Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Questions II

As I mentioned in last week's post, we held a "Question and Answer" weekend at St. Paul's recently, and Pastor Karen and I fielded written questions from the various congregations during our five weekly worship services. The questions we didn't have time to address are the subject of this Blog over the next few weeks. Here are a couple more questions:

If God is perfect, why did God allow sin and an angel to become Satan?

And related to that:

Does God forgive Satan?

The second question is a little like the questions the sophists asked during the Dark Ages: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? or Can God make a rock too big for God to lift?

Does God forgive Satan? Or put it in "Christian" terms, Does the redemptive power of Jesus extend even to Satan? Of course, the answer is unknowable. Could God forgive Satan? God can forgive anybody. What of the redemptive power of Jesus being able to bail Satan's butt out? Yes, I'm sure the redemptive power of the Christ Event could even redeem the devil. But beyond this wild speculation, we just don't know, nor do we need to. What we DO know is that God forgives any human who asks, and that the redemptive action of Jesus is able to transform anyone who desires for it to happen. The Bible is our main source for any information about God, and it does not address the question, Does God forgive Satan?

The first question, If God is perfect, why did God allow sin and an angel to become Satan? is much more interesting.

What do we mean when we say God is perfect? Are we using human understandings of perfection? Greek philosophical categories of perfection? The Hebrew descriptions of God in the Old Testament talk of a God who "mixes it up" with the human creation: arguing with Moses (and losing some of those arguments!); wrestling with Jacob; getting angry at Israel's lame-brain actions; and playing a game of "Survivor" with a guy named Job. This is not the "god" of Greek philosophy who is the "unmoved mover," or the Greek Gnostic construct of God who is so perfect and "pure" that God has to be in "a galaxy far, far away" from the human condition because God's utter perfection doesn't let God be any where near sin. While the writers of the Hebrew scriptures may be accused of overly anthropomorphizing God (applying human characteristics to deity), the reality of God's interactions with the Jews and which Christians through the coming of Jesus DO seem to demonstrate a God who chooses to relate to the human creation quite actively. I don't think we can say God is perfect anymore than the Bible does. The Bible talks of God's WAYS being perfect, although a better way to say it might be: "God's ways are perfected." Another text in the Psalms says "God's WORKS are perfect." Well, I would expect that God is pretty good at what God chooses to do. What, then, does the Bible say about God being "perfect"?

It says that God is LOVE, and that perfect LOVE casts out all fear. What is perfect about God is God's LOVE. Now that is something you can take to the bank. Perfect love "never leaves us or forsakes us." Perfect love is patient, kind, etc. Perfect love always holds out the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation, never jerking it back in anger or because, "Sorry, time's UP." Perfect love affords full freedom to its object--us and the creation. I often use the example of a loving parent as an analog for how I understand God being with God's children. A loving parent never stops loving a child; a loving parent provides lavishly for a child, while at the same time teaching the child how to be self-sustaining and productive; and a loving parent gradually gives a maturing child freedom to become the person she/he is to become, even when this seems fraught with risk. To protect, shelter, and coddle a child beyond the days of infancy and childhood becomes a form of abuse. "Helicoptering" parents are usually more selfish and controlling than loving, and may even cross the boundary to living vicariously through her or his child.

If God is a loving parent, God necessarily grants great freedom to the human creation. This freedom includes the ability to rebel, go in a direction in life quite counter to what is fruitful, or even safe, and to "sin with the best of them." Imagine if God had made us to automatically do the right thing, never free to "choose" our own directions and actions? Wouldn't we be automatons? Human robots? How much "life" would that be for us? And if God's purpose in creating us was to be able to have a relationship with us and to enable us to live abundant lives in this beautiful world God created, would this fulfill God's aim? Who wants to relate to something "programed" to love us and to be limited to a list of approved activities? What makes our most intimate relationships so fulfilling is that we choose the persons to whom we relate in this way, and they choose to reciprocate. Without the choice it is not a relationship but a contract, or maybe worse.

Jews and Christians believe in a God who does grant these freedoms and choices, and who invites us to follow, love and relate to the deity. Christians believe that God even "came down" among us in Jesus Christ to fully experience the human condition--especially the temptations of it--and to show us a better way of relating (there's that perfect love again).

Regarding the second part of the question--about allowing an angel to become Satan--we are back to some serious speculation again. The Bible says very little about this. Some of the extra-biblical literature talks more about the apocryphal understanding of Satan being originally Lucifer, a "top angel" who decided to stage a coup in heaven, and was banished to the earth. But if that is what did happen, in some cosmic drama, it would be for the same reason as why humans are "free." The few informational references we have about angels indicate that they are a created order--different from humans, which Psalm 8 says are God's crowning achievements. Angels have a defined job: they are messengers. As a created order, they don't share many of God's attributes, other than they are either immortal or at least have very long lifespans (we have no tales of angels dying, although there are apocalyptic references which talk of Satan being "thrown into the lake of fire," which sounds like capital punishment to me).

