Monday, March 18, 2019

Prayer


The scriptures referred to are mentioned in the text.

Apparently all animals with throats make noise. I was surprised to find out that even rabbits can vocalize. My brother was an amateur magician from his teens on and consequently we had rabbits for him to make appear in his act. I never heard them make a peep. But according to a website with videos [Here], besides thumping with their back feet to warn others, they make a variety of noises with their mouths, throats and teeth. When happy they make a purring noise, a tooth clicking noise, a honking noise, and, when they wish to mate, a humming. When unhappy they whine, grunt, snort. And they scream when in fear for their lives. Evidently, our rabbits were content to let my brother do all the talking.

Humans make quite a lot of noise. Rather than merely communicate our mood or general danger, we can pass on detailed and even quite abstract information when we open our mouths. I think it is this ability to relay precise instructions that accounts for the amazing level of cooperation we humans display in ordering our civilization. When hunting, for instance, packs of canines rely on everyone's instinct and intuitive sense of who has what role. When we need to do something together, we can say, “When I am here and do this, you need to be there and do that.” No guesswork.

Yet when we talk to God, we sometimes get tongue-tied. We think we need to use special formulas or forms of address. Some people switch to King James English. Some folks in an attempt to be informal seem to be addressing a deity named “Lord Wejus.” As in “Lord Wejus thank you for this time together. And Lord Wejus praise your name. And Lord Wejus ask you for your blessing.”

And I get it: it is intimidating to address the Creator of everything, who is also the judge of all thoughts, words and actions. You don't want to mess up. But language is not as important as the heart is. As Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

What helped me most with my prayers was a Broadway musical. I first saw Fiddler on the Roof when visiting the college I eventually went to. And I was touched by how Tevye, not a rabbi but a Jewish milkman, talked to God in a conversational tone. And I thought, “Of course! If God is love and God is our creator, what he cares about is not how we talk to him but that we talk to him. And since he knows our hearts there is no reason to try to disguise what we really think or feel.”

And basically that is how I talk to God. I spit out what is in my heart, expressing it in my own terms. And as it turns out, that is what we see in the Bible, too. Because of the way it gets rendered in translation, the language in any English Bible tends to sound consistent, even though there were at least 40 authors contributing to it. So you would never know how bad is Mark's Greek or how rudimentary is John's or how elegant is Luke's. 

Also crude language in the Bible tend to be covered over with euphemisms. In Isaiah 64:6 the prophet says, in the King James version, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags...” The actual word used means a menstrual cloth. And when Paul says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) The word rendered “rubbish” actually means “dung or crap.” In Mark 7:19, Jesus, talking about how mere food cannot defile a person, says, in the NIV, “For it doesn't go into their heart but into their stomach and then out of the body...” What he literally says is that it then goes into the privy or sewer. I will spare you other examples but the fact is that the Bible's language can be elevated and it can be earthy. Just like that of ordinary people.

It follows that God is more interested in what you mean rather than exactly how you say it. And there are no restrictions as to what you talk about. The Psalms cover almost the entire range of human emotions, from inspired to sad to triumphant to crushed to angry to content, and everything in between. In one Psalm alone, Psalm 137, written during the Babylonian exile, the composer goes from mourning the fall of Jerusalem and enduring the mocking of their captors who demand they be happy to wishing a blessing on whoever takes the babies of Babylon and smashes them on a rock! It is shocking but it is honest. All I can say is that it is better to admit to such feelings than to act on them.

Psalm 13 (NET) goes, in its entirety, “How long, Lord, will you continue to ignore me? How long will you pay no attention to me? How long must I worry, and suffer in broad daylight? How long will my enemy gloat over me? Look at me! Answer me, O Lord my God! Revive me, or else I will die! Then my enemy will say, 'I have defeated him!' Then my foes will rejoice because I am upended. But I trust in your faithfulness. May I rejoice because of your deliverance! I will sing praises to the Lord when he vindicates me.” That's quite a number of mood swings over just 6 verses. It starts with complaints about God ignoring the author, traditionally considered David. It turns to demands: “Look at me! Answer me, O Lord my God.” It descends to near despair: “Revive me, or else I die!” But then it turns to quiet confidence: “I trust in your faithfulness.” And it ends with a slightly passive-aggressive promise: “I will sing praises to the Lord when he vindicates me.” And, it seems, not before then.

