“Believe” is an Action Verb

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

“God prefers kind atheists to hateful Christians”- Internet meme

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew 21 contains another one of Jesus’s parables which is puzzling if taken out of context, but becomes more obvious when read in the context in which Matthew chose to place it.  Matthew 21 begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. The religious powers-that-be are disturbed by these events, which makes me think they knew exactly what Jesus meant by his actions, and didn’t like it. They try posing a “gotcha” question to Jesus, only to find themselves successfully deflected. If that weren’t annoying enough, he then proceeds to tell two stories which make the same point as his actions, only one of which is included in today’s reading. You really should read the whole chapter, which I’ve hyperlinked above, but here’s today’s portion:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Matthew 21:23-32

The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation among most Christians today, but when I try to place myself in their shoes, I can not only understand where they were coming from, but see their counterpoints today. Most of the narrative parts of their sacred scriptures repeatedly conveyed the same message: God chose the nation of Israel to be his special people, and Moses gave them the laws God wanted them to follow. When they obeyed, good things happened and when they didn’t, bad things happened. Eventually God became fed up with their disobedience, and allowed their nation to be conquered by foreign powers, who exiled many of their people and occupied the rest. Through the crucible of the Exile, a faithful remnant decided that this must never happen again. They would be very careful to observe all the laws of Moses exactly, and make sure others did the same. Just to make sure no one got anywhere near stepping over the red lines they understood God had drawn, they would “build a fence around the Torah“. (An interesting article on the Men of the Great Assembly can be found here)

Thus it comes as no surprise that most, although not all, of the Pharisees of Jesus’s time saw him as a dangerous and heretical figure. While the Pharisees taught rules, Jesus taught the principles underlying the rules. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it”.  The word “fulfill” might better be translated “complete”. There were two great principles underlying all of the law: love of God and love of neighbor. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” And pushing the envelope a bit further, he doesn’t even mention God when he equates living by the Golden Rule as God’s overriding principle for living a righteous life: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Where the rules conflicted with the principle of love behind the rule, Jesus taught that the principle rather than the rule should be followed. He got into trouble several times for healing people on the Sabbath, for one example see the incident described here. Then there’s the incident John described, where Jesus intervened in the execution of a clearly guilty woman in direct contravention of the death penalty prescribed by Moses.    Jesus seemed to have spent a great deal of his time hanging around with the marginalized, the outcasts, and the forgotten, who flocked to his side. His harshest words were not directed to “sinners”, but to those religious zealots who drove people away from God by their words and actions. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” 

As I understand the parable of the two sons, one son represents the Pharisees, and the other son represents the motley crew of misfits Jesus seemed to attract. It is a conflict between the “old time religion” of the Pharisees and the  “new wine” religion of Jesus. Tradition has it that Mosaic law, and the oral traditions that elaborated on it, proscribed  613 rules to follow. Although the Pharisees were careful to follow the letter of these laws, they often managed to violate their spirit in self-serving ways. That’s why Jesus cast them in the role of the son who says “I obey” but whose actions don’t match his words. I have to think Jesus had people like Zaccheus and this “sinful woman”(who is often identified with Mary Magdalene but probably wasn’t) in mind in the role of the son who says “no” with his words but “yes” with his actions.  Today, I can still see those who say “No” to the demanding, punitive God portrayed by the Pharisees, but will joyfully say “Yes” to the loving, forgiving God personified by Jesus. Which one does the will of the Father? The one who says “yes, Lord” and then does as he pleases, or the one who says “no” to ossified religion and then works to bring to fruition what God wants to happen in the world?

Does God prefer kind atheists to hateful Christians? I have a number of atheist friends who are very kind, and I know some self-identified Christians who are quite mean. Or to put it another way, there are some atheists who live as though God is, and some self-identified Christians who live as though God is not. And quite a few of my atheist friends have come  to the conclusion that there is no God because of the behavior of self-identified Christians who act more like Pharisees than Jesus, and I don’t that makes God very happy. The parable implies that what you do is more important than what you say, which Jesus says clearly here:  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 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!’ In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, it seems that there will be some surprises in the end about who’s on God’s good side and who’s on God’s bad side, and again the criteria isn’t what you say, but what you do. Going further out on a limb that some may see as heretical, I find it interesting that Jesus says, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you“. It’s interesting not only if you substitute today’s preferred scapegoat sinner groups for the tax collectors and prostitutes, but also because of the bit about those people entering “ahead of you“, implying that both groups eventually get in, although not in the expected order. Perhaps the doors to the kingdom of heaven are never slammed in anyone’s face.

