Sunday, November 10, 2019

Rebuilding


The scriptures referred to are Haggai 1:15b-2:9.

On Fresh Air this week, Dave Davies interviewed David Owen, who has written a book called Volume Control, Hearing in a Deafening World. And he points out that most people by the time they retire have some hearing loss. And you might just attribute that to aging. But in primitive tribes, elderly people hear just as well as infants. Our problems come largely from the fact that we live in a very noisy world. And it's not just the rock concerts that we attended when we were young that have damaged our ears; it's the lawn mowers and hair dryers and food processors that we use all the time without using ear protection. It's the noisy restaurants that, believe it or not, are deliberately that way because they don't want you to talk but to drink and eat and leave so they can seat someone else. And it means that as we get older our brain has a hard time focusing on listening to just one person in a crowd because of all the ambient noise.

The prophet Haggai was encountering something similar. The noise of the people's lives were drowning out God's voice.

First, some background. His book is one we can date precisely. It took place in the months of August through December in the year 520 BC. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 538 BC, Cyrus let 50,000 Jews return to their homeland. But it was a ruin. They had to rebuild everything: their homes, the walls of Jerusalem, the temple. It was taxing and discouraging. They despaired of the rebuilt temple ever matching the splendor of Solomon's temple, though only the very oldest of them could remember seeing it. There was opposition and apathy to overcome. And so work stopped. 18 years later, it was still in a sorry state. Basically, all they had was an altar. And things were not going well for the remnant of the Jewish nation. There was a drought affecting their 3 main crops: grain, wine and olive oil. It seemed like they were laboring for nothing.

And that was the point. The community had no focus, no center, no sense of purpose. They had built nice houses themselves with wood paneling, a luxury then. But God's house was still a mess. The place where they were supposed to come together to meet God was neglected. Their priorities were skewed. As we said, the clamor of their lives was drowning out the voice of God. Haggai called on them to complete God's temple. It would give the people a focal point. It would bring them together as they remembered what made them a nation: the God who gives life and set them free, first from Egypt and more recently from Babylon.

And God tells them that the new temple will one day surpass Solomon's. And he promises his glory will fill it. What's interesting is the governor, Zerubbabel, is a descendant of David and an ancestor of both Joseph and Mary (Matthew 1:12; Luke 3:27) and therefore of Jesus. And oddly enough, the high priest at the time of Haggai is Joshua, the Hebrew name which, transliterated into Greek, is Jesus. God is pointing to the way in which his presence or glory will enter the temple at the right time: through his son, who will replace the fancier temple Herod will build and which the Romans will destroy.

When I do these deep dives into Bible or church history, it's not just to give you cool facts such as you might get in a Smithsonian Channel special. It's because what God says to us in his Word still applies today. And while we do not need to physically rebuild a temple, it is obvious we need to rebuild the church. And just as Jesus, a person, replaced the temple, so the church is not buildings but people, in whom God's Spirit resides and works. And just as Haggai tries to keep his people from despairing because what they are to build will not resemble the splendor of the old temple, we cannot let the old form the church took keep us from working on what God is now directing us to build.

Most of us remember the time when church attendance was at its historic high, the 1950s. It was the post-war era. Our boys came home from the horrific fighting in Nazi-occupied Europe and the devastation wrought in Asia by Imperialist Japan. They had seen enough of man's inhumanity to man and they realized the evil they had seen arose from great spiritual emptiness. So they just wanted a normal life. They started families and along with a baby boom there was a boom in church building and attendance. More people had a church affiliation in the middle to late 20th century than they did when the country was founded. Historians examining evidence of church attendance and membership estimate that in 1776 only 17% of US citizens had a religious affiliation. The pilgrims may loom large in our popular idea of the founding of this country but they weren't even a majority on the Mayflower. People with business interests were. Throughout the 1800s various circuit riders and evangelists and revivalists managed to get the rate of churchgoers up from 34% to about 45%. It wasn't until 1906 that just over 50% of Americans were members of a church. [I'm getting my facts from here.] So our current slide down to 50% of those in the US claiming church affiliation is still above what it was in the 19th century. However some research shows that a lot of people lie about how often they actually attend church and they say the real rate of attendance is just over 17%, essentially what it was when our country was founded. [Here]

What made the US a majority Christian nation were the people like John Wesley and George Whitefield and Dwight Moody and their followers, who went around the country spreading the word and planting churches. They did not live in a “Build it and they will come” era, as the Boomers did. They realized that first you have to have Christians, then you build a church. The advantage they had was, ironically, they did not live in a post-Christian society. One minister in the 1800s wrote, “...there are American families in this part of the country who never saw a bible, nor heard of Jesus Christ...the whole country, from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, is as the valley of the shadow of death.” I feel he must have been exaggerating, at least in regards to people never even hearing of Jesus, but at least he had no misinterpretations of the gospel to dispel when planting the seed. Most people in our society today feel they know enough to say they are rejecting Christianity, even when it is obvious they really don't. They are rejecting a caricature. And sadly, we have either been providing that caricature or complicit in its being spread or we have not been vocal enough in correcting the picture of following Jesus others have painted.

