July 31, 2016 - Purposelessness

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.
This also is vanity and a great misfortune.
For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart
with which he has labored under the sun?
All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation;
even at night his mind is not at rest.
This also is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 1:2 2:21-23

The other readings this Sunday might allow us to think that God wants us to focus less on the accumulation of wealth and more on the accumulation of learning, wisdom, and good deeds.  How lovely and uncontroversial!  
But Ecclesiastes is more stark.  Qoheleth asserts that everything we do we do in vain, no matter how well intentioned.  Nothing we can accomplish will distinguish us from anyone else.  “All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who suffer sacrifices and those who do not.  As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who takes oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.” (9:2)  The accumulation of learning, wisdom and good deeds is, in the end, done in vain just as certainly as the accumulation of wealth.

This should remind us of the parable of the vineyard workers, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes - every parable and story and event in Scripture that indicates that God’s love is dispensed regardless of accomplishment or lack of accomplishment, to the deserving or undeserving, to the prodigal son and the loyal son, to the saints and the sinners alike.

It is shocking and maybe even a little intuitively repulsive – it may be natural for us to reject it and to persecute the messenger who brings it to us - but it is the divine narrative.

Photo: Newcomb Hollow Beach 

July 25, 2016 - Evil and a Good God

Brothers and sisters:
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
For we who live are constantly being given up to death

2 Corinthians 4:7-15

Clearly, Paul had no expectation that being a person of faith would result in divine protection.  God will not protect us from misfortune, reward our good behavior and compliance with His will, or punish our bad behavior.  That just isn’t the gig.

Jesus spent a lot of time contradicting the assumption that God doles out good fortune and bad fortune.  He pointed to a recent tragedy at Siloam where a tower collapsed on eighteen people, and an episode where Pilate had a group of Galileans  killed as they brought sacrifices to the Temple. (Luke 13:1-5) Jesus heals a man blind from birth to answer an amazing question posed by his disciples: “Is this man blind because of his own sin or a sin committed by his parents?” (John 9:1-12).  It is clear the theologians of the day thought this was a valid question too. (John 9:34)

Finally, in the Beatitudes, Jesus insists that the poor, the sick, and the socially outcast have not been cursed by God but have more of God’s attention than those of us who consider ourselves “blessed” by good fortune. 

July 24, 2016 - Reclaiming Sodom

In those days, the LORD said: "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me.
I mean to find out."

While Abraham's visitors walked on farther toward Sodom,
the LORD remained standing before Abraham.
Then Abraham drew nearer and said:
"Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty?
Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city;
would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it
for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?
Far be it from you to do such a thing,
to make the innocent die with the guilty
so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike!
Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?"
The LORD replied,
"If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom,
I will spare the whole place for their sake."
Abraham spoke up again:
"See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord,
though I am but dust and ashes!
What if there are five less than fifty innocent people?
Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?"
He answered, "I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there."
But Abraham persisted, saying "What if only forty are found there?"
He replied, "I will forbear doing it for the sake of the forty."
Then Abraham said, "Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on.
What if only thirty are found there?"
He replied, "I will forbear doing it if I can find but thirty there."
Still Abraham went on,
"Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord,
what if there are no more than twenty?"
The LORD answered, "I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty."
But he still persisted:
"Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time.
What if there are at least ten there?"
He replied, "For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it."

Genesis 18:20-32

Sadly, this extraordinary story is often interpreted as a prohibition against homosexuality and is therefore ignored.   

There are a multitude of reasons not to believe the story is intended to condemn human sexuality.  Among them is that Lot, whom God rescues from the city before its destruction because he alone is “just”, offers his virginal daughters to satisfy the lust of the mob clamoring to sexually assault his house guests.  There’s no chance even the earliest readers of Scripture would have seen that as a reasonable, moral choice.  Abraham, who will eventually be the father of all three of the major religions, became wealthy by passing his wife off as his sister to trick local kings into having sex with her and then extracting payoffs from them to avoid divine wrath.  Scripture is not about standards of sexual propriety.

