October 30, 2016 - Lover of Souls

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O LORD and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!

Wisdom 11:22-26

There isn’t much I can add to this Sunday’s first reading.  It is a beautiful message of divine consolation. 

Image: A new star forming.

October 27, 2016 - The Rejection of Jesus

Some Pharisees came to Jesus and said,
“Go away, leave this area because Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go and tell that fox,
‘Behold, I cast out demons and I perform healings today and tomorrow,
and on the third day I accomplish my purpose.
Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day,
for it is impossible that a prophet should die
outside of Jerusalem.’

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,
how many times I yearned to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
but you were unwilling!
Behold, your house will be abandoned.
But I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say,
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Luke 13:21-35

This is just one of many examples of Jesus prophesying his death and connecting his fate to the fate of the Old Testament prophets.

This is not meant to convince us that Jesus had the magical ability to foretell the future, or make his sacrifice even greater by the fact that he walked willingly into it.  This is a prediction that Jesus’s message will never be accepted.  Just as the well-behaved son resented his father for rewarding his prodigal, immoral brother, and just as the vineyard workers who started work at 9 AM resented those who started at 4:30 PM and got the same wage, so we reflexively resent the idea that God does not require anything of us; that God is not in the business of moral command and judgment; and that He loves everyone equally regardless of even moral merit.  

Image: Matthew the Apostle, Caravaggio 

October 23, 2016 - The Last Shall be First (Again)

Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity --
greedy, dishonest, adulterous -- or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

Here again is the theme that the last shall be first.  And, like the parable of the prodigal son, it is the morally last who shall be first.  We are inclined to accept that the poor, the sick and the outcast are blessed and will be first in line to receive God’s love.  And we certainly can accept that those who think of themselves as chosen, like the members of Jesus’s synagogue a few weeks ago, might have to wait as the ‘unchosen’ get God’s attention. But it is more jarring to realize that even those who are immoral will receive God’s love before those who are good.

This is not an exhortation to be humble.  Rather, it is a rejection of the idea that God rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior.   That sounds crazy at first, but really its just the definition of grace. 

October 17, 2016 - Sukkot

Today is the first day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, or the Festival of Booths.  This is the same festival that Jesus went to such great lengths to celebrate in John 7:1-14. The booth or Sukkah commemorates the temporary structures the Israelites lived in after they fled from slavery in Egypt and wandered the desert. Tradition requires that the Sukkah have very specific measurements, be a temporary structure but strong enough to withstand normal wind, with its roof made only of natural materials; solid enough to protect the occupant from rain but permeable enough to see the stars. One is supposed to spend as much time in the Sukkah as possible, eating all meals and sleeping there. I think the Sukkah is a beautiful allegory for our bodies and lives. Our bodies are delicate, semi-permeable and vulnerable to all but the lightest winds. Our lives have awkward enough measurements that they are almost impossible to assemble alone. Someone once said faith is really just the distinct sense that we are travelers here and our home is somewhere else. I like that. I wish you all a happy Sukkot. May your roof protect you from rain but allow in starlight, and may you travel home safely with good companions.

October 16, 2016 - The Persistent Widow

Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

I have an aversion to reflexively reading Scripture in terms of the magical and moral, and this blog is a symptom of that aversion.  Today’s reading gives us ample reason to believe this is a proverb about the good effects of praying persistently for what you want.  The author of Luke says as much in the opening line.  But this represents a problem for Christians and challenges some of our most foundational assumptions about God. It implies God is less concerned about the justice of our plea and more concerned with the form and frequency of it.  But there are clues that this passage really isn’t an exhortation to pray a lot. 

If the judge is a metaphor for God, why is he described as fearing neither God nor human being?  Why is he depicted as such a jerk: eventually finding in favor of the woman to stop her from bother him and potentially assaulting him.  Jesus bluntly describes him as “dishonest”.   Finally, in what we are led to believe is a proverb about persistence, rather than asking us to look at the widow’s persistence, Jesus tells us to pay close attention to what the judge says.  

As usual, this story may not be a description of the moral code we are supposed to follow, but describes the moral code God follows:  If even a dishonest, nasty, lazy, cowardly judge will eventually be attentive to the supplicant, then we can be sure God, who is honest, benevolent and sovereign, will rush to be attentive to us, regardless of our persistence. 

October 13, 2016 - Sin

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world,
to be holy and without blemish before him.
In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ,
in accord with the favor of his will,
for the praise of the glory of his grace
that he granted us in the beloved.

