Pentecost 16a: The Limits of Rage and Zeal

The alternative first reading for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost is Jonah 3:10–4:11. This, and not the Big Fish, is the heart of the book. Jonah is forced to preach a warning to his arch-enemies in Nineveh. They repent. God changes his mind and forgives them. Jonah is angry, and wants to hold onto his anger, despite the fact that he knows God doesn’t approve. God then teaches Jonah and all of us a lesson on what we should fear, love, and trust in our lives and in our politics.

 

After a huge spike in public approval of the anger behind Black Lives Matter demonstrations, such support has has dropped by 18% in the past two months, according to a Monmouth Poll. And though I haven’t seen any polls about this, I am quite certain that the country is also sick and tired of the screaming, and ridiculous conspiracy mongering going on from the Federalist website, to Breitbart, to Fox News,  to QAnon, and beyond.

 

It seems there is such a thing as rage fatigue.

 

I happen to whole-heartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement. The premise is golden: black lives do matter to God, and should to all of us. And for their lives to matter their history in this country and the collective responsibility we all share in that sordid history must matter. Also, BLM organizers and supporters should not take the blame for the arson and vandalism of a few criminals who come from the fringes of both the left and the right.

 

But, this all is to the point. Zeal and rage spawn all kinds of tragic unintended consequences.

 

In the Bible there is a solid tradition that holds up a thing called “zeal” as the purest form of piety towards God. Indeed, God, seen as a man, and seen as a mighty warrior, is often self-identified by jealousy: “The Lord your God is a jealous God (Deuteronomy 4.24; 5.9, etc).” God’s jealousy or zeal (the same Hebrew word), is also compared to the jealousy of a husband for his wife. And it is seen as a “devouring fire,” as zeal is pictured as the melting and reworking of elements that blacksmiths perform as they make bronze and iron implements.

 

According to this line of thought rage and zeal are good. This idea finds narrative expression in the horrendous story of Phineas, who earns his bona fides by skewering together an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were practicing mixed race sex in the presence of God (Numbers 25). The Levites too show their “exemplary” zeal in killing many unfaithful Israelites. One could say that just about all the prophets of the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, are exemplars of zeal as they rage against the machine of injustice an apostasy. Surely the Maccabean revolt against the Syrians that gave us Hanukkah and the short-lived Hasmonean dynasty in Palestine was a movement that proudly claimed the mantel of the zeal of Phineas. And in the New Testament era, about 30 years after the death of Jesus, a group called the Zealots congealed to trigger a full scale rebellion against the Romans.

 

But history shows that rage, and it’s religious form of zeal, do burn themselves out. Such mass executions of the unbelievers are hard to sustain in a nation. Prophecy ends with Malachi. The Hasmoneans turn on each other, allowing Pompey of Rome to march into Jerusalem unopposed. And the Zealot rebellion ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the mass suicide of Masada.

Who can stand in the heat of this devouring fire? Who can meet the test of such flaming pride, and purity?

 

The strange book of Jonah is the Bible’s most pointed critique of zeal. No, the central point of the book is NOT that God could make a fish big enough to swallow a man, and careful enough to transport him across the sea to spit him up safe and sound on the sand. The true point of the book is the tragic limitation of rage and zeal.

Jonah, Nineveh, and the bush. Graphic from idlewords.org.

Jonah, Nineveh, and the bush. Graphic from idlewords.org.

And though the book is obviously a fiction, it speaks a truth deeper and stronger than history or science: Zeal is not the highest form of faithfulness. Compassion is.

 

Jonah flees God because he knows God is merciful. He has been called to preach repentance to Nineveh, the capital of the hated Assyrians—the people who had been slaughtering Israelites for decades.

 

Of course Jonah makes a run for it. To obey God’s call he would have to swallow his pride and repent himself of all of his red hot hatred for these enemies. Even though Yahweh, the God of his people, had called him to this mission, it would be a most bitter pill to for him to swallow.