For instance, Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) There is a very influential offshoot of Pentecostalism that teaches that God wants everyone to be rich. This “prosperity gospel” distorts a key element of Christianity: self-sacrificial service. Jesus said his disciples must deny themselves and take up their crosses. (Mark 8:34) As Paul put it, “For none of us lives for himself and none dies for himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.” (Romans 14:7-8) Following Jesus means turning from oneself and outward, towards God and towards others.

And this is not really a new feature of God's message. While Haggai focuses on serving God by restoring his temple, his contemporary Zechariah focuses serving God through serving others. He writes, “This is what the Lord Almighty says, 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow, or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'” (Zechariah 7:9-10) Haggai's emphasis on serving God and Zechariah's emphasis on serving people compliment each other. And we see Jesus was in line with the Old Testament prophets when he summarized the law into 2 commandments: to love God and to love other people.

If our society, like that of Haggai and Zechariah, seems to be ailing, we see the causes in our ignoring God's priorities expressed in his command to exercise true justice, to show compassion and mercy to one another, to not oppress the disadvantaged, and to not think evil of one another. How can a society work if we are at each other's throats and accusing one another of wanting our nation to fail? Who wants our country or our world to fail? We may have different approaches but provided we want the same goal—liberty and justice for all—the rest is details to be worked out. We need to drop the rhetoric and start listening to each other. We need to take seriously the pain and suffering of every person and not just be concerned with what is good mostly for me and mine.

And that is what is behind the Golden Rule 2020 Initiative. Signed by the Presiding Bishops of both our denominations as well as by by representatives from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church USA, the National Association of Evangelicals, the United Church of Christ, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, the Minnesota Council of Churches, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism and more, the statement of support reads:

We are Christians with different theological and political views who have come together to express concern about the polarization and incivility that is tearing our country apart. We are also deeply troubled by the prospect of an angry and hateful political campaign season in 2020 that will further divide us as a nation.

We believe that we can find guidance through this national dilemma in the teachings of Jesus. In particular, we believe that Jesus’ command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” should be taken seriously by Christians who engage in political activity. We also believe that if enough people follow this “Golden Rule” principle, it will help generate the respect and civility we so desperately need in our country.

Churches have an important role to play in helping to heal America, and we hope and pray that local congregations will be active in efforts to increase understanding and bridge divisions in our country between now and the 2020 election. To this end, we encourage Christians of different political views to come together on Sunday, November 3, 2019—exactly one year before the 2020 election—to participate in Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics. On that day, we invite congregations and individuals to do two things: 1) pray for the healing of the divisions in our country, and 2) promote the use of the Golden Rule in our own political discussions and election activities in 2020.

When Haggai delivered his message the leaders, Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest responded. And when the leaders focused on rebuilding, so did the people. The leaders set the tone. And Zechariah put special emphasis on Joshua, the high priest, cleaning up his act. If the religious leaders let down their end, it demoralizes the people of God. Every week we see religious leaders, often with large churches and followings, caught in financial and sexual scandals. They lose their authority to speak for God. But God offers Joshua a chance to change and then prophesies that he will have a key role in cleansing the land.

We face problems in our land similar to those faced by the people of the land of Judah. The biggest ones have to do with people. Jesus proposed some pretty radical ways of dealing with interpersonal problems: love your enemy; pray for those who persecute you; turn the other cheek; go the second mile; don't call each other names; don't retaliate; reconcile with someone before going to God's altar; don't pass judgment on others; and attend to what's obscuring your perspective of things before you try to remove the speck in someone else's eye. (Matthew 5-7) In other words, don't go with your natural inclination. Don't put yourself before others. Stand up for everyone's well being. And be willing to take a hit for the team: Team Jesus.

Like Haggai, Jesus calls us to change our priorities. He calls us to filter out the noise of everyday life, to tune out the cacophony of the world and focus on God's voice. God is telling us to rebuild his church. It is a mess; there are obstacles and even people opposing it, but that must not dissuade us. Things looked bleak from the cross but Jesus was able to rise above the ultimate obstacle, death, and wrest victory from the grip of the grave.

And God promises that his church will be more splendid than what used to be. We get a glimpse of this in the book of Revelation. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) When we say church, we tend to think of our church. But the church is the body of all believers, throughout the world, worshiping in every tongue, with different vestments, different ritual acts, offering different ministries, but all united in one Spirit, with one set of priorities: to show their love for God through their worship services and their love for those made in God's image through self-sacrificial service.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

All Saints


The scriptures referred to are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 119:137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, and Luke 19:1-10.

When a major holy day falls on a day other than Sunday, you can move the celebration to the nearest Sunday. That's what we are doing today. All Saint's Day is the first of November. And usually that means bringing along with the celebration the texts assigned for the holy day. I decided not to do that but stick with the ordinary readings for this, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. Because the theme of the holy day is saints. And our lectionary readings give us an excellent cross section of what it means to be a saint.

