Advent 1B Becoming the Answer

Douglas Adams wrote hysterical science fiction, the humor of which sometimes hid gems of insights into the human condition. In his “Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe” series he told the story of how a society built a computer with a massive amount of calculating power, and named it “Deep Thought.” The single task they put before it was to provide the all purpose answer to THE QUESTION—you know—“the question of life, the universe, and everything.”

“Can you do it, oh Deep Thought?”

“Tricky, but yes,” came the answer. “But it will take a while.”

“How much of a “while?”

It turns out it was a very, very long while. 7.3 million years, to be exact. But, the big day did come, throngs of people gathered, and to immense fanfare the answer was given. Hold your breath: 42.

Of course the waiting throngs, and the greatest minds of the time were thrown for a loop. What could that simple answer of 42 mean?

Deep Thought replied, “Do you understand the question? It’s obvious that you don’t understand the question, so how can you possibly understand the answer.

Of course Deep Thought was asked if he could help the people understand the question, but it would be tricky, last a long time, and he would have to consult an even more powerful computer.

This first Sunday of Advent, and the first Sunday of our new Church Year, our biblical authors stand beside us as our troubled times urges us to look for Big Answers to Bigger Questions.

In the short space of our first reading this Sunday, the first nine verses of Isaiah 64, the ancient prophet demonstrates the thinking process we all must go through. He starts with a cry of desperation: “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

The prophet looks for a direct show of power, as God had shown on Sinai—a bit of fire and judgment, devouring the unrighteous and exalting the virtuous. That’s what’s needed. An all-purpose answer to our questions—an all purpose solution to our problems.

But soon he realizes what he is asking for. He realizes that it’s not just the “adversaries” and the “nations” that deserve the fire—it is not just them, but us.

6We have all become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

We all fade like a leaf,

and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

7There is no one who calls on your name,

or attempts to take hold of you…

Then the prophet changes his tune: “I thought we needed tearing and the fire of judgment—we need the black and white of holy righteousness to be applied.” But after he considers that his people and he haven’t exactly lived on the right side of the divide, he adds this:

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;

we are the clay, and you are our potter;

we are all the work of your hand.

9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,

and do not remember iniquity forever.

Now consider, we are all your people.

The Gospel of Mark, which we will follow through this new Church Year, will give us tearing—but of a far different sort: The heavens are torn open as the Father commissions Jesus for his mission of healing and mercy at his baptism. Later, as Jesus gives himself in a climactic act of exorcism and dies, the curtain of the Temple that separates the Holy of Holies from the people is torn from top to bottom and a hated gentile recognizes that Jesus is truly the Son of God.

But before that Jesus teaches, in our Gospel reading for this day in Mark 13:24-37 that there will indeed be a tearing of the sky and a great reckoning. But the judging will be done by the Son of Man who we already see before us touching the impure, breaking through the false barriers, and calling us all to a compassionate Father for forgiveness. The Son of Man who tears open the heavens and comes is the one who has taken up his cross.

Each election I mark my ballot and say a little prayer that the Lord would tear open the heavens and stuff the ballot boxes for the candidates I think will put our government back on the right track, and solve our problems. Thank you God that you haven’t harkened to my will. Each candidate, no matter of which party, has feet of clay. I do not understand the question I’m putting to God. How can I understand the answer, when God disappoints me yet again?

So, instead of stuffing the ballot box in favor of my party or policies, the Jesus Christ says, “I have not only given you the answer—I’ve made you the answer: “I’ve carried the cross. Now take up your cross and follow me.”

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Christ the King A: Surprises for Evangelicals and for All of Us

Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:31–46

The climax of the church’s year is Christ the King Sunday. Believers remind themselves of ultimate things.

To understand our Gospel Lesson we must realize the more things change, the more they stay the same. A record number of voters turned out a couple of weeks ago; and no matter who you voted for, chances are you thought the world would pretty much fall apart if the other side won.

In Jesus’ day too a lot of people thought catastrophe was just around the corner. The nation was occupied. Tensions were building. Romans were poised. Religious zealots were predicting that God would bring things to a climax.

Chapter 24 of Matthew starts with the disciples pointing out the grandeur of the Temple. Herod had indeed made Israel great again. Jesus counters that soon things would all fall apart. On top of the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, the disciples press the Lord and ask how things would look when he would return as the Son of Man and bring about the end of the age. They want to know the future.

Jesus’ answer to disciples then and now is, “The end of the age is taking shape right now.” He answers his disciples curiosity with a number of images and parables, culminating in this vision of future judgment in our Gospel Reading: The Son of Man, on a throne of glory, passes judgment with a single criterion for a single humanity.