 

But God gets his way. God hems Jonah in. Jonah pronounces the warning, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And, wouldn’t you know it, there was a miracle of repentance. From the great king on down, every man, woman, and child, even every pet and animal in the field, believe in God, put on sackcloth, and repent of their evil ways. The bit about animals is an obvious tip that this is fiction. But the truth is a holy one: People may not change. But you will never know until you preach repentance.

 

And, wouldn’t you know it, when the people of Nineveh repent, God changes God’s mind and does not destroy them!

 

Now Jonah is mad. The very reason he had made a runner from God’s calling was that he knew God to be  a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  All the while Jonah was raging, he knew in his heart of hearts, that God, wasn’t defined by jealousy and devouring fire. God overcomes evil not by evil, but by mercy and forgiveness.

 

But the story goes no. Jonah’s fire is still burning, and he wants to stew in the heat of it. His pride causes him to tell God he just wants to die.

 

We see here that rage itself has such a grip on Jonah, that it is dangerously close to becoming his ultimate concern–his god. He knows Yahweh, the One True God, is not essentially zealous and devouring. He knows; and yet he follows his own personal idol of rage and ruin.

 

The story comes to its climax not inside a big fish, but with Jonah and the bush. Jonah, wallowing in umbrage, sits and watches, still hoping for Nineveh to be burned. But he is burning in his zeal. So God appoints a bush to grow up and shade him; and Jonah is happy. But then, the ever teaching God sends a worm to destroy the bush in the heat of the day; and Jonah, once more, retreats into his default mode of resentment, and once again is convinced it would be better just to die.

 

Then God lowers the boom: “Jonah, isn’t it ridiculous—isn’t it tragic—and isn’t it the greatest apostasy for you to care more about the bush and your own comfort, than you do about 120,000 people that I am forgiving and redeeming? Haven’t you lost your perspective?”

 

Perhaps, for a time, it is good to rage. But rage and zeal burn themselves out.  It is good to be zealous for the right thing, but zeal that turns in on itself cannot be allowed to become our god. It cannot become the end all and be all to hold onto our resentments. It cannot become our goal in life to win arguments. All of us, in our daily lives and in our politics, must learn these truths.
The Spirit of Christ assures us that God is merciful, and that the way to overcome evil is not with more evil, but with compassion. That’s what the cross means. The Spirit of Christ moves us to build up our communities, and not tear down our institutions, unless we can agree to build better ones.

If God sometimes acts as a devouring fire, that doesn’t mean we should.

 

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Pentecost 15a: Distanced, Different, But Not Divided

The Second Reading for this Sunday is Romans 14:1-12

 

It contains words such as ideas:

  • Welcome, and do not judge others who have different convictions, and live differently than you.
  • Leave the judging to God, who is, after all, merciful and capable of helping the fallen get up and stand.
  • Ultimately, all differences are superseded by Oneness: the one great reality, that we all belong to the Lord who created and redeemed us.

 

Christian believers have an all important mission in these days of super stress and the centripetal force of judgmentalism. We must be zealous for the same message of oneness that Paul preached throughout his ministry, and emphasized in his letter to the Christians of Rome.  We have to maintain the Church as a great community of God’s Oneness to show the world how it can keep from tearing itself apart.

 

Surely we can taste how we hunger and thirst after community and belonging because we have been forced to socially distance. Oh, how wonderful it would be to be able to embrace one another, or even to simply sit close, have a beer, and talk over the ups and downs of the past week.

 

But being distanced let us not sever the ties that bind by surrendering to the demons of division.

 

Let us not scream and spit at each other over mask wearing. Let us not take our flags and signs and turn them into spears and bludgeons. Let us not absorb the lies and exaggerations of the talking heads who profit over our suspicions and fears of each other.

 

Distancing is okay. Differences are blessings. Division and despising of one another is wrong.

