Friday, October 29, 2021

Trick or Treat...

 


“Trick or Treat”

 

Deuteronomy 6:1-9


6:1 Now this is the commandment--the statutes and the ordinances--that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy,

6:2 so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.

6:3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

6:6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

6:7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

6:8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,

6:9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

 

 

Given that this is Reformation Sunday, I suppose you could say that the original door-knocking “Trick or Treater” was a monk by the name of Martin Luther. As we know, he was doing scholarly work in the Book of Romans, and had developed a real “thing” for salvation by faith ALONE, based on his understanding of “Sola Scriptura,” or biblical scripture as the most reliable source for defining and practicing our Christian beliefs. And, as an Augustinian friar, he was quite aware of the trappings of rules and church-made law that his Roman Catholic expression of faith was creating, almost as if they were trying to spin a “web” in which to entrap church members, making it essential for them to seek forgiveness through the church. This, in turn, gave more power to the church, especially over the lives of its people. So, Luther “summarized” his objections into “95 theses” (obviously his disdain had been brewing for some time) and knock-knock-knocked on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, as he—or as they say today—“nailed it.” Of course no one opened the door because they didn’t have “treats” for him. In fact, over the subsequent years, they had a few tricks of their own. Depending on how you look at it, Luther “won,” and a new expression of faith called “Protestantism” came into being. Exactly what we have been protesting has never been all that clear, and some might even say that what was born was a “contentiousness” into the Body of Christ that would fracture it into many, many smaller “pieces,” each claiming some truth of Christology, social justice, salvation, or church law and practice as their own, and in it, they would claim to be the solitary “right” ones. Even within my own United Methodist denomination, this fracturing is only too prevalent, with one half claiming “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” and the other adopting “Let There be Peace on Earth” as its theme. If only dear Charles Wesley could have known that his “O For a Thousand Tongues” would someday wind up meaning those tongues were “wagging” and slandering each other, he might have held off writing it.

 

But today, we’ll look at one of the alternate Lectionary passages, and examine a different kind of “Trick or Treat.” The passage is the one above: Deuteronomy 6:1-9.

 

Both the left and the right side of the Bible are rife with “commands.” The ancient people of God—Israel—is commanded by God to exhibit certain behaviors, and eschew others. They are told to honor their parents, and not covet their neighbor’s stuff. In some of the old law code, they are told not to touch dead flesh, not to mix fabrics in their clothing, and not to eat red meat with dairy. But the text today includes much information about why Israel—and all believers in Yahweh—are to “obey” the commands of God, and builds a kind of theological bridge to Jesus in the New Testament, and how he appropriates the commands of God.

 

There are various threads throughout religious faith as to what God had commanded God’s people, and just as many different ways to understand why God’s people should follow these commands. Simplistically, following the commands of God become a kind of “Trick or Treat”—do what God says, and you get a TREAT; ignore or violate what God says to do or not do, and you get the TRICK—some kind of painful and/or eternal judgment. Obeying the commands of God is done, in this model, to keep GOD happy, and ourselves out of trouble. But like “Trick or Treating,” this is a “child’s game” understanding as to what is behind the commands. Let’s scratch a little deeper.

 

Why, do you think, God gives commands to God’s people? There are truly practical reasons. Why would God give the command about mixing fabrics in the primitive law code? Well, first of all, we must acknowledge that the law code is being filtered through the experience of the writers. (We’ll not argue in today’s message as to the “inspiration” of the writers, but look instead to the “whys” that may be behind the commands.) Let’s look at the one about mixing fabrics in a weave. Why would “God” say that two different fabrics shouldn’t be mixed in a single garment? While we don’t have a definitive answer to this. Even the great Rabbis don’t know, labeling this as a chok, which is a law passed by a king for his subjects, but that may have no “practical” reason. It may have to do with mixing the sacred with the profane. Some threads or fabrics have a royal history, while others, such as plant-based thread, is quite mundane. To wear clothing woven out of both “sacred” and “profane” thread may have been thought to be dishonoring to Yahweh. Another thought is that these two threads have very different origins and values, and mixing the two denigrates the worth of the cloth, and therefore the person wearing it. It also may have to do with Israel’s desire to keep their ancestral lineage pure, and possibly one type of thread, say, the plant-based, such as flax or cotton, is that of another culture, and sourcing them may encourage mixing cultural heritage. So, the “command” may have practical roots in history.

 

Here’s another: eating red meat and dairy products together. My dietitian/wife tells me that in more primitive cultures, where diets may be limited and absorption of necessary vitamins and minerals essential to the survival of pre-scientific peoples, if one eats red meat with dairy together, the body may not receive the iron from the red meat, and its nutritional value is much depleted, especially if this practice is widespread. 

 

These kinds of “commands,” while having their actual root in practical efficacy, are “sold” to God’s people as being things that are “pleasing” to God, as otherwise, people may not take them seriously, especially in their most primitive context. As children, our parents taught us that “NO” was meant to be yielded to, and no “reasons” were important. As we aged through adolescence, keeping our parents’ “commands,” we learned, made our parents “happy” and built trust with them. Hence, we “obeyed” their commands, because we liked the fringe benefits of their trust. As we continued to grow, though, we grew to question the reasons behind their “commands,” and if our parents never grew beyond the “because I said so” rationale, we rebelled. To a degree, the same thing happened to people of faith. If the reason for the commands didn’t get taught along with the commands themselves, God’s people may rebel.

