Monday, July 29, 2019

Bad Faith

Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called.
“Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”
“Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”
The next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day of their journey, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey,” Abraham told the servants. “The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.” So Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering on Isaac’s shoulders, while he himself carried the fire and the knife.
As the two of them walked on together, Isaac turned to Abraham and said, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
“God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son,” Abraham answered. And they both walked on together.


Generally, the genres of stories haven’t changed much in four thousand years.  In the ancient world, they liked stories of superheroes and gods, buddy stories and romances with some fantasy. They liked epics with monsters and stories of con men.

The story of Abraham is different.  It is a story of a moral religious man who made mistakes, and who struggled with his wife to have a baby.  He was involved in one small skirmish, but otherwise no war. He lived a quiet life, an unassuming life, and even though great events were around him, his participation in them was often just prayer.  For the most part, his life is without great drama.

And yet his life is the basis of three major world religions. He is seen as an example to follow, an exemplar life.  And perhaps because his life is so quiet, it makes sense. But we also have more information about him than about almost any ancient figure of his time, passed on through oral tradition and ancient texts, carefully transcribed.

Why is his quiet story so important for so much of the world?  Perhaps because in his own quiet way, Abraham’s story is kind of crazy.  He was a family man that approached life… differently… but still succeeded in the long run, although he was on the brink of disaster again and again.   I guess we can all identify with that, a bit.

We hear that Abraham’s father moved his family from Ur in Mesopotamia in Iraq to Haran in Turkey,, and that he had quite a legacy to pass onto his sons. He originally wanted to go to Canaan, but ended up in Turkey instead, which was fine.   Then we move right away to Abraham. He is told by God to leave his family and his inheritance and his land and to go… just go. Don’t worry about where. God will tell you when to stop. And if Abraham does then God will make of Abraham an enormous nation, and the whole world will be blessed by him and his family.

We have no indication that Abraham considered it for a minute or if he weighed the pros and cons.  Pro-- great nation someday. Con-- leave everything I know to who knows where. Got it, let’s go!

So Abraham kept moving until he got to the land of Canaan and then God told him “Stop!”.  God told Abraham that someday he would have all of this land, but meanwhile he had to live homeless in it. So Abraham and his family lived in tents, increasing his sheep business.

One day, Abe sat down and had a talk with God.  “So God? You say that you’ll make me into nations?  Well, I don’t really see it happening as I don’t have a son.  Or any kid. And I’m really old, as is Sarah, my wife. How about if I adopt my head slave and you can make nations out of him?”

“No, Abe, you’re going to have a kid.  You. Not adopted. Out of your body.” “Okay, God, if you say so.”

See, Abe really trusted God.  He figured it would be okay if God said it was okay.  If God told him to do it, Abe did it. If God said it would happen, it would happen.

So did his wife Sarah.  But she was very particular about God’s words.  “Sure,” she said, “God said you would have a son, but not me.  Tell you what, my neighbors all have surrogate moms. Let’s use my slave, Hagar, as a surrogate mom.”  So they did. And she had a son, Ishmael. And Sarah adopted that son as her own. But Hagar kept acting like a mom.  And was kind of bossy. So Sarah got rid of Hagar. Abraham was worried about Hagar, but God promised that he would take care of Hagar and Abraham trusted God. God took care of Hagar

God made a a separate promise to Sarah that she would have a son, and she laughed to herself.  Because she was 89 and children weren’t a possibility. God said, “Did you laugh at me?” Sarah replied, “I didn’t laugh.” We always have this problem about lying to God, as if God doesn’t know.  God says, “You did laugh, but you will have a son.”

And… it did happen.  Abe had a son. . But Abe and Sarah had a kid named “Laughter” or in Hebrew, Isaac, and they were overjoyed and they raised their kid and they knew that nations would come from Isaac.

Then came the bad day.  The day Abraham’s trust turned bad.

The day that God said, “Abraham, I want you to take your son… your only son… the son whom you love  and go where I tell you to go and sacrifice him there.”
Again, Abraham didn’t argue with God.  He didn’t make a list of pros and cons.  If he had, it might have looked like this: Pro-- Do what God says to do.  Con-- Kill my son, give up on God’s promise of nations through him, do human sacrifice which is abominable, destroy that which I love most in the world.  Okay, here we go!

To be honest, I don’t understand this Abraham.  Maybe this is the same, naive Abraham who left his home and family just at God’s say-so.  But is this the Abraham who haggled with God about the lives of Sodom? Is this the Abraham who heard his nephew, Lot, was in trouble and he took three hundred servants to go and attack the huge raiding party to get him back?  Is this the “family first” Abraham?

This is an Abraham that had enough energy to do a three day walk, but not enough to tell God, “Can we think about this a minute?”  

He said to his son, “Let’s go on a trip.  Starting at three in the morning. And let’s not tell your mother.  Or anyone else. It’s a God-thing.” Isaac knew about his dad’s “God-things”.  So he got up and travelled with him. But Isaac figured it out eventually. He knew they were going for a sacrifice.  But there was no animal brought. And Abraham was being pretty coy when Isaac asked about it.

