Monday, August 13, 2018

Building Up

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

In journalism, it's called burying the lede. It's when you don't start with the most important fact, like when a reporter starts off writing about a congressman's legislative program and doesn't get to the fact that he's under investigation for murder until the 3rd paragraph. But as with all rules of style, there are times when you may want to break them, like when you don't want to start off with the most startling or important idea. You may want to build up to it. You may want to show how it is the inevitable result of all the facts you lay out or you may want to end with a punchy summary of your argument. And that's what Paul seems to be doing in our passage from Ephesians today.

Paul usually wraps up his letters with a flurry of ethical commands that proceed organically from the theological arguments he makes earlier in the epistle. They are logical deductions that follow from the principles he was discussing, like grace or faith or love. But sometimes he uses inductive logic, going from the specifics to the principle we are to draw from them. This letter does both. In the first 3 chapters Paul is talking about the riches and blessings God offers us in Christ and here enumerates what our response should be. As some have pointed out, the first part of the epistle is about doctrine and the second about duty.

Last week, we saw how Paul was talking of unity. This is a major theme in almost all his letters and I think it is because Paul was on the front lines of the church's ministry to the Gentiles. In whatever city he entered he would first preach at a synagogue. Some Jews would come to see and accept Jesus as the Messiah but it was among the Godfearers, Gentiles who were interested in Judaism, that he saw the greatest response. Since most religions appealed primarily to the ethnic group in which they arose, Paul was finding it hard to make people understand the idea of God's universal kingdom. As we said, he hit upon the idea of the body of Christ, one group composed of individuals with various talents and functions, equipped and united by the Spirit of God.

So what we read today follows from that big idea. If we are one, then first of all we need to speak truth to one another. Truth is at a premium today. For quite a while, people have been “spinning” the truth, giving unfavorable facts an interpretation that renders them less troublesome to this side of a controversy or that. What's odd is that today, with instant access to just about all the facts in the world, people have dropped the “spin” and just out and out lie. It's possible that in some cases people are deluding themselves but in most cases it is a deliberate tactic. In his book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder explains the way modern disinformation campaigns work: put out as many versions of the facts as possible to confuse and demoralize people and make them despair of finding objective truth. If there is no such thing as objective truth or expert knowledge, then you might as well opt for the version you like, put out by the sources you trust. That's why often our modern discussions consist of people talking past each other, because they don't even share a commonly agreed-upon set of facts. Which makes it easy to stoke up fear about things that aren't really threats and divert attention from things that actually do endanger us.

Though it wasn't as well thought-out and orchestrated then as it is by modern nations, nevertheless Paul saw how people can manipulate others by falsifying their message. He writes Timothy, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

In any group of people problems will arise. The predicament is that, just as you can't properly treat a medical condition without an accurate diagnosis, you can't fix problems if you don't know the truth about the situation. That means speaking the truth in love, as we read last week, and listening to the truth, however uncomfortable it makes us. Seldom are problems solely the fault of one side. We all tend to contribute to major problems if only by complicity and complacency. We need to face the truth and then, acting together, work to make things better.

Paul next says something else people really need to hear: “Be angry but do not sin.” Anger is not in and of itself sinful. Reform often comes out of anger at a bad situation. But as Aristotle observed, “Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree at the right time for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not easy.” Anger can easily slip into rage and then, instead of being wielded surgically as Aristotle suggests, it becomes a blunt instrument, smashing everything, or like an automatic weapon, doing widespread and indiscriminate damage.

One way we can avoid this is by not attacking each other but attacking the problem. Rather than trying to fix the blame, concentrate on fixing the problem. Act as a team and not as antagonists. Even if one person precipitated the situation, our thinking should be, “This is our problem now; how can we fix it?”

Paul suggests another limit: time. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Deal with it now. Lay the issue to rest as soon as possible. Even if you need a cooling off period, it shouldn't last a whole day. The longer you nurse anger the more it will fester. I think that is what Paul means by “do not leave room for the devil.” Don't give those who wish to sow dissension and disunity an opportunity. Don't give discord a foothold.

The next command is a no-brainer. “Thieves must give up stealing.” “Thou shalt not steal” is one of the Ten Commandments that most people actually recall. And it helps to realize that today a growing amount of theft is no longer the taking of physical objects like money or jewelry or art. These days someone on the other side of the world can steal your money from your bank account. Or your information from files held by a company or the government. Or, as 17 different US intelligence agencies have warned us, they can steal your right to vote. While it would be hard (but not impossible) to change votes after they are cast, hackers can simply change the status of voters, so that you go to your polling place and find that you are no longer registered or that your information is so corrupted that the poll workers aren't sure you are who you say you are.

Identity theft is a big problem. A clever person can get a fake ID with your name and information on it and use it to get credit cards or loans, or to do nefarious things online. They can even use it when they get arrested and make it extremely difficult to prove you aren't the person who was arrested in Tucson for DUI or petty larceny or possession of drugs.

And then there is intellectual theft. People can appropriate stuff you have created—writings, videos, artwork—and pass it off as their own. Think of how often you share such things online without checking to see if you are depriving a writer or artist or filmmaker of the money he or she rightfully should get for spending hours or weeks or months creating them. And then there is that old standby of stealing an idea from a coworker at your job.

We need to respect other people's property. A Christian doesn't steal. He or she does not take what is not his or her own, nor use what belongs to others without asking for and receiving permission. And often people will give permission. It's just that people seldom ask.