The Apostle Paul starts his letter in chapter 2 with a long talk about how terrible it is to judge and despise. Then he gets even more detailed here in chapter 14: Others seem weak to you because they have different convictions about what diet is the right one and which days are sacred. So what? Don’t despise them, don’t even simply tolerate them. Welcome them! Leave the judging to God. You depend on that God to let you off the hook for your sins—don’t try to deny that divine mercy to those who are different from you.

 

In Galatians Paul himself comes down hard on those who had their own convictions about another marker of difference—circumcision. But he came down hard there because his opponents were using circumcision to divide. Diet, holy days, or circumcision are completely optional as personal life choices. They are wrong when used to destroy the Oneness that God intends.

 

So, today, what flag or mask you wear is your choice. Your political party is a life option. But when you use these things to despise and judge—you are denying that you need God’s grace yourself, and that you need those other people. We all belong to the God of forgiveness and love. And that God wants us to know: Distancing is okay. Difference is okay. Division is not okay.

 

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Admit It!

You are sure, aren’t you?

You know that America is cleansed of its racist past. Now that we have had a black President, and read Oprah’s magazine, we must be color blind.

You’ve seen the playing field, and it is level. You know that despite their zip code, everyone can grab the American dream.

It’s all a plain fact.

Photo from Britannica

Photo from Britannica

 

You have no doubts that it’s just a few bad apples.

You know the thin blue line is made up of heroes. Surely it is rare for any of these kind and noble souls to choke under the pressure trying to keep those thugs under control and protect the real Americans.

 

But can you possibly admit that there is much you don’t know? Can you admit that what you absolutely know may not be true at all?

 

Can you admit that you may not know what goes on the other side of the tracks, or in the loan office, or the real estate office, or the traffic courts, or the jail cells?

Were you there when the windows were shattered or the Molotov cocktail was thrown? Did you get a good look at the face? Did you hear what that officer shouted when he swung the baton, and shot the pepper ball? Did you feel the force of the body slam to the ground? Did you know if it was a Black Lives Matter thug or a Bugaloo Boy that started all the chaos?

 

I have to admit there is a lot I don’t know.

I thought I knew my own home town. But I had no idea what was going on while I was growing up.

 

I learned just how much I didn’t know today when I watched the Kentucky Derby televised from my hometown of Louisville.

 

First I was disappointed. I just wanted to have a pleasant time. I knew there would be no magnolias or rhododendrons blooming because of the postponement. I had heard that there would be no parades or steamboat races or fireworks leading up, or an infield on the big day with great crowds of mint julep swilling women in their outlandish hats. But there would be a day of racing on TV, and I could sit on my couch and dream.

 

Then I was worried, seeing the barricade fences and the armored cars, and knowing that they were precautions to ward off those pesky protesters. I just wanted to hear “My Old Kentucky Home,” and not people crying out, “Breonna Taylor.” “Those people” have a right, but aren’t they pushing it too far when they cast a cloud over the noble tradition of the Run for the Roses?

 

I was disappointed and worried. But then I was shocked. I heard that in 1962, when I was 15 years old, a black breeder and owner of a horse ran the Derby; but that man couldn’t be listed in the program, and he couldn’t be there to watch. No blacks were allowed in the stands!!

I was 15. My family and I had reveled in the Derby for years. My folks were at the track every Derby Day. We kids watched on TV. It was all a wonderful, grand party. We all bet on the race, sang the anthem of our state, drank in the excitement, ate Kentucky Fried Chicken. We read all the newspaper stories–knew the backgrounds of the horses. We knew all about it.

 

But I didn’t know blacks were not allowed to sit in those seats. I didn’t know how racist every moment of it was. Even today I can’t find out how many years the track kept blacks out—it’s not exactly a highlight of the news releases. It took some digging to learn that blacks were very much the heart of horse racing until the early 20th century when this whole nation turned bigoted, and black jockeys and trainers were literally run out of the sport. How was I to know?