Both Jewish and Muslim traditions say that Abraham’s son was old enough to take his dad, to run away.  But he chose to stay, he chose to be with his father. He trusted his father, even when he was acting uncomfortably weird.

So when they got there, Abraham bound Isaac and was going to kill him.  And Isaac let his father do this to him. And in the last minute, God sends an angel and says, “Don’t do this!”

So why?  Why this drama, this exercise in futile obedience?  Why put Abraham and Isaac through this turmoil?

The first thought is, “This is the Bible.  This story is supposed to promote trust in God.”  So you have the author of Hebrews who says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  But we have no reason to believe that from this story than he thought that God would pull him back in the last second.

Many get the lesson that God was testing Abraham to see if he was really loyal to God first above everything else.  God’s statement seems to indicate that. But what God said is, “Now I know that you fear God…” Is this really a statement of praise or a statement of fact?  Yes, sure, now I know just how your trust goes over the line into insanity. I wasn’t sure before, but now I know for certain.”

In fact, the lessons from much of the rest of the Bible aren’t the lessons we would normally get from it.

Argue with God
If you think that you are hearing something from God that just doesn’t sound right, argue with God.  Don’t just accept it. No one just accepted what God told them after this. Moses argued God down when God wanted to destroy all the children of Israel after the Golden calf incident.  Ezekiel argued with God when God wanted him to cook his food over burnt human feces. Even Jesus argued with God about his sacrifice on the cross! Some say that true belief is, “God said it, I believe it and that settles it.”  But the whole of the Bible seems to say that trusting in God doesn’t mean just accepting what God says. Trust is a relationship and in a relationship either side could be wrong, even God. Sometimes we need to sit with God and have a discussion, not just be an obedient slave.

No Human Sacrifice
Abraham was asked to do human sacrifice.  From this point on, this act wasn’t even considered.  God is not the kind of God that asks for humans to die on behalf of others.  All three monotheistic religions are characterized by not forcing the innocent to die for others.  Jesus and the martyrs could die willingly, but if anyone forces them to die, then they are condemned and even the land on which they died is polluted.  The innocent who die in wars or famines are part of what we must stop in Jesus’ name.

We Beg God not to Tempt
Jesus taught us to plead with God to not put us in this kind of situation.  Where we have our faith in God on one side and our humanity on the other. Everyday someone has to make a Sophie’s choice between survival and God, between a love for their humanity or their faith.  Jesus tells us to ask God never to put us in such a spot.

Corrie Ten Boom tells a story about she and her sister, both of whom hid Jews from the Nazis in WWII.  In their minds they both determined what they would do if the Nazis showed up at their door, demanding where the Jews were.  When that day occurred, Corrie lied to the Nazis, who didn’t believe her and they ransacked her house, but didn’t find the Jews that were well-hidden there.  When the day occured for her sister, Betsie, her faith didn’t allow her to lie. So she told the Nazis that the Jews were hidden in the closet. They didn’t believe her, either, so they left.   Both acted according to their faith.
Trust in God can go very, very right, even if it seems crazy.  Perhaps this is part of God’s insurance for us. If we trust in God, God will protect us just enough.

Bad Faith
On the other hand, faith can go very, very bad.

The last couple weeks, laws have been passed in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio, in the name of God to end abortion.  These laws, of course, do not end abortion, just ends the ability to abort babies safely in an office. These laws harm innocent women, and it doesn’t matter which side of the abortion debate we are on.  One law targets women who go across state lines to seek an abortion, convicting them as a murderer. One law encourages the transplanting of an ectopic pregnancy into a surrogate. The latest denies abortions to victims of incest and rape.  These laws are not targeting abortion, but women. And it is done in the name of faith.
Someone asked me if I believed in heresy.  Yes. Yes I do.

I believe that when someone’s faith in God demands that people be harmed, that is heresy.

When someone says that war or terror must be committed in order to perpetuate one’s belief in God, that is heresy.

When someone harms innocent people in the name of God, that is heresy.

When slavery, rape, capital punishment, the destruction of other peoples or nations or hated is done in Jesus’ name, that is heresy.

When a faith community sees their protection or security over the support of the poor, outcast or marginalized, that is heresy.

And honestly, I see Abraham in this story as an actor of bad faith.  Just like he was an actor of bad faith when he threw out Hagar and Ishmael-- his co-wife and son-- to die in the wilderness at just the word of God.

Sure, it all worked out okay, but that doesn’t mean that Abraham was overly naive.  That his trust was misplaced.

Which God was he trusting himself in?  The God that encourages us to take chances?  No, I get that. Sometimes our trust in God causes us to take huge steps that might seem crazy to some.  But the God of love does not ask us to kill. The God of love does not ask us to sacrifice someone else. The God of love does not ask us to destroy our family.  To hear this from God and to blindly obey it is not just naive, not just foolish, but in opposition to the command of Jesus.