Paul talks of how in contrast we should do honest labor with our own hands. There are of course a lot of jobs that don't require the backbreaking work that used to be a part of every human endeavor back then but I think Paul would be flabbergasted by people who make money simply by shifting money about. You heard that Toys R Us has gone out of business? You probably think that it as because a lot of people simply shop on Amazon. But it turns out only 8.9% of all sales are online. What's killed companies like Toys R Us, Radio Shack, Payless and 16 other chains are private equity firms. Hedge funds borrow money to buy companies, then strip them of assets to repay themselves and saddle the companies with the debt. So the companies don't have enough money to modernize and improve, decline in sales and go into bankruptcy. The bankers get rich, though. One hedge fund owner bought Sears and Kmart and then spun off a real estate company that is charging them for rent on what was their own land. If they go under, he can simply rent the land to someone else. Is that honest work or sleight of hand?

6% of the workforce is in retail and cashier jobs. That's 8 million jobs. Hundreds of thousands of retail jobs have gone away and more are threatened by this tactic. Paul says that part of the reason to do honest work is so that we can give to the needy, not create more persons in need.

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” The word translated “evil” usually means “rotten.” This is the only place in the New Testament where it is not used of bad fruit or bad trees. So this is one place where I think the King James version is superior in using the word “corrupt.” Or maybe it should be “corrupting” because Paul contrasts this unhealthy talk with speech that builds people up. It's so easy to go negative. It's so easy to say things that tear people down and tear them apart. Rather than denigrate and destroy our words should “give grace to those who hear.” Before speaking we should ask ourselves, “Is this helpful or harmful? Will it make things better or worse?”

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God...” The Greek word for “grieve” can mean “cause distress” or “make someone sorry.” How is it possible that we can cause God's Spirit sorrow? Because he loves us. As the song goes, “Jesus loves me when I'm good, when I do the things I should. Jesus loves me when I'm bad, though it makes him very sad.” If you don't care about someone, what they do doesn't affect you much. If you love someone and you see them embarking on a course of action that will harm them or others, it upsets you. You want them to be the best they can. Paul is pointing to a side of God's love that we don't often think of. Rather than do or refrain from doing certain things because we are afraid God will punish us, we should instead avoid things that will disappoint our loving heavenly Father and instead do things that will please him.

Put away from you all bitterness and rage and anger and loud quarreling and insults, together with all malice...” Today is the anniversary of the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville, Virginia. All of those things that Paul tells us to do away with were on display then. The anger and rage and loud quarreling and insults came out of the bitterness on the side that still supports two racist causes that lost in wars roughly 160 and 80 years ago. And by the way, the Greek word for bitterness has overtones of poisonous. As someone once said, being bitter is like hating someone, drinking poison yourself and expecting the other person to get sick. As for malice, that is deliberate evil.

And some of these racists have the impudence to call themselves Christian and appropriate things like the Celtic cross. None of these are qualities any Christian should manifest. Rather we are called to produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no place for encouraging rage and fear and physical violence in the kingdom of God. Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight....” (John 18:36) At his arrest, Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place for all who take up the sword will be destroyed by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) And then he healed the man whose ear Peter had cut off. (Luke 22:50-51) That is the spirit of the person in whose footsteps we follow.

In contrast with the qualities we should put away, Paul says, “ kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” The word translated “tenderhearted” could also be rendered “compassionate.” Kindness and compassion, I needn't tell you, are in short supply. And that was true in Paul's day. Life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The majority of people, by which we mean slaves, women, children, and the poor, had no rights. There was no social safety net. There were no police. If you were disabled, you begged. Or died. No charity was going to help you out.

Christians stood out because of their concern for the unfortunate. They fed the hungry, nursed the sick, buried the poor, helped widows and orphans, ransomed slaves, and visited prisoners as well as the elderly who couldn't leave their homes. Their charitable works caught the attention of non-Christians and what they learned about the Christian God attracted them to the faith. As professor Robert Garland puts it, “here for the first time in history was a religion that was not judging you by the size of your wallet or your status in society or your gender or your ethnicity....The Christian God...will listen to your prayers, no matter what, as long as you are truly penitent. He'll actually love you....In fact, if you're poor or downtrodden or despised or sick, he'll look on you with special favor.” It is that kind of God, mirrored in the actions of his followers, that brings people to Christ.

And so we get to the lede, the principle towards which Paul is building his case: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Children naturally imitate their parents. They develop habits of thought, expression and action based on what they see and hear their parents do. So we should imitate the grace and forgiveness and love we see in the God revealed in the words and works of Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke the truth; he got angry but did not sin (the priests were upset with Jesus driving the crooked money changers out of the temple but they didn't arrest him; they knew he was right); he worked honestly with his hands and gave to the needy; no corrupting speech came from his mouth; his words were gracious and built people up; he did not give the Holy Spirit reasons to be sad; he was kind, tenderhearted and forgiving.

It's unfortunate that the question “What would Jesus do?” has become a cliché but it is still a good rule for living. As someone said, you may be the only Christ someone is exposed to. So let every thought, word and act be an imitation of or an extension of what we see in Jesus, the flesh and blood expression of the God who is love, into whose image we, as beloved children, should be growing up.

Monday, August 6, 2018


The scriptures referred to are Exodus 16:2-15, Ephesians 4:1-16, and John 6:24-35.

To make students understand atoms, textbooks usually include a picture that looks kinda like a planet with multiple moons. To illustrate gravity, we are often asked to imagine a stretched rubber sheet on which have been placed a bowling ball, a baseball, a golfball, etc and then to imagine the effect of a marble rolling across the sheet and how its track would be affected by the indentations of the balls. These mental images help us grasp things that are hard to comprehend. And they capture some of the realities of the things they are trying to explain, but according to scientists they aren't, strictly speaking, accurate. They are useful in underlining certain truths but are not to be taken literally.