 

I remember that as a teenager, I had forged a working relationship with my parents and their “commands,” because they explained that their rules were designed to help us “live in peace” together, and to protect me, especially because being so much younger and inexperienced, I may not yet fully understand how to protect myself, or to make the wisest decisions about my actions. Some of my preferred behaviors may be unnecessarily and prematurely threatening to my wellbeing. As I complied with their simple and fair rules, they invested more trust in me, and I found this trust to be a welcome commodity! I had a number of envious friends. A few of them had parents who appeared to be quite controlling and/or set rules that were way over the top, and other friends rebelled early, and sacrificed the trust of their parents. Either way, their privileges were often very limited, while I enjoyed many and varied ones. I remember that the weekend after I passed my driver’s test, my father offered me the keys and saying, “Would you like to take the car? We don’t need it tonight.” Their rules for using the family vehicle were reasonable, and I was happy with the freedom. For the ensuring years, I would never choose to betray their trust, as I enjoyed the privileges that came with it, as well as the peace it brought to the parent/child relationship.

 

These personal metaphors for how God was offering freedom and trust to Israel, as well as a mutual, blessed, and peaceful relationship. The “commands and rules” were designed to keep Israel safe, build trust between them and their creator, make an environment where community and harmony between neighbors, and even sojourners in the land, was possible.

 

Whether these “rules of engagement” between God, Israel, and others were revealed directly from God (such as is reported in the story of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses), and/or were filtered through the human community and compiled by the human authors, can be debated, but it makes little difference in what the central reason for them appears to be. Too often, Israel (and we?) falsely believe that obedience to the commands placates Deity and fends off anger and judgment of same. This behavior is juvenile, like the child who wants the “treat” rather than the “trick,” and is “good” to get a pleasant reward, yet fearing the consequences for disobedience. The adult grows out of the more simplistic rules and parental commands, and then participates in formulating ones to help their community thrive and prosper, while maintaining harmony. Such was the case with Israel when she acted like an “adult.” The scriptures include many of these “childhood” rules in the ancient law code. When Paul talks about growing up and “putting away childish things” in I Corinthians 13, this may be exactly what he was talking about!

 

This weekend’s lection from Deuteronomy offers a scriptural challenge to see the “higher function” of the law. Verse 6:3 says, Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. Following the law for the law’s (Gods?) sake is a dead end, but observing the laws, rules, and commands of God will build a bridge to the “Promised Land,” leading to prosperity. They are guidelines to cooperation, collaboration, and resource-sharing, and they give us wonderful insights into the heart of our Creator and the Creator’s goal for humanity and its relationships with the Deity and each other. God’s love is a love of and for community, is an “ordered” love, and is partly defined by the rules, laws, and commands that help create and maintain community. Grace is the grease of these intertwined relationships, and the energy that sustains them. Forgiveness and salvation are the mechanisms of healing offenses and restoring relationships when violations of the life-giving commands occur.

 

For Israel, the words of “salvation” and faith are summarized in verses 6:4 and 5: Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Verse four is the beginning of the great Hebrew Shema Yisrael, a central prayer of God’s people. For the Christian believer, it is significant that Jesus Christ begins his “adult” teachings with the Shema, and builds the Sermon on the Mount on this foundation, teaching his followers how to “grow up” into the fullness of God’s love and grace by passionately embracing God and these teachings “with all your heart, soul, and might.” And Jesus himself offers all of the salvation, forgiveness, and necessary “fixes” to offer a permanent relationship with the Creator, and to build and sustain a loving relationship with ALL of God’s people.

 

These verses in Deuteronomy are essential to life with God and life with God’s people. They are a balm to the individual soul, and a glue to link it to all other souls. They begin a “higher level” community that is further perfected and empowered in Jesus Christ, and extended through the present and into the future through the continued presence of God’s Spirit in the heart of the believer, in the world, and in the community of faith. It is time for the whole of human community to “grow up,” and eschew the “Trick or Treat” style of childishly “keeping the rules” or “following the law,” believing this will please God. This juvenile behavior has actually enabled the kinds of boundary-drawing and exclusion that divides the people of God. In this error, only the “good” get the treats; others get the “trick” of exile and judgment. In this season of Halloween, we enjoy seeing the little ones dressing up in costumes and going door to door collecting a bagful of goodies. It’s not “cute” if someone is still doing this when they are in the twenties. Such is too often the situation in the Body of Christ today when rule-following and tight interpretation of biblical laws serves to cut people off (the “trick”) rather than link them together into a loving community where the wounded are healed and the well-off hone their generosity and fully share their power. When Jesus gave “new” commands to “love one another” and “the last shall be first,” he was announcing that humanity was now being given the tools to “grow up into the fullness of God.” Amen!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Your Alarm's Going Off...




Your Alarm’s Going Off…

 

Mark 10:46-52


10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

10:47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

10:48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"

10:49 Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."

10:50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

10:51 Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again."

10:52 Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

 

 

What goes through your mind when your alarm goes off in the morning? 

 

Of course, now that I’m retired, I rarely have to set my alarm any more, but when I do, a lot of “processes” are kicked into motion—pretty much the same ones that governed my “working” life. First, the brain kicks into high gear and processes the answer to this question: “Do I HAVE to get up right now?” If the answer is “No,” I hit the snooze button. And in those few moments before the brain nods off again, it answers a second question: “How many times can I HIT the ‘snooze’ before I HAVE to get up?” I was always pretty good at then hitting “snooze” exactly the number of times the rudely-awakened brain deduced I could before having to get up!. I hated the occasional necessity of getting a new alarm clock, as my brain had to be trained to respond to the new alarm’s sound. That took awhile, and in the interim, I often missed the required ques, and either slept in and had to rush getting ready for work, or I bounced out of bed prematurely, and left myself too much loitering time. Another interesting alarm fact: I use my cell phone as an alarm when on vacation, but never use it while I’m at home, even though it is right beside me on my nightstand. Why is this? My wife says it’s because I’m NUTS, but I think it has to do with the satisfaction of hitting that “snooze” bar on my alarm clock. Since there is no actual “button” to snooze the cell phone, I have to LOOK at it to touch the snooze feature, and that is too jarring for a work day. It’s OK for vacation, but there is a supreme satisfaction with dramatically swinging my left arm WAY over my head in a pronounced arc, and landing its index finger perfectly on that “snooze” bar, just like clockwork. (Sorry.) 