Jesus commands us to love God.  AND to love our neighbor. It is not either/or, but both at the same time.  To love God is to love our neighbor and to love our neighbor is to love God.  The God of love will never ask us to choose one or the other.

When politicians, police, the military, pastors or any other authority demand that we make a choice between God and our neighbor then they are asking us to put faith into the wrong God.  Some other God than that of love. Some other God than the God of Jesus. And I’m just not interested.

Friday, July 26, 2019

More Faith-ful Than Thou

Arius was a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt in the third and fourth centuries.  The centuries of persecution of Christians just ended which gave him the opportunity to really focus on what  he really loved: He loved to really dig into Christian theology and work out the logical ideas. But he wasn’t too enamored of the influence of Greek philosophy in Christianity and he would warn his students about the creeping influence.  One of the issues he took on was the idea that Jesus was eternal and was of the same substance -- the same spiritual “stuff”-- as God the creator. While he agreed that Jesus assisted in creation, Jesus was completely submitted to the Father and some time in the ancient past was begotten from the Father.  

Unfortunately, Arius’ bishop, Alexander-- yeah, his name was Alexander of Alexandria-- strongly disagreed with him.  He said that Arius had to teach that Jesus was the same substance as the Father. Arius said, well, sir, I have to teach what I see as true.  This became a big issue. So big that people on the street of Alexandria-- and Rome and Constantinople-- argued about it. It was said that you couldn’t go down to the market without sellers arguing with buyers, “same substance!” “Different substance!”  “Eternal!” “Created!”

Alexander was miffed.  So was Emperor Constantine.  He didn’t like his newly supported religion brining division among the people.  He wanted a clean, pristine, pure religion to call his own. So he called a council of bishops from throughout the empire and said, “Decide this! Now!”  They took a vote and Alexander of Alexandria won. So the Emperor turned to Arius and said, “Now you and anyone who believes in your heretical teaching, leave the empire!  We want one pure belief, clean of heresy!” So Arius packed up his family, his disciples and left the Roman empire.

And from this point on, one of the essential ideas of Christianity was that the church would be endangered as a social entity unless everyone believed the same thing.  This is where people insist upon the idea that we need to have a single, unified vision of the church. Unless we agree upon the basics, no one will listen to what we have to say.  God forbid that we disagree-- in public even! The council of Nicea created a thing called a “creed” or a laundry list of beliefs, which was a tool for Christianity to use to clearly distinguish between who was in and who was out.  Of course, they had to update that about every century, but still, it’s official.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea.  Bishops were given authority in the mid-second century to quiet down heresy, whatever they thought that meant.  Paul said that there was “one faith” and he argued with other Christians about which faith that was, even desiring that his opponents be castrated (although that might have been a joke).  And in the text we were reading, we can see the disciples being pretty insistent about who is in and who is out.

The apostle John was kind of a hothead.  That’s why Jesus named John and his brother James, “sons of thunder” because they were always ready to zap people for not being a part of the right group.  Meaning their group. So John reported to Jesus their latest activity. They saw someone helping out a mentally ill person in the name of Jesus and they stopped them.  “Who gave you authority to use that name? Have you attended Jesus’ classes? Do you have a monogrammed sweatshirt? Where is your membership card? Yep. I thought not.  Sorry, until you belong to the right group, you don’t have the right teaching. If you don’t have the right teaching, you can’t use Jesus’ name.” So they shut this guy down.

Jesus’ response should have been, “Well, I totally understand that.  This guy could have been doing good works in the totally wrong way. What if he said the Lord’s Prayer with the wrong words?  What if he didn’t understand that I was the Messiah?” That’s what John was expecting.

Instead, Jesus got on John’s case.  “What are you doing? Wasn’t this guy doing an act of love?  Why did you stop him? Think of it this way: do you want the name of Jesus associated with sincerely someone helping someone out or being a self-righteous, judgmental jerk?  I think the former, eh?

“This guy was on our side.  We don’t know that because they took the right seminar, have the right degrees from the right college or belong to the right denomination.  We know that because he is doing an act of love. That’s the guy we want to keep doing that kind of stuff! Next time you see someone doing an act of love, don’t look at the basis of their authority, rather thank them!”

Jesus even went on to say, that this guy who belonged to the wrong group, probably had the wrong theology would receive the blessing of God.  He cannot be denied his reward. And anyone, Jesus said, who does good work in the name of Jesus-- no matter what their theology or outlook, no matter how heretical they are-- will receive God’s reward.   If we are going to take this seriously, than any work of love, no matter how small is God’s work, even if done by people who believe in the wrong things.

It’s easy to apply this to people like Franklin Graham who demands that Christian progressives are going to hell.  Or people like John MacArthur who insist that all pentecostals and Charismatics are part of a diabolical heresy. It’s a good thing that us progressives are so open-minded and accepting of all people.  

