Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 31

The scriptures read are Exodus 28-30, Psalm 26 and Matthew 27.

Exodus 28. Many years ago I went to the Holy Land theme park in Orlando. I dragged my daughter along to see if it was anything the kids in our Sunday School would enjoy. My daughter felt it needed some more kid-friendly attractions (like a Noah's Ark water ride or Book of Revelation thrill ride), but as a Bible geek, I loved the room-sized model Jerusalem and the life-sized reproduction of the tabernacle with an actor dressed as an Israelite priest. If you want to see what the fully-vested high priest looked like, click here.

Exodus 29. While I was going through the ordination process, my brother, who is hard of hearing, asked what I was learning. I said, "Mostly priest craft." My brother looked surprised and shocked. He said he thought I was being rather casual about it. A small comedy of errors later, I found out he misheard my response as "mostly priest crap." This chapter is ancient Israelite priest craft. I'm sure glad my ordination involved less blood splashing.

Exodus 30. More temple furnishings and the making of holy oil and incense. Do not try this at home.

Psalm 26. The psalmist asks for God to test and vindicate him.

Matthew 27. Judas has remorse but doesn't ask for forgiveness. Jesus is crucified and entombed.

The Bible Challenge: Day 30

The scriptures read are Exodus 25-27, Psalm 25, and Matthew 26.

Exodus 25-27. People into handicrafts might really get into this detailed description of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Even more people might want to read about the real Ark of the Covenant, having seen the rather good version used in the first Indiana Jones movie. I understand if it leaves you cold, though. Skim the chapters and Google tabernacle for some pictures. The Wikipedia article with pics of a real model are here.

Psalm 25. This is an acrostic psalm, which means each verse started with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Lost in translation, I'm afraid. David asks for help with his enemies again but also asks for forgiveness and to be guided in God's way.

Matthew 26. Bang! Right into the passion narrative. First the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume. Then Judas goes to the religious leaders and cuts a deal. The last supper. The prayer in Gethsemane. The Judas kiss. Jesus denouncing violence even if it is to save him. Jesus' trial and Peter's denial. A jam-packed chapter that deserves to be read slowly and contemplated.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 29

The scriptures read are Exodus 22-24, Psalm 24, and Matthew 25.

Exodus 22. For the rest of the Pentateuch, we are going to be hitting large blocks of law on our way to the next bit of narrative. And the laws are not always grouped into sections on one topic. So we get laws on stealing, mixed with animal control, rape, bestiality, etc. You get civil laws next to religious rituals next to moral laws. I find it fascinating to see these basic building blocks of a lawful society some 3000+ years ago and the awareness of nuance and mitigating circumstances. But I especially like it where God shows compassion and takes it personally if his people don't do the same. Some gems in this chapter: don't take advantage of aliens in your land, don't abuse widows and orphans, don't keep a man's coat as security overnight lest that's all he has to sleep in, don't gouge the poor with interest. I'm looking at you, Wall Street!

Exodus 23. I love if that God says if you hate someone, don't take it out on his beasts. If you see his donkey trapped under a load, help the poor thing out.

No gossip. The Bible comes down very strongly on sins of the tongue. They are mentioned at least 50 times in the scriptures. A lot more than some things people make a big deal about. And yet I don't recall ever hearing a lot of sermons about the evils of gossip and slander. But they can tear a family or a church apart.

God is going to clear the country of all the pagan peoples so his folks can have the land. This is not the venue for wrestling with something some Christians find disturbing. I will point out that this only applies to Ancient Israel. There's no warrant to see this as a justification for anyone else in another time or place to do the same.

Exodus 24. I totally forgot about this theophany, or appearance of God, to the 70 elders of Israel. And they eat and drink in his presence. Why doesn't this come up more often when discussing the Eucharist?

Moses ascends higher on the mountain to spend 40 days and nights in the cloud to receive the tablets of stone. Prepare for major info-dump.

Psalm 24. A song about ascending the mountain of God! In this case, it is a liturgical psalm about going up Mt. Zion to enter the temple. I can't read the last section without hearing Handel's version from the Messiah.

Matthew 25. The parable of the virgins, smart and dumb. Another story about being ready for Jesus' return. Wedding processions were elaborate affairs with the groom being carried on a litter to his bride's house and then the couple being paraded through all the streets in town so everyone could get a look at them. It ended at their new home. Must be a big town for the procession to take so long. But the smart virgins were prepared with extra oil so they could replenish their lamps. The dumb virgins missed out on the big wedding party because they had to go get more oil. Again Jesus compares the kingdom to a big wedding feast. Don't miss the party, dude! (Or dudette!)

A lot of people think the parable of the talents is an endorsement of ruthless capitalism. But it's really about using what God gives you to serve him boldly. This really goes back to what Jesus said about hiding your light under a basket. God gave each of us at least one gift. Use it or lose it!

A final judgement story. And the criteria is compassion in action. We humans are created in God's image. True it's been marred. But in Jesus we see the very Spirit and image of God in man. What we do to each other, we do to Jesus and thus to God. What we neglect to do for each other, we neglect to do to Jesus and thus to God. Think about that next time you are tempted to dismiss or denigrate someone.

The Bible Challenge: Day 27

The scriptures read are Exodus 19-21, Psalm 23, and Matthew 24.

Exodus 19. The Hebrews arrive at Mt. Sinai. I had not realized that the expression about carrying people on eagles' wings comes from this passage and it is God's turn of phrase! He also describes Israel as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Lots of preparation going on for the meeting of the people with God. Lots of precautions and special effects. The suspense is palpable.

Exodus 20. The Ten Commandments, or, in Hebrew, the Ten Words. This is laid out in the form of a treaty of the time where a sovereign king would set up conditions between him and a vassal king. Ten principles behind them: exclusive commitment to God, no attempts to represent gods visually or worship them, respect for God's name (no frivolous use or use in magic), respect for the Sabbath as a holy day of rest, respect for parents, respect for human life, respect for faithfulness in marriage, respect for the property of others, respect for the truth, contentment with one's own belongings with no envy of others.

Exodus 21. Specific applications of God's principles in that time and culture. Slavery was universal. What is interesting is the mitigation of the condition. Slaves must be set free after 6 years, or if they are beaten and lose an eye or a tooth. If a slave is killed, he is to be avenged against the slaveowner! What is amazing is the fact that slaves do have rights and slaveowners don't have complete immunity in their treatment of them. It's not anything we would tolerate today in our country (although slavery still exists, and even in our country as human trafficking for sex) but what is discussed here is different from the involuntary, lifelong, racially-based slavery we once practiced and, against the background of its time, is remarkably humane.  

Lawyers may notice that the Mosaic code differentiates between premeditated murder and accidental death. Also lots of stuff about negligence in regards to dangerous animals and leaving your cistern uncovered. Plus a difficult to interpret passage about causing a woman to miscarry--or is it premature live birth? Both sides of the abortion debate parse this. Here we find the famous "lex talionus": life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  The punishment must not exceed the crime.

Psalm 23. The shepherd psalm. Read and meditate.

Matthew 24. Jesus talks of the end of the present evil age. Basically he says: Don't panic. Keep calm. Don't believe everything you hear. Don't follow would-be messiahs and deceptive preachers. Be alert. Be ready. Spread the good news. Do your job, feeding and taking care of others. When the master returns, that's what he wants to see. No talk of Armageddon. No talk of stockpiling weapons. No talk of fighting God's battles for him. Not very Hollywood.

The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength

The scriptures referred to are Nehemiah 8:2-10 and Luke 4:14-21.

It was a typical Sunday afternoon at Wheaton College, which is to say that my roommate and I were studying. We had tuned the radio to a Chicago station that was playing spirited gospel music. It turned out that we had come across a broadcast of a series of African American worship services. Evidently each of the little storefront churches had paid for a half hour of air time, but all of their services were much longer than that. So in the middle of each service the sound would cut out and the announcer would tell us the name of the next church from which they were broadcasting. As 2 white boys, we were mesmerized by the style of worship, especially the "call and response" preaching. The pastor would thunder out a phrase and the congregation would punctuate it with an "Amen!", "Preach it, brother," and/or "Hallelujah!" Often a back and forth rhythm built up between the preacher and his congregants. In one case, the choir started to sing their responses. They got louder and longer and in their excitement, they weren't leaving any space for the poor preacher to talk. He tried to regain control of the sermon but finally said, "Oh, let's just praise the Lord!" And for a while, everybody sang. Eventually, the singing wound down and with a half-hearted rebuke, the preacher picked up where his sermon had been interrupted. My roommate and I loved it. Nothing like that was likely to happen at our churches.

A revolution of worship has swept through many churches. Services are slicker, the production values are higher, the music is more upbeat. The idea is to make people feel good. By that standard, Ezra failed in today's passage from Nehemiah. The Jews have returned from exile in Babylon. They have rebuilt the temple and Ezra the priest was reading the Torah to them. It's evident that the laity hadn't heard them before. In fact, it seems that the Levites were translating the scriptures. They were written in Hebrew and the people spoke Aramaic. The relationship between the 2 languages is similar to that of Chaucer's English and our own. But we are told that when the people understood God's law, they wept. There's a reason why. Most scholars think that Ezra was reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. In that book Moses recaps the history of the Exodus and the Ten Commandments. He then lays out the blessings that will come with obeying God's laws and the curses that will result from not obeying them. The Jews hear this and realize that they have strayed. So they begin to wail.

This is not what Ezra intended. To him the reading of the law was to be a joyous occasion. The people haven't lost anything. Rather what they lacked has been restored to them. If hearing the law revealed that God's people have broken the covenant, it was like finally getting a name for the illness you've been suffering from. Now that you have the diagnosis, you can apply the cure. So Ezra tells the people, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."