 

So, let’s look at the “alarm” that goes off in today’s lectionary passage…

 

This has to be one of my all-time favorite passages in the Bible, or at least in the gospel’s telling of the story of Jesus and his encounters. Our protagonist—introduced by name, Bartimaeus, including the fact that he is “son of Timaeus”—is blind. He has heard about Jesus and his miracle-working power, and got wind of the fact that he will be passing by. He begins calling out like an incessant alarm clock going off, and people in the crowd try to hit his “snooze” bar. Bartimaeus would have none of it. He cried out even louder, “Jesus, son of David, have MERCY on me!” His wakeup call worked—Jesus heard him, and beckoned him: “Call him here.”

 

The crowd behaves more like Job’s “friends” playing “good cop, bad cop” in this narrative—first trying to suppress Bartimaeus, then bringing him the message that “Jesus will see you now.” But it is the unique way the message was communicated that caught my attention. I’m doubting that what we have here is an historical retelling of the event. Instead, like much of what we read in the gospels, a deeper, underlying message is being shared, whether by the gospeler or later editors who “polished” the story. Let’s look at the three-part message supposedly delivered by members of “the crowd” to Bartimaeus: “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

 

Here is another “alarm” going off in the story. The answer Bartimaeus receives for his cries is very powerful, and addresses far more than just a simple “Jesus will see you now.” Let’s start with the first phrase, “Take heart.” If you look this up in Bible commentaries or even just Google it, you will read much that has been written about a common unction in scripture, the simple words, “Take heart.” We find it in John 16:33, for example: 

 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 

We could explore the Greek wording, and read all of those commentaries, but for our protagonist today—blind Bartimaeus—the exclamation could best be translated: “Bartimaeus, THIS is your lucky day!” All of the other charlatans you have visited to gain your sight? No more. All of the superstitious “medicine men” you have paid to rub some stupid ointment on your eyes? Nope. The times you have sat in the town square as a beggar, asking the passersby for help, with no one coming except maybe to drop a coin into your basket? No more. Why? Because THIS is your lucky day, blind Bartimaeus! The only one who is actually be able to save you is coming, and he has heard your cries! 

 

Maybe seen in this light, we can understand why this “Take heart” phrase is so popular in the scriptures, often when an epiphany is about to happen. Prolonged suffering wears anyone down. Anyone. And the constant cries of the one in need continue to drain away the life force of the sufferer. However, if spoken emptily as just a token, like “Hang in there!”, “Be patient,” or even worse, “Have faith,” which carries an accusation that the one suffering either HAS no faith, or that their faith is somehow inadequate, fall like salt in the proverbial wound. But when the words “Take heart” are coupled with the promise that a remedy is at hand, they become words of hope. The words of Jesus in John 16:33, “I have overcome the world,” energizes the “Take heart” that precedes it! Someone has come to rescue you from your plight! Don’t you wonder how Bartimaeus took that “Take heart” someone in the crowd spoke to him? And don’t we really believe that it wasn’t actually a member of the crowd that spoke it, but the Lord Jesus speaking it directly into his spirit? Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, and it was most likely Jesus who spoke the quiet, yet so hopeful words, “Take heart, Bartimaeus, TAKE HEART! Your greatest dream is about to come true!” In your darkest hour, Dear Ones, have you, too, heard these reassuring words in your spirit? Have you, too, heard the “still, small” voice of the Master whisper, “Take heart!” Maybe the next words you heard were something like “Your redemption draws nigh,” or “You are not alone; I am with you!” The latter is the most enduring promise of God to humanity in the whole of scripture—that God will be WITH us!

 

For Bartimaeus, the next phrase he heard was “Get up!” For something good to happen to him, he had a part to play—he had to GET UP and go to Jesus. Had he either listened to the discouraging word of the crowd to shut up and stay put, or doubted what came after the “Take heart,” he would have most likely remained in place, and in his blindness, and we would never have heard his story. Down through the ages, countless sufferers have been encouraged, comforted, and even healed because of the story of “Blind Bartimaeus.” Children in Sunday Schools have learned the story of the man who GOT UP and went to Jesus and found both faith and sight. We share this story with our children because we our deepest heart hope it will encourage them to find faith AND sight, in life. All because Bartimaeus got up. We all like to hear the “Take heart” message, especially when we are experiencing those times of the highest anxiety in our lives, but too often we miss the encouragement that follows—“Get up!” Or, maybe the anxiety itself has robbed us of the ability to “get up.” This is one powerful reason the church of Jesus Christ exists—to help each other when we don’t have the energy to act on the commands and promises of our faith. Helping others to “get up” and to go to Jesus is a noble mission for Christian disciples, and one that may be rewarded by reciprocal support from others in the community (the “crowd”) when it is we who need help getting to our proverbial “feet” and going to Jesus for wholeness and healing. 

 

The most exciting part of this “alarming” triad is the final one: “He [Jesus] is calling you!” If this was purely a humanistic story, “Take heart; get up” might be the whole message. Not that these two psychological encouragements are bad—they certainly are not. Occasionally, in more simple crises or affairs of life, we just need to be thusly encouraged to turn our attitude toward a more positive direction (“Take heart”) and then participate in our own recovery (“get up”). But in today’s narrative, we have the assurance that God participates directly in our relief. “He’s calling you” was the good news Bartimaeus needed to hear. He “sprang up” and found his sight through a wonderous healing affected by Jesus, himself. 