Of course, there is this guy that I’ve been reading lately, Bishop John Spong.  He insists that orthodox Christianity is “Unbelievable” and that “Christianity must Change or Die.”  His answer is to change the theology of Christianity, to recognize that Jesus resurrected in the spirit, not the body, to deny the virgin birth of Jesus, to deny the reality of the Exodus.  I am not here to argue that he is wrong in his assessment, although I do think that his theology tends to be pretty focused on scholarship in the 70s and 80s. I am saying that he, just like the orthodox teachers he is arguing with, are focused on the wrong issues.  Whether one does or does not believe in the virgin birth isn’t the issue at all. The issue is what foundation do you have to enact the love of Jesus.

If Jesus is bodily risen from the dead and so Jesus is the king of creation and so we must follow Jesus’ law of love and that is how you learn to love, God bless you.  If you find that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is on shaky ground, but you are inspired by the Sermon on the Mount to live a life of love, then God bless you. If you are a Muslim who believes that Jesus is a prophet, but finds his life to be guiding yours to act with greater mercy, then God bless you.

On the other hand, if we think that Muslims aren’t the right kind of religion because they don’t believe in the right things, even though they give more to charity per capita than the Christian church, then we aren’t listening to Jesus.  If we reject the good work of supporting women in pregnancies through poverty of the Pregnancy Crisis Centers, because they don’t agree with our politics, we have the same problem as those who reject Planned Parenthood and their good work.  If we reject all of conservative Christianity because of their doctrine, then we are also rejecting the hospitals, the shelters, the many, many cups of cold water throughout the world they have also delivered.

Am I saying that God is pleased with all the work of all churches?  Absolutely not. What I am saying is that God does not measure his people by words on a piece of paper.  That God does not judge any of us based on ideas of what the future has in store for us. That God does not judge us based on which party we vote for.  Rather, God blesses those who do acts of love.

Diane had a boss who owned a laundromat.  He was an avid watcher of Fox and he voted for Bush and he was always talking about people who need to help themselves and get out of poverty.  But when he saw someone in need, he was there for him. I have never liked Bill’s politics, nor did I care for his theology. But I cannot argue with his life.  With the fact that his faith wasn’t primarily about teaching, but about how he lived. And I saw how he sacrificed, sometimes his well-being, for people in need.  He may not be part of our group, but he is among the blessed of God because of his love. And it took me more than a minute to open my eyes and see that it isn’t about theology or posturing-- God’s blessing is about how we respond to someone in need.

I was a person opposed to the LGBTQ.  There are men and women and there is God’s commandment and that’s enough.  And then Vickie came into our lives. She would be classified as a transvestite by some, although her issues were more complicated than that.  She and I went into counseling, so I could give her spiritual guidance while she was living in our house. In the end, she is the one who taught me.  She taught me that the truest Christian may not have everything right according to the church, but is humble, serving and loving. In fact, the best Christian I know was thrown out of multiple churches because of issues that had nothing to do with love, but with the kinds of clothes she needed to wear.   I thank God for her to come into our lives. She, more than anyone I know, taught me that love is more important than doctrine. And I have never forgotten that lesson.

Should we ignore theology?  I don’t think so. Our theology can help us determine how best to love.  But I think that we should take care not to judge someone who has a different theology or politic than we, because those things sometimes matter less than the practical details.

The other thing is something I wonder.  Bible studies and classes are usually about making sure that everyone in the group is on the same page theologically, on the right page of belief and doctrine.  Sometimes we have Bible studies to actually explore God’s will about something. But here is something I’ve considered. Perhaps instead of all this focus of studying doctrine and theology is the wrong step altogether, as enjoyable as it is.  Perhaps we need to have love studies. How to best love and care for people. What is love in one context or another. When we have limited resources, who should be loved, this person or that? How do we make that determination? What is the loving and unloving way to obtain resources?  What is the best approach to love, through things, presence or community? I wonder if we should have more love studies and fewer classes on what we believe. In so long as each session ends in action, and not just in thought.

On other thing I’ve been thinking about this.  It has to do with trusting God, like what we talked about last week.  If faith is really about trusting God, then we trust God to lead us in the Spirit, to get us to the right place, eventually.  If we can trust God that much, perhaps we should trust that God is also leading other people who seek her as much as we do. That we should trust God enough to bring other people to the place they are supposed to be, even if we are sure that their way is the wrong way.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

If Faith were a Song, What Would It Sound Like (please, not George Michael)

A word does not have a meaning.            

I mean they do, but sometimes the meaning of a word is vague, fuzzy, or it hits many things.  Linguists do not usually speak of a “definition” of a word, but of a “range of meanings.” A word is like a nebula.    Sure, it is an entity, but what exactly is it?  It has a lot of parts to it, a lot of colors. And when you find out more, you discover that the colors were made up by scientists and don’t reflect the reality at all, but are there to show depth and beauty.   Even so, the meanings of words can be beautiful, but hard to pin down.