That psalm has some fire in it but there are those that sound like a soul crying from the pit of deepest depression. One that we recite on Good Friday is the one that came to Jesus at his darkest hour, Psalm 22 (NET). “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? I groan in prayer, but help seems far away. My God, I cry out during the day, but you do not answer, and during the night my prayers do not let up.” The psalmist recalls how in the past his ancestors were rescued by God when they cried out. Then he goes on to say, “But I am a worm, not a man; people insult me and despise me.” He feels mocked by others and threatened. “They open their mouths to devour me like a roaring lion that rips its prey.” The author's depression manifests itself physically. “My strength drains away like water; all my bones are dislocated; my heart is like wax; it melts away inside me. The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery; my tongue sticks to my gums. You set me in the dust of death.” But eventually the writer turns to trusting in God. “You are my source of strength....You are the reason I offer praise in the great assembly.” And the psalm ends with a call to praise God. “Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him! Let all nations worship you! For the Lord is king and rules over the nations....A whole generation will serve him; they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord. They will come and tell about his saving deeds; they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.”

I'm not going into all the psalms of praise because we are talking about Lenten disciplines. Last week we spoke of self-examination and repentance. And so let us speak of the penitential psalms.

Sometimes we screw up so badly we react in fear when facing the consequences of what we have done. Psalm 6 (NET) begins, “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger! Do not discipline me in your raging fury! Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am frail! Heal me, Lord, for my bones are shaking! I am absolutely terrified, and you, Lord—how long will this continue?”

Perhaps the most famous penitential psalm is Psalm 51 (NET) which is David confessing to his adultery with Bathsheba and his ensuring her husband's death by putting him in the frontlines and having his support withdraw. He starts by pleading, “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your loyal love! Because of your great compassion, wipe away my rebellious acts! Wash away my wrongdoing! Cleanse me of my sin!” He admits his sin: “For I am aware of my rebellious acts; I am forever conscious of my sin. Against you—you above all—I have sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. So you are just when you confront me; you are right when you condemn me.” He knows what kind of person he is. “Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, a sinner the moment my mother conceived me.” He knows what kind of person God wants him to be. “Look, you desire integrity in the inner man; you want me to possess wisdom.” He knows that he can only get to be that person with God's help. “Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure; wash me and I will be whiter than snow. Grant me the ultimate joy of being forgiven! May the bones you crushed rejoice! Hide your face from my sins! Wipe away all my guilt! Create for me a pure heart, O God! Renew a resolute spirit within me! Do not reject me! Do not take your Holy Spirit from me! Let me again experience the joy of your deliverance! Sustain me by giving me the desire to obey!” He resolves to change his ways. “Then I will teach rebels your merciful ways, and sinners will turn to you. Rescue me from from the guilt of murder, O God, the God who delivers me!” Notice than he is not vague about his sin. He gives it its proper name and acknowledges it. “Then my tongue will shout for joy because of your deliverance. O Lord, give me the words! Then my mouth will praise you.” As Paul says when words fail us, the Spirit in us will speak to God for us. (Romans 8:26) And Jesus said when we speak before others we can trust the Spirit to teach us what to say. (Luke 12:12) David also knows that external rituals are not what God wants when we sin but internal change, a change of heart. “Certainly you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it; you do not desire a burnt sacrifice. The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit—O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject.” Only after that, will acts of worship and penitence be meaningful. “Then you will accept the proper sacrifices, burnt sacrifices and whole offerings; then bulls will be sacrificed on your altar.”

Again when you pray you need not use the words of the Bible or written prayers; what counts is that they come from the heart. But sometimes prayers and passages from the Bible or other sources say exactly what you want to say. Feel free to read or recite them. Or you can start with a written prayer as a jumping off point and then continue spontaneously.

Prayer is just speaking to God and it is also one of the most neglected spiritual disciplines. And yet when no one else will listen, God will. When you hesitate to confess your deepest darkest secrets and feelings and deeds to others, you can confess them to God. It's not like he doesn't already know them all. And he is willing to forgive anything at all, if you simply admit to it and ask for help in changing the direction of your life.

Returning to my epiphany while watching Fiddler, I noticed that as soon as Tevye said anything, he seemed to know what God's response would be. When bemoaning the fact that his oldest daughter and the poor tailor had pledged themselves to each other, breaking the tradition of having a matchmaker find them a spouse, Tevye says, “On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker?” Then he pauses, a light goes on in his eyes, he looks heavenward and says with a smile, “Yes, they did. And it seems these two have the same matchmaker.” That's how in tune a humble Jewish milkman is with his Creator.