 

We could spend lots of time exploring the ways “he is calling you” can apply to us, our spiritual journey, and our life. That God is an active participant in all of this, and not just a bystander, or “power” that we must convince to act on our behalf, that God COMES TO US through God’s call, is good news for us, even as it was for Bartimaeus. God’s love for humanity is why God seeks us, to renew and reconcile our relationship with our Creator, to wipe away the negative effects of the sin that has separated us from God and too often, from each other, and to “heal our wounds,” in the language of Isaiah 53. The story of the healing of “Blind Bartimaeus” is a microcosmic metaphor for what God is doing in the Christ Event, and the fulcrum phrase of the story, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you,” is likewise a microcosmic statement of the whole of the gospel promise and its call to believe. As we step up (“get up”), God calls us to a meeting that will change our lives and begin a process of transformation, to be reunited to our Creator, restored to right relationship with God, and empowered by God’s Spirit to participate in a restoration of the created order and with each other in the human community. In the words of an ancient story, we are reminded that right now, in our time, and in our lives, something wonderful is afoot in God’s realm. “Take heart, Dear Ones, get up! God is calling us!”

 

Now, if that isn’t a “wake up call,” I don’t know what is! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Ransom...

 


Ransom…

 

For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.  

--Mark 10:45

 

“Ransom” theory has been around Christianity for a long time—at least since the era of Origen, its primary author and promoter. Origen’s ransom theory went like this: Adam and Eve sinned, and they and their forever offspring became prisoners to the Satan. Jesus came to die, paying Satan’s “blood price” for the release of the captives, the whole human race. This highly simplistic “atonement” model may sound very familiar, as it is pretty much what pedestrian fundamentalist evangelicals believe and preach.

 

Around the eleventh century, people like St. Anselm began to counter this idea, suggesting that God and God’s creation (us) could never be subservient or “captive” to the Satan. Neither Protestant nor Catholic theologians buy the ransom theology of Origen, nor have they for some time. The “atonement” has been relegated to much higher theological debate, as most serious theologians would say we really DON’T understand how atonement works, nor what really happened on the cross, other than to believe Jesus died there. Unfortunately, Origen’s ransom theory is so “easy” to believe, many people just do, and this gives rise to people attributing more power to the Satan than is biblical, and makes Jesus’ death more important than his “incarnation” among humanity, and his life, in general.

 

Of course, later liberal theology often robbed Jesus of any claim to divinity, positing that he was much more human and much less divine, generally negating the Nicene Creed’s assertion that he was “one in being with the Father.” But this is a topic for another sermon.

 

In one article I read, the author states that C.S. Lewis advanced another “ransom theory” of his own, namely that GOD was the one who needed to receive the ransom in order to not condemn the human race for its sin, and Jesus was the one to pay it on our behalf. Sin had been the culprit, in this model, but the Satan was more of an instigator, and not a major player in the divine drama.

 

Let me play with some ideas here. First of all, ransom is typically paid by a loved one or friend to get kidnappers to release their victim unharmed. Parents whose child has been kidnapped have been known to sacrifice about anything they own to get an endangered, kidnapped child back. Most of these parents, themselves victims, actually, lament endlessly about what they did wrong to allow their child to be kidnapped in the first place. The child itself may also be at least partly culpable because they “talked to a stranger” or gave in to a tempting treat, only to be lured into the trap. The only consistent evil in this model is/are the kidnapper(s). 

 

So let’s ramp this up to the more cosmic level. Let’s say that SIN is the kidnapper. Sin is always evil, and has its way of luring us into its trap. If we accept the definition of sin as that which is self-centered, not caring what its effect may be on others in the wider community, and certainly not God-centered, then sin IS the trap, and often an extremely attractive one. A contemporary example of a sin that has become quite popular is the idea that “freedom” is an intensely personal thing. Owning a gun is MY FREEDOM to do. It is MY FREEDOM to refuse to wear a mask or to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This idea of freedom is self-centered, certainly not God-centered, and doesn’t give one iota for what me getting what I demand as a freedom may do for the wider community, or just for others. That my personal FREEDOM from wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, or FOR owning an arsenal of firearms may threaten your existence is just tough luck. However, from a biblical perspective, that these things threaten community life renders them sinful. 

 

[I don’t want to wander into a gun debate. There are certainly ways that responsible people, with proper training and licensing can own firearms without being a threat to their neighbors, and I laud the gun owners who support reasonable safety regulations to go along with the Second Amendment. However, the kind of attitude that precipitates a statement like “You’ll get my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers” is a sinful attitude, just like “It’s my right to NOT wear a mask,” or “You can’t keep my kid from going to school even if our whole family has COVID.” These are not freedoms, they are fighting words. And therefore they are sinful words.]

 

Back to the new ransom theory. So, we’ve identified the antagonist in the story—it is sin, and its powerful lure, drawing us toward supreme selfishness and away from the community model as described biblically as the “Body of Christ.” There is no devil demanding ransom, nor is God the one demanding it, either. God is the parent whose beloved children have been “kidnapped” by the evil of sin. Like the parent in the original story, God, too, may lament what God did to “allow” God’s children to be kidnapped in the first place. Did Parent God give humans “free will” before we had matured enough as a species to handle it safely? Every parent asks this question when granting new freedoms to their children, such as letting them have the car to drive off alone the day they pass their driver’s test. Or the first time they launch them off on a bicycle without training wheels. As I have regularly stated in other messages, I believe the Parent God model to be the most convincing, as having been blessed to be a parent myself, I can say that, even when I’ve tried to do my best, I am always fraught with doubt and fear that I screwed up somewhere, and that this fault on my part would result in pain and suffering, in some way, in the life of one of my children. If we can get over that “God is perfect” curse long enough to see God as a loving parent, desiring to give God’s children freedom (“free will,” in theological parlance), but always second-guessing both the substance and timing of granting it, then we can understand how much “ransom” God might be willing to pay to get us back from whatever negative effects befell us. Perhaps the too-early granting of free will was not the smartest move on God’s part?