In liturgical churches we have seasons. Some are obviously joyous: Christmas and Easter, for instance. Some are obviously not, such as Lent. The texts selected for the lectionary usually speak to the themes. But in almost every service, regardless of the season, we celebrate the Eucharist. "Eucharist" means "thanksgiving." Whatever else we contemplate, as we come to the Lord's table together, we remember the mighty acts of God for which we give thanks. In fact, that is why the Church started celebrating Sunday instead of the traditional Sabbath. It's the day of the week when we commemorate God raising Jesus from the dead. Every Sunday we proclaim that God turned the grief of Good Friday into the elation of Easter. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength.

That joy is rooted in the passage that Jesus reads in today's gospel. Christ is kicking off his ministry. And in the synagogue he reads the section of Isaiah that goes: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." There are several key words in there: Spirit, anoint, good news. Jesus is not doing this out of mere human initiative. He is prompted and led by God's Spirit. When we set out to do anything for God, we must make sure that we are doing it in the proper spirit. God doesn't want us to do things begrudgingly or out of grim determination. Because the spirit in which we do something affects how well and how thoroughly we do it. He wants us to do things out of love for him and mercy towards others and when possible, out of the sheer joy of serving him. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Jesus says that he has been anointed. That's what the Hebrew word "Messiah" and the Greek word "Christ" mean. The Jews anointed their prophets, their priests and their kings.  When we call Jesus the Christ, we are saying that he is all 3 to us. That is a reason to rejoice. And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

And what is the good news that he is to preach to the poor? "He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives..." This is always a major theme in the Bible. The defining moment for Israel was God delivering them from slavery in Egypt. It was echoed by their return from exile in Babylon. To them God is first and foremost a liberator. In Jesus this role is universal. Jesus did not come to liberate the Jews from Gentile oppression, as in the popular conception of the Messiah. He came to liberate all people from the evil that enslaves us. As we see in Nehemiah, the Jews returned from exile but they realized that, because of their sins, they weren't home free. They were still far from God. Jesus came to end the separation from God's goodness that we each experience. He came to reconcile us to God, to offer forgiveness, to bring us all the way back home. That's reason to rejoice. And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

He also came to proclaim "recovery of sight to the blind." As N. T. Wright points out, whenever Jesus healed people, he was not only giving them back their spiritual health, he was restoring them to the community of faith. By Jewish law, the imperfect could not enter the inner courts of the temple and worship. So not only did they suffer from the physical toll of blindness or leprosy or deafness or being lame, they suffered socially and spiritually. Jesus restored them in every sense.

Of course, the singling out of blindness cannot be an accident. Jesus also came to restore sight to the spiritually blind. Jesus dealt with many examples of short-sightedness and complete inability to see the truth. As we see, the sick and handicapped  were viewed as cursed. And another misperception was that if you were well off, God must favor you. That's why the disciples were so shocked when Jesus said that a camel could squeeze through the eye of s sewing needle easier than a rich man could enter God's Kingdom. They naturally assumed that the rich had an "in" with God. We, too, cut the wealthy a lot of slack. Those who already have advantages are granted additional advantages. Our prisons are overflowing with non-wealthy persons convicted of drug charges. But how often do we hear of some movie star or rock star or radio host or scion of the rich being let off, provided he get into rehab and do some community service? Things we condemn in the poor--substance abuse, promiscuity, irresponsibility--we treat as entertainment when they are reported of the wealthy and famous. Jesus saw everyone as equal in God's eyes. No one gets special treatment. Everyone who repents has equal access to God's grace.

In fact, Jesus was called "to let the oppressed go free." The Greek word translated "oppressed" really means "crushed" or "bruised." Live long enough and you feel beat up by life. You get knocked around. You get pressed and bruised. Jesus came to free us from getting crushed by life's misfortunes. He does this by granting us forgiveness for any part we play in our misfortunes and giving us strength to forgive those who oppress us. This forgiving of others is part of our healing and it is not easy. By forgiving someone we are not saying that what they did was not evil. After all, you can't forgive good behavior, only bad. No, in forgiveness we are saying, "What you did to me was bad. I forgive you anyway." Forgiveness is living with the consequences of the sins of others. It is letting go of the anger and bitterness and resentment that crush and deform our spirits. It is expelling the poison left by the bite of another man's sin. And how does Jesus make this possible? By giving us his Spirit, the Spirit that let him forgive those who crucified him. By living daily in his Spirit, we slowly find the ability to forgive and find freedom in all circumstances and that makes joy possible. And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Finally, Jesus was anointed "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." This refers to the year of Jubilee in ancient Israel. Every 50 years slaves were to be freed, debts were to be forgiven, and ancestral lands were to be returned to families. Jesus is talking about this in a cosmic sense. God's intention is not to destroy but to restore. And because of this, we need not approach him with dread but with love. God is the father in the parable of the prodigal son, who upon seeing his repentant son from afar, runs to him and kisses him and throws him a huge "Welcome back!" party.

The Jews listening to Ezra that day were only hearing part of the message. They got the part where it said, "You have strayed; you have fallen short; you have missed the mark." They weren't hearing the part that said, "God is faithful and loving and forgiving. God wants to start over with you. God is offering you a clean slate." God doesn't want us to go around feeling bad. He wants us to go around doing good. Like any parent, he wants us to learn to walk, learn to think, learn to make good choices and learn to deal with the consequences  of our bad choices as well as those of others. But we must never forget that God is ultimately rooting for us. Our victory is his victory. And, remember, the joy of the Lord is our strength.                    

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 26

The scriptures read are Exodus 16-18, Psalm 22, and Matthew 23. 

Exodus 16. Already with the complaining? The Israelites miss the food back in Egypt. So God arranges for quail to fly in at night and a flaky substance to be deposited with the dew in the morning. The flaky stuff is manna, from the Hebrew for "What is it?" On Friday mornings there's twice as much so the people don't need to gather it on the Sabbath. The former slaves get a day off each week in perpetuity.

Exodus 17. Now they want water. So God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water gushes out. Also Amalek fights Israel. When Moses holds his hands up Israel is winning. He gets tired, his hands lower and the tide turns again Israel. So Aaron and Hur hold up Moses' arms until they win. And leading the troops? Joshua.

Exodus 18. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, visits and sees Moses settling petty disputes all day long. He advises his son-in-law to appoint some trustworthy men to take over the routine cases. Let Moses decide the tough ones but let the average ones be handled by the lower courts. Moses takes his advice. He delegates.

Psalm 22. This psalm always evokes Holy Week to me. The psalmist is at his lowest point. Yet it ends in confidence and praise for God for rescuing him. Still the parallel with Jesus' sufferings is chilling.

Matthew 23. A scathing critique of the Pharisees and the experts in the law. They are all surface and no substance. They are corrupt and turn out copies of themselves just as bad. Jesus is livid at the obstacles they place in the way of people seeking God. So much for Jesus meek and mild!

The Bible Challenge: Day 25

The scriptures read are Exodus 13-15, Psalm 21, and Matthew 22.

Exodus 13. The firstborn of the Israelites, whom God passed over in Egypt, are now dedicated to him. Firstborn animals, too. The Israelities head out into the wilderness, led by a theophany, an appearance of God's presence in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you want an idea of what that would look like, click here. Awesome!

Exodus 14. Here comes Pharaoh and his chariots! "Oh, great!" the Israelites complain. "Being dead in the desert is a lot better than being slaves in Egypt! Thanks a lot, Moses!" But Moses, listening to God, says, "Shut up! God's got this, OK?" And he holds out his staff and the east wind parts the waters. An escape route! God shifts the pillar to provide a buffer between his people and the chariots. The Israelites pass through the seas on dry land. The Egyptians follow and before you can say, "It's a trap!" the waters close on them. So much for the Pharaoh who wanted to drown all the Hebrew baby boys!

Exodus 15. And there was much rejoicing! The longer song is exciting but an interesting fact about the shorter one, the song of Miriam: according to linguists, it is the oldest form of Hebrew in the Old Testament. Miriam's Song, about God throwing the horse and rider into the sea, is the oldest part of the Bible!

Exodus 21. The king praises God for his victory.

Matthew 22. Some of Jesus' best exchanges with his opponents. He uses his favorite metaphor for the kingdom, the wedding banquet, to make a point about being ready when God invites you. He puts our secular and spiritual duties straight, sorts out misunderstandings about the resurrection, and answers the question of which of the 613 commandments in the Torah comes first. And he throws in another commandment for free. And since the commands to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves are foundational, everything else is meant to be an expression of that love.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 24

The scriptures read are Exodus 10-12, Psalm 20, and Matthew 21.

Exodus 10. The plagues continue. Locusts and darkness. Pharaoh is trying to negotiate. "Just take your men; leave your children." "Just take your people; leave your animals." Then he changes his mind. Or he doesn't and all of his concessions are just talk. Troubling is that while the first 5 times Pharaoh hardens his heart himself, for the last 5 plagues God hardens Pharaoh's heart. Is he just confirming what Pharaoh has chosen to do?

Exodus 11. The death of the firstborn. God will do to Pharaoh's people what Pharaoh tried to do to God's people--kill their offspring.

Exodus 12. The first Passover. The blood of the lamb on the doorposts will be a sign for God to pass over that house. The celebration is laid out for future commemoration. This is the primary event of Judaism.

Psalm 20. A psalm calling for victory for the king just before a battle.

Matthew 21. Jesus make a memorable entrance into Jerusalem, then throws the profiteers out of the Temple.  Then begin the debates. Jesus masters his opponents by utilizing a simple trick: staying focused on what is essential.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 23

The scriptures read are Exodus 7-9, Psalm 19, and Matthew 20.

Exodus 7-9. Not gonna break down these chapters because it's the same pattern repeated: God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and ask him to let the people go. Pharaoh refuses. The plague hits. Pharaoh may or may not ask Moses to stop the plague but after it's over, Pharaoh remains stubborn. The plagues are, in order, water turns to blood, frogs everywhere, gnats (that would have gotten me--I hate gnats! Annoying, biting things you can't kill), flies, dead livestock, boils, hail. I'm not doing the research thing, just reading and reflecting but I recall reading somewhere that the plagues were specifically aimed at Egyptian deities, like the Nile. Pharaoh reminds me of a boss I once had: deceitful and dumb. Let the people go already!

