June 1, 2016 - Karma

On this account I am suffering these things;
but I am not ashamed,
for I know him in whom I have believed
and am confident that he is able to guard
what has been entrusted to me until that day.

Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy 1:11-12

Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, is executed on a whim.  As Jesus is celebrating a last supper with his friends, he warns them that they too will be tortured and killed. The first deacon appointed by the apostles, St. Stephen, is promptly stoned to death.  Throughout Scripture, bad things happen to good people.   

In today’s passage, Paul is writing from prison in Rome, anticipating his execution.  He asserts that he is not embarrassed by this.  He does not expect God to rescue him from misfortune.  That is not part of his faith.   

Primordial religion believes that God or Karma rewards good behavior with good fortune and punishes bad behavior misfortune.  This reciprocity appeals to us on a deep level.  Abrahamic religion says the opposite – your behavior is irrelevant to God.    

Photo: Red Nebula

May 30, 2016 - Rejection

A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it,
dug a wine press, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenant farmers and left on a journey.
At the proper time he sent a servant to the tenants
to obtain from them some of the produce of the vineyard.
But they seized him, beat him,
and sent him away empty-handed.
Again he sent them another servant.
And that one they beat over the head and treated shamefully.
He sent yet another whom they killed.
So, too, many others; some they beat, others they killed.
He had one other to send, a beloved son.

Mark 12:1-6

The theme that God’s message will be rejected occurs throughout Scripture.  It is almost comic how often the Israelites demand to be returned to Egypt as Moses leads them to freedom.  Jesus is in constant conflict with the religious figures of his day.  Today’s reading is a parable Jesus addresses to them to point out that every prophet is persecuted by his people.  The Pharisees were the liberals of their day – accepting a loose, permissive interpretation of Scripture.  Their populist message resonated and they were successful evangelicals, making converts throughout the Roman Empire. The Sadducees were more conservative and insisted on strict compliance with Scripture even if it required a harsh outcome.  (They died out with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.) Jesus was despised by both groups.  What the Pharisees and Sadducees had in common was a conviction that God punished sin with poverty, sickness and social ostracism, and rewarded good conduct with wealth, health and popularity.  Jesus disagreed. He said the poor, the sick and the outcast had not been cursed, but enjoyed the most sympathy and attention from God.  The rich, healthy and popular are not blessed; they're just lucky. That made Jesus’s contemporaries really mad and it doesn’t sit well with us either.  We tend to believe God loves us more when we behave well.  The opposite appears to be true. 

Photo credit: Mark McCormick

May 29, 2016 - Feeding the Multitude

Now the men numbered about five thousand. Then he said to his disciples,
"Have them sit down in groups of about fifty."
They did so and made them all sit down.
Then taking the five loaves and the two fish,
and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing over them, broke them,
and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.  They all ate and were satisfied.
And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets.

Luke 9:15-17

It may seem that this passage is either about magic or morality.  Either it is intended to show Jesus was capable of incredible miracles, or it is intended to be a powerful moral lesson about sharing.  (E.g.: moved by Jesus’ good example, the crowd added bread and fish to the communal basket as it was passed around).  In fact, it was likely a literary device deliberately imitating the story in 2 Kings 4 where Elisha multiplies four barley loaves to feed one hundred men. How likely is it that the message of the great prophet Elisha was that we need to share more?  Did the Creator of the Universe become Incarnate to encourage more sharing?  I think both stories were meant to convey the abundance of God's loving concern for us.  We don't have to fight over God's attention like it is a scarce resource.  The fact that God loves you doesn't mean there is less for me. Faith can be open, welcoming, and totally accepting. It seems so simple and yet we prefer to use this story to divide each other into people who share and are acceptable to God and people who don't share and are less acceptable. 

May 27, 2016 - Zealot

They came to Jerusalem,
and on entering the temple area
he began to drive out those selling and buying there.
He overturned the tables of the money changers
and the seats of those who were selling doves.
He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple area.
Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples?
But you have made it a den of thieves.”

The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it
and were seeking a way to put him to death,
yet they feared him because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.