Note the elements of surprise in this narrative. The first surprise is that Israel and all the other nations are all judged together. There is no question that faithful Jews, the chosen people of the covenant, would be judged any differently than the pagans or idol worshippers. Christians today should take note—we are not special cases.

The next surprise is how there is also no separation between the exalted Son of Man and the vulnerable and the needy. This divine judge separates people to his right to enter into the kingdom prepared for them from eternity, and the people on his left for the eternal fire set aside for the devil and his angels. To those on his right he says, “You cared for me.” They are caught off guard. “When did we do that?” The Son of Man answers, “When you cared for the least—the insignificant and habitually forgotten—you cared for me. You dared to touch my pain.”

Again, the surprise for the people headed for eternal curse: They did not know they had the future Son of Man right there I front of them. When they discounted people, they discounted their Lord, and inadvertently sealed their own fate.

The surprise in both cases is that judgment isn’t about good works. One people didn’t know they were doing good. The others didn’t know they were doing such evil. It was all beyond their consciousness or intent—the basic ingredients of good works. Their right hands didn’t know what their left hands were doing.

For the people of the nations who were on the right it was much like Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge, on Christmas morning. When Scrooge danced for joy, spied “a boy in Sunday clothes” and bought a turkey as big as the boy to take to Bob Cratchit’s, he was beside himself—quite un-self-conscious. When the turkey turned out to be too big to carry to Cratchit’s, he said to himself that he would have to pay for a cab.  Then…

The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.

Scrooge would never have begun to think he was doing good deeds, much less his duty to God, when he went on to pledge mightily to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. He thanked the gentleman who was collecting such “charity.” No, the three ghosts had shown him how he needed God’s grace, and now the Holy Ghost unleashed that grace within him. Scrooge was simply overjoyed at having such a forgiving and generous God that he couldn’t help emptying himself—and chuckling all the while.

This brings us to a Big Surprise for certain of our evangelical brothers and sisters of America. Their focus is on heaven, and on souls, and on being found righteous. They are less concerned about social justice now, and the bodily needs of flesh and bone people.

I do hope and pray that these brothers and sisters will wake up and take heed of both our Gospel reading and the prophetic lesson from Ezekiel today, about the sheep and goats who eat from good pasture and drink from the still waters, but, in the meantime trample the grass and befoul the water for others. Please, enjoy your religious and civic liberty—but don’t ruin this good land for others who have been butted away from justice and health by the swollen appetites of others.

And, returning to the judgment scene in our Gospel, I hope you certain evangelicals consider the “least” in today’s America. Please don’t be slaves to the rich and powerful forces who have tried to usurp Jesus’ rule over this world. Please don’t let them rob you of the joy of mercy, compassion, and social justice.

Please recognize that Blacks who hunger and thirst for justice are not your enemies. Do not stop your ears when they cry out. They are not trying to destroy your pretty suburbs, but they are among the least of your brothers and sisters. They are the Son of Man in your midst.

Please recognize that the refugees and immigrants who walk for months to get to or borders aren’t your enemies. They are among the least, threatened in their homes and despised when they wander. They are prisoners of their own homelessness. They are the Son of Man in your midst.

Please recognize that gays, lesbians, and transgender people are not your enemies. They are people with an extra heavy burden of being strangers, desperate for a friendly welcome. They are the Son of Man in your midst.

And please, don’t be so enslaved to a false, politicized version of your religion that you don’t even recognize that the Son of Man is walking right beside you and wants to be protected from the virus that you may be carrying. Wear a mask!!

I pray that these certain evangelicals will realize that heaven is not an escape. It is not an alternative to this world, created by God. This world is the Kingdom in the making. Heaven and this world we live in today are part of the one reality under Christ the King. Therefore, we are working out our own futures right now. If we have truly opened ourselves to the compassion and forgiveness of God we will have spontaneous, unbounded compassion for the “least” among us,

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Online Bible Study

John hosts a weekly online Bible study. We call it NIOBS, for Northern Illinois Online Bible Study, though it doesn’t matter where you are in the world–you can join us by writing John at heatherhopefarm@gmail.com and asking for an invitation and link.

You will want to read recommended selections from the Bible, and access free-of-charge materials to prepare for our hourlong discussions, which are scheduled for 7:00 p.m. each Monday.

We do take breaks for major church holidays and alert everyone on the invitation list about these breaks and the materials to be studied.

This Bible study is intentionally designed to help people take responsibility for their interpretation by using historical-critical tools, learning from the traditions of God’s church, and by prayerful, personal reflection. It is our belief that Christians are to use their Bibles to be effective ambassadors of God’s love, and to so contribute to the healing of the world.

