God is Still Creating

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Jeremiah 18:1-11

Some understand the Bible as teaching that God created the world and/or the universe in seven days, and that was it. The heavens and the earth were complete, finished, so God rested from all his labors. There was nothing more that needed to be done.

But I think that kind of thinking has more in common with the watchmaker God of the eighteenth century Deists than it does with the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. There are many other metaphors in the Bible where God is shown to be continuously, actively, intimately involved in shaping the universe into what God wants it to be. Isaiah pictured God as a gardener clearing, digging, planting, and pruning. “I will sing for my beloved, a song of his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it up and cleared the stones and planted the finest vines. He built a watchtower in the middle and dug out a winepress as well. He waited for the vineyard to yield good grapes, but the fruit it produced was sour!” Paul, along with many of the prophets, uses childbirth as a metaphor for the struggle of creation to become all that God intends. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In today’s passage, Jeremiah compares God to a potter at his wheel.

It’s a beautiful, intimate picture. God is not some remote observer, waiting to see what will become of his creation, as the Deists (or Zager and Evans) imagined. God is willing to get God’s hands dirty in shaping reality into God’s intended design. In most of the sermons and songs I’ve heard, the potter metaphor is applied on an individual level. Humans are urged to yield their will to God in order to be part of God’s design. For example, Have Thine Own Way is an older hymn and The Potter’s Hand a more contemporary interpretation of this understanding of the metaphor.

But the passage as written in Jeremiah clearly applies not only to individuals, but to governments and entire nations, and not only to the nation of Israel. Of course, the Hebrew Bible is written from Israel’s point of view, but as I understand it God planned for Israel to be a light to the nations in order that God might bless the rest of the world. For that reason God seems to have held Israel to a higher standard than the surrounding nations. Although the other nations weren’t required to observe the holiness code of Israel, or even to understand God in the same way, God still had certain behavioral expectations of them. Governments are meant to serve their people, not enrich their rulers. Rulers are supposed to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society: the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. People should be kind, not cruel to others. If governments and people could not follow these simple rules, God would intervene, and it might not be pretty. “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.”

The potter metaphor teaches me that God isn’t passively observing us “from a distance“, but is still actively, creatively involved in bending the arc of the moral universe to specifications. As the children’s song goes, God’s still working on me, and God’s still working on the world as well. And that’s good news to me.

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Won’t You Be a Neighbor?

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

This week’s lectionary reading includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I am afraid is so overly familiar that it has lost much of its original impact. As is usual in Jesus’s storytelling, he takes an ordinary tale and adds a startling twist.

The ordinary tale was that of a man who was the victim of a vicious mugging. Then, as now, was distressingly common enough to perhaps not even make the evening news. The character of the injured man is, I think deliberately, not fleshed out. Was he a citizen or an immigrant? Did he take unnecessary risks in traveling alone down a road known to have been frequented by robbers? Was he unarmed, or armed yet overwhelmed by his assailants? Could he have been drinking and thus wasn’t paying sufficient attention to his surroundings? We don’t know his ethnicity or religion, or whether he was rich or poor. None of these things is important to the story. What is important is that he is a person who needed help.

The injured man was ignored by a priest and a Levite, who like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that occasioned this story, would have been among the educated, religious elite of the day. (Lawyer in this context is an expert in the Torah, a religious academic) The two men who crossed the road to avoid the victim should have known the Torah well enough to be aware that it was their moral responsibility to help the injured man. Why didn’t they? What excuse did they come up with to convince themselves to cross the road and leave the man to die? Like the priest and the Levite, the Bible scholar who questioned Jesus would have known the scriptures well enough to know there was no good justification for their actions. Again, Jesus doesn’t mention anything about what might be going on in their heads, and I think that was also deliberate. Jesus wanted those listening to the story, including us, to fill in the blanks with our own possible excuses for failing to help when it is within our power to do so.