Mark 11:15-19

In his 2013 book, Zealot, Reza Alsan uses this passage as the primary evidence for his claim that Jesus was a political agitator intent on overthrowing Roman rule rather than a religious figure.  For many others, it is an odd moment where the usually serene Jesus loses his cool. In all likelihood, however, this passage was intended to identify Jesus as a messiah whose arrival and suffering were prophesied in the Old Testament.  The Temple scene occurs in all four Gospels.  In the Gospel of John, the apostles remember that it is written in Psalm 69:9 of the messianic figure that, “zeal for thy house will consume me.”  In the same Psalm, the messiah complains, “In my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink”, which foretells the moment in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is given vinegar as he hangs dying on the Cross.  John’s accounts are likely intended to be a literary device rather than a historical account, but his meaning is clear.  Jesus is more than a moral teacher or magician.  He is the fulfillment of an ancient promise. 

May 26, 2016 - Your Faith Has Saved You

Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?”
The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.”
Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”
Immediately he received his sight
and followed him on the way.

Mark 10:51-52

Jesus did not cultivate the image of wonder-worker or sorcerer that we often impose on him.  Time after time, he credits the recipient of the miracle with the saving power.  This point is made even more obvious in the story of the hemorrhaging woman, who is healed simply by touching Jesus while he is walking by.  Clearly, Scripture does not intend that we think of God as picking people out for miraculous intervention while neglecting others.  Rather, what faith offers is open to all.  The benefits of faith are not conferred by God, but are simply claimed by us.   If we want to see, we will.

Photo Credit: Kristen Sassano Gill

May 24, 2016 - Why be Good?

Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly,
and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Like obedient children,
do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance
but, as he who called you is holy,
be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct,
for it is written, Be holy because I am holy.

1 Peter 1:13-16

If God does not command, reward or punish, why be good?  If God does not require anything of us to love us, why should we act in anything but self-interest? The closing line of Peter’s letter provides the answer.  Virtue is not virtue if it is coerced.  Love is not love if it is required.  But maybe we can be inspired to virtuous and loving in allegiance to the divine.  God does not say, “be holy or else”.

St. Augustine said, "Dilige et quod vis fac", which I understand means, "if you but love God you may do as you are inclined."

Photo: A new star forming. BBC News

May 23, 2016 - Money

“Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said,
“For men it is impossible, but not for God.
All things are possible for God.”

Mark 10:24-27

I admire the apostles’ reaction to Jesus.  They don’t assume that Jesus is condemning only the 'one percent' or the tax bracket immediately above them. Even as itinerant preachers they are more wealthy, healthy and socially accepted than the widows, lepers and Canaanites they are encountering on their way. 

But Jesus’s reference to the “eye of the needle” reveals his meaning.  It is likely a reference to an ancient Jewish midrash or commentary on The Song of Songs.  In the biblical text of The Song of Songs, God speaks to us as a heart-sick lover: 

“I sleep but my heart waketh, it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove.” (Song of Solomon 5:2) 

This was interpreted and expanded upon in Jewish commentaries that may well have been oral tradition at the time of Jesus: 

“The voice of my beloved, the Holy One, Blessed be He, is calling: Open to Me an opening no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will open to thee the supernal gates.” (Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man, p. 146 Quoting Midrash Rabba, The Song of Songs 5:2 and Zohar, vol. III, p.95a) 

This is finally not a story about money at all.  It is an affirmation that no one can earn God's love, but God gives it freely.  He exploits any excuse, however small, to do so.  That is grace.  

May 22, 2016 - Justification by Faith

Brothers and sisters:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,
through whom we have gained access by faith
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-3

There are two competing concepts of God in Christianity:  God as unconditionally loving and forgiving, and God as commanding us to love one another.  The uncomfortable fact is that these concepts are in conflict with one another – they cannot both be true.   Here St. Paul pronounces the first view as definitively correct, that we are “justified” – loved by God – through faith.  In Galatians 2:16 he is even clearer: “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”.   Some interpretations of this passage declare it is the faith of Jesus, not faith in Jesus, that justifies us.  In other words, we don’t have to do or even believe anything to be loved by God.