And when we talk about God, we do the same thing: we use picture language to illustrate certain aspects of the divine but there is a danger in taking them literally. God is not literally a shepherd, nor biologically our father, nor is he located in the clouds. They are metaphors and like all metaphors, they will break down if extended beyond their purpose. God guides and provides for us like a shepherd but he doesn't shear us. God loves and cares for us and corrects us like a father, but he is not going to braid our hair or give us video games for our birthday. And the reason that a cosmonaut reportedly said he did not see God when shot into space is because heaven is not like a space station, floating above earth.

In today's lectionary readings Jesus' body is compared to the manna God provided the Israelites during the exodus as well as to a human body with various parts. Both comparisons are useful and spiritually insightful so let's take a look at them.

In our passage from Exodus we read about the manna God provides the Israelites in the wilderness. Used to the abundance available in Egypt, they are not adapting to the conditions they are facing now. In a way they are like spoiled kids going on a camping trip. "Why can't they have hamburgers and fries?" Except the Israelites seem to have forgotten that they were slaves in Egypt. And they seem to have forgotten how God has protected and provided for them thus far. So God provides them with meat in the form of a quail migration and bread in the form of a fine flaky substance, that is round and white and tastes like honey. The people ask, “What is it?” Later it is called manna after the Hebrew word for “what.” Essentially manna means “whatever that is.” For that matter, we don't know what it is, though people have suggested it is a secretion of the tamarisk plant or of an insect or some form of moss but none of them really fit. It is better to think of it as the bread of heaven, as it is referred to in Psalm 105:40.

That term is what Jesus uses to make his point in our passage from John. John, as is usual, is supplementing the older gospels with details that give us a fuller understanding of events. All of the gospels tell of how Jesus fed the 5000 and 3 tell of his walking on water. Only John connects the two and gives us this story of the aftermath. The Galileans, after being miraculously fed, realize Jesus is the Messiah and they want to make him their king, by force if necessary. So Jesus goes up a mountain to pray and sends the Twelve off by boat. At night, when the crowds are sleeping, Jesus comes down the mountain and crosses the water on foot, catching up with the disciples in their boat. But when the crowd awakens they find Jesus gone and go by boat to Capernaum, Jesus' base.

Jesus knows why they are there. A leader who can feed thousands is like the goose that lays golden eggs. He can lead a popular revolt against the Romans. They are thinking strictly in earthly terms. Jesus wants them to think even more radically. So he uses the idea of manna and bread from heaven to illustrate a more important truth: that they are spiritually malnourished and they need Jesus to fill them and make them healthy. He is the bread that gives life. They must eat his flesh and drink his blood to obtain eternal life. Unfortunately, taking what he says literally, a lot of his followers walk away from Jesus.

This is still a problem in the church. People try to take Genesis 1 through 3 literally. They argue against what science has discovered, and make the main issue how God created the world rather than why. But aside from “God said let there be...,” the Bible doesn't deal with how creation was accomplished. And the Hebrew word for day (yom) is as elastic as the English word. It could mean “era” as when we say “back in the day.” Yet we have people so hung up on a literal interpretation that there is a $27 million Creation Museum in Arkansas, as well as smaller ones in 11 other states. There are 3 in Florida, if you count the little one in Key West. I'm sure that's what Jesus meant when he said go into all the world and make disciples but first spend $27 million on audioanimatronic dinosaurs because THAT is the important part of the gospel! (BTW, on the big museum's website, under Exhibits, there is precisely one about Jesus.)

If you want to talk about diabolical influences in the church, I contend that it is all the issues, like abortion, homosexuality, arguing the inerrancy of the original manuscripts of the Bible (as opposed to the ones we have), etc., that distract us from the good news of who Jesus is, what he has done for us and how we are to respond to him. I don't see those other issues popping up in the preaching of Jesus, Peter or Paul. In fact in today's passage from Ephesians Paul says, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine...” In his first letter to his protege Timothy, Paul writes, “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictory arguments of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and thereby swerved away from the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:20-21) Even then, there were people who were diverting Christians through their own pet theories and novel teachings and lost focus on what is essential. Back then it was Gnosticism, which taught that all matter, including the body, is evil and only spirit is good. All kinds of bizarre doctrines came out of this: that Jesus' human body was an illusion; that we should either severely deny all bodily appetites, or alternately, we can indulge them since the body is irredeemable anyway; and that salvation depends on special secret knowledge imparted only to the elite. You can see in these things the origin of almost all Christian heresies and cults, as well as the asceticism and persistent suspicion of all sexual activity found even in mainstream Christianity.

God created all things, including our bodies, and pronounced them “good.” The ultimate validation of this is God becoming man in Jesus Christ, with a body that, like ours, got thirsty, hungry, and tired, could touch others and be touched. Creation is good; the problem arises with some of the stuff we do with and to the people and other things God created.

Although Jesus had a literal body, we are more interested for the purposes of this discussion with its uses in the spiritual sense. One we see in our passage from John. Though John's is the only gospel that does not record Jesus saying what we call the words of institution—“This is my body; this is my blood”—in this chapter he gives his Eucharistic theology. Just as God fed the Israelites in the wilderness with the mysterious manna, so God nourishes us with Jesus' body and blood. Obviously Jesus is not talking about cannibalism, so we must seek another meaning. And in the last supper, Jesus takes elements of the Passover meal, the unleavened bread and the wine, and reinterprets them. The focal feast of the Old Covenant for God's people becomes the signature sacred meal of the New Covenant inaugurated by Jesus for the new community of God's people called from all nations. Jesus becomes the sacrificial Lamb of God, the bread becomes his flesh and the wine his blood which is shed for us so that the second death, spiritual death, passes over us. Just as God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, Jesus frees us from our slavery to sin--the thoughts, words and deeds that destroy us and all others created in God's image, as well as destroying the rest of God's creation and our relationship with our Creator.