Psalm 19. A familiar and beautiful psalm, of the heavens telling of God's glory as well as praise for God's words. The last verse I say before every sermon.

Matthew 20. The wonderful parable of the generous vineyard owner. He is definitely not being proportionate in doling out the pay. You get a full day's whether you work all day or just got started. Master's privilege.

James and John have an ambitious mother. Little does she know what she's asking for. But even Jesus doesn't decide who gets front row seats. His other students are ticked. But followers of Jesus lead by serving others. Just like Jesus.

There's time for 1 more healing before the debates and death of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 21

The scriptures read are Exodus 4-6, Psalm 18: 21-50, and Matthew 19.

Exodus 4. Moses is still trying to get out of leading his people out of Egypt. "They won't trust that I came from God." "Here are a few signs to convince them." "I stutter." "Fine, your brother can do the speaking. But you're going!"

Mighty casual leave-taking of Jethro. The equivalent of "I gotta go and do something."

Why is God trying to kill Moses after sending him out? Or is it stated this way because at this point in Jewish theology everything, good or bad, is attributed to God? The threat to Moses is vague. Was he sick? Anyway, Zipporah discerns that their son needs to be circumcised, something Moses neglected to do, and she does it herself. She seems ticked off at her husband. Reluctance to do what God commands seems to be Moses' besetting sin.

Aaron meets up with his brother and they start organizing the Hebrews.

Exodus 5. The first meeting between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh does not go well. In fact, Pharaoh thinks the Israelites are lazy and makes their work harder. The Israelites blame Moses and Moses complains to God. "We're doing what you're saying, God? Why do things seem to be getting worse?" A common question among believers who really try to follow God.

Exodus 6. God gives Moses a pep talk. Moses is still pessimistic and can't stop talking about his stutter. Plus a family breakdown. Then back to Moses and his stutter.

Psalm 18:21-50. The exhilaration of triumph.

Matthew 19. Love Peterson's phrasing here, though, of necessity, it leaves out other interpretations. I've always taken Jesus' quizzical remarks about being a eunuch as referring to his own unmarried status, highly unusual among rabbis. His remarks on marriage are clear enough. Certainly a "don't cast stones if you've sinned" moment for those who are looking for external causes of the regrettable decline in the value placed on marriage. The best way to prevent divorce is to impress on people clear thinking before entering into marriage.

Then Jesus and the rich guy and more squirming for those of us who are members of the top 2% in the world, a world where the average wage is $2 a day. Do our possessions possess us? Could we give up everything for Jesus?

Love the way Peterson phrases Jesus' response to the disciples', "Then who has a chance at all?" "Jesus looked hard at them and said,'No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it.'"

Also I love his line about the "Great Reversal."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 20

The scriptures read are Exodus 1-3, Psalm 18:1-20, and Matthew 18.

Exodus 1. Fast forward. It's been quite awhile since the famine and Joseph as savior. He is yesterday's news. Meanwhile his relatives and descendants have been getting fruitful and multiplying. And the new Pharaoh is worried about all those foreign workers breeding. So he tries to get the midwives to kill the boys. They don't. And God rewards them for their civil disobedience. So Pharaoh pulls off the gloves. Just drown the Hebrew boys.

Exodus 2. Moses' mom hides him and then puts him in a little boat. Is she technically complying with Pharaoh's genocidal order? Was she sticking him into the reeds so she could reclaim him? Did she know this was the favorite swimming hole of Pharaoh's daughter? Using Moses' sister (Miriam?) as a lookout favors the last idea. She's awfully fast with the "I'll get a Hebrew woman to nurse him for you." So Moses' mom gets him back until he's weaned.

Not sure how good a parent Pharaoh's daughter was. The first thing we see Moses do as an adult is kill an Egyptian for hitting a Hebrew. Word travels fast and Moses goes on the lam from Pharaoh. His fighting skills impress a priest's daughter. That priest, Reuel, AKA Jethro, becomes Moses' father-in-law when his oldest daughter Zipporah becomes his wife. They have a son.

Back in Egypt, Pharaoh dies. The Israelites groan. God hears.

Exodus 3. Moses sees a burning, but not burnt-up, bush and God calls to him. He has heard the cries of his people and seen their suffering. His solution: send Moses. Moses starts thinking of excuses. His first is a beaut: What'd you say your name was again, God? Possessing the true name of another gives you some power over him so God gets cagey. He is simply the verb "to be." This can be interpreted "I am," or "I am who I am," or "I will be what I will be," or "I will be there [for you.]"

God's got a plan to get the Israelites out of Egypt, give them the land of Canaan, and give them hefty parting gifts from their oppressors.

Psalm 18 (part 1). God saved David from his enemy and David expresses his gratitude and paints a picture of God coming to rescue him in very dynamic imagery.

Matthew 18. We are to be like children if we are to enter God's kingdom: trusting, loving, wholehearted. Tripping up kids--or childlike believers, perhaps--is a grave offence to God.

The only section no fundamentalist takes literally: Jesus' command to lop off body parts if they cause you to sin. Still the meaning of the metaphor is just as chilling. Let nothing, no matter how intimate, how much a part of you it feels, come between you and God. It's like a person choosing to save his leg even if it means the cancer will get him. Follow God and you need to make tough choices.

On an up note, we get the verse that assures us that children have guardian angels.

God makes more fuss over a found stray than 99 who stay put. That's what kind of God he is.

We have a couple of sections on reconciling with a fellow believer who actually sins against you. Nothing here about just not liking their ideas or choices. This is about harm done. The principle is, try to involve as few people as necessary. And be prepared to forgive a lot more than you're used to. God keeps track of those who expect his forgiveness but who can't find it in themselves to forgive others.

And wherever and whenever a handful of believers get together, Jesus will be there [for you.]

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 19

The scriptures read are Genesis 49-50, Psalm 17, and Matthew 17.

Genesis 49. Awfully weird benedictions from a dying father. Especially what is said about Benjamin, the son Israel couldn't let out of his sight. These are about the tribes to come rather than the men. More warts and all portraits from scripture. No whitewashing the truth in the Bible.

Genesis 50. Jacob/Israel gets a royal-type funeral. Sad thing is, as soon as he's underground the other brothers are expecting Joseph to finally kill them for what they did to him. He cries when he gets their pathetic "Before he died, Dad said don't kill us" message. They just have never gotten Joseph. He is the better man.

His reply is marvelous: "As for you, you intended to harm me but God intended to use it for good, to preserve a great many lives, as you can see this day." Important theme: God can use whatever terrible things we throw at him to serve his purpose which is to save lives. It's crucial to see this when we approach, in Matthew, the worse possible thing we could do to God, in the person of Jesus. That's why a lot of people see Joseph as a foreshadowing of Christ.

Psalm 17. A prayer for protection and vindication. What I like about these psalms is that they leave the carrying out of justice to God. Best thing to do when you feel someone is both your enemy and God's. Leave them to God. God fights his own battles.

Matthew 17. Last chapter Jesus promised that some of those standing there would see him in his glory. Is the transfiguration what he was referring to? Certainly it helps the three who still seem quiet after Jesus told them he was going to be executed. So they see him, shining like a sun, chatting with Moses and Elijah and hear God's voice. That should hold them for a while.

Jesus is really getting tiring of doing everything around here. He casts out a serious illness and the disciples want to know why they couldn't. "You don't have enough faith, " Jesus says bluntly. This backs up my belief that he really wanted them to try their hands at feeding the multitudes...and maybe healing the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter. Why else did he so studiously ignore her? But the Twelve haven't yet realized what they can do in Jesus' name. What's a guy gotta do to convince them?

Interesting footnote on the paying tax by fish. There is a fish in Lake Galilee that carries its unhatched eggs in its mouth until their time. When it doesn't have eggs it has been known to carry around rocks or the errant dropped coin. When in Israel we were served them at a small restaurant. They are called St. Peter's fish.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Manifesting the Spirit

During Advent I spoke of Superman being considered by many to be a Messiah-figure dreamed up by 2 Jewish boys. Indeed his being bulletproof seems like wish fulfillment on the part of Jerry Siegel whose father died during the armed robbery of his shop. So an invulnerable man, off of whom bullets bounce, would be the coolest hero in the world to a boy who lost his father in that fashion. But what if he tried to make a religion out of Superman instead of a comic book? He wouldn't get very far. Because he'd have no physical evidence of the guy, no eyewitness accounts, no people saved from speeding trains or super villains, no manifestation of him, nothing other than a cool story. And just having a cool story wouldn't be enough to make people believe.

There is an oft-repeated idea that Jesus never existed, that he was just a made-up person and his story was cobbled together from a whole bunch of mythological gods, like Osiris, Horus, and Mithras, who shared characteristic elements such as being born on December 25, having 12 disciples, dying and rising again to life. The problem is that these shared elements are also made up. None of the gods usually said to have these things in common with Jesus actually do. In fact, the one who comes closest, Mithras, comes after Jesus and it looks like that religion borrowed from Christianity rather than vice versa. In fact, most modern scholars suggest that there was no such category as dying and rising gods because most do not actually return to life or do not return in a permanent manner as the same deity.

And there is the telling point that none of them were historical…except Jesus. We have better historical evidence that Jesus lived than we do most ancient historical figures. In fact we know surprising little about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the English astronomers who marked out the famous line that bears their names. The contemporary mentions of Jesus only seem slim by modern standards, where everything and everyone, no matter how relatively unknown, leaves a documentary footprint. And as more than one historian pointed out, it's really hard to explain the exponential growth of faith in one of many self-proclaimed messiahs without Jesus' resurrection, a manifestation which is attested in 1 Thessalonians, the earliest Christian document we have, written a mere 20 or so years after the crucifixion.

