"Rise and shine!" I can almost hear my late mother's voice as she woke us up for elementary school. Not for many years would I connect that phrase with our Old Testament reading for today.
On this 6th day in January, we commemorate a time when God schooled us all about the little baby Mary had born under such humble circumstances. He is the God's Anointed King, the Redeemer of Israel, the Light of the People. Even the Magi (wise men of the East, who were probably Zoroastrians) had heard of him, and had traveled far to honor him and offer him rich gifts in tribute to his (invisibly) high status.
Herod, the King of the Jews (Judeans) as recognized by his Roman rulers, was displeased. He kept his throne by keeping order among his subjects, many of whom hated the Roman Empire and therefore hated him for collaborating with its occupation of Judea (also called Israel), which the Romans renamed Palestina. According to the story, he decided to eliminate this upstart, once the Magi found out where he was.
"Evil Herod," we're supposed to hiss. "Give the kid a chance." But how many of us welcome someone who has come to take our job or our place in society? How many of us welcome a new idea that has come to replace one that we have long thought true?
But, like Herod, most of the patriarchal honor/shame society that was Judea, would reject the claims of Jesus' followers after his death. Judaism would remain Judaism, while the Jesus Movement would eventually split from Judaism to become a Gentile religion. Which is where the Magi come in. They were Gentiles, a term for anybody other than Jews. According to the story in Matthew 2:1-12, Gentiles were a target of Jesus' ministry from the beginning. At least, according to the politics of the writer of Matthew's Gospel.
The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, took as his special mission to preach the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles of the wider Roman Empire. And so, whether or not Gentiles were part of Jesus earthly ministry (and much suggests he focused primarily on Jews and gathering in the twelve tribes of Israel), Gentiles were part of the development of the Church soon after Jesus' Resurrection. In fact, Paul's mission was to break down the distinction between Jew and Gentile by adopting Gentiles along with Jews into the spiritual Body of Christ.
So what we celebrate this day is the revelation (or Epiphany, or Theophany) of God in the baby Jesus as demonstrated by the arrival of outsiders. Arise, shine, for your Light has come!
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Readings: Third Sunday in Easter
Are you good?
If you're reading this, then you probably are a good person, or you have the potential to be one, or you at least want to be one. That's the human condition. That's what we all want to think about ourselves.
The Apostles in our first reading allowed their audience no such luxury. They had just cured a man of his longstanding lameness so that he could walk again. And they did it, they said, by calling on the name of the man, Jesus, whom the crowd had killed not long before.
Now wait a minute, you say. The crowd didn't kill anybody. The Romans killed Jesus. Well, yes, some Romans did the deed itself. But they couldn't have done if the crowd had tried to stop them. The crowd was guilty of what the legal profession would one day call "contributory causation." They helped cause the death of Jesus, because they had done nothing to stop it. Indeed, many of them had called out to have another man pardoned instead of Jesus.
Yet the Apostles go on to say that Jesus makes his name available to be called on freely, even to those who, by their inaction, enabled his executioners. To pardon them from paying the debt for their sins, including that one. (It is significant that many languages use the same word for guilt and debt.)
Ok. The crowd needed forgiveness, just like the lame man needed to be healed of his affliction. But you're good. For you forgiveness is optional, right?
Again, be honest. If you had been in the crowd when Jesus was executed, would you have done anything different? Would you have saved him? Would you have tried? Whether you admit it or not, the people in the crowd were like you, and you are like them. Good people.
How good? How we rationalize our choices to maintain our self-talk about our own goodness! Some people might be pro-life, otherwise liberty-loving people who think that wanting to use government power to coerce others to have babies they don't want or can't support makes them good people. Others might be pro-choice, otherwise life-cherishing people who think that preserving a woman's license to kill the living human being in her own womb before it can become a legal person - her child - makes them good people. How we tell ourselves what we need to hear in order to think that we never have and never will compromise, contradict or violate our own core values! Or that our core values are consistent with each other!
Stephen Sondheim was right on point in his musical Into the Woods when one of his characters says to the crowd, "You're not good, you're not bad. You're just nice." And another character observes, "Nice is different than good."
Forgiveness is not an option. Forgiveness is a necessity. For all of us, all the time. It's just socially constructed to be more obvious in some people than in others.
And so our psalm and our second reading exhort us to turn away from our sin and toward our God for Forgiveness. How shall we receive that Forgiveness?
In that darkened room of our Gospel reading, so long ago, as his former followers sat in mourning, Jesus suddenly showed up. He spoke with them, touched them, and ate with them. Face to face. That is how they received their Forgiveness. That is how we shall receive ours. Up close, in person. As it were, face to face. That is the Promise God makes to those who seek Him.
