Friday, October 27, 2023

Nothing Up My Sleeve...

 


Nothing Up My Sleeve…

 

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
2:1 You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain,

2:2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.

2:3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,

2:4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.

2:5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed;

2:6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,

2:7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.

2:8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

 

In writing lectionary commentary for other pastors this week, I lifted up the Apostle Paul as a unique example of a servant/minister of Jesus Christ. Actually, I didn’t lift him up more than Paul does, himself! Believe me, I’m not saying Paul manifests narcissistic tendencies, just stating a biblically supported fact. Paul essentially says in his writings to churches, “If you want to know how to follow Christ appropriately, just imitate me.” As I wrote to those pastors, who among us would EVER be bold enough to make a statement like that? Most of us are lucky to give ourselves a passing grade on our personal discipleship, or feign humility in assessing it. Paul was NOT afraid to put himself out there as much more than a passing example of an “ideal” Christian disciple. Real magic? Or just slight-of-hand?

 

From the time I was a child, I’ve enjoyed “magic” done well. Not the Harry Potter, spell and wand stuff, but the magic acts by people such as Houdini, David Copperfield, or hilariously, Penn and Teller. One of my favorite episodes of “Columbo” includes him trying to solve a case that has to do with magicians, and in it, a young, budding magician tells him: “To figure out a trick, you first have to remind yourself it IS a trick, not real magic!” I like magic when it is done so well it suspends your unbelief, and you—for at least a few moments—really believe the elephant has actually disappeared into thin air! But remember, it IS a trick. Slight-of-hand, as they say (or “smoke and mirrors”). 

 

Paul discounts any idea that slight-of-hand is involved in his defense of his and his colleagues’ ministry to the church at Thessalonica: “For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery…”. His assertion presupposes that there were those afoot who weren’t so honest. They may have used “trickery,” and their motives weren’t so pure, as we see in verse five: “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed…” These other people Paul is alluding to must have come precisely with “flattery and a pretext for greed.” Paul is quite upset, it appears, that these slight-of-hand evangelists were giving him and his band a bad name.

 

The “preacher” of Ecclesiastes was right: There really IS nothing new under the sun. How many of you reading this are all but ashamed to use the term, “Christian” to describe yourself, due mostly to the behavior and hijinks of others who seek to “own” the term? Such “Christians” have disparaged the work of justice-seeking, excluded large groups of people from the Body of Christ because of lifestyles or behaviors THEY have deemed “unacceptable,” setting themselves up to be the earthly judges FOR God. They have stormed the gates of political power, owned a Presidency, and in the name of Christ, have fooled many into believing THEIR interpretations of scripture and the resulting “trial and sentence” they conduct in their spiritual kangaroo court is a legitimate manifestation of “proper” Christian discipleship. Tough love? No, diabolical “love.” 

 

Thirty or forty years ago, most of the charlatans in Christendom were TV evangelists, who snarfed up money from their gullible views and slept with loose women. Even the late-night TV hosts could smell them out, making fun of them, and thereby helping identify their deceit for a wider public. Legitimate Christians were insulated from some of the fallout from TV evangelists. Then came the “Moral Majority” led by the Falwells, and the incursion into secular politics was launched, in an attempt to uphold fundamentalist beliefs and positions on social issues. Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) lost his mind, ran for President, and even came in second in the Iowa caucuses. These antics, and on-going ones perpetrated by the “New Christian Right” that emerged, continued to besmirch the name, “Christian,” for much of the American public. Of course, it didn’t end there, and we are still having to attempt to surgically separate legitimate Christianity from the power-grabbing, deceitful attempts to “force” society to accept the fundamentalist views of “evangelicals.” As a consequence, the term “Christian” has been so tainted that many of us have adopted new monikers such as “people of faith” or “Christ-followers.” Who knows, maybe we will even get back to the original title for Christians before Antioch—“Followers of the Way.”

 

Here is verse five again, and following:

 

As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

 

In his singling out these elements as things worthy of upholding and emulating is fodder for any gospel sermon. Paul makes his case that he is not looking for approval from “mortals,” but from the Almighty. We all like to “say” we want to please God, but it never hurts to get a few pats on the back from the faithful. This begs the question, what does it mean to “please” God? Do we accomplish this by keeping God’s laws and commandments? Do we please God by being generous givers? Do we please God by answering God’s call on our lives, no matter what that may be? I’m sure the answer, to some degree, is “yes” to all of these questions. However, I believe, from what I see in the teachings of Jesus and in the letters of Paul, we please God MOST by loving our neighbors, taking care of “the least of these,” and being willing to be the servant of all. None of these things are “glitzy,” but they are the foundations of the Kingdom of God, and central to what Jesus is about.