The story takes an unexpected turn when a Samaritan, a despised outsider, stops to help the man and becomes the hero of Jesus’s story. Since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans had been spurned by the stringent religiously observant because their bloodlines were thought to be impure. Not all the people of Israel were deported to Assyria or Babylon at the time of the exile; some of “the poorer people of the land” were allowed to remain. When the exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they refused help from the locals because it was suspected that they might have intermarried with people who could not trace their ancestry back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Bad feelings between the two groups of God-worshipers intensified in the centuries between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus. Talk about polarization! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun“.

When the story ends, Jesus delivers a zinger. The lawyer had begun by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus changes the focus of the question by asking, “Who acted like a neighbor?” I don’t know if Jesus had ever studied the Socratic method of teaching, but he had it down pat. There was only one answer the lawyer could give: the Samaritan. Luke doesn’t tell us how this very serious student of the Bible reacted, but the inevitable answer must have felt like a punch to the gut. The Samaritans were despised by the lawyer and other “purebloods” for not obeying what they understood to be God’s clear command forbidding intermarriage with non-Israelites lest they fall into idolatry. Yet in this story it is not the priest, not the Levite, not the Torah scholar, but the Samaritan who understands the heart of the Torah best.

Who is my neighbor” is the wrong question. “Who is my neighbor” seeks to limit neighborly behavior to those who somehow deserve it. The question we should be asking ourselves instead is “am I being a neighbor?” If I am being a neighbor, I am not limiting my compassion to those who I think deserve it. If I am being a neighbor, I will try to help whoever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do so. My actions should not be dependent on what is in the heart of the other, but what is in my own heart.

God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God pours out his blessings on all of us freely, without regard for whether we deserve them our not. God showed his great love for us when Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God is continually asking us “Won’t you be my neighbor?” even when we run away from God and behave in very un-neighborly ways to each other. God invites us to “go and do likewise“and be a neighbor to everyone we meet on this road of life.

And that’s good news to me.

Mourning Tabitha

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

Quick Bible trivia question: Who was Tabitha?
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In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. Acts 9:36-43

We have an ancient (well, 1984 is practically ancient) edition of a board game, which is labeled “Bible Trivia:Where the Trivia is Not Trivial” Some of the “correct” answers given are debatable. What was your answer to my question about Tabitha? Did you answer “a woman Peter raised from the dead”, or did you answer “a woman known for doing good and helping those in need?

At least in the Southern Baptist culture in which I grew up, the answer would have definitely been the former. The emphasis would have been on Peter, and how he demonstrated the power of God by performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus did. Great emphasis would have also been placed on the evangelistic results of the miracle. In most sermons I heard dealing with this event, Tabitha herself seemed to be a mere prop in the story, a cipher of a woman important mainly for the role she played in advancing the message of the gospel.

But Tabitha wasn’t a cipher. She was doing exactly what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: using the talents and resources that she had to help others. She was greatly loved and greatly missed by all those she had helped. Had she not made such an impact on others, had their grief at her passing not been so vocal, would Peter have even been there to to perform his show-stopping miracle? Why is it that when most people remember the story, they remember Peter more than Tabitha?

One answer might be that Peter is a man, doing manly things like public preaching, and Tabitha is a woman, doing womanly things like sewing. and of course, most of the Bible was written by men. I’m afraid there is some truth in that. There were women who traveled with Jesus and provided financial support for his ministry, yet not nearly so many stories about them as there are about Jesus’s male disciples. There were women at the foot of the cross who watched Jesus die, while most of his male disciples had scattered into hiding. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women who had gone to Jesus’s tomb to perform a last (womanly?) service of caring for his body. In general, there are not nearly as many stories in the Bible of women of faith as there are of men of faith, and those we do have are often lacking in detail. Not only that, but in some cases the gender identity of prominent female disciples has been erased (Junia became Junias in some translations), or their moral character impugned.(Mary Magdalene) I’m sorry that we don’t know more about Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied, Phoebe , Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla (who some think may have written Hebrews) or the anonymous “chosen lady” in 2 John.