The core message of both John the Baptist and Jesus was “Repent, and believe the good news“. “Repent” isn’t a feeling; it’s a change of mind and direction. “Believe” isn’t intellectual assent to a creed, but a commitment to a different way of life. As I understand the teachings of Jesus, the change of direction that is required is away from mindless dedication to rules and toward conscious application of the principle of love of God and neighbor. The commitment is not to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but to act on the belief that Jesus knew what he was talking about when it comes to the meaning of  life, the universe, and everything, and in response to follow him. And the good news is that by the grace of God personified in Jesus, the kingdom is near and here and available to all.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jonah, Jesus, and Grace

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“We’re all stories in the end, eh? Make it a good one.” -The Doctor

I love stories and those with the imagination to tell them, for stories often convey deep and lasting truth in ways that couldn’t be communicated in any other way. Because stories approach the truth obliquely, I’m often left remembering and pondering and wondering long after they have reached their conclusions.  There are certain books and movies that I enjoy reading or watching repeatedly. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve read the Harry Potter series (especially Deathly Hallows) or watched Star Trek IV, or certain Doctor Who episodes. The new Wonder Woman movie will probably wind up on my repeat list, too. But it’s not because I believe that there is a parallel wizarding world, or that time travel is possible, or that superheroes with fantastical powers walk among us. Those parts of the stories are just window dressing on the truth, and if you are distracted by the curtains, you will miss the main point.

This week’s lectionary readings contain two stories that I see as using different window dressings to communicate the reality of God’s grace. The first story is from Jonah and as I wrote last year, isn’t primarily about a big fish.  God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and warn them if they don’t change their ways, they will be destroyed. Jonah doesn’t want to do this, and takes some convincing to go, but eventually does what God asks. The people take his warnings seriously, which makes him mad because he wanted to see them destroyed. That’s where today’s reading picks up the story:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

The second story is one Jesus tells his disciples, but if taken at face value it is difficult to understand and makes little sense.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can certainly understand why the day laborers who worked twelve hours would be resentful of the ones who only worked one. And wouldn’t the landowner be setting a bad precedent for next year’s harvest hires? Isn’t this kind of treatment akin to (gasp!) socialism? What exactly was Jesus trying to tell us?

The traditional interpretation of the story is that it’s about heaven: the one who makes a deathbed confession winds up in the same afterlife as someone who has been a faithful follower since childhood. I don’t disagree with that thinking, but I think there must be something more to the story. Jesus talked about “the kingdom of heaven” quite a lot, often using stories and metaphors. In most of these instances, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by; he was talking about something that was immanently present. So how does this story fit in with all the other stories Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven? And how is it similar to the Jonah story?

If you take away the draperies from the stories of Jonah and the laborers in the vineyard, you can see God’s grace through the window. The truth of the Jonah story is that God’s love is for everyone, even those who we think must be God’s enemies because they are our enemies. The truth of the laborers in the vineyard story is that God’s love isn’t something we can earn. It doesn’t depend on us, but on God. In both stories God’s faithful servants aren’t particularly portrayed positively. They whine that God is unfair and they are not appreciated for their efforts. They expect God to think and behave like human beings usually do: quid pro quo, tit for tat, and you shouldn’t get something for nothing. Sometimes, God’s most faithful servants are the least aware of God’s grace. Like the proud Pharisee in another story Jesus tells, they think that God’s grace is something they earn through good behavior. But it doesn’t work that way, and following that line of reasoning leads you farther away, not nearer, to God. God’s grace is for Jonah and the Ninevites, for the early and late workers in the vineyard, and for Pharisee and publican alike. And it’s only when you realize that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s grace that you can begin to really experience it. Or as Jesus put it, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

God’s love, demonstrated through God’s grace, is beyond rational comprehension and stretches to infinity and beyond. And that’s good news to me!