Technically, all Christians are saints. That is, we have been made holy by God. It is nothing we have done ourselves; it comes from what Jesus did on the cross. And to be made holy means to be designated for God's purposes. We don't use the communion chalice for coffee while we socialize after the service. It has been set aside to be used for God's purposes.

But just as the chalice was once some hunk of metal or wood before it was shaped into what it is now, so all saints have a past. And the raw material they came from wasn't always pretty. Except for Jesus, every person in the Bible had done things in their past that were sinful, some major. Moses killed an Egyptian and tried to hide the body. David committed adultery and then engineered the perfect murder of a soldier on the battlefield. Paul persecuted the church, and was responsible for the execution of Christians by the Sanhedrin. Yet God used them--sinful, imperfect people--to carry out his purposes.

We always think that a saint has to have a supreme faith, without doubt. But the prophet Habakkuk is profoundly troubled by the violence and injustice he sees around him. In fact the first word of his book, which our translation renders as “oracle,” literally means in Hebrew “burden.” All he can see is trouble and destruction and strife. He is disturbed by its existence in a world made by a good and just God, especially when he finds it among God's people. Why does God tolerate all of this wrong?

The answer Habakkuk gets is not comforting. Judgment on God's people is coming in the form of the Babylonians, who, we know, will destroy the city of Jerusalem and the temple and take the people into exile. Habakkuk thinks this is harsh. God answers this objection with a list of all the sins and evil he sees his people engaging in: arrogance, drunkenness, greed, extortion, bloodshed, sexual immorality and idolatry. The book ends with a psalm-like prayer affirming that God is not indifferent to injustice but will repay it at the proper time. The prophet prays that in his wrath God will remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2) In the meantime, the righteous will live by their faith in God's goodness. The prophet realizes that we need our faith the most when it is hardest to maintain. But, as we see in this brief book, having faith does not mean being free of all questions and doubts. But you have to keep the dialogue with God going. You have to stay engaged with him. As the father of a boy who had seizures said to Jesus, “Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) And that admittedly shaky faith was enough for Jesus to heal the boy. God works with what and who he has on hand.

The writer of Psalm 119, the longest in the Bible, is also writing about God's justice. But this time it's personal. “Trouble and distress have come upon me,” he says. Later he says he is suffering and is being persecuted. (Psalm 119:153, 157) He asks for understanding and that God show compassion. (Psalm 119:156) He admits that he has strayed like a lost sheep. (Psalm 119:176) Though he is “small and of no account” and though God's promises have “been tested to the utmost,” he does not give up his faith in God and his hope of deliverance. We imagine saints walking serenely through life in the light of heaven but at times doing the right thing feels like you're going through hell. Yet if things weren't so dark, God wouldn't call us to be the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14)

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “We must give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” Notice that the problems and suffering were still going on at the time of his writing. But it was strengthening their faith and bringing them closer together. Adversity can do the opposite of those two things. It can destroy a person's faith and drive people apart. It really depends on how you choose to respond. You can dwell on adversity and let it continue to damage you, or you can look at it as a opportunity to learn and grow. In fact, though we hear all the time about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we rarely hear of Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome. Trauma can also lead to positive changes in relating to others, seeing new possibilities in life, realization of greater personal strength, spiritual enhancement, and a greater appreciation of life and one's self and a change in priorities. We see these things in what Paul is saying about the Thessalonians. Suffering for Christ helped them grow in Christ.

Speaking of positive changes, that is what we see in the last saint presented to us in our lectionary readings. In our gospel, we get the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector. We don't usually think of him as a saint. But he changes in the midst of his story and at the end Jesus pronounces him saved.

People in Jesus' day routinely thought of tax collectors, not as a necessary evil to running a country but as just plain evil. For one thing, the taxes they were collecting were for the running of the Roman empire, the occupying force in Judea and Galilee. So Jewish tax collectors were seen as traitors to their own people. And they could decide on what their commission was and add it onto the amount they took. So they were gouging their fellow Jews to make themselves rich while financing the pagans oppressing them. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, which probably meant he put in a bid to collect the taxes in the area and then hired others to actually do it. Zacchaeus was rich, having as his territory Jericho, where the Jewish aristocracy had their winter homes and where many priests and Levites lived. It was also on the border, so he was probably in charge of levying customs duties. So not an obvious candidate for a follower of Jesus, who says deny yourself and take up your cross.

But so anxious was he to see Jesus that he, a short man, climbed a tree to get a better look, not a very dignified thing for a rich man to do. But it is consistent with someone who does what he must to get what he wants. And for some reason this man whose every material desire is fulfilled wants to see Jesus, whose life is all about spiritual abundance. Is that what he lacks and really needs? 

Imagine his surprise when Jesus stops and looks up and calls Zacchaeus by name. “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Imagine the surprise of the crowd upon hearing this. Jesus was inviting himself to stay with the crooked head of the local tax office. There was a lot of grumbling about this.