 

So, is horse racing racist today? Is Churchill Downs? Is Louisville, or Kentucky? Are the police? Is this nation racist? Are there just a few bad apples, or were a bunch of worms dropped in over many decades and are they eating their way through the whole barrel?

 

I must admit, I don’t know. There is a great deal that is hidden from my eyes. It’s whispered, not shouted from the rooftops. It’s in the fine print. It’s under the rocks and under our skin.

 

I don’t even know my own heart. I don’t know for sure what worm holes are being dug through my own heart.

 

Can you admit too that you don’t know what you don’t know? Can you admit that racism might just be countless little worms eating away, beneath the surface, in the very things you cherish most–like this wonderful nation, your beautiful neighborhood, or that thin blue line that protects you?

 

Can you admit it? Only if you admit it can we join hands and do something about it.

 

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Like Goliath, They'll Be Conquered

Depicted here, on the high utility post in front of our farm, is a scene that we see often: The tiny takes on the mighty.

If you look close you will see a tiny red-winged blackbird sitting on top of a formidable red-tailed hawk. At other times we will see all sorts of little birds harassing the hawks to distraction and into retreat.

Tiny red-winged blackbird takes on formidable red-tailed hawk in front of Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Tiny red-winged blackbird takes on formidable red-tailed hawk in front of Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

You remember the story of David and Goliath. You remember too Moses and Pharaoh. Perhaps you even know the stories of Jael and Sisera or Judith and Holofernes or Jesus and Pilate. The Bible is full of stories like these. Stories that tell of the triumph of the victims in victory.

And a modern-day poet named Dylan wrote a sea shanty with the same sense of hope. It’s called “When the Ship Comes In” and it goes like this:

Oh, the time will come up
When the winds will stop
And the breeze will cease to be breathin’
Like the stillness in the wind
Before the hurricane begins
The hour that the ship comes in
And the seas will split
And the ship will hit
And the sands on the shoreline will be shaking
Then the tide will sound
And the wind will pound
And the morning will be breaking
Oh, the fishes will laugh
As they swim out of the path
And the seagulls they’ll be smiling
And the rocks on the sand
Will proudly stand
The hour that the ship comes in
And the words that are used
For to get the ship confused
Will not be understood as they’re spoken
For the chains of the sea
Will have busted in the night
And will be buried at the bottom of the ocean
A song will lift
As the mainsail shifts
And the boat drifts on to the shoreline
And the sun will respect
Every face on the deck
The hour that the ship comes in
Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’
Oh, the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in
Then they’ll raise their hands
Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh’s tribe
They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered
Our Goliath may fall in November. He may fall in November, 2024. But he will fall and be conquered. The bullies, the name callers, the liars, the dividers–they all fall. Take heart!
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Red-winged blackbird takes on a red-tailed hawk in front of Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Red-winged blackbird takes on a red-tailed hawk in front of Heatherhope Farm. Photo by John

Pentecost 14: Time To Wake Up

The second reading for this 14th Sunday after Pentecost is Romans 13:8-15. It contains the following appeal from the Apostle:

 

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

 

How often have we heard that these are unprecedented times? And how often have we heard the urgent appeal that we had better act fast or we will lose the moment—or we will lose our nation?

 

And now, when we are shown cell phone footage of  violent confrontations in the streets just about every day, we might well think it’s high time we turn from the head to the heart—we must fight fire with fire.

 

That’s what kind of time we are living through!

 

But the Apostle calls out to us that we are living in an eternal now. The now—the urgent time—the opportune time (in Greek, kairos) has come upon us.

Paul may have thought it was temporally upon his generation. The Christ would return and the New Age begin soon. But a couple thousand years have passed and we still wait for that fulcrum moment.

But the kairos moment Paul wrote about was not that coming of Christ. It was the long, eternal now of the time of awakening in preparation for that coming.