Like the word “bear”.  “Bear” of course has two meanings, one is a large animal with pointy bits or possibly our spouse who we say is being a “bear” this morning.  But the other, separate range of words, has a root source of “bearing” something on one’s shoulders, which often means something difficult and we can use it to mean that we can “bear” with someone who is being difficult, which means that we can say of our spouse that we are “bearing” with a “bear”, neither of which has to do with the literal meaning of either word “bear”.  This is why words don’t have a single meaning, but a range of meanings.

The tough word we will be talking about today is “faith”.  Comes from the Latin root “fides” which is a translation of the Greek word “pistis.”

For secular people, faith is spoken of a “leap”, an accepted conviction without evidence.  The idea that God exists is a “leap of faith” that some hold and others do not.  Jesus being raised from the dead is a “leap of faith” that Christians hold. Creationism is a “leap of faith” which stands in the face of science.  And some think that the sign of being a true, saved, believer is to take a leap of faith toward Jesus without evidence.

However, this idea of a belief without evidence is only as old as 150 years when Soren Kierkegaard created existentialism, where one creates one’s own life through belief or through a personal act of will.  Before then, faith goes beyond what one can see, but is still based on reality. We step on a plane, which is an act of faith that we won’t die when we go up in the air, but it is based on knowledge that planes rarely cause people to die.

So if someone holds their chair for me when I sit down, I am putting my faith in him.    I am putting my faith in him because he could, right now, pull the chair out from under me and then I break a bone.  Some might say that I am making a leap of faith by sitting on this chair. On the other hand, I have sat in others of these chairs and not fallen.  I have experienced, let's say, this person's character and have evidence that he is not the type of person to pull the chair out from under me. This is the kind of evidence that the Bible talks about.  Yes, we are putting our faith in an uncertain future, but it is dependent on our experiences in the past.

For many Christians, to have “faith” is to believe in one of the creeds, which comes from the Latin word “Credo” which means “I believe”.   A creed is basically a laundry list of basics that “true believers” should believe.  Others call creeds the “prolegomena to the gospel” or an introduction to some basic facts we need to hold before we can move ahead with the deeper aspects of the gospel.   However, this was not conceived as the foundation of faith until the mid to late 300s, which is long after Bible times.
The apostle Paul and the book of Acts speak about “the faith”.  This is a particular belief in Jesus, risen from the dead, king of the new kingdom of God that all Christians have.  So they almost never spoke of Christians, but spoke rather of a belief system. A belief system that causes one to change one’s authority from one source-- Jewish priests, for example-- to another-- Jesus, and the community that trusts in that authority.  For many, “faith” means to follow a certain authority.

The word “faith” in Greek is pistis and the word for “I believe” is pisteuo-- both are forms of the same word.  Sometimes this might hold to a “belief” or a “belief system”, but in the bible that meaning of the word is rare. The Bible has a range of meanings for that word, which includes “belief”, but also “confidence” and “perseverance” and “commitment”-- such as having a life-long commitment to a king, which we call “fealty” or a life-long commitment to a spouse which we call “fidelity” or a life-long commitment to a god, which we call belonging to a “faith”, all of which are English words that come from the Latin word fides which we would translate in modern English, “faith”.

But I think that if we were going to use one word that gets at the core of the significance of the Bible word pistis, I think that word would be “trust.”   The Bible already warns us that belief in facts don’t bring us one step closer to walking with God. As James says, “Even the demons believe, and the shudder.”  So there is a reliable pistis and an unreliable pistis. Demons have knowledge of many of the same facts as we, but take a remarkably different course of action.  Belief in a set of facts don’t mean much.

Nor does a commitment mean much if the object of the commitment is evil.  We might consider faithfulness to our word or to our commitment to an ideal to be great, until that commitment allows us to kill people in its name. Fealty to a king is evil if that king tells you to harm innocent people.  Faith in God is a detriment if our God is not a God of love.

Let’s try out this idea of “trust” in the Bible.
Abraham trusted in God and this was credited to him as righteousness.   Abraham didn’t just believe a promise, but lived a life of trust in the God of love.
Jesus said, “By your faith you are healed.”  This isn’t just belief in the fact that Jesus could heal, but that Jesus and God would do right by them, deliver them from their life of destruction.

Jesus said, “Trust in God, trust also in me.
See if this makes more sense, “If you have trust as a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain be cast in the sea, and it will happen.”  Not belief or confidence that God CAN do such a thing, but trust that it is according to God’s loving desire and that God has the power to do this.

When it says in the bible not to doubt, it really means to set aside one’s distrust of God.  We sometimes believe that God has it in for us, that God doesn’t have our best interests in mind.  Like the children of the wilderness who didn’t have “faith” in God and so didn’t think that God would feed them. As if God didn’t know what they needed.
  • To have trust, is to rely on God’s care for us.
  • To have trust is to rely on God to guide us to live our best lives.
  • To have trust is to act in God’s love, even if it is hard or asks a lot.
  • To have trust is to be in a relationship for the long haul, not just an exciting moment.  Trust doesn’t look for the next spiritual thrill, but walks with God regularly, even in the boring or difficult times.
  • To have trust is ultimately leaning on God to be one’s security.
  • Trust is knowing that God will provide even if love requires that we take chances with our provision.
  • To have trust is to rely on God as deliverer from all that oppresses us.
  • To have trust is to hear things we don’t like, but we will listen anyway.
  • To have trust is, almost more than anything, to wait for the good that we are impatient for.  To believe that God does have peace in store for us, even if we don’t see how we will obtain it.