Ephesians 1:1-10

In his revolutionary 1963 Harvard Theological Review article entitled, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”, Krister Stendahl asserted that we may be making a mistake when we assume Paul’s concept of sin matches the modern idea of it as some specific behavior that we feel guilty about.   There are strong indications that Paul saw sin as the sum of all human shortcomings, shared by all of us and relieved in some way by divine action.

We can read today’s passage as a backward-sounding predestination: God chose a few of us for salvation before we were born and disregarded the rest. Or we can read it in the way that I think it was meant: God is aware that we, as a species, are far from perfect and has chosen to love us – all of us – anyway.

 Photo: The Blue Mosque

October 12, 2016 - Virtue

Brothers and sisters:
If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. …
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

Galatians 5:18-25

We are a consequentialist culture, dismissing as antiquated any objection to “victimless crimes” even if they clearly diminish us.  My legal education tells me unequivocally that it would be inappropriate to make illegal “impurity” and the other characteristics Paul condemns, but I’m not ready to dismiss him altogether.  I suspect he is right that if we full appreciated our status as children of God we would be more inclined to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and even self-control - not because they bear good consequences - but because we are proud of who we are.

October 11, 2016 - Ritual

After Jesus had spoken,
a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home.
He entered and reclined at table to eat.
The Pharisee was amazed to see
that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.
The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees!
Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish,
inside you are filled with plunder and evil.
You fools!
Did not the Maker of the outside also make the inside?
But as to what is within, give alms,
and behold, everything will be clean for you.”

Luke 11:37-41

Here Jesus is challenging those who spend all their spiritual energy on ritual and none on their interior lives.  He insists it will not work.  Today, the pendulum has swung the other way and many spend all their spiritual energy only their interior lives and none on ritual. 

Science tells us we are not dualistic creatures with separate body and mind.  Our bodies affect our minds just as clearly as the other way around.  

To reach our full potential – to be whole - we need to attend to our whole selves.  Yes; attend to the individualistic, introspective, rational self, but don’t neglect the communal, primordial self that craves ritual.  Did not the Maker of the inside also make the outside? 

Photo: Fire on the Beach

October 7, 2016 - The Curse of Morality

For all who depend on works of the law are under a curse;
for it is written, Cursed be everyone
who does not persevere in doing all the things
written in the book of the law.
And that no one is justified before God by the law is clear,
for the one who is righteous by faith will live.
Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…

Galatians 3:7-14

Paul believed that something extraordinary was achieved by Jesus’s life and death, and that nothing we do or don’t do can change that fact.   To the Scriptural insistence that anyone who isn’t moral is cursed, his answer is, ‘yes, and no one is perfectly moral and so everyone is cursed.’  Fortunately, for Paul, morality is not the path to God’s favor.   God chose to love us despite our moral shortcomings.

Photo: The first chapter of Genesis written on an egg in the Jerusalem Museum

October 9, 2016 - The First Shall be Last

Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times
at the word of Elisha, the man of God.
His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child,
and he was clean of his leprosy.

2 Kings 5:14-17

The remarkable thing about Naaman is that he was a Syrian and that Elisha was willing and able to heal this Gentile of his leprosy.   In the Gospel story this Sunday, Jesus heals ten lepers but only one, a Samaritan “foreigner”, returns to thank Jesus.

These stories do double duty.  One the one hand, they fulfill Old Testament prophesies that Jews and non-Jews will recognize the Messiah.  On the other hand, and more importantly, they are part of an on-going theme throughout Scripture that the first shall be last.   In the Beatitudes, the poor are blessed and the rich “have already received their reward”.  In last week’s readings, poor Lazarus received heavenly peace after death while the rich man “had already received his consolation”.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the son who behaved badly gets the party and the obedient son gets left out.  And in the parable of the vineyard workers, those who worked all day get the same pay as those who started at 4pm.  This week, the outsider and foreigner receive healing while the chosen wait.  

Jesus will tell the Old Testament story of Naaman in the New Testament, while he is visiting his home synagogue in Nazareth.  When he points out that a Syrian got healed while thousands suffered leprosy in Israel, his childhood friends try to throw him off a cliff, ISIS style. 

We prefer that the first shall be first, but that is not God’s way.   

Image: Ferdinand Bol, Elisha Refusing the Gifts of Namaan, 1661