So Zacchaeus, probably after eating and talking with Jesus, stands up and says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” I want to point out 2 things about this announcement. First, in the Greek, because of the conditional nature of the sentence, it is implied that he knows he has cheated people. The word translated “if” could legitimately be translated “since” as in “Since I have defrauded...” And that is backed up by the second notable thing in Zacchaeus' announcement: the very generous reimbursement he offers. In the case of theft by deception the Torah only requires that the guilty person must restore the principal with 20% interest. (Leviticus 6:2-5; Numbers 5:6-7) But Zacchaeus is offering to repay at the rate akin to that for property theft. (Exodus 22:1) And since he has the force of the empire behind him to make people pay, what he did was a form of robbery. So he is publicly confessing to robbing and cheating people.

That's why Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Abraham gave up his home and everything to go to the land of Canaan because he trusted God. Zacchaeus gives up well over half his wealth after his encounter with Jesus. Our Lord's words and actions must have caused the tax collector to put his trust in Jesus and what he said. In the previous chapter Jesus made his famous pronouncement about how hard it was for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Essentially, Zacchaeus is switching his allegiance from the empire of Caesar to the kingdom of God.

We don't really know what became of Zacchaeus after this but he must have kept his word or people would not have kept telling the story so that Luke, in researching his gospel, would have heard of it. And it must be a true story because rather than being a generic tax collector whose existence could not have been verified, we are given the name of Zacchaeus. He would have been remembered both as a very corrupt official who extorted money from everyone and also the one who spectacularly changed his life after meeting with Jesus. Small wonder his name has survived.

Saints are as varied as the vessels we use at the Eucharist. They each have a different shape and purpose. We need all of them to celebrate the Lord's supper properly. And God calls all of us to different roles and equips us for each. As Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them.” (Romans 12:4-6) He then lists things like preaching, serving, teaching, giving encouragement, giving generously, leading and showing mercy. The list is not exhaustive. And though Paul doesn't say this, most parts of the body have multiple functions. Our skeleton not only gives us shape and protects our internal organs and gives places to anchor our muscles so we can move, in the marrow it produces red blood cells which carry oxygen and white blood cells which fight infection and platelets that help us stop bleeding. Even your skin, which we primarily think of as just holding our insides inside, helps regulate body temperature, secretes sweat and oils and acts as our first line of defense again germs. So too members of the body of Christ are not limited to doing just one thing.

Which means you can be a saint even if your gifts aren't preaching or singing in the choir or teaching Sunday school. One person knows how to fix things around the church and also knows when to call in a professional. One person might understand legal issues the church must deal with. Someone has to keep track of the money and pay the bills and the staff and make sure every penny is accounted for and goes to its proper use. Some people are just good at listening to others and encouraging them. Some people are great at seeing what the community needs and therefore opportunities to minister to others. Some people are great at seeing the big picture and some are good with working out the details and we need both types in planning. And, like Paul's list, there are doubtless functions that I haven't mentioned.

We have this vision of saints being spiritual superheroes, people very different from us ordinary Christians. But in reality no saint is Superman, with the inborn ability to do everything. We are more like Batman, ordinary people who must train to be good at something. Because the difference isn't in what gifts we have; it is in the degree to which we devote those gifts to serving God. If you want to be an athlete, you devote as much of your time as possible to running, throwing, gymnastics, weightlifting or whatever you need to do to hone your skills. If you want to be a good video game player, you practice a lot and learn strategy. If you want to be an expert on anything practical, you read and get someone to show you how and practice the skills over and over. You cannot be a good Christian merely by going to a building for an hour one day a week. You have to study the Bible and put it into practice and determine what your gifts are and how you can use them for God.

We read about the heroes of the faith, in the Bible or in the subsequent history of the church and we are sometimes in awe. But they also had their flaws, their doubts, their dark times, as do we all. They just never gave up on trusting God and his goodness and the hope we have in Christ. As the hymn "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God" goes, for the saints of God are just folks like you and me. And as we sing in the second verse, “and there's not any reason—no, not the least, why I shouldn't be one, too.”

Monday, October 28, 2019

Reformed


The scriptures referred to are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and Luke 8:31-36.

Kids do many things naturally: learn to walk, to talk, to push your buttons. They do not naturally learn to share, to not hit when angry, to not say hurtful things. They have to be taught. They need to learn the rules. Most of these rules are for their own protection: don't touch the stove, don't run into the road, don't try to pet a strange dog without asking the owner first. Some are rules for living with other people: say “Please” and “Thank you,” don't butt ahead in line, don't tell strangers at the store they are fat, don't discuss bowel movements at the table in restaurants. We teach our kids these rules for their own good and we usually have to remind them a lot when they are young. By the time they are older we hope they have internalized the rules to the point that they don't have to think twice about such things.

So why do we have rules and laws to obey when we are older? Obviously, some situations we encounter as adults cannot be foreseen from childhood experience. Specific and complex situations require specific and complex rules. But a major reason is that a rule, or even a code of law, is not a perfect way to make things right. The major problem is compliance.

For instance, there are some people who apparently have a hard time generalizing from rules like “Don't butt in line” to “Don't try to pass a whole line of cars despite oncoming traffic and then just pull in suddenly without paying attention to the other drivers in the lane you are entering.” Or they can't make the leap from “Don't take someone else's toys without getting their permission” to “Don't steal someone else's lunch from the break room fridge.” A lot of people seem to not understand how a general moral principle applies in specific situations. Often they only see this when the situation is reversed and someone cuts in on them or eats their lunch.