But not only do we draw spiritual sustenance from Christ's body, we come together as Christ's body to do so. One possible origin of the word “religion” is the Latin word for “to bind.” Religion often serves to bind people together through shared beliefs, behaviors and a sense of belonging. That's easy when you are all related or part of one ethnic group as the Jews were. But Jesus drew all kinds of people and his message was for all the world. How do you say you are one community when you speak different languages and come from different countries and have different customs? That was the problem the early church and especially Paul encountered when non-Jews started coming to Christ. It was clear that God's Spirit was doing this. But how do you make one people out of such a motley group?

Paul seizes upon the brilliant metaphor of the body. Each of us has one body and yet it is made up of numerous parts, both internal and external, with different appearances and different functions. So too we are members of the one body of Christ, though we have different appearances and talents and functions. You don't have to be a copy of someone else to be part of the church. You don't have to be a preacher or Sunday school teacher or assist at the altar. We all have gifts that we can share. Aspects of God are reflected in each of us. Every one of us contributes in some way. Each of us supports and is supported by the other members of the body of Christ.

Paul makes the uniting principle the head, who is Christ. Even today, we have machines that will replace your heart or your kidneys or will breathe for you, but nothing can replace your brain. Without a head you're dead. The head orchestrates everything and directs everything, even the functions that are unconscious. Our head is Jesus. We follow his lead.

I find it interesting that Paul says “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head.” Since he was just talking of us being children, it could be that he is thinking of how large children's heads are in relation to their bodies. A baby's head makes up ¼ to 1/3 of his or her body length. An adult's head is about 1/8 of her or his length. On the other hand a baby's head is about 4 to 5 inches long from crown to chin and about 13 ½ inches in circumference while an adult's head is twice as long and its circumference on average is 21 ¾ inches for women and 22 ½ inches for men. While the proportions change our heads grow. And our brains grow as well, not only in size but in complexity.

And that's because our take on the world grows in complexity. Or it should. There are a lot of people who hold onto very childlike world views even when they reach adulthood. They grossly oversimplify life or people, reducing them to caricatures of what actually exist. Just as cartoons make people simpler, like giving characters 4 fingers rather than 5, enlarging the eyes and giving them super-symmetric features, some world views reduce all people to heroes or villains, human or sub-human, geniuses or idiots, without nuance or shading. Small wonder some people act as if the world were a fantasy movie, where an evil conspiracy controls everything and the only way to stop evil is with physical force, where guns in the hands of the good guys never shoot innocent people and where the solution to every problem is a magic ring or piece of technology or exposure of the truth or the arrest or death of the main bad guy. Those are childish notions. I enjoy them in films and TV shows but I also know they no more resemble reality than shows about detectives or lawyers or doctors give you a realistic idea of what those professions are like.

Wisdom is a cardinal virtue in the Bible. Jesus said, “ as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves,” no doubt thinking of the proverbial wisdom of snakes. (Matthew 10:16; Genesis 3:1) He does not want us to be naive. Seeking the truth is part of our duty as Christians. (Psalm 25:5; John 16:13; Acts 17:11) But notice that Paul writes of “...speaking the truth in love...” There are times to be bluntly honest but generally if you want people to listen and not to get defensive, you speak the truth in love. You find a way to say it that respects them as a person and shows that you are on their side, that you only seek their good. Like “That's sounds good but wouldn't it be better if you...” Or “I see what you're saying but it could also be looked as this way...” Or “I thought so too but then I found out...” Sometimes the truth is hard to take. We needn't make it more difficult by being insensitive to the person to whom we are presenting it.

We are to act as Christ's body on earth. And that means our attitude towards each other should be that of the 3 Musketeers: All for one and one for all. We should use our various positions and strengths to help the whole group, and the group should come together to aid and support each member. As Paul said, “Bear one another's burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

We cannot do this without help. So it is vital that we stay connected with Jesus, our head. As is true physically, so it is true spiritually that losing connection with the head leads to paralysis at best and death at worst. One way to keep alive spiritually is to come together as the body of Christ to share the body and blood of Christ. And to “take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

So Christ is our head and Christ is our food; Christ is our way and Christ is our goal; Christ is within us and we are in Christ. Because, as Paul said, “Christ is all and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

Jesus is the lens through which we need to see the world. All things were made through him and he died to save all. Everyone we meet is either our sibling in Christ or our potential sibling in Christ. We are to see Christ in others and serve Christ by serving them. Try to do that this week. Look for Jesus in everyone. He may be obscured by sin, fear, rage, or the person's own ego but he is there. Reach out to him. Appeal to the Jesus in each person—his love, his kindness, his generosity, his mercy. It's there somewhere. It may take some work to find.

And as a reminder I leave you this chorus adapted from David Haas
“Christ before me, 
Christ behind me, 
Christ under my feet;
Christ within me, 
Christ over me, 
Let all around me be Christ.” 