Epiphany means "manifestation" in Greek. More simply it means a showing. In this season we celebrate the various ways in which God showed or manifested Jesus to be his Anointed One to the world. (Easter might be considered the greatest of all epiphanies but it has its own season.) During Epiphany season, we consider Jesus' manifestation to the Gentile magi who follow his star, and to John and the people at Jesus' baptism. This week our gospel recounts Jesus' first and least spectacular miracle. (Most of the folks there don't realize it happened.) He saves the honor of a young couple who run out of wine during the weeklong wedding banquet. This seems trivial to us, and to be honest, Jesus hadn't planned on being an emergency back-up sommelier. His mom asked him and so he did this little thing, which, in the culture of the Ancient Near Ear, was quite big thing to the family. No one's life, health or safety was on the line. In that sense, it is the most gracious of his miracles for it was the least necessary.  

But the key word "manifest" shows up in our New Testament reading as well. Paul is writing about spiritual gifts. "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." Notice that Paul lists not only gifts but also services and activities. Like similar lists elsewhere I don't think Paul meant us to take the list as exhaustive. There are lots of skills and abilities that the church needs and which the Spirit provides that Paul doesn't mention here (like gifts having to do with creating, selecting and preparing worship music, and administration which Paul mentions in a list in Romans 12.) The real point is that everyone has at least one such gift, service or activity and that they are to be manifested for the common good. They are not given as toys or to be used for personal pleasure alone. They are used for everyone's good.

We live in a culture that really emphasizes the individual over the group. So we tend to forget that were it not for groups of people acting harmoniously we would not have much of what we enjoy today. Every item we use, whether manufactured, harvested or digitally created, is made, marketed, advertised, packaged, shipped, transported and payment verified due to a host of people we never see. Yet if they, and the people whose jobs support their work, did not do things cooperatively and systematically, you would never enjoy fruit out of season, or experience a movie, TV show, video game or book made thousands of miles away, or enjoy electricity, water, or telephone communications.

Even relatively small groups need different people to accomplish different functions. I have to laugh when people debate whether Paul wrote the Pastoral epistles and give as a reason that they mention--OH NO!--church officers, specifically bishops, elders and deacons. Given that these are written at the earliest in the last years of Paul's life, 30 or more years after Pentecost, when he is in prison and the original Twelve are being martyred, just who do these critics think kept these churches organized and running for most of that time? Any Star Trek or Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes or even Laurel and Hardy fan club I've belonged to has always had at least a president, vice president and secretary. The larger the group and the more elaborate the arrangements they make for meetings--special celebrations, guest speakers, etc--the more positions are needed to keep things running. Whether you call the leader a president or a bishop, (and in the Didache, a very early church handbook, the person who presides over the Eucharist is called the President) you need someone to head up the group. You need a very loyal person to do a lot of the work meeting the needs of a group, whether that person is called a deacon or a secretary. Someone has to take over when the president or bishop is away, or if the head guy is also overseeing a whole region, you take the next senior elected guy, an elder or in Greek, presbuteros, which over time became the word priest.

In fact, the whole thing developed very practically. The deacon was the first of these 3 positions to be created, as we see in the book of Acts, chapter 6, to take care of food distribution to poor widows in the early church. The deacon was probably modeled after a very similar position found in the synagogues at the time. These people took up a weekly collection to help the poorest member of the congregation. As for church leadership, Paul, an apostle, founded churches, got them running and then had to leave to plant new churches. So we see him in Acts 20 praying with certain elders put forth by the local church, again rather like the elders in a synagogue, giving them the day to day responsibility of overseeing these small house churches in his place. These elders no doubt wrote letters to Paul asking him what to do about the various problems they were having. The letters which we read most Sundays are Paul's responses to those lost letters from the local churches. The churches collected, copied and shared the Apostle's letters of wisdom. As the original apostles approached martyrdom, they appointed successors. As houses churches grew, and needed multiple meeting sites in the same city, and as they spread through entire regions, parish overseers or bishops needed to start acting like regional managers. The local elder in charge became the local priest or pastor, representing his parish before the bishop and representing his bishop before the parish. Nobody made up these titles for themselves. The positions arose organically.

But within parishes we have needs as well. Positions and committees arise in response to needs as well as, one hopes, to gifts given by the Spirit to members of the parish. And the fanciness of the title does not signify the perceived need for the position. If I was still as sick this Sunday as I was much of last week, a lay person could still lead a prayer service. But if someone wasn't around to pay the electric bill or take out the trash or print the bulletin or to unlock the door or make the coffee for after the service, I'd bet you'd feel that person's absence more acutely than mine!

So everyone has a gift or a service or an activity given them by the Spirit and they are all important, just as an airline maintenance worker is as important as the pilot, because even Chuck Yeager can't fly a plane whose wings are falling off.

But unlike in a secular organization, in the church those gifts, services and activities are to be a manifestation of God's Spirit. They are to reflect the God revealed in Jesus Christ. At first, that sounds absurd. You can preach in the Spirit but how can you pay bills or take out trash or make coffee as a manifestation of the Spirit?

As a student in acting class, you learn that emotion is not just expressed by face but by your entire body and by how you move and the tone of your voice. And we've all detected this as we've been served by an angry waitress or checked out by a disgruntled clerk or, conversely, helped by a low level employee who made the simplest task a delight. How the person felt about you or about their job was communicated non-verbally by how they interacted with you. At a recent medical test, the receptionist shook my hand and told me I was a most entertaining patient. I have no idea if that is true or if she tells everyone that, but it made me feel good and it made me want to return there for any future tests.

Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23, "Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly, as if you were doing it for the Lord and not merely people." He is addressing slaves. Now we should not confuse them with the sort of slaves we had in America. In Rome, slaves could be teachers or doctors, could collect fees for their work and could own property. Still they were not free so there were times when in addition to the regular irritations and problems of any job, there was the fact that you could in no way say, "Take this job and shove it."

But Paul says, in effect, "Remember that ultimately the person you serve is God, so use that as your motivation." Paul also reminds masters that they have a Master in Heaven and that their slaves are their brothers and sisters in Christ. And we all know what Jesus said about how we treat the least of his brothers and sisters. (By the way, the early church did make some slaves bishops!)

Not every job, task or assignment is glamorous, or fun or easy. But it can be done either with indifference or with diligence, with resignation or with enthusiasm, with resentment or with love. I remember a Haitian CNA at the nursing home who frequently and beautifully sang hymns as she did her duty, which could be cleaning up after incontinence or helping a patient eat. And everyone who heard her was lifted out of the stress of the place, if only for a few minutes. Still it needn't be that overt. Simply showing empathy, really listening to others, putting in a little extra effort that will be appreciated can be a manifestation of the Christian love put in our heart by the Holy Spirit.  
I'm from Missouri, the "Show Me" state. Today it seems most people have adopted that attitude, especially when it comes to Christians. And it's reasonable. Jesus said that our love for one another would be how the world would recognize us. When the world sees hatred or indifference instead of love, how is it to know that the we indeed are indwelt by God's Spirit?

"To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." If this is true, what is your manifestation? Are you expressing it or suppressing it? Are you restricting the parts of your life in which you allow your God-given gifts or service or activities to be manifested? Why? Jesus said, "Freely you have received. Freely give." There is a world out there that is not so much looking for miracles as for people who truly live like Jesus and demonstrate his love. If they saw us consistently manifesting his Spirit in all we think, say and do, they would as amazed and attracted as we are by Jesus, God's Anointed Son.

The Bible Challenge: Day 18

The scriptures read are Genesis 46-48, Psalm 16 and Matthew 16.

Genesis 46. The journey to Egypt begins and God appears to Israel again and promises that his descendants will become a great nation and return to the land of Canaan. And that Joseph will be with him when he dies.

A list of all the kids and grandkids--well, the male ones. Girls are mentioned and the numbers indicate they may have outnumbered their brothers.

Finally Joseph and Jacob are reunited. It's brief but touching. Men were not ashamed to cry back then.

Genesis 47. The family gets settled in Goshen. The famine worsens with the result that people run out of money and end up trading everything to Pharoah--cattle, land, themselves--for food. In the end everyone in Egypt ends up a slave to Pharoah--thanks to Joseph! Sounds troubling to the modern person. Of course, if the alternative is to starve...

Israel is about to die at the ripe old age of 147. Meaning he had 17 years with Joseph in Egypt, about as many years as he had with him before his brothers sold him into slavery.

Genesis 48. Israel blesses Joseph's 2 sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. He deliberately puts his right hand on Ephraim the younger, though this bothers Joseph. It goes against Middle Eastern custom, which gave preference to the older son. But Israel knows what he's doing. God is once again going against human cultural norms.

Psalm 16. A song of confidence in God. The psalmist's body thrills to God's presence. Love the last verse: "You will teach me the path of life. In your presence is perfect joy; delights are ever in your right hand."

Matthew 16. After some talk about yeast, Jesus asked the Big Question: Who do you think I am? Peter gets it right: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But when Jesus starts talking about how he has to be arrested and killed and rise again, Peter opens his big mouth again and gets it all wrong. So wrong his words might as well be Satan's. Jesus says that anyone following him must sign away all personal rights and be ready to die if need be. The alternative is to sell out your soul in a bid to gain all the world offers. And that's no bargain.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 17

The scripture read are Genesis 43-45, Psalm 15 and Matthew 15.

Genesis 43. What a changed family. The brothers who sought to kill Joseph and settled on selling him into slavery have falling all over themselves to assure his safety to their father. How deep the grief over Joseph must be that Jacob now clings to poor Benjamin. Judah pledges his life for Benjamin's should something happen to him. On the point of starvation, Israel consents.

Genesis 44. The suspense builds when the same switch happens with the money returned in the bags of grain. But an important chalice is found--Benjamin's pack. Israel's beloved son must stay in Egypt as Joseph's slave as payment for the stolen chalice. Judah launches into an eloquent plea for his brother and how his loss with kill their father!