And some people just don't seem to internalize rules, period. It's like they are morally tone-deaf. In some cases it is not that they intentionally break the rules; they take no notice of them. All they take into consideration is their own desires. The law is for others to obey, not for them. If they ever do think about laws, it is only the ones that protect them, not the ones that inhibit them. A mob boss knows his legal rights; he ignores those of others. Psychopaths and sociopaths fall into this category.

Another problem is one you initially see in childhood: people who go by the letter of the law but not its spirit. Laws have a purpose, a desired outcome, for which they are composed but they must be expressed in words and words have limits. Most of us parents have been in the situation where we are on a long drive. The kids are squabbling in the backseat. “He's touching me!” one screams. “Stop touching your sister,” you yell to the miscreant. And so, he obeys the letter of your rule by merely wiggling his fingers mere inches from her face. “I'm not touching you,” he taunts. She screams again. “Stop annoying your sister!” you say, revising your dictum. He retreats to his side of the car and then makes faces at her. She complains again. You tell her to ignore him and you sigh. You son's parsing of the precise words used in your command bode well should he grow up to be a lawyer.

Sadly, it doesn't even matter if the intention of the law is clearly stated. The second amendment to the constitution says, in its entirety, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The first half of that sentence lays out its intention. This applies to a well-regulated militia and the purpose is to maintain the security of a free state. And we know that James Madison proposed this amendment because some citizens were afraid that a standing army in their new nation could be used to oppress the populace. So this allowed states to have volunteer militias to protect their towns, communities or their state. It was not considered an individual right, not even by the Supreme Court, until quite recently. The intention of the law was made quite clear and stated in the first 12 of its 26 words. I sincerely doubt that the founders of our country envisioned our present situation, where there are more guns in the US than there are people, where there are 100 times more firearms in the hands of individuals than in the possession of the military and 400 times more firearms in private hands than law enforcement has, and where just 3% of gun owners possess half of those guns. Are they all in a well-regulated militia and making our states safer? Judging by the 30,000 firearm deaths we suffer each year, you may well sigh.

There is a stated purpose to the laws in the Bible. They are about life. In Leviticus God says, “So you must keep my statutes and my regulations; anyone who does so will live by keeping them.” (Leviticus 18:5, NET) The very first commandment God gives humans is about life: be fruitful and multiply. And it's the only command we have wholeheartedly obeyed! We have multiplied and filled the earth with human life. No slacking on that one.

The next commandment God gives is also about life. God tells the first humans not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they will die. Without going into it in the depth that I'd like, basically God tells them not to take a shortcut in learning about how to misuse the good gifts he's given them. Yet they do, and that shatters the image of God in them. Thus our relationship with the God who is love is poisoned, as are our relationships with each other, and our relationship with ourselves. Our spiritual life is poisoned. And human arrogance, our attitude of “I know better than anyone else, including God,” continues to poison what we do. And that poison eventually leads to death.

The first covenant or agreement in the Bible God makes is about life. He has just rebooted creation because “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11, NET) After the flood, God reiterates to Noah and his offspring the command to be fruitful and multiply. (Genesis 9:1) And just like you do with a toddler, God lays down the law by telling us what to do and what not to do to keep us from harming ourselves or each other. So he explicitly makes murder against the law. And the reason given is that humanity is made in the image of God. (Genesis 9:5-6) Murder is symbolically killing God. As a bearer of his image, however distorted by sin, every person has inherent worth. Yet we still kill each other. And eventually, we do get around to killing God but this time not symbolically.

Jesus summarized the whole law in just two commandments from the Old Testament: love God with all you are and have (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) And indeed the Ten Commandments fall into that pattern. The first 4 are about what to do and not do in loving God and the remaining 6 are about what to do and not do in loving others. And that “what you do to humans you do to God” applies to Jesus, God incarnate. He says, whatever we do or do not do to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the prisoner, or the alien, the least of his siblings, we do or do not do to Jesus. (Matthew 25:31-46) We are to make life better for others. In that way, we are serving Jesus.

After the temple was destroyed and they were taken into exile in Babylon, the Jews became serious about obeying God's law. In fact they went overboard and elaborated and added onto the law. They often got so focused on the law they forgot what its purpose was. Jesus took his critics to task on that. Ironically, by the time Martin Luther appeared, the church had done the same thing. It had come up with an elaborate system of laws, many of which were not even found in the Bible. And like the lawyers and Pharisees, they had found loopholes and ways to get around the ones that were inconvenient, even if it meant people would get hurt. Because they too had lost sight of the purpose of the laws.

Luther was brought up in this system and was a creature of it. His problem was he took it seriously. And it was driving him crazy. He couldn't keep 100% of the law 100% of the time. And he thought that God would only accept 100%. He didn't love God. He hated him.

But when Luther was assigned to teach the New Testament, he found in Paul's letters the key to this problem. He found the gospel, the good news that Jesus brought to us and bought for us with his blood. Basically, the good news consisted of a few basic facts.