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Pentecost 24A: Care for Yourself by Caring for Others

Many are the times I said to myself, “Go ahead, keep on eating. You deserve it.” Especially when I’m eating all by myself, and that big jar of peanut butter, or that big carton of ice cream is sitting right in front of me, and no one is there to stop me with an accusing look.

 

I admit it. I’m a full-fledged member of the “me generation”, and it’s laid down a very persistent culture that seems to egg me on even more in this time of pandemic. “You have to take care of yourself,” I hear so many pastors, counselors, and self-help gurus saying.

 

But our second reading for this Sunday was written for an even more stressful time; and the Apostle Paul gives lots of advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, but none of them encourage self-indulgence. “You are of the day,” Paul says. “Keep awake, keep sober,” he says. “Arm yourself with faith, love, and hope,” he says. And then he concludes this reading with, “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

 

Our first lesson, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, catches our attention with a vivid metaphor and stark set of warnings. In an oracle, the Lord tells us, “I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” In the original Hebrew, that bit about complacency reads literally, “the people who congeal on their dregs.” The people who first heard this would have seen this kind of thing often. When wine was made it was left on the sediment from the grapes just long enough to develop a robust taste and color. If left to set too long on the lees it would congeal into a worthless mess. God is warning us, “You may think you are taking care of yourself with self-indulgence, but you are actually just getting fat, sassy, and worthless.” And as the oracle goes on, “Your silver and gold won’t save you. Your blood will become like dust, and your flesh like dung.”

 

Look again at 1 Thessalonians, and this day’s concluding exhortation: “Encourage one another and build up each other.” The great good news here is that the Lord has passed on to us the Spirit of caring for others. Jesus died for us that we may live. And in the circle of belonging that God has made us for, and called us to return to, we care for ourselves when we care for each other. This is the way we live. We thrive as part of the great “each other.”

 

So, it’s not a trade off. There is never a time in our lives when we do better at self care by becoming more self-indulgent and forgetting, even for a moment, the people around us. They are better at lifting us up when we work harder at encouraging them. That’s how God’s circle works.

 

Too much peanut butter just clogs the veins. A little sip from the wine of Holy Communion is just what we need as we take care of ourselves by caring for others.

 

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Pentecost 23A: Post Election Letdown and the Stamina of Righteousness

This Election Day has been a bursting of the balloon of enthusiasm for many. There was optimism in the air. As often has happened in the past, there was talk of a “new majority” a-brewing. Never before have people been so keen to vote. Never before have so many taken to the streets to demand police reform. Never before have youth and women been so stirred to action. Never before have we seen and repented of the injustice of a system where the have-nots die like flies because they don’t have equal access to health care or the vital equipment needed for their schooling. So, it was thought, white supremacy, systemic racism, autocracy, and the willful lies of a corrupt political system would all be soon undone in a great sweep of a blue wave.

 

But it didn’t happen.

 

Where is the Lord of righteousness? Where is the right arm of justice?

 

Two of our lessons for this Sunday hit the mark.

 

An alternative first lesson for this 23rd Sunday after Pentecost is Amos 5:18-24.

 

Amos was born in the 8th century BCE, and in Judah. But he directed his words to the northern kingdom of Israel. This famous prophet of punishment for the hypocrisy that shows itself in social injustice blows the whistle on the way Israelites looked forward to the Day of the Lord. They believed it would be a decisive clash when the enemies of both Judah and Israel would be clobbered by God.

 

Amos warns them that the Day will be one of judgment, but the chosen people of God had a long list of sins that will also be punished. Among these indictments are that “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”

 

In our reading Amos delivers an ironic judgment on undeserved and misplaced optimism. When the Day of the Lord comes, he says, it will be like this: You might feel relieved that you can get away from a lion, but then you will be eaten by a bear. You might breathe a sigh of relief as you find safe shelter in your own home, but then you will lean your hand against the wall and be bitten by a poisonous snake.

 

Amos then gets even more radical. In an oracle from God he indicts the people’s very life of piety and their worship. Their worship, without social justice, is just noise to God. The Lord is saying, instead of a faith on cruise control “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

I take away at least two crucial lessons from Amos. The first is that it is always poisonous to faith and to one’s own character to think in terms of “us and them.” When we get over zealous in pointing out the mote in the eye of another, we will miss the beam in our own eye. We begin to repent only of the sins we see in others, and not of our own sins. This goes also for political parties and for political movements. Among the many important points that Robert D. Putnam makes in his recent book, The Upswing, is that the Progressive Movement of the first half of the 20th century greatly improved our society with such things as laws for better working conditions, the minimum wage, a progressive income tax, Social Security, and women’s suffrage. But the great sin of most of the reformers behind such advances was the failure to be inclusive enough in their thinking. The reformers, for many long decades, pointed the finger at scapegoats: the Germans and Irish drank too much. They even held to racist ideas that kept blacks and immigrants “in their places” because they were “lazy and inferior.” Putnam wisely suggests that reform dare not try to move too fast, but it can never compromise with the solid truth that none of us will have a healthy society unless all people are included in that promise.