Trust is when my family and I were praying for God to pay our utilities.  We had a number of people living with us and so our utility debt was three thousand dollars.  So we were praying that God would provide us with the funds. This was a faithful prayer because we had dedicated our house and our lives to taking in the poor.  And it was a desperate prayer because we knew that if we didn’t pay our water bill, especially, they would call Family Services on us because we were “endangering” our children.   So we prayed for God to pay our utility bills.

That morning at 1am Diane woke me up.  She said, “I’m sorry to have to wake you up, but the car is totalled.”  I am very groggy at 1am so it took me a while to register. I went out our door and instead of our car there was broken glass and a lot of flashing lights.  It turns out a drunk driver in a large truck hit our car on the street, pushed our vehicle two houses down into the neighbor’s yard. The police was concerned because brown fluid was dripping from our ceiling.  That was the gravy we had placed there left over from the meal that night. Yep, it was totaled.

In about a month, we received a check from an insurance company.  It was for six thousand dollars. Enough for us to purchase a used minivan for three thousand and to pay our utility bills.

In my experience, trust is messy.  Trust is chancy and causes us to take chances.  But trust in God means: if you follow the path of love, everything will work out in the end.  Even if in a weird way.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Exalting Oneself

“A man planted a vineyard.He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." Mark 12:1-9

Pride Sucks

Jerry received a promotion and now he was Vice President of the Internal Division.  No one was really sure what this meant and Jerry’s job didn’t change, but he was immensely proud of his position.  He told everyone. His wife got tired of his boasting so she decided to deflate him a bit. “Everyone is Vice President of something, now.  Heck, at the supermarket they have a VP of peas!” Jerry thought on this for a while and thought she must be wrong. He called the supermarket and asked, “May I speak to the Vice President of peas?”  The receptionist asked, “Fresh or frozen?”

Pride is defined as arrogance or a sense of self-importance, especially when it is aggrandized. It is also considered to be a horrible sin.  It is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, one of the big seven. It is the sin of Achiles, hubris, which destroyed him and his people. It is singled out as a horrible sin in the Bible:

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.  Proverbs 16:18

God opposes the proud  James 4

The pride of your heart has deceived you, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?” Obediah 1:3

So, pride is bad, let’s not do it, done, sermon over, we can go home?

The Proudest One
Well, I just have one niggling thought in my head.  Was Jesus proud? I mean, a guy who goes around saying, “The Father and I are one.”  “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “No one knows the Son but the Father and no one knows the  Father but the Son and those whom the Son chooses to reveal him to.”

If I started saying things like that, “Steve is the way, the only way.  No one knows God except Steve. Want to know God? Listen to Steve! No one else understands God! In fact, I AM God and God is me.”  You’d have problems with me, and rightly so. And you’d approach me and say, “Steve, we think you have a little problem with pride.”

Well, why not?  After all, we call our pastors “Reverend.”  If I am a reverend, a “revered one” then perhaps these claims aren’t too crazy.

Some might rightly say that such statements are okay for Jesus, but not for me.  After all, I am NOT the way. I don’t have all the signicant truth. But Jesus did.  Let’s not argue the claims for a moment but just say that Jesus spoke the truth and he really was equal with God in heaven.  But those statements are still arrogant, aren’t they, even if true? Aren’t those remarks supposed to kinda rub it in against his enemies?  To put him in a higher place? That’s pretty arrogant, isn’t it? Pretty prideful? So how can we honor our leader, who has committed one of the Seven Deadly sins?  On a regular basis?

What is Pride?
Well, here’s the secret.  We don’t actually have pride figured out.  At least, when the New Testament talks about pride, that’s not the same thing we talk about pride.  The funny thing about the Seven Deadly Sins, is that they are actually the sins of Roman culture, the sins of stoicism, rather than the sins of apostolic Christianity.   That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some overlap, but they don’t represent what we see in Jesus’ teachings.

When Jesus speaks of arrogance or the early teachers speak of pride, they are actually talking about something else.  The core idea is still there-- thinking more of oneself than one should. But it has to do with one’s social movement.

One of the curious changes that take place between the New Tesament and later developments in Christianity is the transformation of social position to an indivudual, internal issue.  “Lust” in Matthew 5 is about a look of covetousness, a staring, longing look, but later interpreters understood it as a thought. “Hatred” has to do with insulting someone, not just thinking awful thoughts about another.  Even so, “Pride” isn’t just thinking that one is greater, but acting like it.