First, God is loving. God doesn't hate us. He loves us. Enough to die for us in the person of his son Jesus. And like any loving parent, he wants us to grow and become better people. After all, we are created in his image. So he wants us to grow to be more like him, again as seen in Jesus, God expressed in human form. And he lays down laws for our spiritual growth and health.

Second, God is wise. He knows we are going to fall short of our glorious potential. Any parent who believes their child will always obey them, or even always act in their own best interest, is in for a rude awakening. God is a wise parent. That's why he sent Jesus, not only to teach us with words but with his life and to free us from our slavery to sin.

Third, God is gracious. He is favorably disposed towards us. We don't have to earn his favor. In fact doing that to the nth degree 100% of the time would be impossible. But being loving and gracious, God will forgive us and then give us help in living up to our potential.

We just have to trust him on this. Trust is the underlying basis of all relationships. To work with someone there has to be trust. For God to work with us, we have to trust him. Trust is built on one's history and we know we can trust God because of what he has done for us in Jesus. And when we trust him, then he can accomplish what he wants to. He will anoint us with his Spirit to help us become what we were created to be, children of the God who is love.

The problem Luther ran into was the same Jesus and Paul ran into: people so obsessed with the law that they didn't realize the law cannot actually make people good. You can post a speed limit but you cannot make people observe it. The whole 7th chapter of the book of Romans is Paul explaining how the law not only cannot make you good, strangely enough, it can tempt you to evil. Like the fruit of the tree of good and evil it can open your mind to other ways in which you can act that go against the law. It's like telling a kid not to do something. Suddenly that's all they focus on. Why can't I drink? Why can't I smoke pot? Why can't I have sex with my boyfriend or girlfriend? What other good things are the grownups keeping from us? It's the serpent in Eden's argument all over again.

At best the law acts like a diagnostic tool. It's like saying your fasting blood sugar should be below 100, or your blood pressure should be below 120/80. It's good to know that and to measure yourself against that standard and to shoot for that but by itself that information cannot lower either number. To achieve that there needs to be an internal change.

We need to be reformed, literally, remade into a new form. In our passage from Jeremiah, God says that in his new covenant, he will put his law within his people and write it on their hearts. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus, the author of the new covenant, said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17) That is how God's law, the expression of what he wants us to be, will get within us. We cannot do it ourselves. We can only do it with God's help and only by letting God come into us and change us.

After my accident I could not heal myself by just living by the rules of healthy living, eating right and getting exercise. I couldn't walk. I needed to trust a surgeon to cut me open, get his hands inside me and fix what was broken and torn. Parts of me had to be replaced. That's what we need to let God do to us: get inside us, fix us and replace what is beyond repair. We need to be remade. Jesus said it was essentially being born again.

When we talk of the Reformation, we think of it as historians do: the reformation of the church. But we are the church. We need to be reformed as individuals or else the body of Christ and the structures and rules we have built up will never be reformed. You can have the best rules and laws in the world but if people don't follow them, nothing will change.

Luther didn't want to start a new church. He wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church of his day. It wouldn't let him. It excommunicated him. But people had read his writings and wanted change even if they had to go outside the official church. And Luther had to rethink everything he had been taught in the light of the truth of the gospel found in the Bible. And it required him to reimagine what the church should be and could be.

Today the church is again bound by rules and traditions that may have served it well in the past. But the world has changed. All branches of the church are shrinking, at least in the West. Numerous factors have contributed to this but I want to focus on the one that I think is key. Can people see the Spirit of Jesus at work in the church? Do they see the one who welcomed and ate with sinners? Do they see the one who set aside the rules when it meant that otherwise someone wouldn't get healed or helped? Do they see the one who asked disturbing questions of the rich and those in power and those who loudly proclaimed their religious orthodoxy and holiness? Do they see the one would was willing to be condemned by those in authority for speaking the truth? Do they see the one who was willing to give up everything and take up his cross and die to do the right thing and save the world?

We need a new reformation, not of institutions so much as of people. If we let God make us new, from the inside out, it will change the external world. But it has to start somewhere. It has to start with someone. And that someone can be you.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Helpful


The scriptures referred to are 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.

When I was working as a nurse on a Psych floor, I was in charge of the chalk board in the dining area. Every morning I would write the date and day of the week because each day in a hospital feels the same and that is disorienting to patients. I would also write the weather. I decided to also add some interesting bit of trivia, of which, as everyone knows, I have an endless supply. I became known to the patients as Mr. Trivia. I still love random, odd facts but I also realize that it is more important to have knowledge that is useful. Unfortunately there are some people who get so caught up in all the details found in the 31,000 verses and 66 books of the Bible that they seem to lose track of the useful stuff in there. At the jail, while I have created handouts on the essential beliefs of the faith and the basics of following Jesus, I also have a whole file of Biblical FAQs about such things as the nephilim, Jewish holidays, demons, etc, that I copy and send to inmates asking about such things. I have another group of files about various religions and denominations to send out when I can't find a book that covers what is asked for. And I have recently started a file folder of religious esoterica, to cover such things as New Testament apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, angelology, the Book of Enoch and other things that, while interesting, are not really useful for understanding or for living the faith.