Genesis 45. Joseph loses it. Is it the description of his still-grieving father? Or is it the fact that his brothers would never have done to Joseph now what they did then because they now see the emotional damage and psychological consequences of their action? Is he distressed at their distress? He sends his Egyptian staff out and in tears reveals himself to his brothers. They are dumbfounded. He also reveals how his progress from Canaan to Egypt, from slave to prisoner to Pharoah's administrator was planned by God so that he could save countless people from perishing in the famine.

"So, for God's sake, go get my father and bring the whole family to me in Egypt." Joseph kisses his brothers, showers them with gifts. Pharoah sends wagons to carry them to best land in Egypt. When the brothers reach Israel, he can't believe it at first. And then: "For God's sake, get me to my son before I die!" If you can read this with a dry eye, you need a heart transplant.

Psalm 15. A psalm that asks "What kind of person can stand in God's presence?" It's a pretty lofty list and not many can say they've met every condition. "...who has never done harm to his fellow...who stands by his path even to his hurt...who has never lent money at interest..." No bankers in heaven, then.

Matthew 15. Jesus essentially says the causes of our moral problems are not external. It's not how you did the ritual; it's not the lack of the Ten Commandments in the classroom; it's not what he said that caused you to hit him; it's not what she wore that caused you to rape her. The cause is always internal. The cause is in your heart. That's where our problems originate; that's what has to change.

A woman who is completely out of place in Christ's mission shows how much Jesus admires people who are both humble and yet bold in their faith.

Jesus feeds 4000. The disciples still haven't caught on.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 16

The scriptures read are Genesis 40-42, Psalm 14 and Matthew 14. 

Genesis 40. I recommend the story of Joseph to the inmates I minister to. A major problem is the loss of hope. I ask them to imagine what it felt like to be Joseph. He's doing the right thing. He does the royal cupbearer a solid. Joseph tells him to remember him when he is back in with Pharoah. Everything works out with the cupbearer and he promptly forgets Joseph. I tell the inmates to imagine what it was like for Joseph--the waiting, the wondering, the questioning God. Later he will see things in a different light. But at this point, it looks all bad. He cannot understand why God is letting this happen. The time you need to trust God most is when it's hardest to do so. Hope is the future tense of faith. It's believing that you can trust God to fulfill his promise that he will make everything turn out right in the end. Hope's not easy; it's essential.

(BTW I hope Joseph broke it to the baker less abruptly than the text indicates. Otherwise, he still needs to work on telling people his dream interpretations.)

Genesis 41. 2 years later (Thanks a lot, royal cupbearer!) Pharoah has a couple of disturbing dreams. Only when no one can interpret them does the cupbearer remember poor Joseph languishing in prison. They clean him up, take him before Pharoah and he hears the disturbing dreams. Joseph gives God credit for sending Pharoah a warning and for sending Joseph the interpretation. After 7 years of bumper crops, 7 years of famine will wipe out all that prosperity. Joseph tells Pharoah to bank the surplus from the good years so Egypt can make it through the drought. Pharoah knows a smart young fellow when he sees one. He puts Joseph in charge of the project. Joseph doesn't blow it all on sub-prime mortgages, either. He does it right.

Genesis 42. Meanwhile, back at the ranch. The famine has hit Canaan. Israel sends his sons to Egypt to get some food. He sends 10 of his sons but not Benjamin, his youngest, the last living son of Rachel. He can't bear to let him out of his sight. He'd die if something happened to him.

Joseph's brothers show up at the grain silo and unknowingly fulfill his earlier dream by bowing to him. They don't recognize him (he's a lot older and probably wearing that Goth-eyeliner Egyptians favor). He toys with them a bit.

He accuses them of being spies and throws them in jail. A better man might not have done that. Joseph is not  perfect. But, really, they deserve worse and they know it. When they start babbling about how this is karma for what they did to Joseph, the man himself, pretending to need an interpreter, turns his head and has to get control of himself. When he can speak, he orders Simeon taken prisoner and says not to come back without their younger brother. Is he worried about Benjamin? Or does he just want to see his only full-blooded brother, his baby brother, the only one that didn't want to kill and/or sell him into slavery?

Joseph isn't done with the mind-games. He puts their money back in their grain sacks. Once they stop on the road, they discover that now they really look like they've pulled a fast one. And when they get back, they have to tell their father they've lost another son. Plus if they ever go back they need to take Benjamin. Israel clings to the baby of the family. Over my dead body, you'll take him! You'll be the death of me yet!

Psalm 14. Moral pinheads think God doesn't care so they don't care whom they hurt in this dog-eat-dog world. Go ahead, pick on the little guy! Just wait till God gets through with you! A psalm that looks at the moral cesspit of the world and expresses hope for God's justice.

Matthew 14. Herod gets played by his wife and John the Baptist gets the axe. When he hears the fate of his cousin, Jesus tries to get away by himself in a boat. But he's too big a celebrity now. He gets spotted, people start shlepping their sick to him and, he can't help it, he heals them. So much for bereavement leave.

It's getting dark and it's quite a hike to the nearest town. The disciples tell Jesus to send the people packing so they can go hunt up dinner. Jesus says, "You give them what they need." I think he was serious. But the disciples simply do not know the power God has made available to them. "All we got is 5 loaves and 2 fish ourselves." Jesus is all "Never mind! I'll handle it!" He takes a meal not even adequate for the Twelve, prays, blesses, breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Imagine the measly crumbs their first few handouts consisted off until they realized they could not run out of this food. I imagine towards the end they were flinging it to all and sundry with wild abandon. "Want some food? Take as much as you want! There's more where that came from!"

With their heads and bellies full the people shuffle off. Jesus sends his students off in a boat. Finally, he climbs the local mountain and gets time to be with God alone, just talking, at least part of it about John.

Nothing worse than rowing your boat into the wind at 4 in the morning. Unless it's seeing someone you know just walking along the wave tops. "A ghost!" They scream like little girls. Then Peter decides, heck, if Jesus can do it, so can I! He asks Christ to call him out for a stroll on the sea. Jesus says, Sure. Peter hops out and , OMG, I am totally hanging ten in a radical new way. They he does a Wily Coyote, looks at what can't possibly be holding up his feet and starts sliding into Davy Jonah's locker. He yelps help and Jesus grabs him before the big fisherman is fish food. Weather winds down but nobody going to sleep tonight. Sure enough as soon as they land people start shlepping in the sick. Bleary-eyed Jesus, you're up!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 15

The scriptures read are Genesis 37-39, Psalm 13 and Matthew 13.

Genesis 37. Can't decide if Joseph is a brat or really unaware of the effects of what he says. Even Israel is ticked off. His half-brothers must have been brooding a long time to get to the point of wanting to kill him. Not just knock some sense into him (something all brothers contemplate) but kill him. Reuben at least wants to secretly save him. Judah actually does save him by selling him into slavery! Feel bad for Reuben.

Really feel bad for Israel! His reaction to this latest deception played on him is heartbreaking. Later in the story we see that it affects his sons profoundly, too.

Genesis 38. And now for something completely different. I never understand why people think the Bible is dull. That's because they never read it themselves, just the bits they get in Sunday school. Here's a tawdry bit about Judah. Not sure why it's in the Bible except to emphasize how very depraved everyone is. And Tamar gets twins and exposes her father-in-law's hypocrisy. Still--ew! Also prostitutes wear veils? Then veils have changed what they symbolize in the Middle East. And they never remove the veils even while, uh, earning their money?

Genesis 39. Back to Joseph. He is bought by an upper class Egyptian and he's so good, his master puts him in charge of his whole household. But then the missus wants some of this handsome Hebrew. Joseph refuses and she frames him for attempted rape. So Joseph gets thrown into prison. But he rises to head trustee. Still he's gone from slave to prisoner. Not very auspicious. To be continued...

Psalm 13. A psalm of fretting and waiting. "How long, Lord...?" The psalm is attributed to David but I could see Joseph praying something similar after a while in prison.

Matthew 13. A lot of good stories told by Jesus. The sower and the seed, which basically tells us to spread the good news and not worry about the results because they depend on the hearer. And the parable of the wheat and the weeds, which says don't be so quick to try to remove the people you think are evil or you might uproot and damage good people, too. Some stories about how valuable God's kingdom is. And then the revelation that the folks in Jesus' hometown have the same problem with him that Israel's kids have with Joseph. They can't believe he'll amount to much and resent the implication that he's someone special.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Undercover Boss

I've known about but never watched the reality program "Undercover Boss," until recently. I caught a few episodes of the Canadian and Australian versions on Netflix. The premise is that the CEO or some other senior executive is disguised and given a new identity so he can pass as an entry level employee in his own company. He lives in a budget hotel and gives up his fancy car. He gets to experience how his frontline workers do their jobs and the challenges they face. He often finds these jobs are a lot tougher than he thought. And they move him around between many low-level jobs so he understands the whole range of what working on the bottom rung is like. 

That's a good way to see what Jesus is doing in today's gospel. Why is the sinless Son of God undergoing a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin? In Matthew when John balks at baptizing Jesus, Christ says, "Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus is not skipping any steps in being an entry level worker of righteousness.

Baptism is what anthropologists call an "rite of entrance." It marks your transition from someone outside a group to a member of the group. Before baptism you are outside the church and the body of Christ. After baptism, you are a member of the Kingdom of God. On the theological level, even more is going on. It is the washing away of sins. It is going from being spiritually dead to being spiritually alive. Yet it is not magical. Faith is a crucial component to baptism being effective, just as merely saying wedding vows doesn't make a relationship a real marriage if you don't in your heart believe or intend what you are saying. 

Another vital element, as we see in Acts 8, is the reception of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John go to Samaria to investigate this new batch of believers unexpectedly made through Philip's evangelistic ministry. And they lay hands on the new converts and pray that they receive the Spirit. To us this sounds odd. Doesn't the Spirit enter the believer at the moment of baptism? Yes, but we find in Acts various instances where there is dramatic evidence of the power of God, usually speaking in tongues, whenever a new group of people, like Gentiles, accept Christ. It could be argued that this was God's way of showing the apostles that he did indeed intend them to make disciples of all people, not just their fellow Jews. (One irony of this passage is that John and his brother wanted to call down fire from God on a Samaritan village when they were mere disciples of Jesus. Now as an apostle sent out by the resurrected Jesus he is calling down the Holy Spirit, symbolized on Pentecost as fire, on the first group of Samaritan Christians!)