We know in general what rabbits mean when they vocalize, but if there are any nuances only other rabbits pick up on that. But when we speak to God in prayer he gets it all. Not only did he create us, he has become one of us. Jesus knows exactly what being human is like. He knows anger, frustration, pain, depression, betrayal, mourning, being misunderstood, facing unreasonable opposition, not getting through to your friends, finding yourself alone, even having others take control of your body and harming you when you are helpless. There is nothing we can suffer that he does not understand on a level deeper than any other person.

Your prayer life might be perfunctory. It might be practically nonexistent. This Lent let yourself go in prayer. Open your mouth, open your heart, tell God exactly how you feel. And then listen. What would Jesus say? Maybe he will just hold you until the pain and anger and sorrow seep away. And in his embrace, you may find an answer too deep for words.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Self-Examination and Repentance


The scriptures referred to are Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16.

You often see people change in movies. It's called a character arc. Something happens to a character that makes him or her realize they must change their attitude and maybe their tactics. They must become more confident or more empathetic or smarter in response to a situation that does not yield to their previous methods to solve it. What you rarely see is repentance, where a character rethinks the entire course of their life and decides to reverse it. We see it in Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows him his grave. But we also see a glimpse of it in a scene toward the end of Schindler's List. One of the things I like about the movie is that they don't clean up Oskar Schindler's moral ambiguities in the film. He was an adulterer who liked the good life; he was a corrupt businessman and a member of the Nazi Party. And yet he decided to save nearly 1000 Jews by getting them assigned to work at his factory through bribing the Nazis. This decision is never really explained. But as the Third Reich falls and the Red Army approaches, Schindler and his family must flee. The grateful Jewish workers present him with a ring made from dental gold and inscribed with a quote from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” At this juncture, Schindler realizes that the gold in the ring, his clothes, his nice car all could have been used to bribe the Nazis and save more Jewish lives. He sees that he could have done more, realizes that it too late and breaks down.

The ring was real as was the fact that Schindler spent his entire fortune on bribes to save Jews. So I don't care whether the emotional moment in the movie where he has an epiphany is real or not. The point is that we rarely see characters look at themselves honestly and show regret for what they have done. Perhaps the filmmakers don't want their heroes to look weak or doubtful. Practically every film these days has the explicit or implicit message that you must above all else believe in yourself. Which works if you are an artist or a screenwriter or a filmmaker trying to get your vision out there. But if you are a Bernie Madoff or a Charles Manson or an Adolf Hitler, maybe you should have serious doubts about your dreams and goals. The only people who are without regrets are narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths. Everyone else realizes at times that we have behaved badly and we usually feel awful about it.

Unfortunately we often think of sins as enjoyable or as natural things arbitrarily stigmatized by God or religious people or society. We think these killjoys want us to stop having fun and stop drinking and doing drugs and having sex with whomever we want whenever we want. Which is the way adolescents see sin. As they get older they might notice how drinking and drugs can destroy health and lives and how indiscriminate sex can cause unwanted babies, disease and heartbreak. Even adults have a tendency to romanticize flaws and think it makes people more interesting. There is a mystique about actors and writers who drink or rock musicians who take drugs and the implication is that those things fueled their creativity. The fact is alcohol has destroyed the lives and careers of many writers and actors and that drugs have taken from us very talented musicians, often, oddly enough, at the age of 27. And people like Elton John, Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen King have managed to recover from addiction and go on to greater success. By giving up what they thought they needed, they found what they really needed.

Schindler's wife had a clear-eyed assessment of the man. His failings did not make him a lovable rogue to her. She did say, “In spite of his flaws, Oskar had a big heart and was always ready to help whoever was in need. He was affable, kind, extremely generous and charitable, but at the same time, not mature at all. He constantly lied and deceived me...” She told German TV that her husband did nothing remarkable either before or after the war. “He was fortunate therefore that in the short fierce era between 1939 and 1945 he met people who had summoned forth his deeper talents.” It was only then that he was the remarkable person he could have been all along.

In Lent, as we approach what Jesus did for us on Good Friday, we are encouraged to, first, take a good long hard look at ourselves. We are to acknowledge that we are capable of evil, that is, of deliberately doing what we know we shouldn't. And yes, occasionally we act out of ignorance, though sometimes it is a willful ignorance, an intentional aversion of our eyes from the probable adverse side effects of what we do or give others the go-ahead to do.