(Repeat using “peace,” “light,” “love”and then return to “Christ”)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Going to Extremes

The scriptures referred to are 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Ephesians 3:14-21, and John 6:1-21.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “It seems to me that one can say hardly anything either good enough or bad enough about life.” And indeed we live with that paradox. This is a world where a small political party took over a nation and managed to murder 6 million Jews as well as a world in which over 26,000 Gentiles saved hundreds of thousands of Jews during that same period. And at least 4 of those Gentile rescuers were German officers, according to the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. We have a world with police officers who shoot unarmed men and with police officers who give their lives to protect others. We have a world where people do horrible things to children and where people dedicate their lives to rescuing and helping those children. We have a world where evil people sometimes escape justice and where good people suffer.

We see examples of the two extremes in today's lectionary. David uses his power as king to take advantage of the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his military officers. We know that Uriah was a member of David's royal guard. Though a Hittite, it looks as if he converted to the Hebrew faith because his name, Uriah, means “Yahweh is my light.” When David gets Uriah's wife pregnant, to cover up his adultery, he calls Uriah home, gets him drunk and tries to get him to go home and sleep with his wife. But because of the man's nobility and solidarity with his fellow soldiers, that deception doesn't work. So David plots the perfect murder: death on the battlefield. He actually has Uriah deliver the sealed orders for his death. He has Uriah put on the front line and then has the troops withdraw and leave him to die. It is a betrayal of a loyal soldier, a betrayal of his position as king of Israel and a betrayal of his status as God's chosen.

On the other end, we see David's descendant, Jesus, looking at a crowd of at least 5000 hungry people with compassion, and using his power to feed them. The contrast between the king and the Messiah could not be more pronounced. One man decrees death, the other gives life. One acts out of selfishness and the other out of altruism. One goes against God's law and one fulfills God's will. And we see examples of similar behavior all the time.

But a more disturbing thing happens when a person deals in deceit and doles out death in the name of God. What are we to make of that?

Dr. Jason Bivins, in his Great Courses lectures entitled Thinking About Religion and Violence, points out that often when we see religious violence it is during a time of rapid social change. Cultures and world views are colliding. Remember that religion includes beliefs, behaviors and belonging. During such a societal upheaval, some fervent believers feel their world, their group and their identity are being attacked, if not physically, then ideologically. Truth and purity are being compromised. As theologian Paul Tillich pointed out religion is about ultimate values. You don't get worked up about attacks on something you don't value much. But when you see an attack on something important or even essential to who you are, you rush to defend it. So perpetrators of religious violence see their actions as defensive, not as unprovoked aggression.

All religions have in their sacred texts some passages that can be used to justify violence in certain circumstances. Scholars can tell which passages in the Quran were written when Mohammed had the support of Christians and Jews (he was promoting monotheism in a polytheistic culture) and when he was running into their opposition (Christians and Jews were not, however, going to convert to Islam). The passages in the Bible describing the Israelites conquering and establishing themselves in the land of Canaan and the passages describing them fighting for their existence when threatened by the more powerful empires surrounding them are chilling in their invocation of holy war and wholesale slaughter. These passages are usually those that Christians cited in calling European princes to go on crusades against Muslims and in cleansing the new world of Native Americans.

And that is wrong, not just morally but also theologically. We do not live under the Old Covenant enacted for Iron Age theocratic Israel. We live under the New Covenant, inaugurated by Jesus, who told his followers to put up the sword, turn the other cheek and to love their enemies. (Matthew 26:52; 5:38-48) How can any Christian go against Jesus' explicit commands to love and not to harm others?

Well, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, people tend to be most irrational about the things they value the most. Thus hard core gun rights advocates tend to act as if the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms is unique in that there should be no serious restrictions on it. Yet our 1st Amendment right to free speech does not allow me to incite people to riot, to falsely shout “Fire!” in crowded places such as this church, nor to engage in libel or slander. Gun advocates oppose the kind of common sense restrictions we put on the dangerous activity of driving a several thousand pound vehicle through public streets, though cars and trucks were not designed to kill and maim, and guns intentionally are. Similarly certain abortion rights advocates oppose things like parental notification when a minor gets an abortion, though it is an invasive procedure. Like all such medical procedures even legal abortions can have complications which parents may want to know about lest they find their daughter bleeding out and can't tell the folks in the ER why. And pro-choice advocates rarely confront the fact that, yeah, if you don't terminate the fetus it will naturally become a human being with rights of its own. There is a legitimate question here with no easy answers but which needs to be discussed. I'm not for abolishing guns or abortions but both of these issues are a lot more complicated than their advocates will admit. Remember what Dr. Bivins said about purity? The flaws in these positions are a refusal to compromise and to acknowledge that these rights are not and should not be absolute.

As we have recently pointed out in these sermons, there is a hierarchy of moral values. Just as breaking the law against littering is not legally as serious as murder, so violations of certain moral laws are not as severe as violations of more primary commands. And Jesus put at the center the commandments to love God and to love other human beings. He said no other commandment superseded these two. And they are connected. Humans are created in the image of God. That's why, God tells Noah, that murder is wrong. (Genesis 9:6) And logically proceeding from that principle, mistreatment of anyone is wrong. Jesus says what we do or fail to do for those in distress we do or neglect to do to him. Loving your neighbor is a way of showing God your love for him.

But what if the two conflict? What if loving God means opposing something your neighbor is doing? What if your neighbor is unequivocally demonstrating hatred for God or for persons created in his image? If he is breaking the law, report it. If it's legal but a moral and personal transgression, Jesus gives us ways of handling that. In Matthew, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Note a few things. First, Jesus says this applies if the person sins against you. He doesn't say, “if the person's speech, behavior or lifestyle upsets you.” Jesus is not talking about taking offense nor is he giving the bystander an excuse to act if outraged. He is speaking to the person who was actually injured by the sin. The person who is sinned against should be proactive in seeking reconciliation. (We are talking about equals here. This doesn't apply if the victim is a child and the offender an adult or if the offender has all the power in the relationship.)