 

So, no matter how righteous we believe our cause, we all have sins to atone for. When we are talking sins, we must speak of ourselves and our own political parties and movements as being the foremost of sinners.

 

The second lesson Amos teaches us is that all our faith and all our worship must be anchored in enduring righteousness. And a corollary to that idea is that we can never stand righteous without striving for social justice. We Lutherans love to interpret Paul in Romans as saying that righteousness is not something we do, but something God gives. That is only half true. It is something God gives; but unless it is also something we do, then it is no true righteousness. The Book of James must be read along with Romans. We can’t say we have accepted the gift of God’s righteousness if we have no regard for the vulnerable and the “other.” And we can’t say we are righteous if we are charitable toward the poor and the hungry while we ignore the gnawing, systemic injustices that produce infinitely more poor and hungry people than we can ever care for.

 

One more corollary of Amos’ idea about social justice as worthy worship is captured in that notion that justice should be an “ever flowing stream.” Stamina in our righteous action is what it’s all about. And that brings us to the Gospel for this Sunday.

 

In the Gospel lesson (Matthew 25:1-13) for this day, Jesus adds his warning to that of Amos. “Don’t be like the foolish young maidens who are waiting for the best part of the wedding ritual to unfold as the groom comes to collect his bride to take her to their new home. Those foolish maidens aren’t prepared for the long wait. They don’t bring oil for their torches as they stand outside the bride’s home.

 

Don’t be foolish. Be prepared for the long haul!

 

We thought this election would be a break-through triumph, and that America would live up to its promise of being a beacon of democracy, goodness, mercy, and inclusive justice for the world. But the Bridegroom hasn’t arrived…yet. The Great Party has not started…yet.

 

The great gift of righteousness comes to us Christians as we join in the foretaste of the Great Party in the Eucharist. Even that seems just out of reach today as the Covid-19, in all of its horrid reality, keeps many of us physically apart. But if the Bible teaches us anything it is that the physical, while important, isn’t the essential thing. We still can be socially and spiritually together. We can believe in the foretaste. We can use our prayers and our Bible study to stay spiritually close to God. We can use Zoom and Facebook and Facetime to encourage each other.

 

But we must be like the wise maidens who brought oil for their torches. We must gird up our loins, set our faces like flint, organize for the long haul of politics, and endure.

 

We will get through this post-election letdown as we exercise the stamina of righteousness that God gives us through the Spirit of Christ.

 

Where is the God of righteousness? In our endurance!

 

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All Saints Sunday: Heaven Is Never Full

The second reading for All Saints Sunday, Year A, is Revelation 7:9–17.

 

The Book of Revelation gets a bad, and undeserved rap.  It’s Greek name is Apocalypse, and that has come to mean something catastrophic. But the word really means a message that reveals a deep truth. And rumor has it that the book is all about the destruction that is God’s ultimate punishment for evildoers and unbelievers. But, as the author of a fantastic Anchor-Yale Commentary on Revelation, Craig Koester, says, the book isn’t about destruction, but about the destruction of destruction.

 

Chapter 7 of Revelation starts with a scene that also gets taken out of context to make it seem like God is going to wind up with a tiny sliver of humanity that will go to heaven. Four angels who have the power to wreak damage on earth are told by another angel not to proceed until the slaves of God are marked with a seal. And the visionary author hears that 144,000 are marked out from the tribes of Israel. So, some read here that those saved by God will be a meager 144,000, proving that many are called, but few chosen.

 

But, verse four tells us plainly that John, the visionary author of the book, only “hears” that number 144,000. What he sees, starting with verse 9, is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” This infinite number of folk–this motley crew,  then proceeds to praise the Lord. What a scene!!!

 

Then, the whole of the heavenly host falls on the ground and gives glorious praise to God for what has happened.

 

Who are these mobs of people? What is happening here?

 

The heavenly joy is because this is what it’s all about. It’s plain that this is God’s will being fulfilled. And this is the very center of the faith of both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: not destruction, but the destruction of destruction—not the salvation of a few, but of a countless multitude—not just folk who look, believe, and act like us, but all sorts.