The real point is in Abraham’s lengthy speech.  As usual, Scripture is not the imposition of a moral code to be followed by us.  Rather, it is a description of the moral code God chooses to follow.  In this case, it reveals that God is not a utilitarian.  He is happy to let a whole city of gang rapists escape justice to avoid unjustly punishing an innocent individual.  Said another way, He isn’t interested in maximizing the good at the expense of the individual.  This is an oft-repeated theme in Scripture:  God notices every sparrow that falls (Matt 10:29).  God will leave the flock to rescue the single lost sheep, and He will sweep the house all day to find a single lost coin (Luke 15:3-10).

We are not each the recipients of some small portion of God's general love of humanity.  We are each the beloved of God for whom He will make any sacrifice.   Far from being a story to inspire judgment and division, this story affirms that each of us is priceless.  

July 21, 2016 - Eyes to See

The disciples approached Jesus and said,
“Why do you speak to the crowd in parables?”
He said to them in reply,
“Because knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.
To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
This is why I speak to them in parables, because
they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.

Matthew 10:13-17

The parable of the vineyard workers, in which those who begin work at sunrise are paid as much as those who start work a few minutes before sunset, is about the abundance of God’s love; there is enough that He can give it away indiscriminately without regard to who deserves it the most.  The story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes has the same point; there is no need to ration God’s love because there is enough to go around for everyone with a surplus remaining. This is the counter-intuitive economy of God’s love. 

And yet most often these stories are used for the opposite purpose.  The first is interpreted to mean we must start the work at some point before sunset to participate in God’s love.  Death-bed conversions are OK, as long as they happen before the whistle blows.  The second interpreted to be about the importance of sharing, as if we needed God to become Incarnate to tell us that. 

This is why Jesus spoke in parables.  We are so irretrievably inclined to see God’s love as a limited resource that must be doled out according to merit that we would never accept anything else if it is directly stated.  Our best chance is to hear it in a story, to reflect on how it disturbs our equilibrium, and maybe finally see – really see - its true meaning.  It is exceptionally Good News.

Image: Courtesy Sabrina Campagna www.flickr.com/photos/mar1lyn84/8984931391

July 19, 2016 - Taschlich

Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?
You will cast into the depths of the sea
all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to Jacob,
and grace to Abraham,
As you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old.

Micah 7:18-20

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah the faithful throw pebbles into a body of water, symbolizing God’s decision, according to this passage of Micah, to “cast into the depth of the sea all of our sins”.   I have always been intrigued by this tradition and, in particular, the rules governing what sort of body of water into which the pebbles should be cast.  According to some traditions, the body of water can be a sea, a lake, or a river; but whatever it is, the water level cannot be subject to drought.  This poetically, not prosaically, assures that our sins are forever gone and will never reappear.  

Photo: Aleksander Hierymsky, Feast of Trumpets

July 17, 2016 - An Impractical Faith

Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

Organized religion is often criticized for just not doing enough: the churches are too richly adorned, the clergy live too lavishly, there is not enough emphasis on serving the poor.  New Atheist, Christopher Hitchens, savaged Mother Teresa for using a donation to buy a gold chalice for a chapel rather than using all the money to alleviate the suffering of her patients.  For him, it was the ultimate hypocrisy.  Judas betrayed Jesus when Jesus permitted expensive oil that could have been sold for charity to  be used to anoint him instead.    

Of course faith includes the desire to alleviate suffering.  But what is wholly inconceivable to many of Christianity’s critics is that the alleviation of suffering is not its sole goal or even the primary one.  If we let it, it can actually distract from the bigger picture.

In this story, Martha runs herself ragged serving others.  In the Gospel of John (11:1-44) she and Mary will make another appearance when their brother Lazarus dies and Jesus raises him from the dead.  Martha has not changed. While Mary waits patiently at home, Martha is pacing outside the tomb anticipating Jesus’ arrival.  When he gets there and prepares to raise her brother from the dead, Martha’s primary concern is that the smell of the long-dead Lazarus will offend.  In her concern for the practical, she has missed the divine again.

There are many good arguments for acting charitably.  Does faith have to be one of them?  Does faith have to be about only that?  As we bustle around here on the surface of the Earth like a bunch of Marthas, it may be disturbing to think that faith might not be about generating practical benefits - that it might be about something that transcends being moral or charitable. But that is the clear message.