So, yes, the pandemic, the loss of jobs, the protests and violent confrontations, and the upcoming elections, they have piled up on us to make this an unprecedented time in the long time-line of history the Greeks called the kronos-time. But there is still just one kairos—one opportunity for us—one eternal now for awakening.

Now is not the time for pure gut feelings to be unleashed. Now is not the time to fight the fire of outrage with more of the same. Now is not the time for turning up the heat and getting drunk on retribution and winning arguments. All those things just feed the darkness. They dull our senses. They make us immune to compromise, mutual respect, and understanding. Now is the time for the light of God’s new day to dawn in our hearts, even if it is way before it dawns on our brothers and sisters.

Of course to awaken we must get off our couches, get out of our comfort zones, dig our way out of apathy, communal forgetfulness, cold resentments, lame excuses and blaming. It’s time to take responsibility for this kairos opportunity. It’s time to get moving.

 

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Pentecost 13a: Love beyond the Mask

The second reading for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost is Romans 12:9–21; and it starts off with this challenging and profoundly simple idea: “Let love be genuine.” And the word for “genuine” means “no play acting.”

 

Daniel Schorr, the consummate CBS and NPR journalist and commentator, said that, when he started work for CBS, he didn’t quite know how to take it when a well-meaning boss advised him, “Sincerity! If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

 

Just this past Sunday, at a recent gathering for a social-distance car parade to honor a couple who are retiring after over 40 years of faithful service, I had something of a personal epiphany. Fellow church members were preparing decorations for their automobiles; and as they passed near me, I smiled. Suddenly I realized no one could see my smile under my mask. Then I wondered to myself: are my smiles genuine or fake?

 

A smile can be genuine. But much of the time it is perfunctory. It is a habit. It is a bit of what specialists call “phatic” communication—not really meant to say anything, but simply a thoughtless bit of negotiating of the social situation.

 

A smile can be genuine, and say, “I am so happy to see you, because I truly care for you.” Or it can simply say, “Don’t take me as a cad or a threat.” Blacks get tired of the smiles of liberal whites, that seem to mean, “Pass on by. Just don’t hurt me.”

 

So, wearing masks with others might be a blessing. It takes away perhaps our most potent device for faking sincerity.

 

The Apostle Paul, writing to a fledgling Christian congregation in Rome, gives advice anchored in the idea of genuine sincerity—so genuine and so sincere that it can be called love. And love is the greatest of gifts from God, and the greatest of virtues of a believer.

 

Pau’s audience lives with constant threat. Greco-Roman society that surrounds them is suspicious of this strange new religion that worships a treasonous, crucified prophet. And can these Christ-followers even trust the person sitting next to them in their gatherings? Some of them come from polytheistic backgrounds, and some from monotheistic, Jewish families, worlds apart. Together they are struggling to be an entirely new kind of society, where wealth, power and honor—the currencies that matter all around them—are now to matter not to them. They are to empty themselves, honor self-sacrifice and find life in this world and the next as they put others above themselves.

 

Paul knows, only genuine love will work for the Roman Christians. Fake sincerity, and fake smiles, have a sedative effect. They are like the casual promises we make to people: “I’ll pray for you. We have to get together sometime. I’ll always be there for you.” We throw out these promises we have no intention of keeping, and it all seems to us to be just about as good as actually praying, visiting, or helping. And a smile too can be such a lethal shortcut. Subconsciously we think, “It’s better to look good than to be good.”

 

So, Paul tells us, if you feel torn as a community, try genuine love. It’s not bad enough today that people are losing their jobs, their homes, and their lives to the pandemic. Now both political parties are working overtime and spending billions to convince us that if the other guy wins, we are all doomed. So, we must appreciate that Paul was writing to Christians who faced threats from outside, but even greater threats from the division within their own fragile community.