 

Remember the part about the “kidnap-ees” and how they, too, may be culpable in their own kidnapping? Well, this is where our own volition comes in when we too easily fall prey to the lure of sin. We move in directions we have been taught NOT to move, and engage in actions or attitudes we have been warned NOT to engage in, and WHAM! The “kidnapper” strikes. Chalk one up for the power of sin, and one for our own weakness against it. Sometimes we just aren’t adequately prepared to face the temptation, or for the training wheels to be off yet. God is more grieved for us than angry. 

 

So, how can ransom be paid to our kidnapper? Obviously, the author of today’s text asserts that Jesus is the “ransom for many,” or read for ALL who desire to be released from the captivity from sin. For sake of argument, let’s set aside the Jesus as “meat on the cross”/sacrificial model, and look at something else. In almost every kidnapping, there is a force for good aiming to foil the kidnapper. In our society, this would be the police. Their aim is both to get the victim home safely, AND to corral the perpetrator. What if we put Jesus in the place of the police? The aim of Christ is to have us safely released from our captivity, AND hold sin responsible, “locking it up” that its power may be lessened. This understanding of why Jesus came makes much more sense of the biblical assertion that he came to “cancel the power of sin” and “release the captives.” Jesus is the good cop who frees the victim, locks up the “kidnapper,” and makes the streets safer for us all. No “ransom” is paid, except for the ULTIMATE ransom of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “emptying himself, taking the form of a slave,” to free us, and stayed until the task was complete, even through his death. Basically, Jesus went “undercover.” The Bible says he was tempted as we are tempted by the siren song of sin, but he did not walk into the trap of that evil kidnapper. And after arresting the perp, he “gave lessons” in what to avoid and how to avoid the setup of sin. The “ransom” was never “paid,” it was LIVED, in the person, life, and ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

We are still not fully out of the pickle, as our human evolution is progressing painfully slowly. And when we still so easily ignore the empowering teachings of Jesus, and even more easily listen to the voice of sin saying, “HEY, son, come over here—I have something for you!”, we are too often not breaking the cycle. The Good News is that the “Good Cop” didn’t leave the neighborhood, but sent an “advocate” to help us with both the behaviors (sin) and the legal consequences (judgment) of them. I like to think the Holy Spirit is at LEAST as sharp as Columbo and as understanding as Andy Sipowicz, especially when I wander into the lion’s den. 

 

So, where does this leave us? First of all, we are the object of God’s love, as demonstrated by Christ “ransoming” himself to come among us to save us from ourselves. Secondly, it is incumbent on us to heed the teachings of Jesus, and to be sensitized to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to eschew the “call” of sin, and to develop disciplines to avoid sinful action. Here I am imagining again the Holy Spirit as Columbo, not letting go, continually coming back into the “room” of our lives saying, “Oh, just ONE MORE THING…” You know HE knows what’s going on, and you can’t wait to see the bad guy get it in the end. I know that the HOLY SPIRIT knows what is going on, and is willing to keep “interfering” to keep me from falling prey, at least so darn easily, and without a fight. 

 

Oh, and God, I forgive you for giving us so much freedom, even if we WEREN’T ready for the shove without the training wheels on. We both got skinned up a bit on that one, but we know how much you love us, as our Heavenly Parent. You sent Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

LGBTQ: Living? Or Limited?

 


LGBTQ: Living? Or Limited?

 

Hebrews 4:12-16
4:12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

4:13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

4:14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.

4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

4:16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

“It slices, it dices, it will even make julienne fries!” This famous catchphrase (widely and wildly satirized over the decades by characters from Dan Aykroyd to Ninja Turtle, Leonardo) launched the famous Veg-O-Matic, way back in 1963. Today, many would adopt the same slogan for God’s Word, citing verse one of a lectionary passage, Hebrews 4:12-16, for October 10. God’s Word, many say, is able “slice and dice,” surgically removing “stuff” from the Body of Christ that should not be there. Historically, these “tumors” have included people who don’t fit the dogmatic mold, whether it is a sect like the Mormons, who didn’t allow black men to be “ordained” until 1978, the Roman Catholic Church that STILL doesn’t allow women to be ordained to the priesthood, or The United Methodist Church that denies full participation—including ordination—to members of the LGBTQ community.

 

But what if the meaning of this text is the exact opposite of what the knife-wielders say it means? Let’s look at that, for a moment.

 

What if the “sharp edge” of God’s Word is sharp precisely because it truly helps us “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”? And, if so, what does this mean for an ostracized group such as members of the LGBTQ community?