 

Not only is living a life that is pleasing to God not rocket science, neither is it accomplished by slight-of-hand, trickery, or puffing oneself up—the very things Paul abhors in this passage. The key words occur in verse 8: “So deeply do we care for you.” This is what the Good News is all about. There are none beyond the love and grace of God, and as “bond servants” of Jesus Christ, we cannot treat ANY others like they ARE beyond this grace and love, either, even in the name of “doctrinal purity” or “biblical authority.” 

 

Loving others according to the teachings of Jesus (and the guidance of his servant, Paul) is not magic, nor is it a performance meant to please anybody. It is just down and dirty “caring deeply” for others. And while this isn’t rocket science, neither is it without its challenges and frustrations, as some who need our love and care may also be very, very needy. We must always be reminded that we are “team players” in God’s efforts toward tikkun olam (fixing the world), and it all doesn’t have to be on our shoulders. 

 

When it comes to genuine Christian servanthood, there’s nothing up our sleeves, and we’re not out to entertain, but to engage in the transformation of the world. I guess that sounds like a bigger job than putting on a good show, doesn’t it? I’ll summarize the crux of what I see in the words of Paul in today’s text by quoting a few of my favorite ones from Proverbs:

 

The ways of humans are right in our own sight, but God weighs the motives. Commit your works to the Lord, and your plans will be established.

 

Amen, Dear Ones!

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Circuit Riders...



Circuit Riding…

 

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.

1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly

1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,

1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.

1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,

1:7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.

1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.

1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,

1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

 

I spent 36 years as a United Methodist “circuit rider.” As any U.M. clergy who may be reading this know, we serve at the pleasure (mercy?) of our bishop, and as ordained elders, may be “moved” at any time. I remember a retired pastor telling me at the beginning of my ministry: “Don’t count on always moving as of July 1. Only two of my moves happened at the ‘normal’ appointment time.” I chuckled, when he said this, but fully expected my own journey to be “regulation,” as my wife and I had committed to the full itinerancy system, “declaring” my career as the “primary” one, even though hers was much more stable and financially lucrative, were we to make IT the priority, stay in one place, and let her keep a job. As it was, my change of appointments derailed her career at least three times. (I often wonder, when we do such crazy things because we believe God “tells” us to, which end of that statement is the craziest?) That all said, the retired pastor had offered some “real world” wisdom—only three of my six appointments happened at the “normal” appointment time of July 1!

 

So, move we did. I had the weird record of serving in six appointments, but only in five churches, as our final move was back to St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, where I had previously served as an associate pastor for five years. The average length of my appointments? Six years. That’s pretty much the average across the denomination, by the way. Our kids attended three school districts, and Dara worked for two hospitals, a nursing home, and two colleges. She was also unemployed during the most “testy” part of our home finances (when both kids were in college and studied abroad, to boot), thanks to our move to Sharon. However, I can fully affirm the “I will be with you” side of the God equation. We not only made it through a mountain of debt to a position of financial solvency, but the “career jerking” Dara went through got her to use her Masters of Health Education in teaching opportunities with Jamestown Community College and Penn State. At Penn State, she transitioned to teaching in their online “World Campus,” from her classroom assignments at their Shenango Valley campus, which meant that she could continue to teach occasional courses for them, even after we physically moved away. God also gave us the wisdom to not live beyond our means, how to enjoy a modicum of frugality, and to have strong discipline against my personal “ENFP” distractions that usually cost money. These lessons have afforded us a comfortable retirement, as well.

 

I committed to the itinerant system because I believed it to be the “Methodist” way. I also felt that my personal spiritual gifts would “travel well.” I viewed myself as a kind of “trouble-shooter,” able to arrive at a church, quickly assess what their most current presenting needs were, build a system to meet those needs, and then move on, leaving the church stronger and with a greater sense of vision for the next pastor to shepherd. Did I ever question God’s “wisdom” as shown through the appointment process. Regularly. After serving seven years in my first appointment (3 as student pastor, 2 as provisional after seminar, and 2 as elder) where I worked with an incredible team of laity to “rebuild” the church into a viable, growing entity, I figured I had carved out a career for myself, moving from hurting congregation to hurting congregation, and “trouble-shooting” them to health. And then the Cabinet appointed me as an associate pastor to one of the Conference’s largest and most healthy congregations, where I was seen pretty much as a “youth pastor.” What? However, the “large church” skills I learned at St. Paul’s during my first go-round there would prove invaluable throughout my ministry. Again, God seemed to know what God was doing, not that I ever got over second-guessing the Almighty. Now that you have read through a primer on my ministerial journey, let’s see how it matches up with this weekend’s passage!