July 14, 2016 - Rest in God

Jesus said:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

This is not something we expect to hear from Jesus.  We expect him to be demanding.  We expect his yoke to be heavy – to be a cross on which we are supposed to suffer and maybe die.  We expect to hear how we are not good enough - that we depend on God to withhold wrath for expectations not met, not the lack of any expectations at all.   We are inclined not to see God as Someone in whom to rest, but Someone that it takes hard labor to reach.   

What sense does it make that we can make a lifetime of bad choices, indulge in hate, pettiness, meanness, ignore God altogether, and still warrant His loving concern?   But story after story makes exactly this point:  bread is multiplied so that there is no need to ration it between the good and the bad, the productive and the unproductive.  Vineyard workers who arrive in the last hour get paid as much as those who worked all day – and it is implied that those who never showed up for work would be paid just as much too.  The rain, Matthew notes, falls on the good and the bad alike (5:45).

We can kick against this goad, mitigate it, compromise it, or accept it as the divine message.

July 11, 2016 - No Peace on Earth

Jesus said to his Apostles:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth.
I have come to bring not peace but the sword.
For I have come to set
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s enemies will be those of his household.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth.
I have come to bring not peace but the sword.
For I have come to set
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s enemies will be those of his household.

Matthew 10:34-11

This is tough language.  Jesus clearly anticipates that his message will be rejected and rejected hard.  Elsewhere, he will say that the people who reject the message will believe they are doing so in the name of God. (John 16:2)

We allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that the people who reject the divine message are overtly bad.  They are probably greedy, arrogant, or mean-spirited.  Maybe they are nasty, dogmatic people who forget to obey the spirit of the law in their zeal for the letter of the law.  Maybe they are weak-willed and permissive, and are so habitual in their challenge of the law and tradition that they wind up advocating a cold intolerance of a different sort.  

If a vision of God has broad appeal on one end of the political or the other, it is probably wrong.   God did not become incarnate to advocate liberalism or conservativism, capitalism or socialism, one public policy over another.  He was offering something that transcended all of that and, as a result, something that would be outright incomprehensible to the purveyors of cultural acceptability.  But he didn’t come to be culturally acceptable. 

July 10, 2016 - The Not-So-Golden Rule

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said,
"Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law?
How do you read it?"
He said in reply,
"You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself."
He replied to him, "You have answered correctly;
do this and you will live."

Luke 10:25-37

How anxious we are to ignore the first five lines of this commandment and focus only on the sixth!

The Golden Rule - to love your neighbor as yourself - is great, practical advice.  If you want someone to do something nice for you, do something nice for them.  It is just plain old reciprocity.  The most inveterate atheist can sign up for that! It has risen to prominence in every culture on Earth in every age.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus finally ups the ante on the Golden Rule in favor of something that transcends mere reciprocity:  He says, “love one another as I have loved you.”

But what does it mean to live the first five sixths of this commandment?  What does it look like to love God and to love Him with all your heart, being, strength and mind? 

I think it’s a mistake to attach our usual metrics to it. I suspect to love God is not necessarily to be super-moral, or super-charitable, or super-humble.  I suspect to love God doesn’t conform to any simple formula and may well mean something different for everyone.  But we should probably live in the tension of those first five lines and not commit everything to pithiness of the last.  

July 8, 2016 - The Work of Our Hands

We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.”
I will heal their brokenness, says the Lord,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.
Again they shall dwell in his shade
and raise grain;
They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Hosea 14:4-10

“We shall say no more, ‘Our god’ to the work of our hands.”

'The work of our hands' has such great connotations. But here it is derisive.  We have a deeply ingrained impulse to judge everyone, including ourselves, by our purpose, our merits, whether we are charitable, liberal or conservative, generous, humble …the list goes on forever.  Inevitably, some metric or spectrum becomes our god.  It is so deeply ingrained there will be those who read this who cannot fathom another way – who cannot imagine loving something simply because it is, rather than for the purpose is serves.  Its existence rather than its essence.

What a beautiful vision of God’s love in today’s reading.  God’s loving attention is abundant.  There is enough for everyone.   Like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, we don’t have to fight over a scarcity of God’s love because there is enough to go around and leave a surplus. 