The point of this self-examination is not to make ourselves miserable but, as with breast or testicular self-examination, to notice what is amiss so that we can get it taken care of.  If you think of sin as spiritual illness, something that if unchecked will poison the person you are, it helps motivate the process. You are not trying to find and excise what makes you you but rather elements in you that, like cancer, have gone wrong, and which will metastasize and eventually diminish the person you could be.

In a letter to his life-long friend Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis came up with a brilliant analogy for why we need to repent, especially if you remember that in Hebrew “to repent” means “to turn back.” Lewis recalls how when he walked his dog the animal invariably would get the leash, or as the British call it the lead, wrapped around a pole. The dog would not understand how to extricate himself and made things worse by trying to go forward. Lewis would have to get down on his knees to untangle the dog and often pull him back around to the right side of the pole. Lewis said this is often how our lives get in trouble. We take the wrong path and get ourselves in a bind. We then make it worse by trying to keep doing what got us into the mess in the first place. And just as the dog owner sees the dog's problem better than the dog does, though God does not sin, from his perspective he actually understands evil better than we do. And God, if we let him, will get us out of our predicament. This usually consists of getting us to reverse our direction, though that seems counterintuitive at the time. Often the dog resists going back because the animal thinks it will not then get to where it wants to go. But just as the dog owner also wants to go forward, so God wants us to progress. He just understands better than us the right way to get there.

In Lent, one of the things we need to do is stop straining at the lead and let God move us in the right direction. We aren't dogs and so, if we just stop and examine ourselves and our situation and think, we can at least see the next couple of steps to take. We have to consider that maybe we need to walk back our recent moves. To change the analogy, our destination may seem nearer if we travel as the crow flies; but we are not crows either. The way forward, especially over rough and mountainous terrain, may involve some switchbacks. The direct route may not be the best way to get there.

And we have to trust that God also wants what we ultimately desire. He wants us to find our heart's delight. The problem is that it may not be in a form we recognize. As Lewis points out, what we think we want may be a cheap imitation of we really desire, the way some people chase after money or popularity or sex when what they really want is love. Which is why, when some of them do get what they think they want, it doesn't satisfy them for long and so they want more. Many a person has been spurred on to achieve what the world sees as success when what they actually wanted was their father's approval or their mother's love.

In the final analysis the source of all good things is God. Which means we cannot find true goodness apart from him. And he cannot give us what is really good if we don't want him to be part of it. It would be like wanting the light and warmth we get from the sun without the sun's involvement. That would be impossible. In self-examination you have to be realistic. Yet atheists now have humanist chaplains and gatherings vaguely like worship services to somehow get the advantages of belief and God without those 2 vital elements. The want the benefits without the benefactor.

C.S. Lewis was an atheist but came to the realization that what he really needed was God and then spent a school term at the college where he taught feeling hunted by God. “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” He did not stay that way. Indeed he titled his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy. But at the time he realized that he would have to change his lifestyle. If God is God and we are not, we need to stop playing God and follow our Creator, who, after all, knows how we are designed to work.

And just as he has designed us to sleep regularly so that the body can flush toxins from the brain, so we need to take time periodically to look at ourselves and deal with toxic thoughts, speech patterns and behaviors that have built up in our lives. And we need to ask God to help us remove them.

Personally the hardest thing about repentance is often trying to feel bad about some sins. It's difficult to find the motivation to get rid of something you enjoy. Ask a diabetic who had to give up soda or a heart patient who had to cut out fats and salt on doctor's orders. It's tough to give up what feels good even when you know its bad for you. You revel in your sarcastic wit though you realize it can hurt your kids' self-esteem or your coworkers' morale. You get charged up by venting your anger towards people or things which are stupid in your estimation. You enjoy the titillation of flirting or going farther than you ought to with people you are attracted to, regardless of whether you both are free from other relationships. And this is true even if you don't enjoy these things as much as you used to and are just doing them, not out of passion, but out of habit.

At the jail I talk to people all the time who know they must change but find it hard to want to. In their case they are paying a heavy price for their self-destructive behavior and yet it is difficult to find the determination to change their pattern of living. I like to use Viktor Frankl's principle that the person who has a strong reason for getting through some ordeal can endure anything they must in order to do it. He learned this in a German concentration camp. But it works in getting yourself free from any trap or prison you have gotten yourself into. The reason may be a child or other loved one whom you don't want to fail. It can be a different way of life you wish to live. It can be the chance to repay the love and grace God has shown you. Athletes learn to discipline themselves and shed anything that keeps them from achieving their goal. We can too.