We are naturally uncomfortable with this. We like personal accountability, command, reward and punishment.  We want Christianity to be socially responsible.  We want faith to confirm our liberal or conservative points of view. But Christianity is not intended to make us comfortable in our natural predispositions.  Christianity is a rebellion against those things.    

May 18, 2016 - Buddha

Come now, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town,
spend a year there doing business, and make a profit”–
you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.
You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.

James 4:13-14

This is one of those remarkable passages that is unmistakably parallel to the teachings of the Buddha (or St. Josaphat as he's known in Christianity). Other passages, like Luke 12:27-28 (and Matthew 6:28) have the same message, but we tend to focus on the apparent promise of divine intervention: “Consider the lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if this is how God clothes the grass in the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith?”  God does not promise to magically intervene to dress us.  But faith does invite us to keep things in perspective.  In the context of the sacred and the eternal, the anxieties of today vanish.

May 17, 2016 - Incarnation

Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

Mark 9:36-37

It would be easy to conflate this story with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew (25:31-46) in which a figure, who we presume is God, walks the Earth in disguise to see who will serve Him and who will not, and then condemns those who fail the test to eternal torture.  More on that later.  But this is a very different story.  We are not told the child is poor, or sick, or in need of anything.  We are not told to feed, heal, educate or otherwise help the child.  We are only to “receive” the child. Jesus does not promise reward if we receive the child or punishment if we fail.  The only message is that when we receive this child, we receive Jesus and receive God.  This is not a description of how to be moral – it is a description of God’s morality.  By becoming one of us, God has granted divine dignity to all of us - even a child who has had no opportunity to earn it.  

Photo: Witchhazel in bloom

May 15, 2016 - I/Thou - Pentecost Sunday

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Acts 2:1-4

Martin Buber’s watershed 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), sought to describe the mystical communion between individuals, and between human individuals and God.  For Buber, this is not an encounter that conveys practical, real-world, measurable benefits.  The I/Thou encounter does not reduce stress, or make one a better, more moral person.  Ironically, the I/Thou encounter is impossible without being in communion with someone else but nonetheless reveals the true self.  It changes each participant – both God and human being – and brings them closer to the most radiant expression of their personality.  Faith and religion, at their best, seek this communion.  

There is a pervasive movement today that seeks spirituality in solitude – the ‘nones’ wish to keep their altruism pure and unsullied by the compromise that inevitably follows from participation in a faith community.  But there is nothing particularly progressive or broadminded in the refusal to explore the Big Questions with others or the blanket rejection of all the world's wisdom traditions.

May 8, 2016 - Flesh - Ascension

When he had said this, as they were looking on,
he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.
While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going,
suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.
They said, “Men of Galilee,
why are you standing there looking at the sky?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven
will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

Acts 1:9-11

Our faith is not a faith of ghostly spirits that evaporate at the lightest touch. The authors of the Gospels took pains to convey that, after the resurrection, Jesus was flesh, blood and bone.  He appeared to them and was hungry.  He ate broiled fish.  He let Doubting Thomas place his fingers in his wounds.  In this passage, Jesus ascends bodily into heaven.  There is no separation between humanity and God – no gulf between heaven and earth.  God dwells among His people.     

May 1, 2016 - Peace

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.

John 14:27

This is Jesus’s farewell address, spoken to his apostles as he celebrates Passover with them on the eve of his torture and death.  What peace does he offer them under these circumstances?  He will go on, in this speech, to prophesy their own horrific deaths.  But “not as the world gives” does he give them peace.  This is something more than a promise that they’ll avoid hardship, pain, and suffering. This is a peace that surpasses all understanding, as Paul will say to the Philippians (4:7).  God does not promise us good luck, health, prosperity, or even guidance.  Yes, bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  That is what Jesus is affirming.  What God promises is that He will suffer it with us.  Elizabeth K├╝bler Ross, the pioneer of palliative care, said that sometimes when we’re in pain we want to say “don’t just do something, stand there.”  That is what God offers.  The Creator of the Universe, the Alpha and the Omega, He Who placed the world on its foundations, suffers with us.  That is extraordinary.