Ideally the first move should be to settle the matter one on one. Rather than going online or gossiping to friends, see if you can't work things out and get him to admit his misstep. Because the purpose, according to Jesus, is to win the person back and repair the relationship. Only if the person won't listen do you involve others and then just 1 or 2 at most. Jesus cites Deuteronomy 19:15, which requires at least two witnesses to verify something. They can see to it that both people are acting in good faith and approaching things in the right spirit. If the person who has sinned will not listen even to the extra witness or two, only then do you bring things up to the congregation. If the person still will not come around, then he is to be excommunicated. Not harassed, not attacked, just left out of the community. There is no justification here for dealing violently with those who are seen as violating the truth or purity of the community.

In Luke, we read this exchange: “'Master,' said John, 'we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.'

'Do not stop him,' Jesus said, 'for whoever is not against you is for you.'” (Luke 9:49-50)

What if this were the attitude during the Reformation? It could have prevented the Thirty Years War. What if our denominations used this principle in dealing with each other? What if we recognized the good work others were doing in Jesus' name despite disagreeing with them on key matters? Jesus didn't say that the world would know us to be his disciples because we agreed on everything. He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) Getting along with someone even when we don't always agree with them is a sign we genuinely love them.

Ok, so we are to love other Christians, despite our disagreements; what about non-Christians? Is there anything that tells us we must love them as well?

After discussing the two great commandments, Jesus is asked, “And who is my neighbor?” And he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. His audience was Jewish and they thought the Samaritans were half-breed heretics. But Jesus made one the hero of his story. (Luke 10:25-37) His point is your neighbor is whomever you encounter, whether they are of your faith or not, or of your race or not, or of your country or not. And indeed Jesus offers salvation to Samaritans (John 4:1-42) and heals Gentiles (Matthew 15:21-28; Luke 7:1-10). He tells the apostles to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) He commissions them to go and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:19-20) And in the most famous verse in the New Testament, and arguably in the Bible, John 3:16, we are told that “God so loved the world...” Not just some parts of the world or a few people in it but the world. If God loves the people of the world, who are we to hate any of them or use violence on any of them?

In fact it bothers me when people speak of violence as the result of religious extremism. Violence is not the result of being extremely religious. It is the result of filtering out every bit of a religion that forbids you from being violent and concentrating on the few parts that you can use to justify your behavior. Did you know the Quran forbids terrorism? The word used is hirabah, which means “unlawful warfare” and encompasses robbery, rape and terrorism. (Surah al-Ma'ida 5:33-34) Did you know Islam forbids killing non-combatants? 'Abu Bakr al-Siddig, the first Caliph or successor to Mohammad, told his army, “Do not kill women, children, the old or the not destroy any town...” Sneak attacks are forbidden as is doing anything other than fighting a war in self-defense. Also the Quran says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” (The Cow 2:256) You can't force conversions. Terrorists who say they are Muslims have to disobey those parts of Islam.

Why don't we instead refer to people who actually do what Jesus told them to do as “religious extremists?” You know, people who feed the hungry and clothe the threadbare and welcome the alien and take care of the sick and and give self-sacrificially and turn the other cheek and forgive their enemies and make peace and show mercy and do those things that most people, including most so-called Christians, don't do. Why are they not as newsworthy as those who do the opposite of what Jesus said to do? If the news is what is unusual, what doesn't  happen all the time, then Christians who are trying to be truly Christlike in their thoughts, words and deeds should be in the headlines. People disobeying Jesus and twisting his words to justify what they would do anyway are everyday phenomena, not news.

So, too, what David did was evil but sadly, not unprecedented. The (non-magical) awful things that happen in Game of Thrones were often based on historical events. Kings and emperors frequently killed those who got in their way and just as often were killed by people wanting their thrones. Humans have spent way too much brain power coming up with ways to torture and kill their fellow humans. Unwanted populations have been discriminated against, persecuted, put in camps or just killed, even in this country. And governments and criminals have been co-opting religion to rally people to causes whose ends have nothing to do with God's will. I have yet to see a religious war that ended with the change of an article of belief. In the end it is all about power and territory. But politicians and cult leaders know that by somehow tying their cause to God, they can get the support of uncritical folks whose religion is more a matter of culture and identity.

Recently we talked about disordered loves. I doubt David was in love with Bathsheba at this point, just in lust. But his love of his reputation and his position and his life (remember the penalty for adultery then was being stoned to death) overrode his love for his friend and for God. In contrast Jesus' love for the world outweighed his love for his own life. And those who, like David, loved their position and popularity and safety more than God or any human being, decided Jesus was a threat to all that and killed him. In the name of God. So Jesus was the victim of religious violence. Never forget that.

The world is full of people who do a lot of harm and people who do a lot of good, as well as a bunch of people who don't do much either way. That last group is the one who lets those who do great harm get away with it and who keeps them in power. So they are also part of the problem. Jesus calls us to be part of the solution. We need to go the second mile, to repay evil with good, to do more than the bare minimum of just being nice. As Paul writes in today's reading from Ephesians, “I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ...” Everything we do should be grounded in love. And not just love for ourselves and ours. It is to be as wide and long and high and deep as Jesus' love. When you have come to know this love, you will understand that there can be no justification to harm anyone. Jesus gives us no choice but to love each other, no matter how unlovable, and help one another, no matter how hard. Because that's what he does for us.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Out of the Box

The scriptures referred to are 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:14-21.