 

Paul said, “In such times, don’t play the victim. Don’t play the bully. Don’t think you must win your arguments. But let love be genuine, even when it looks weak to the dominators all around you. It is evil you are fighting—not other people. The only way to overcome evil is with goodness and love.”

 

So, here is what the Apostle advises us to do: “Don’t fake sincerity—let love be genuine:”

 

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

 

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Pentecost 12: Five Women Changed the World

The Old Testament reading for this coming 12th Sunday after Pentecost is Exodus 1:8—2:10. On this week in which we celebrated 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States, and as we prepare ourselves in earnest to go to the polls for a globally important election, it is an apt time to consider five women who changed the world.

 

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, looked all powerful. He was not only the head of state of the most powerful nation in the world at that time; he was also a god.

 

You don’t mess with Pharaoh. His wish was the command of all his subjects.

 

But then there were two women of a slave race, who no man of Egypt, much less Pharaoh himself, would have accorded any sort of respect at all. Their names were Shiphrah and Puah; and they were midwives.

 

Now, this Pharaoh wasn’t too bright. If he wanted to cut down on the frightening population explosion among the Hebrews, but maintained a potent work force for his labor needs, he wold have commanded that the girl, not the boy babies of the Hebrews be extinguished. Instead, he commanded that the boy babies be killed at birth by these two midwives.

 

But Shiphrah and Puah had other ideas. They simply resisted. And when Pharaoh inquired as to why these baby boys were proliferating, these two women again proved the king’s stupidity by claiming that Hebrew women were just too quick to deliver, and the baby boys apparently too quick to toddle off.

 

But the Bible is more interested in one baby in particular. He will be the leader of his people. He will receive fiery revelation from the Lord. He will spark a revolution in justice and ethics in giving the world the Ten Commandments and a start in thinking about slaves and foreigners and immigrants as human beings. But for him to survive the first day of his life a few more women would have to defy the odds and defy the men in charge.

 

So, an anonymous Hebrew mother, and her daughter, took this newborn boy, put him in a basket, floated him in the Nile, and watched. And wouldn’t you know it, right under this brain deficit king’s nose, his own daughter was the fifth member of this unlikely team, and found the infant. How convenient it all was—or was it not five clever women, working together to preserve life and preserve fresh hope for the world? Because Pharaoh’s daughter was smarter than her father, and figured the boy was Hebrew, and the boys sister just happened to be there to ask Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like a Hebrew midwife, and it just so happened that she knew a good one. So Moses was born, and his life preserved, by five women–women perhaps no more remarkable than the sisters, mothers, and wives living with us today.

Moses lowered by his mother into the Nile, 1839-42 Alexey Tyranov

Moses lowered by his mother into the Nile, 1839-42
Alexey Tyranov

This past week’s celebration of 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution should cause us all to think about how much better the world is because women refused to stay of a pedestal, or in the kitchen, or under the thumbs of men, and added their brainpower to making the decisions that shape or world. Will women make the difference we need? Will women help us stop the next war? Will they help us wake up and take serious measures to mitigate climate change? Will they make a wall to defend the weak and vulnerable against the abuse of power? Will they continue to be the primarily evangelists, and the backbones of our religious congregations, and so make sure their children are taught the way of the Christ?

 

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Passionate Parenting and God

In Matthew 23 (as well as Luke 13) Jesus knows he is about to love us perfectly, even if he gets killed for it. His grief overwhelms him and he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Raising sheep we have often been filled with awe over the passion with which mothers protect their young. Our bitch, Floss, was nursing her five pups when a visiting insurance agent convinced us to open the door into the whelping area and let him have a look. Usually loving Floss bared her teeth and growled so convincingly that we quickly pulled the man back and shut the door.

That same Floss was ever so kind and gentle with the sheep she herded; but when she got a bit too close to a newborn lamb, the mother went after her with a fierceness that shocked me. The ewe trapped Floss against the fence and started to pound her into the dust with her head. Fortunately I was close enough to charge in and save Floss from certain death.