To return to Jesus' baptism, we see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove coming down on Christ as he emerges from the River Jordan. Our Undercover Boss is once again in the position of a newbie, dripping with water outside and welling up with the Spirit inside.

One thing a lot of the TV undercover bosses discover is how hard their entry level employees have to work. It's a sort of baptism by fire. The head of the Toronto Zoo found himself falling behind preparing meals for the various animals or exhausted by tasks such as cleaning up the animal cages. After his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted. He is hungry when temptation hits him. He is tempted to use his powers to feed himself, or to start his ministry with a bang or to make a deal with the devil. You are more susceptible to temptation when you are hungry or angry or lonely or tired. Jesus is 3 out of 4 of those and the stress of them might make him more prone to anger. So he is facing temptation when he is physically and emotionally at his most vulnerable. He makes it through, though, by taking the time to think and see things from God's standpoint as represented in scripture. He does something a lot of older Christians never master.

It's not hard for most bosses to stay on message. Promoting their companies is part of their jobs.What surprises them is when they find low-level employees who act as good ambassadors for the company. In the Zoo episode, not only is the undercover boss amazed at how much faster and more thorough a cleaning lady is than him at cleaning the large viewing windows at the primate enclosure but also at her ability to be able to stop and answer the questions of curious kids visiting the zoo. In an episode about a pizza franchise, the undercover boss is impressed by a manager who took time to drive around hand-delivering coupons for free pizza to people whose orders were messed up the previous day. Jesus looked for humble people whom the world saw as unimportant or as disreputable but whom he knew would be good ambassadors of God's Kingdom and effective at proclaiming the good news.

A lot of the TV undercover bosses were struck by how dedicated their employees were. One woman, who has a handicapped child, admitted to coming in on Christmas to make sure all the zoo animals got their proper specialized diets. That boss gave her a cruise vacation. It reminds me how Jesus insisted the Sabbath was made for man and not vice versa and would take the disciples away from the crowds when things got so hectic they didn't have time to eat.

A lot of rich and powerful bosses don't realize how little things and practical matters often make life harder for people. One boss was appalled to find that the employee refrigerator no longer kept their lunches cold. He replaced it. Another boss found that a line employee's scooter was on the fritz. He bought him a new one. As God become man, Jesus similarly learned the importance of little things. When he raises from the dead the 12 year old daughter of a synagogue leader, he then tells the parents to get her something to eat. Poor girl's been sick and dying. Now that she's better, she's bound to be hungry. And when he heals a deaf mute Jesus communicates with him visually by putting his fingers in the man's ears, spitting and touching the man's tongue, raising his eyes to heaven, sighing dramatically and commanding his mouth and ears to open. To encourage his faith, Jesus accommodated himself to the man's handicap.

The TV undercover bosses also get exposed to human suffering and learn compassion and are even treated to it. One boss learned that a very good local manager at a pizza place turned to that job after losing a loved one and finding himself unable to complete college. The job helped keep his life together. In a very moving moment on a different episode, an employee on lunch break spoke of losing a daughter. The undercover boss was reminded of the recent death of his dad. Upon sharing with her, the man started to cry. His employee gave him a hug. She later wrote him a letter, telling how she and her husband dealt with their grief by writing letters to their deceased daughter, pouring everything they wanted to say to her into their missives. It reminded me of the time when Jesus, seeing the grief of Mary, Martha and their friends over Lazarus, began to weep himself. The comforting reminds me of the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume, washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Jesus saw it as an act of compassion and said she would be remembered forever in the gospel. In a similar way, the undercover boss dedicates the employee's favorite bench at the zoo and names it after the woman's daughter as a memorial.

As you've probably guessed, at the end of each Undercover Boss, the CEO removes his disguise, calls the people he worked with to the boardroom and reveals who he is. He also rewards them, both personally and professionally, for their hard work and dedication. Jesus will do something similar with us. Baptism received with faith in Jesus gets you into the kingdom, and thus assures your salvation, but there will be rewards for those who really let God's Spirit work in them. Jesus give us a parable about a master making his servants stewards of talents and rewarding them for investing wisely. Paul speaks about our works being judged in 1 Corinthians 3. "For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder's work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire." In one episode of Undercover Boss, a poor worker is not fired at the end but given further training so he will do a better job. In the same way, just because we are saved by faith does not mean that how we live our lives after accepting Jesus is consequence-free. We need to do good.

I have only watched a few episodes but I'm willing to bet that no TV boss has done what ours has done: sacrifice himself for the good of all. The little experiment they do for the TV show costs these leaders a week or two of living in a budget hotel and hard work. Jesus lived among and as one of us for around 33 years. And his exit interview was brutal. He did not reveal his true identity as undercover boss in a boardroom but on a cross and in a garden tomb. He doesn't give out vacation vouchers but offers eternal life with him.

Baptism was just the start for Jesus' mission, as it is for us. Because of what he did, he understands what it is to work for God on the frontlines in this life. Because of what he did, we know he loves us and we can trust him. And that looking good to others was not part of the reason, unlike TV's undercover bosses. Let's face it: no CEO is going on a show that will make him or his company look bad. The cameras are not hidden; a cover story is given that a documentary is being made. So we can never be sure if anyone is being completely honest in their observations.

Jesus is totally honest. He tells us what's wrong with us, what we need to do about it, that it will be costly but also that it will be worth it. Life is, thank God, not a job. But it can be an adventure where the goal is to make the world better, to make people better by introducing them to the God who working to do just that. Not for fame, not for money, not for power, but because he loves us.

The Bible Challenge: Day 13

The scriptures read are Genesis 34-36, Psalm 12 and Matthew 12.

Genesis 34. One of those stories you don't hear in Sunday School. Jacob's daughter Dinah gets raped by Shechem, son of a local chieftain. Then he falls in love with her and wants to marry her. Jacob's sons are outraged but come up with a clever way to get revenge. They convince Shechem that he must get circumcised before they would even consider letting their sister marry him. Shechem convinces everyone in town to get circumcised so they can marry into Jacob's rich family. And on the 3rd day, when all the guys are still sore, Jacob's sons enter the town and kill all the men. When Jacob hears how they sacked the town he is upset. The deceptive streak in him and his family has finally ended up taking lives. A jarring story of family honor.

Genesis 35. Jacob goes to Bethel to see God. He has the family dump their idols (!) On the way back Rachel dies in childbirth. Jacob changes his last son's name from Benoni (Son of my pain) to Benjamin (Son of good fortune). Jacob gets home in time for his father Isaac to die. Sad time for Jacob, who is more reflective and honest after all these events.

Genesis 36. Esau's descendents. We skip over this stuff but it was obviously very meaningful to the folks who memorized and recited it for decades and for those who wrote it down. There are even little details and references to family stories in these lists, like the guy who came across some hot springs while herding his dad's donkeys. These were stories of real people who meant something to their families and friends.     

Psalm 12. A lament that "...the faithful are no speak lies to one another." However, "Because of the groans of the plundered poor and needy, I will now act, says the Lord."

Matthew 12. Material enough for a half dozen sermons at least. Jesus versus the Pharisees on sabbath-eating, sabbath-healing, and attributing the works of the Spirit to the devil. Telling a tree's nature from its fruit. Who are Jesus' real family members? 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 12

The scriptures read are Genesis 31-33, Psalm 11 and Matthew 11.

Genesis 31. Jacob hears the murmurings about himself from Laban's son and then gets the word to move from God. He passes his plan onto his wives, in the fields away from the tents. They pack and flee while Laban is away having his sheep sheared. Oh, and Rachel grabs his household gods, which would have meant prosperity and good fortune to Laban. Even with a 3 day head start, Jacob's entourage is found by Laban. Laban probably wants everything back but is warned in a dream that God is paying close attention to how Laban acts towards Jacob.

Laban dances around what he wanted to actually say and do to Jacob. He is very concerned about recovering his household gods. Jacob says "Go ahead and look. If you find anything that's yours, kill the person who has it." Jacob is unaware that his beloved Rachel has the household gods. But Rachel hasn't been living with 2 conmen this long not to have picked up some tricks. She's sitting on the idols. When her dad comes to search she says,"Sorry, I can't get up and greet you. It's that time of the month." Laban comes up empty-handed and Jacob loses it. He tells his father-in-law off!

The upshot is the 2 men sets up a memorial stone, make a covenant, and part, reminding each other that God will take care of whoever breaks the deal. The Mizpah is in reality the worst thing to give your wife or girlfriend.

Genesis 32. Jacob thinks he's home-free until his messengers return and say his brother is coming to meet him...with 400 men! Jacob springs into action, making plan after plan to dissuade Esau from wiping out his family.

Suddenly with no warning we read that a man is wrestling with Jacob. Jacob in "friend or foe" mode tells the guy, "I will not let go of you until you bless me." The blessing comes in the form of a new name: Israel, he who wrestles with God. Which alarms Jacob. Or should I say Israel? Anyway, he has wrestled with God and lived. Esau will be a cinch.

Genesis 33. It turns out Esau has done well himself so Jacob need not fear. The brothers embrace and the Hollywood version would end right here. But Jacob still doesn't trust his brother to bring up the rear and they part and take different paths. Betraying your brother leaves lasting damage.

Psalm 11. A short psalm about how God really likes righteous behavior and really dislikes wickedness. You have been warned. (P.S. Is the part about God raining down blazing coals and sulfur what Paul was talking about in Romans 12:20?)