 

 

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.

 

Good News, Bad News

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt,  “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat.  The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.  Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.  Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.  That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast.  Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs.  Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it.  This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.  The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

Today as Hurricane Irma lumbers toward the Florida coast, I’ve been anxiously (obsessively?) checking for the latest news on its projected trajectory. My mother lives on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and as the predicted landfall inches northwestward, my concerns intensify.  A few years ago, another “I” hurricane, Isaac, battered down her windows and the storm surge extensively flooded her house. I don’t want her to have to go through that again. I want the hurricane to pass over her, and go somewhere else. But I know that wherever it goes, it will cause extensive damage to somebody’s home. So how then should I pray? If my prayers are answered in the way I want them to be answered, somebody else’s prayers won’t be.

Let me make this clear: I don’t think that God is in the business of micromanaging the paths of hurricanes. I don’t even like the term “acts of God”, which I think was invented by insurance companies in order to mitigate their financial losses.  I am embarrassed and angered by the shoddy and shallow theologies postulated by those who say God sent Katrina to punish New Orleans for its licentiousness, or Sandy to punish New York for its secularism. Not only do I not think God works that way, I think these people make themselves look foolish, because hurricanes also strike morally rigid, religiously observant communities. Job was a pretty good guy, yet underwent terrible undeserved suffering;  the writer of Ecclesiastes observed that sometimes the wicked prosper and the good die young; and I think Jesus was pretty clear that bad things sometimes happen, and they aren’t always the result of bad behavior.  Instead of assigning blame, Jesus taught, we should try to help. But an uncomfortable  truth remains: what is good news for some is often bad news for others.

Today’s Old Testament reading commemorates the origins of Passover, an event which was good news for some and bad news for others. The background story is familiar, but here’s my brief synopsis: During an extended time of famine, the patriarch Jacob, aka Israel, and his entire extended family emigrated from Canaan to Egypt. The immigrants were initially treated well, but over the years the relationship between native-born Egyptians and alien proto-Israelites deteriorated. The Egyptians became increasingly concerned about the Hebrew fertility rate, which they tried to manage in horrifying ways.  Perhaps they felt Egypt should be for Egyptians, not Semitic sheepherders. Perhaps they were concerned that their culture and way of life would be lost to these monotheistic interlopers. At any rate, the Hebrews found themselves mistreated, used, and abused for several centuries. By the time Moses came along, Rameses was in full make-Egypt-great-again mode, mainly by the use of Hebrew slave labor. But, the story tells us, God was not happy with the way Egyptian exceptionality was being advanced. He heard the cries of his enslaved people, and entrusted Moses with the task of doing something about it. Through his messenger Moses, God sent sign after sign to Pharaoh that he ought to “let my people go”. But no matter what Moses said or did, Pharaoh managed to explain away, often with the assistance of advisors currying his favor. He blamed his victims, accusing them of not working hard enough, and made life even more difficult for them than it already was. Finally, God had had enough. He would send one final plague, the death of the first-born, which the Hebrews could escape by marking their doorposts with blood. The angel of death “passed over” those homes, and Passover was commissioned as a permanent reminder of God’s intervention on their behalf.

That first Passover was good news for the enslaved Hebrew people, and bad news for the Egyptians. What is understood as deliverance by the Hebrew slaves comes across as a cruel and devastating loss to their Egyptian masters. What’s especially sad to me is to think of the collateral damage. I imagine the average working-class Egyptian was unaware of the escalating Moses vs. Pharaoh drama, much less of the dangers posed by the concern of an unknown god for his chosen people. Some of them may have even been friendly with their Hebrew neighbors, as they asked for and were given valuable parting gifts. But, according to the story, they still suffered tremendously from the plagues. Their tragedy is often commemorated symbolically in many Passover seders, as drops of wine are spilled as each plague is mentioned. The joy of the freed Hebrew slaves is tempered by the sadness of the bereaved Egyptian families, for God cares about both. There’s also a Talmudic teaching about God’s reaction when the Hebrews began to celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh’s army; “How can you sing as the works of my hands are drowning in the sea?”