Photo: Duck Harbor Beach, Cape Cod

July 6, 2016 - The Kingdom is at Hand

Jesus sent out the Twelve after instructing them thus,
“Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.
Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’”

Matthew 10:1-7

What does Jesus mean, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”?

If the Kingdom is a moment in time when God will use divine power to rule the world, bending all to His will, then it didn’t happen.  If it is an Earthly paradise where everyone is loving, moral, and well behaved, then it didn’t happen.  If it’s a time where everyone believes the same thing about God, then it didn’t happen.  If it will happen sometime in the future, then it certainly wasn't "at hand" two millennia ago.

What Jesus proclaimed, personified and accomplished was the end of any separation between the divine and the human.  It is a theme that is expressed throughout Scripture:  God dwells with His people in the Tabernacle Tent constructed for him by the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, Jacob dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth, and God becomes Incarnate to live and die as a human being – and the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world is torn in two at his passing.    

The primordial concept of the divine – a distant god that requires sacrifice, moral behavior, and self-denial to appease its cosmic rage and shamanistically call down favor - is dead.  Why did Jesus tell his apostles to deliver the message exclusively to the Israelites and not to deliver the message that the Kingdom was at hand to the Ba'alsist and other pagans?  Perhaps because it would have been a terrifying message.  Ba'al demanded child sacrifice and reciprocated with bountiful harvests.  Ba'al loosed on Earth would have been apocalyptic. But to the Judeo-Christian, God's attention is Good News.  Where Ba'al negotiated deals, God covenanted unilateral love.  God is present always and in everything. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Photo: Ba'al

July 5, 2016 - The Rider and the Elephant

Jesus went around to all the towns and villages,
teaching in their synagogues,
proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom,
and curing every disease and illness.
At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.
Then he said to his disciples,
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Matthew 9:32-38

In the last decade, social scientists such as Jonathan Haidt have demonstrated that we are motivated by reason far less than we might like to admit.  Each of us has a set of precognitive triggers that cause us to think something is right or wrong, attractive or unattractive.  We use our capacity for reason only to justify what our intuition has already told us.  Haidt uses the metaphor of the rider and the elephant.  We think reason is more powerful than intuition and governs it.   The opposite is closer to the truth. Even our impulse towards liberalism or conservativism works this way.  And so does faith. 

In this passage, Jesus is noting that the religion of the day was not appealing to the people on this precognitive level.  Religion did not speak to the people’s intuitive sense of Who God Is.  Its focus on morality, judgment and punishment might have appealed to that (rational) part of the human mind that worries about social control, but something inside the people of Jesus’ time told them that God is about something more – something that transcends avoidance of sin and concerns itself only with forgiveness.  When it was offered to them they embraced it with extraordinary enthusiasm and Christianity swept the Western world.  Christianity does not offer a more rational approach.  It offers a more intuitive approach. 

Today we feel troubled and abandoned again.  There is a "God-shaped hole" in our lives. Many of those who have left religion may well be responding to this feeling that religion is not speaking to them about the God they know intuitively.

July 3, 2016 - Relationship with God

The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said,
"Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name."
Jesus said, "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.
Behold, I have given you the power to 'tread upon serpents' and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven."

Luke 10:17-20

The passage of today’s reading that usually gets the most attention is the part in which Jesus sends seventy-two of his disciples out to evangelize two by two in voluntary poverty.  I explored that passage in my June 3, 2016 blog entry. Today, I’d like to concentrate on the end of the reading. 

Jesus tells his disciplines not to be happy about their reported ability to perform miracles, but to rejoice that God has loving concern for them.  Faith is not about magical intervention by God to save us from misfortune or to make us magically more moral than others.  Faith is about acknowledging that our names are written in heaven. 

Many people of faith talk about having a “relationship with God”, and rightfully so: God has made us His children.  But, in another sense, that expression invites misinterpretation and false expectations.  This is not a relationship where the participants do something for each other or where they remain in constant communication.  As God’s chosen, every person enjoys a special status with Him and being the subject of His loving gaze - even if that doesn’t translate into perks and benefits.  

Photo: Cat's Eye Nebula