 

Paul’s letters contain greetings to the churches to which he writes. Some of the churches he was instrumental in starting; others, he was just connecting with as part of HIS itinerant ministry. I find it interesting that he frequently names specific church members—leaders?—in his greetings, as this is something we modern “circuit riders” are typically very careful about, in any “public” correspondence with our former churches, as it may be seen as showing favoritism. First of all, we United Methodists have had to evolve certain protocols, regarding our former appointments, as the Book of Discipline considers it an offense to continue any form of ministry with a past congregation. I have gone out of my way to maintain this “pastoral distancing” because it is our rule, and because I do NOT want to in any way interfere with, nor disrespect the ministry of a colleague. 

 

[There was one exception to this, however, and it happened when a number of former parishioners reached out to me for “advice” about what they should do when their current pastor was opening strategizing to persuade the church to vote to disaffiliate from the denomination. I advised them where to turn for accurate information, as much disinformation was being offered to fuel the vote. Unfortunately, the vote succeeded, and one of the proudest and most historic congregations I was privileged to serve, is no longer United Methodist. I still believe the actions of that pastor to be culpable in this defection. I can only imagine what the animated Apostle Paul would have said in a letter to that church!]

 

This element of our modern-day circuit riding ministry is kind of sad, when you think of it. We all realize that this rule is in place because a few colleagues in the past have blatantly violated protocols and courtesies, continuing to conduct weddings, funerals, and even baptisms for past parishioners and their families. Still, when we read Paul’s letters, the camaraderie and collegiality that seems to exist between early church pastors and leaders stand out, and there was an open honesty. Paul clearly praised the work of current leaders in his letters, even when he had to “correct” them, or suggest an alternative plan may be “God’s will” for them. Paul’s “possessiveness” was limited to the “body of Christ,” and not to a single congregation, even if he had a few “favorites.” “His church” was the WHOLE church, not any one church. 

 

His greeting to the church at Thessalonica is typical—prayers, gratitude for their faithfulness, and good work, and a reminder of God’s call on them. He is glad for the breadth of their ministry, and yet reminds them that it was God in Christ that “saved” them from following idols. Paul never shied away from these “real world” reminders, similar to how members of Alcoholics Anonymous never forget what THEY have been delivered (saved) from.

 

Paul’s idea of evangelism has always intrigued me. In a nutshell, it is: “If you want to know how to follow Christ, imitate me.” Wow! Who among us would make THAT kind of statement, and feel we had done potential “converts” any favors? But Paul does it all the time, even as he does in this passage. Paul had confidence that his “way” of discipleship was transferrable, and he further believed that his ability to persevere through persecution could likewise be modeled for his charges. Honestly, the closest I have ever come to this “imitation” motif was in my penchant for storytelling, often using my own experiences as the subject matter. If you can’t tell from reading these retirement sermons, I DO like to relate personal experiences where I believe they may either provide some measure of guidance for the reader, OR a cautionary “don’t ever do this,” when the plot is negative. I also used stories in my preaching and teaching when I felt it could “provoke” the listener to remember THEIR faith stories, which IS something Paul does in his writings, as well. Frankly, this use of storytelling is also probably the closest most of us will get to the parables of Jesus. I realize that our life stories and testimonies are NOT parables, but they can, on occasion, elicit a similar response in the listener. 

 

In this passage from Thessalonians, Paul talks of the “wrath to come.” This is most likely a reference to the first-century belief that the “second coming of Christ” and God’s judgment was on the near agenda. The “wrath” would be visited upon those who had either rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or who had distorted or exploited it for personal gain. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was also “famous” for his use of the phrase “flee from the wrath to come,” which he undoubtedly got for Paul. Like I said in last week’s message, one can argue on the virtues of “loving” people into the Kingdom of God, or “scaring the hell out of them” with what MIGHT come their way, if they reject God. When I read both Paul and Wesley, however, I don’t sense the kind of “fear mongering” that is sometimes present in modern, evangelical language. Instead, it seems to provide a “barrier” or a boundary, urging the listener (or reader) to “don’t go there.” A good word to define “fleeing the wrath” would be repentance, wherein the Greek metanoia means, literally, “stop, turn 180 degrees, and go in the opposite direction.” Another author—Maxie Dunham, I believe—uses this definition of repentance: Turning our lives GODWARD. This all sounds so much more edifying and practical than merely doing the “right thing” to avoid being judged, kind of like driving the speed limit because it’s safer for us and others, rather than just out of fear for getting a ticket.

