design.

God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is like buried treasure or a very expensive piece of jewelry. It’s valuable, but it is also costly. The person who finds hidden treasure forgotten in a field, or the merchant in search of fine gems, think that their finds are so valuable that they happily liquidate all their other assets. Do we feel the same way when it comes to following the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus? When we reduce the kingdom of heaven to a get-out-of-jail free card easily obtainable by assenting to a correct set of theological beliefs, we’re in danger of succumbing to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the fallacy of “cheap grace“. Not only that, we’re also in danger of missing out on the full value of the treasure God wants for us- and the entire created world- to have.

The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman sorting his catch, keeping that which is good and getting rid of what is bad. Unlike the previous parables, this one implies that the road to the kingdom of God isn’t pot-hole free. In the words of Frederick Buechner,  “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid”.  I have vivid memories of “going shrimping” as a child growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Shrimping involves casting out and pulling a large net behind a slow-moving boat for an extended period of time. After sufficient time had elapsed, we’d haul in the net and begin the process of sorting our catch. We kept the shrimp, crabs, and other tasty edibles, but threw back pinfish and other “trash” fish, along with rocks, oyster shells, and assorted useless debris. We had to watch out for stingrays, which were sometimes embedded in the nets, and could inflict a painful wound if you weren’t careful. Those we chopped up and used for crab bait. It’s interesting that this parable is the only one in this set that is given an explanation. The most interesting piece to me isn’t that there is an element of judgement, although I certainly hope not to be found useful only for crab bait. It’s that human beings aren’t in charge of the judging. God seems to cast a pretty wide net while trolling for citizens of his kingdom. Maybe we should, too.

 

 

 

I Solemnly Swear That I Am Up To No Good

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5)

In the Harry Potter novels, the Marauder’s Map is accessed by the use of the passphrase “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good”. Rowling intended this to be a bit ironic, because generally her characters used the map for good, although possibly rule-breaking, purposes. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus elaborates on the commandment  “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Jesus goes beyond the rule to the principles of honesty and loyalty that underpin it. Don’t promise something you have no intention of delivering, or can’t deliver.

When I was a child, I thought the Third Commandment referred to “cussing”, meaning using “bad words”, some of which strangely enough had more to do with bodily functions than with God. Adhering to that understanding of one of the Big Ten might have kept me out of trouble with parents and teachers, but that’s not at all how I understand that commandment now. Most modern translations of the Hebrew words phrase it “you shall not misuse the name of God”, and there are many passages in the Old Testament which give examples of the proper and improper use of oath-taking. Using God’s name to promise something was a kind of unbreakable vow, at least for men; a woman’s vow could be overruled by her father or husband. Whatever you promised in God’s name had to be done, even if it turned out to be a rash statement, as Jephthah learned to his sorrow. A modern parallel might be the courtroom custom of placing one’s hand on the Bible and swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

The problem with attempting to regulate moral behavior with rules instead of principles is that it does not always work. People look for and find loopholes or twist the intended purpose of the law in order to benefit themselves, and that does not make God happy. In Matthew 23, Jesus gives one example of such behavior in his time, coupled with a strong warning that it is highly displeasing to God. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes it sacred?”  Today anyone who keeps up with the news is painfully aware of how often political figures distort the truth to serve their own purposes, make empty promises, and/or dance around the edges of perjury. And don’t get me started on people who claim that God wants you to send them money, or that God told them to run for political office, or that God told them to commit acts of violence and hate in his name. I think God gets especially mad when people use his name to say and do things that drive people away from God. As Paul put it, God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” 

Using God’s name in vain is serious business, and God’s name is used in vain when it is invoked to make promises that won’t be fulfilled, or when it is used to justify human behavior that it is self-serving or harmful to others. Just leave God’s name out of it, Jesus says. Say what you mean and mean what you say. A tree will be known by its fruits, and if you regularly practice the principles of honesty, loyalty, and commitment that will be readily apparent to others as well as pleasing to God.