July 2, 2016 - Fish is Fish

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,
but your disciples do not fast?”
Jesus answered them …
No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth,
for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.
People do not put new wine into old wine skins.
Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined.
Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wine skins, and both are preserved.”

Matthew 9:14-17

There was a glaring difference between the way John the Baptist and his followers expressed their faith and the way Jesus and his disciplines expressed their faith.  While John’s apostles were always depriving themselves and making themselves uncomfortable, Jesus and his disciples ate and drank so freely some accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19).  What a lousy moral example!

In Leo Lionni’s fable, Fish is Fish, a minnow and a tadpole grow up together in a pond.  When the tadpole turns into a frog, he hops out of the pond to explore land.  He returns and describes what he saw there to his friend the fish.  The fish assumes that birds look like fish with wings and cows look like fish with udders.  He has only one frame of reference and applies his expectations to what he hears about the world from his friend the frog.  As a result, he misses the point.

We often assume faith is about self-deprivation, about being “a good person”, and about avoiding sin.  When the faithful don't exhibit these traits, we may be tempted to think faith has failed.  Nietzsche famously said he might believe in a Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.  Nietzsche assumed faith is about morality and, when faith failed to meet his expectations for it, he declared God dead.  He missed the point. He has poured new wine into an old wine skin.

June 26, 2016 - Extremism

And to another he said, "Follow me."
But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father."
But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
And another said, "I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home."
To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."

Luke 9:51-62

This Sunday’s reading demands extremism.  But what does it mean to be an extremist Christian?  What does it look like to be urgently and fully engaged with God? 

It doesn’t seem to mean being extremely moral.  Jesus seems far more interested in forgiving lapses of morality that avoiding them.  He didn’t warn Judas or Peter against betraying him – he merely predicted it.  And last week Paul declared bluntly that morality is not the path to salvation.  Atheists and agnostics are good people too.  If Christianity is finally just about “being a good person”, then its central message is indistinguishable from a secular ethic and it will fade into oblivion.

Nor does it seem to mean being extremely evangelical and interspersing declarations of belief in our everyday speech.   In the Gospel of Matthew (7:21) Jesus criticizes those who always say to him, “Lord, Lord”, and advises us to pray in private (6:5).

To be an extremist or devout Christian means to allow our relationship to God to transcend morality and even purpose.  We don’t need to accomplish anything for God, and He does not need to accomplish anything for us to make the relationship immeasurably valuable.  To be an extremist Christian means to place everything in the context of this sacred relationship with the divine.

June 23, 2016 - What is God For?

At that time the officials of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,
attacked Jerusalem, and the city came under siege.
Then Jehoiachin, king of Judah, together with his mother,
his ministers, officers, and functionaries,
surrendered to the king of Babylon, who,
in the eighth year of his reign, took him captive.
And he carried off all the treasures
of the Temple of the Lord and those of the palace,
and broke up all the gold utensils that Solomon, king of Israel,
had provided in the Temple of the Lord, as the Lord had foretold.
He deported all Jerusalem:
all the officers and men of the army, ten thousand in number,
and all the craftsmen and smiths.
None were left among the people of the land except the poor.

2 Kings 24:8-17

Despite being the Chosen People, Israel has suffered tremendously throughout history.  The Temple was destroyed not once but twice, and in each case the calamity was foretold or seemingly foretold in Scripture itself.  The Babylonian exile, which begins with today’s passage, was only one of several holocausts to which God’s Chosen People have been subjected after God made the Covenant with Israel.   

It is strange then, that faith so often includes the assumption that God will protect us from misfortune.  People routinely report losing their faith when something horrible happens to them or to someone they love.  But faith is not about magical intervention of God.  Our relationship to God is very much like our relationship to other people; we would not disown our parents, or our children or our friends because they don’t serve some practical purpose.   So why do we insist that God serve a practical purpose to be worthy of our attention?  And why do we insist that we must serve some practical purpose to be worthy of God’s attention?

June 22, 2016 - False Prophets and Organized Religion

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,
but underneath are ravenous wolves.
By their fruits you will know them.
Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Just so, every good tree bears good fruit,
and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.
A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,
nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.
So by their fruits you will know them.”

Matthew 7:15-20

Avid atheists gleefully note that millions of individuals have left religious affiliation in the past decade.   What we hear less frequently is that the same phenomenon is occurring in political affiliation.   More people are politically unaffiliated now than ever before.  This year's election cycle demonstrates that they haven't left political affiliation because they are moderates or centrists.   Rather, they have left because they are less willing to engage in the compromise that is inevitably necessary as part of a community and they are less able to accept that every organization has its flaws and its bad apples.    