This story says several things to me about God. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that God takes the side of those who are oppressed over the ones who are doing the oppressing. The love of God and the wrath of God seem to be two sides of the same coin, and your perspective determines which side you see. If you’re the one being rescued, you see God’s love. If you’re the cause of the need for rescue, it’s likely that you see God’s wrath. I don’t know that the Hebrews were morally superior to the Egyptians, as their various bad behaviors in the wilderness later proved. Their deliverance wasn’t based on their merits, but on God’s empathy for their suffering. God seems to care more about how people treat each other than some of the things some people think he is concerned about.

Second, God uses human beings to bring about positive change, as he did through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The usual way God seems to work is to change human hearts so that their thoughts and desires are more in line with God’s thoughts and desires. I’m not discounting the possibility of direct divine intervention, but most of the time I think God chooses to work through people. Why did God wait so long to rescue his people? Maybe God wanted to intervene much earlier, but Moses was the first person to pay attention, hear God’s voice, and respond to it. Imagine what the world might be like if more people were willing to pay attention enough to see, and the desire to do something about, human need.

Finally, we must acknowledge the reality of collateral damage, not as a result of God’s actions, but of ours. All of us, if we are honest, know that we make many mistakes, some intentionally and some unintentionally. We all fall far short of God’s desire that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As the Book of Common Prayer phrases it, “we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Awareness of that reality ought to cause us to be more compassionate toward others, but unfortunately instead we often want to blame others for their own misfortunes. We attempt to cover our own nakedness, not with fig leaves, but with pointing fingers. If we don’t get away from that kind of thinking, we may find ourselves looking at the wrong side of God’s coin of love and wrath.

No, God doesn’t steer hurricanes toward particular communities as punishment, but it does seem highly likely to me that human actions may have been a contributory factor in the ferocity of this year’s hurricane season. As ocean temperatures inch upward, they provide a fertile breeding ground for hurricanes. As sea levels rise, more and more coastline is vulnerable to inundation. As we destroy more and more wetlands in our quest to build bigger and bigger barns, we remove the layers of protection they might have provided. If we are willing to pay acknowledge that there might be a problem with the way we have cared for God’s creation, we can work together to find a solution. If we don’t, we may find ourselves in a position eerily similar to that of Pharaoh”s pursuing army, overwhelmed by forces of nature we cannot control.

Good news or bad news? God’s deliverance or God’s wrath? God’s love or God’s justice? It’s more complicated than some make it out to be. But I’m pretty sure on which side I want to be.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the Canaanite woman is both interesting and troubling. The way that Jesus behaves toward the woman seems out of character for him. At first he ignores her plea for help and then he tells her his mission isn’t to help “her kind” of people. He comes pretty close to calling her a derogatory name. Nevertheless, she persists, and seems to show more politeness toward Jesus than he does to her. Jesus responds by apparently changing his mind about who is deserving of his help, praises her for her faith, and there’s a nice happily-ever-after-ending to the story.  It reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge, which doesn’t seem to paint God in a very good light, either.

The traditional interpretation of the story- that Jesus was just testing his disciples and/or the woman in order to teach them a lesson- has always created cognitive dissonance for me. To put it bluntly, it seems cruel, and I see Jesus as being “never cruel or cowardly”.  I never have been very successful with explaining away things in the Bible which bother me, nor tossing out the bits and pieces of it that are hard to understand. Instead I wrestle with them, sometimes for a very long time, until I can come to a conclusion that makes sense to me. I often find that the struggle results in a quantum leap in my faith understanding. No pain, no gain. Like Jacob, I won’t let go without a blessing.