A story in the book of 2 Chronicles explains it well.  There was a king named Uzziah. He became king at 16 years old, which already calls for trouble.  But he wasn’t a bad king. He was a good warrior, he built up his capital, he didn’t build statues to himself or anything. Unfortunatly, when he got to be a certain age, being king wasn’t good enough for him.  He wanted more authority. So he walked over to the nearby temple and starting offering sacrifices. The priests stopped him and said, “Whoa, king! You’re a king, not a priest. You can’t just take over our job.  God has you in your place and we are in ours.” But he started ranting, because why shouldn’t he do it? I mean, he was king. And he could do anything he wanted in his kingdom, right?

Well, only to a certain degree because just as he was ranting he developed leporsy, which lasted the rest of his life and so he made a pretty poor king at that point as well.

Taking Authority
Pride, in the Bible, has less to do with feeling important, but taking on importance.  Taking authority that doesn’t belong to one. Taking over situations which really belongs to another.  Taking over land and property that really belongs to someone else. Manuvering for a job that someone else already does well at, or was promised to someone else.

Pride is also treating someone as less important than us, when in reality they are equal.  Assuming that because of their social station or financial situation or position in society that they can’t do something you can.  Or they shouldn’t do something.

On the final day of Jesus’ life, he confronted a group of people about their pride.  People who used their authority to crush people under them. He told them about a group of farmers who rented the land, and they owned the owner justice.  But every time the owner send someone to check to see if justice is being done, they beat him, they threw them out, they killed them. So the owner sent his son to test them, to see what kind of people they really were.  It turns out, they were full of pride. So full of pride, they would rather take away any right to live of the person who confronted them, rather than set aside their own position because they were unworthy of it. Because they displayed their unworthiness through the death of an innocent, God opposed them.  Because God opposes the proud.

Lessening Others
Recently, there was a panel discussing Race and Homelessness in Portland.  There were a variety of people there, but the person who upstaged everyone else was white and had no experience of homelessness.  He took that authority, because no one stopped him. He was guilty of the biblical sin of pride-- taking on authority that didn’t belong to him, to speak for people of color who were homeless when they were right there on the stage next to him.

I sit in meeting after meeting about homelessness and how to help the homeless and how to organize the millions of dollars given to help the homeless.  A variety of people from the community are invited, but the one group that has the most stakes, the most experience are not invited-- the homeless. Because who are they to think that they could use money to help homeless people?  But anyone who thinks they can help homeless without that perspective being central is prideful.

I went to a meeting of the police comission of Eugene this week.  They all spoke of how they should punish people who are sleeping in public space because they have no where else to go.  No one said, “Hey, what if we let them be. Their live span is 30 years shorter thanours, perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way.”  Because their authority and the biased fear of the community was more important than the right of someone to live. That is pride.

I homeschooled my children and when we felt they were ready, we would put them into public school.  My oldest went to public school in 9th grade and my youngest in 7th grade because she asked to go. So we made the arrangements, but I didn’t want her to go to the school my oldest daughter went, because in that school she was bullied and attacked because they assumed she was arrogant-- after all it was a mostly black school and she was white and quiet.  She wasn’t arrogant, she was autistic, but I didn’t want my younger daughter going there. So I fought with the administration, but they put up a wall. I could not put her in school, but if she goes to public school, she is going to that same school. I was furious.

Why was I furious?  Because I was full of pride.  The proper response was if a child is bullied, we deal with the teacher and deal with the students doing it.  But I was using my authority as a parent and as an important person to do something other people couldn’t do. Frankly, I was pulling my white daughter out of a mostly black school because I was afraid for her.  I was a racist parent. I was acting with pride, trying to take authority I didn’t have.

We have enough power it is easy for us to do this.  We decide who is worthy and who isn’t, who should be listened to and who shouldn’t, who is worthy and who isn’t.  We think we treat everyone the same, but when we live with a certain amount of authority, it is hard to do. We are all little king Uzziah’s taking little pieces of humanity

I highly recommend that we all read this book, White Fragility.  It talks about how we can easily participate in dehumanize people of color, without even thinking of it.  When a person of color says, “That is racism” and we instantly respond, “No it’s not”, without thinking about it.  I’d recommend we listen to this sociologist who carefully explains how we can better listen, and how we can better repent of the small acts of pride.

The funny thing about pride is that unless we are doing some great act of arrogance, like trying to take over the world, we don’t see that we are taking over anyone else’s place, denying their humanity or experience.  I didn’t see that I was dehumanizing a school-full of people of color. But it was my responsiblity to wake up to it, to realize how I was treating others.

The first step to overcome pride is to wake up to it.  To see what we are doing, how we are stepping on others, especially to prop up ourselves.  Because “God opposes the proud.” We cannot display the love of God when we step over others to maintain or increase our importance.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Tree of Sustenance

Suppose you were watching a movie with a lot of cultural reference jokes.  Let’s say, Shrek.
You are watching Shrek except that you never have read a single fairy tale. So the whole movie
references fairy tale after fairy tale, children’s story after children’s story.  They make a Pinocchio joke,
a Snow White reference, characters from the three little pigs, and you don’t get any of it. It is truly
a bizarre, unfunny tale.