I find speculating about angels unfulfilling. I think there are angels, and in the Bible, they usually bear a message or a warning. Some of the descriptions of angels in the Bible make them sound like horrible looking, scary creatures. There is a reason why the first thing they say when they encounter a human is: "Be not afraid." If any of those "living creatures" surrounding the throne of God in the Book of Revelation are angels, well, good luck not freaking out when you meet one! Hollywood and Hallmark have given us our "nice" images of angels, and I'm OK with that, as long as we aren't too disappointed when we come face to face with a real one.

Let's summarize: God loves perfectly; God, in this love, creates us as "friends" and gives us a beautiful world in which to live and thrive; and God grants the freedoms necessary for us to choose how we will live this life and to whom we will relate. However, freedom allows for some bad choices and selfish living, just as it allows for affirming, joyous and "others-centered" ones. Let me finish on this note: I read recently that the motto of the Franciscans (a Catholic order following the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi) is: Engineering people for others. I like that. God's perfect love caused God to give us more freedom than this, but here is a group whose goal is to help put the crown on God's human creation by helping us become the kind of children that our Parent God would be very proud to have! Shalom!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Questions...

The Sunday after Easter of this year, Rev. Karen Slusser and I invited questions from the congregation via cards handed out to attendees as they arrived for worship in each of our five worship services. We addressed quite a number of these questions during the typical "sermon time," but were not able to take a shot at all of them because of time constraints, and I promised to get to those questions via this Blog. So, here goes...

With one God, why so many religions?

First of all, some might say that these various religious manifestations witness to more than one god. There are those who say that Muslims worship a different god than Jews or Christians. And this will always be a point of debate, I suppose. My take is that we, as human beings, have in intrinsic need to seek a wider, bigger, or encompassing truth, and that causes us to seek a divine being, or a divine mind that is behind our reality, drawing us together, in spite of our cultural, racial, philosophical, or socio-economic differences. Whether such a being exists is a matter of faith, as no proof (at least one that meets the criteria of science) exists. While the various religions have stories and beliefs codified in holy writ, or passed down by oral tradition or legends, we all tend to view deity from intensely personal angles, based upon our experience. The good news here is that we can imagine a God who cares for me as well as the we of the wider community or world. The bad news is that we can fall prey to something Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th Century philosopher and anthropologist said: God is just our own humanity writ large. It would seem, therefore that the various religions are our attempts, within our cultures and human communities, to draw some tighter boundaries around what is "human" and what is "divine," and how the two entities interact. If this is true, then the next question is: Is God at work in all of these religions?

To that, I would answer yes, but I have to admit, my answer is connected with my own Christian faith. In the Christian scriptures (II Corinthians, chapter 5), it states to God is in Christ, reconciling the world to god-self. My belief system understands that the coming of the Christ into the world necessarily begins God's effort to find covenant, community, and relationship with humankind. Therefore, I don't question the "how" of that, and accept on faith that God really is working through the Christ Event to connect with all of God's people. Therefore, I believe God is at work in all faiths where people are seeking to "connect" with God, and to be reconciled with her or his creator. I put Jesus at the center of this effort. Obviously, I am not free to force this belief on persons who don't put the same degree of trust in Jesus, but this give me hope that--because it is God's effort--we will all eventually be brought into a benevolent relationship with God and each other, in time.

At this point in history, however, we continue to explore and seek faith through our cultural and religious differences. Even as Feuerbach's critique is a cautionary boundary, so is any doctrine of exclusivity by any one faith. If the Christian holds to her or his faith expression as being the "one true" one, or the Muslim, or the Hindu, then human boundaries are erected that create conflict and subdue necessary and helpful religious conversation. Isn't that just what we see happening? If we believe in a God big enough to be the creative force behind the processes which resulted in the universe and this world, can we also have confidence in that God to guide us toward a peaceful human community that manifests acceptance, compassion, understanding, and the ability to cohabit in said world? If our religion doesn't foster respect, one for the other, then it is a false religion.

How can we encourage other United Methodist Churches to be more accepting and diverse?

This question seemed to relate, to some degree, to the larger one above of "one God, many religions." United Methodist churches each have their own "cultures," history, and contexts, like the various religions referred to in this earlier question. As such, we have our different understandings. St. Paul's is generally a more progressive church whereby inclusiveness is a core value for us. This doesn't mean that we hold to one particular theological, political, or social philosophy, necessarily, but that we have decided as a church that the "open doors" part of our United Methodist promotional slogan, Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors is central to our congregation's ministry and witness.

Mr. Wesley wrote and preached about a few "essentials" of the Methodist faith: Jesus Christ as the central figure in God's redemptive action; the Bible as our main source of information about our faith; and the wider Christian Church as the "Body of Christ" in the world. He said if a person accepted these "essentials," then he would relate to that person as a fellow Christian. However, there are many points of life and faith which Wesley called the "non-essentials," about which we should "think and let think," meaning we can sometimes "agree to disagree," or to continue in conversation about without breaking our relationships with each other. This is something unique to Methodism. The danger here is that we grab some of those "non-essentials" and try to make them "essentials," using them as a proverbial "litmus test" of another's faith. What we think about the "hot-button" issues of our time such as abortion or sexual orientation, how we "do Communion," or for whom to vote are things we can continue to debate, seek more light about, and work out within the faith community.