Apparently this obsession with the minutiae of religion is not new. Last week in our reading from 2 Timothy Paul wrote, “warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” (2 Timothy 2:14) This week he warns of how “people will not endure healthy teachings, but to have their hearing tickled, they will heap on teachers for themselves to suit their own desires, and will turn off their hearing of the truth but turn out to hear myths.” (my own translation) In his letter to Titus, Paul says, “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3:9) The word translated “unprofitable” basically means “useless.” And it is the antonym of the word Paul uses in talking about scripture in today's reading. Paul says, (again my translation) “All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for persuading, for straightening out again and for training in justness, so that the person of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” The Greek word for “useful” can also mean “helpful.”

Why is that important? Because it means the Bible is not an encyclopedia of random facts about God and related matters. It is meant to help us get closer to God and to follow Jesus. And yet there are people who seem to think that its primary use is as a database for debates. So folks use it as a pretext to argue about evolution, despite the fact that the Bible's composition predates science, and despite the fact that the Bible is not really interested in how things developed physically but in how we are supposed to grow spiritually and morally. Those are practical, not theoretical concerns.

In fact there are precious few texts for those who are wholly devoted to the mystical. Usually you simply have to take a single text and meditate on it. Here's some trivia: the word “heaven” occurs 582 times in scripture but “earth” occurs 987 times, 405 times more often. The Bible is much more focused on how we live now on earth than in how we will live in heaven. I've noticed that people who speculate an awful lot about heaven are like people who always imagine what it's like being rich and successful: their daydreams often substitute for the actions that would actually get them to their goal.

Paul mentions 4 of the ways in which God-breathed scripture helps us. First, it is useful for teaching. So if we are not to get sucked into the black hole of the trivial stuff, what are we to teach? In the Great Commission Jesus sent the disciples into all the world to make disciples, baptizing them and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20) So our priority should be to transmit what Jesus taught. And his teachings were very practical. They were about how we should treat our neighbors, the disadvantaged, even our enemies. He taught us to forgive others as God forgives us. He taught us to be peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be humble, to be generous, to be wise. Even when when his disciples asked him about the end times, he brought it back to the present: “Blessed is the slave whose master finds him at work when he comes.” (Matthew 24:46) As as some wag put it, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” Paul writes to Titus about how God's grace teaches us “to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:12-13, NET, emphasis mine) So much for those who say Christianity is about “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.”

Secondly, Paul says that God-breathed scripture is useful for persuading. Most translations use the words “rebuking” or “reproof” but the primary meaning of the Greek word is “proof” or “conviction.” So Paul is speaking about using scripture as evidence, which fits in with another possible meaning of the word, “persuasion.” Many people have come to Jesus because they recognized in scripture the ring of truth. What it said resonated with them. When Jesus' taught the 5000 he had fed about the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood, it turned off a great many of his followers. And he asked the Twelve if they were going to leave, too. And Peter said, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) Because they knew the rest of what he taught was true, they were willing to accept the parts they didn't yet understand. He had persuaded them, and in large part because he was able to back it with scripture. If we don't count the parallel accounts in the gospels, Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible more than 40 times, citing at least a dozen of its books. The New Testament as a whole quotes the Old more than 300 times, including all but 5 books in the Hebrew Bible. That sounds like trivia but my point is to show how much Jesus and his disciples relied on the scriptures that existed in their time to make their case. So keen are the insights we find in the Bible even secular people quote it as received wisdom, often unwittingly.

Thirdly, Paul tells us that God-breathed scriptures are helpful for "straightening out again." That's the literal meaning, with most translations opting for the word “correction.” But it means returning something to its original state. Ironically, the Bible is particularly vulnerable to distortion. People have used it to justify racism, slavery, misogyny, greed, torture, and murder. They pluck texts out of context and twist the meanings. They ignore or try to explain away bits they don't like. They magnify minor points and diminish major ones. As Jesus put it, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24) In other words, when using the Bible one needs to be balanced and give matters their proper weight. We shouldn't spend too much of our time and effort on the little things and neglect the larger issues. In theology and in ethics as in art, when you exaggerate certain features of your subject, you get a caricature rather than a true picture, in this case, of God and his message. Knowing scripture well and being able to discern the essence of what God intends to communicate to us is vital to getting things back on track.

It's not hard to see the kind of distortions that have derailed our efforts to spread the gospel. So-called Christian leaders and politicians and celebrities have tried to make the faith all about money and prosperity, or all about sexual issues, or all about opposition to other faiths, or all about political systems or nations. It's not that the Bible doesn't have some things to say about such topics, but that is not the main thrust of its message. For one thing, the competing religions mentioned in the Bible were about sex and human sacrifice and the emperor worship cult that existed back then, not characteristics of major religions today. On the other hand, neither democracy nor today's political parties nor for that matter most modern nations existed 2000 years ago. So we have to be very careful in applying the Bible to anything specific in those areas today. When it comes to matters that still persist, money is mentioned 144 times, riches 182 times, wealth 29, adultery 70 times, fornication 45, and sodomy 5. When we come to what Jesus mentioned in the passage from Matthew when he excoriated the scribes and Pharisees and if we add the issues he said in the parallel passage in Luke, we find that justice is mentioned in the Bible 125 times, judgment 294, mercy 360, faith 356, and love more than 400 times. It's pretty obvious those are what God is mainly focused on, and what our sharing of the gospel should emphasize.