 

Our beloved United States of America used to believe in this sort of vision. We thought of ourselves as just a bit of the plot of God’s will. We used to be proud of the words of our Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We used to want our nation to look like heaven.

 

Our President, not too many months ago, said “America is full.” His administration has been unable to build much wall on the Mexican border, but it has certainly turned the screws on the locks of our border. It has gone even further and kicked out over 150,000 of the huddled, yearning masses who had run the gauntlet to be accepted as asylum applicants, and sent them back to the violence they had fled–while pretending it was all being done to protect us from the pandemic.

 

People who believe in the God of a heaven that is never full cannot accept that our vast nation has no room for the desperate. We cannot be among those who slam doors in the face of the deserving. We must speak against these policies, act out against them, and vote against them.

 

If we trust the God who gathers, we will turn and behold the host arrayed in white who have endured the ordeal. We will rejoice over God’s wide open arms so that we can join in the joy of the Great Party that our Lord has invited us to.

 

For this reason they are before the throne of God,

and worship him day and night within his temple,

and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

            They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike them,

nor any scorching heat;

            for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,

and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

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Pentecost 21 A: Be Holy, Not Holier Than Thou

The alternative Old Testament reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost is Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

 

The Lord directs Moses to lay down this foundation for all of Israel’s behavior: “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy.”

This is followed in our reading with social justice demands against judicial bias, slander, hatred, and violence within the kinship circle, or, indeed within the family of humankind (See Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus, Harper One, pp 208-214 for a discussion about the Hebrew word and concept of neighbor which indicates that foreigners of all kinds can also be “neighbors.”)

 

In these times of testing it is vital that we learn how to be both people of holiness and people who truly promote the belonging of all humankind.

Our reading contains the theological foundation of all of what scholars call the Holiness Code of Israel’s priests, from chapters 17 to 26 of Leviticus. Holiness is a catch-all adjective for God’s character. It is what sets God apart from all else: God is more powerful, but also more just and loving than all other people and things. Because Israel is expected to be God’s possession, the people of Israel are also expected to be set apart. President Abraham Lincoln called Americans to rise up into their “better angels,” and not to be dragged down to their baser instincts. And, perhaps, the idea of holiness is to demand more from one’s self, and not to whittle away one’s dignity and worth by constantly excusing, rationalizing, and compromising in the important matters of life.

Leviticus 19 has shaped some of the best of civilization. This has been true for our Jewish neighbors as they have regularly recited this call to holiness on the high holy days of Yom Kippur. Our Christian neighbors also have also read in the first chapter of 1 Peter, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” ’ (1:15–16). Thus we have reminded ourselves of what God is like, and what God’s people must also be. With good reason, therefore, faith communities have affirmed that holiness is central to the biblical understanding of who God is and who God’s people must be).

To be sure the “shall be” of this summons is aspirational, but aspiration is what it’s all about. It is the call to be a witnessing people, showing the world that things can be better, because we can be better.

There is indeed hope in God to see us through these troubled pandemic times, because people can be better. And we must be part of that process.

But this call to holiness is a good thing only when it is also a call to work for belonging. The call to holiness must be kept a call to be set apart as a witness to a hurting world, but never allowed to fall into devolving into “holier than thou” exclusivity–no longer witness, but barrier.

 

Leviticus carries the argument of Deuteronomy and the prophets, that God demands moral righteousness out of Israel, into the world of the Temple. It argues that ritual holiness is just as important as moral holiness. Our reading for this Sunday contains some of the social justice demands. But elsewhere in the Holiness Code, it is all about  proper slaughter, sacrifice, whom to marry, diet, the sacred calendar, etc. We modern readers may not understand why pork should be holy and beef not—or why it is so wrong to cross breed animals, or wear fabrics that combine different kinds of cloth.

Mary Douglas, in Leviticus as Literature, Oxford University Press, 1999 sees the priestly sensitivity at work in Leviticus as the attempt to bring order into experience.  She believes that the reason animals with cloven hooves that do not chew the cud were prohibited was simply that the ancient Israelites saw them as abnormal. The priestly writers of Leviticus didn’t like them because they liked their world  neatly divided into categories of holy and profane—normal and abnormal–inside and outside the circle. It gave them a sense of order and comfort. It gave them a sense of identity and normalcy. Under this principle a man with a bodily defect of any kind should be prohibited from service at the altar of the Temple, just as animals with defects could not be sacrificed (Leviticus 21 and 22).