And we are not on our own. Athletes have a coach and so do we. God sends his Spirit to live in all who answer his call. The Spirit, God in us, is a reserve of strength and calm we can call on at any time. But we have to stop doing what the dog wrapped around the pole keeps doing: pulling the wrong way and resisting our Master's tug in the right direction. We need to quit struggling and patiently let him do his work. We need to stop barking at him and listen to his instructions. We need to let him untangle us from the knots we have tied ourselves into and free us from the cords we are strangling ourselves with. He is trying to be gentle with us but we won't feel that if we are roughly trying to slip out of his grasp and futilely trying to rectify our situation through flailing.

One rabbi said that the Hebrew word for “repent” means not merely “to turn back” but “to return”, that is, to turn back towards home. And when we walk our dog that is the ultimate destination. The sights and smells and sounds and experiences and exercise of the walk are exciting but it is so good to return to our home, where we are warm and protected and where we get our food and our love. And that is the purpose of repentance: to return to God, our refuge and our reward. He is our home, where true warmth and shelter and nourishment and love dwell. God is our heart's true delight. As St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

First, the Bad News


The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 58:1-12.

When we meet new people, we often make a connection by talking about something we have in common. When you get to a certain age, you swap tales of ailments. I was speaking to a man who also had a problem which was eluding multiple doctors. Finally he got a diagnosis. It wasn't great news but he said, “At least, now I know what I am fighting.”

The word gospel means good news. And often people take that to mean everything is great. But sometimes the good news is that, first of all, you are not mistaken: things are bad. It's not all in your head. The second part of the good news is that there is a solution to the bad news.

Of course that means first acknowledging there is bad news, which many people cannot seem to do. For instance, we have a higher standard of living today than people had in the past. But the bad news is that getting there has caused a lot of damage to the world. According to an article in Forbes, species are going extinct at a rate 1000 times faster than they have since the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. And more than 14 million acres of primary forest have been lost since the year 2000. As writer Drew Hansen puts it, “Commercial agriculture, timber extraction, and infrastructure development are causing habitat loss and our reliance on fossil fuels is a major contributor to climate change.” (See the whole article here.) Climate change is predicted to cut the production of food by double digits. (See an article here.) And with the UN predicting the world population will reach 10 billion by 2050, which is about double the earth's population in 1990, we could see massive starvation and political instability around the globe. The consumer goods we enjoy and the energy to power them weren't conjured up magically. They came from the planet we live on, and its resources are not infinite.

There are some solutions to these problems we could implement. But if we don't acknowledge the problems we aren't going to put money and effort into the solutions.

So what does this have to do with Lent?

Lent is an acknowledgment that we have spiritual and moral problems. The good news is that Jesus has the solution. But to see the significance of the cross, we need to admit to the sins that led Jesus to that sacrifice.

So in a few minutes we are going to pray together a rather comprehensive litany of the ways we fall short of the glory of God. After all, he made us in his image and we ought to do a better job living up to that. But we have taken the good gifts he has lavished on us and used them in ways he never intended, ways that are destructive to us, to others, to our fellow creatures, and to this fragile earth, our island home. We have burned the bridges to and marred our relationships with God, other human beings and even with ourselves.

Now as I said, there is a solution. It was what Jesus did on the cross. He did for us what we could not do, just as, after my accident, a surgeon did what I could not do in order to save me. And just as I had to trust a doctor to cut me open and fix what was wrong inside, we need to trust Jesus to come into our lives and fix what is awry in us spiritually.

But after the doctors did their job, I had work to do. I had to follow doctor's orders, go to physical therapy and work to take advantage of what the surgeon made possible. So too after accepting what Jesus did on the cross, we need to follow his orders for getting us back on our feet. And during Lent we get reminded of those spiritual disciplines that will enable us to take full advantage of the benefits Jesus offers us.

Faith is, among other things, about meaning. So during the Sundays in Lent we are going to look afresh on things I will mention in the Invitation to Lent and explore the ways they can make this season leading up to Good Friday and Easter meaningful. We will also come together on Wednesdays to share physical and spiritual nourishment in our soup suppers and Bible study. In that time we will look at the layers of meaning found in the term sacrifice, leading up to what Jesus did for us but also looking at what our response should be.