 

So, what if we modern-day circuit riders “imitated” Paul’s way of encouraging his churches, past and present? In our case, we may offer our best affirmation when having an opportunity to interact (even on social media) with former parishioners, but leave the “real” ministry—especially any correction that may be needed—to their current pastor. We can cherry-pick a few of Paul’s better, more encouraging practices, yet fully realize that OUR role in the established church and its systems is NOT “Pauline.” Paul would probably most resemble a bishop, in our time, not an “in the trenches” pastor. But there is nothing wrong with ANY of us being encouraging, grateful, and edifying toward any of the people we have served, when the opportunity arises.

 

I thought I might end this message with a listing of a few of the “pillars” of the five churches I served, as an act of gratitude for how they blessed my life and enhanced my ministry. However, as I began to compile the list, I soon realized that it was TOO long, TOO limited, and it was not at all just including “pillars.” Many of the people who deeply touched my faith and inspired me were folk others would NEVER have thought of as “leaders.” I will mention one of them. Jim Shifter was serving as the chairperson of the church trustees in my very first church. He took that role because no one else would, but he was an extremely quiet, humble man—a welder by trade—who wanted no part of the limelight. My very first day “on the job” in that church, Jim came to the church office to meet me, but also to tell me his daughter had just died, one month after the unexpected death of his son-in-law. They were both in their 30s. I offered to have my predecessor, Rev. Victor Brown, do the service, as he had been Jim’s pastor for the previous six years, which immediately endeared me to Jim. Rev. Brown (another of those INCREDIBLY inspiring people) said he would only share the service with me, so we led it together. From that time on, “quiet Jim,” who had earned the trust and respect of that congregation, would listen to any of my ideas for new ministries, weigh them in his heart, and get behind them. When he got behind them, so did the whole congregation. A blue-collar, soft-spoken welder with permanently soiled fingernails will always be my nomination for “top saint” in my ministry. Oh, there were many, many others who would follow, but Jim Shifter is the one to be “imitated,” to use Paul’s word!

 

One final personal story about Jim, and I’ll quit. Jim always came to church in a shirt and a tie, but not a sport jacket. I’m not sure he had one? But in the Spring of my first year, the church was having its annual rummage sale. I had a white, plaid sport jacket in excellent condition I donated, as its “style” no longer suited my ministry persona (looked more like something a sports commentator would wear on “This Week in the NFL”). The week after the rummage sale, here came Jim Shifter in “my” plaid jacket, and looking quite dapper, I might add. He was excited about finding the jacket, which fit him perfectly, having no idea who had donated it, and I never told him. But every time I saw him come into church with that jacket on, I welled up with tears, feeling a deep honor that he was wearing it. I was so proud, that I could covertly give something back to Jim for all he had come to mean to me, over those years. Hey, maybe this IS a parable of what Paul was telling the people at Thessalonica? Amen! Grace to you, and peace!

 

Thursday, October 12, 2023

A Bowl of Pottage, a Golden Cow, and Thirty Pieces of Silver...

 


A Bowl of Pottage, A Golden Cow, and Thirty Pieces of Silver

 

Exodus 32:1-14
32:1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."

32:2 Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me."

32:3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron.

32:4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD."

32:6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

32:7 The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;

32:8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'"

32:9 The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.

32:10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

32:11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

32:12 Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

32:13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'"

 

 

I admit, in my retirement, I am enjoying catching up on “old” TV shows I either remember from my childhood, or missed out on during all of those church meetings and Bible Studies. (I never sprang for a DVR from my cable TV suppliers, and my last VCR died out a decade or so ago.) Thankfully, reruns in syndication are a saving grace, as are streaming channels. As I write this week’s message, I’ve been doing a once-a-week “binge watch” of the older episodes of “Law and Order.” I don’t know what all the actor, Jerry Orbach, starred in, but he knocked it out of the park in “The Fantasticks” and as “Lenny” in “Law and Order.” OK, out of that rabbit hole…”Law and Order” has an entertaining way of reminding us just how diabolical human beings can be when we want something so bad, but it just way beyond our grasp. It also reminds us how extreme anger in the face of circumstances way beyond our control may kindle into a capital crime, even quicker than some of the best of us admit. Sometimes bad things happen to good people because other good people MAKE them happen. And from time to time, a decent hand that is dealt to us just doesn’t pay off quick enough, so we are compelled to cheat, or to take advantage of someone whose misfortune makes them vulnerable. “Law and Order” uncovers some of the worst in what started out as “good” people. This is what made this a hit program for over THREE decades. Bad guys doing bad things is not much of a story. Sounds like the Bible.