There’s another answer, and that’s that the human mind is naturally drawn to the novel, the unusual, and the showy, overlooking the ordinary moments which make up the bulk of our lives. “Man bites dog” makes the newspaper; “dog bites man” doesn’t. Raising someone from the dead definitely falls into the “man bites dog” category. It’s just not something you see every day. And although the human mind works that way, I think the mind of God sees things somewhat differently.

Jesus repeatedly taught variations on the theme of “the last shall be first, and the first last“. When he observes a poor widow putting her last two cents into the offering plate, he tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” He tells his squabbling disciples that the way to greatness lies in servanthood. and that ” it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The hero of his story about the Good Samaritan is not the expected religious leaders who play important roles in the life of God’s people, but a nobody, an outsider, a cipher. During his last night on earth, Jesus assumed the role of the lowliest of servants, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his disciples to go and do likewise, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. He bluntly warns that God’s idea of what is most important isn’t necessarily what tends to catch human attention. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

God isn’t more interested in man-bites-dog stories than in dog-bites-man stories. In fact, I doubt God is pleased with stories about biting anybody or anything. I think God would prefer stories about dogs that help humans, or humans that help dogs. God wants us to do good wherever and whenever we can, and God is more concerned about the intent behind our actions than how big or small it might be. Yes, God was pleased by what Peter was able to do, but God was equally pleased by what Tabitha was able to do. Both Peter and Tabitha were channels of God’s spirit of healing and love.

I mourn for all the Tabithas, those who are overlooked and their stories forgotten, whether it is because of their gender or because their acts of kindness are considered ordinary. But God doesn’t overlook or forget anyone. We are all important and beloved by God, and God notices the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And that’s good news to me.

Know Jesus, Know God

First Sunday After Epiphany

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” -Luke 3:21-22

In the Western church, Epiphany is associated with the coming of the Wise Men to visit baby Jesus, but in the Eastern church, Epiphany is associated most closely with the baptism of Jesus. I think the Eastern church has the correct focus. While it is certainly an important epiphany to realize that God is God for all people, not just a select few who happened to have been born in the right place from the right parents, the greatest epiphany of all is that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

NT Wright relates that in his role as a college chaplain, some of the incoming students would tell him. “You won’t be seeing much of me, because I don’t believe in God”. to which Wright replied, “That’s interesting. Which god is it that you don’t believe in?”  The student’s responses were usually along the lines of what Wright describes as “spy in the sky”, a celestial Santa Claus that watches you all the time, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice, and doles out candy or lumps of coal accordingly. Wright would then say, “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god; I don’t believe in that god either.”

I’ve had similar experiences with some of my former students, many of whom were professing Christians as high school students but are now professing atheists. I tell them I don’t believe in the “angry sky god” of the new atheist writers, either. God is not a cosmic policeman, a celestial Santa Claus, or Thor for that matter. The God in whom I trust (which is, by the way, a better word choice than “believe”) can best be seen in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus- what he taught, how he lived, how he treated people.

The story of Jesus’s baptism affirms Jesus as God’s special representative. “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased“. The same phrase is repeated toward the end of Jesus’s ministry at the Transfiguration.  I like the way the writer of Hebrews phrases it,

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.

In my mind, this passage expresses the thought that people have often had wrong, or at least incomplete, ideas about God. That includes not just those opposed to the idea of God, or nominal believers, but some very devout believers. Even Biblical characters are not exempt from having wrong ideas about God. For example Jephthah apparently thought God was okay with human sacrifice; otherwise why would he have made the foolish vow to sacrifice “whatever first comes out of my house to greet me should God give me victory” Jeremiah hears God saying of human sacrifice, “I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!” Even John the Baptist, who recognized Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, didn’t have a complete picture. The Gospel reading for today includes excerpts from John’s sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God sermons about winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. When Jesus didn’t turn out to behave in the ways John had expected, John wondered if he’d been mistaken. Jesus’s response was, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard–the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

During his ministry on earth, Jesus attempted to clarify what God was like and what God asks of the people of God. He compared God to a loving father, not an angry, capricious dictator. He instructed his disciples to address God as “father” in what we call the Lord’s prayer. The story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son could better be titled the parable of the Loving Father. When he instructed his disciples to love their enemies, he equated that to behaving like God: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” The God revealed by Jesus is not an “angry sky god”.