During Lent Christians often give up something that is supposed to be meaningful. The more significant the sacrifice the more impact it will make on your life. Giving up snacks may be hard for you but why not aim for something that pinches a little, that reminds you that you are making an important change in your life and the reason why? It could be giving up one meal a day and putting the money you would spend into a fund for the hungry. It could be giving up time watching TV or going on the internet and using the time for prayer or reading a spiritual book. It could be making your Sabbath truly one of rest and not a frantic time of catching up on errands and chores. One Lenten challenge is to give up one thing a day, one good item around the house that could help someone else and donating it to an organization where it will go to good use. It could be taking on something as well: spending time tutoring or helping at the senior center or visiting people at the nursing home or driving people to doctor's appointments.

There are also tasks that may seem meaningless to others but not to you or not to someone else. At the jail I am legally constrained in what I can do. I can't lend money to or handle money from inmates, obviously. But I also cannot pass messages from inmates to those on the outside or from friends and loved ones into the jail. I can't call their boss or their landlord and ask them to hold their job or not throw their belongings on the street come the first of the month. They may have been down here on vacation but I can't call a relative and just tell them where they are. But what I can do is sit with them and listen.

Monday night I was about to move from one unit to another when a man asked if I could just hear him out. I sat back down and he shared how he was struggling with his ego and his anger and his addiction. As is often true, the longer he talked the more he realized what he had to do. He knew he had to make some hard choices and give up some things and make changes in his attitudes and in his life. His motivation was to get out and be a better father to his 14 year old daughter. I didn't have to say much, just listen. He talked for the better part of an hour. It meant I wouldn't have as much time to spend in the other units I normally visit but this is what I was being called to do at the moment: be a calm, supportive presence in a loud, spirit-crushing place for a man wrestling with himself and his demons. And then we prayed. Sometimes just sacrificing your schedule and being there to listen and understand another person is enough.

In Lent we take a long hard look at the disease of sin in its various manifestations: selfishness, callousness, arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy, self-indulgence, foolishness, irresponsibility, and ignorance, often willful. It's not pleasant and it's not easy. But at least we will know what we are fighting. And we know who is on our side, fighting alongside us: Jesus, the man of sorrows, God made flesh, leading us to the glory of Easter by way of Gethsemane and Golgotha.

Monday, March 4, 2019

New Rules


The scriptures referred to are Exodus 34:29-35 and 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2.

Somewhere there is probably a commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary written by someone on the committee that compiled it. And I hope that somewhere it explains the quizzical way they picked the beginnings and endings of the passages we read each week. Context is important in understanding anything and especially when trying to understand the Bible. So I wonder why sometimes the readings don't start one verse earlier or end one verse later in instances where it would greatly help us know what we are discussing. Otherwise it is the job of the preacher to spend a chunk of his or her sermon reading aloud as well as explicating the verses not included.

In our New Testament lesson we are plunked into the midst of Paul's comparison of the old and new covenants. Were I the editor of the lectionary I would have included most if not all of the paragraph preceding our reading in 2 Corinthians. Paul is referring to our passage in Exodus about how Moses' face glowed after he talked to the Lord and how it unnerved the people of Israel. The point he is making is that even so, the glory accompanying the giving of the old covenant eventually faded. And so he says in verse 11: “And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!”

That is the hope to which he points in verse 12—the glorious and everlasting nature of the new covenant. Unlike the old one it is not going away. The Jews already had to accommodate the fact that parts of the old covenant could become irrelevant. When they were taken into exile in Babylon, the many parts of the Law that dealt with the temple and the priesthood were inactive because the temple had been destroyed. That led to rabbinic Judaism, and the religion came to focus on the Torah and obeying the rest of the Law. That's the form of Judaism we have today, because there is no temple and thus no sacrificial system. In Jesus' day the temple was back in action but the parts of the Law dealing with the king were invalid because there was no Jewish king, just a Gentile emperor.

Not only did parts of the Law become inapplicable because of things that no longer exist, but provisions had to be made to deal with stuff which had come into being since Moses presented the Law. So the scribes and Pharisees formulated what came to be called the Oral Law. These were ways in which the Mosaic Law was extended and adapted to things not covered by it. And it came to be considered as binding as the Written Law. For instance, one could not work on the Sabbath but what constituted work? The rabbis eventually came up with 39 categories of work. Was tearing a piece of paper work? Yes, because it is too close to cutting something to a shape. What about separating good fruit from bad? Yes, because it is a form of winnowing, selecting and sifting. Today rabbinic law forbids flipping a light switch on the Sabbath because it is essentially kindling a fire. And you can't even touch electronics on the Sabbath. As culture changes and technology develops so have the prohibitions. The Oral Law is a tacit admission that parts of the Mosaic Law would otherwise have become outdated.