 

What causes good people to make poor choices, or in short, just do bad things? The “Three S’s” might be the culprit: selfishness; stupidity; and serendipity. Selfishness is a no-brainer (literally?). Many have suggested that it is the true “original sin” over which the human race has never recovered. To live the way Jesus taught—loving neighbor as much as ourselves, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, etc.—requires deliberate deviation from the “natural” urge to do what is best for us. Stupidity? We all suffer with this little chestnut, from time to time. But it becomes “acute” when it leads us to ignore community or personal standards to default too easily to the FIRST “S.” Stupidity may also be the universe of our best excuses for doing “dumb” (wrong) things. Watching “Law and Order,” I’m amazed how many times crime suspects claim some form of ignorance, if not of the law, of society’s mores, to explain their actions. 

 

I’m sure you are not surprised to hear of the first two “S’s,” but what of serendipity? Sometimes, “opportunity” just knocks with a less than valiant invitation, and we’re too curious, not to open the door. There are major breaches of law in our history that were “launched” by a serendipitous circumstance, be it an act of treason by a member of the intelligence community who is exposed to a juicy national secret and sells it to the enemy, or a President who takes advantage of a flirtatious, young intern who just “happens” into his service. The temptation—to a major crime, a crime of passion, or even just a “little white lie” to get ourselves off the hook—is often just too great, especially when it just “falls into our lap.” Some may attribute this sleazy, serendipitous temptation to the devil, and it would be folly to throw that idea aside, as clearly, the devil used such circumstantial temptations on Jesus, himself. But, of course, we are not Jesus, and regardless of what you believe, theologically, about the devil, at the very least, the Bible does not give him the godly attributes of omnipresence, or even omniscience. No, sometimes opportunities to do selfish, stupid, even sinful stuff just presents itself, and with the added temptation of not being easy to “trace.” Of course, God DOES have the attributes of being omnipresent and omniscience, so we should remember that God DOES know. Unfortunately, that rarely seems to be enough to combat the selfishness/stupidity/serendipity cycle, even for serious believers. I’m sure this is one of the reasons the Wesleyan “class meetings” (and Alcoholics Anonymous in our time) turned out to be so successful—they offer personal accountability “with skin on,” as they say.

 

The Bible is full of stories of the scourge of the “Three S’s.” We could start with Adam and Eve, but that’s just a too low hanging fruit. Think of the Jacob and Esau story, where Esau comes home famished and Jacob, with a little prompting from Mom, offers him some sumptuous porridge in exchange for his birthright. All “Three S’s” were at work, here. Jacob was quite selfish, Esau had the stupidity to match, and serendipity brought them together at a point of exchange. Both of them certainly knew better. 

 

Or what of Judas Iscariot? We really don’t know his story, other than the fact that he betrayed Jesus, was paid for it, and later regretted doing so, to the point of his own death. If one argues, as many do, that Judas “believed” Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, his betrayal may have been an attempt to force Jesus’ hand to “stand up” before the authorities to defend himself, and launch his victorious, justice-aimed messiahship. Then, disillusioned by Jesus’ conviction and death, he returned the money and died by suicide. There IS the possibility that the “devil made him do it,” as the Bible says. But what if Judas is just another example of the cause and effect of the “Three S’s”? As the treasurer of the disciples, Judas may have had his hand in the till, or at least had become preoccupied with money, as so many have, down through the ages. He was offered a sizeable bribe to turn in Jesus, and the “Three S’s” put him into a position to give in. He could have been so blinded by the money that he just didn’t figure how awful the outcome might be, or just too stupid to see it coming. When confronted with the horror and reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and the scattering and grieving it elicited among his fellow disciples, he took the easy way out. No matter how you look at it, Judas is a tragic figure, but one who may have made better choices, had he not succumbed to the synergistic lure of selfishness, stupidity, and serendipity.