Mathew 11. Even his cousin John the Baptist is wondering whether Jesus is the Messiah. Everyone's looking for a King David 2.0, a holy warrior king. Jesus isn't like that. But he's healing every disease he encounters, even death, and things are looking brighter for those on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Jesus riffs on John, denounces some inhospitable towns, prays and talks a bit like he does in John's gospel. Then he talks of how less than heavy his yoke is should we choose to accept it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 11

The scriptures read are Genesis 28-30, Psalm 10 and Matthew 10.

Genesis 28. Isaac sends Jacob to marry one of the daughters of his brother-in-law Laban. Meanwhile, in a pathetic attempt to get back in his father's favor, Esau marries his niece. At least she's not a Canaanite! he thinks. Sad.

Jacob sleeps on a rock and gets a vision of the famous Stairway to Heaven. God promises to bless and protect Jacob. Jacob in turn promises that the Lord will be his God. On certain conditions.

Genesis 29. You know how you can tell a guy likes a girl? When he moves a stone too heavy for 3 men off a well all by himself. Having impressed Rachel, and possibly injured his back, Jacob makes a deal to work for his uncle Laban for seven years in exchange for marrying her. Time flies. The wedding day comes. There must have been a lot of heavy drinking and a thicker than usual bridal veil because Jacob wakes up married to the wrong sister! Leah, the older sister with the nice eyes, but not Rachel! Laban pulls the "swap the siblings" con better than Jacob and the twin gets a taste of poetic justice for what he did to Isaac and Esau. Jacob complains to his father-in-law but Laban says it is their custom not to marry off the younger daughter before the older. Nice time to tell him! Laban says he'll throw in the other daughter for another 7 years of work. No Labor Department to complain to back then.

Speaking of labor, God takes pity on unloved Leah and she becomes a baby machine. Thus begins the patriarchal sex farce.

Genesis 30. Rachel is barren so she gives Jacob her maid to even the score with her sister. Result? More babies. Sibling rivalry leads Leah to follow suit with her maid. Babies. The sisters start trading vegetables for sacktime with Jacob. We don't get Jacob's point of view on all this but I bet this is where the phrase "too much of a good thing" was born. Things are tense. He snaps at Rachel when she complains that he hasn't given her a son. "I'm not God!" he says. I just bet he wishes they'd make him sleep on the couch occasionally. Finally Rachel contributes a baby. Count so far: 11 sons and 1 daughter. In 14 years. Jacob is the most sleep-deprived man in the Fertile Cresent.

Jacob decides the only person in his family he can get rid of is his wily father-in-law. He proposes that he get bought out with all the non-solid colored sheep. Laban agrees and promptly has his sons hightail it with the spotty ones. Jacob invents selective breeding and with a little sympathetic magic finally one-ups that con man Laban.
Psalm 10. Why does God stand around while the bad guys seem to get away with murder? Ever ask yourself that? The psalmist does. God's seeming indifference emboldens evil people. Come on, God! Strike the bad guy down! The psalmist can't wait for God "to champion the orphan and the downtrodden, that men who are of the earth tyrannize no more."

Matthew 10. I love the way Peterson ties the selection of the 12 disciples to the prayer for more harvest hands at the end of the last chapter. This whole chapter is Jesus' advice to his disciples then and now. He sends us on a mission and we need to expect trouble but use it to proclaim the good news. We need to get our priorities straight and remember whom we serve. We need to shed everything else and travel light.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 10

The scripture read is Genesis 25-27, Psalm 9 and Matthew 9.

Genesis 25. One of those footnote or trivia answer people: Keturah, Abraham's second wife. And he has 6 kids by her! Stuff you only learn if you read the whole Bible. And we get the descendants of Ishmael. But more importantly, we get the story of Jacob and Esau, battling it out in the belly of their mom. And once they are grown up we see see Esau (or Hairy, as Peterson translates his name) is a man of action and one who doesn't think too far ahead. Jacob is crafty, though, convincing his brother to give up his birthright as the elder son (if by seconds) for some stew.

Genesis 26. Isaac has taken a page from his father's book but he is caught because he can't keep his hands off of Rebekah, his "sister." Once again Abimelech is more upset over the cover up and possible consequences of inadvertent adultery. Still eventually Isaac has to move away. This town ain't big enough for the two of us, says Abimelech. And we get the origin of a city that will continue to play a role in the Bible, Beersheba (Oath-well.)

Genesis 27. Jacob pulls a con on his poor old blind father--with the encouragement and help of his mother! Is Rebekah getting back at Isaac over that whole "she's my sister" thing? This whole identity theft is her idea. Again some masterful storytelling. The secret is the details--Esau's clothes, the goatskin hair, Isaac using his remaining senses to try to verify it is Esau. Even so, Isaac is suspicious. Some nice suspense here. Jacob pulls it off and gets the blessing.

But then big dumb Esau returns and the comedy ends. Esau's reaction is poignant. "Don't you have a blessing for me, Father?" And now Esau can't wait for his father to die so he can kill Jacob. Rebekah is quite the eavesdropper and sends Jacob to her brother, Laban, far away. She will never see Jacob, her favorite son, again.

Psalm 9. A song to the justice of God. "The Lord is a haven for the oppressed...For he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted...Not always shall the needy be ignored, nor the hope of the afflicted forever lost..." God is watching how we treat the least of these, Jesus' brothers and sisters.

Matthew 9. More healing and another disciple called, Matthew the dirty lowdown tax collector. Peterson does a good job on Jesus' reply to the Pharisees, apoplectic over the company he keeps. "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders." Jesus would never make it past a Call committee.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 9

The scriptures read are Genesis 22-24, Psalm 8 and Matthew 8.

Genesis 22. Here we get the pivotal story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Why did Abraham obey God? Because sacrificing children to the gods of the Canaanites and the Philistines was a common practice. Abraham, though dismayed, probably thought his God was like the others, wanting children. But, just as Abraham predicted, God provides. He not only stops the child sacrifice, he gives a ram in its place. God provides the sacrifice. A spoiler, perhaps?

Genesis 23. This small story of Abraham buying a burial plot for Sarah is touching. It's also informative about how this was done in the 2000s B.C. The haggling is subtle. This story goes way back to the oral tradition no doubt.

Genesis 24. Another interesting look at the culture back then. Abraham makes his servant swear with his hand under his, uh, thigh, thereby giving us an illustration of where words like "testimony" came from. The servant goes to the well because that's where you met everyone. Rebekah is thoughtful and kind and the servant retells the whole story, so we read it twice during this one chapter.

Psalm 8. A great psalm of how God has made us little lower than gods ourselves, though by right we should be beneath his notice. A wonderful meditation on God's grace to us.

Matthew 8. Jesus heals the sick, even at a distance. He lays hands on a leper and demands people drop everything to follow him. He calms the storm at sea and casts evil demons into pigs. The people of the nearby town are so ticked off at this they make him leave the area. They apparently prefer having demon-possessed people running around than to lose some pigs (and the money they represent).

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 8

The Scriptures read are Genesis 19-21, Psalm 7, and Matthew 7.

Genesis 19-21. Seriously messed up stuff in chapter 19, starting with Sodom which needs a better chamber of commerce. Lot is the model of Middle Eastern hospitality. Maybe too much so. When the men of Sodom are seeking to do the angels ill, he offers his 2 virgin daughters instead. Lot and his family have been living there way too long!

As a writer, I notice how urgent the tone is as the angels try to get Lot and his family out of range of the incoming fire and brimstone. They finally make like the Doctor and simply grab their hands and run!

The second half of the chapter shows that while Lot and his daughters are physically safe, they are morally damaged. In typical terse style, the Bible doesn't give us any reason why the daughters feel they will never meet suitable men nor Lot's reaction when his previously virgin daughters get pregnant.

This is followed by another warts-and-all portrait of a Biblical patriarch. Abraham is up to his old "she's my sister" ruse and this time the king deceived is Abimelech. Apparently Sarah, at 90, is still quite the looker. Once again, Abraham comes out of the incident better off. Immediately following this is a dispute over a well, which must have been common.

The birth of Isaac is greeted with joy, except by his half-sibling Ishmael, who laughs at the boy named "laughter." Sarah makes trouble over Hagar and her son again and demands Abraham throw them out. Abraham is very disturbed about this until God reassures him. Still when they run out of water, Hagar prepares for the worst. God answers the child's cries and helps Hagar spot a water source. Ishmael grows up to be a bowman (and the archetype for Robin Hood, Katness and all unjustly treated archers.)

Psalm 7. The psalmist is really worked up over a false accusation. More arrow imagery! But the writer expresses hope that his enemy will fall victim to his own stratagems.

Matthew 7. Last third of the Sermon on the Mount. First, Jesus tells us God will judge us by--gulp!--the same standards we judge others. Usually we judge ourselves by what we intended to do and others by what they actually do and what we suppose their intentions were. Jesus' picture of people with logs in their eyes trying to help others with mere splinters paints a humorous and memorable picture of hypocrisy.

Next Jesus assures us that those who seek will find. I assume this applies to those seeking him and not just those who seek other things. Jesus gives us the near universal Golden Rule but as a positive command, something other religious leaders rarely do. That requires more of us than if he merely told us not to treat others in ways we dislike.

Jesus urges us to enter the narrow gate that leads to life rather than the roomy, super-sized gate that leads to destruction. It reminds me of when Dumbledore told Harry that he had to choose between what was easy and what was right.

Jesus doesn't exactly warn us of wolves in sheeps' clothing but this is probably where that saying originates. Also "by their fruit you shall know them." Especially when so many scoundrels are so good with words. But at the last judgement, Jesus is going to surprise a lot of people who thought they were the good guys.

Jesus ends with a building metaphor. Make sure you have a strong foundation. Good advice in a hurricane and flood prone area as well as in life.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Tolerance and Toleration

One of those weird facts that science turns up is that redheads generally do not tolerate pain as well as people born with other hair colors. It's especially true of redheaded females and especially in regards to the pain of cold or heat. They also need more anesthesia. Oddly enough, they can usually handle spicier foods. Oh, and if they are on certain painkillers, they exhibit a higher pain tolerance than other people. They're still working out the science behind this.