Finally Paul says that God-breathed scripture is helpful for training in justness. I could have gone with the word “righteousness” but it is a churchy word that few understand and many confuse with self-righteousness. But because the Greek word is associated with justice, I opted for justness, or being a just person. So it is not merely about being blameless in personal morality but also in social morality. It is not enough to refrain from things harmful to oneself, you also must not do things that are harmful to others, nor, through inaction, allow them to be harmed. In fact, by taking the near universal Golden Rule of not treating others as we would not like to be treated, and stating it positively, ie, that we should treat others as we would have them treat us (Luke 6:31), Jesus made Christians into activists. We cannot turn a blind eye to injustice or be content with a status quo that condones or allows unnecessary suffering by others. After all, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite who passed by the man beaten and left for dead did not further mistreat him. But it was the Samaritan who went out of his way to give the man the help we all would want if we were in the victim's situation. And that is what we are to emulate. (Luke 10:30-37) Steeping oneself in scripture helps one become a person who loves his neighbor or even his enemy as Jesus tells us to do.

And the purpose of this use of scripture is, as Paul says, is “so that the person of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” Again the Christian is a person with a mission and God doesn't want us either incompletely trained or poorly equipped. In fact, most experts will tell you that the most important part of being prepared is to be mentally equipped. Your knowledge and wisdom and spirit are crucial. You are not going to win over a person to Christ by peppering him with trivia or going down the rabbit hole of debating things like evolution or abortion or homosexuality. What you need to be equipped with is knowledge about Jesus—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response should be. You need to be equipped with the wisdom to know what to say and when to say it and when not to say it. As the book of Proverbs says, “a word at the right time—how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)

But the most vital part of being equipped by scripture is to use it in the right spirit. In his extended metaphor of the armor of God, Paul enumerates all these things that protect us: belt, breastplate, shield and helmet. He only lists one weapon: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:13-17) That's why I have been emphasizing the translation “God-breathed.” God expresses himself in the Bible, revealing what he thinks is essential and what is important for us to know and to do. But just as you have to be on the right frequency to get a radio transmission, you have to be tuned into God's Spirit when you study his word to make sure the message you are receiving is not garbled nor that some of the message has dropped out.

As Shakespeare pointed out, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” If we are not careful, our adversaries can grab our weapon and use it against us. They usually do this by quoting verses out of context and without trying to understand the background or the commonly accepted interpretation or even a common sense one. Sometimes it's friendly fire. I recently heard a fundamentalist preacher say that Jesus' prescription for masturbation was to “cut off your hand if it offends you!” Wow! Just wow! I have heard Monty Python quotes used more appropriately than that mangled attempt at hermeneutics. And he is just handing critics of Christianity ammunition. An opponent will divert you onto tempting side issues if they can't counter your main point. We need to stay on message and get it right.

Paul said scripture was to help us be "fully equipped for every good work." And since actions speak louder than words, let us use actions to express the gospel. Jesus said to teach others “to obey everything I have commanded you.” The best way to teach at times is to show, not tell. If I tell you God loves you but do not show that love by helping you when you need it, the words ring hollow. It's even harder to believe the words “I love you” if the speaker is simultaneously kicking you in the ribs. What a person does speaks volumes about who they are and what they believe and what they value, regardless of any words to the contrary.

The Bible is supposed to help us in our mission to spread the gospel and plant the seeds of the kingdom. It is supposed to help us work out how to show our love for God and for other people in various situations. It is supposed to guide us as we follow Jesus. It is supposed to help us become more Christlike. And it is okay to enjoy digging into the details so long as that doesn't hinder or divert us from or contradict those primary uses. Jesus didn't come to start a debating society. He came to found the kingdom of God. He came to call us and to heal us and make us whole and equip us for every good work. We must never get so focused on the written word of God that we forget that Jesus is the living Word of God. He is the focus of the written word. As Luther said, the Bible is like the manger that held the Christ child. It would be stupid to get so caught up in analyzing the workmanship and appropriateness of that feeding trough that one neglects the wonderful, loving person in the center of it. It would be churlish not to respond to the arms reaching out to us. It would be a lost opportunity not to embrace him.

A lot of Christians carry Bibles around with them. That's fine, so long as they don't leave Jesus at home on a shelf. We are called to be Christbearers. We are to carry the living Word of God everywhere and into every situation. The words and the Spirit of Jesus, the light of the world, must so permeate our thoughts, our speech and our actions that we fulfill what he said to his followers: “You are the light of the world...let you light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16) If we let the living Word of God dwell in us, even the illiterate should be able to read his love and even the blind should be be able to see his light.