This is how most of us read the Bible.  
The Bible is packed with references to ancient myths, histories, folk tales and literary references
to other portions of the Bible.  In fact, the book of Revelation alone holds approximately 2000
references to passages in the Old Testament and countless references to Jesus’ teaching, but
most people want to think of it as a unique vision of their newspapers.  When we miss the context
of a literary work, we usually miss the intent of that work. We can read something over and over
again and just don’t get it.

So let’s look at the background of a passage we are very familiar with. The parable of the Mustard Seed.
First, we gotta go back, waaaaay back...

Psalm 104
This is a description of how God established creation through the image of Eden.  In the middle
section of the poem is a detailed description of how God continues to supply all creation with water.  
God supplies water through springs and rain, the mountains and streams distribute the water and the
trees and animals are sustained through that distribution.  It describes an ecosystem, begun by God
and perpetuated by all creation. In the midst of this description the mountains are seen as a home for
all creation with the line, “Beside them the birds of heaven nest, lifting up their voices among the
branches.”  So the birds thrive because of God’s provision through the mountain, through the trees,
through the streams, from the spring. It all works together.

Ezekiel 31
God through the prophet speaks to Egypt, saying, “You are just like Assyria.”  An analogy is given
that Assyria was like a huge cedar tree that took on a huge amount of resources, but supplied the
animals and birds.  In this analogy, the birds are the nations of the world whom Assyria took on as
clients. “All the birds of heaven nested in its branches,” the text says.  God provided the resources of
the earth to Assyria, and Assyria’s responsibility was to fairly distribute them among all the nations.

However, as we continue to read, we find that Assyria didn’t do that.  They withheld the resources for
themselves, causing their tree to rise higher and higher and leaving the nations to survive on scraps.
 In reality, the Assyrians destroyed and tortured whole civilizations in order to retain everything for
themselves. So, says Ezekiel, God chopped down that tree and the birds thrived on the remains.  
Because the nations of the world could thrive better with Assyria dead than alive.

Daniel 4
Emperor Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a tree which grew high and “the birds nested in its
branches”.  But the tree was shown to be inadequate and it was chopped down. Sound familiar?
Daniel tells the Emperor that the tree was him and he was in danger of seeing his power drained.
 Daniel’s recommendation was that the Emperor “give to the poor” generously, and to give glory to
God as the creator of his empire. That his empire had a divine purpose— to distribute to many,
especially the poor, so that all might thrive together, according to the creation-plan of God.

Mustard Tree
That’s the background.  Now let’s get to the meat, Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like
a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes
the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can nest in its shade.”  
Mark 4:30-32

Here, we see the key phrases that brings to mind the previous passages. “Huge branches that
birds nest in.” In the ancient Greek translations, the group of phrases use the same words as the
three passages quoted above.  

The mustard seed parable is half about the growth of God’s kingdom.  It is also about the nature of
the kingdom. The kingdom is the distribution of the resources of God, according to the mercy and
love of God.

The kingdom Jesus speaks about begins tiny, with one man distributing God’s healing, food,
deliverance and forgiveness to as many as he could reach.

The kingdom will have reached it’s apex when whole nations, ethnicities, corporations, churches
and religions join in God’s distribution network, making sure that everyone obtain what they need to
both survive and thrive.  As the kingdom’s distribution network grows, so does the world thrive.

Who Got This?
Interestingly enough, the early church understood this immediately.  The first church, as described in
Acts, distributed food to the poor in Jerusalem, and when their was controversy whether enough
people are being feed, the church leaders made sure that everyone was provided for.

Paul himself in Galatians said that though he disagreed with Jerusalem leaders about some issues,
they agreed that distribution to the poor was an essential aspect of the church.

Even the Romans agreed in the third century that they needed to persecute the early church, but that
the church “provided for our own poor as well.”

In the fourth century, as the church was getting organized, a group could not be officially claimed to
be a “church” unless they had a distribution network for the poor in their system.

What about us?
I do not identify the “kingdom” with the churches we see.  Because part of the core nature of the
kingdom of God is distribution to the poor, needy and outcast, as Jesus displayed and taught.  Not
everyone who teaches Jesus displays this basic understanding. Many who proclaim the name of
Jesus, teach or display a withholding of resources, sowing a distrust of the poor or outcast.  These
y: "arial"; font-size: 11pt; font-style: normal; font-variant: normal; font-weight: 400; text-decoration: none; vertical-align: baseline; white-space: pre;">churches are not a part of the kingdom of God as Jesus described it.

And there are many secular organizations that do demonstrate the principles of God’s kingdom.  
Even as in Jesus’ teaching of the Sheep and the Goats shows, many who have done the acts of the
kingdom will be a part of it, even though they didn’t know who Jesus was.

Let us not think that our task is primarily or mostly “spiritual”, focusing on just prayer and word.  If we
do not organize and provide for the physical needs of the people in our community, we are not a part
of Jesus’ kingdom.