I was watching my granddaughter at church one day and she pulled out some of our children's books of Bible stories and I was reading them to her. When I told her that Jesus died on a cross, she looked at the one over our altar and I quickly added, “No, not that one. We have that to remember what he did for us.” But I didn't want to leave the story there so I said, “But Jesus didn't stay dead; he's alive.” Her eyes got big and she said, “Where is he? Outside?” And suddenly I'm trying to adapt the very sophisticated theology of God's omnipresence in the world and Jesus' presence in our lives to the level of a 4 year old.

It's hard for humans to think outside the confines of their own experience. We are physical beings living in a physical world. Even when we acknowledge the spiritual side of things, we tend to think of God as, say, a man with a long white beard, sitting on a literal throne, surrounded by clouds. As adults we might recognize these images as metaphorical but children might not. And the idea of God being located in a specific physical place is not alien to them.

It wasn't to the Israelites either. Now it made sense for pagan religions who made idols of stone or wood to build them houses to live in and function as shrines. Yet despite their unique conception of a God who cannot and should not be depicted, the Israelites did tend to locate him in space, specifically the sacred space of the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Part of this was the fact that it housed the ark of the covenant. It was called that because this box contained the the tablets of the 10 commandments Moses received on Mt. Sinai, the core of the covenant or agreement God made with his people. The lid, adorned with two sculpted golden cherubim, was called the mercy seat. (Yes, it looked almost exactly like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good job, propmakers!) God would meet with Moses there (Exodus 25:22) and thus the tabernacle was called the Tent of Meeting. The people understandably thought the invisible God dwelt between the two cherubim. (2 Kings 19:15) Consequently the ark was variously called God's throne, with the idea that God was seated on the wings of the cherubim (Isaiah 37:16: 1 Samuel 4:4), or alternately his footstool, with the idea that heaven was God's throne. (Psalm 132:7-8; Isaiah 66:1) When the people were wandering through the wilderness, the ark was a mobile reminder of God's presence. It was carried into battle during the conquest of the land of Canaan.

In our passage from 2 Samuel, David has finished the conquest of the land begun under Joshua hundreds of years before. He has gone from being king of Judah to king of all Israel. He has captured Jerusalem and made it his capitol. He has brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem but it is still in a tent. Just as David is enjoying rest in a house of beautiful, aromatic, and durable cedar from which he can rule the land, he wishes to build a fine house for God to rest and do the same. But God says no. God will build a house for David. He means, of course, a royal dynasty. David's son will build a physical house for the Lord but God says he will establish a throne and a kingdom for the house of David that will last forever. Later David says that the reason God did not let him build the temple was that “you are a warrior and have shed blood.” (1 Chronicles 28:3)

Some people have doubts about everything in the Bible, including the fact that David ever lived. Some skeptics have thought him to be the equivalent of Britain's King Arthur, a legendary figure. But in 1993 and 1994 archaeologists found a stele, a stone erected by the king of Aram to commemorate a victory over the kings of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 8:28-29). It mentions 8 Biblical kings and the House of David. Most archaeologists accept this as evidence David did exist.

Why did they doubt this? Besides the general tendency of secular scholars to assume that, unlike most other ancient documents, the Bible is false until proven true,  there is the disappearance of the Davidic dynasty. In 586 B.C. the Babylonians destroyed the temple built by Solomon and either took or melted down the ark of the covenant within it. And ever since they took the Jews into exile in Babylon, there hasn't been a king of the House of David on the throne. The king at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, Zedekiah, was captured and taken to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. His sons were executed before his eyes and then his eyes were put out. He was put in prison in Babylon, where presumably he died. The remaining king of the House of David was Jehoiachin, Zedekiah's nephew, who had been deposed and taken into exile earlier. Zedekiah had been appointed in his place as a puppet. The last paragraph of the book of 2 Kings tells us how, in the 37th year of his captivity, Jehoiachin was released from prison and allowed to eat at the table of the successor to Nebuchadnezzar. Which makes it sound like there is hope for a future king from the line of David.

And indeed a descendant of David returns to Jerusalem after the exile. Zerubbabel was a leader of some kind, possibly a governor of Judea for the Persians, and he laid the foundation for the second temple, but he is never called a king, nor are his descendants. By the time of Jesus, under Roman occupation, there were people of David's bloodline but the royal dynasty was that of Herod the Great. Herod was chosen by the Roman senate as King of the Jews, replacing the kings descended from the priestly family that led the Maccabean revolt. Herod's family were Edomites who converted to Judaism but the Jews never really accepted him as one of them.

So you can see the reason why people were so excited about Jesus. Here was a descendant of David, who was also healing people like the prophet Elisha. Surely he was the the Messiah! Which in popular belief meant that, as David drove out the Philistine oppressors of Israel, the Messiah would drive out the Romans. What they never suspected was that Jesus was not there to make up for a lack of a holy warrior but for the lack of a holy space where God dwells. Jesus is not replacing David so much as the presence of God, symbolized by ark of the covenant which was missing from the second temple.

This is the significance of Jesus' prediction of the destruction of the temple. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” His critics took this to mean Herod's renovated and expanded temple. But John's gospel tells us he was talking about his own body. (John 2:19-22)

The temple was thought to be the place where God dwelt on earth. It was where humans met with God. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, the place where the ark was supposed to be, and would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice for the sins of the people. But ever since the first temple was destroyed there was no ark, just empty space. In place of God's presence there was a void. Jesus came to fill that void in the world.