 

First, let me offer a word of “word” explanation: Following in this message, I’m going to use the term “gay persons” as a collective noun, representing all of those in the LGBTQ community. I’m doing this for several reasons. First of all, I’m a “word” person, and since this message is written out, I do not want to keep using the term LGBTQ, as it looks and sounds too “clinical.” Now, I fully realize and affirm that the phrase “gay persons” is NOT normally considered fully inclusive, as persons may identify with any of the groups signified by one of the letters of the LGBTQ label—lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, etc., and just saying “gay persons” doesn’t make this direct connection. Again, please humor me, in my effort to refer to persons and not an acronym. I also realize that when I write “LGBTQ” I am “aborting” the term that is preferred, which is even more inclusive, “LGBTQIA+”, representing also the “IA+” persons, or intersex, asexual, and others including those who consider themselves “fluid,” when it comes to sexual identity, putting them in the “+” of this designation. I write LGBTQ as the written, inclusive term, as it is currently the one preferred by the Associated Press Stylebook, the use of which is something I carried over from my journalism days. Again, humor me. If you read the rest of this message, you will see that I am what is known as an “ally” of the LGBTQ community, and certainly do NOT mean to reduce their struggle, or demean them in any way with the use of “gay persons” as a plural, collective noun. Also, I am an ordained elder in a denomination whose “Book of Discipline” uses the ancient and non-biblical phrase “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” to denote the group it excludes, so I hope my use of “gay persons” is acceptable, at least for this written narrative. (When I am speaking about these concerns, by the way, I DO use the “LGBTQ” acronym, and often add the “IA+” extension, but I admit that when the spoken exchange is with a detractor of LGBTQ religious rights, I can see their countenance fall with each letter of the longer moniker.)

 

SO, back to the sharp edge of the Word of God. Please note that Hebrews 4:12, a famous verse oft-cited to boost the authority of scripture, talks of “judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Whose thoughts? Whose intentions? Let’s look at that for a moment.

 

What are the thoughts and intentions of the heart of gay persons? The easiest way to investigate this is to ask them, or read what so many have written, including scientific experts who have studied human sexuality. On the “clinical” end, one first finds out that persons whose sexual orientation does not match their physical biology did not “choose” this difference. Science says they did not make such a choice, and gay persons strongly affirm that they did not, either. When “laying down the gauntlet,” gay persons may say they were “born” this way, but it is probably more accurate to say that as their consciousness developed, they “discovered” that their sexual orientation was clearly different than that of their peers. This part of the journey is even more challenging for trans persons, as they may recognize strongly that their sexual identity does NOT match the body they are in. Hebrews 4:12 gives hope to all who are in the LGBTQ spectrum, in that God “looks on the heart” and knows that these people are not “playing games” or are caught up in some sexual/recreational perversion (as some will claim, bashing them with other ancient texts from a time when NO ONE understood human sexuality), but are honestly assessing what is IN THEIR HEARTS. And regarding intentions, I know of not one single person who, in their struggle with sexual orientation or identity, has any intention other than to come to terms, live at peace with themselves, and be accepted by others for who they are. Hebrews 4:12 affirms that God fully understands this. It is a scriptural way of saying “God’s OK with this—and YOU!” God knows that the “thoughts and intentions of the heart” of these persons are genuine and pure, seeking only understanding, love, and acceptance. Of course, some of my LGBTQ acquaintances will now say they are so tired of “fighting for acceptance” among members of the religious community that they are resigned to boldly being who they are, accepting themselves the way they were created, and toughing out the resistance from others who refuse to broaden their understanding.

 

For some of you who may be slogging through this message, I have possibly opened a “can of worms” by stating that gay persons were “created” that way. If sexual orientation is not a choice, then it stands to reason that persons whose orientation or identity doesn’t exactly match their biology must BE this way from birth—“created,” if you will. Oversimplifying human sexuality, one is tempted to believe the argument that because we have “boy parts” and “girl parts,” and that the interaction of these is generally necessary to propagate the human species, than any deviation from this “plan” is “wrong.” Actually, the propagation of the species has gone quite well throughout the human millennia, such that the planet is, in many cases, over-populated, or at least so over-developed by its current inhabitants, that we are endangering its very survival. This being so, is it not possible that the miraculous process of human evolution that the Creator designed into us is evolving to “allow” different forms of “loving” that do not require that an offspring be produced? Might this not be helpful to the planet, that persons may develop love relationships that are not necessarily procreative? I can hear some of you say, “But God CREATED us “male and female” for each other!” Well, yes, and this “formula” was certainly necessary “in the beginning,” if humanity was to survive, but I submit that the narratives behind this “order” are ancient, primitive, and largely uninformed by modern, “real-life” circumstances. 

 

This is one very good reason why Hebrews 4:12 states that God’s Word is “living and active.” God’s Word is not a collection of diehard, immutable doctrines, but spiritual and social guidance for God’s people, a people who themselves change throughout human history, and who therefore change what their future will be. God’s Word, when interpreted in and to each generation, offers both God’s GRACE to each, and guidance designed to help the human community “all get along,” love one another, and build a sustainable, supportive community for each successive generation. When “God’s Word” is used to throw out an anchor, to “conserve” or “preserve” ancient ways, it does harm to the present and short-circuits the future. This application of scriptural authority does not lead to a sustainable human community. Each generation has had to make “leaps” to get to the next, and this is certainly true in the community of faith, as well. No matter what you may say, the church today (for example) is nothing like the church of Paul’s day, nor should it be. The church has undergone more “reformations” than the one attributed to Luther. How about the one fostered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

 

Let’s take that little detour for a moment. When I hear a member of the white, privileged majority make a statement like “Racism is no longer an issue,” I immediately ask if they have talked with a Black person about this? Those who are in the white majority, who for generations perpetrated racism against persons of color, are not in any position to judge that “racism is no longer an issue.” One must talk to persons of color to get their opinion, since they have been the victims of it, and frankly, still continue to be. I submit that the same argument works with “straight” persons and any judging of the gay community—have you spent time in conversation with members of the LGBTQ community to see what they say about your assertions that they have “chosen” this lifestyle? Or ask them how they feel about being excluded from full participation in the church because of their sexual orientation? If God’s Word is able to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” maybe we should listen for this, too. Judging these persons as “sinful” without seeking to understand the “thoughts and intentions of their hearts,” as does the Bible, is NOT practicing belief in a “living and active” Word of God. 