 

The ”big story” of this weekend, though, is the Exodus passage, one we’re quite familiar with, aren’t we? While Moses is up on the mountain “negotiating” with God, Israel gets impatient. There’s news. Even modern Israel is heinously impatient: they want what they want when they want it. They were given land and granted nation status by the United Nations in 1948. In the affairs of nations, this is a very recent development. Over the years since, they have annexed lands from the Palestinian people (which includes Christians, not just Moslems), and squeezed them into slivers of land now “islanded” by Jewish forces, cut off from clean water, important roads, and other essential infrastructure. Why? Because Israel wants what they want when they want it. The political forces that govern Israel say it is “for security” that they have walled off and confined the Palestinian people, but it’s mostly a land and resources grab. Yes, among some of the Palestinian factions (and there are many) are terrorists who hate Jews and Israel, and their “fall” to the “Three S’s” in this most recent and horrific attack will surely lead to ALL Palestinians in that region being all but obliterated by the superior, West-fueled military of Israel. I point this out about Israel’s impatience, however, to demonstrate the “jump the gun” DNA that has followed God’s people Israel from the very beginning. In this weekend’s text, their impatience leads to yet another huge breach of their supposed faith in the Almighty. Moses has been gone for a while, so they decided to make their OWN God out of their gold. Their selfishness led to the “we want what we want when we want it” cycle; their stupidity led them to believe a golden cow could substitute for a legitimate deity; and the serendipity of Moses’ absence from them provided opportunity.

 

You could argue that it was either selfishness, stupidity, or a nice blend of both that led them to believe God wouldn’t notice their little “Cow God” experiment, but, of course, God did, and was not happy about it. REALLY not happy. The interesting thing about the account we have here in Exodus is that it suggests that this even leads GOD to fall prey to the “Three S’s!” If God can be “selfish” (the Bible often uses the term “jealous”), God is, in this instance, not wanting to share the weekly worship guide with a gilded bovine. This selfishness leads God (again, according to the account we have) to want to obliterate the people God has worked so hard to free from slavery and protect. Sounds like a STUPID idea to me! And the serendipity enters the picture because God can SEE the sin of Israel and HAS the power to wipe them out in the wink of an eye. A good God is about to do a bad thing, because God can. 

 

One could engage in an interesting biblical and theological argument here about whether the “inspired” Word IS telling us that God can fall prey to the same ill-advised series of temptations as human beings do, or whether what we have here is an anthropomorphized “tale” related to us by whomever wrote the text, just to get buy-in from the less-than-theologically-sophisticated audience. Either way, it should make you question what—if any—“biblical authority” is at play here? Personally, I’ve always believed and relished in the idea that what is “different” about the Judeo-Christian view of deity is that God’s willingness to get “down and dirty” amongst God’s creation. I’m NOT comfortable, however, with the concept that God is just as vulnerable as we are to more base motivations and resulting acts. Dare I say, “sins”? If you figure this out, get back to me. 

 

In today’s account, Moses becomes the voice of reason. He argues his case that God would be doing a foolish thing by killing off Israel and starting over, citing all that God has “gone through” to get them this far. Moses, of course, is “nice” about it, but he, too must have been seething about what Israel so quickly turned to while he was briefly absent, AND about the fact that Aaron was a party to it. NOW he must also be seething about God’s “plan” to remedy it by genocide and a wave of the wand to make a new people. Moses could have really lost his mind, here, but he forms a cogent argument and wins his case. God “changes God’s mind,” and Israel is spared. 

 

If you want to have another good theological discussion, wrap your head around the concept that God can “change God’s mind.” If you believe the heretical hymn in our hymnal, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” this could never happen. It certainly would be unsettling to folk who believe God “has everything under control,” or who hold to the idea that God has some kind of eternal “master plan” for the earth and humanity, one “preexisting before the world began.” If God can simply change God’s mind, all that theology could go up in smoke…literally!

 

But Holy Moses, we should be thankful that Moses was a good lawyer, on our behalf. It should not surprise us that when Jesus chose to have a celestial “meeting” on the mountain with someone from the Bible’s past, Moses was one of the invites! As the proverbial “teenager” of the Trinity, Jesus may just have been looking for advice as to how to handle his OWN dealings with “Dad.”

 

I hope I’ve given you plenty to ponder from this pregnant pericope. Let me say a good word about serendipity before I sign off, though.