Even as St. Paul's seeks to be a "broad-based community of faith" that welcomes all persons, some United Methodist churches make evangelism or missions and outreach their highest core value. I have always said that a healthy denomination has churches that understand these "contextual" or spirit-gift-driven values, and ministers according to them. Our church will appeal to folk who may not be reached by a church that offers only contemporary worship or where the preaching is mostly aimed at "the unsaved." And vice versa. We should be OK with that, and not want every church--even every United Methodist Church--to look alike.

That said, there are elements of welcome and inclusiveness which need to be on our denomination-wide agenda. Ethnic and racial diversity should be a universal goal for all of our churches. If we are not diverse, why? What keeps persons of color or persons of a different national origin from attending our churches? These are important questions for us to ask. Many of us believe it is time for the denomination to end religious discrimination against LGBT persons, allowing them to be ordained for ministry and supported in their quest for equality as citizens. Not everyone is there yet, but the world and many of our faith partners (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, to name a few) are passing us by. As was stated earlier, Mr. Wesley believed, "In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty--we think and let think..." But there was a third part to this philosophy: "...and in all things, CHARITY (love)." May God's Spirit guide us as we seek to become "more accepting and diverse."

Next week, we'll look at a couple more of the submitted questions. Hope this was helpful. Shalom, Dear Ones!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Jesus is Rising...

Every Easter, we pastors stand in front of our congregations--usually swelled to capacity by the mystical "call" to turn out for the Resurrection Story--and begin the service with "He is RISEN!," to which the congregation has been conditioned to respond: "He is RISEN, INDEED!" And then comes the impressive music by the choir, brass, pipe organ, praise band, or what-have-you. Oh, and if you are a Methodist, you will sing the rousing Charles Wesley classic, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today!" What are we celebrating?

It is a tenet of orthodox Christianity that Jesus the Christ, the unique God-human being who embodied both the full attributes of humanity and the full attributes of divinity, was crucified by religious leaders and Roman authorities, and on the third day, arose from the dead, fulfilling various Bible prophesies, including his own promise to arise. Christians since that historic first century have affirmed a "bodily resurrection" whereby Jesus was physically raised, although conservatives and progressive theologians alike espouse that more happened on that first Easter than just a "resuscitation" of the physical body of Jesus. The Apostle Paul refers to the resurrected Jesus as the "first born of the dead," and the "second Adam," setting forth the idea that Christ--in his risen form--was a kind of "prototype" or hybrid being who was both a physical being and an eternal being as well. In the general epistle of I John, the author suggests that in eternity, we will be given this same "eternal body" like Christ models in the resurrection. It is an intriguing thought: a physical body with form and feeling and "looks," but one that isn't touched by time, disease, or the "Dorian Gray" effects of aging. Which brings up another question: if this is so, how "old" will we be "frozen" at in this eternal visage? Well, if we want to play that game, how about this: if it is an "eternal" body no longer subject to linear, temporal bounds, maybe we can be any age we want to be at any given moment? If I don't live to see 90, maybe I can "run up" there in Heaven and check it out? Or maybe an infant who perished gets to "grow up" and experience a full life, maybe in the presence of the perpetually grieving family which lost her or him? We could do this kind of speculation all day long, and about all we might end up with would be a "B" screenplay.

I don't know what happened on that first Easter some 2,000 years ago. I can confess to what I believe, but that's about it, at least when it comes to Jesus being physically raised from the dead. But what I can clearly see is the on-going evidence of whatever happened back then, and the continuing rising of the life, teachings, and reconciling power of Jesus in us today. The Christian experience continues to transform lives--we hear stories of this every week. The media is full of usual and unusual testimonies of people "finding God," kicking addictions, being reunited with loved ones via God's program of reconciling people to God and people to people. This stuff is certainly real and has staying power. I suggested to my Easter congregation at St. Paul's that we should change that greeting to "Christ is RISING! In YOU and in ME!

How real is this unfolding Christ experience? Just ask someone who has been changed by it--or someone who is being changed by it. Or, if you belong to a mainline denomination church (such as my own United Methodist Church), and know how we seem so adept at making lame-brain decisions and creating unnavigable structures, the incarnational miracle is that we are STILL here, and even growing in many places! If this isn't evidence of divine resurrection power, I don't know what is!

In the final few years of my ministry and the whatever number of years of my life, I think I'm going to stop talking about something that supposedly happened over 2,000 years ago that I didn't witness, and start pointing others--and myself--to the "rising" Christ who continues to break into the human condition and reconcile us all to God. Oh, some of my colleagues will say, "Are you denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus?" No. With apologies to the apocryphal "Gandhi-ism": I'm just trying to BE the resurrection I want to see in others and in the world. Less "living for Jesus," and more "living WITH Jesus," I guess. Won't you join me?

This Sunday, St. Paul's is doing a kind of "stump the pastor" thing whereby we're passing out note cards and inviting members of the congregation to submit questions for Rev. Karen and I to answer during the message time. If we get a bunch more good questions than we can address on Sunday, watch for a few of then to turn up here on my blog. Could be intriguing...Shalom, All!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...