Jesus repeatedly condemned the kind of bad theology that harms other people. He hinted that some traditions which were considered of paramount importance by the people of God in his time were not so much God’s commands as traditions of human origin.He often used the phrase “you have heard it said….but I say to you to elaborate on or even change the meaning of the rules that should govern the lives of God’s people. For example, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” The God revealed by Jesus is not a cosmic policeman setting up a speed trap in order to punish violators.

Unlike some of the most religious people of his time, Jesus didn’t equate health and wealth as God’s reward for good behavior and sickness and poverty as God’s punishment for bad behavior.  John relates a story in which Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who was born blind. “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”The God revealed by Jesus is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out rewards to rule followers and punishments to rule breakers.

Jesus lived what he taught. He fed people who were hungry and healed people who were sick, without regard to whether they were worthy or not. He went to the cross for our sake, where some of his last words were “Father, forgive them.” If Jesus is the beloved son in whom God is pleased, if Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of  God’s being, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then Jesus’s words and actions are what shows us what God is really like.

Theology matters, and mistaken ideas about God have been the cause of some very terrible things throughout history. If you want to have the right ideas about God, and about how God expects humans to behave, look to Jesus. God is like Jesus.

And that’s good news to me.

 

Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ

 

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:13-14

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

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace. It is interesting to note that the assurance of peace is a motif that appeared both at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life and at the end of it. The angels proclaimed peace when Jesus was born, and Jesus reassured his disciples that his peace would remain with them, even when he was no longer physically present with them. But, as Jesus said, God’s definition of peace means something different than the way we usually understand the meaning of the word. 

The Pax Romana was a period of about two hundred years, during which the known world was relatively free from war, and which enjoyed relative domestic tranquility. This was accomplished through the power of the Roman Empire, which had had no serious international rivals since Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Domestic tranquility was assured through a heavy-handed law-and-order approach which brooked no dissent and offenders were severely punished. (Remember “Spartacus“?) 

When Jesus offered his peace to his followers, he wasn’t talking about the absence of conflict. In fact, he predicted that his coming would inevitably cause conflict between citizens of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. It did, and it still does, because the two realms are incompatible. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Citizens of the Kingdom of God have pledged allegiance to God, not to Caesar.  Citizens of the kingdoms of the world place their trust primarily in Mammon (money; capitalism unrestrained by ethics) or Ares (war; power achieved through force or coercion) 

Citizens of the Kingdom of God know that it is God alone who saves, and that salvation is not always a physical thing. As Victor Frankl expressed it in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” Jesus put it this way, “For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?One can be a billionaire and lead an empty, meaningless life. I think that’s one reason behind the substance addiction that seems so widespread in the families of celebrities, who are often very rich. And Alexander the Great reportedly wept after learning there were no more worlds for him to conquer. 

The Pax Romana eventually failed, as did the Pax Britannica centuries later, and as will the Pax Americana sooner or later. Many people have very different ideas about what causes the enforced peace of empires to crumble, but I think it’s because the idea that peace can be accomplished by force is innately wrong. That isn’t how God designed the moral universe to work. Lasting peace will come only through the Pax Christus, the peace of Christ.

So what is “the peace of Christ”? I think a clue can be found in the context of the Johannine passage, which promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within in us, and it doesn’t depend on external circumstances. It can’t be bought with money, or taken away by external force. As Paul expressed it,Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The peace of Christ is available to all who follow Jesus. When a person begins to do that...not just “believe”, but behave accordingly…they will begin to experience this kind of peace. This peace is not necessarily an absence of trouble or even anxiety, but an assurance that you are in good hands and on the right side of history. If enough people would begin to emulate Jesus in everything they say and do, how different…how peaceful….our world would be!

And that’s good news to me.

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.