A fledgling barn swallow --vulnerable, but cared for by passionate parents. Photo by John

A fledgling barn swallow –vulnerable, but cared for by passionate parents. Photo by John

Then there are the birds. Pictured here is a fledgling barn swallow. Swallows used to fill our barn with their nests and young; but the super aggressive house sparrows pushed them out. Now they nest safely in our garage. We love the swallows who swarm over our fields and eat the bug population that would explode without a constant culling. And so, starting in the spring, we leave the doors to our garage open so the swallow parents can swoop in and out and raise their young.

The tiny bird pictured here seems to have left the nest a bit prematurely. It can flutter its way on the ground, but it’s not ready to fly.

So the parents keep track of her. In the garage and out the little one wanders. Next to the rake leaning on the outside of the garage. Over the grass. Near the hydrant and wading pool that we put out for the dogs.

And all the while, the passionate parents dive and screech to keep us humans, and the curious dogs away. They sit on the hydrant and tree branches and bark out their little warnings and their frantic concern for their little one. Like Moses’ mother and sister they watch their precious little one drift away–they watch over–they soar to pick up insects to come back and keep their child fed and hydrated.

What a force is that passionate parenting! Not a wave, not a particle. More than can be fully contained or explained by hormones. It is something beyond. It is the hand and heart of the God who is Love itself.

God forbid we would discount or denigrate this power. Who would not be willing to be caught up into the protective, passionate, parenting arms of the divine hen, Jesus Christ? Who would not be willing?

Whenever we discount or denigrate this power by denying family leave to workers, or shutting out immigrant families desperately trying to find a safe and happy place to live, we are holding God’s passionate parenting in contempt. We are not willing to be caught up in the passion of Christ.

God forgive us, and come gather your brood!

 

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Monarchs Make Us So Happy

Beat back the depression and anxiety of the pandemic by stepping outside. Rain or shine, breathe in, behold, and hearken to the nurturing power of nature!

Our hearts have filled with joy this season because everywhere we look are monarch butterflies. In and out of our tree lined borders of our fields, feeding on the clover and alfalfa blossoms, and laying their eggs on the milkweed leaves, they flutter and soar.

Monarchs bring life. And so do the bees and other bugs. Photo by John

Monarchs bring life. And so do the bees and other bugs. Photo by John

They are immigrants from Mexico, laboring thousands of miles to do their work of pollinating. While larvae they took in the poison of the milkweed, and turned it to their advantage. Now predator birds stay away, knowing how bitter can be a meal of monarch.

When we first started farming we read the books on weeds and were advised to cut out all the milkweed, because it can be toxic to our sheep. Kill all that is a threat to our beasts, we were told. But we grieved to learn that 80 to 90% of the monarchs had been killed because they had no place to lay their eggs, and their young had nothing to eat. So, we started to let them be. We still keep them from grazing sheep, but we have learned our sheep, the bugs, and we can coexist.

And now, we rejoice!!!

 

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Pentecost 11: Prejudice Defiles

The Gospel Reading for this Sunday is Mathew 15:1-28

 

The plague we are fighting today is not simply Covid-19. It is prejudice—the prejudice that keeps us from listening to people’s cries—the prejudice that fills us with fear, anger and hatred—the prejudice that defiles.

 

The lectionary gives us the choice at stopping at verse 20 of Matthew 15; but if we don’t read on to verse 28 we cheat ourselves. In the first section Jesus shares a new vision of religion with the crowds: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  When the Pharisees take offense, Jesus goes on to suggest the Pharisees are blind to the fundamentals of their own Jewish faith.

 

The adherents of any religion are susceptible to the blindness of thinking what makes them right with God is the outward markers. Some Jews of Jesus’ day thought keeping Sabbath, circumcision, and eating kosher were of utmost importance. These were handy markers for telling who was in and who was out. And then there was the added benefit that one did not need to be inwardly serious about divinely ordained social justice as long as one looked the part.