Now some of these are considered hedges around the Torah, rules that stop you at a point so early that you won't even get close to violating the actual commandment. It's like an alcoholic deciding to not even go to restaurants with bars, so to avoid temptation. Still in some cases these hedges around the Torah smack of putting a safety fence a good mile from the lip of the Grand Canyon just to make sure no tourist falls in.

Rabbis even designate some of the commandments as chukim, decrees that are observed even though there is no obvious explanation for them. This would include the prohibition against making clothing that mixed linen and wool or against boiling a kid in its mother's milk. In fact, some rabbis admit that there are no logical reasons for the dietary laws. They simply obey them because they are part of the Torah. Rabbis contrast these with mishpatim, laws that make sense, like prohibiting murder or bribery.

The new covenant inaugurated by Jesus is not about ceremonial rituals or Bronze Age governmental regulations or dietary laws. It is not about the 5 different kinds of sacrificial offerings and which is appropriate for which occasion. Jesus' sacrifice took place once and for all and his covenant is about the ethical implications of that for those who follow him. Jesus did what he did out of love and he said the commands to love God and love one another supersede all other laws. The other commandments derive from these two and no other law is greater than they are. (Matthew 22:40; Mark 12:31)

There is another way in which the new covenant is different than the old. Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, 248 were positive but 365 were negative. So nearly 60% of the old covenant was about restrictions, what you shouldn't do. The commandments to love which Jesus prioritizes are positive. Obviously you don't do certain things to those you love because they harm or betray them. But love more often impels you to find ways to help and enhance the well-being of the beloved. When you are in love you find yourself doing things you would not ordinarily have done, like changing diapers and going to events you normally wouldn't attend. You find yourself taking an interest in the things your beloved does. Love expands what you do and what you pay attention to.

So the old covenant constricts your actions while the new covenant expands them. But that depends on whether you are limited by words written long ago or by the Living Word of God, our Lord Jesus. Rabbis realized that without extending the range of the old covenant through the Oral Law it becomes irrelevant. Under the new covenant what guides us is the Spirit of our Lord. And because he is God and God is love, love expands the circle of who we care about as well as the range of what we do. And because we have more options, as Paul puts it, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

That greater freedom under the new covenant is seen as soon as Jesus begins his ministry. First off, Jesus heals on the Sabbath which the scribes and Pharisees see as a violation of the Law. (Matthew 12:11-13) And it does violate the Oral Law, that is, the traditional interpretation of the law, but it does not break the letter of the written law, and is in perfect alignment with the Spirit of the law. When Jesus touched a leper to heal him (Matthew 8:2-3; cf. Leviticus 13:45-46) or touched a dead body (Luke 7:11-17) or let himself be touched by the woman with the hemorrhage (Matthew 9:18-25), that would make him ceremonially unclean, yet he didn't go through the period of isolation and ritual to cleanse himself. Imagine how few people he could heal if he did that after every one. Jesus told a man whom he healed on the Sabbath to pick up his bedding and go, though this was considered work. (John 5:8-15) He taught women (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42) and though this was not forbidden in the Old Testament, in the Jerusalem Talmud, a compendium of the Oral Law, Rabbi Eliezer says, “The words of the Torah should burn rather than be taught to a woman.” So Jesus was certainly violating the orthodox interpretations of the Law.

But Jesus is just recognizing a hierarchy of values that flow from the two greatest commandments. Love impels you to heal and help others even when it goes against rules and traditions created by human beings. This is the same ethical thinking that led certain Catholics and Protestants in Nazi-occupied Europe to hide Jews, and to forge ration cards for them and to lie to the authorities, all in order to save lives.