 

Serendipity is very often a GOOD thing. In politics and social justice work, we have seen “the right person arrive at the right time” to do the right thing, be it FDR or Winston Churchill in World War II, or Martin Luther King, Jr. at the perfect point of the fight for Civil Rights. For us as individuals, serendipitous occurrences may places us at just the right place or the right time to engage in some act that could benefit many people, even if it is just our family. Serendipity is no “respecter” of opportunities, though. Serendipity CAN lead to great opportunities, OR it may open the door to something selfish and stupid, and possibly even something with on-going potential for degradation or harm. Maybe in evaluating the opportunities serendipity puts before us we should see if they pass the “selfish” and/or “stupid” test, and then hold it up to John Wesley’s “acts of mercy” concept?

 

OK, friends, go do your homework. Think about these things, and make some notes as to how you might avoid the “Divine Cow” temptations in the future. Go do some good! Amen!

 

 

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Ten Suggestions...Really

 



The Ten Suggestions…Really

 

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
20:1 Then God spoke all these words:

20:2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

20:3 you shall have no other gods before me.

20:4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

20:7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

20:8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

20:9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

20:12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

20:13 You shall not murder.

20:14 You shall not commit adultery.

20:15 You shall not steal.

20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

20:17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

20:18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance,

20:19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die."

20:20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."

 

 

We know them as the “Ten Commandments.” God allegedly “handed” them to Moses, and Moses passed them on to the Israelites. “These are the things God commanded.” Really? 

 

All that “Thou shalt not” language sure makes them sound serious, doesn’t it? Why would God want this “top ten list” to be preeminent among all of the other things the prophets would “receive” from God, in terms of what was “kosher” behavior? What would be the punishment, if any of these ten were violated? Would any punitive measures on the part of God be visited upon the community as a whole? Or just upon the one caught violating? 

 

The ”decalogue,” as it is known, has been largely affirmed by about every religious group in existence. Oh, they may change “Yahweh” to “Allah,” and rearrange the wording a bit, but I think you will find that these “thou shalt nots” are pretty universal, among those who believe in divine commandment giving. Even among Buddhists, who tend to state stuff in “positives,” rather than “thou shalt nots,” you will find the “spirit” of these ten alive in their rhetoric and practice.

 

Atheists and agnostics have their versions, as well. “Knowledge,” “truth,” or “integrity” may be substituted for the God language in the first four, but there really is a universality about what Moses brought down from the mountain.

 

Why, then, might I call them “suggestions”? I’ll try to unpack that here. Ultimately, it is the individual who must decide to either obey or disobey such societal (or in this case, divine?) rules. The society—or God—may determine corrective actions or punishment for the violators, but only the violator—or in some cases, the violators—may decide to follow the rules. Hence, at this level, laws or rules are actually just “suggestions.” (I include “violators,” plural, as some of the Ten Commandments are clearly aimed at Israel’s community-at-large, namely the ones “protecting” the sanctity and practice of faith in Yahweh [commandments one through four]). Unless some authoritarian rule eliminates any possibility of disobedience by removing freedoms and erecting barriers, obedience is a matter of choice. 

 

God might well have told Moses, “These ten suggested rules will make your relationship with me and each other much more sustainable and joyous. I commend them to your community, that we may all live in peace.” Let’s review the “suggestions.”

 

Israel was, at that point in history, a wandering people. They were coping with both the realities of nomadic life AND life together, drawn together by common experience, family, and faith. Either of these would be hard to sustain, separately, but when experienced together, it made for much grumbling, and competition for scarce and inconsistent resources. On the surface, commandments one through four can be seen as a “jealous” God demanding exclusive attention and unwavering respect. Isn’t this the way we were largely taught about them, even in our Christian faith context? Instead, think about a loving God who has an undying, parental love for God’s people. The God of Israel realizes that it is their common FAITH in Yahweh that binds Israel together. Without this common faith, their human fighting over resources and quest for power would tear them apart, and probably very quickly. God’s “demands” in the first four commandments may just have been God’s attempt to keep this saving focus, especially knowing that Israel’s nomadic life in the wilderness would expose them to other peoples and their “variety” of gods and idols. Commandments one through four were kind of like the “family values” taught and upheld in many modern households. (These, too, are merely “suggestions,” as each family member must decide whether to uphold these values, and for how long.) This view, which some might see as more sociological than theological, points to a loving, protecting deity, as opposed to one that just desires and demands “worship.” It was this former view of God that was espoused by Jesus Christ.

 

I’m sure you have heard a thousand sermons on “sabbath,” so I’ll just repeat what Jesus said: “Humans were not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath was made for humans.” Taking a weekly sabbath lets both God AND us have a day of “rest”! 