So here’s what I am thinking today about this passage. Orthodox theology teaches that Jesus was a paradox, fully human and fully divine simultaneously. I think that the description of Jesus as “He, being in very nature God” refers to the essential character of God, which is not omniscience or omnipotence, but love. I think that the human Jesus was a product of his culture, which taught him that the world was flat and that Jews were superior to their Canaanite neighbors. There’s a peculiar story in Genesis where Noah’s son Ham walks in on his drunken, naked father, and when Noah wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan into slavery to his brothers.  The book of Deuteronomy has God commanding the extermination of the Canaanites inhabiting the Promised Land, which Joshua attempts to do as wholeheartedly and bloodily as any of the Game of Thrones characters.  The few who manage to trick Joshua’s invading armies into sparing them are sentenced to be “hewers of wood and carriers of water” in perpetuity. Saul loses his kingship for sparing  King Agag of the Amalekites (a subgroup of Canaanite). Jesus would have heard all these stories, and many more like them,  and I think up until this point he had not really examined them in light of his growing understanding of who he was and what his purpose was in God’s redemptive plan. I think that his encounter with the Canaanite woman was an “eureka moment” for Jesus. The persistence of the Canaanite mother changed the way he thought about insiders and outsiders.

Some may have difficulty with my explanation, arguing that Jesus was sinless and therefore could not have been prejudiced. Which is worse, prejudice or purposeful cruelty in the form of testing, even if it is supposedly “for the greater good”? Perhaps prejudice itself is not a sin; it is when we fail to question our prejudices, or when we act on them in harmful ways, that we fall into sin. I don’t think there is anyone who can truthfully claim to be completely free of prejudice, of making assumptions about people we don’t know. We are all products of our cultures, with a natural tendency to be tribalistic, to be suspicious of people who are not part of our group. But when we get to know an outsider, we begin to question our pre-judgements and assumptions about “those people”. Couldn’t that be what happened to Jesus?

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. My fourth grade history book, “Know Alabama”, imagined happy, contented slaves, portrayed the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights, and described the KKK as a necessary and good constraint on our carpetbagger oppressors. Many schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the Confederacy. My Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers applied the “curse of Ham” story to explain that those of African descent were meant to be subservient to those of European descent. My mother, who was progressive enough to be threatened with cross-burning in her yard, once hesitated before handing me the phone to talk to a black classmate who had called to thank my father for his help in getting a job. She hesitated, but she thought about it and handed me the phone.

At some point, I, like my mother before me, and I think like Jesus in this story, began to question what we had been taught. My elementary school was segregated, but my high school was not, and I met black people who were smart and funny and kind and not in the least inferior to me. I read widely from a variety of sources, and began to see history through different perspectives. I also read the Bible quite a lot, and began to notice things my Sunday School teachers hadn’t mentioned. For example, when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Cushite wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment. I couldn’t quite follow the curse of Ham logic, either. Not only did it seem overly punitive to punish all of Ham’s descendents for what seemed to me to be a minor infraction, I didn’t see where Africa came into the picture at all. There were many other Bible stories involving African people in positions of honor and leadership, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Eventually my own observations and Bible study led me to the place where I decided my textbooks and Sunday School teachers were wrong. But my questioning of tradition began with my first contact with black classmates.

Jesus was no stranger to questioning authority. In fact, there are several examples of him doing that in the very same chapter in which we find today’s story. He rejects both (the misuse of) Scripture and traditional purity laws as the basis for living a life pleasing to God. So it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to think that Jesus, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, might have begun to question what he’d been taught about the proper place of Canaanites. He might have started out holding the prejudices common to his culture, but that’s not where he ended up, and that’s not how he behaved. His essential character overcame his learned prejudices. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he praised her faith. The writer of Luke tells a similar story, this time involving the faith of a Roman centurion.

From what I can infer, at some point in his ministry, Jesus moved from an exclusionary to an inclusionary understanding of God’s grace. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of the unnamed Canaanite woman’s persistence, although we can’t know for sure. What we can be sure of is this: No one is outside God’s grace, and there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This is made especially clear in the story John tells of the woman at the well.    Paul, whose letters predate the writing of the gospels, writes in soaring poetry, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”. It’s a pretty amazing story to think that this woman played the role of teacher to the son of God and caused him to change his mind. I’m impressed…and encouraged. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today, lots of fear and prejudice and hate. There are people who think God’s grace is meant for them, not others, those who want to exclude rather than include.  It’s scary and depressing and overwhelming at times. But I believe that change can come, not by power and control, but by love.  Persist. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”