So, seek, and you shall be found. Even if you think yourself to be at the bottom of the heap of those who seek God, it's the best heap there is to be at the bottom of!
And God's Peace be with you always.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Readings: 16th Sunday after Pentecost
As Christ's Resurrection is the defining event of the New Testament, so God's Theophany at Sinai is the defining event of the Old Testament. Our first reading takes us to the third day, when God speaks to all Israel assembled in fear and trembling at the foot of the mountain. God begins with the aseret hadevarim, Hebrew for the "ten words." We call them the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments.
Truly, this was the beginning of God's Covenant with the Hebrews, also known as the people of Israel, or today, the Jews — from Judea (the land of Judah), the name of their longest surviving kingdom. From this day forward, the Jews agreed to keep God's commandments, and God promised to keep them as a distinctive people, a priestly people, in that they were to be the people who lived according to God's commandments.
It was also only the beginning. In the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) God gives a total of 613 mitzvoth, or commandments, and the Jews would be bound to uphold them all. During the period in which the Hebrew Bible was revealed, keeping the commandments proved difficult. The archaeological record indicates that many Jews kept figurines of gods belonging to religions other than their own until the Babylonian Exile. After that, they appear to have become strict monotheists.
Then the Romans occupied the Judea and re-named it Palestine, in order to break the identification of the Jews (Judeans) with their land. Not only did keeping the commandments become more difficult — after the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent Roman Exile, it became impossible to keep them literally. For the next several hundred years, Jewish scholars debated how to re-interpret the commandments under such circumstances, and wrote their opinions in the Talmud.
Thus, with some modifications, Jews are still liable for all 613 commandments. If you are Christian, then so are you. Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible, and taught its commandments. To reject them is to reject Him.
I know the usual claptrap that passes for Christian Biblical interpretation claims that, because Jesus has "fulfilled" the commandments, you are excused from your obligation to obey most of them. But you are not excused. You are forgiven.
The difference is that to be excused means to be given a free pass. God gives a nod and a wink, and you are free to direct your attention elsewhere. Being forgiven means that you are the beneficiary of the Forgiveness that was planted in this world by Christ's blood and agony on the Cross. The commandments still stand, and you are still convicted when you neglect or disobey them, particularly those first Ten. But, thank God, you are forgiven.
And yet, our Psalm tells us that keeping the commandments is sweet. It is a form of worship to perform the daily and weekly rituals of Jewish life, and to study the Torah. The various actions and restraints, large and small, create a heightened awareness of the sacred in everyday experience, and thus a heightened spiritual consciousness. It is both a joy, and as both our readings from Isaiah and Psalm 80 remind us, a serious obligation.
How serious? There were a number of competing varieties of Judaism during Jesus' earthly lifetime. Of them, only two survived the Roman occupation: one became the Judaism we know today, and the other became Christianity. After nearly 2000 years of exile and near-extermination, the former has returned to the land of its origin, while the latter has conquered the occupiers so completely that their Latin is maintained as a living language only in rituals of the Catholic Church. These two vines have survived.
It remains the Covenant obligation of Jews to uphold the commandments, to study Torah and Talmud. It remains the New Covenant obligation of Christians to go beyond the commandments. At first glance, we Christians seem to have the easier path — fewer details to learn, fewer rituals to remember. Until we remember that Jesus said (Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23), "Whoever will come after me, let him take up his cross, and follow me."
We console ourselves that our righteousness is not earned by obeying the commandments (aka the Law), because in truth, we cannot obey them perfectly. Instead, we claim a righteousness that has been given to us by God through Christ himself. All He asks is that we follow, wherever He may lead, through whatever hardship, even through death. And to go joyfully, passionately, straining forward toward the goal, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Phillipians.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Readings: Holy Trinity Sunday
In 1674, Thomas Ken wrote a hymn called Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun, which ends with the following verse, now sung as the Doxology in many of our Christian services:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. On this first Sunday after the Pentecost we celebrate and meditate on God's revelation to us that we may think of God as a Trinity of three Persons.
Indeed we may. But must we? Must we believe that the Absolute Reality of God really is this unity/trinity of three distinct Persons emanating from one Godhead?
I don't think so. For one reason, whenever you begin to think about God instead of being in relationship with God, you are thinking about your own idea of God, which is at best a toy model of God, and at worst an idol. All theology is thus tinged with idolatry, which means that we can only take theology as a guide, a pointer to the One who is beyond all theology. And so, the Trinity is a theological construct. Because it fits so well with the New Testament, it qualifies as a model rather than an idol. And it's a model with many virtues. But as for it's being the Absolute Reality of God, well, as Paul says, "Now we see through a glass darkly."