 

To this continuing “debate,” God’s Word has true, living Good News for us in verse 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus fully understands all of our struggles, and one of those struggles is defining sin. Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ actions and words demonstrated that sin is that which harms or destroys community. Through his preaching and healing miracles, Jesus sought to forgive, mend, and join human beings into a supportive, sustainable community. He eschewed—and urged us to eschew—anything that damaged or delayed this pursuit, and called it “sin.” Part of our ancient “DNA” is the tribalism that at one time served as a gathering, collaborating, and protective “layer” in the development of human community. However, this “tribalism” and its dogmatic lines it drew between emerging, new communities had shown itself to be detrimental in Jesus’ time, and he modelled a new community of the faithful, uniting Gentile and Jew, slave and free, men and women—steps that were quite revolutionary in the First Century. Jesus understood the problems and the “weaknesses” of these old systems and the friction they were offering to God’s plan to move humanity forward.

 

Hebrews 4:15 also says that Jesus showed us how we could eliminate this sin by crossing all of these ancient, artificial boundaries that walled people off, delaying the emergent new community. He “ate with sinners” that they might be included; he went among the lepers, that they might rejoin the new community; he talked with the gentile woman the well and healed a gentile’s child with the “crumbs” from the table of the dominant community; and he tossed the money-changers in the Temple as a symbol of the New Order that wasn’t valued by “the market,” but by the “thoughts and intentions of the hearts” of God’s new people. Of course this did not sit well with those whose “authority and doctrines” were being questioned, or worse, relegated to the pages of past history, and they stirred up their “base” against him, and we know what happened. 

 

Of course, as the hymn says, he “could have called ten thousand angels” while on the cross, but even in this test, he eschewed the sin of abusing his power and raining retribution against those who were guilty of selfishness, at most, or misunderstanding, at least. And because of this, Hebrews 4:16 says today we can boldly approach the “throne of grace” that we may “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” 

 

Our siblings in the LGBTQ community need those of us in the “straight” majority to rediscover the “living and active” Word of God, the Word that offers guidance, grace, and mercy to all, a Living Word that judges only the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” For when these are examined, we will find that our LGBTQ siblings have the same bold access to God’s “throne of grace” as do we, and should not be denied full expression of their lives in the life of the church, nor should they be denied full participation in it. Doing so harms God’s emerging, evangelical (Good News) community, and sends a witness that only certain persons need apply in an era when so many people are just sick and tired of being told they are not eligible for the blessing. Amen.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Addition and Subtraction...

 


Addition and Subtraction…

 

Genesis 2:18-24
2:18 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."

2:19 So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.

2:20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

2:21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.

2:22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

2:23 Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."

2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

 

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
1:1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD.

2:2 The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it."

2:3 The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason."

2:4 Then Satan answered the LORD, "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.

2:5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face."

2:6 The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life."

2:7 So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.

2:8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

2:9 Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die."

2:10 But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

 

 

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Who said this? Actually, it was originally spoken by Jesus, and recorded in Mark 3, but it was famously re-stated many years later by President Abraham Lincoln, addressing how a nation cannot stand—let alone govern itself—as half slave and half free. If you look around our world right now, what you will clearly see is a whole bunch of “divided houses.”

 

Right here in our own nation, we have the “vaxxers” and the “anti-vaxxers”—those who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and those who are actively choosing to NOT be vaccinated. (There is a third group—those who WANT to be vaccinated, but who, for a variety of reasons, have not yet been able to receive “the jab.”) However, this “house divided” is having the same detrimental effect on the nation that Lincoln warned about. The “anti-vaxxers”—and some estimates are that there are about 70 million of them—are a roadblock to the country reaching something called “herd immunity,” that could provide much protection against the COVID-19 virus, not just now, but for the future. What are these “anit-vaxxers” opposed to? Some have tuned in to social media sites that claim all kinds of conspiracy theories, such as the idea that vaccines contain secret microchips that will allow the “government” to track you (if you have a cell phone, you are already “chipped,” by the way). Or, they profess some “extra smart” knowledge that the vaccines were “produced too fast,” and should not be trusted, regardless of the fact that each has been rigorously tested and has shown to be quite safe—and effective against the virus. Others are just honest and admit that they are part of a political party or faction that just RESISTS anything the “government” tries to do to help people, especially when it is “run” by their arch enemies (the other party). I have heard from medical professionals that these types, when they wind up in the hospital with a serious case of COVID-19, DENY it is the virus and call the doctors trying to save their lives, LIERS. Obviously, there are issues afoot here WAY beyond the pandemic, but that is for another message…

 

Look at what is going on in Afghanistan. Troops from the American military artificially “kept the peace” there for 20 years, hoping the indigenous government and that the people of that nation could build a more free society. Believing progress had been made in this regard (and we’ll not go into the substantive debate about WHO believed WHAT, but it is a legitimate one), our current president pulled all U.S. troops out. AND Afghanistan immediately “fell” into the hands of the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group that has begun retrenching on most of the social progress made, in the name of religion. Here are TWO divided houses—the warring factions in America over how this whole mess was handled, AND the division between the leaders of the Taliban and the people of the nation they are now “leading.” Again, the divided houses will not stand. Afghanistan and its people will certainly suffer, and the division over pulling U.S. troops out will play out in upcoming elections at home. As Christian believers, we should be praying for the people of Afghanistan, and for their welfare.