Religion will include false prophets.  God will not magically keep religion pure.  It takes compromise to be a member of a religious group and constant vigilance to recognize the toxic elements and those who don't bear good fruit.   As Jesus launched a new religious movement, he was well aware that the false prophets would infiltrate it and that no organization is perfect.  Those who remain engaged with religious practice are not unaware of the limitations of the people with whom they practice and the people who lead them.  But they are willing to tolerate imperfection. 

June 17, 2016 - Vanity, Vanity

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.
But store up treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be."

Matthew 6:19

One of the best selling books of all time (!) was Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life.  Our secular lives are defined by achievement, goals, measurable success.  Vast swaths of our language of faith revolves around doing the will of God, following Jesus, imitating Jesus – in short: serving a purpose.  It is seductive because it allows us to do what comes naturally: measure ourselves against one another.  But Scripture most often tells us that we don’t have to serve a purpose to be loved.  In fact, just reflecting on our lives for a moment reveals that anything we accomplish will, in time, be forgotten, and all the monuments we may build eventually crumble.  In the opening words of Ecclesiastes, the prophet complains, “all is in vain. All is in vain. What profit hath man of all his labor under the sun?  That which has been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Today’s reading invites us transcend not only the accumulation of wealth, but the striving for purpose.  Faith is not a moral code to be followed.  It is a transcendent message that we are not defined by what we can do for God.  Our lives may serve no purpose but they are suffused with meaning.  That is grace.  

June 19, 2016 - Children of God

Brothers and sisters:
Through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free person,
there is not male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And if you belong to Christ,
then you are Abraham’s children,
heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:26-29

In the United States we recently suffered through a terrible crime perpetrated by a single person.  Then we imposed more suffering on ourselves - but this time many more participated.  In the name of unity, we asserted ludicrous moral distinctions among ourselves.  In the name of compassion, we breathed venom at one another.  We treated each other as caricatures and assumed the worst of everyone. We stopped trying to understand each other and sought instead to subordinate each other.  In our self-righteousness, we did nothing but encourage division.

It is certainly nice, uncontroversial and socially responsible to hear Paul’s words as requiring us to reach across ethic, religious, and economic divides.  It makes this passage pithy and maybe a little insipid.  It is harder to reach across political divides. It is outright counter-cultural to reach across moral divides and assert that we all have a common divine heritage that is irrevocable.  But that is the challenge of faith.   

June 13, 2016 - Hate

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one to him as well.

Matthew 5:38

A theme that emerges time and time again throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament is that the divine message will be rejected.   We like to think we are not susceptible to that impulse - that rejection of the divine message is a thing of the past, or that it is a failing of the other side of the political spectrum.  Many have left faith because they think it has nothing further to teach them.

Today’s passage is a rare moment where Jesus is not describing God’s morality, but is genuinely giving us moral guidance.  He is not suggesting that we should allow violence to go unchecked.  Rather, he is telling us to always stay strategic.  As we restrain the violent person, we shouldn’t descend into hate.  We should do what we have to do to stop the violence, but not to retaliate or seek retribution.  We should not demand an eye for an eye.  We should always act with as much mercy and understanding as possible.   

Social media now explodes in self-righteous rage with regularity.  Nothing is left of political discourse except divisiveness.  We have elegant, sophisticated rationales for our own positions, but make no attempt to understand the positions of those with whom we disagree nor do we credit them with the slightest intelligence or good will.  Justice is totally divorced from mercy.  We descend into hate with no self-consciousness at all – all while claiming to occupy the moral high ground and insisting that others are just hypocrites.   

The divine message continues to be rejected.   

June 12, 2016 - Mic Drop

Brothers and sisters:
We who know that a person is not justified by works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ,
even we have believed in Christ Jesus
that we may be justified by faith in Christ
and not by works of the law,
because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 2:16

The central theme of this blog is that faith is not about morality.  Here, Paul asserts faith is not about morality.  

June 9, 2016 - True Love

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother,
‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.

Matthew 5:20

An atheist and a Christian volunteer at a soup kitchen.  The local news crew interviews them, and asks each of them why they are there.  The atheist might say she is there because she feels an affinity for her fellow human being and wishes that they are care for and come to no harm.  If the Christian says she is commanded to be there and expects reward and avoidance of punishment for her obedience, she has missed the Christian message.

The theology of Jesus’s day was that intentions were meaningless. Whether you were obedient out of fear or obedient out of true allegiance to the divine message didn’t matter.  Jesus disagreed.

Jesus encouraged us to love one another.  He did not encourage us to imitate love, or go through the motions of love.  If love is commanded, it is not love.  If love is embraced because we feel divine love, it is genuine and limitless.

June 10, 2016 - Science and Religion

At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave, where he took shelter.
But the word of the LORD came to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

1 Kings 19:9

Many believe science and religion are incompatible because much of what was previously considered miraculous -  cataclysmic weather, earthquakes, firestorms – is now well understood to be a part of the natural world.  But seeing God as the explanation for presently unexplainable events is not the Judeo-Christian tradition, as this reading demonstrates.  The God of Scripture is not the God of Gaps.  