Yet another reason leads me to assert that the Trinity is a model. The historical Jesus and his companions during his public ministry would have rejected such a notion. Yet, neither he nor his followers could be critiqued as "un-Christian." Instead, the notion of the Trinity reflects the opinion of the early Church following Jesus' Resurrection. Indeed, it may even reflect some secret teaching of the post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension Jesus that was kept circulating in oral tradition and not written (not explicitly, anyway) into the New Testament.
Now, although the Trinity is a model, it isn't "just" a model. It's a great model, fitting nicely through all the wickets in the New Testament, and with the experience of God reported by Christian mystics through the ages. We have Jesus, who declares "All that Abba (the Father, or 'Daddy') has is mine," Jesus' emphasis that we are to relate to God as "Daddy," and the Spirit of Truth which came over the assembled worshippers at Pentecost. Indeed they go together, three faces of an inseparable Unity.
It's not so complicated, really. Certainly not so complicated as imagining God to be the ten Sefirot of Kabbalistic Judaism. And indeed, among the Sefirot one finds the Shekhinah, the Spirit (or in Hebrew the "Ruach" or breath of God) who is feminine, and corresponds well to the Holy Spirit recognized by Christians. She is the Sefirah who spends so much time the world of humans.
But let us not fight over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (Eastern Church) or from the Father and the Son (Western Church). That's just arguing over how the Tinker Toy sticks of your model are joined together. If prayer can be compared to making love, then too much concern with this kind of theology can be compared to, shall we say, "going it alone."
So step outside. Consider that the skyscape is brought to you by God, that your breath is breathed for you by the Spirit of God, and that next to you is the Son of God, admiring it all through your eyes.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Readings: Seventh Sunday in Easter, Year C
Jesus, whom his disciples loved, had been killed by crucifixion, a form of execution well-known for its pain and humiliation. After this horrific shame, he appeared to his disciples in a hyper-physical living form, able to enter rooms without passing through doors or walls, yet still able to eat food with them, and to touch them and be touched by them. These meetings and instructions went on for some time, the traditional "forty days," as it is written. And now, on this Sunday, we commemorate his leaving them.
And what an exit he made! Rising up from among them and into the clouds where they could see him no more. It was an exit that did not leave them sad, but rather triumphant. Their teacher who had lost his life, had won the sky!
And someday, when it was their turn, they would win it, too. This death thing, is just a phase. They would get through it. They would get over it. And what happens next, well, that would be too glorious to describe.
The promise of Christianity, and the hope of Christians, is that even though you are some 30 generations removed from those who witnessed Christ's ascension, your ultimate destiny is the same as the destiny of those witnesses. Because, despite all appearances to the contrary, ultimately God is in control. The entire Universe, and all the good and bad in it, is on loan to you for a time, in order for you to become yourself and then return to the One who made you.
Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Sounds like some nutty magical thinking. Those who witnessed the event, would answer, "Yes, but I was there. I saw it. I felt it. It's really true!"
Two thousand years later, we have some scant record of their testimony. Yet we live in the world they changed, because of what they experienced. In this age of skepticism, maybe it's time to be a little skeptical of skepticism itself. Maybe it's time to be more open-minded to the proposition that things are actually a good deal better than you think.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Readings: Easter Sunday, Year B
Sometimes there is a cloud over our lives, so vast, so dark that it is impossible to hope that it will pass over us. So overwhelming that it is impossible to hope at all. All one can experience is helplessness, despair. And the gnawing dread that things are getting worse. That we or our loved ones are going down into the pit from which there is no return. It is only a matter of when, and how hard the shock will hit us.
Cowering and ashamed after they had abandoned him to suffering and death, Jesus' inner circle of followers waited for things to get worse for them. Soon, the Romans would come for them. They, too, would be crucified. Theirs was a shrinking circle of grief and dread.
But then something extraordinary happened. All a scientific historian can know is that suddenly, the followers didn't care that they might be crucified. They took up places in public squares and declared that they had seen, felt, conversed with, and even dined with Jesus after his crucifixion and burial. Jesus, they claimed, was God's Anointed who had conquered death itself. Jesus would lead anyone and everyone who asked him by name out of death and into life everlasting.
What has become of their claim? Two thousand years later, one third of all the world's people say they believe it. The Roman Empire that crucified Jesus and later, many of his followers, is sixteen centuries gone. The claim of his Apostles and the witness of more unusual events since then still stand. In blood and agony a message of hope was planted in the world, and large parts of the world are still guided by it.
Their claim has become our brightest hope. The hope that we do not surrender our loved ones and ourselves to the abyss. Rather, we give them and ourselves back into the loving embrace of the infinitely generous God.
Against this hope, the secularists advance unaided reason. But without a defiant and irrational Stoicism, unaided reason leads inevitably to despair. It gives us the what and the how, but not the why. The crisis of pure rationalism is a bottomless abyss of meaninglessness that can be resisted only by irrational means. Stoicism provides only resignation. There is no meaning, there is no hope. But there is a kind of pointless honor in going on.