As we say, Leviticus is the work of the priests who saw their role as keeping things tidy. But all of the Torah, or Law of God in the Old Testament isn’t like that. Deuteronomy keeps the focus on moral demands. The prophets emphasize social justice—read Amos; and Micah 6 tell us the Lord is not pleased with sacrifice, but, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There are biblical differences of opinion about what makes us holy, normal, and righteous.

I think we can learn good things from the priestly perspective. Priests and boosters of liturgics today are helpful when they say we humans are not just spiritual—we are also fleshly. As such we need things we can see and smell and touch and perform. Saying you love someone is fine, but the beloved crave ceremonies like weddings, tangible things like wedding rings, and a hug in the morning and before bed at night.

So, in this time of pandemic, when we are away from church, it is all that tangible stuff we miss. Yes, the hugs—but also the standing and sitting, and the smells of furniture polish, candles burning and the cross and altar before our eyes. So, it would be very healthy for us to do the priestly thing and brighten up our Zoom and Facebook sessions with some rituals of our own devising. Along with plenty of hugs for our family members who also are craving them.

But, again, we are mistaken when we use holiness to define normalcy, health, and boundary. When holiness is no longer witness, it works against God’s ideal of belonging.

If it is order that the priests of Leviticus are after, we must, at all cost, prevent order from becoming a false standard of normalcy. We all, of course, prefer our own way of life. We develop a comfort with people who look, believe, and act like ourselves. Out of this preference it is easy for us to think of our way as the only way, the normal way, or God’s way. This, of course, is the opposite of the opening verse of Leviticus 17. Instead of thinking, “God is holy, therefore I must be holy like God,” we are subconsciously thinking, “God must be holy in the way I am holy.”

john a. powell (he prefers lower case), University of California, Berkeley, Law School Professor, and head and founder of its Othering and Belonging Institute has realized that many of progressive or liberal attempts at “inclusion” fail because we subconsciously are asking too high a price for inclusion. The other must give up their ways and their identity. They must adopt our ways to become part of our group or our club.

This is the dark side of “holiness” that makes not only morality and social justice the standard, but also ritual—also doing things the way we have decided is holy.

As an aside it is interesting to note that the only two unequivocal condemnations of homosexuality in the Jewish Bible come from the priestly Leviticus. So, are these commands moral, or are they about ritual? Are they really God’s demand for all people, or are they what is considered “normal” and “orderly” by Israel’s priests?

 

What should be our standard of holiness in this time of pandemic? It should be one of witness and summons to our “higher angels.” It should be holiness, but not “holier than thou.” It should be something that lifts us all higher by bringing us all together in the circle of belonging that is God’s goal and purpose for us all.

So, we should wear masks and advocate for our whole nation to be on the same page and work together to stop or at least slow the virus so that we can “open up.” But we should never do these things with an air of superiority, and allow ourselves to despise the other. And we should all be honest about the unfairness of our structures that mean that the poor and the people of color in our neighborhoods get sick and die from the virus at a much higher rate than the privileged; but we should do our advocacy as acts of witness and love for the other, not as scolds who push others further and further away.

We should summon ourselves and our neighbors to a belonging that is marked by being holy as God is holy, not by being holier than thou.

 

[Bibliographical note: Many of the above insights into the Holiness Code are taken from Collins, J. J. (2004). Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: an inductive reading of the Old Testament (pp. 146–148). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.]

 

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Pentecost 20A: Used by Trump or by God?

The alternative Old Testament Reading for this Sunday is Isaiah 45:1-7, where the Lord calls up Cyrus to be used as an instrument to subdue nations, strip kings of their robes, and open doors for the returning exiles.

 

And in the Gospel Reading, Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees, along with their political enemies, the sycophants around the puppet governor, Herod Antipas, collaborate to try to trap Jesus into an appearance of  treason by asking him if he approves of paying taxes to the emperor. Jesus’ famous retort is to note the emperor’s image on coins and say, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Roman coin with the image of Emperor Tiberius.

Roman coin with the image of Emperor Tiberius.

It is high time Christians understand who this world belongs to. It is time to remember who is in charge. It is time to remember our absolute allegiance is owed not to a party, a President, an ideology…but to God alone.

 

My sister is hurting. My wife is hurting. I am hurting. We are hurting because we see those we love being hoodwinked into putting the emperor above God.

 

These people we love, and who should know better, now say that Donald Trump is anointed by God. They look past the constant flow of lies, the politicization of health care, the denial of climate disaster, the immigrant children in cages, the affairs with porn stars, the use of the Bible and a church building as props in a photo op, the childish name calling, the lack of leadership on a pandemic, et cetera, all because they believe this man is chosen by God.

 

I am terribly sad and alarmed by Christian loved ones who are being deceived and used by Donald Trump and the very worst voices of the Republican Party. (Where are all the honorable Republicans hiding?)