 

Commandment—or suggestion—number five is the fulcrum of the decalogue. How do we “raise” our children to espouse both the values of family AND society? “Honor your parents” can be unpacked in a variety of ways, but “honoring” clearly carries much more weight than just “obeying.” “Because I said so” is not the same as “If you love your family and me, do this for us.” Honoring parents means upholding the values they teach BECAUSE you respect both. The commandment promises that this kind of “honoring” may well lead to a longer life, and aside from the joke that this is so because our parents could “take us out” if we disobey. Creating and sustaining a kind of loving, voluntarily perpetuated family “system” would lower the stress level in ANY family, and would most likely filter out as better attitudes, behavior, and quality of contribution a given family may take to the community at large. The “days may be long”—and BETTER—for the whole of Israel, if each family brought positive values to the “stone soup” of society. This “honoring” also would lead to some system of caring for the community’s elderly, be it the “extended family” making provision for aging parents, or the REALLY extended family—affirmed government programs like Social Security and Medicare—that helps take care of them and provides for a modicum of “abundance” in their senior years. I can say, quite honestly, that as a retired pastor, who tried to make adequate provision for my “third phase” of life, I would be “dead in the water” without Social Security and Medicare being afforded to me as part of this plan. Every time I read a story about how, without some “saving” action by Congress, these programs will begin to wind down within 7 to 10 years, I get more than a little anxious. And what about folk who have to rely exclusivelyon these programs? I can only imagine their fears.

 

The final four “suggestions” are pretty much the ones that gave rise to cultural laws enforced by the courts, universally. As I mentioned earlier, every religion has its own “list” or compendium of “commandments,” but these last four are found in all societies I can think of that ever inhabited Planet Earth. Not only is “community” unsustainable, if these “laws” are regularly violated, but humanity itself may be in peril. As we have seen, however, obedience to them—regardless of how stringently a given society codifies and enforces them—is voluntary and in the hands of the individual. We could argue over each of them—is killing in wartime, “murder”?, or is voluntary polyamory, “adultery”?—but fact is, maintaining some order in these “basic” rules concerning sustaining life, family, and financial security, is vital for any society. Still, obedience is largely voluntary, and even the “laws” themselves are, at this point, not much more than “suggestions.”

 

The progression of the decalogue is interesting, if you follow my ideas of the “why” of it: 

 

A.   Belief in a caring deity provides focus and a common desire to “please” the source of our existence;

 

B.    Honoring loving parents helps teach and sustain “family values” that then filter in to the community at large;

 

C.    Basic laws that protect both the “rights” of community members and their existence, as well, are better voluntarily obeyed by people who share a common faith, and who were trained in the family “unit” to believe they are important.

 

There is an unseen, yet essential principle behind all of this: It is TRUST. The “Ten Suggestions” are BASED on trust, both individual and mutual, will help build and grow trust, and will provide a system for sustaining it in the society. 

 

The family in which I was raised was a church-going one, was “supervised” by a pair of legitimately caring parents who saw us children as “charges,” for which they had been granted a temporary “stewardship” of by God, and a family with few “absolutes” or crippling rules. We had just enough “do’s” and “don’t’s” to keep the peace in the household, and even these may be open to negotiation, especially if circumstances of the family or the family member unexpectedly changed. (This happened a lot for my parents, as my mother was pretty much an “itinerant” registered nurse whose employment and hours changed a lot, and my father—a financial manager—whose employers kept getting “bought out” by larger companies and moved operations to a different city.) One thing we had in spades in our family was TRUST. We children (three boys) never had reason to doubt the altruism in our parents’ values and rules, and if we chose not to break the trust our parents gifted to us, our personal freedoms were guaranteed, and in some cases, even extended. As a highschooler, I was allowed to use a family vehicle anytime it was available, and as long as I obeyed the “rules of the road” and got home on time, I was trusted to be on my best behavior. My parents trusted my choice of friends, as well, and offered me many more freedoms than most of my friends enjoyed. All this because they trusted ME and I trusted THEM, and their consistent views. Believe me, I NEVER wanted to “blow” this freeing trust! I would never have thought of betraying it, because “honoring” it certainly made my life not only easier, but SO MUCH more fun!

 

This is how I see the “Ten Suggestions” working, in the mind of God. They set up a people and a society based on a “freeing trust.” Voluntary acceptance and “obedience” to the decalogue would make for a nation of trust and true freedom—a place where the “days may be long—and good—for all.” 

 

If you take this “template” and superimpose it upon the teachings of Jesus, I believe you will see it fits quite well. Amen!

What's Next?

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