But pointless honor provides no basis for anything other than societal suicide. It may be that one must go on, but must one at great cost to oneself bring someone else into the world, just to carry on the pointless struggle, fraught with suffering and anxiety? A hopeless society is a below-replacement-birth-rate society, an aging society, a dying society.
Is it really so reasonable to stand reason against hope? Is is really so reasonable to deny our brightest hope, that this one man, God's Anointed, has triumphed over suffering and death, and that he did so in order to share his his triumph with us?
You are free, of course to deny anything not proved to you by unaided reason, or Divinely revealed to you. But if the Risen Christ makes himself known to you, then you will be stuck. You cannot then help but bear witness of him. People will think you are a little bit crazy.
You will have been cured of your bad spiritual infection (existential despair and angst, or worse) by acquiring a good spiritual infection (the spirit of God). In material terms, it is like treating bowel disease by eating yogurt. Instead of the noxious but familiar fumes of nihilism, you will emit the stink of salvation. Eventually, you will get used to your reconstructed self, and tone it down to where your brothers and sisters on this earth can stand you. And then you will get down to the business of your calling.
So now imagine that you are one of the Apostles two thousand years ago. The person you have come to love more than anyone else in the world, who for the last three years has given your life all its meaning, has been humiliated, tortured, and killed. And then he comes back from the dead, in radiance and power, and takes your hand. Don't worry, he says. Everything is going to be fine. Everything is going to turn our very well indeed. Much better than you can imagine. Much better than even he imagined. Go, tell it on the mountain.
Ultimately, you are in the best of hands. Count on it. Rise up in hope. The brightest hope ever proclaimed in this world.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Readings: Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
God, for no particular reason that we can fathom, singles out Abraham and promises him that he and his wife will have a son whose descendants will become many nations. Our Psalm sings of the great Day of the LORD, when the LORD shall rule over all the nations. The New Testament Reading covers many topics in one short passage: Faith, Law and Gospel, and substitutionary sacrifice. Finally, in our Gospel reading Jesus foretells his Crucifixion, and is Transfigured in front of some of his disciples. Hours worth of material here. But relax, we're going to take a shortcut.
For the Day of the LORD is obviously not yet, Abraham has given rise to three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in that historical order, and substitutionary sacrifice has been called into question. And this is our sticking point. There is no denying that all the authors of the New Testament believed that Jesus Christ was offered as a sacrifice for our sins, going all the way back to Adam, the first man, who disobeyed God, and caused the entire Universe to fall into its present state.
Well, we know that's not true in the physical sense. Our physical selves evolved from the primordial slime into our present form as populations of living things responded over many generations to suffering and death. That is to say, human beings did not bring suffering and death into the world. Human beings were brought into the world by suffering and death. Suffering and death are prior to human beings. Regardless of what the New Testament writers and their communities believed, it is no longer reasonable to believe that Jesus had to atone for the Sin of Adam and Eve.
So, in the words of the old radio show, The Lone Ranger, who was that masked man? Why did Jesus endure death by Crucifixion, and then rise from death in a new, perfected form? If not for the Sin of Adam, how about your own sin? Oh, surely, you can't be all that bad. Surely you don't need such an outrageous act on the part of God!
On the other hand, even if the Fall of Man is not true as a physical history, it isn't bad at all as a primitive psychology. The Hell of it is that we behave pretty much as Genesis says we do. We all live our lives pretty much without reference or deference to God. And the Universe is constructed to let us do it. The rain falls on the just and the unjust.
And we wouldn't have it any other way. We like our freedom from God. No, we love it. We are like addicts with respect to it. We need to be our own selves, running our own lives, our own world. Except for those who are like spiritual suicides, who want nothing more than to escape the selves that God gave them by giving those selves back to God as damaged goods, as a hand of cards they don't want to play out. If the relationship with God is Buber's I-Thou, then some of us want to abandon I, and others want to escape from Thou.
In other words, the Sin of Adam did not take place in history. It takes place in the way we live our lives every day. The results have been spectacular, particularly in what we have done to each other: the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Holocaust, centuries of persecution of Jews before the Holocaust, the wars of religion before Europeans decided to fight over politics and Lebensraum, just to mention a few of the atrocities committed by Christians. Non-Christians can be as bad or worse, but this is church, so let's just stick to our own business for the present.
But even when we are not being spectacularly bad, there is this, if I may quote Scooper:
In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)
We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.
That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise. It is a shock, a horror, and a scandal. And since we don't want to be confronted by the inference that we are that bad, we deny it, and attack (at least verbally) those who proclaim it.
Substitutionary sacrifice isn't for Adam. It's for you.