 

Jews who were truer to the heart of their faith always knew they were the chosen ones when they suffered, yet kept faithful—when they witnessed to God’s love and justice for the whole world to see.

 

Blind religion infects the church today as well. All you have to do today to be called an “evangelical Christian” is to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, support the state of Israel against Palestinian causes, and vote for those who promise more political power for Christians. It is the markers that count. It is what goes into the mouth, not what comes out. “Social justice—we don’t want you to shout too loudly about that.”

 

When Jesus said the defiling thing is what comes out, certain Pharisees took offense. All through Matthew the word for this (scandalitzo, or “to stumble” in Greek) is a fulcrum word. It is a bit hard to track in English translations because it is translated in several different ways. But it points to something all-important. “Blessed are they who take no offense at me,” Jesus says. If we see Jesus welcoming and loving all people, especially the outsiders, and we stumble because of it–i.e. if we are repulsed, sickened, get angry, and spit out vile things—then we are unblessed. If we take bitter offense when we hear Jesus say that looking good doesn’t make us good, and that we will be judged by how we treat the poor, the hungry, and the naked, then we are defiled.

 

It is in the second section of this reading that all of this comes beautifully into focus. A “Canaanite woman” comes, shouting. The disciples take offense at her and ask Jesus to send her away because she is so annoying and inconvenient.

 

Now, of course, there were no more Canaanites in Jesus’ day. That label was long obsolete; but it felt so right to say when you were annoyed by another person just because of who they were—not because of what came out of them. It was a convenient way to denigrate people who didn’t have the right ethnic markers. Another way of denigrating them was to call them “dogs.” Was it for ironic effect that even Jesus uses that ethnic slur?

 

But when the woman says, “Even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus exclaims, “Woman, great is your faith.”

 

Great is your faith!  If you follow Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew you will hear him say of only two people that their faith is great. Neither looks the part. One is this Canaanite dog of a woman. The other is a hated Roman centurion. (And the ranks of the Roman army in this backwater Judea were filled with poorly trained police who held Jews in their own prejudicial contempt.)  In contrast, Jesus says of the thoroughly Jewish (and for us, quintessentially Christian) disciples, “oh ye of little faith.” Thankfully, even little faith can be used and turned by Christ into a mountain-moving faith. But that only happens when we take no offense at this Christ who calls us to love one another.

 

So, faith that produces love is what counts. That’s what Jesus says. And he says that if you keep thinking all you must do is display all the right markers, and if you keep judging other people by their book covers, and if you are filled with anger and stumble over the cross that you should carry, then you are defiled.

 

So, what really defiles a person? Another way of asking that is, “Where is the line that separates us from them—the good guys from the bad?” Another is to ask, “What causes you to take offense, or to stumble?”

 

The all important thing is that we are not offended by the cross, but take it up and follow this Christ who allows no line to be uncrossed.

 

Today’s critical moment in America seems to hang on Black Lives Matter. Would Jesus be asking us to decide? Would he be asking us if those three words make us take offense? Do we draw the line and say, when people shout too loudly, I take offense? Do we say that the way those people look and the way they try to make me take responsibility for injustice makes me angry? Do we feel safe on this side of the political line, and any reference to “systemic racism” is reason to stop my ears to all those lefties over there?

 

Or, is it possible that we have a different set of markers and a different line to divide folk? Do we hear someone else call themselves good Christians or good conservatives, and we immediately write them off?

 

Jesus says, it’s what comes out that counts. Jesus says, there is no line, and we must not allow our prejudice to divide us. He asks us all to stop and think. He says, “I came to love, and welcome, and heal all people. I came to lay down my life for others. I came to listen for what comes out of a person. So, judge me not according to your prejudices, according to the little ethnic markers you like to use—but  judge me according to the fruit I bear. And judge one another the same way. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

 

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