The people didn't need a new David. Remember how God wouldn't let him build a temple because he was a warrior? They didn't need a warrior. They had warriors: the zealots. People like Barabbas. People like his comrades, who were also crucified on Good Friday. The zealots rebelled in 66 AD and the Romans burned the second temple, never to be rebuilt. In 132 A.D. Simon Bar Kokhba was declared the Messiah by Rabbi Akiva and led a revolt that once again was quashed by the Romans. Violence was not the answer, nor were the Romans the real enemy. Jesus correctly identified the enemy: the evil in our hearts that give rise to things like greed, arrogance and murder. (Mark 7:20-23) Violence doesn't and can't make that better. We need a change of heart.

The Bible says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself....” (2 Corinthians 5:19) “ him all the fullness of God lives in bodily form...” it says elsewhere. (Colossians 2:9) Jesus is God among us. That's what we need. God here, living with us. A God we can meet with, talk to. A God who will accompany us through whatever conflicts and troubles we encounter and protect us with his presence. Jesus came to replace the ark and the temple as the place where heaven and earth meet.

But Jesus no longer dwells among us in bodily form. At least not as he did in the first century. Throughout the Old Testament God promises he will dwell among his people. (Exodus 29:45-46; Leviticus 26:11; 1 Kings 6:13; Ezekiel 37:27; Zechariah 2:10) But not in the way he did during the time of the ark and the temple. And not exactly as he did in Jesus. In Isaiah we read, “For thus says the high and exalted one who lives forever, whose name is holy, 'I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'” (Isaiah 57:15) The way to get the evil out of our hearts is to let God in.

Paul tells the Ephesians that he prays that they may be “strengthened with his power through his Spirit in your inner being that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith....” Through the Spirit of God who empowered Jesus in his earthly ministry, Jesus comes to live in our hearts. Since God is within us, we, like the ark of the covenant, are to serve as God's presence in this world. As Paul writes, “...your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you...” (1 Corinthians 6:19) He returns to that idea in today's passage from Ephesians. He speaks of being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

We look at this world, the suffering of people, especially at the hand of their fellow human beings, and we ask: Where is God? Why is he not acting? But if we understand the divine plan laid out in the Bible , the question rebounds on us. Where are we, the people on whom God has poured his Spirit? Why is not the church, the body of Christ, acting?

It is, of course. The church builds and run schools and hospitals, homeless shelters and feeding programs; it hosts 12-step programs and grieving groups; it helps in disasters and advocates for the most vulnerable. But not all who call themselves Christian are acting in love toward others. As of 2010, 2.2 billion people, 31% of the world's population, claim to be Christian. That should be enough to make this world better. Why doesn't it?

I am reminded of what President Kennedy said in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It works the same in the church. I think too many people in church are focused almost exclusively on what God can do for them and hardly at all on what they can do for God. Thus the churches viewed as successful in the world's eyes are those that entertain churchgoers during worship and emphasize feeling good about yourself and bettering your material and financial circumstances. They turn God into a vending machine: insert tokens of faith and push the buttons to get what you want. And if you ask me at least part of the problem we have with people leaving the churches is that that it was easy to believe that “feel good” gospel when times were good and harder now that times aren't so good.

The megachurches do not emphasize what Jesus said about being a disciple of his, ie, disowning yourself, taking up your cross daily and following him. (Luke 9:23) The Christian life is less like winning the lottery and more like being soldiers on a mission. Remember the Israelites took the ark of the covenant into battle. We are to take the presence of God in Christ into the battlegrounds of everyday life. But our weapons do not include violence or coercion. David couldn't build a temple because he shed the blood of others. Jesus' blood was shed by others and as Paul says, “ who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Paul is talking about the Jews and the Gentiles but it is true of any two groups at odds with each other. Jesus came to bring peace to a conflicted world as well as to our conflicted hearts. And as the body of Christ we need to work for and bring that peace to others.

The ark of the covenant brings to mind the TARDIS on Doctor Who. It is the Doctor's vehicle for traveling through time and space, disguised as police call box from the 1960s, a blue telephone booth. The feature that strikes everyone upon entering this blue box is that it is much bigger on the inside. It is a paradox. Just so, the Jews knew that Yahweh was not just their tribal God or the God of their land but the creator of heaven and earth. So they had to know that God could not really fit between the cherubim on a 4 foot by 2 foot box, nor even in the grandest of temples. What was inside was bigger than the outside led you to believe.

And if God is in us, that means what is in us is bigger than us. How is that possible? God is love and real love can't be contained. Love overflows. Love takes you out of yourself. Love enables you to do things you didn't realize you could do. I had a coworker who fainted at the sight of blood. Even his own. He passed out when giving blood at an event our radio station was sponsoring. So when he found his girlfriend on the floor of their bathroom one night, blood all over the floor, and he managed to get her to the hospital, we knew it was real love. And sure enough, they married, and have a son who is going to college. They send me a family newsletter every Christmas. Love is power. Love enlarges you.

You could look at our mission as taking the love that everyone has—for themselves, for their family or friends, for the people who they like and the people like them—and encouraging them to enlarge it. Make the circle of those you love bigger. Make it encompass those who are unlike you, those who disagree with you, even those who oppose you. Is that hard? Yeah. Can you do it? Not by yourself. Contrary to the popular saying, God does give us more than we can handle: more than we can handle by ourselves. But as Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) We can handle anything through the big God who lives in us and works through us. As Paul says, “By the power at work within us [he] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) You know what that means? We need to expand our imagination. We need to think bigger. Jesus said we would do greater works than he did. (John 14:12) Let's get on that! There is a void in the world where God's presence should be. Jesus came to fill it and now Jesus works in and through us. We are his body. We are temples of God's Spirit, “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7) What's stopping us?