 

Indeed, Trump has been hard at work trying to harvest the fruits of decades of propaganda by the Republicans that have deceived “evangelical” Christians into thinking a perversion of a conservative political agenda takes precedence over God’s call to justice, mercy, and universal gathering into the banquet of salvation.

 

One of the tragic distortions that evangelicals have fallen into is to declare that, “Yes, Donald Trump may be imperfect, and yes, he might not ever ask for God’s forgiveness, or be a true- believer Christian. But he is just like the Persian King Cyrus, who God in Isaiah declares is an anointed one—a messiah—a Christ of sorts.”

 

But the true point Isaiah makes is that Cyrus is a tool. The book earlier says that oppressive and destructive Assyrian kings were also tools of God’s punishment. But the highest sort of human error, to Isaiah, is to be so arrogant as to think and act as if you are not the ax, but the hand that wields it. God is the hand—kings are his instruments—be they Assyrian, Babylonian, or Persian. Do not forget who is in control—who this world belongs to!

 

In Isaiah 10:15, the prophet pronounces doom upon arrogance that thinks otherwise.

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,

or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?

As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,

or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

 

Jesus Christ, in our Gospel Reading, warns us not to be used by any political leader, be it the Emperor or the Emperor’s puppets. But there is a God who rightly uses us. To the former, we give our coins. To the latter, we give our ultimate allegiance—our hearts and souls.

 

Do not sell your soul!  If you are a Christian, consider that you may be doing just that by putting stumbling blocks in front of little ones who are looking to you. If those little ones see that you are selling out your faith to political expediency, they will be repulsed. Their way to the cross of Christ may be blocked. If they see you turn from the cries for justice coming from the world’s immigrants, the victims of white supremacy and gun violence, and those who have been shut out of the church because of the many labels used by those who want to hold onto power and privilege—and especially if they see you doing all that while you sanctimoniously misquote the Bible—then you will be judged by God harshly indeed. You will be putting up awful stumbling blocks for the little ones. And it would be better if a great millstone were fastened around your neck, and you were thrown into the sea (Matthew 18.6).

 

Dear ones: If you truly are used by God, please don’t let yourself be used by Donald Trump!

 

 

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Pentecost 19A: God’s Terrible, Terrific Expectations

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Matthew 22:1-14, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.

 

As we listen to Jesus as church members, we are generally okay with the first part. The king is God, the son is Jesus, the banquet is for us. Those lazy, distracted people at home watching the football game, playing golf, working on their laptops, or shopping online – they aren’t us. We are the good folk from the streets. We are the gentiles/Protestants, not those Jews who crucified Jesus.

 

But then there is the part about the king who sees the man with no wedding garment. “How dare you? Slaves, throw him out into the outer darkness!”

 

Martin Luther called this a “terrible gospel.” His first thought was ours, “How could a king expect a person swept up off the streets, to have a wedding garment?”

 

But there is something terrific in this terror. It is bad news at the service of the Good News.

 

Matthew shows us Jesus, from the moment he sets foot in Jerusalem, showing us how radically universalistic God’s gathering is. But Jesus accompanies this with a word about how terrifying and terrific God’s expectation of us is. The two things are essential to each other. God’s gift of welcome and belonging is the thing that empowers our actions of love and justice. And our love and justice activates faith and enriches us with faith’s fullness.

 

All this is laid out in dramatic fashion in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ first days in Jerusalem. Immediately upon his entrance, Jesus cleanses the Temple of those who would cheat and rob the poor who need to buy those little doves to sacrifice. He opens the Kingdom to the poor.

 

Then it’s the blind and the lame. Since the days of David it was customary to think these people must have been impure and deserved their punishment from God. Surely they were not worthy to enter the holy Temple precincts. But Jesus heals them and opens the Temple and Kingdom to the “invalid ones” or “the handicapped.”

 

Then it’s the children. It’s just like people to say they love the children, yet neglect and overlook them. The official gatekeepers thought surely the Temple is no place for children! But Jesus says, “Haven’t you heard, out of the mouths of babes and infants, God’s praise rings loud. We need those praises here. And so Jesus opens the Kingdom to children.

 

And the gathering is more radical—more universal still. What about the grave sinners like the prostitutes and the hated tax collectors? Jesus says, “Well they recognized that the way of righteousness is one of repentance. They repented, and so they will be in the Kingdom before you who are only self righteous.” He opens the Kingdom to the worst of sinners.

So, Jesus was opening the gates of God’s Temple and God’s Kingdom wide. But he was also telling the terrible and terrific truth that God expects great things of all who are gathered.