 

And speaking of houses divided, I need to look only to my own United Methodist denomination. It is threatening to divide into not just TWO houses divided, but at least THREE, and there may be more! One faction holds to a list of religious rules and biblical interpretations that labels LGBTQ individuals as sinful-by-choice, and therefore ineligible for ordination as clergy. This group also eschews the Supreme Court’s ruling that same gender have the legal right to marry, and would also render illegal any such marriage performed by United Methodist clergy, or that may occur in any of our churches. Another “house” on the opposite of this faction interprets scripture differently, and desires to fully include ALL people in the life of the church, especially those of the LGBTQ community, whom have be ostracized since 1972. A third “house” would be a huge “centrist” faction that is open to a kind of scriptural pluralism that encourages wrestling over these questions, while permitting persons to live out their convictions. All warring factions are currently hamstrung by denominational rules that dictate how the ruling body of the church (called the General Conference) can meet. COVID-19 has put the kibosh to the original General Conference meeting in the Spring of 2020, and now threatens even a “rescheduled” conference tentatively set for the Fall of 2022, given that the United Methodist Church is a GLOBAL body, and must have the representatives of other nations present, in order to hold the meeting. Again, the rules of the church say that no decisions may be made concerning “dividing the spoils” until this General Conference meets and rules. While some are trying to hammer out compromises on a more local level to “permit” churches and clergy to split off and go their own way BEFORE the delayed conference can meet, this is a crapshoot, in terms of church polity. At stake are denominational control and resources, and how to divide them. Talk about a “house divided”! The United Methodist Church is front-and-center. If Jesus were dead, he’d be rolling over in his grave.

 

Let’s take a look at the two lectionary passages that I’ve posted today. One is part of the creation story in Genesis, and the other is from the incredible parable in the Bible called the Book of Job. In one story, God sees the plight of “the man,” ADAM, which is the Hebrew name for “human,” and not a proper name, by the way. “The man” should not be alone, God decrees in this story, and creates animals and then a “partner” for ADAM. God sees a problem and ADDS SOMETHING to bridge the gap. God CREATES and affirms. 

 

In the Job parable, during this little “teatime” between God and the Satan, the Satan suggests that all of Job’s dedication to God and his faith is because of his wealth and family blessings. The Satan seeks God’s permission to test this theory, and is permitted to take everything FROM Job, except his life. The Satan, who plays the role of the “opposite of deity” in the story, SUBTRACTS from Job’s life and blessings. The drama that ensues reminds me of much of what I see today in the three “houses divided” I cited earlier. Job’s “friends” would have been dedicated Facebookers in today’s world, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they would be followers of Q-Anon, as well. While God doesn’t come off super well in this parable, either, the central plot is quite a morality play wherein Job is the longsuffering “good guy.” The Satan pretty much disappears from the biblical narrative until he shows up again in the New Testament, tempting Jesus to transfer his allegiance.

 

These two stories postulate that there are two forces at work in our world—one that seeks to reconcile, redeem, and redirect humanity by ADDITION—whether what is added is forgiveness, freedom, empowerment, or inclusion so that none are excluded who desire to BE included, and this addition builds the community, be it the church community or the community-at-large. This “force” is the God of Creation, the God of Job, and the God of Jesus Christ.

 

The other force seeks to divide and SUBTRACT. In the Bible, this “force” is scapegoated through the agency of a character called The Satan, but honestly, in my view (and I am not alone in this), this “subtractive,” destructive power is more in the realm of human volition, when we believe the “lie” of self-centered, selfish living. Here in America, “freedom” is often used to defend the “right” of the individual to acquire wealth, live independently (falsely believing that they have no dependency on the wider community), and eschew “government” involvement in these personal pursuits. Unfortunately, this view too often comes to believethat no part of the “government” or the wider community has any additive value for those who espouse it, and therefore it seeks to DE-value both. At its extreme (which seems to be persistent today), it can summed up in this statement: “I will use and protect my freedom for my own well-being—you are on your own to do likewise, but don’t mess with mine!” This becomes a SUBTRACTIVE view when it seeks to guard its “rights” by taking away funding for benevolent programs for those less fortunate, fighting against voting rights for persons who they believe may vote to threaten their wealth and freedoms, and supporting efforts to reduce (subtract) “government.” In the church, we encountered adherents to this philosophy when we were compelled to restrict public worship, require mask-wearing, and ask people to sign up at attend services. These efforts were often protested by this group, as these restrictions were seen as violations of their freedom and wishes. 

 

Note that I have put “government” in quotes throughout this message. There are several reasons. First of all, I am trying to keep these primary philosophies “generic” in the discussion. Secondly, “government” is often demonized by the latter group as something seeking to steal freedoms and tax dollars, often to benefit persons who may not be deemed “worthy,” or who are just not “pulling their own weight.” The former is a racist or classist judgment, while the latter is a gross oversimplification to the complex problems faced by a diverse society. The fact is that in a representative republic like our own nation, “the government” is US. It is from our own ranks that leaders are selected, and all eligible citizens should be empowered to vote for who is representing them in government. The role of the government is to help the people of the nation reach equity of opportunity, provide for the common defense, and arbitrate via the judicial branch any legal disparities that may arise. To demonize “the government” is an attempt to posit it as a threatening force against those who HAVE. The final reason I have “government” in quotes is to point out that the biblical narrative lays the final word on “governance” on the shoulders of God. It will ultimately be God who decides the morals of human pursuit, acquisition, and freedom.

 

Again, these two juxtaposed texts remind us that one force—“The Satan” in scripture—takes away, in an effort to preserve its views and values, while the other force—the God of Creation—adds blessings in an effort to “float all boats,” as the common expression says.

 

John 10:10, a very famous and oft-quoted statement of Jesus sums this up quite nicely:

 

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

 

Choose this day which “force” you will follow and emulate. Amen.

 

 

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...