We see this from the beginning of the church. It was the Spirit of the Lord who led Philip to preach to and baptize the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8;26-39), though in the Torah says that such a man could not be a part of the people of God. (Deuteronomy 23:1) The problem of who could join God's people arose again and again. Though God poured out his Spirit on Gentiles like Cornelius and his family and on the Godfearers who came to Jesus through Paul's preaching, there were those who felt that only Gentiles who first converted to Judaism and were circumcised could be Christians. (Acts 15) But the church used the authority granted it by Jesus to decide who can be part of the people of God. In Matthew Jesus talks about church discipline and says “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” (Matthew 18:18-20) And in John the risen Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22-23)

One way of looking at the structure of the Bible is like an hourglass. The Old Testament is like a funnel. It starts with the creation of the whole world and all humanity and gradually the focus narrows to the descendants of Abraham, and specifically his descendants through Isaac, and Isaac's descendants through Jacob, and Jacob's descendants through Judah, and Judah's descendants through Jesse, and Jesse's descendants through David. The New Testament reverses this, beginning with one descendant of David, Jesus, and then widens the focus to the disciples, and then to the converts at Pentecost, and then to the scattered believers, and then to house churches spreading through the empire, and then to the Gentiles and concludes in Revelation with believers from every tongue and nation living with God in a new earth that is part of the new creation. God created the world and wants to restore it and everyone on it.

Not everyone will respond to his call. But some do who might otherwise give us pause, who are the modern day equivalent of the person who is a eunuch, or who is a leper, or who falls in some other category that would be excluded under the old covenant. The problem is: do we exclude such people over an identity or over circumstances which are beyond their control? Paul says no. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

As we have seen, the new covenant, the covenant of God's love in Christ, is about an expansion of who can become part of the kingdom of God. Jesus ate with disreputable people and when asked why he did that he replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) And we are all sinners. Everybody in this room, including the guy in the collar, is a sinner. And so is every mere human in the Bible we think of as heroes of the faith. Noah got drunk; Jacob was a conman; Moses was a fugitive from justice; David committed adultery and murder; Rahab was a prostitute; Jonah ran from God; the Samaritan woman was divorced 5 times; Peter denied Jesus 3 times. God calls and redeems and uses imperfect people. No sin is a deal breaker. No condition is a barrier God cannot overcome. Nothing that deviates from the norm can make us unlovable to the God who is love. As Paul said, “...we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

As Anne Lamott says, God loves us just the way we are but he loves us too much to let us stay where we are. Yes, the idea is that we will change and get better but it doesn't happen right away or overnight. As Paul says, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” We are meant to reflect the glory of Christ in our lives. But when we look in the mirror of our soul we don't see it all at once. We are supposed to become more Christlike but it happens by degrees as Paul says. It is a process. And it's a mirror. We are supposed to be looking at our own progress, not anyone else's.

It is by God's mercy, Paul says, that he and his colleagues were engaged in their ministry. It is by God's mercy that any of us are engaged in serving God in any capacity. He is gracious. "So we do not lose heart." We may not be perfect but we should see some changes. God's Spirit is in us and, if we let him, he is working on us. It's like when I was in rehab after my accident. The therapists and I were happy with any progress but we did not rest on our laurels. We kept pushing forward, trying to do a little bit better each day. Sometime I hit a plateau and I thought, “Is this it? Will it get no better than this?” But eventually, with their help, I would progress further. It was slow and sometimes painful. But I never forgot my goal: to walk again. And we should never forget our goal: to walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. (Ephesians 5:2)

The old covenant commemorates God letting death pass over his people and his liberating them from slavery in Egypt. The new covenant is about Jesus undergoing death in our place so that he might liberate us from slavery to sin and the spiritual death that follows. It is not about inexplicable rules but a way of life that makes sense in the light of God's love and grace revealed in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And it is abundant life; it is love running over, ever expanding the circle of who is included.

In Genesis, God makes a new world and new creatures in his divine image. In Isaiah God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19) In Revelation, he says, “Behold, I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5) But new things often bother or even scare us. We are content with the familiar, even if it is not good. And often religious people are the most resistant to what is new. We try to rein in the Spirit and tell him he can only do more of the old stuff. Yet we are told that “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) How can we be new creations and not do new things?

Living things do not remain static. God is living and while he does not change in his essential character, the way he expresses his nature of love and justice and forgiveness and grace does. When he expressed himself in Jesus, the Living Word of God made flesh, that was new. When he, our lawgiver and judge, took it upon himself to die in our place for our sins, that was new. When he rose from the dead, that was new. When he poured out his Spirit on his people to carry on the mission of spreading the good news of Jesus to the whole world, that was new. God is doing new things all the time. We need to be open to what he is doing in the world around us. We need to trust him and to operate in the freedom he grants us. Just because something is unprecedented doesn't mean it's not from God. When our extraordinary, revolutionary, groundbreaking, unstoppable God is at work, expect the unexpected!