 

In a dramatic, prophetic act he curses a fig tree that is not producing figs. God expects us to grow and produce.

 

To those who hate him—those who think Israel is God’s precious vineyard—and don’t like Jesus disturbing its peace–he tells the parable of the of the two sons: One tells his father, “yes,” I will work for you in the vineyard. The other says “no,” but thinks better of it and does go and work. It’s obvious the God who gathers all people into the Kingdom expects the people he has gathered together to help him gather others.

 

Further with this idea of vineyard work, Jesus reminds the self-righteous gate-keepers of Temple and Kingdom that there will be dire consequences if they keep refusing to join in the gathering.

 

Then it’s our gospel reading for this Sunday. Yes, the king has every right to expect those gathered into the Great Banquet to at least wear a wedding robe. Yes, God has every right to expect us to help him in the gathering of all the others–good and bad alike.

 

But this isn’t just about God’s right to expect. It is about the fact that gathering is a beginning not an end. It is about the truth that the only way to enjoy the life of faith is to live it. The only way to be a person of faith is to live that faith through acts of love and justice.

 

Since its earliest days people have formally entered the church through baptism; and as they are baptized they are given new clothes. In ancient days it was a white robe. Today it might be a pretty baptismal gown for a child. And the robe or gown is an outward symbol of that inward great expectation. In our baptism we die to our old selves and rise to the new. We profess faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church. We renounce the devil, all his empty promises, and the forces that defy God. We renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God.

 

In our lives we affirm our baptism as we hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serve all people following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

 

Jesus calls this the way of righteousness. This is the fruit he expects from the vineyard he has planted in our hearts. This is the robe of the wedding banquet.

 

And only when we live toward these expectations do we experience the fullness of what it means to be invited, gathered, and welcomed into the Great Party that is the family of God.

 

Today, as never before, the global pandemic, the fresh awareness of inequity and injustice, and the ways that the world is bleeding over hidden resentments, together make it more important than ever for Christians to help God in the gathering. The only way the world will know that God is gathering is if we become open our ears, our arms, and our hearts to one another in the name of God. the only way our nation and world will heal r many wounds is if those gathered live toward God’s expectations.

 

God expects us to wear masks, care for one another, stand up for justice and fairness, and be his people. It is a terrible, but terrific expectation.

 

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Pentecost 18a: Are You Talking About Us Jesus?

The Gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost is Matthew 21:33-26.

 

Jesus has entered Jerusalem as the humble, Suffering Servant Messiah that he is. Some, who Jesus likens to infants and nursing babies, hail him rightly as the Son of David. But the elite religious teachers refuse to accept his authority.

 

Jesus then tells them a parable, which is his way of getting under and around the arrogant defenses of the religious leaders. The parable builds on the ancient idea that Israel is God’s precious vineyard. The parable adds the elements of God’s extreme care for the vineyard, but also the vicious treachery of the vineyard tenants who not only refuse to give up the vineyard’s produce, but go as far as beating the master’s slave agents, and finally the owners own beloved son.

 

When Jesus concludes that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce its fruits, the chief priests and Pharisees finally figure out he is talking about them.

 

One of the most difficult things for modern American Christians to understand is that Jesus is reaching out not to each of them as individuals, but to the plural—the community—the world. It’s about you, plural. It’s about us and we. The Lord’s Prayer is plural from beginning to end. It is addressed to Our Father. When we long for bread, it is for the whole world. There is no forgiveness of sins unless we build a network of grace that can cope with our sins.

 

The morality of the Bible is tilted strongly toward a corporate morality—a communitarian concern. The Ten Commandments is all about holding our society together. And when Paul scolds the Corinthians, it’s because of their arrogance over personal spiritual gifts that distorts Christian ethics. The supper they take is not the Lord’s Supper because they do not discern that the Body of Christ is the wholeness of the community of believers.

 

In this pandemic we are paying the price for our blindness to the plural in theology and morality. Those who refuse to curtail their business dealings, and refuse to wear masks, shout about this being a free country. They are free to do what they want with what is theirs. For them America is all about me and mine. They can go so far as to say that religious freedom is the individual freedom to do what they please, no matter what it does to the community. The word “socialism” is detestable to them because it puts the concerns of society above the concern for self.

 

So, when Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants, he is talking about us. He is saying that God gave his Son not because he loved “me” so much—it was because he so loved the world.

 

When we wake up and think beyond “my” individual freedom and rights, and look to the good of the community and of the world, we will discover the blessing of being part of the New Creation—the  Kingdom that God is shaping in the body and blood of Christ.

 

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