June 8, 2016 - Baal

Taking the young bull that was turned over to them, they prepared it and called on Baal from morning to noon, saying,
“Answer us, Baal!”
But there was no sound, and no one answering.
And they hopped around the altar they had prepared.
When it was noon, Elijah taunted them:
“Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating,
or may have retired, or may be on a journey.
Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
They called out louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until blood gushed over them.
Noon passed and they remained in a prophetic state
until the time for offering sacrifice.
But there was not a sound;
no one answered, and no one was listening.

1 Kings 18:20

Elijah has challenged the priests of Baal to a contest to see whose god is real. 

Elijah mocks the priests of Baal for their anthropomorphic concept of the divine.  He suggests that their god might not answer them because he is meditating, asleep or vacationing.  The priests draw blood to appease Baal and to encourage him to listen.

Elijah’s God does not suffer from petty human limitations or motivations.  The God is Israel doesn’t get caught asleep or on vacation.  He doesn't fly into rages.  Above all else - and this is a principal theme of Scripture - He does not require blood or compliance with commands to inspire His love.  The God of Israel is not the god of courtesy, good behavior or even self-denial.  He is much bigger and more sovereign than that. 

Photo: Hubble Space Telescope. The Pillars of Creation (Part of the Eagle Nebula)

June 6, 2016 - Perfection

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

Matthew 5:3-5

The Beatitudes are almost always interpreted as a statement of Christian values and goals.  But even if we can manage to believe that God wants us to be poor, it is even harder to believe he wants us to mourn.  In fact, the Beatitudes are intended to contradict the accepted theology of the day: that those who are poor, or sick or outcast are being punished for some sin they committed or that their parents committed.  In John 9:1-3, Jesus expressly rejects this theology even as the religious authorities insist that it is true (John 9:34). 

God has sympathy for, and is attentive to those who are poor, who mourn, or who are meek, and in that way they are blessed.   Even those of us who act immorally have more of God’s loving attention than those of us who are perfect (Luke 7:36).  Naturally, to the extent any of us is not in need, we are not the objects of His sympathy. Fortunately, none of us is anywhere near perfect. 

June 5, 2016 - Unity

Elijah went to Zarephath of Sidon to the house of a widow.
The son of the mistress of the house fell sick,
and his sickness grew more severe until he stopped breathing.
So she said to Elijah,
“Why have you done this to me, O man of God?
Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt
and to kill my son?”
Elijah said to her, “Give me your son.”
Taking him from her lap, he carried the son to the upper room where he was staying, and put him on his bed.
Elijah called out to the Lord:
“O Lord, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?”
Then he stretched himself out upon the child three times and called out to the Lord:
“O Lord, my God, let the life breath return to the body of this child.”
The Lord heard the prayer of Elijah; 
the life breath returned to the child’s body and he revived.

1 Kings 17:17-22

The really interesting thing about this passage is not that Jesus also performs the miracle of raising a child from the dead (Luke 7:11-17) but that Jesus mentions this episode in a homily he gives in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:26).  He notes that Elijah raised this Phoenician boy from the dead while many children in drought-stricken Israel had also died but were not raised.   Enraged that Jesus would suggest God has concern for people other than them, they try to throw him off a cliff.  Faith gets accused of being a force for exclusion, division and violence.  Indeed, there will always be people like the Nazoreans of the story who interpret Scripture that way.  But it's crucial to keep in mind, they are the villains of this narrative. The overarching message of faith – championed by Moses, Jesus and Muhammad - is one of inclusion, unity, and peace.    

June 3, 2016 - Two by Two

At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others
whom he sent ahead of him in pairs
to every town and place he intended to visit.
He said to them,
"The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.
Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;

Luke 10:1-4

Nietzsche accused Christianity of romanticizing poverty and vilifying prosperity.  Here, Jesus sends his disciplines out in voluntary poverty to evangelize.  The purpose is only made clear twelve chapters later as Jesus gives his brief farewell address to the apostles at the Last Supper.  Jesus reminds the apostles of this program and notes how they were perfectly happy without worldly possessions during that time.  Then he cancels the program!  (Luke 22:35) Rather than romanticizing poverty, Jesus was asking them to experience living more simply.  There's a big difference. This is a spiritual exercise shared by Buddhism and popularized recently by Marie Kondo, among others.  Jesus didn’t expect them to sustain this program of austerity for a lifetime, but he clearly thought they’d be better evangelists as a result. 

June 2, 2016 - Seeing is Believing

“People do not put new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined.
Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Matthew 9:17

Abraham Heschel tells the story of the rookie reporter who is sent to cover a socialite wedding. He returns the next day dejected and tells his editor that there was no story because the groom never showed up.

If we arrive at faith with the old assumption that it is about magic and morality, we will leave dejected.