Having a lower pain tolerance could have advantages. You'd be more likely to take care of an injury right away and less likely to make an injury worse as do some athletes (or just regular guys) by playing or working through the pain. On the other hand, there are people who do not feel pain at all. That might seem like a superpower but those people really have to watch themselves because they may not realize they've just burned themselves on a heated pot or that they've cut themselves rather badly. Pain is an alarm system. If it's too sensitive, it's like your neighbor's car alarm that goes off if a cat walks by. If it's not sensitive enough, it loses its protective power.

Our sermon suggestion asks, "How can a book be interpreted to support both tolerance and intolerance?" I'm assuming the book in question is the Bible. And I'm presuming that the person's question has arisen in response to hearing a lot of conflicting rhetoric over various issues, like religious freedom or tolerance of different groups of people. And both sides were probably quoting the Bible to justify their opposing opinions.

This is a very complicated issue and so I'm cutting the Gordian knot on the political questions. The first amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from either establishing a state religion or impeding the free exercise of religion. It also guarantees our rights to free speech and to assemble peaceably. This amendment was included to stop people from being persecuted or prosecuted for their beliefs. In certain states Baptists preachers could be jailed for preaching. (Seeing a Baptist preaching to people in the street through the bars of his jail cell window was a formative experience for James Madison who wrote the amendment.) In other states, Roman Catholics or Jews could not hold elected office. The Supreme Court says the government needs to demonstrate a compelling interest to refuse to let people exercise religious practices. So I will not deal with legal issues about religion here.

I am focusing narrowly on what the sermon suggestion question asks. How can different people use the same Bible to say we should tolerate certain religions or people and to also say we shouldn't? Basically by emphasizing different passages and ignoring different contexts.

When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, they found themselves up against a culture that had different gods and different values than they did. Wikipedia offers a partial list of Canaanite gods that numbers more than 2 dozen! The primary god was Baal Hadad, the god of storms and rain and thus fertility. At festivals, the people held public orgies to encourage Baal to send rain and fertilize the earth. Another major god was Moloch, to whom the Canaanites sacrificed children, as did the Phoenicians (Philistines in the Bible) who inhabited the coast. In Carthage, where they also worshiped Moloch, the bones of numerous infants have been found at many sites. Ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that when it looked as if Carthage was about to fall to the Romans, the city sacrificed from 300 to 500 children to appease their god, first procuring them from others before the nobility gave up their own. Leviticus explicitly forbids doing this, just as the story of Abraham and Isaac implicitly says that Yahweh is a God who does not require this of his people.

If the Israelites were to occupy the land, they could not let this continue. They could not tolerate child sacrifice. We are social creatures and so we tend to conform to the prevailing culture. The Israelites were to stone anyone sacrificing their children to Moloch. They were supposed to eliminate such practices in the land--there's no sugarcoating this--by eliminating the peoples of the land. In Deuteronomy 7 Moses says, "When the Lord your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorities and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them and you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them." They are forbidden to intermarry nor are they to take loot. They are to destroy their idols, even if they are made of gold or silver.

In the end, the Israelites do not do a very thorough job of this. They don't wipe out all the natives. They do intermarry. And we see hundreds of years later that these practices continue. The Books of Kings and the prophet Jeremiah mention these child sacrifices and Israelites doing them. In fact, the valley of Hinnom on the south side of Jerusalem is notorious as the place where people offer their children to the fires of Moloch. It later becomes the city dump, where trash is burned continually, and which Jesus uses as the symbol of Hell.

On the other hand there are numerous passages in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy that command compassion and tolerance towards outsiders. In Exodus 22:21 the Israelites are told, "You must not wrong a foreigner nor oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt." But the other passages are where people get their justification for holy wars and genocide, even though they are not tiny bronze age Israel trying to establish themselves against bigger nations. And people use the various lists of crimes and their punishments listed in Leviticus and other places to justify intolerance of witches and homosexuals. (Also included in these lists are bestiality, incest, polygamy, and adultery.) Today in the West we tolerate some of these things but not others. Our level of tolerance is different from the ancient Israelites and different from other cultures around the globe today. In parts of Africa children are still sacrificed. Both the ancient Israelites and the modern world unite in not tolerating this. However, in Jesus' time a girl could be married by the time she first menstruated. His mother Mary may very well have been a teenager. In Asia, Africa and the Middle East they still have child brides. We set limits on how young a person can marry (though those under 16 can marry with a court order and parental consent.) Simultaneously we have in recent years become much more aware of the problem of pedophilia. Other societies would differ with us on whether and how much damage is being done.

I'm not trying to confuse the issue but point out its complexity. No society does or can afford to tolerate everything humans wish to do, even if it is religiously motivated. Each society tolerates things that other cultures don't. And though lines must be drawn, exactly where to draw them can be tricky.

But what of Christians? We do not live in a theocracy. We live in a democracy where laws can declare certain things crimes, but not sins. Our society tolerates stuff that wouldn't fly in days of David or even Jesus. We are not bound by the laws that governed ancient Israel, are we?

Not the ceremonial or civil laws, but certainly the ethical laws. But, again, which of them? When the church in Jerusalem met in council to decide how much of the Jewish law Gentile converts must observe, it was determined that they should, in the words of Acts 15:29, "abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality." These they considered the essentials.

Jesus stated things more succinctly: We are to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He said that all the other commandments hang on these two and no other commandment is greater than they are. They are also, as is Jesus' restatement of the Golden Rule, positive commandments. This makes them, if you think about it, even more restrictive than negative commandments. Ask any kid. Would he rather be told to turn off the TV, which still allows him to do other fun stuff, or to be told to do his homework, which requires him to do what he doesn't consider fun at all? In the same way, being told "not to do to others things you wouldn't want done to yourself" doesn't put you under the obligations that being told to "love someone as you love yourself" does. If I don't kick or hurt the starving beggar at my gate, I have fulfilled the negative command. But to fulfill the positive command, to love, requires me to feed and take care of the beggar.

How does this relate to toleration? Toleration, in the words of Perez Zagorin, "is the practice of deliberately allowing or permitting a thing of which one disapproves." I realize this is a little different from tolerance, which usually means the amount one is able to endure. I am, like 60% of the population, lactose intolerant, which means I cannot digest milk products where the lactose has not been broken down. It's not a question of whether I like things like milk shakes or not. I cannot digest them and they cause me pain and so I avoid them. But, having no hatred of them, I don't care if others indulge.

Toleration, on the other hand, is what I exercise around smokers. As a nurse, I've seen the damage that emphysema, heart disease and cancers of the lungs, tongue and throat can do. But I don't attack, physically or verbally, those who smoke. I have friends, including nurses (!), who smoke. I will enthusiastically help them should they wish to stop. I will, if they are continually coughing their lungs out, suggest they might want to cut back or consider quitting. If they say "No" I won't press it. They know how I feel and why I feel that way but they also know I feel that way because I care about them and the harm they are doing to themselves.

But do we see this kind of thing in Jesus? Yes. When the woman caught in adultery is brought before him, her accusers rightly point out that the law of Moses stated she should be stoned to death. We know from his teachings that Jesus has a very high view of marriage and is opposed to adultery. So he doesn't approve of what the woman did. But instead of answering, he scribbles in the dirt. When pressed, he says only a sinless person had the right to throw the first stone. Then Jesus goes back to writing in the dirt.

Normally an elder in the community would cast the first stone. None of them dared assert that they were without moral failings. (Why? One wonders what Jesus was writing in the dirt.) And so they melted away as did the younger men, no doubt trying to figure out just how the matter of this woman's adultery was now about them. After a while Jesus stands up and sees no one but the woman. "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She says, "No one, Lord." Jesus replies, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." Jesus showed mercy toward the woman and toleration of her sin. And he did believe she had sinned because he tells her not to sin any more.

Then there is the time that Peter asks Jesus how often he must forgive his brother. Seven times? asks Peter. Seventy-times seven, says Jesus. Most of us would conclude long before reaching that number that the brother was insincere in his regrets. Jesus essentially says, err on the side of grace and forgiveness.

Finally there is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Jesus tells of a farmer whose enemy sows weeds in his fields. Wheat and weeds grow up together. The farmer's slaves wish to pull up the weeds but the farmer says that some wheat may be uprooted as well. Instead, he will wait till harvest time and only when everything is harvested will they sort the good from the bad. It is pretty obvious that Jesus is saying judgment must wait till the Day of Judgment. Otherwise in being zealous to root out and destroy evil people we will uproot and damage the good. And, unlike in the parable, in real life bad people can become good ones. Indeed, all good people come from bad ones, redeemed by Jesus. Only God knows when to end this grace period. And then Jesus will be the final judge.

And his judgment is going to surprise people, including some who thought they were good guys. In Matthew 7, Jesus says, "On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and do many powerful deeds?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!'" Based on what Jesus says in his parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25, I think we can conclude it must be the law of love that they break.

A thousand years ago, Bishop Wazo of Liege, in what is now Belgium, was faced with what to do about heretics. A man of education, his approach was uncommonly nuanced for the 11th century. He wrote to a fellow bishop that, based on the parable of the wheat and the weeds, "the church should let dissent grow with orthodoxy until the Lord comes to separate and judge them." In other words, err on the side of forgiveness and grace.

At the jail, there was an officer who was a Wiccan. She told me a previous chaplain (whom I never met) used to verbally ridicule other faiths and put post-it notes on her computer telling her she was going to hell. In contrast I see myself as everyone's chaplain, both staff and inmates, and try to get Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others the proper literature and diets their religions require. So when this Wiccan bought a rosary to give to a sick Christian friend, she brought it to me to bless, which I did in Jesus' name. The Wiccan officer was very grateful. So tell me: should that officer be interested in learning more about Jesus, to whom is she likely to go? The person who disparaged her belief and told her she was going to hell? Or the person who did not condemn her but showed her respect and acted out of Christian love?