 

The Last Lecture of Jesus

Ascension Day

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach  until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1-9

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Luke 24:45-53

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. Mark 16:15-20

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” John 21:15-19

According to the Acts passage, Jesus spent forty days following his resurrection being physically present with his followers. The gospel writers have somewhat differing accounts of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples, although the general message seems to be the same, especially insofar as Matthew and Luke/Acts are concerned. Jesus will no longer be around in human form, but he will always be with them in ways they don’t yet understand, and the disciples are commanded not only to follow his teachings, but to share them with others as well. The Markan passage, minus the snake handling and poison-drinking bits, is a little closer to what I was taught was the primary focus of the gospel: turn or burn.   However, the words attributed to Jesus by Mark do not occur in the earliest known copies of his gospel, and many scholars believe they may have been added some time later.  The last chapter of John doesn’t mention Jesus’s ascension, but a conversation with Peter where Jesus repeatedly tells Peter that the way to demonstrate his love and loyalty is by taking responsibility for the care of others. His final words to Peter, as John tells the story, are “Follow me”.

I grew up in the Baptist church, where we not only didn’t observe the liturgical calendar, we were somewhat proud of not doing so. So I don’t remember any special services or sermons commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven forty days after Easter. But oh boy, do I remember hearing about “the Great Commission”: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

In the Baptist understanding of the word, “witnessing” and the phrase “making disciples” were synonymous with what others might call “proselytizing”; that is, striving to convert people to our faith understanding. This often involved the spiritual equivalent of “cold calling”, starting a conversation along the lines of “If you were to die today do you know whether you would go to heaven or to hell?” If the person said no (and didn’t slam the actual or metaphorical door in your face) then you followed up with some version of the “Four Spiritual Laws” or used a Bible to point out the “Roman Road” ,hopefully leading the person to pray “the sinner’s prayer“, thus accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior”. But if Jesus were to physically walk among us today and observe what passes for “witnessing”, I think he might shake his head and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Jesus’s final instructions were to make disciples, which is not the same as getting someone to agree with a set of doctrinal statements or recite an incantation of magic words.  Following Jesus is a bit more demanding than that. It is a complete paradigm shift, a total change of orientation, a different way of seeing everything. For starters, it  means making an effort to act like Jesus in all our dealings with others. Jesus made it pretty clear that following him means consistently living the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Jesus didn’t seem to be as concerned with correct beliefs as many people today seem to be, and in fact warned that people could profess all the seemingly “correct” things, but not be on the same team at all. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the criteria God uses to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys is how they treated other people. There is no mention of belief in that parable, only behavior, and it seems that there are those on both sides who will be surprised by the final answer.

You will be my witnesses” isn’t a command, but a statement of fact. If Christians make the effort to “obey everything I have commanded you” (which is effectively summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) they are witnesses, and very compelling ones. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Conversely, when Christians do not make an attempt to obey the teachings of Jesus, yet claim association with him, they are not only uncompelling witnesses, but “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” because of their behavior. When it comes to “witnessing”, actions speak louder than words. Or, as the quote attributed to St. Francis goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Or, as Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The early Christians were first given that name because they had a reputation for acting…well, like Jesus.

In “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright postulates that many modern expressions of Christianity have sadly missed the mark Jesus set for us. He uses the term “platonized eschatology” to refer to the tendency to make faith in Jesus more about going to an idealized heaven after death rather than being about a way of life that also has the power to transform the world we live in. The “revolution” Wright sees Jesus as having started was to begin the Kingdom of God “on earth, as it is in heaven” in the here-and-now. The Kingdom of God would grow as a tiny mustard seed into a great tree with many nurturing branches, where all might come and find shelter. Christ’s atonement and resurrection made it possible for humans to begin to faithfully reflect the image of God in which they were created and to realize their true vocation- to join God in the task of putting right everything that has gone wrong in this world, and to enjoy the company of God and each other both here and hereafter.

As Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in the alternate universe we call heaven. As Handel envisioned in words and music, the kingdom of this world (power, money, and self-gratification) will become the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ. (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control). And that’s good news to me.